I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Sunday, August 18, 2013

There Are No Zombies in The Walking Dead

A Review of The Walking Dead #1
Gasp indeed!

The Walking Dead is, at its roots, a "Rip Van Winkle" story - Rick Grimes is put into a coma by a shotgun
toting escaped felon only to awaken in a completely different world, a world populated by shambling monsters, "the walking dead." Much like Washington Irving's short story, Robert Kirkman's thriller in black-and-white is subversive. At first glance, the world of "before" and the world of "after" are like night and day - animated corpses wander chaotically where living, breathing beings once thrived in a cooperative community - but just as Van Winkle reduces the Revolutionary War to replacing a King George painting with a George Washington, Grimes sees a world that hasn't changed all that much.

In the first issue of The Walking Dead, there are no zombies; there are only humans. Before and after, humans are violent beings capable of hospitality, camaraderie, and mercy, but also of insanity and cruelty. When Grimes and "neighbor" Morgan Jones discuss the disturbing state of affairs, they don't speak of "zombies," "revenants," or "walkers." They use the words "it," "things," and "monsters," and let the reader fill in the blanks, but our familiarity with zombie culture can obscure the fact that we've used these same terms for generations in order to dehumanize people we see as other. Those who have been transformed are not even clearly dead, with the exception of one ravaged corpse that Grimes eventually puts down like a cowboy shooting a crippled steed.

The theme of a zombie apocalypse world being not so different from our current world is not so new. Zombie films have made this assertion from the very beginning. The 1978 George Romero film Dawn of the Dead  is often cited in this sense because of the undead's propensity for shopping malls, making the viewer wonder if we're not zombies already. The Walking Dead is significant in that Kirkman follows his characters for more than 90 minutes, meaning that we deal with human questions not only through social satire, but through the monthly development of characters we know and love. The story has been going on for a full decade, and it doesn't show signs of stopping.

What a reader can expect from The Walking Dead #1 is a balance of hope and despair that will penetrate the next hundred or so issues. We are introduced to Morgan Jones and his son Duane, who have been in the thick of it since the dead first started rising. Because of what he's seen, Morgan doesn't trust in the powers-that-be. When they told people to rally in Atlanta, Morgan stayed put, relying on his own savoir-faire rather than the edicts of the authorities. As his foil, Rick Grimes believes in a better tomorrow, that the communiques about Atlanta were true and that order will be re-established shortly. He is an officer of the peace and peace is on its way. It is hard not to side with Rick Grimes.

Of course, Grimes slept through the worst of it. Or, perhaps, the worst is yet to come.

Morgan: "The cities are screwed!" Rick: "So, you're saying the cities probably aren't screwed?"
Morgan: "Uh... yeah..."

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