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. Concurrentwith 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 belonely, 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.