NOC: Robert Kirkman is the Frank Miller of Zombies

Originally posted at The Nerds of Color

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Robert Kirkman’s ongoing epic The Walking Dead. Image Comics is marking the special occasion by releasing an anniversary edition of issue #1, colored by Dave Stewart. If you haven’t been reading this book — particularly if you are a fan of the AMC TV adaptation — then you should be. The Walking Dead isn’t just a great comic book, it’s a revolutionary comic book; one that fundamentally altered the zombie landscape and helped usher in the zombie Golden Age of today.

In fact, I’d even venture so far as to say that Robert Kirkman is the zombie Frank Miller.

Wait, wait, wait: before your brain explodes from the nerd-rage, hear me out on this one.

This post contains a few spoilers of The Walking Dead comic. Please read on with care.

Back in the day, zombie films were the cornerstone of B-movie camp and were appealing for their consistent offering of blood, guts, and gore. George A. Romero’s Living Dead series, which basically birthed the modern zombie genre, is a perfect example of what zombie movies were for 20 or so years: a small band of survivors are pitted against undead monsters in two hours of grotesque (and/or funny) violence and death. The mission of the survivors is just that simple — to survive (usually by killing a lot of zombies). Zombie movies were, therefore, barely distinguishable from other monster and slasher movies of similar purpose and ilk — all corn syrup blood and special effects and plot holes you could drive a bus with retrofitted chainsaw wheels through.

In most zombie movies, it is the zombie who is the star.

Then, along came The Walking Dead.

I’m not enough of a zombie movie connoisseur to know whether Robert Kirkman was the first to push the boundaries of the zombie genre. But, I would definitely make the argument that he uniquely took advantage of the strengths of the comic book medium to do what he did most effectively. And, what he did was write a zombie story where the zombies aren’t the stars.

Sure, The Walking Dead has its fair share of rotting corpses, horrific hack-and-slashes, and gruesome deaths. The zombies — or Walkers as Kirkman calls them — are never far from view or far from mind. But, as The Walking Dead posits, neither are the Walkers the primary threat in the post-zombie apocalypse world. No, the greatest danger facing the survivors is the progressive loss of morality in a world where anarchy rules, where every new day brings new trauma, and where death lurks around every corner. The Big Bad that the survivors must grapple with is how the decisions to compromise humanity for life has become commonplace.

(That, in part, is why the Walkers of The Walking Dead are slow, lumbering, and arguably pretty easy to dispatch. They are, in essence, scenery; scenery that, admittedly, will sometimes try to eat you.)

The Walking Dead occupies itself less with telling stories about people who strap chainsaws to their stumpy hands, and more with telling the story of emotional survival. Notably, in this, we follow how many of the survivors fail to actually survive with their humanity intact. Rick has made difficult (in some cases hugely immoral) decisions in the name of protecting his family, including the sacrifice of a woman and her child. Michonne, a former lawyer, is now a ruthless sword-wielding killer who uses men for sex and who has difficulty showing any emotional vulnerability. She also used to keep the remains of her brother and her boyfriend as zombie pets. Carl has murdered a child and fails to understand the ethics of his actions. Roving bands of humans kidnap other survivors and cannibalize them — sometimes taking limbs piecemeal while keeping the victim alive to preserve freshness — for food.

Every single living person in The Walking Dead is at best maladjusted and at worst, actually insane.

In most zombie stories, the zombies are a vehicle for guts and gore. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are just a convenient vehicle for compelling psychological examinations of human nature, wherein the survivors are as much the monsters as the zombies they fight. This begs the question of whether the title of the comic refers to the undead, or to the living. Either way, with The Walking Dead, the zombie genre suddenly found itself elevated out of the trenches of B-movie horror and into the world of really, really good story-telling.

And, this is exactly what Frank Miller did for the character of Batman. Prior to Miller’s Dark Knight Returns story arc, Batman was kind of a light-hearted superhero, not wildly different from other superheroes of the time. Most of his stories involved his escape from a giant death trap and triumph over a stock villain of the week. But in 1986, Frank Miller used The Dark Knight Returns to present a new take on Batman, one that was grittier, slightly insane, and deeply human. He followed this groundbreaking and paradigm-shifting story a year later with Batman: Year One, a Batman origin story that reimagined Bruce Wayne as a man traumatized by his past and who reinvents himself into a dark anti-hero who is the living, breathing, seething rage he feels from the murder of his parents. In so doing, the double shot of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One transformed the Batman from a rather conventional superhero into an intellectual case-study in childhood trauma: a reinterpretation that is now the universal standard for the character. Even Batman’s villains like the Joker — once silly and one-dimensional — are now complex symbols of psychological trauma in their own right.

In short, the impact of Frank Miller on the Batman character and his universe is undeniable. Like Kirkman, Miller redefined the boundaries of comics, and demonstrated the capacity of the medium to tell intelligent stories that were more than just the “Bam, Biff, Pow” serials of the Golden Age. The parallels between Miller and Kirkman don’t end there. On a more technical note, both Miller and Kirkman tell highly compelling stories in books that are, let’s face it, weighed down by some pretty bad art (at least as far as I, a self-professed art junkie, am concerned). Sure, the art in Batman: Year One isn’t that bad, but it is jarringly flat for someone (like me) who grew up in the post-Jim Lee age. And, the art in The Walking Dead is, let’s face it, kind of terrible (particularly in the more recent books). Rarely are panels laid out with dynamic use of perspective or lighting, and there are times when I literally can’t tell the characters apart. The action scenes are often a jumbled chaos of harsh lines and undead faces and non-descript gore. And, important for a book that I lauded yesterday for being one of the more racially diverse examples of zombie media, characters of colour sometimes don’t look ethnic. The artists on The Walking Dead really struggle, for example, to make Glenn look even remotely East Asian.

I mean this just looks… off…

Miller and Kirkman also share in common a problem of having, in some cases, become caricatures of themselves. Miller is renowned for his stylized narrative style, dense writing, and sexist treatment of women.

Miller’s recent work on DK2 and Batman and Robin was less Frank Miller, and more like a writer trying to write in the style of Frank Miller. Both were universally panned for being uninspired and, well, bad. While Kirkman hasn’t quite sunk to that level, I’m starting to wonder where else The Walking Dead has left to go after ten years. In a book that made its name for, in part, being willing to kill off beloved main characters in service of psychological examinations (a principle that the AMC TV show has faithfully emulated), recent events in the comic book make me wonder if Kirkman is now also killing off characters just for the sake of killing them (or maybe even to satisfy all those Bad Fans out there who are reading his zombie books for the violence). For example, the recent and brutal death of Glenn felt less like character examination, and more like meaningless violence porn.

Those criticisms aside, both Kirkman and Miller were undeniably influential in fundamentally changing the landscape of their respective genres. I believe that Kirkman’s fresh take on zombies contributed, at least in part, to the sudden mainstreaming of the undead. With The Walking Dead, the zombie genre suddenly felt relevant, and even kind of personal. Since Kirkman, we’ve seen a veritable deluge of zombie media, many of which similarly spotlight survivors over zombies — consider, for example, the popular book and film, World War Z.

While The Walking Dead has its fair share of problems, it is largely a really good comic that should have a well-deserved place of honour in the collection of any discerning fanboy or fangirl.

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