It still amazes me that in the 132 issues of Image Comics’ The Walking Dead, there has been very little substance about the zombies themselves. It’s been observed before but the zombies are essentially window dressing for the real monsters in the story, which of course, is humanity.
One of my students recently saw me reading my latest copy of the comic and asked if he could read it. Obviously, stories of flesh-ripping zombies appealed to him. This is one of my reluctant readers, asking me if he could read something, yet I was forced to emphatically say no. You see, I’m drawn to this story out of its strong character-driven nature, but despite this, it’s also a story that displays the depths of humanity’s inherent cruelty to each other. Even though 14-year-olds are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for (Carl … am I right?), the story’s realism makes the subject material something I don’t want to recommend to someone’s kid.
That, of course, is the essence of The Walking Dead. However, Volume 22 (containing issues #127-132) sees a change in the plight of the survivors. Even though the threat of cruelty – and the constant yet background threat of the surrounding undead – still hang in the air, the survivors are experiencing hope in a variety of different forms.
Sure, there is still the memory of lost loved ones, Negan is still a creditable and ever-present potential danger and each survivor still displays their war-wounds and scars. But the most evident feature in this new story direction is the period of relative peace they experience.
This volume wraps up the conflict with Negan – and, sorry if this is a spoiler – but given the survivors’ record, can you begrudge them a respite from the conflict? It’s almost like they deserve this break. In this arc, our survivors have graduated from intense daily struggle to a near-return to an integrated society, developing citizens capable of making a living and having something to look forward to in life. In short, Rick Grimes and company have now recreated a semblance of no longer being just survivors but of having adapted to this new world.
In fact, the horror – along with the zombies – seem to have disappeared. In fact, in all the pages of this volume, there aren’t that many that actually include zombies. If you do the math, it actually amounts to only about 10% of the story.
It had to happen though. Eventually the readers had to be given a break from the unrelenting horror and day to day “frying-pan-into-the-fire” existence the survivors have had to endure. The relationship formed between reader and character is a sympathetic one and we feel their stress – albeit diluted, but it is still felt as well and we need a break.
Vol. 22 is subtitled “A New Beginning” for a reason. It’s a pivot point in the series that sees new characters and the establishment of a new life for the survivors – or dare we call them settlers? It’s refreshing and it’s a new pace. There are new problems for the remaining humans to figure out and adapt to. Are they the only humans left on the planet? Are the undead developing new abilities? These and other issues are hinted at and are left to develop, which is a different tone altogether for the comic. Instead of dealing with absolutes, ie: people are bad and dead things will eat you, we are now faced with uncertainty and discovering the unknown.
A confession: whenever I would read a copy of The Walking Dead, I would read it and put it away, never to read it again. The carnage and horror of reading and watching what people could do to each other was more than I wanted to handle. Bearing witness to people’s suffering on a constant basis became too difficult but I was still drawn to learning what would happen to the compelling characters that I really enjoyed.
That is the power of this series: you wonder just how much they can endure. Watching the suffering is another issue altogether. Though, the change in direction for the series makes this comic even more enjoyable now. Seeing new hope arise in the hearts and minds of these survivors is refreshing, but still you are gripped with the uncertainty of its stability. Still isn’t that the essence of good horror?
How long can we trust that the humans in this series won’t turn on themselves when presented with more of the unknown?
I guess I’ll just have to keep reading.