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The Walking Dead, Vol. 2 (Hardcover)

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

I want to like Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. I really do. I love zombies. I love it when writers use horror to explore socially relevent issues. I totally dig the black-and-white style which is clearly intended to evoke the vibe of George Romero horror films. I love that it’s a mainstream comic book property that has broken into popular culture despite not featuring muscle-bound guys and gals with impossible physiques in ridiculous spandex – proof to the masses that comic books can be about more than superheroes. However, as much as I may want to embrace and love The Walking Dead, I just can’t bring myself to.

Grimes and punishment...

I’m always careful about seeming hypersensitive in my reviews or my commentary. Words like “sexist” and “racist” are very loaded terms, and can draw a very heated debate on a particular topic – it’s always frequently used to launch ad hominem attacks on creators with relatively minor provocation. Consider allegations that Ed Brubaker’s treatment of Sharon Carter on Captain America or Milla on Daredevil was sexist or that Brian Michael Bendis’ brutal portrayal of a vicious attack on the heroine Tigra during his New Avengers run was an expression of a latent sexism – both accusations that are, quite frankly ridiculous.

And yet, for all my attempts to avoid reading too much into a series of events portrayed on the panel, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable as I read The Walking Dead. It’s not so much one large instance as a whole host of smaller ones. When Lori makes the observation that the four surviving prisoners residing in the correctional institution that our merry bad has arrived at (a legitimate concern given there are children with them), her husband tells her she’s wrong. “Rick, you’re right!” she declares in big bold letters, “Oh, god! I’m a h-h-horrible person!” To which her husband mutters, “Hormones.” Never mind her suspicions are eventually born out, she’s forever stuck playing the role of supportive and worrying wife, rather than a woman who, y’know, was right about not trusting those convicts. Indeed, every confrontation between the two ends with Lori apologising – when she makes a logical argument against an execution, she later grovels, “I’ve never had this much stress in my life,” as if it’s some kind of excuse.

The zombies are always prime for a good ribbing...

Or the continuing trend of women looking to other characters to defend them in return for sexual favours – in the last volume it was Rick’s wife Lori with his partner Shane, here it’s Carol. If she’s not desperately clinging to Tyrese for protection, she’s even trying to sleep with Carol. In fact, when she loses the big protective man to keep her safe, her only course of action is to “slit her wrists”.

Hell, when the group decides to move away from Rick’s benign dictatorship, they elect a committee consisting of Rick, Tyrese, Herschel and Dale. “No women?” Rick suggests, as if to point out that this couldn’t be a sexist move, just something someone hypersensitive would pick up on. It isn’t sexist not to have a woman on the committee – in fact it’s sexist to have a woman on it for the sake of having a woman on it. It’s as if Kirkman is calling us on our bias – we’re just waiting to pounce on the fact there are no women, and think there should be one just to “balance it out” which is even more sexist than what we accuse the comic of. The best people are the best people, Kirkman seems to want to suggest – regardless of gender. If the four most qualified leaders are male, so what? Ignoring the fact it says a lot about the lack of strong female characters, it’s worth considering that Herschel made the cut. This is the farmer who was threatening the group with a shotgun less than a year earlier. And of course, Dale justifies their exclusion by suggesting, “they just want to be protected.”

A stunning exploration of prejudice in America, perhaps the best bar none...

This isn’t like, for example, the way the Kirkman cleverly displays casual and repressed racism through his cast – with many of the primary cast displaying some rather worrying attitudes about race and creed when push comes down to shove. In those cases, we are very clearly meant to be shocked and disturbed by what these characters are saying. By contrast, I don’t feel, reading it, that Kirkman necessarily sees his portrayal of gender as in any way flawed – rather than just a brutally honest picture of how a cataclysm like a zombie apocalypse would play out. And that – being entirely honest – offends me, the idea that falling back on gender roles is just something that happens naturally. As if what we’re witnessing isn’t the subtle airing of generations of prejudice and victimisation, but rather things being allowed to play out as Kirkman thinks they should.

You could make the case that the addition of badass sword-wielding Michonne contradicts this. She wanders around with two zombies chained to her, utterly unterrified of her surroundings. She has survived thus far on her own and there’s little indication that, despite a few side effects like mumbling to herself, she couldn’t continue to do so almost indefinitely. She is a strong female character who arrives nineteen issues into the series, who – while deeply flawed – isn’t a woman who needs a man. However, the very fact that she is pretty much the only such example of a strong-willed female character this far into the entire series is a worrying indicator itself. I don’t know, I don’t know that Michonne of herself can refute the suggestion of sexism that has been repeatedly made against Kirkman’s epic.

Michonne takes a stab at being a strong female character...

However, enough about the sexism. This is a review, after all. I should probably talk about the comic book itself and what actually happens. Being honest, the gender roles that Kirkman plays out here really undermined my enjoyment of the series, constantly ticking away in the background as I read page after page. Which is a damn shame, because Kirkman is a damn fine storyteller in his own right. I was concerned on reading the first volume that the series may be too slow, and might have spent too long struggling to find its feet. However, it seems that Kirkman has figured out what he wants to do and the kind of story that he wants to tell.

