“We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.” – Charles Bukowski
Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” is, at first glance, a tough sell for those readers not interested in the zombie / horror / post-apocalyptic genre of storytelling – many are affronted by the concept, recalling its gory predecessors with hollow plotlines that centred solely on survival and left little room for character development. Trying to push the text on others has been a challenge, and my attempts at defining the nuances of what makes the long running comics’ series so worthwhile are typically met with “but still, zombies aren’t my thing.” “The Walking Dead,” however, from its outset defied all genre expectations and has continued to do so for nearly a hundred issues and counting. It is a character-driven story that problematizes the experience of being human in ways that few texts are capable of accomplishing.
At first, trauma in “The Walking Dead” may appear to be a no brainer (pun intended). We have characters who are subjected to the horror of reanimated corpses (who are often friends and loved ones), who are physically and emotionally distraught at every turn, who are left without the common social structures which we normally turn to for support in times of crisis. Left in an apparently godless world ruled by the dead who are roaming in search of living, human flesh to feed on, the broad strokes of the series seem to embody the entire horror genre that preceded it, accessing the most basic of human impulses of fight or flight. This, however, is only the surface trauma that the characters experience, and Kirkman is unfathomably deft in showcasing what psychological trauma actually is through the survivors of his zombie apocalypse.
The trauma inherent in “The Walking Dead” comes not from the zombies themselves, but from the human characters as they learn to cope with one another (and themselves) in their raggedy band of survival – the title itself is here an interesting pun, as it’s the humans who are truly the walking dead, bereft of their personalities and their former social selves. These characters, facing nearly insurmountable and horrific challenges, have to reinvent themselves in Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic world in which the simple experience of being human carries very different connotations than it does in our own. Rick, the group’s leader, consistently struggles (at least early on in the series) with the greatness that has been thrust upon him; he has to rise up to the expectations of his group in ensuring their safety, all the while incapable of resisting the guilt that comes from so many having died under his protection, including his best friend (killed by his son who was protecting him) and his wife and newborn baby daughter. Similarly, Rick’s pregnant Lori had to toil with the decision of bringing a life into a world in which there was little to no hope for even her survival – which was ultimately a losing battle. “The Walking Dead” tests its characters with the intensity of social roles in a new, concentrated dynamic, challenging what it means to be a leader, to be a mother, in the stress of the most extreme situations imaginable.
Though the story sees its characters faced with the expected challenges of the zombie genre, it’s in their human struggles that we see them in the most pain – Rick experiences far more loss when facing down the barrel of a gun held by Shane, his best friend and whom he has discovered has been sleeping with his wife during his absence, than he does on being attacked by endless hordes of the undead. Likewise, Michonne is most traumatized not by zombies, but by her vicious rape at the hands of the Governor. The most brutal vignettes that Kirkman gives us throughout the series never actually involve zombies, but what we are capable of doing to each other when all of the chips are down (and they’re never more down than after a zombie apocalypse). The scenes during which we feel most for these characters are during their human encounters which have been heightened due to their impossible environment.
When the social world of bills and taxes has been stripped away, the travails that these characters experience are amplified because they’re all in the process of rediscovering who they are, and redefining what it means to be human in the absence of the trivialities that consume our daily existences. “The Walking Dead” shows us the trauma of what real human life actually means when it’s been divorced of all of the mundane functions that we must attend to on a daily basis, begging the reader to similarly question what kind of person he or she is at the core – and ultimately be afraid of answering that question. The zombies act as a backdrop, little more than an irregularly occurring motif in the series that focuses intensely on character development and situational redevelopment.
Despite all of the pain and loss, however, Kirkman ultimately offers us hope: the extremity of the environment also serves to heighten the emotional connection that the characters feel for one another. These characters, in the face of the same impending death that we all face (via zombies or otherwise), experience life, friendships and love in a way that only those fully aware of their own mortality are capable of. In recognizing that we are all the walking dead, we can experience what it really means to be alive. The trauma of true human existence, stripped of its facades, is punctuated in the series by equally profound moments of joy in the ability to see another day and to face it together. “The Walking Dead” offers us an entrypoint into an unfettered reality with realistic characters and an impossible situation, and it’s in this that Kirkman’s narrative transcends the typical zombie survival story: in facing immanent death, he reminds us, and often surprises us, with what it truly means to be human.
Bukowski, Charles. The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship. Ecco: New York, 2002.
Kirkman, Robert. The Walking Dead. Berkeley: Image.