The True Horror of THE WALKING DEAD Comics

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by Lee Sparks
August 22, 2012 8:55 AM
12 Comments
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The Walking Dead Issue # 100 SPOILERS ahead. That is your only warning, but that really isn't what this is about, at all.

Which is worse: delusion or acknowledgment?

I have frequently had a very contentious relationship with The Walking Dead comic (written by Robert Kirkman). Four years ago, when Kirkman elected to kill off a large portion of the regular cast, including an infant girl, I went on a tirade that lasted for weeks. I was angry at Kirkman for his "betrayal" of the fans, and their affection or attachment to long-standing characters. Later though, I realized that my extreme emotional reaction to the comic was a rare thing, and that it was preferable to ambivalence. At least TWD is provocative. My take on the book went from "I’m never reading this again" to "top of the pile, read it immediately." But the most recent issue, # 100, is very distressing.

The events of this book make me seriously, seriously re-evaluate the relationship of the writer with his fan base. My honest opinion is that Robert Kirkman is a sadist. But hand in hand with that notion is something more dreadful: the fans are masochists. To keep returning to a series that has consistently "provoked you" with the exact same punishments is masochism. Because it is clear that Kirkman's entire philosophy with this book is to be as mean and awful to essentially good characters as he can. His entire shtick is to bait the audience with a simple little worm that I felt certain would not be on the hook in the anticipated issue # 100: "Someone is going to die." I felt certain that, because the entire series has been about suffering, punishment and death, he would actually find a clever way of making # 100 memorable without resorting to killing off a major character. Unfortunately, that is exactly what he did. In graphic, undignified, intimate detail, over the course of several pages, he displays the bludgeoning death of Glenn, a young man about to become a father. He has his skull bashed in and his eye popped out, in front of his friends and wife, who stand impotently by. That eye. That fucking eye! That eye in so many frames, like a punchline: ha ha, you fans, you were stupid enough to care about this character, now look.

This feeling of betrayal was at the root of the moral grappling I did years ago with the death of Rick’s wife Lori and their infant daughter. I had to take a good long look at what I wanted from the comic. At the time, TWD was not terribly original. It still isn’t. What it was was satisfying to fans of the “zombie/survival” horror genre, featuring regular people tasked with simply surviving a world overrun with gruesome reanimated ghouls.  Mountains of graphic carnage provided the eye candy, as in all the Romero films.  TWD was comfort food for horror fans. But the dynamic began to shift. By simple nature of its longevity and ongoing nature (as opposed to the finite storytelling of a feature film), the characters could not help but become more developed, more familiar to the audience. The attachment grew stronger, the stories more personally involving, so that the fans created an attachment to, and reliance upon, the characters to tell “their stories” in the same way that soap operas create passionate devotion in their audience. Concurrent

with this, though, was the tension created by Kirkman’s controlling hand, a struggle for dominance over ownership; a palpable desire to assert his authority over the book was more and more evident.  Again, this was stimulating for me as a fan; I was not used to being provoked in this way, in a world traditionally marked by the impermanence of death.  In comics, nobody ever dies forever.  Well, except in TWD.  Just 2 issues before Lori met her end, a supporting character name Tyreese was unexpectedly executed by decapitation in front of his friends. It was shocking, nauseating, and unambiguously FINAL. This man was dead. Ingloriously. Used as a pawn by another to demonstrate power. So: Tyreese, Lori, an infant, and a host of other supporting characters, wiped away from the page. As noted, I was, in retrospect, in shock. 

I denied the shock. I asserted I was in control of my feelings. I stressed that Robert Kirkman did not have this power over me. (But I was also ashamed to know that he did.) I swore off TWD over issues of betrayal of fans (not me, other fans—this was altruism). But over time, I came back.  The curiosity was irresistible. But also, I wanted that extremity of emotion. The demonstrated ability to shock, to extract feeling from the passive reader, was something I had not previously truly experienced in comics. To be clear, the single most common motivating factor of dropping a book (to stop reading a comic) is boredom. A disengagement with the proceedings or characters. TWD was many things but it was not boring. I elected (surrendered) to keep reading. But now there was another, more palpable emotion at play: dread.

Frequently I have read of fans' strategy of "not getting attached to anyone" in TWD, because Kirkman has routinely illustrated, through attrition, that "no one is safe." This would seem to run counter to the strategies used by other comics to retain readers, comics that actively encourage strong vicarious identification with their heroes and their super deeds. Always in peril, your average super hero is virtually guaranteed to overcome any adversity. But even a major hero like Superman or Batman faces death; but the economy of fandom and the profit margin of the publisher always collude to resurrect the dead hero. Death is temporary in the world of comics. It’s really nothing to worry about. Any longtime comics fan can tell you this. It is an accepted truth.

