Thursday, 2 June 2011

THE WALKING DEAD


Truth to tell, I never liked the comic that much.

That is, the comic series penned by Robert Kirkman, drawn (in early instalments) by Tony Moore and published by Image. In fact I confess to giving up on it after the first volume. (Though Robert Wells’ reviews in ‘Comics On the Ration’, which take things up to lucky volume thirteen, claim it continues in a similar manner.) But it did contain the germ of a good idea, which was enough for me to check out the TV show.

With zombies it is of course the George Romero ‘Dead’ films that set the template – films which didn’t feature characters so much as present ciphers. That apparent criticism is actually more of a description– they were parables about the collapse of civilization and the stripping away of humanity. Characterisation would just get in the way of all that, those ciphers had to be loose fits to act as a placeholder for all of us - not appear as individuals.

But it raises the question, what if you were to impose a zombie holocaust on credible characters? Would that bring the whole thing home? Would you start to wonder how you would cope if your world of hot showers and widescreen TVs was suddenly replaced by someone trying to eat your face off?

As I say, a good idea. But the trouble with the comic is... well actually there’s two of them. First off, it’s almost as if Kirkman has decided that the required characterisation comes from dialogue, so the more dialogue there is the more characterisation will ensue. Speech balloons puff up and bloat, to the point where you almost start to prefer the zombies’ company. They may try to kill you, but at least they shut up once in a while.


Happily, this works rather differently on screen. Take one early scene where our protagonist, the cop Rick Grimes, is asked by someone if he minds their squatting in a neighbour’s house:

“I’m not going to arrest you, if that’s what you mean. Most of the houses on my street had been looted. You seemed to be fixing the place up. The Thompsons will probably thank you when they get back. As long as you don’t put up a fight over the place. You don’t have to justify anything to me...”

...actually, there’s more but you probably get the gist by now. In the TV version, at a later point another character asks Grimes about looting. Looking to an undead army out the window he replies dryly, “I don’t think those rules apply any more.”

However, the TV version not only has its chatty moments, it habitually starts each episode with a lengthy monologue or duologue. Perhaps it has an inbuilt advantage here. Even when it’s not strictly functional, dialogue in comics tends to the purposeful. We’re always subconsciously aware that someone has written it down. The dialogue on the screen sounds casual, like a moment captured. Quite often it will seem completely inconsequential, and only slowly will its significance sneak up on you. (The opening conversation, banter about women between Rick and his cop buddy Shane, does not reveal it’s meaning until much later.) We do not feel that the characters are telling us about themselves, more that we are eavesdropping on them as they reveal things about themselves.


The show also develops and strengthens the characters. It makes sense to make Grimes a police officer, someone who would have a better chance of survival than a mere civilian. But on the page the ever-agonising Grimes is scarcely credible as a cop, let alone a survivor. The TV series makes him tougher, willing to take decisive action but also negotiate situations. Similarly, the comic-book Shane (though previously Grimes’ ex-cop-buddy) is a nasty and duplicitous piece of work. It leads to something of a good-cop/bad-cop dichotomy. On screen he is still a loose cannon, who over-reacts to situations and at times fights with Grimes. But he is more conflicted, less one-dimensional.

The comics’ other main failing is that in turning the human characters up it ends up turning the zombies down. They can vanish offstage for ages and when they appear its as something of a generic menace – they could as easily be feral aliens, or even wild animals. The vital sense that (in Romero’s phrase) “they are us” can get blunted.

This is one failing which is more or less duplicated by the TV show. The one plus point, however, is that zombie lore becomes a weird kind of anthropology. Having to survive around them, the humans inevitably learn more about what makes them tick. In a nice scene in the comic (curiously unreproduced on screen), Grimes and Shane are hunting and come across a zombie feeding on a deer. It’s so intent on its meal that it’s oblivious to them, and they stand observing it like an animal. Of course there are limits to how far this can be taken. Much of the horror of zombies lies in their being walking violations of nature. But it is never pushed too far...

In general, the screen version takes the comic as a first draft, something to develop and improve. The result is that it tends to get better as it goes along. The first episode is a little slow, though admittedly hamstrung by the convention that no-one is allowed to explain the set-up to Grimes... “you know, zombie outbreak –like those films!” By about the fifth episode it has almost completely moved away from the comic’s plotlines.

Are zombies simply better suited to the visceral world of the screen? Does live action capture verite, instill the vertiginous sense of being thrown into events? Are comics more the realm of big symbols and crazy concepts, what Alan Moore calls “ideaspace”?

Of course a great comics creator can buck those tendencies. Alan Moore can write dialogue which crackles. Kirby is nothing but a visceral rush. As Martin Skidmore has demonstrated, Junji Ito can hit you with the creepiest under-your-skin horror. But a less-than-great creator may be better off swimming with the current. With ‘The Walking Dead’, the news is not that the comic has reached a fourteenth volume but that the TV show will return for a second series!

16 comments:

  1. Thanks for this -- interesting thoughts on different media and their suitability to tell different kinds of stories. Based on what you've said here, I will give Walking Dead a go.

