The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is a great piece of pop entertainment. I should clarify, though, that I'm referring to the graphic novel which just passed 100 issues a short while ago. In a series chock full of grim and horrifying developments, issue 100 was one of most brutal, ending with another in a series of emotional punches to the gut.

Zombie apocalypse stories interest me not for the literal mechanics of surviving against flesh-eating zombies but for their exploration of social institutions. They're a magnitude of order more intellectually fascinating to me than modern vampire stories, the other horror movie archetype that just won't die (pun intended).

[Note I said "modern vampire stories" as older vampire and monster stories are of immense fascination for me. They were, prior to Westerns, one of the earlier genres exploring the tension between individual freedom and social norms. It's just the modern incarnation of vampire stories, co-opted as skeletons for tales of racism or teen romance, that seem intellectually lacking.]

Like stories such as The Lord of the Flies, zombie stories begin with a scenario that explodes human constructs like society, law, civilization, and return us to a more primal, transactional world. The zombies are literal embodiments of humans in their most primal state, lower even than animals, as each zombie is concerned only with eating the flesh of other living creatures, human or otherwise. Unlike viruses that can mutate and kill themselves off, though, zombies don't eat one other.

In a clever bit of irony, the only way to kill a zombie is to permanently damage its brain, traditionally the locus of human thought, either by beheading the zombie or severely damaging its skull. This despite the fact that zombies are already brainless. Vampires, on the other hand, must be staked through the heart. This disparity in the location of their vulnerability is not coincidence. Vampires tend to be explorations of human desire, sexuality, and emotion, and the heart has always been the poetic locus of those feelings.

Where The Walking Dead and other zombie stories are most compelling is in those high pressure moments when an encounter with a zombie forces snap decisions on how to treat other humans in the vicinity. My feelings about the AMC TV show ebb and flow, but I'm most interested in the show when it adheres most closely to the graphic novel's relentless pace of these types of do-or-die encounters rather than conjuring absurd soap opera side plots that surpass the acting abilities of the cast.

[Many people have written that all they want to see on the TV show The Walking Dead are more zombies being killed, but what I suspect will set the show apart is not the volume of those encounters, most of which are depicted with subpar computer graphics, but the volume of such encounters that force humans to make snap moral judgements.]

Encountering a zombie typically ends with one of four results: death at the hand of the zombie, successful violence against the zombie, violence among the humans trying to escape the zombie, or some form of cooperation among the humans. The drama lies in whether humans retain the compassion that we expect of civilized humans or resort to primordial violence against each other, Lord of the Flies style. The horror at the heart of zombie stories is less the literal terror of being chased by flesh-eating humans (the ones in The Walking Dead are typical of the majority of movie zombies in that they stumble around slowly like drunks) but the idea that with a gentle nudge, the social conventions humanity has built over so many centuries will come toppling down.

What's unique about The Walking Dead (the graphic novel) among zombie stories is its length. Already over 100 issues, The Walking Dead is likely the longest zombie story ever told, and that opens the possibility for it to tell an even more epic story, that of the the rise of society and government. In such a ruthless world, how do humans group together, and what arrangements do they come up with to provide food and security, and then beyond that, perhaps even higher order human needs like love and sex. In this way, The Walking Dead might break down society and government only to retrace the rise of those institutions. By dint of its sheer duration, The Walking Dead has an opportunity to show the rise of human society.

Or perhaps its ultimate demise? Perhaps The Walking Dead is an epic depiction of mankind's long journey into extinction, with the zombie disease as a stand-in for any number of apocalyptic scenarios. I can't imagine either the graphic novel or the TV show embracing such a bleak conclusion, but it would be daring, wouldn't it?

The end of Season 2 was one example, when Rick gives a speech establishing himself as the dictator of the group, and anyone who isn't comfortable with that can go off on their own. That's a blueprint for any number of stories in human history, including the rise of fascism. The various other bands of people Rick and his crew encounter in Season 3, and presumably beyond, if they follow the graphic novel even roughly, will show us a variety of models for constructing society.

I Am Legend (the book, not the movie) took a similarly interesting arc over a shorter duration. It is about vampires, not zombies as many who watched the movie believe, but it has had an inordinate influence on the zombie genre. I don't want to spoil the novel with a plot summary (it has a killer of a twist ending), but it is a fascinating social fable, much more so than the movie, to no one's surprise.

Genre stories can be both mass entertainment and intellectually satisfying. My fingers are crossed that the TV show can live up to the thematic ambition of the graphic novel, even as it moves on to its third showrunner.

