I get asked all about zombie fiction all the time, mostly about why it’s popular, but more importantly, “what’s the point?!” Interestingly enough, if you’ve read The Walking Dead comic, it actually makes it very clear that the series has a very important point to make, far beyond what the individual struggles to survive would have you believe.
The Walking Dead was about carrying the light of civilization through the end of the old age and into the new; so really, the big takeaway is that we’re all just, “The Walking Dead” without civility, order, and morality to guide us.
WARNING: HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD
(okay, you’ve been warned.)
The Walking Dead comic book ends with a time skip after Rick’s death to a point in the future where his son, Carl, is married with children.
We discover that during the time skip, society got back up on its feet: civilization is rolling again, (though much lower down the technology chain) with schools, law, order, and justice; this was everything that Rick Grimes fought to keep alive during the fall of the previous civilization.
The Walking Dead, as a comic, isn’t so much about zombies as it is a study of what happens to humanity as we lose our humanity. Zombies are the catalyst for an apocalypse and an analogy for what humanity becomes: walking dead. Human bodies still moving around, but with no purpose, no morality, no spark of live in their eyes, and only the most rudimentary instincts of self-survival.
Each major villain and arc of the series, (in retrospect) shows the progress of descending into darkness and having less and less dignity or civility. With Shane, we see how good people go bad when the light inside them shifts to being about pure ‘survival math’ and how without law and order, we devolve into creatures motivated by our own selfish desires. With the Governor, we see how people desperately cling to liars and tyrants if it means they can live in the illusion of the old, familiar world. With Gareth and the cannibals, we see the next stage, which is that once the trappings of the old world are gone, humans ‘feed’ on each other, with cannibalism being the metaphor for how we become savage enough to take anything from our fellow man to save ourselves.
Then, the series shifts and we start seeing villains who are trying to build a new society, (like the Saviors) which lacks that “light” of the previous civilization, and it’s that light that Rick Grimes fights to have and keep in his communities. He isn’t a perfect person, but he stands out in the series as the leader who managed to hold on and make people believe that a new society could emerge with the same humanity the old civilization had.
I’ll let you make your own analysis from here, but I think you’ll get the point, and if you didn’t see it before, now all the villains of the series are going to make a lot more sense. Each set of villains is a metaphor for how humanity tries to adapt, (or fail to adapt) as a society. Even the Whisperers, creepy as they are, make metaphorical sense: people who try to blend in with the ‘new normal’ while actually losing parts of themselves in the process.
When you can step back and see the completed story, it actually becomes a much more intelligent fiction than what you’d originally believe when you’re in the minutiae of each issue. It’s a saga based around one former lawman who deeply believes in humanity, and his fight to keep that humanity in the face of the fall of society.
The biggest lesson to me, is this:
- It’s not society that gives us our light, but our belief in morality, justice, honor, and kindness that give civilization its light. If you abandon these, you might manage to be physically alive, but dead inside because you have killed the spark of what makes us truly human.
I don’t know how the show will end because it has departed pretty far from the comic by killing off Carl and having Rick go MIA, and they are (literally) the keystone of the entire comic book. Since the story of the series is about Rick passing the torch down to Carl and what that torch actually means, it’s hard to say the show will make as strong an ending without these two lynchpin characters. But as a comic book, The Walking Dead, (when you understand the point), is actually a really terrific series in the zombie apocalypse genre because it’s not really about zombies, but people.