19 June 2012

BLACK CELEBRATION


So, I read The Walking Dead #100 yesterday.

As you might have expected, it's good. It's really good, in fact – probably the best thing Robert Kirkman has written to date.

It's also incredibly unsettling: There's one particular scene in this issue that actually turned my stomach. If you've read the book over the years, you know Robert has no qualms about putting his characters through hell or making his audience squirm. I won't go into specifics, because there are new readers discovering the series all time time, but trust me – life has never been easy in The Walking Dead.

Issue #100 is somewhat different, though, at least to my mind, because what happens in this issue is fairly unprecedented in terms of the sheer display of brutality. It affected me so deeply, I had to go back and re-read it almost immediately. And then I read it again later the same day. When I left work and met up with some friends that evening, it was so at the forefront of my mind that I brought it up in conversation two different times.

As I described the discomfort that one scene caused me, one friend made a comment about not really understanding the whole zombie craze, and it struck me how many people still associate The Walking Dead and its success with zombies. But really, it's not about that at all, and the events in this issue underscore that more (and perhaps, better) than almost any other, because you know what? There's hardly a zombie in it.

And that's what caused me to bring The Walking Dead #100 up a second time as we sat and talked.

Of all the horrific things that have happened in The Walking Dead over the last 100 issues, almost none of them have involved zombies. In fact, I'm trying to think of something truly terrible – I don't just mean scary or shocking – that had something to do with zombies, and I'm blanking. And to be more specific about what I mean, there's a pretty disturbing scene in #41 that features a zombie, but what happens has  almost nothing to do with the zombie and everything to do with the person involved.

The darkness and horror in The Walking Dead comes from people. The things people do to each other, and the things people do to themselves. The vilest acts in this series, the most grotesque images – all of them of them are focused squarely on humanity's almost insatiable penchant for cruelty. Yes, people are occasionally bit and killed by zombies – some completely devoured – but the real pain is inflicted by the people attempting to survive in this nightmare world.

On one hand, it's a testament to the sheer blackness of Robert Kirkman's imagination, but more than that, it's a commentary on who we are and what we're capable of. The stories may be fiction, the fruit of  some dark tree Kirkman can climb better than most, but his characters are all too real. The things they do, the choices they make, the hurt they inflict – none of it is particularly far-fetched. Take the zombies out of the equation altogether and it's just us, doing what we've done to each other for centuries.

What makes The Walking Dead so vital – the deep, dark secret behind its success, if you will – is that it's about people. People you can relate to. People you can sympathize with. People you can root for. People you can hate. People you can fear.

That's why, at 100 issues and counting, this book can still cause me to wince with pain, to look away in disgust or to shake my head in sadness or shame. I may not be able to imagine what it's like to live in a world overrun by zombies, but there's not a thing these people have done that is beyond my realm of comprehension.

The zombies are just window dressing.