Even fictional journalism is hurting

Superman, err, Clark Kent, quit his job at The Daily Planet today, to start his own blog. Not over decreasing ad rates because of pressure from the increased supply of free alternatives on the internet, however. According to the writer Scott Lobdell:

This is really what happens when a 27-year-old guy is behind a desk and he has to take instruction from a larger conglomerate with concerns that aren't really his own. Superman is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, but how long can he sit at his desk with someone breathing down his neck and treating him like the least important person in the world?

More:

Rather than Clark be this clownish suit that Superman puts on, we're going to really see Clark come into his own in the next few years as far as being a guy who takes to the Internet and to the airwaves and starts speaking an unvarnished truth.

Clark Kent as Andrew Sullivan? It sounds ridiculous, but stories that humanize Superman have always been far more interesting than those that deify him. This new plot doesn't sound like a bold enough move to take the character into territory, but they should continue to push in those directions.

Why does Superman even pose as a reporter in the first place? Is it for cultural assimilation, or as a way to better empathize with the people he needs to protect? Didn't he get enough of that in high school? If he really wanted to maximize the good he does the world with his superpowers shouldn't he just fly around 24 hours a day dealing with crime and despots and natural disasters? Is the mental strain too much to handle full time? Does he need to sleep? Does posing as a commoner reveal some deep-seated need to be anonymous? Maybe he's a social misfit at heart? Does he get too lonely and need to kick back with coworkers for the occasional beer? Superman has always been one of the weakest written of superheroes, and the mythology hasn't aged well. But a brave writer could really use Superman as a platform to explore some interesting themes.

Does anyone even read physical comic books anymore? Is the readership enough to justify the real profit business which is licensing the characters for movies? I suppose if the business even breaks even or turns a slight loss the movie licensing revenue is still worth it, but it seems odd to even print any comic books on paper anymore. Maybe Apple's 30% commission on digital comics makes that channel no more profitable than physical book sales, though it's hard to imagine given paper printing costs and returns.

Too bad Alan Moore seems done taking the occasional swing at rewriting famous superheroes. He wrote some of the more intriguing Superman stories, like this and this.

Why Bane and Joker are Batman's toughest foes

Suspend your suspension of disbelief for just a moment, and this article by E. Paul Zehr on why Bane and Joker are Batman's toughest opponents is impressive in its logic. Zehr, a movement researcher, was at the receiving end of this Q&A which I read years ago, titled Why Batman Could Exist--But Not for Long.

Zehr explains that Bane and Joker exploit a flaw in Batman's crime fighting strategy. Whereas police officers always respond with one level of force above that used by criminals, Batman responds in kind. Also, Batman does not like to kill but instead exploits involuntary human responses to pain.

To avoid killing, Batman uses his opponents’ bodies against them to evoke protective reactions. Nociceptors are receptors detecting actual or impending tissue damage. They relay this information to the spinal cord where they evoke very powerful defensive responses. If you have ever stepped on a very sharp rock while walking barefoot or accidentally touched a hot stove top you will remember the rapid pullback you had of your foot or hand. These signals also arrive in the brain where they may be interpreted as “pain.”

Batman, in the tradition of martial artists the world over, uses those defensive responses to manipulate his opponents. He hurts rather than harms and tries to intimidate rather than inflict permanent damage. Making a use of force continuum work requires extreme skill, poise, and confidence. It also requires an intact and normally functioning nervous system in your opponent.

Said normally functioning nervous system being something that Joker and Bane lack.

Check out the big brains on Brett

If having a large brain is such an advantage for humans, and it seems hard to argue considering where we've ended up in the pecking order of species, then how come more creatures don't have large brains?

This article in Discover magazine cites a few explanations from scientists:

 

  1. the brain is a huge energy-consuming piece of tissue, and humans had to evolve smaller, more efficient guts to compensate for the additional energy allocation to the brain
  2. we altered our diet to higher density energy sources like meats and seeds
  3. genetic mutations reduced energy transport proteins to muscles in favor of those funneling energy to the brain

 

If you were creating species like you were creating videogame characters and had to allocate a fixed energy supply among brain and other body parts, evolution came down in favor of dedicating more to the brain when it came to humans.

One of the intriguing and repeated tropes in comic books was that a person with an abnormally large brain inevitably turns to a life of crime and is in fact often a literal criminal mastermind. It's as if the only logical outcome for such a dominant intellect is to turn to a life of crime as any other behavior -- altruism, generosity -- would be inefficient and illogical. It may also reflect some deep-seated distrust of people who are too smart.