The Unread Canon #12: The Walking Dead: This Sorrowful Life

As a beginning note, this may be my last installment on The Walking Dead, at least for now.  While I do have “The Calm Before” and “Made to Suffer” (they’re the last volumes of my collection) and I am enjoying the series, it doesn’t lend itself terribly well to this sort of critique, or at least it doesn’t the way I’ve been doing it.  The flaws remain the same: the forced, stilted dialogue in particular is something I doubt Kirkman is going to get over after 36 issues, nor his tendency to overexplain character’s motives.  Meanwhile, the story has slowed down considerably and looks to be going in a slightly more traditional path.  I’ll make my final decision in the next two weeks, after reading “The Calm Before”, but rest assured – should The Walking Dead be removed from the roster, it won’t be forgotten.  I fully intend to keep reading, and may jump in should I notice a particularly large shift in tone, some interesting new themes, or anything along those lines, I might jump in with an Unread Canon Interlude sometime.  And in the meanwhile, I’ll be taking some suggestions for what to follow next: right now, front runners include Ultimate Spider-Man and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Have any thoughts on the subject?  Chime in in the comments.

“This Sorrowful Life” continues The Walking Dead‘s trend away from standalone stories and begins to dig a little deeper into the first real ‘war’ of the post-apocalyptic world: Rick’s survivors, living an idyllic life in a prison, and the Governor’s, engaging in blood sport and torture to keep their larger, more open community safe and sated.  It’s not the most exciting struggle, largely because the Governor’s town is painted with such broad, sickening strokes, while Rick’s settlement is so noble they’re risking their lives, day in and day out, to try and find their three lost survivors.  The black-and-white morality of the conflict isn’t as exciting as the recent society-building exercises, and while it’s a necessary detour and an inevitable conflict, I can’t help but feel that, at least as it stands right now, it isn’t a very exciting one.  Only near the end do we get a hint that the story may head in more interesting places.

Though slightly overexplained in its last moments, its nonetheless one of the book’s most effective scenes, suggesting (not for the first time and I highly doubt for the last) that Rick – that any of us, really – is capable of becoming the Governor with shocking alacrity.  Bringing in a large-scale human threat is predictable, but Kirkman seems dedicated to trying to look at it with a fresh eye and find a way to make the ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ story it is right now something a little more real.

Relatively recently (or not: I have no sense of time), the Groovy Age of Horror did a small write-up called “Can Comics Be Scary“, asking a number of professionals what they thought of the subject – this in response to a similarly themed article from the Hooded Utilitarian.  The answers varied by person, but the general consensus seemed to be that, if comics can be scary, it would have to be in a completely different way than movies are scary, or TV shows are scary.  Sudden shocks are impossible, and there’s even a strong amount of narrative distance that makes the physically reprehensible and disgusting somehow… less so.  ‘Horror’ in comics, it seems, needs to do what horror in books does, and root itself in the modern day fears and anxieties at a rather fundamental level.

The Walking Dead has never done a good job at that, often coming off as more of a post-apocalyptic drama than a horror story – which isn’t a slam on Kirkman, as I find the dramatic arcs of the series far more satisfying than the brief shock moments.  “This Sorrowful Life”, however, does contain the most frightening moment to date in the series – a 14-page long sequence in which Michonne brutally beats and then graphically tortures the Governor.  In the era of 24 ran 7 seasons and had a famous scene in which national icon Jack Bauer’s protoge menaced an infant to get information, of Saw becoming the most successful horror franchise of all time, of Splinter Cell: Conviction including ‘enhanced interrogation’ mechanics, it’s safe to say that the American public has become pretty comfortable with the idea of torture, as long as its for the good of the community.

The Walking Dead #33 aims to fuck with you for that.  When Michonne goes back for the Governor, I cheered a little.  The desire for retribution – no, the desire for the world to be fair – is an impulse that every single one of us is born with.  A measured, even-handed response may be the mature option, but it doesn’t seem like it would satisfy the way old-school, biblical vengeance would.  Michonne and the Governor’s showdown is initially staged almost like a Western, with the good guy and the bad guy standing across from each other.  Then Michone wins.  And that’s where Kirkman gets horrific.