Except in the world of TWD. In the world of this comic, anyone can die at any moment, but especially if that moment happens to be a hyped landmark anniversary issue. This is so cynical it makes me nauseous. This sadistic display, which the author can disingenuously claim is “natural” to the book, was calculated to occur in front of a large audience. Basically guaranteed to make a mountain of money. I find this unsettling, mercenary, and again, a sadistic display of power. An assertion of ownership and control over the characters and their fates. 

Of perhaps even greater moral terror (thank you Colonel Kurtz) is the way it makes me ponder my reaction to this spectacle. I seriously have to contemplate why an audience (including myself) would return to this world again and again, when Kirkman, the cynical bastard, has very clearly and repeatedly stated that this book is about hopelessness and imminent death, and that any joy will be revealed to the audience solely to make the ensuing horror that much less tolerable. Only pages before Glenn has his eyeball knocked out of his skull, he says with gratitude how he can see a bright future for himself. That he feels hope. But it is clear that this is solely a cheap device to manipulate the weak-minded reader into feeling a high, so that the ensuing low will be that much deeper. It’s the cheapest manipulation out there. It’s the same as when, in a WWII movie, a guy shows his buddy a picture of his girlfriend back home. That guy will be killed in the next scene. He might as well put on a red shirt and be in Star Trek.

The worst thing about Glenn's death is that it is punishment for anyone who has been weak enough to allow themselves to care about the narrative of TWD. Kirkman has strung another 50-odd issues since the last massacre in what feels like a hypnotist's trick in order to pick your pocket. But who is to blame, really? Is it Kirkman, preying upon the weak wills of comics fans, who he gambles will compulsively, addictively continue buying TWD no matter how miserable a world it is, or how much he degrades the characters? Or is the fan to blame, for voting with his dollar that he wants to be shat upon, to have his nose rubbed in filth and decay, and he is willing to pay for it? Because Kirkman has made it clear: that's what this book is about. The fans KNOW. *I* know. This book is about how the world sucks. It is about how no matter how hard you work, you will be punished a hundred times more. It is about how everything will fall to ruin. About how love is useless. How life is pointless, effort futile. How your mind will falter, you will be

lonely, your body will slowly be taken from you piece by piece, and even your humanity will be stripped away simply by continuing to live. You will eventually do awful things and be numb. And then you will die in an undignified manner, inspiring others to shut down, or just feel pain. Even if you survive longer than others, you will be scarred, disfigured, and mutilated. Just look at twice-shot Andrea, and one-handed Rick. The monocular Carl, who lost his conscience as well as half his vision. Even poor old Dale was reduced to limping around on a toilet plunger after he had his infected leg lopped off. And then he died, too. Pain and humiliation weren’t enough for old Dale.

For a fan to continue with this book, from this series of events and themes, that fan must actively take pleasure in hopelessness. Yet I think I am less concerned with how the author has again assaulted us with this recent event, than what it has inspired me to examine in myself. Why do I want to see this story, when it is clear and obvious it is just about some sick pervert exercising power over weak, compulsive masochists? There isn't going to be any happiness in this book. There isn't even any cleverness to be had with it. It’s a one-trick show: "someone will die." If a landmark issue is approaching that promises "a big event,"

it’s obvious what that event will be. Someone dying. There's just no other trick left in the bag.  Other comics have pursued a similar strategy, telegraphing the imminent demise of the hero often months in advance, to generate sales. “Superman is going to die in # 75!” “What issue are we on now?”  “# 70.” “What happens in between now and then?” “We see the fight that happens first.  For five issues. (And their crossovers).”  But of course it is just a gimmick.  An accepted ruse the fans participate in.  It’s a don’t-ask-don’t-tell maneuver just waiting for the inevitable reversal, the return to status quo.

