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The Walking Dead: a narrative critique

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s zombie season here on TLP, (articles by David Varela, Daniel Nye Griffiths and Sarah Dobbs so far). Hindle is irked by some of the narrative issues in The Walking Dead comic…

Specifically, the reason I hate The Walking Dead comic series is that itʼs an ongoing, open-ended story.

When I first heard of it, I was intrigued. But, as the trade paperbacks kept coming out – roughly twice a year – I lost interest. A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and up until zombies shuffled off our screens and into other media forms, all zombie stories had an end.

I guess it was computer games that started it. Resident Evilʼs early games seemed so cool, letting us blast our way through the undead. It was a type of zombie story that went beyond the classic movies, letting us experience the terror of the dead walking the earth, rather than just an old film, with wooden actors and bad make-up. But games are expensive to make, and by the time they had produced number four in the series you knew that the mysteries of the Umbrella Corporation would never be solved.

In a computer game, returning to the same scenario is part of the mechanism of play. In storytelling, however, the narrative must come to an end. Repeating the scenario is derivative, or dull, because the story becomes worn out. Soap operas struggle to keep their viewers interested as they repeat the same plotlines – secret affairs, petty lies, and addictions happen with depressing regularity to their characters, without a final end ever coming to any of the overlapping stories.

In the television show based on The Walking Dead, the end of the first season is marked by the survivors getting secret information from scientists (shortly before a massive explosion signals the end of the season). This is different from the comic plot line, because the people watching the six hour-long episodes would need to know that there was some reason for them to keep watching. That there would be a point to wading through the grim realities of a world destroyed and under siege from zombies.

The comic book has different fans. Those fans pay money to see fictional characters stressed to the limits of their endurance, and beyond, because they want to see themselves reflected in the failings of the characters. Zombies have always been seen as an allegory of mass humanity. Initially, Romeroʼs movie zombies were symbols of 1960ʼs conformity, so perhaps the failure of The Walking Deadʼs characters to survive unscathed reassures the fans when they give up their individuality to consume capitalist goods. Like comic books.

What’s the matter? Too political for you? Hey, zombies are always political. Theyʼre the original silent majority, with their earliest incarnations reflecting a fear of black slaves taking over, making white people their slaves via voodoo. These days, weʼre all the victims of an international conspiracy to enslave us via finance.

The reason I hate The Walking Dead is because itʼs an unending story of failure, despair, and compromise. It plays with its readers emotions by offering hope, but inevitably only rewards them with a darker, less survivable scenario. By refusing to call an end to its plot, the comic has become a version of Eastenders with the shambling undead instead of the Mitchells.

Besides, zombies? Haven’t they been done to death?

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