    But ... I am generally not that hot on zombies, to we'll have to see how it goes. (I watched the first 51 minutes or so of 28 Days Later before realising that while I admired it I wasn't at all enjoying it. So I stopped.) Oddly enough, the one zombie-related story I've really enjoyed was a book, World War Z, which I'd have expected to be the worst possible medium.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A zombie book is indeed a bizarre notion! I once had a zombie fanzine, which was all written in funny squiggles designed to capture zombies' un-speech. I was never sure whether the intended audience was humans or zombies.

    I did like things about '28 Days Later' but fast zombies are pretty much anathema to me. That's like making a remake of King Kong where Kong is bigger.

    I'm not sure I would seek out zombie stories, but there's mileage in them if they're done right. You should probably see such types as like riffs, open to different ways of playing. Not meaning to overload you with links, but the Romero films are a totally different but equally appealing take.

    ReplyDelete
  3. If you've not read World War Z, I do recommend it. (I do not recommend the forthcoming film of the same name, which by all accounts bears no relation to the book.)

    Point taken of zombies as riffs. I think I find the vampire riff more flexible, though.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, I've not watched actual TWD yet. But I have watched this and it made my helpless with laughter. Highly recommended.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I was thinking the zombies worked the best until the musical number in the final scene. Maybe someone should do a zombie sitcom, daddy zombie returning home bearing brains for the 2.4 children...

    ReplyDelete
  6. 20 minutes into first episode of Walking Dead. Lots to admire so far, but nothing to like. It's not exactly a bundle of laughs, is it?

    I am coming to the conclusion that it's very rare for me to like any TV series that doesn't make me laugh at least every now and then. (The only exception I can think of that the moment is The West Wing and even that had some character humour.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I finished episode one (which came in at a hefty one hour and ten minutes). Having seen the whole thing I admire it more, but don't like it any more. I just don't enjoy waiting for unspeakable things to suddenly happen to people I've been made to like.

    Re-reading these comments I now see that what I said about Walking Dead ("Lots to admire but nothing to like" is almost exactly what I said about 28 Days Later ("while I admired it I wasn't at all enjoying it"). I guess that confirms my intuition that zombies in general are not for me.

    Oh well.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "Waiting for unspeakable things to suddenly happen to people I've been made to like" could be a good description of 'Walking Dead' all in. If that's not for you, then sorry if I gave you a bum steer.

    I'm not sure It's all that similar to '28 Days Later', though. That seemed much more like an update and a sequel to those Seventies exploitation films. The characters are things like The One Who Reacts To It All Much Like You or I Would, The One Who Reacts To It All Like We Might Want To, and so on. 'Walking Dead' is about pulling characters from a more realistic drama and dropping them in a zombie world. It fleshes them out, then unleashes the flesh eaters.

    ReplyDelete
  9. No apology necessary: it was a low-investment experiment on my part, and I have found far more things that I love from blog recommendations than from any other medium over the last few years, so the occasional dead end is just the cost of doing business.

    I suppose you might characterise Firefly as "pulling characters from a more realistic drama and dropping them in a sci-fi world", and I loved that. I suppose it's largely because the less relentlessly bleak world allowed the characters more space to have fun.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Never seen 'Firefly' to be honest with you. Was never grabbed by Buffy the way others seemed to be. But I did like the Avengers movie, so I'm not sure where the logic is there.

    ReplyDelete
  11. !!!

    Let's do a deal. I trialled the first (long) episode of TWD on your recommendation. Why don't you trial the first (long) episode of Firefly on mine? I don't think you'll regret it.

    I just can't recommend it highly enough.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I would most likely be an outrageous fibber if I said here that I was likely to track down 'Firefly.' The want list is almost infinitely long as it is. I suppose my watching 'Serenity' might be more likely, they do seem to show that on TV on and off. Would 'Serenity' be a good place to start?

    ReplyDelete
  13. Not at all, sorry. Serenity would be a good place to finish. It would be like watching Series 5 of New Who starting with The Big Bang.

    Why not put the Firefly box-set on your Christmas list?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Even if I had a DVD of it sitting right next to the player, it might well be an aaaaaaage before I ever got round to inserting that disc. Too much other stuff on the watch list. Whereas if 'Serenity' showed up on the telly...

    I got into 'Battlestar Galactica' by watching a couple of sample episodes (quite late in the run), deciding it was something I'd like to watch and starting from the start, Conceivably might trigger something similar.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Mike, bearing in mind your concerns re the serious nature of zombies have you watched Shaun of the Dead yet? Also Zombieland.. Both are great, & oft-quoted in our house. If Dan had stayed longer we would have introduced him..

    ReplyDelete
  16. Oh, Hi Sarah, glad you've found this blog! I watched Shaun of the Dead a few years ago. I thought it was OK, but couldn't see what the big deal was. For some reason that none of us understand we seem to own a copy of Zombieland -- or at least we have one in the house. We have no idea where it came from or why. But I will probably watch it some time.

    ReplyDelete