I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead, the ongoing comic book title by Robert Kirkman that follows the story of a group of survivors following a zombie apocalypse. The series is nearing its 80th issue, and has been wildly praised for its focus on questions of humanity and psychological trauma over campy horror and gore typical of the zombie genre.
Recently, AMC debuted a live-action TV series version of The Walking Dead which premiered on Halloween night. The series adapts the first collected trade, and will document how the group of survivors live at their base camp in Atlanta, and eventually how they choose to hit the road.
The comic (and show’s) protagonist is Rick, a police officer in search of his wife and son. The first episode stuck to the first issue of the comic pretty closely — after being injured in a shoot-out, Rick wakes up from a coma to find his town virtually deserted, and zombies roaming the streets. Rick is rescued and shown the ropes by a survivor and his son, now living in an abandoned home in his neighbourhood. After hearing about a refugee camp in Atlanta, Rick heads to the city in hopes that his family is there. Unfortunately, what Rick doesn’t know is that there is no refugee camp, and that the city is crawling with zombies; although slow and not dangerous in isolation, they are deadly in a mob.
At the end of the first episode, Rick loses his horse and his guns, and is trapped in an empty military tank crawling with zombies. Apparently the tank didn’t have keys in its ignition.
And then, over the CB radio, Rick hears the voice of Glenn.
Glenn is, hands-down, my favourite character in Walking Dead, and not just because he’s one of very few Asian American protagonists in the comic book genre (although that’s certainly a big part of his appeal). Glenn is one of the most fleshed out characters in the Walking Dead series, in part because of how the series gives backstory in character reflection. Glenn’s character is more social, so he is willing to reveal more about himself to his friends.
Just as with his comic book counterpart, Glenn — played by Steve Yeun in the live-action show — is instantly likeable (which is a credit to Yeun, given how much of the episode was devoted to literally running from zombies). He is young and brash, but also youthfully idealistic and genuinely good.
Glenn is an unlikely hero, posessing few of the stereotypical qualities one thinks of in a white knight archetype. Glenn is Asian-American, physically unassuming, and quick-witted but often prone to debilitating fear. A former pizza delivery boy, Glenn suffered from mounting debt that threatened to force him to return to living at home; the zombie apocalypse represented his opportunity to start over.
Despite the fact that Glenn is neither the strongest nor the most aggressive character in the group, he proves himself an invaluable member of the group. He volunteers for frequent travel by himself into urban areas, the single most dangerous job the survivors can undertake, in order to forage for much-needed supplies. In Sunday’s episode, we learn that in this, Glenn is easily the most skilled, and so finds the confidence to direct the rest of the group. If the survivors were a hunter/gatherer society, Glenn would be the hunter — risking his life to obtain the food the rest of the group needs to survive.
Given the relative dearth of Asian American protagonists in pop culture, and the frequently stereotypical treatment of such characters when they are present, one might have a hard time imagining an Asian American youth, whose talents include sneaking, hiding, running and hot-wiring cars, as a hero. Yet, throughout the series, Glenn maintains himself as an unlikely good samaritan, a quality that he first demonstrated by risking his life to save Rick in Atlanta; the comic takes great pains to demonstrate that Glenn’s selflessness is unique in a post-apocalyptic world where survivors are willing to do literally anything to survive. By contrast, Rick, who has all the initial makings of a hero — White, good-loocking, brawny and intelligent, a natural leader, and a former cop — soon proves to be less hero and more troubled pragmatist.
Asian Americans remain woefully under-represented on television, and in particular, Asian American men are too often delegated to playing the nerdy, socially awkward sidekicks who support a White male hero archetype. There are elements of that cliche that remain in Walking Dead — Glenn is Rick’s right-hand man, and is more skilled with speed and infiltration than with brute strength. And for those reasons, I worry that Glenn will be dismissed, early on, by Asian Americans who (rightfully or wrongly) will not have the patience to wade through Glenn’s early insecurities.
But, if they give Glenn a little time, Asian Americans are likely to be delighted with Glenn’s treatment as Walking Dead progresses on AMC. The show is following (if condensing) important plot points in the series, which means that Glenn’s character is likely to survive at least until the current story arc in the comics (Season 4 or 5 of the show); it’s unlikely that the show’s creators will deviate so much from the comic as to kill Glenn off prematurely.
If so, I predict that Asian Americans will like how Glenn learns to take charge (as we started to see when he helped Rick with the department store escape), and how he enters into one of the only stable (and passionate) romantic relationships in the series. I predict that Asian Americans are going to love how Glenn emerges as one of the most integral, and most beloved, characters in the show, in part because he alone retains his humanity and pluck despite the survivors’ increasingly dire circumstances. And finally, I predict that Walking Dead will very soon be listed by Asian American pop culture critics in the same breath as Lost and Hawaii 5-0 as one of the few truly humanizing depictions of heroic, intelligent, well-adjusted and sexy Asian American men on television.