An excellent blog post written by the lovely and talented Jamilla Rowser recently made the rounds wherein she wrote about her experience “breaking up” with The Walking Dead comic book. It struck a chord with me because I’m in something of a loveless relationship with the TV show myself. The comic and I have occasional flings via trade, but I’ve committed myself to the show. Relationship metaphors aside, her blog echoed conversations I’ve been having lately about the longevity of The Walking Dead.
Zombies have been a staple of horror movies for nearly 50 years. When done well, zombies are incredibly effective “villains.” There’s a reason creative people enjoy dipping into that particular well. Like any good story, a zombie story has a very clear beginning, middle and ending. We’re introduced to the world and our main characters, we learn why we’ve got zombies this time, blood and chaos inevitably ensue, and then we get our ending. A great zombie movie is made or broken by its ending a lot of the time. Do we get a happy ending or not? How many survivors? Is the theme one of hope or despair? More so than many subgenres, a lot rides on the end of a zombie movie.
Maybe that’s the fundamental problem with The Walking Dead, be it from Image comics or AMC. The initial awe of “It’s a zombie movie that never ends” has started to wear thin. The Walking Dead isn’t a story that can sustain itself for a decade. Yes, comics and TV shows have runs that go for years, if not decades, but there’s a world of difference between Rick Grimes and Batman far beyond the cowl. The cast of The Walking Dead has a pretty narrow window for storytelling. They’re either ducking zombies or some evil dictator figure. Sure, Batman is always facing some villain, but the setting changes. The mood changes. Batman stories can deal with a wealth of themes and emotions. Zombie stories are about not getting eaten by zombies. The end. That’s not to say that there’s not opportunity for great character moments or that we’ve not seen them on TV or the printed page, nor does it mean that Batman and Captain America don’t fall victim to formulaic and predictable stories.
Batman is going to win and survive. That’s no surprise. But who is he facing? What’s the nature of the threat? Is it a straight-up action story, or is there a quiet thriller element? What are the stakes? Is he fighting for Gotham or the world? Is he fighting for himself? There are countless stories to be told with Batman, Spider-Man, Walter White or even CM Punk. Those characters and their worlds support an ongoing narrative. The world of The Walking Dead does not. The biggest surprise addition to the mythos thus far has been killer sniffles. The sniffles is not a compelling villain.
Every story needs an ending. Instead, The Walking Dead bleeds right into more of the same, over and over again. It’s no wonder that Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is the best iteration of this story available right now. The game follows Lee Everett’s story through its logical conclusion. The upcoming sequel follows Clementine in the aftermath of the game’s ending. It’s the same world, but it’s a different lead character and therefore the stakes are completely different. Her story, too, will end, though hopefully better than Lee’s.
Fiction is subjective. The argument over whether something is “good” or not is going to vary from person to person, but there’s been a lot of negative talk about The Walking Dead from diehard fans of the show and the comic lately. Maybe the driving force behind this shift isn’t a lack of quality. Perhaps zombie stories simply don’t lend themselves to a long form narrative. If readers are subconsciously waiting for an ending that will never come, it’s easy enough to make their own endings. You can’t make a relationship work if you’re unhappy. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a clean breakup.