TWD's sole original note is that it has embraced the long-form narrative of the Supermen and the Spidermen and turned it into an endurance test for not only the characters but the audience. It’s such a relentlessly negative, vile parade that it causes me, again, moral terror. Is life so shitty that miserable comics fans will prefer being emotionally assaulted over feeling nothing at all?  Is it better to feel violated than jaded?  How dreadful is that? But seriously, is that what is happening with TWD? Are we, as readers, participating in some sick sex game with Robert Kirkman? Because I really think I will probably keep reading TWD. That's the awful and revelatory part. I definitely feel manipulated by Kirkman. I feel cheap, and I feel desperate in a way. I feel like I did when I watched 9/11 videos and cried but was happy that my life didn't suck as bad as that. I don't know if he is happy in his life. I don't know if I'd be happy if my fans said, "I only come back because I am weak and addicted. I know this won't make me happy and in fact will make me sick. Here is my money, that you can use to justify your continued storytelling as approval and desire for more." But what I think is revealed through this relationship is a sickness. I'm not proud of it. And it is very complex. Because I must find a balance between not caring about characters or their fates, and continuing to read about them. That just seems like subservient compulsion. It also feels like self-punishment. Are we taking pleasure in the violence routinely inflicted on the zombies, and in need of criticism for that pleasure? When the only payoff is anger, despair, disgust, and shame, why does a reader want more? What sort of pleasure is that? Doesn't that make the reader a disgusting, complicit participant?

The jury’s still out as far as the TV show is concerned.  We may be headed there, we may not.  While the two narratives share characteristics, they are already markedly divergent.  True, we lost Dale, but every zombie story suffers casualties.  There is an opportunity with the show to retain some small element of hope, which the comic, with Glenn’s death, has forever abandoned. Already I sense a deepened, passionate attachment to the characters of the show.  A friend recently commented, “if they did that to Daryl, I’d stop watching.”  I wonder.  I wonder how long it will take the TV audience to accumulate the same degree of commitment to Their Stories as the comic fans have.  I wonder about the economy of TV versus the printed page, if real world forces (advertisers) will in any way constrict the show’s ability to mimic the scorched earth approach to characters that the comic has.  How alike are these two audiences?  How willing is a popular show’s audience to regularly tune into an hour of humiliation, despair and hopeless suffering?  Because that is the road the comic has gone down.  Maybe I am late to this party, but there isn’t any return after # 100. 

I think The Walking Dead comic degrades the human condition.  It twists our desires for entertainment and conflates them with guilt. The saddest thing is that it is obvious that I and others like it. It reveals me as a sicko. It reveals a weakness, and an insecurity, an inability to divorce myself from something that is bad for me. The Walking Dead is brutalizing rape porn. It's an abusive husband. It's a pusher of powder-cut junk. The best thing to do would be to just stop. But then there would be nothing. That is the terror. Again, Kurtz: "The horror." In the world of The Walking Dead, both on the page and off, you must make friends with horror, and moral terror. There just isn't anything else.

Lee Sparks is a critic based in Austin, Texas.

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12 Comments

  • DJ! | November 20, 2012 11:23 PMReply

    Yeah, I have to agree with ChuckJ's reply and comments. If TWD makes you feel guilty, weak, and disturbed.....maybe you shouldn't be reading or watching horror. (At least not anything surprising or good.)
    What really made me question the article was the fact that supossedly it's so horrible because main characters are killed of requarly and cynically. Like another reply, I'm confused as to how that is bad, and why it would be compared to red shirts from Star Trek. Yes, the red shirts were riduclous, and like another reply said, they were only MINOR characters.
    So what about Star Trek TNG? Tasha Yar's death was out of nowhere, was without purpose, and was incredibly cynical. A creature killed her just to show it's power and piss Deanna Troi off. And you know what? It's known as being one of the best moments of early TNG. Of course it was the last time the show would do that. But how cool would it have been to never truly know if the crew of the enterprise was really safe? There is a HUGE difference between "red shirts" and TWD deaths.
    Even if TWD is cynical, gruesome, and hopeless, that's what the entire premise is about. (Which has been stated in the actual article.) But it's NOT sadistic, masochistic, and does not denote a "weakness" in the reader. If you want to see sadistic and masochistic, watch A Serbian Film. Then we'll see what you think "degrades the human condition." smh.......

  • Sarah chesnut | August 26, 2012 3:52 AMReply

    I am a fan of the comic. I haven't read comics for years, but I loved the show and wanted to read what the driving force was to create the show. I am addicted to the comics now and will continue to watch the show. I let my boyfriend read issues 98 through 100. At the end he told me I was an evil bitch for having him read #100. I said " funny when I read 100 I cried and my Chest hurt. Where's your tears?" So I obviously see the sadist in me. It's like when you eat something or smell something aweful and tell the person with "this is horrible here try it"! Why do we try things that make us uncomfortable well curiousty may have killed the cat but it but it intrigues the human. I told my boyfriend after I read issue 100 " it's not the zombies I fear in a zombie apocalyptic world it is how fucked up humans truly are in a world where anyone will do anything they want to survive and to show dominance. I will still read the comics because they are real to me. The biggest monsters are the ones with the biggest Smiles.

