Apocalypse, Capitalism, Cormac McCarthy, graphic novel, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Harry Potter, Literature, modern comfort, panopticon, Robert Kirkman, television series, The Dark Tower, The Odyssey, The Road, The Walking Dead
There is a moment in The Road when the man wakes up and from that point on there is nothing so important as the boy. However before I get to that I must discuss The Walking Dead. I will admit openly that I am not a great fan of series, though I did carve out two weeks during my last summer break in which I sat down and read the entire graphic novel series. This period helped me realize that Robert Kirkman was attempting something great and phenomenal and man did the brother screw it all up. In the Introduction of the very first book Kirkman provides what is in my mind an honest explanation of his creative purpose, his drive tat is pushing him through this series.
“To me Zombie movies are thought provoking, dramatic fiction, on par with any Oscar worthy garbage that’s rolled out year after year. Movies that make you question the fabric of our very society are what I like. And in GOOD zombie movies…you get that by the truckload.
“With the Walking Dead, I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events CHANGE them. I’m in this for the Long Haul”
He goes on to say,
“Everything in this book is an attempt at showing the natural progression of events that I think would occur in these situations. This is a very character driven endeavor. How these characters get there is much more important than them getting there. I hope to show you reflections of your friends, your neighbors, your families, and yourselves, and what their reactions are to the extreme situations in this book.”
Before I begin I need to address my stance on this issue, what Kirkman describes should be the goal of any individual interested in telling a story. The very act of narration involves taking a character and setting them into a situation and letting the events unfold wherever they may. This is not meant to sound condescending or judgmental, I’m expressing admiration for Kirkman. Say whatever you will about the television series, and trust me, I will, but the graphic novels and ongoing comic books are damned good American literary achievement. The first book alone testifies to its strength for the fact that Kirkman does not overboard his audience with gore-porn images designed to shock the audience until yet another blood soaked curtain is drawn. Kirkman places his character into the very act of surviving and establishes the laws of his universe.
For those completely unaware of the series Rick Grimes is a sheriff in Georgia who is shot and goes into a temporary coma until he awakes in a hospital. He quickly discovers that something has happened and everyone is either vanished or, as he finds when entering the hospital cafeteria, dead but still animated. Rick eventually manages to find his wife Lauri, his son Carl, and former partner Shane camped not far outside of Atlanta. At first his return is welcome however it is revealed that Lauri and Shane have begun an intimate relationship. The people of the group begin to understand how to shoot, how to wash their clothes by hand, and in this very beginning, how to live off of the land. As the events continue on however Rick begins to assume more of a power figure within the community and Shane resents it until their showdown at the very end. Feeling as if he has no power, Shane turns a gun on Rick, before Carl shoots Shane in the neck.
From this point onwards an “epic” in Kirkman’s own words, spans in which the characters move around the state of Georgia encountering dictators, cannibals, psychotics, stragglers of survivors, ex-scientists who are not really scientists, a man who owns a tiger, and a man who owns a bat wrapped in barbed wire for a start. The events of the comic series however, despite this broad summary, never leave the realms of possibilities because Kirkman understands his original point. He wants to see how people would react and treat each other if the laws and paradigms of humanity were gone and people had to fall back upon the survivor morality.
I’m still waiting for a point, my reader so often reminds me.
The point dear reader is that this story is one of many that are being told recently. In fact storytellers seem so dried up of ideas that they can only fall back upon the apocalypse story or else the super-fantasy genre. Our stories, mass stories, are awash with the idea that our world has ended or is ending and so we must find a new way to live in this world. Ask yourself how many series, movies, and books you have read that delves either into dystopia or the apocalypse.
My great critique with the Walking Dead though is not that the series is concerned with this ongoing trope, my real concern is that the message is being watered down in capitalism. My wife, sister-in-law, work colleagues, and alas, even my sister is obsessed with The Walking Dead. As such I find myself on Sundays watching the television program that is broken by commercials advertising The Walking Dead and of course after the show is a program known as the Talking Dead that hosts its own telephone number that you may call in and participate your opinions about the program, and don’t forget about the season by season contests that offer prizes such as The Walking Dead pinball machine, and of course there are interviews with celebrity’s who profess undying love for the program while we are offered quizzes which must be performed through smartphones, and once the show is done we may return to our studies where the books, action figures, posters, pop dolls, PEZ machins await our loving embrace.
