The Walking Dead comic-book series has been around for more than ten years. Is it lurching around like one of its zombies? Or is it alive and vital, like the survivors trying to make their way in an apocalyptic world? Depends who you ask.
When Kotaku staffers were discussing what series should get included in the ongoing Best Series round-up, The Walking Dead came up. But then dissenting voices chimed in: "seems like it became an awful slog a long time ago… I sure gave up a while back." "That series has been treading water for years." Other comics were deemed more worthy. But the idea that the Walking Dead comic had gone awry kept nagging at me. So I went back and re-read everything that's happened since the series' last big anniversary.
Spoilers for the last few months of The Walking Dead follow.
The Walking Dead — done by the creative team led by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard — is definitely different than it used to be. Overall, TWD has become more of a soap opera than a survival thriller. Right now, there's much less of the pioneer-style adventuring that defined the series in its earliest days. Tensions are now coming from trying to rebuild and re-establish, rather than basic subsistence.
The All-Out War storyline saw lead character Rick Grimes and his crew of zombiepocalypse survivors barely stave off a threat by the pillaging Saviors army led by maniacal, self-styled messiah called Negan. In the issues following that conflict, events jump forward two years and the new status quo is centered on the inter-dependence of the three newly-established communities.
But there's still tension about the fragility of the communal enterprise that the book's three communities have undertaken. Led by combat savant Jesus, regular patrols herd zombies away from the Alexandria colony led by Rick. And Negan is still alive, jailed by Rick as an example of death-penalty-free justice.
Rick's now-teenage son Carl — who wants to strike out on his own — has regular conversations with him but still wants to kill the one-time leader of the Saviors. Meanwhile, a random zombie patrol run-in with a new band of survivors brings them into Alexandria.
The most unsettling development in the recent Walking Dead plotlines is the discovery of the Whisperers, a faction of humans who assimilate into zombie hordes by wearing undead flesh. It's clear that a clash with the Whisperers is in the offing. That upcoming confrontation with the Whisperers will be compelling because of the way victory happens; it will be worth reading to see what it winds up costing Rick and the book's other characters.
As for complaints of a formula: yeah, there's clearly one at work in Kirkman's execution, seen again in the newest story arc. New people come, Rick's crew and the newcomers warily circle around each other. Some people die, some newcomers are still around in one way or another. But, for me, the most interesting things about TWD are the existential underpinnings of the dramatic occurrences. If All-Out War was a showdown between philosophies, the events happening during the Whisperers story arc all seem to be about legacy.
We're at the stage of Walking Dead where the rebuilding is underway. One could say that the polar opposite of civilisation is savagery, as represented by the Whisperers' proximity to the undead. But what qualifies as savagery has always been a culturally biased notion. The Whisperers are violent and rapacious — stalking and attacking other human survivors without provocation — but they still are organised around a structure that creates a greater good for its members. A young girl from their ranks get captured and it's shown that she's not all that different from Carl; both young people have done horrible things to survive. It's tougher to write off the Whisperers as being completely evil.
A different kind of savagery is bubbling up in the new settlements, too. Carl's move to the Hilltop community finds him fighting with and brutally harming other kids his own age, after they bully a young girl. When things are safe on a day-to-day basis and basic survival needs are being met, envy and jealousy rear up again — a return of adolescent bullying that only happens because of the relative comfort enjoyed by human survivors. And Rick's benevolent idealism threatens to curdle with the weight of leadership, especially with the stress of worrying about his son's safety.
The questions waft off the black-and-white pages. Will nature or nurture win out? What do you pass on to the next generations? Carl's desperate desire to move away from home comes from a motivation to become "someone important," presumably like his dad. Yet he nearly kills other people for doing wrong. He might not be capable of behaving any other way after coming of age in such violent times.
Babies are being born in the series' cracked and ruined society and this will be the only world that they ever know. Zombies roaming the landscapes will probably not be the thing they have to be most worried about. The biggest danger remains other people and the stakes feel more important than they have before. Boring? Not at all.