Footnotes: The Walking Dead Is What We've Always Been

Footnotes is a look at how specific novels works of fiction were shaped by the culture of their time and how those novels works shaped the culture -- and still are shaping it.

"To me, the best zombie movies aren't the splatter fests of gore and violence with goofy characters and tongue in cheek antics," Robert Kirkman writes in the introduction to The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone Bye, the Eisner award-winning comic book series’ first trade paperback. "Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society... and our society's station in the world."

And, really, how can you argue with Robert Kirkman these days? He's the creator of what may be the best comic book series of the past thirty years and a few of its spinoff novels, and he's an executive producer (and occasional screenwriter) on TV's most popular and polarizing show now that production in Albuquerque has ceased.

A good zombie story is no different than any other good story in any genre...

It’s not surprising that Kirkman would reference zombie movies in his introduction to The Walking Dead’s trade paperback series. Such movies do serve, after all, as the inspiration for him and any other writer who’s ever typed the word zombie into a Word doc.

It’s also not surprising that Kirkman knows his shit when it comes to the makeup of a good zombie movie (and by extension, a good zombie story). Neither has anything to do with how many brains you kill with a scope rifle from a bell tower or how many second-tier characters get their deltoids gnawed off by a group of walkers.

Really, a good zombie story is no different than any other good story in any genre. The windows may be dressed differently, but the heart of a good story has always been its commentary on society, on the human condition, and on life (and death) as we know it.

In which case, The Walking Dead is one pretty damn good story.

The Walking Dead no. 24 will cost you around $15-20 on eBay. It’s a meager investment for what I think is one of the more seminal issues in the series. There are no major character deaths, no major storyline beginnings or endings – honestly, nothing worth noting in the Overstreet.

You may say, “How is that a seminal issue then, you dunce?” And I may say in return, “Hey, asshole, fair question,” and then tell you that inside no. 24 you’ll find perhaps the best and most fascinating string of words in the series’ 115-issue-and-counting run, directly from the dialogue bubble of protagonist Rick Grimes:

The second we put a bullet in the head of one of those undead monsters – the moment one of us drove a hammer into one of their faces – or cut a head off, we became what we are! And that's just it. THAT's what it comes down to. You people don't know what we are. We're surrounded by the DEAD. We're among them – and when we finally give up we become them! We're living on borrowed time here. Every minute of our life is a minute we steal from them! You see them out there. You KNOW that when we die – we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead? Don't you get it? We ARE the walking dead! WE are the walking dead.

Grimes is the series’ hard-talking moral compass (as if you didn’t know that by now, right?), and those words define the entire series in a nutshell.

The layman will read The Walking Dead, be entertained, and think it’s a well-crafted story because of its zombies, because of its raw angst and bleak outlook, because of its splatter fests of gore and violence. All are fair points, but the real reason these comics are so good is because of their unflinching characterization of what it means to be human in an inhuman world, which, as Kirkman not-so-secretly alludes to, pretty much sucks. Or, if you like neat callbacks to earlier material, because it makes us question our station in society and our society’s station in the world.

Works of this sort have always had a profound effect on society and, by default, popular culture. The ideas, images, and mass media that surround The Walking Dead have certainly increased its societal reach and enhanced its core themes. The thematic difference, however, between The Walking Dead as comic book series and television series, despite the obvious additions and alterations to fit the specific medium, is not great. In fact, it’s barely noticeable.

I’m too lazy to dig for confirmation, but I think the meaning of that quote from issue no. 24 is that no matter what happens in this post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested wasteland, no matter what we do, live or die, you’re as dead as anything with maggots crawling out of its eyeholes or its undead-but-then-really-dead brain matter splattered on the pavement.

That’s only surface meaning, though. Like every great work of fiction, there’s deeper meaning in there, that commentary on society, et al. that I mentioned earlier: Sometimes you get to a point in life where what you do doesn’t matter anymore. You get to a point where you are what you are, what you’ll always be, and nothing will ever change that.

The Walking Dead has brought to light the hidden truths about ourselves, about human nature, that we never knew existed.

The world had drastically changed when The Walking Dead no. 1 was published in 2003. Kirkman and original artist Tony Moore breathed new life into an independent comic press at the same time readers needed a different sort of escape in the wake of 9/11 and in the face of two wars in the Middle East. Maybe this wasn’t a title meant to encapsulate so well the bitter truths of the world we now inhabited. But it did.

Zombies aren’t a new fascination post-9/11. We’ve been riding zombie dick for decades, ever since we realized that we humans are capable of just about any damn thing after watching Truman drop a world-ender on Hiroshima. Threats to our survival have multiplied a thousand-fold since then, to the point that we can’t go a day without seeing or hearing about something new that may wipe us off the face of the earth.

We’re fragile, and we’re more aware of that now than we’ve ever been. We’re aware that things can happen in our world now that could cripple society on a global scale, not a local scale like we thought for too long. The Walking Dead has only supported the knowledge we now have of our own fragility. Post-apocalyptic fiction has existed as long as popular culture, weaving its hopeless, migraine-colored tapestry into our subconscious, but there always comes a time where hope exists in these worlds. Not in Rick Grimes’ world, however. And after being teased with happy endings year after year, we’ve realized there’s very little hope left in our world, too.

The Walking Dead has brought to light the hidden truths about ourselves, about human nature, that we never knew existed. The constant – and more visible – threats of danger after 9/11 have toggled with our instincts, exposing us as selfish, animalistic, every-man-for-himself beings. We choose now to do as we please regardless of how it appears to others. We craft new identities for ourselves on a whim. We hurt those around us whether we intend to or not. We prepare to survive what we perceive as imminent disaster. We don’t let laws and rules and opinions hold us back. We let ourselves devolve from order into chaos.

