Back Issues is a feature discussing comics series one collection at a time, in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week: The Walking Dead trade paperback #4, The Heart’s Desire, covering issues #19-24.
The Heart’s Desire plot summary: After a zombie attack interrupts Rick’s standoff with Dexter—one of the original inmates from the prison Rick’s group has occupied—Rick shoots Dexter and claims a stray bullet killed him. A mysterious woman named Michonne arrives, with her undead boyfriend and his best friend in tow. As the survivors attempt to clean up the rest of the prison, Allen is bitten, and Rick cuts off his leg in an attempt to stop him from turning, but he later dies. Michonne seduces Tyreese, and Carol finds out and attempts suicide. Rick confronts Tyreese about Carol, blaming him for her actions. Their fight becomes physical, and Rick eventually faints from the stress. When he wakes up, Dale tells him the group no longer wants him in charge. In response, Rick tells the group that they are the walking dead.
Noah: Whoo, Tasha, another long summary that once again doesn’t hit everything. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover in this last column, but we might as well start with the new character who happens to be the most beloved of The Walking Dead fandom, Michonne. She’s a breath of fresh air, I think, because we have no idea where she comes from, or what her motivation is. She’s obviously incredibly capable, and, as Rick says, “tough as nails,” but she’s mostly a complete mystery in these issues, as well as a troublemaker.
I’m not sure what to make of her, which is a nice change from the other characters, most of whom I’ve begun to detest. Throwing an intriguing, mysterious character into the mix is a great way to re-energize a lagging narrative, and Kirkman is successful here with Michonne. I honestly have no idea why she decides to break up Tyreese and Carol, and I’m glad of that. Giving us too much too soon would lose the suspense—and, frankly, I’m not sure Kirkman would be able to keep an explained Michonne interesting for long. It’s also nice to see another person who isn’t white and isn’t a felon. What did you make of her?
Tasha: Why, she’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma, mostly because I never read the Playboy origin story that explained exactly how she came to be leading her mutilated zombie boyfriend and his buddy around on chains. (Image is releasing a Michonne one-shot in October, expanding on the Playboy material. I’m still waiting to see if it further addresses the idea that Walking Dead zombies can be tamed through repetition, or that having tame ones around keeps other zombies from attacking. These seem like things Rick and company should be interested in exploring, but they’re too busy pummeling each other.) But yes, remember how last time out I said it was a relief to have Chris and Julia keeping their own counsel about their agenda and not describing it to everyone in detail? Here, it’s a relief to have someone show up and not immediately start explaining herself. Given Michonne’s immense popularity, I’m surprised there aren’t more Walking Dead characters like her at this point: strong, silent types who do cool things without speechifying about it. Then again, given what happens to her a couple of books down the line, maybe it’s just safer for Kirkman characters to play mouthy mouthpieces.
I don’t think she decides to break up Tyreese and Carol, though. I think she’s become pretty amoral and indifferent to other people, and when she meets someone she’s interested in, she pursues him directly and without much caring about the context, or possibly the future. Does anything here lead you to believe differently, that she has some larger agenda than attraction and a desire for some quick comfort?
Noah: The only thing that might suggest Michonne has a plan is her invisible friend. God knows I talk to myself all the time, and since she hasn’t been around real people for a long while, it’s unsurprising that she would speak her thoughts aloud. But as with Kirkman’s portrayal of Michonne in general, I have no idea where he’s going with it. Is she just in the habit of thinking out loud, or does she have some split personality that leads her to hook up with Tyreese? As ridiculous as that latter option might sound, I wouldn’t put it past Kirkman.
But do you think her appeal is just that she’s a badass with a samurai sword? I wonder if it’s also connected to your point that she keeps pretty quiet about herself. She has a bit of a “(wo)man with no name” quality, where her taciturn nature is part of the appeal. Clearly she’s been through some serious trauma, being chained to the corpses of her loved ones for who knows how long, and her stoic reaction to it is intriguing. Basically, I’m wondering if you think her draw is superficial, or whether readers are reacting to something more than just her immediate presentation.
