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!