  • Alex | August 25, 2012 7:34 AMReply

    I just finished reading 101 and 102. I nearly cried when Glenn died. I mean , it was so detailed! You can see the bones , the blood , the EYE falling out and even worse , he was still alive! I swear Robert Kirkman is a sadist! Why didn't he kill someone else? WHY!!!???

  • R. Colin Tait | August 23, 2012 12:39 PMReply

    Hi Lee,

    Thanks so much for posting this, and for putting into words a lot of the really ambivalent feelings I have about the comic, all of which have only intensified after issue 100.

    Specifically, after reading the book, I turned to my wife and told her to remind me not to ever read the comic again. I hope she holds me to this.

    On the other hand, I don't recall ever feeling so profoundly and viscerally provoked, disgusted and moved by the various scenes that you described as well as them forever being implanted in my mind. Seriously.

    Whether or not I stick to this is another story. I think that what Kirkman does so well is change up the scenarios so completely that it operates as something as a re-boot like in today's movies. While the characters and their traits remain (somewhat) stable at this point, it kind of reminds me of something like Lost, where the rules of engagement are always changing, all bets are off as to what will happen next, and where it occurs is as important as what the change is.

    Was wondering if you had read the Game of Thrones series of novels, which, come to think of it, has the same sort of visceral surprises strewn throughout. Maybe this is a conversation we can have a little later on.

    For now, let me just say that I really enjoyed and appreciated the piece, which is one of the best things to date that I have read on the series and its, er, pleasures.

  • ChuckJ | August 23, 2012 1:47 AMReply

    I honestly can't tell exactly which parts of this are sincere accusation & revulsion, and which are melodramatic hyperbole (if any), so I'll risk looking foolish and assume it's all 100% sincere. (Also, lots of spoilers in this comment, for anyone who still wants to get surprises from the books even after reading this essay).

    I believe you ask questions in the last paragraphs that you've already answered in the first few paragraphs. You read The Walking Dead specifically for that kind of visceral reaction. It's that Grand Guignol tradition, just turned into a long-running serial. I think that's a fundamental part of the appeal, if not THE fundamental part: readers know that they're going to read something horrifying and -- more importantly -- affecting when they read the comic.

    You mention Star Trek's red shirts and the tradition of meaningless "deaths" in superhero comic books. Part of The Walking Dead's whole schtick is that it's intended to be an antidote to that. Horrible stuff will -- not can, WILL -- happen to every single one of these characters, and it'll be permanent. Over the years, both comic books and slasher movies have undone themselves by increasingly playing by a set of known rules; every story essentially has training wheels on, so that no plot developments have any impact. But "No one is safe" has been the mantra of The Walking Dead since the beginning. It seems disingenuous to dismiss it as gimmickry or manipulation when it's baked into the premise.

    And it seems disingenuous to describe it as sadism and masochism, when both the author and audience are perfectly and continually aware that it's fiction. I have to say that comparing the reaction to the comic book and the reaction to 9/11 footage is extremely off-putting. Yes, we do read and watch horror stories for the catharsis of seeing the most horrible things we can imagine happen to people who aren't us. But extrapolating that to anything outside of fiction would indicate a worrying lack of empathy. It's a mistake, a pretty ghoulish one actually, to assume that the audience is ever so enraptured in a story that they can't distinguish it from reality.

    I'm especially surprised to see this reaction from someone who's been reading the past 100 issues (it sounds like), and has suddenly realized that #100 is beyond the pale. I stopped reading around issue 70, and picked it up again for the current storyline (yes, partly because of the "something shocking will happen in issue 100!" hype), and thought it was pretty much on par with everything else I'd read. You already mention Lori and the baby, and Tyrese, and Dale. What about the twins in the prison? Or the murder-suicide pact? Or the death of Abraham a few issues earlier than 100? Or any of the brutal deaths of unnamed characters for which we just see the result and extrapolate the story behind it? How do you include a screenshot of the two-page spread that showed a child with half of his head blown off by a shotgun blast, and say that this is where the comic crossed the line?

    What is it about Glenn's death that makes it so horrible to turn the reaction from "I'm not enjoying this book" to "this is a moral failing that I'm willingly taking part in at the behest of a cruel manipulator?" Is it that the scene is so drawn out and graphic? Then why didn't you give up when the book devoted an entire issue to nothing more than Michonne torturing the Governor in prolonged, graphic detail?