Tasha: I think they’re reacting with relief and excitement to one of the few characters that this series hasn’t broken via longstanding suffering, humiliation, betrayal, and failure. Or if she’s broken, at least she’s broken in a quiet way. While Rick is gibbering and yelling and beating the crap out of people, telling them one moment that murderers will be executed, then murdering someone the next moment, and everybody else is weeping or attempting suicide or flip-flopping emotionally or debating sneaking off to live somewhere else, Michonne’s only currently visible flaw is that she talks to herself pretty intently.
Put it this way: I think any remotely reality-based post-apocalyptic story invites readers to wonder how they would react to the same circumstances and challenges. So far in The Walking Dead, the dispiriting answer is mostly “You’d die, or go crazy, or lose any pretense of humanity,” or maybe all of the above in a variety of orders. Michonne is calm, centered, and capable. She clearly isn’t self-sustaining, given how meekly she agrees to surrender her weapons and be locked in a cell in exchange for food and shelter, but she’s discovered a workaround to zombie attacks no one else has, a weapon no one else has, and she has tame zombies in tow, for fuck’s sake. Maybe that makes for a superficial draw, but it’s a pretty compelling one to me. Is it not to you?
Noah: Oh, I definitely wish that the comic would abandon Rick and just follow her around, Yojimbo-style.
I think your explanation of Michonne’s appeal gets to the heart of a lot of things we’ve been addressing these past weeks, both in our talks and in the comments. Firstly, you’re completely right that up until her appearance, Kirkman’s thesis seems to be that in the wake of armageddon, everyone’s going to “die, go crazy, or lose any pretense of humanity.” That may be a legitimate thesis for discussion, but I don’t think it works as the basis for an ongoing narrative. Some of the commenters have noted that other zombie stories—Romero’s Dead series, particularly—have the same thesis, but their narratives are truncated in comparison to The Walking Dead. Once you start to have a longer timeline for your plot, petty nihilism just gets boring. Michonne seems to be a corrective, as if he realized he couldn’t keep such a dismal portrayal of humanity up for much longer.
Ultimately, we want characters we can understand—even if what they do is indefensible. This may seem like I’m contradicting what I said above, but hear me out. We might not be able to explain all of Michonne’s motives, at least not right now, but you’ve already hinted in your description of her appeal how she behaves in a consistent manner. We can understand that consistency—and empathize with it. Humans in the real world aren’t always that consistent, but characters in stories are, and should be, held to different standards. Lack of consistency has been a huge issue for both of us in these past weeks. Perhaps Kirkman believes he’s just setting up an accurate reflection of how humans would react to this kind of trauma: deep irrationality, cruelty, and lack of planning. But even if he’s right (which I doubt), that doesn’t make for engaging art.
Tasha: Well… I think the many, many obsessive Breaking Bad fans out there would argue with you when you say that an ongoing narrative about people losing humanity isn’t a workable storyline, or that there’s no engaging art in people reacting to trauma with irrationality, cruelty, and impulsive action. In fact, I think you may have just described Breaking Bad’s central thesis. Granted, that show isn’t about a society-wide armageddon so much as a handful of personal ones. But it is about loss of sanity, rationality, and especially humanity, and Walter White in particular is every bit as over-the-top nuts at times as Rick is in this volume. So why does one of these stories work for the people who read this site, while the other one doesn’t?
I’m sure there are a lot of reasons, particularly including the writing style and Breaking Bad’s immersive performances, but to keep more strictly to your point about what makes a good story rather than debating the merits of apples vs. oranges… I don’t see either story as engaging in what you call “petty nihilism.” In both cases, it’s more like tragic nihilism, with the ongoing question of how bad it’s going to get, whether there’s a chance for redemption, and what the characters’ gradual descent into savagery (or not-so-gradual, in the case of this book) says about humanity as a whole. And I certainly think that can be an interesting story. Where Walking Dead suffers for me is when it tries to move too fast, as it does here with Rick ziplining between getting morally outraged over other people’s choices, committing cold-blooded murder, and veering back to beating the shit out of Tyreese for getting a blowjob. Er, I mean, for reminding Rick that he hacked off Allen’s leg with an ax. By contrast, something like Breaking Bad or Game Of Thrones (another lengthy soap opera about impending doom and people devolving into cruel savages) is at least measured in its pacing and developments. Can you not think of stories about the long march down into darkness that resonate with you? Is it the grim outlook that gets you?
