Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Zombie Apocalypse Will Be Televised

So The Walking Dead has now gone from an indy comics slow-burn hit to the most-watched program in cable television history, and we’ve yet to say two words about it here on the Dork Forty. Which is odd, considering that our dual obsessions with funnybooks and horror border on the pathological. And I have been watching and enjoying the show, so… I guess maybe it‘s time to talk zombies.


In spite of the obsessions mentioned above, this really isn’t a show I should be all that gung-ho for. For one thing, I’m not a big zombie fan. Or, rather, I’m not a big fan of the zombie apocalypse, which is a slightly different thing. Zombies themselves I’m okay with. I mean, who doesn’t love a rotting corpse? It’s just when the zombies have over-run society that I start to lose interest. Part of the problem, I think, is that I‘m not real big on apocalypse fiction in general. Growing up in the third and fourth decades of the Cold War, I saw an awful lot of apocalypses in TV sci-fi. Those all seemed to mostly involve people running around in deserts and big fields of yellow grass, and uniformly bored the crap out of me.

While watching how a society collapses might fascinate me, the aftermath of that collapse leaves me cold. It typically only reveals ugly truths that I kind of take as a given anyway. Yes. Get hungry enough, or desperate enough, and the rules really do change for most people. That doesn’t tell me anything new or interesting about human nature. So it really does take a lot to make me enjoy Armageddon. Colorful characters help (“I Master! He Blaster!”). So do mysteries surrounding the cause of the apocalypse (such as the one Jeff Lemire‘s created in his Sweet Tooth comic). Or you could just write it so well that I can’t not read it (as in The Road).

The zombie apocalypse seldom gives me any of those things, though. Once you get past the first couple of Romero flicks, very few people (Romero included) have said anything new or interesting. I recognize, for instance, that 28 Days Later was a really well-made zombie apocalypse movie, and I can appreciate it on that level. But it’s still just the goddamn zombie apocalypse all over again. So I’m not a big fan. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see more zombie apocalypse fiction that explores different themes, and I enjoy the few examples I’ve seen that have (Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z).

And we'll finally get around to talking about Walking Dead... after the jump!

Which means that Walking Dead, by all rights, should appeal to me. It’s “the zombie apocalypse comic that’s not about the zombie apocalypse,” after all, and that’s a nice hook. It implies more of a focus on character than you typically see. And with the long-form writing possible in an on-going funnybook series, you’ve got the chance to really examine things instead of engaging in the snapshot stereotypes of most zombie movies. And that’s what Robert Kirkman does with the book. It’s more about the struggles of the survivors with each other than their struggles against the zombies. Whole issues go by without any zombies at all. Which is great.

But I still don’t like it. It’s not the concept that makes Walking Dead fail for me, though. It’s the execution. As I’ve said before, I like to work a little as an audience. I like messy characters who don’t always say what they mean, and actions that might not make sense until you have a little more information. I don’t like to be spoon-fed motivation and plot, and I hate being told what a gesture means when it’s obvious from context. Most comics writing does more of the stuff I don’t like than the stuff I do, and Walking Dead (or at least the few issues of it I’ve read) is written in that style.

So is most television, for that matter, so it was with some relief that I found the writing on the TV version of Walking Dead to be a notch or two above what I’ve seen in the comic. I thought the debut, in particular, did some nice stuff, conveying the horror of the situation better. Our Hero’s hospital wake-up and initial trip outside to find the world transformed was much creepier than in the original, for instance. It’s all in the pacing. The comic was in too much of a hurry, and didn’t let the moment breathe. But by taking a little more time with it, the TV version was much more effective, and far scarier. It would have been possible to do the same thing in the comic, but Kirkman wanted to move the story along, and thus gave up the moment. Which is too bad, because it was the first moment, the one that sold me on the TV show, and lost me when I read the comic.

That choice of plot over tone is one that comics makes too often. It gives too many books a perfunctory feel, like the fiction’s been gelded in service to making it run faster. Go too far in the other direction and you risk dissipation, of course: comics without weight or any real content. This is the crux of the debate between “compression” and “decompression” that’s raged in the industry for the last ten years. Kirkman comes down pretty solidly on the “compression” side, and that’s why I almost uniformly don’t enjoy his work. Tone and pacing are important to me, and he’s more of a plot guy. I’m not saying he’s bad. He’s just not interested in the same things I am.

The TV show seems more invested in the stuff I like, though, so of course I like it better. The stuff with the father and son Our Hero meets when he goes home work better for me in the show, as well. They’re basically exposition characters in the comic. They serve that purpose on the show too, but they’re fleshed out more, and serve as our first taste of the REAL horror of the zombie apocalypse: the zombies used to be people we loved. You feel their horror at what’s become of the mother, and it’s driven home at the end, when the father just can’t pull the trigger on her. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course, but unlike most of the other occasions I can think of, I actually gave a rat’s ass this time. They earned my involvement by being understated (as understated as a scene with a guy holding an assault rifle can be, anyway) and, again, by taking their time. They developed the father as a real person. I liked the guy. And so when he can’t pull that trigger, I’m right there with him. It hurts, and suddenly, wonder of wonders, the zombie apocalypse actually means something to me.

Granted, the show does delve into some pretty cliché zombie apocalypse stuff in the second episode. Our Hero runs across a group of survivors in Atlanta, and they wind up trapped in a department store, holed up against a zombie horde. This is pretty much the plot of every zombie apocalypse movie ever made, and it was a little tedious watching it play out again. I mean, I love me some Michael Rooker, but his dangerous racist asshole character covers ground that zombies have been trodding upon since the original Night of the Living Dead. I enjoyed the episode, but the care shown in the first episode wasn’t there as much.

There was also a dangerously preachy moment that concerned me. Having come up with a genius plan to smear zombie gore all over himself so the zombies wouldn’t smell that he was alive, he got ready to chop up a zombie corpse, but froze. He couldn’t quite bring himself to just take an axe to a human body. So he found the guy’s wallet, and read off some of his personal information. And if he’d stopped right there, with the inscription on the back of the picture he found in the wallet of a pretty girl, it would have been a nice scene. An understated moment of humanity before the grand guignol thrills kicked it. But then he kept talking, telling his companions that he was going to tell his family about this guy, and about how important it was to remember something something and blah blah blah. I understood what was going on there the minute he went for the wallet, thanks. I didn’t need the belabored explanation. But the show chose to treat me as if I was stupid, and so loses major points.

Still, the scene that follows, where Our Hero and his plucky Asian sidekick (let’s call him Short Round) shamble down the zombie-filled street to get to safety, was well-played. They’re having to move painfully zombie-slow so as not to attract attention to themselves, and it draws the scene out for what feels like an eternity, the tension ramping all the time. It went on just long enough to make me fidgety, but not so long as to become tedious. Then it starts to rain, the gore washes off, and all hell breaks loose. It’s a nicely-played horror scene, and wins the show back a few points.

Which brings me, I suppose, to what I see as the major difference between Walking Dead the TV show and Walking Dead the comic. The TV show seems much more concerned with horror than the comic does to me. It takes time to build tension and mood, and pays off with two or three different kinds of scares. The comic, meanwhile (and keep in mind that I’ve only read a handful of issues and therefore many not know what the hell I’m talking about), seems more concerned with its vision of how people would respond to the collapse of society, and doesn’t care about the actual horror of it all so much.

I’ll take the horror any day of the week, though, so I’m all for the show in ways I don’t think I could ever be for the comic. But that is, as is says in the masthead, just one dork’s opinion. Your mileage may vary.

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