If I don’t sound like an asshole yet I’m not doing something right. The Walking Dead began as a series that seemed to be trying to say something important. Human beings are fucked up psychotic apes that but in that mob of crazies there is a set bunch of human beings who are devoted to the idea that life, culture, and civilization is worth it. That we should be good to one another…except when others threaten us in which case we will stab them the fuck to death. In the latest season the TERMINUS episode pushed the idea to a new high by the introduction of the Cannibals.
Never fear, I’m not one for spoilers. I was disturbed, and repulsed, but it was yet another reminder of how the show seems to becoming bored of itself. The message seemed to die this Sunday when Rick Grimes gave his “We are the Walking Dead speech.” It was kitsch, and we all ate it up. My final argument is this, if Kirkman is correct in claiming this series as an Epic, he needs to give us a sigh. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is traveling home to return to his wife and son and reclaim the throne of Ithica. In Harry Potter, Voldemort must be destroyed so the wizarding and muggle worlds can live in safety. In The Dark Tower series, Roland must reach the Dark Tower, defeat the Crimson King, and enter the tower so that reality may return to normality. And finally in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Harold and Kumar must reach the restaurant so that they can enjoy the sweet joy that is a slider. Kirkman’s Epic, is taking his audience nowhere. Though we may be fascinated by seeing individual events, as Westerners we are interested in closure. There needs to be an end to the ride or else what was the point? Why did we bother.
The Apocalypse story arc has only been successfully performed by one author in my mind and that is Cormac McCarthy. You see, you thought I would forget. Shame on you.
The Road has won McCarthy not only a Pulitzer but most of the fame he should have attained after his masterpiece Blood Meridian: Or, That Evening Redness in the West. The story of a father and son, both nameless but for their titles to one another, surviving in what is left of the world following…what exactly? McCarthy never reveals the cause of the apocalypse because there isn’t need for one. All the reader must understand is that the world is dead and dying and what is left of humanity is eating each other, literally, to survive.
“They collected some old boxes and built a fire in the floor and he found some tools and emptied out the cart and sat working on the wheel. He pulled the bolt and bored out the collect with a hand drill and resleaved it with a section of pipe he’d cut to length with a handsaw. Then he bolted it all back together and stood the cart upright and wheeled it around the floor. It ran fairly true. The boy sat watching everything.”
This brief passage intrigued me and as I read I began to wonder more and more about what McCarthy was actually trying to do. I asked my father what was the point of the story, what a theme of it might be. His response was, as is typical with my father, simple and profound: “It’s a father trying to teach his son.”
Some might protest that The Walking Dead has similar points to make, and that I will not contest. But it still stands that The Walking Dead seems to sell its messages as it might sell its action figures and t-shirts. They are kitsch trendy aphorisms posted in memes, rather than crafted words meant to help others honestly reflect about the enormity and simultaneously, their insignificance of existence. There’s a passage in the novel where the man reflects upon his experience:
“Years later he stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicted on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation. He let the book fall and took a last look around and made his way out into the cold gray light”
McCarthy understands the paradox of stories in the apocalypse, of the hope and the lie of the survivor. There is no point to a story because a story involves an expectation of something to come. If we are to treat a tale as apocalyptic, it must be with the understanding that it indicates the end of the world, not hope for the survivors to create a new one.
What then is this trend of the end that fascinates us so. I believe we are hitting a point in our development as a species where we are questioning ourselves, our significance. As Technology simplifies our lives, as we make money and comfort for ourselves we are curious, morbidly so. This comfort and capitalism is creating a disconnect between our more carnal selves and the real world. However, camping sucks, and no indoor plumping, no chance in hell. How then is one to experience separation from the panopticon of corporate conditioning and fast food comfort?
The trend of “the end of the world” reveals a universal concern that we are losing some part of ourselves, some part of our humanity to urban or modern comfort. We do not wish to actually experience it ourselves and so we create characters that we can comfortably experience this vision of the world through.
The Road stands a monumental achievement because it is not interested in comfort of its reader, in fact, it desires anything but. Unlikle The Walking Dead, which allows us a comfortable avenue of conversation about “what we would do if the world was over,” The Road asks it’s audience a far more challenging question, “how would we accept it, that our world was over?”
McCarthy asks us an honest question, one that I have yet to see any apocalypse movie, novel, poem, image, etc., honestly ask its audience:
“How would you know you were the last man on earth?”
But then, this question doesn’t sell action figures.