Noah: That “granted” in your first paragraph is very important. I’m looking at things on a society-wide level for my point above. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of a well-done slow descent into hell, but I don’t think it’s using Walter’s fall to damn the rest of humanity. Kirkman seems to be doing just that—intentionally or not—until Michonne shows up. I just don’t think “everyone is awful underneath it all” is a particularly engaging thesis for an ongoing narrative. I’m sure someone in the comments is going to quibble with me on that, but I feel like most people would agree.
Breaking Bad also gets to my consistency point. Is the Walt now the same as Walt in season one? God, no. But how he’s gotten from point A to B has been a (reasonably) consistent arc. Rick’s hasn’t, as you pointed out. Can you imagine The Walking Dead if it did have the kind of character consistency that Breaking Bad has? It would be a triumph, instead of kind of a lumpy mess. Looks like we’re on the same page here.
As for the petty/tragic distinction, I think there needs to be some real pathos for me to consider Rick’s descent tragic, and it’s just not there.
Tasha: I don’t think Kirkman’s point is, “Everyone is awful underneath it all,” or that he’s damning humanity. I do wish Walking Dead featured more people making good choices with positive repercussions, but there are things scattered throughout to recommend these people: The way Dale and Andrea care about each other and bond with each other, Hershel’s optimism and defense of his own humanity, Donna’s willingness to care for Jim as he’s dying, Andrew’s loyalty to Dexter, and so forth. They’re little things, and often reversed by circumstance, but Kirkman’s point seems to be that one bad decision or ill-considered moment—like Tyreese standing still and letting Michonne have her way with him—can have large, ongoing consequences. Certainly there’s a lot of rushing to judgment in this volume and the previous one, and it’s always a bad call. But I don’t think Kirkman is saying, “All people rush to judgment because all people are terrible,” so much as he’s giving us a fable where the moral is “Think before acting, and consider the impact your actions have on others.”
Is that the central thesis of Walking Dead? Probably not. I think the heart of the series is more about drama and horror than about moral lessons. But if there is a lesson at hand, I don’t think it’s “People suck.”
Noah: You’re right, I’m probably digging a little too deep here. And “everyone is awful” is probably going a bit too far. I think I mean something more like “if society ever collapses, people don’t have the clarity of reason or strength of emotion to deal with it in a productive manner,” which is a bit wordy. That being said, I’m not sure it’s wise to ascribe a moral to the story, even though I just did that. So I’m willing to cede the point, given that we’re mostly in agreement with Kirkman’s handling of his characters.
So instead of beating a dead horse, why don’t we move on? The fight between Rick and Tyreese that I was expecting last week happened here. It was inevitable, but still mostly effective. Kirkman did a great job raising the tension between the two over the past six issues or so. But Rick’s assertion that Tyreese is to blame for Carol trying to kill herself is so over the top that it’s unbelievable. Or do you think Rick is just looking for an excuse to butt heads with Tyreese, and this one is as good as any?
Tasha: Hm. Going back and reading that scene, three possibilities come to mind. 1) Kirkman is just dunning up drama by turning his two strongest characters against each other in a big, violent way, and this may or may not have any bearing on what happened before or what will happen after. Support for this theory: The series’ general tendency toward penduluming emotions and big drama-queen confrontations. 2) Rick is working out his own tensions over any number of other things, such as having just committed first-degree murder, and having failed to prevent Thomas from murdering the girls, or Maggie from murdering Thomas, or Allen from getting bitten. Mostly, he’s seeing himself as a failure of a leader, with the people he’s trying to protect dying all around him, or in Carol’s case, actively trying to. Support for this theory: The scene where he attacks Thomas, and the scene where he hacks off Allen’s bitten leg with an ax, both of which suggest he’s just dealing with way more than he can rationally handle or process. 3) This line to Tyreese—“You couldn’t be happy with [Carol], could you?! You had to move on! Did you just get sick of her? Is that it?”—makes me wonder if the emotional level of Rick’s reaction is all really about Lori cheating on him with Shane when she thought he was dead. I’m not sure there is any support for that theory, given where the rest of this conversation goes, and the fact that Rick doesn’t even fight back until Tyreese accuses him of enjoying mutilating Allen. (And where did that come from?) I just like it because it’s a little more nuanced than “We need a big fight to keep readers hooked.” What do you think? Four books into the series, how much faith do you have in Kirkman as a storyteller and character-builder?