It’s not that the torture sequence is particularly vivid – there aren’t really any specific images that disgusted me, so much as it was the general tone of the issue.  As I said, at the beginning of the sequence, I was rooting for Michonne, thrilled that she was taking her vengeance, excited that the Governor was getting what he so richly deserved.  But with every passing page, I grew more and more uncomfortable, not because of what I was seeing, but because of how much of it I felt at least a little bit complicit in, how much I had wanted exactly what I was getting.

“This Sorrowful Life” was an okay arc elevated by a few standout moments.  As Kirkman moves away from self-contained stories and towards a larger narrative, I feel like he’s losing something – momentum, urgency, drama, I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the book is feeling slightly less vital.  It might just be that the current conflict is particularly dull.  The Governor is an interesting villain, but moreso because of what he stands for – Rick’s future – than for what he actually is.

I think it’s the fights that put the community up into laughably evil, particularly since this book reveals that it has been less than 7 months since the apocalypse.  There’s one scene in particularly where a hillbilly woman berates the Governor because Michonne’s fight turns into a blood-bath – she claims she only brings her kids to these things for ‘good, clean fun’.  It’s a semi-clever idea, made disingenuous because of what we know of the Governor and his community.

I understand what Kirkman was trying to say here.  Once you have peace, you need entertainment.  Rick’s community has been in a constant state of flux, nomadic people with an ever-shifting roster as new faces take the place of fallen friends, so they haven’t gotten here yet, but the Governor’s community has been stable and growing, and they need something to keep their attention away from the end of the world.  Reading, writing, the stage – these might have satisfied, but they require a modicum of thought, and I very strongly suspect that the Governor was the one who created the fights, and it was a big part of why he became so powerful.  He appealed to the lowest common denominator, and won over the stupidest people in the crowd with spectacle.  Kirkman even makes a comparison to professional wrestling here, claiming that much of the fight is rigged…

But it doesn’t matter – the idea is lost in the shuffle.  Coming at us simultaneously with Rick’s hand being cut off, Michonne being raped and beaten, and Glenn being tortured, it gets thrown in a pile with ‘evil shit the Governor’s evil community does’.  There’s little nuance and little chance of developing any because of how and when it was introduced.

The Walking Dead has generally worked best when it was attempting a little moral ambiguity, showing the missteps to arriving at a semi-peaceful society.  Scenes like Rick murdering someone he deems a threat to their safety leading to democracy, or their treatment of prisoners leading to them almost losing their safe home are among the most memorable sequences in the book.  The Governor arc has, thus far, brought us nothing like that, slowly shifting gears into a more traditional ‘good vs. evil’ story that pits a rape-happy lunatic and his colony of murderers against Rick’s hard-working farmers.  It’s not a bad story, it’s just not a story worthy of The Walking Dead, which had quietly been becoming more ambitious with every passing arc.

Ultimately, I think I like The Walking Dead more for what it tries to do and say than for what it actually is.  Many of the best scenes are dramatically solid bits of nothing – Carol’s last night with Tyreese, Carl and Sophie’s relationship, Allan going quietly mad – or, as I mentioned above, the strong, thematic, world-building moments.  But the book is also full of the standard zombie film gore, which the comic just can’t make as effective as a film.  The two sides (zombie survival story vs. measured drama) sometimes seem at war with each other.  In the most interesting volumes of the book, the two work perfectly together, the stress and angst of the post-apocalyptic world feeding the drama of Rick’s community.  The Governor arc is a far more typical take on the whole situation, and at least thus far, it hasn’t proved to be among the series’ best.

– Cal Cleary


The Unread Canon #11: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

The Unread Canon #10: The Punisher MAX: Up Is Down and Black Is

Coming Up August 21st: The Punisher MAX: The Slavers

Coming Up September 4th: Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness

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