by Pete Lenz
I love zombies. I am tired of zombies. It used to be that we had zombie movies. And they were plentiful, and this was good. These days, we're seeing zombies in every aspect of pop culture. They pervade every avenue of entertainment nowadays. Novels, comics, video games; they're everywhere. The zombie archetype has even evolved to the point where they don't even shamble anymore, at least, not all the time. It is 2009 and Zombies have jumped the shark. It is 1979 and Lucio Fulci has shown us, in Zombi 2 (Zombie) a zombie actually fighting a shark. Underwater. A zombie fights a tiger shark. Fulci is a seer, a zombie futurist. We have scoffed at this scene, poked fun at it. What this was, 30 years ago, was an actual, verified, postmodern allegory from the future.
Or, in other words: enjoy this gore while you can, for one day zombies will sprint after you and George Romero will make shitty films.
I continue to enjoy zombie entertainment, but my critical filter for new material featuring zombies is unforgiving. There's just too much garbage out there to do anything other. One thing I often do, when the moment permits, in the midst of any discussion about zombies and my feelings about them, is to let people know about The Walking Dead. Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's The Walking Dead is one of the few current, and luckily, ongoing pieces of zombie pop culture worth a damn. Robert Kirkman began his series as a familiar ride through a zombie apocalypse; now nearly 70 issues in, he's pushed it into realms that I wasn't aware possible. He is in the midst of writing the masterpiece in the genre of zombie literature.
The group of characters that inhabit the world of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead have been through a lot. The group has been small, large, and middling in its numbers, and they have all suffered, whether it is physically, emotionally, or otherwise. The rotating casts of characters are never safe, and they do their best to survive the myriad of typical survivor tropes--their relationships within the group (if such a group exists), their connection to their former lives, and their connection with their own minds. As in any apocalyptic fiction the really interesting stuff comes when the characters are forced to acknowledge and confront themselves. Kirkman has given us many zombies, they are ever-present, but he continually shows with each arc and issue, that while zombies are clearly the most obvious antagonist the characters face, the rot not only occurs with the titular walking dead, but has also been systematically taking apart each character since the book's very first issue. Effectively, and I'm not the first to make such a comparison, turning Rick Grimes and his troupe over the course of their travels into a whole other sort of walking dead.
The Walking Dead reads quickly. Month after month, it is the book that I finish in the least amount of time. A few minutes at best. Part of this is due to my enthusiasm for the book, the relief that comes when I get to finally scratch the itch the previous issues' cliffhanger has left (Kirkman writes cliffhangers nearly every issue. And each time, they are wonderful.) part of it is also how Kirkman writes his dialogue - yes, people complain it is wordy and dense, and it can be, but it's also very snappy and real. It's always pertinent to the event, and chugs along with a great pace. It's also a quick read because of how spare and fluid Charlie Adlard's art is. Often, the storytelling done in this book is achieved in panels and sometimes pages of no dialogue and only character action. These moments are always effective and arresting; Adlard draws zombies and gore and fear with such precision. It's one of the greatest books to go back to, after each arc is finished, or when a new trade paperback comes out, and read in succession.
The group of characters that have banded together in this book are no strangers to the ugly face humanity has begun to wear in this new world. They have been in conflict with other living humans before, to staggering degrees of loss and misery, and once again Kirkman has written a story that shows the characters are just as vulnerable to the machinations of other survivors as they are to the zombies that color this book in its often gruesome shades.
I recently went back and re-read the latest story arc, "Fear the Hunters."
It is difficult to talk about The Walking Dead without spoilers. Like any good serial fiction plot threads and character histories weave throughout each new narrative. If you are going to be upset with reading plot details, please do not proceed.
The Walking Dead: "Fear the Hunters," Issues #61- #66.
As the characters take refuge in the church of a priest they've recently met up with, Father Gabriel, who tells them how he had to turn away hundreds of people seeking refuge when the "event" began. Rick Grimes' young son, Carl, is harboring a devastating secret and is being torn apart by the guilt stemming from it. Andrea is getting the distinct feeling that she is being watched; that the group is being stalked by a presence she feels coming from the woods surrounding the church. Dale, the group's one legged eldest member, and Andrea's lover, is bitten by a roamer (what the characters call the zombies) and hides his injury, but is suddenly accosted in the middle of the night and taken away.
The meat of this story revolves primarily around the aforementioned characters, and while several other members of the group’s stories continue here, and are affected by these events, I feel that the focus should be on the above for now.
Andrea panics when she realizes Dale is missing. The group takes action and begins to search the nearby woods, but their search is cut short for fear of attracting more roamers, or leaving the remaining members of the group back at the church vulnerable. To Andrea's dismay, Rick calls an end to the search for the day. Rick shows his concern for Dale, but explains the situation and promises Andrea they will continue to search for him.
