The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman is a survival horror comic series that follows a guy who awakes from a coma to discover that the world has basically turned into a living Hell of zombies. Together with his family and a few other survivors, they go on the run to stay alive as long as possible, while searching for a place where they can all build a home and get settled in for the future.
I’ll be talking about Book One (issues #1-12) and Two (issues #13-24) in this post today, with mild spoilers. I have not seen the TV serial, so I won’t be chatting about it at all. Aside from that, read at your own discretion to avoid possible spoilers.
Oh boy, this is a tough first impressions to write because on one hand, I’m enjoying so many elements of the series, which are all mostly about the human condition in times of crises. Yet, on the other hand, there are some aspects of the storytelling that have made me extremely uncomfortable and I’m not sure how to proceed with these feelings that I have.
Book One was really fucking good. It does an phenomenal job of introducing us to the main character, Rick, who was in a coma (not a spoiler as it’s literally on the first few pages) and how he goes about trying to navigate through a world that has changed drastically since he went down. There’s this brilliant amount of suspense and tension in seeing a lone survivor in a world full of decaying bodies that are trying to eat him. The fear, the isolation, the great sense of being lost and feeling hopeless is captured excellently with the monochromatic artwork. Within the first ten pages or so, I was unbelievably hooked. I literally couldn’t put the book down until I made my way to the end.
The introduction to a now-zombified world was done rather well. The reader gets to meet the main cast members, including Rick’s wife and son, along with a brief backstory and what their situation is like. Then we watch them all trying to survive and figure out if they’re truly on their own or if help will be arriving for them. This creates a fantastic foundation of character examinations, mostly about how different people react very differently in times of uncertainty and chaos. You will always have people who will hold out hope out of a sense of denial rather than having actual hope. Then there are those who try to use logic and a gross-façade of clear mindedness to make the best of an unfathomably shitty situation. After that, there are followers who don’t want to think about the chaos at all and just want someone to hold their hands and lead the way. Lastly, there are the ones who want to take the reins of leadership all for the name of community survival, but really have control issues and some weird complex to satisfy. Situations of life-or-death, particularly when it’s day-to-day, naturally bring out the essence of morality that humans seem to bury beneath loads of other crap to hide the fact that they are either extremely selfish and evil, or ridiculously self-righteous with saviour complexes that can threaten everyone around them, and then a sprinkling of whatever is in-between all of that.
All of these things are presented on a blood-and-brain encrusted platter in the first book, and these are all elements of storytelling that I love in a post-apocalyptic setting; this sort of extreme critique on the human psyche. Reading this during a worldwide pandemic seems to heighten the effect of the questions being explored, which made the story and the vividness of the character-driven plot all the more contemplative for me. It’s something that cuts deep and leaves behind a shit ton of queries, mostly What If ones, about what we would do in such an event.
Because the reactions that the characters have are all driven by extreme fear and paranoia, and this incredibly overwhelming sense of helplessness, the tragedies that result hit the heart that much harder. A lot of them are avoidable tragedies to boot. This contributes to the unpredictability of who will die and who will survive. It’s the sincerest part of the story. It doesn’t matter if a person is a trained sharpshooter or not. While their chances of making it through the mess is statistically higher, chaos doesn’t give a crap about it. They’re just as likely to die as the housewife who’s only ever used her kitchen knife to fillet a chicken boob. Skill and experience help, but in the long run it’s still just a matter of taking it day-to-day.
The black-and-white illustrations emphasis the dreariness of Rick and Gang’s (how they shall be referred to from here on out) situation even more because it’s like all of the colour of hope or faith from the world is completely drained away. Everything is black-and-white because that’s also how the characters view their situation, in extremes of this or that, now or never, kill or be killed. The greys and the soft hues of blues and reds and greens never stand a chance in an environment where you’re literally surrounded by decay and the constant reminder that you could be next. The sharp details of facial expressions and the wonderful placement of white and character boxes seal in the atmospheric element of the post-apocalyptic universe brilliantly. All around it’s a 5-star package. Then we get to Book Two.
What the fuck, Book Two?
Okay, so in these next twelve issues, Rick and Gang finally find a place they may be able to call home. Except it’s already the territory, so to speak, of some other folx. With this whole set-up, we get to see a brand-new exploration of the human psyche: the coloniser, the usurper, the I’m-stronger-than-you-so-I-can-take-it-er. So many characters become unlikable because they start becoming unhinged and the darker parts of them start coming out. While it was difficult to read at times due to how badly I wanted to punch the vast majority of them, I was still enticed and gripped to my seat with anticipation as to what would unfold. But then the storytelling sort of slowed down and took some directions that I feel like really detracted from what made it so damn unputdownable to begin with.
