This Product Is Specifically Designed To Be Addictive: The Walking Dead

Sooner or later, if you’re talking about comics with speculative fiction elements, the conversation’s going to get to The Walking Dead. This right here is that point.

Why? Because: best-selling comic in the US this July? Walking Dead #100. By a loooong way. Anniversary issues always get a jump in sales (in this case, more of a rocket launch than a jump), but even so here’s a black and white, creator-owned zombie comic dramatically outselling Batman, Spider-Man, any corporately owned and marketed superhero you care to mention.

I’ve read the first eleven trade paperback collections (out of sixteen available), so what follows is based solely on that much reading. It’ll also be spoiler-free, which is always my preference but – almost uniquely in the world of online comics talk – there is anyway a widely, if imperfectly, observed self-imposed ban on spoiling The Walking Dead. That tells you a lot about the nature of the series’ appeal, as I’ll get into below.

My expectation: this is going to end up with the subjective and objective colliding, beating one another about the head and collapsing in an unresolved heap on the floor, because I have issues with The Walking Dead that are in part to do with me, not the material. But that in itself is interesting, if obvious: the reader brings their own preferences, state of mind, entire life, to a text and the resulting amalgamated experience can be about much more than any inherent qualities of that text.

THE WALKING DEAD written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Terry Moore (1st volume) and Charlie Adlard (thereafter), published by Image Comics

Everyone has heard of The Walking Dead, right? Everyone knows it’s a zombie apocalypse comic that got turned into a hit TV series. (A TV series I won’t be discussing here, because I watched most of the first season and … it’s well done, but a bit slow for me and not as interesting as the comic, imho).

I probably don’t need to explain the set-up, but there’s not much to say in any case. Rick Grimes, a police officer, wakes up after being hospitalised to discover that the zombie apocalypse happened while he slumbered. We follow him out into a savage, transformed world. That’s it, really.

The idea behind the series is that zombie movies end too soon. Kirkman’s intent with The Walking Dead was to tell a zombie tale that went on and on, far beyond the point where the closing credits would roll in a cinema. Given that he’s headed out into the territory beyond 100 issues, he’s clearly delivered on that intent.

Now, personally I think The Walking Dead tends to be a bit overwritten, with chunks of slightly clunky, often expository, dialogue. I think it gets repetitive, with similar situations and events being replayed and recycled over time. I think its downbeat, one-note tone becomes wearing, and tends to rob the comic of some of its effect. I think on occasion there’s an unappealing dogmatic insistence on portraying the absolute worst that could possibly happen, and doing it in a pointedly graphic, physically and emotionally brutal way.

I think all that stuff in the preceding paragraph, and yet – as the fact that I’ve read eleven trade paperbacks of this stuff might suggest – I also think The Walking Dead is a quite extraordinary achievement as a piece of serialised speculative fiction. Everything about it is designed to work as a highly extended story told in incremental, regular episodes, and that design is implemented with masterly consistency and effectiveness.

The narrative operates in an elaborate series of nested arcs, which deliver constant cliffhangers, reveals, dramatic twists and moments of (invariably temporary) closure and resolution in a very tightly controlled rhythm. It’s all ruthlessly geared towards engendering in the reader an irresistible urge to find out what happens next, and the end result is compulsively addictive. You might imagine that in a medium like monthly comics that approach would be unremarkable, but the truth is Robert Kirkman has refined it to a sort of pure statement of craft in this series.

This manipulation of reader expectations and engagement is what lies behind the aforementioned self-imposed ban on spoilers. There’s a general awareness that the pleasure of reading The Walking Dead, more than for any other series currently being published, relies upon the preservation of its capacity to surprise, shock or downright horrify the unprepared reader.

It’s testament to Kirkman’s skill that The Walking Dead retains its capacity to hook the reader despite an underlying predictability and repetitiveness in its architecture. The narrative aesthetic of the entire series is essentially founded upon three interlinked, unchanging premises: no one is safe; other survivors are a greater threat than zombies; respite, sanctuary or safety are temporary and/or illusory. Pretty much everything that happens derives from those propositions, and from the effect an awareness of them – conscious or otherwise – has upon the behaviour of the central characters.

The violence is often extreme and sometimes explicit. The mental trauma inflicted by context and events is portrayed with a similarly uncompromising frankness. It is all far, far more unsettling in its cumulative effect than any zombie movie (or the TV series, come to that, because I’m not sure they can possibly replicate the extremity of the violence and the psychological horrors to which various characters are subjected in the comics without losing viewers by the bucketload).

Which brings me to the bit that’s really about me, the individual reader. I struggle, as I get older, with unremitting darkness in my reading material, and ‘unremitting’ is about the mildest adjective that could be applied to the darkness contained within The Walking Dead. I can appreciate the skill that’s gone into its creation without necessarily enjoying it.

But my response to The Walking Dead has a more specific personal element to it as well. Ever since I became a father a few years ago, I have found any kind of fiction that features the significant, credible suffering of children increasingly difficult to derive entertainment from.

What happens to children, physically but especially psychologically, in Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic world is entirely plausible and justified in the context of his chosen narrative; it is skilfully developed and presented, and conforms to his general unflinching – almost confrontational – insistence on playing out the grimmest implications and consequences of his invented world. In part because it’s done so ‘well’, I find it … upsetting is about the best word I can think of, though it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I therefore contemplate the prospect of reading more Walking Dead with more than a little trepidation and, frankly, indecision. I want to know what happens next, I want to see where Kirkman is taking this; but I some time ago passed the point where I was certain that I was actually enjoying this as a reading experience.

Perhaps it’s just too much for me. Perhaps there’s a good reason why zombie movies actually end. Perhaps there is a limit to how much entertainment can be derived from suffering, no matter how skilfully it is presented. For me, at least.

However, if you are amongst the ever dwindling number of folk who haven’t yet tried reading The Walking Dead, and are of stronger emotional constitution than I, you should absolutely 100% give it a look. If you’ve enjoyed the TV series, this is the straight, undiluted stuff from which it sprang, and is a much, much more potent brew. Within the specific, narrow framework of its self-defined aims, creative philosophy and tone it is something of a masterpiece, which is already recognised as one of the most important, influential comics for many years and will, I think, be remembered as a landmark work for the medium for decades to come.

Be warned, though: this product is specifically designed to be addictive, and by the time you realise just how far Kirkman is prepared to go in pursuit of his dark vision, it may well be too late for you to easily step away …