In other words, we’ve become what we always were… what we always will be.

Season 4 of The Walking Dead premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. October 11, 2013 - 8:09am

Nice column, Ryan! I'm trying to find something for you but failing miserably, unfortunately, but there was a video up on The Daily Dish a while back that talked about why zombies, why now, and it hit a lot of the same key points as you. (In a good way,, you're totally right on!!) If I run across it I'll share it, but so far I'm striking out.

I know for me zombies become a jumping off, what can you do with the PEOPLE after the zombies have taken over. How can you mess with the people? Those are the interesting, fun questions, and obviously The Walking Dead does a fantabulous job with that. 

And no matter what...I CAN'T WAIT FOR SUNDAY NIGHT!!!!!

Laurie Genske's picture
Laurie Genske from Milwaukee, WI is reading Slaughter House Five October 11, 2013 - 11:13am

Sorry. Hate to do this. Is this column supposed to be called, "Footnotes?" or what it actually says, "Foonotes?"


I'm a pain in the ass I know.

Aaron Poehler's picture
Aaron Poehler October 11, 2013 - 11:55am

"The Walking Dead no. 24 will cost you around $15-20 on eBay."

Yeah, don't do this unless you like wasting money. The issue is contained in Volume 4 of the trade collections, which you can get used for around ten bucks, and even the massive compendium of #1-48 is selling for around $20 used. And there's very little chance an issue like #24 will appreciate in value or even retain it once the show ends or drops in visibility, so don't think you're gonna get rich that way!

One great thing about the massive popularity of the TV show: there's no shortage of cheap copies of the books.

Ryan Peverly's picture
Ryan Peverly from Ohio is reading The AEgypt Cycle by John Crowley October 13, 2013 - 7:44pm

Laurie, thanks for catching that!

Ryan Peverly's picture
Ryan Peverly from Ohio is reading The AEgypt Cycle by John Crowley October 13, 2013 - 7:45pm

Aaron, totally agree. I prefer collecting single issues myself, but for pure reading, go TPB or other collections, for sure.

Murasaki_Ducky's picture
Murasaki_Ducky from Austin is reading Stardust October 16, 2013 - 2:05pm

This is my first time doing this kind of thing so please be gentle with me...

Ryan, I have to respectfully disagree with your interpretation of the deeper meaning behind Rick's quote.

First, I shall preface by admitting that I have not read the comics (but I intend to!) but I have been following the show since day one. On the surface, yes, I totally agree that Kirkman was probably trying to paint a picture of the futility of life in this universe he created. The characters struggle to survive but everyone at one point has asked themselves (or others) out loud or through their actions...what's the point?

However, I don't think the deeper meaning of his statement implies that we are incapable of change, that we'll always be what we have been. In fact, I think Rick, and really all of the core characters, are proof that people, living and fictional, are capable of tremendous possibilities. At the beginning of the series, he started out as the knight in shining armor trope. He underwent a transformation that has led him to this point (in the show) where he still has a sense of righteousness about him but he's been hardened by the circumstances and experiences of the world he lives in.

***SEMI-SPOILERS AHEAD*** (Nothing pertinent to the plot but just c.m.a…) 
In the newest episode, Rick talks about coming back from the errors of his past with the woman in the forest and with Hershel back at the prison. Hershel acknowledges that Rick was in a very dark place but he found a way to come back from it. Rick’s quote sounds like it was at a time when he was in that dark place, close to the edge of loosing himself. But he pulled through; he came back to his senses. I think the best depiction of this is the opening sequence of the season premiere. Rick is plowing the garden, listening to country music, just going about his business. The zombies are lined up outside the fences. He finds a loaded gun in the dirt. He removes his earbuds and the sounds of the undead flood his ears as well as those of the audience. As he inspects the gun, you can see the gears moving in his head…and then he just tosses it in the garbage pile and continues with his work and music. I think this scene demonstrates how much Rick’s character has changed. In that moment, he’s not bothered by the hardships and harshness of his world. I think he has finally accepted that this new life is a difficult one, but he’s not obsessed with surviving anymore; he seems interested in cultivating a new life for his post-apocalyptic family (drawing on some symbolism from the gardening, perhaps?).

I don't doubt that with all of the threats and dangers we face on a regular basis how it would be easy for some to develop a nihilistic point of view. We’ve seen just how evil people can be. But I don’t think it is right to generalize the whole human race (or any one particular group of it) based on the actions of a few. I came across this quote the other day while doing some research for my story: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.” (Frederick Buechner) In the newest episode Maggie told Glenn she didn’t want to be afraid of being alive. In my opinion, she made a wise statement, one that is applicable to her universe and in ours as well.

Let’s be real here, if there weren’t any character relationships on the show, of any kind, the show would have already lost its appeal with the mundane routine of hacking and slashing zombies. (Because Kirkman said it himself, the best zombie [stories] aren’t the splatter fests of gore… .) In those relationships that we see weekly, there are positive themes being displayed. There is love, forgiveness, charity, compassion, and magnanimity… Those are just a few themes off the top of my head that I've gleaned from the show.

So yes, maybe Kirkman does want us to question our station in life, ergo, our society’s stations in the world. From my perspective, I think what he could also be suggesting is that though the world is ugly, our station, our position in life, is what we choose to make of it, for better or worse.

My apologies for making this comment so long!


Murasaki_Ducky's picture
Murasaki_Ducky from Austin is reading Stardust October 16, 2013 - 2:13pm

Sorry! Accidentally posted twice. Is there a way to delete your own comments?