A good example of this is the increase of gratuitous sex. While there aren’t graphic scenes of people doing one another, there’s still so much of it. I know sex is a common coping mechanism for stress, as well as the best way to distract oneself from all the things that can weigh a person down. But when it’s nearly every two or three pages, you’ve got to wonder: what is the point? How does this contribute to any part of the plot or characters pathway? More often than not, it didn’t. It’s like a switch went off and suddenly all they cared about was how often they could engage in filthy rutting (filthy as in doing it in a room literally that has zombie guts and brains and shit everywhere, GROSS). It didn’t feel natural either; just forced, filler nonsense.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the female characters took a severe downhill turn as well. In Book One, while they weren’t the smartest, they were at least interesting and had a bit more depth to them with conversations about how gender roles reversed in a time of survival, and how women can shoot (or need to learn to shoot) just as much as men, and things that were actually compelling and relative to the story and themes. Here, all they did was complain and gripe like a bunch of Jersey Shore housewives. It was a tremendous change of tone and persona, not to mention so demeaning and frustrating to read as a non-male person.
Even with all of these things, I still saw some things in the issues that I was looking forward to developing—for both the negative and positive—later on because I know it’s going to revive that suspense and tension from the first twelve instalments that seems to be missing here. However, when the story started showing signs of anti-Blackness, I started to feel as lost as Rick when he first woke up from his coma.
I felt like I was reading Black trauma porn, to an extent. The racism is so strong and so incredibly discomforting. It can be argued that given where this all takes place (somewhere in the South, I believe), that racism is expected since it’s a representation of the region. Yet, I still call bullshit, more so since none of it is ever challenged. There are White characters who are openly hostile against Black people, even when their White comrades have openly proven to be dangerous and untrustworthy, whereas the Black characters have not. They make excuses for these treacherous folx but keep on justifying the ostracism against Black people. One of the characters is saved by a Black woman, but she’s then stripped of her weapons in order to be permitted inside their new “home,” but all the White characters are pretty much always armed for protection. There are rules created that are equivalent of a Death penalty against anyone who murders the living, yet when a White man shoots a Black man in cold blood, then it’s okay and acceptable? The punishment doesn’t apply to him? There were more instances where duplicity and hypocrisy play a part as the inhumane atrocities committed by White folx are explained away, but when a Black character does even a fraction of something questionable, they’re led to slaughter.
I’m not Black, but as a Person of Colour who is constantly having to read stories about White people abusing us and using us fodder in their narratives for the development of a moral conscience for White folx, it makes me angry and it’s unacceptable. It’s so toxic and hurtful and dehumanising, as well as entirely unnecessary in order to tell a riveting story about survival. In a series that is devoted to survival of the fittest (to the varying degrees that this can be interpreted), it’s like we’re being told that PoC aren’t made to survive the end of the world. We’re not cut out to make it to the end and to be the heroes. We’re only here to be the bloody body-bag-steppingstones for non-PoC. Again, I call bullshit.
So… as I mentioned above. There are so many parts of The Walking Dead that I am loving dearly, particularly in how it makes me think about people and the psychological influences and instincts that kick into overdrive during such an intense environment as this one, yet, there are parts of the story that are making me question whether these amazing parts are worth all of the problematic representation and portrayals on the dark sides of survival. I’m conflicted, y’all. I’m genuinely split down the middle on whether to continue or not.
Now, I have heard from some chums who’ve read the whole series that my issues, particularly issues with the treatment of PoC, does get challenged later on the series. Since I’m not a fan of spoilers, they didn’t give me the details, but they were adamant that it’s not going to be all trauma and hate forever, at least not in the ways that it’s being portrayed right now. Unfortunately, things may get worse before they get better, so I’m going to have to decide if it’s worth it to me to keep up with it until I get to those pivotal points. For now, I am unsure, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if I did keep reading. If nothing else, then at least I will get to the see the most racist of these characters die in a glory of ripped flesh and gory proportions. Doesn’t that sound bloody satisfying?
All in all, first impressions for The Walking Dead are a bit in the middle. They aren’t godawfully terrible, however, on average, they’re not the best either. I will say that if you are a fan of the survival horror genre and you enjoy character-driven narratives, then you may enjoy this franchise quite a bit, and you’ll love the hell out of it you’re a person that likes intellectually provocative storytelling when it comes to those characters. But know it’s not perfect and it can be harmful, especially if you’re a Black reader. So read cautiously.
If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read the trade paperbacks on your Kindle device or app for free!
Content Warnings: Graphic scenes of death. Suicide. Child death. Infidelity. Cursing. Mild to moderate scenes of sex.