    (For the record, that was almost the point where I dropped the series. I had what sounds like a similar (but less extreme) reaction to yours, where I believed the comic had crossed the line from horror comic to trashy torture porn. But then I realized that I was being a hypocrite. I'd already read about countless horrific acts, including the murder of children and the brutal rape of a woman, and I hadn't uttered a single "tsk-tsk." I'd kept reading to find out what happened next).

    If it's just that it's a cynical marketing ploy for issue 100, I'll just point out this: you ask in the article if Kirkman is really happy. I don't know him, but I can almost guarantee that he is. The reason is he's got a ridiculously successful comic book series, and it's creator owned. The "deaths" of Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and countless others all coincided with periods when readership was falling off, and the publishers needed to revitalize interest in the series. Even if The Walking Dead weren't still one of the top-selling comics in production, Kirkman doesn't have to answer to a publisher. So I don't see issue 100 as a gimmick, and I certainly don't see it as disrespect to the fans. If anything, it's a celebration of the book and a thank you to the fans: this is what this book has been about from the beginning, and this is why you've been reading it for 100 issues.

    People read the book because they recognize that Kirkman is a pretty outstanding plotter. And it's like you say: with each issue, they know there's an extremely good chance they're going to be miserable, disgusted, frustrated, or absolutely outraged at the author. But they won't be bored.

  • ChuckJ | August 23, 2012 5:46 PM

    Thanks for the article; it made me reconsider exactly why I'd picked up the current storyline after I'd lost interest in the series. If I hadn't been rambling, my key point would've been this: the fact that you can always see Kirkman pulling the strings is why I think it's a mistake to read too much into the book or what it says about us in the larger scope. (That's not a slight to Kirkman, either: he's always pretty self-effacing about the book & what he's doing with it). I believe we're going in for the emotional extremes, like ghost stories around a campfire. I think it would be just ghoulish if we weren't always aware of the writer's presence. (And also: I can't take credit for the Grand Guignol comparison; I first saw the connection in a review of the Walking Dead video game on the gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun).

  • Lee Sparks | August 23, 2012 10:48 AM

    ChuckJ, thanks for the lengthy comment. It sounds like we actually agree on the things you bring up. I especially like the reference to Grande Guignol, which gives me something more to chew on as far as the driving mechanism of the book. The jury's still out on whether I will continue with reading TWD. I haven't picked up #101 yet. A great deal of your comment accurately describes the wrestling with and seeming hypocisy I have felt with the book for years now; but especially so the issue in question. Why now, and not at visions of previous atrocity, do I decide to be so disgusted? I don't have a clear answer, although I was (as mentioned) pretty put off by Lori's death (as well as Tyreese) and stayed away for several months. This is part of the reason I wrote the piece, to explore my compulsion to return, and my own ability to randomly pick and choose what to be upset by. I am mostly concerned with my own subjective relationship with this comic, and your comments have given me more to consider. Best, Lee

  • ChuckJ | August 23, 2012 1:53 AM

    (For the record, that was supposed to 1) not be so long, 2) have line breaks, 3) not sound nearly as accusatory as it does).

  • JonnyChimpo | August 22, 2012 11:44 PMReply

    Seriously? It's a horror comic, of course it's graphic and brutal and HORRIBLE. Kirkman is not exerting power of the weak, he is selling a product to a certain deme graphic. To someone who is in to the horror genre, in any medium, this isn't nauseating, it's good entertainment. Personally I hate a horror story that goes soft, and I can respect a writer who can kill a major character an carry on.

  • Chad | August 22, 2012 9:56 PMReply

    Wow, maybe it's time to stop reading. Or at least let the Something To Fear arc finish and then walk away.
    I know I certainly don't feel "moral terror" that you do while reading, though I do share your sense of dread. That's also why I choose to watch horror films.
    TWD is a bleak book, and I think it does need at least one arc of Rick and the gang winning, but don't forget that it is a horror book. If I thought I could pick up each issue knowing the core cast would be safe from danger while side characters took the fall, then I *would* be watching Red Shirts on Trek. I wouldn't care about the story.
    It's sad, but it's not over yet, and I'm happy to stick around and see how it all plays out, no matter how horrifying that story will be. I don't think that makes me or any other reader "weak minded"

  • Lisa Schmidt | August 22, 2012 6:46 PMReply

    Hey there, Lee! Janet sent me the link to your article.
    I love this. I love how honest it is and I so feel your pain. I spend a lot of time thinking about the ultra-intense relationships that fans have with their stories, trying figure out if it is just a natural way of being or some kind of sickness. I don't know if I'm ever going to figure this one out.
    Great stuff!

  • anno1404 | August 22, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    GREAT article. Disagree, but great article nevertheless.

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