Dale wakes up in a strange place, lying down on his back. There are a group of strangers surrounding him. A man who seems to be their leader begins to talk to Dale in a calm, detached, creepy manner. He is explaining to Dale why he's been taken. Dale, groggy from trauma doesn't understand, until it is blatantly spelled out by this man. Here is where Adlard's full page art makes the scene: We see Dale lying down on a picnic table, his good leg missing and the stump bandaged; and here it is, he realizes it as it is spoken; The group that has taken him are cannibals, and they are going to eat him.
To step away from this story for a moment, I would like to share the tag line of Lucio Fulci's Zombi "We Are Going to Eat You"
Zombies eat the living. They sometimes eat brains, but mainly they eat flesh. Any and all of it. Zombies and their affinity for brains, as far as I can remember, began with the horror comedy Return of the Living Dead. Zombies do love brains, but it should be remembered, most specifically in the genre's most brilliant film, Night of the Living Dead, that they also eat flesh. They are cannibalistic in a way. Although no longer living, they are eating what they once were. Trying to siphon life, trying to build back their rot with warm, living flesh. This is what they do. If zombies were able to speak intelligibly, they would tell you: WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU.
As the group attempts to reconvene and rest at the church, just as everyone is exhausted and frantic, Andrea screams and the group runs outside. In an attempt to break down the characters by scaring them, the cannibals have brought Dale back and thrown him outside the church. The group runs to him, and in the process, one of them, Glenn, is shot in the leg from the woods. Fire is returned, and the group takes shelter back in the church. Rick and Abraham discuss what has happened. It is determined that since they left Dale alive, and only shot Glenn in the leg, they don't want to kill them outright. They want to scare them, they want to pick them apart, and they want to HUNT them. In true grit fashion, Rick, the group's steadfast leader exclaims the simple truth: "They don't know who they're fucking with".
Dale is hurt badly. Now missing both legs, and admits to having been bitten. Andrea and the rest of the group realize what is happening. Dale explains what the hunters are up to, how they're planning on eating everyone. Dale makes Andrea promise to take care of him once the turning begins, and with reluctance she agrees, but makes sure Dale knows just how deeply she loves him. Here is the essence of The Walking Dead: never-ending horror and grief with splashes of beautiful humanity. As Dale recollects his surroundings, Father Gabriel determines that there are only a few neighborhoods in walking distance. A few members set out to set things straight.
The cannibals are discussing their plan of action. They are filled with hubris, and feel that although this new group is larger than what they're used to hunting, they will be able to take them out regardless. Rick shows up and the group's leader allows a dialogue to begin. The leader speaks with confidence, letting Rick know that they will not let them go unharmed, that what they are doing is what they need to do to survive. The leader shares an allegory of how if a bear is starving she will eat her young to survive. If the mother bear dies, the cubs will die, but if she lives, she can always have more cubs. He then tells Rick how there used to be children in their group. And with this, shit pops off.
Rick calls out to the woods "big one, left ear" with a zip and a ping one of the cannibal's ear is shot off. Rick threatens that if anything moves, it will be shot at. Abraham walks out of the woods. The cannibal leader calls Rick's bluff. From the woods, Andrea shoots off his finger. The cannibals are disarmed, and, their leader pleads for their lives. With no reluctance, and in one of the best drawings of Rick's expression, Rick denies him. The group begins to dismember each and every one of the cannibals, making them all watch as it happens. No remorse, no hesitation. Just horror. They are doing what needs to be done in order to survive. An eye for an eye.
Rick and company return to the church. Everyone is assured that the threat is passed, and it is left at that. Dale and Rick make peace with each other, and in the night Dale begins to turn into a zombie. A single shot rings out as Andrea holds true to her promise. Rick, now falling apart emotionally, begins to tell his tale of guilt to Abraham. Of how he is at odds with how easy it was to do what they did, to slaughter the cannibals, even in the face of the danger they presented. He says to Abraham how if his son Carl knew what happened, he wouldn't know what to say, wouldn't know how Carl would be able to process that. Except, Rick hadn't been speaking to Abraham, it was Carl who was behind him the whole time. And with tears in both their eyes, Carl admits to Rick his own dark secret: he is a murderer as well.
So wraps up another horrific and elegant story in the world of The Walking Dead. This arc encompassed nearly all of what makes Kirkman's book such a wonder. Specifically how, in the face of life and death, decisions are made that make everyone compromise their own humanity.
If you're at all interested in what you've read, pick up a collection of The Walking Dead. I am confident you will not find a better piece of zombie related pop culture anywhere today. It is in a league of its own. And, if Kirkman's word holds true, he has no intention of stopping anytime soon. He has said, explicitly, that these stories will go on for years to come. I for one moan and shamble in delight at this prospect.