Noah: Not much, which is probably pretty obvious by now. That said, moments like this fight undercut my general urge to completely trash the man’s writing skills. Even if option No. 1 is the one Kirkman had in mind, that at least means he’d been planning it since Tyreese and Rick started to disagree over Thomas—and therefore, it’s no coincidence that Tyreese is the one who stops Rick’s single-fisted assault.
But, and this is the English grad student in me talking, if I look at this scene without my preconceptions about Kirkman, the other two options are not only appealing, but engaging. It makes me wonder if I’ve been reading this series in the wrong way. Perhaps we should forget about Kirkman entirely—which is super-hard, considering what a huge character he is in the real world—and just start assuming that Rick and company have more complex emotional lives than we (I?) thought they did until now.
What do you make of it, rereading it now, and having kept up with it from the beginning? Would you recommend it to people? With caveats? Should I as a new reader keep going, or should I stop in some particular place, the way I tell everyone who wants to watch Heroes to stop after season one? And is Rick telling everyone “We are the walking dead!” a succinct spelling-out of the books in general?
Tasha: While that two-page “We are the walking dead!” moment may in fact sum up the story thematically—and warn you personally not to get too attached to any one character—it’s a cynical summation for a cynical moment. The Walking Dead is more about people trying to be better than the walking dead, trying to find peace and comfort in the new world, and trying to rise above what’s going on around them. Unfortunately, Kirkman can’t really let them do that, or the series would run out of conflict. Which does make it hard to forget him when looking at the series, since he’s basically in a position to set these characters up like ninepins and then knock them down again, over and over and over.
I can’t point you at a good stopping point for the series, because I’m still reading it myself. Often I’m reading with frustration or disbelief, but for all our griping about Kirkman—which is a natural reaction to anyone who manipulates us effectively with fiction, and makes us feel uncomfortable emotions, whether it’s done well or poorly—I do admire his ability to sketch out characters quickly and still make me care about them. And as much as I sometimes get frustrated with Charlie Adlard’s art, and the difficulty of telling the huge cast apart, most of the time his work is either shocking enough to stick in my memory, or realistic enough that I forget to regard it as art, and I just see people trying to live their lives in a world I wouldn’t want to endure, and probably wouldn’t survive in for very long.
But I can’t give you an up or down vote on The Walking Dead, because you’ve experienced enough of it at this point to judge it yourself. Do you feel compelled to move on with the series? If so, why? And if not, what did you get out of it that made reading this much worth it?
Noah: Based on what you and some of the commenters have said, I can’t say I’m particularly interested in reading more. The consensus seems to be that the storylines become increasingly repetitive from here on out, and that doesn’t excite me much.
In the end, I kind of see The Walking Dead as a failed experiment. Kirkman wanted to see what would happen to characters in a zombie movie after the credits rolled. It’s an intriguing idea, and definitely worth exploring, but I don’t know whether Kirkman should have been our Jacques Cousteau on this expedition, for all the reasons I brought up as we went along. I wanted more out of the series than it had to give me. All of which leads me to two conclusions:
1) There is definitely a viable way to have a long-form narrative about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. There are points in The Walking Dead that provide proof it can be done.
2) There’s no reason why Kirkman should be the only person trying to write such a narrative. Why doesn’t someone beat him at his own game?
Considering that we have some incredible post-apocalyptic literature out there—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a perfect example—I want someone to take the initial idea of The Walking Dead and try something else with it.
Next time: We’re moving on from The Walking Dead to a new series, and you can help us determine which one. Come vote in our poll to determine what comics collections Back Issues will tackle next.