It’s a rich and emotional story. Kirkman obviously knows that the true monsters in any zombie film are seldom ever the zombies themselves – they’re a force of nature. You can’t assign guilt or blame to them, they are doing what their instincts demand of them. It’s really how we respond ourselves to the crisis that defines us as human beings. And some of these moments – such as how Rick ultimately deals with a power contest between the traveling group and the inmates – are pretty horrifying. How far would you go to survive? What would you do to make sure you and your family got to see tomorrow? The collection actually ends perfectly, with Rick having an insight into the grand scheme of things, and a moment which is literally perfect upon which to end the collection. I wonder if Kirkman planned the moment to end a collected edition?

Is it a breakout hit?

Along the way, there are many powerful moments – like the suicide pact between Tyrese’s daughter and her boyfriend. It’s harrowing and a wonderfully off-beat conclusion to a thread that had been developed through the first volume. It also affords the series a moment of genuine emotional connection with the audience, particularly as Tyrese doesn’t attempt to control his rage or aggression. It’s interesting to contrast the reactions of Tyrese and Rick to the revelation that the dead are “coming back without being bitten”. Tyrese waits for his little girl’s boyfriend to resurrect so he can kill him “slower this time”. Rick makes a trek across the country to grant rest to an old friend.

The second volume is set in a prison. It’s interesting to compare the setting to those used in Romero’s original zombie films. Like the shopping mall from Dawn of the Dead, our prisons say a lot about us as a society. There’s no small measure of irony in the fact that the survivors are safest inside an institution intended to lock away those elements we want to forget. Kirkman plays out the divide between the citizens and the convicts well, just as well as he contrasted Herschel’s “man of the soil” routine with Rick’s “city slicker” appearance last time. It’s a question of class, perhaps the one thing to live past the end of the world.

Being honest, I'm on the fence about it...

The hardback is, as with the last volume, quite nice to look at. It’s nice to see the publishers pulling back on the threat they made in the first volume not to include the covers to the series. The rationale – that the colour would drive up the price of the hardback – was ridiculous, as these books cost more than bigger bookers from other publishers. And, I conceded, I’d gladly pay a few extra bob to get my hands on the rather stylish covers.

I’m of two minds about putting the covers away at the back of the book. On the one hand, the colours while flipping through would be distracting, and Kirkman is obviously attempting to have his story read like a book. Books don’t have covers between chapters, the chapters flow into one another. However, this isn’t a book. It isn’t a standalone story. It isn’t titled for either arc – Safety Behind Bars or The Heart’s Desire – just Book Two. It’s not intended to be read in isolation, but as part of a continuing and expanding comic book series rather than a finite graphic novel. “Chapter One” of this volume would be more honestly labelled “Chapter Thirteen” if we were trying to make it seem like a book spread across volumes. The style doesn’t really work.

It's a lock (up)...

Charlie Adlard does wonderful work with the book’s look. I like the black and white. it calls to mind the story’s predecessors and adds a sort of juicy fifties or sixties undertone. Like the black and white “director’s cut” of The Mist, from Frank Darabont, who is bringing the series to television. Adlard’s visuals are haunting and effective. His is a genuine talent.

The Walking Dead continues to be overwhelmed by the same recurring issues in this collection as it was in the last collection. Of course, maybe I’m being hypersensitive, or maybe the introduction of Michonne will change things – I don’t know. I’m not feeling the urge to burn through the series like I did with Y: The Last Man or The Sandman. I reckon I’ll have a review of the third volume up on-line for Darabont’s season finale, rather than doing a new one every week or something crazy. That said, there are some good ideas here, they’re just overshadowed by the bad ones.

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7 Responses

  1. Thanks for this review. I recently made my way through the first 50-some issues of Walking Dead and the sexism has bothered me throughout. I was planning to write about it on my own blog, but now I think I’ll just link to this post instead. You’ve pretty much said everything I was going to say about it.

  2. Yeah, I see where you’re coming from, but I think the situation is a bit more complex then that.

    First off let me just say that I don’t think Kirkman is particularly good at writing women, in general. And I think he’ll admit that as much as anyone. In the latest issue he had Glen and Maggie have a converstaion that basically could be summed up as “I haven’t known how to write you. But I try to do better now.”

    To me the whole arc with Carol I don’t take as sexism as much as one of Kirkman’s other main themes which is some people are just plain not meant to survive. Carol was always shown as somewhat weak and parasitical. And at the end of the day nothing, not her daughter, not her group, could kindle that force of will she needed to survive in the new world. It might not be pretty but I think it’s realistic. And he certainly has played out that before with characters who are male as well.

    I think when Kirkman writes a “woman” though as opposed to “Women” he does a much better job. Andrea is a multi faceted character, and Michone becomes one once the intial shock of her gimmick wears off.

    • I know, the cast is a mess – that’s why it works so well. Rick is hardly the model protagonist, which is what makes him so fascinating. However, it’s the fact that virtually every female character exists to serve the guys that is kind of worrying (with the obvious exception of Michonne). I don’t know, but the idea that the shotgun-waving Herschel found his way on to a “ruling council” and anyone (male or female) is happy with this (and the women feel protected by it) is a little worrying.

      In fairness, I’m working my way through the third year, which I plan to review for either this season finale or next year’s premiere, and I am digging it a lot more – perhaps because it takes Kirkman outside the group (and it’s within the group that most of my problems lie). I don’t dispute he’s a good writer – he crafts suspense and deals with much of the stuff very well – but I just don’t feel comfortable with how he writes women (and not in a good “I feel uncomfortable” sort of way, if you catch my drift).

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