A Decade of the Walking Dead

by on 29/12/2013
 

I’ve been away for a while and I wanted to write something celebratory for New Year’s. Something which would round off the year 2013 nicely, and also allow me a triumphant return to the joys of writing for this great site, something which I have been unfortunately unable to do as much as I have liked in recent months. What could I talk about that is so grand in scale and so tremendous from a geeky point of view that discussing it can not only be my contribution to marking the passing of a year in which Geek Pride has seen its readership increase dramatically, but also be a celebration of my return to prolific creativity, including the return of two weekly film blogs exclusive to this site?

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Of course! 2013 marks ten years since the first issue of The Walking Dead was released! As soon as I discovered this remarkable series I was hooked, it was a gripping and compelling story which I just had to keep reading. When it made the jump to television and then video games, I followed its progress, and my infatuation with this pop culture phenomenon only grew. I’m going to take a look at why I love The Walking Dead so much, in all its different mediums. This is both a nostalgia trip and an examination of something which has really taken the world by storm. Welcome to A Decade of the Walking Dead! (Some spoilers)

THE COMICS

I’m not a big comic book reader. It’s something which I enjoy when I get the time, especially if Batman‘s involved, but it’s an area of Geekdom which I just haven’t been able to devote much of my time to. My best friend is a comic fanatic, however, and it was he who introduced me to The Walking Dead seven years ago.

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Reading through Days Gone Bye, the first trade paperback,  I was as enticed by the story as I usually am by zombie fare. What made this one so compelling though was the depth with which writer Robert Kirkman explored his characters, their personalities and how they coped in a world which had moved on.

Dialogue is the key feature of The Walking Dead across all its various incarnations. The most principle kind of speech, which caught my eye in reading the comics, is characters attempting to convince themselves and their friends that everything will be all right. Rick Grimes is especially guilty of this. He talks at length in the comics about plans, legislation, how they can “make it work”. What he’s doing is what everybody does when they’re trapped in an unbearable situation, they talk themselves into believing things will get better.

For all his flaws, this is a character trait that greatly endeared Rick to me. He makes bad decisions from time to time, and he has walked the dangerous line between strained hero and misguided villain, one which the Governor would cross, but through all his useless platitudes Rick demonstrates the humanity which is slowly dying out all around him. He is not an action hero, he’s just a man, maybe with a little more fortitude than the average Joe, but a regular man caught in a nightmare. He is the ultimate zombie story protagonist because you can believe his plight.

Which brings me to another reason why I initially loved the comics so much. I felt that Days Gone Bye represented the kind of story you would see in the traditional zombie movie. Shane’s death would be the conclusion of the conflict, and even though by the end credits the world is still in the shit, we have hope that our heroes will find a way. The beauty of the comics is that there is no end, we get to see just how they will find a way. The zombie experience, whether it be through watching a film or participating in the increasingly varied kinds of roleplay which are available these days, is finite. It always ends too soon. With the comics you don’t have that closure which comes too soon. You get to continue, in essence coming as close to living a zombie apocalypse as you can, through the eyes of these characters.

THE TV SHOW

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The criticism of AMC’s The Walking Dead has always been it’s slow burning nature. People say that for long periods nothing interesting happens, or there’s too much talk and not enough moving the story forward, and there’s validity in these points, but my counter argument is that this is not a typical story being told.

Like the comics, the TV Walking Dead is an on going story inside a world with a limited number of characters. Just like in real life, not all of these characters you grow accustomed to are good people, or helpful people, or even interesting people. These are the few survivors thrown together by circumstance. They either become more interesting through exploration of their characters, which like the comics involve a lot of dialogue, or they die before we get the chance to really know them, which is what I suspect would happen a lot in the event of a real zombie outbreak.

I may be a boring television viewer but I like this dialogue heavy show which takes multiple episodes to build to something dramatic happening. I happen to think the tension that can be built out of a conversation is perfect for the drama of the series, and just as in a Tarantino film, the long periods of dialogue only make the eventual action even more forceful.

I think the show has been getting better with each season, and during the first half of Season 4 I have been gripped. Especially as the Governor’s story has hinted at the origin tale Rise of the Governor which Robert Kirkman wrote with Jay Bonansinga.

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Spoiler! His name really is Brian!

THE GAME

Telltale Games The Walking Dead offered a new angle on the whole experience. Just like the TV show and the comics the story was dialogue heavy and involved a lot of character building and not a lot in the way of zombie killin’. But this time, we were in control of the story.

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I look at the game as a representation of the relationship between the comics and the TV show. Both of them are telling the same story, but there are enough differences to make them totally distinguishable from each other. The same is true of the story in the game. The choices you make as a gamer can change the whole story, even though no matter what choices you make, it is still the same basic story. I like to think that the TV show is what would have happened had certain choices been made differently in the comic books.

It’s just so much fun isn’t it? I thought the swerve the plot took at the end of the third episode was excellently executed, and the identity of the antagonist remained a mystery right up until the moment he revealed himself. I also like how the game fleshes out the series. We find out why Hershel is so distrusting of strangers, and what led him to putting walkers in his barn.

Most importantly, the game perfectly captures the character building which is a trademark of The Walking Dead and builds it into the gameplay. You choose how to interact with other characters, you choose how you are seen, and also how your fellow survivors develop. Kenny can be your best friend or an asshole that you just have to put up with. It’s all about how you build the character, something which up until now had been done for you by the writers of the comics and the TV show.

A perfect encapsulation of all the things which make The Walking Dead great with the added bonus of putting you in charge. Specifically, you’re in charge of ensuring that a little girl survives the apocalypse, and herein lies one of two reasons why the Walking Dead is the pinnacle of the zombie explosion we are currently experiencing.

CONCLUSION

There are two themes which I feel are key to the success of The Walking Dead. The first is the protection of innocence, specifically, the struggle to keep a child safe in a world overrun with the undead. Rick’s every action is driven by this in the comics and the TV show. He not only wants to keep Carl safe, but he also wants him to stay a kid. As if having his son experience a normal childhood will allow him to be a normal father and escape the unimaginable situation the two of them are in. Protecting a child is also the key mission in the game, and the relationship between Lee and Clementine is one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen between two video game characters. You find yourself yelling at the screen sometimes when Clementine is threatened, you feel that strongly for the character. Failure to keep the children safe is not an option, but in the universe of The Walking Dead warnings are nevertheless thrown up at every turn. The Governor lost his mind when he lost his little girl, as did the stranger in the game, and Morgan in the TV show. These enemies are the most resounding characters, because they are what our protagonists could become at any moment.

But here’s the main reason why The Walking Dead is the pinnacle of the current zombie phase we’re all collectively going through. The comics started right when zombies were getting hot ten years ago in the wake of 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, but what The Walking Dead represents is the ultimate expression of the modern zombie story.

The modern zombie, the brain dead flesh eater, is not even fifty years old. George A. Romero brought this modern zombie to prominence with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. As such, he set the parameters for all successful zombie stories to follow, and instantly made the voodoo zombies from horror flicks of old obsolete. The story of The Walking Dead, in all it’s forms, is Romero’s story. The struggle to survive, the need to compromise and make best with what you have, and the always prominent theme that those you are trapped with may be more dangerous than those you are trying to keep out…

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The difference between this and every other reworking and exploration of Romero’s archetype is its longevity. When The Walking Dead has explored every avenue that Romero’s parameters will allow, it will end. And the current zombie bubble will burst.

But not just yet. We still have a lot more Walking Dead to enjoy and I, for one, am more than happy.

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