By William Gosline
Like any true genius, Robert Kirkman ‘steals’. In his situation, not to do so would be foolish.
As the principal show-runner of one of the most popular programs on cable television, Kirkman has the considerable resources of the Entertainment industry at his disposal. Talent flocks to the Walking Dead: great character actors, crack writers and auteur directors. An entire fan culture has sprung up in earnest.
In short, there are a lot of eyes watching him and second-guessing his decisions.
In this climate, only an idiot would ignore the giant legacy of genre culture, a significant body of work at least a hundred years old – more if you throw in the collective myths and legends of assembled humanity; happily standing astride the shoulders of giants, Robert Kirkman is no idiot.
His pièce de résistance creation, The Walking Dead, is both timeless and timely. In form and structure, it is similar
to many recent episodics driven by strong characters whose elliptical story arcs begin with their introduction and more often than not linger after their death. These smaller dramas unfold atop the greater narrative of humanity’s struggle for survival.
Many of these types of shows find their antecedents in conventions if not created then at the very least perfected by luminaries of the past, in particular Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer: the former, the master of scene and the serialized story; the latter, the medieval craftsman who had the idea to use an individual’s subjective tale as one thread in a tapestry of story.
Of course, there are many story cosmoses founded on the meeting of different people from different places at a particular point in time. Likewise, Dickens was neither the first nor the last of his kind to write as he did – we already see evidence of the Return of the Serial in such Internet platforms as JukePop and Rooster Reader. Kirkman’s pop culture phenomenon owes neither more nor less than anyone else to this long line in Western literary tradition, the proverbial remembered giants, standing on the horizon at daybreak.
These are not the writers that have influenced Kirkman. No more than any others.
I should make it clear that I am not at all suggesting plagiarism here. What I would argue, though, is that Kirkman’s success in part comes from his ability to refine the anxious Zeitgeist of our times, articulated in the works of two far more contemporary creators: George R. R. Martin and Cormac McCarthy.
It would not be exaggeration to say that the patriarch of House Stark, Eddard Stark, had to die in order for Martin’s name to live.
Stark’s sudden execution is undoubtedly one of the biggest shocks in contemporary literature. His Arthurian mien provides Martin’s ace-in-the-hole. Consider: in traditional high fantasy, the reader implicitly knew that there were always a few characters so central to the story as to be indispensable. When a major character died, it was cause for consternation in the reader and pause in the story arc. Boromir’s death is epic. Alive, he is beset by the classic conflicts of the hero. In death, he redeems himself, resuming the mantle of protector to his sworn charge, Frodo Baggins.
Eddard Stark’s death, on the other hand, is pathetic in the best sense of the word, the result of gross miscalculation of his enemy’s enormity. His executioner is a sociopathic child who orders the deed on a whim. At every turn, Stark faces betrayal.
Eddard Stark’s abrupt removal from the story mirrors the random violence and eternal crisis of the modern State. Martin reminds the reader that in the twenty-first century no one is safe – not even in genre fiction.
Far from turning away in revulsion, the reader is drawn further into the tale of Westeros in the same way that a driver rubbernecks past a highway accident. Passing by the smoking ruin, secretly exhilarated, we remind ourselves: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
Kirkman learns this lesson and learns it well. Lori Grimes’ death and subsequent devouring is a case in point: a major character we have been led to believe is too important to be disposed of suddenly departs, stage left. The selective ‘offing’ of beloved characters is a large part of the show’s appeal. We watch grim-faced, this brilliantly orchestrated train wreck. Who will emerge from the twisted ties and crumpled railcars? Who will remain, to rise later?
Cormac McCarthy and The Road
Of all the doomsday writers, none have gotten so close to the damnation and hopelessness of the Apocalypse as McCarthy does in The Road. One of the great American novels of the twenty-first century, The Road conjures through masterful prose the stultifying hopelessness of the End.
One can imagine Kirkman’s brain-gears twisting upon reading the book, doing the math with the four Cs of Marketing: ‘Cannibalism + Character = Cult Classic.’
What is the difference between Robert Kirkman’s use of these things and McCarthy’s? The answer is simple: character and subtlety. The Walking Dead has ample of the first and none of the second, the exact inverse proportions of McCarthy’s masterpiece. McCarthy, whom some people consider a Christian writer, has written not
a novel per se but rather an extended allegory of the Apocalypse. The characters and places are nameless, intentional omissions that reinforce the idea that survival is an anonymous preoccupation. It is McCarthy’s beautiful prose that sustains the book, a subtle fragile tale of survival in a gray world.
To give an idea of the power of McCarthy’s writing, an excerpt:
‘He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the sumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
‘Jesus, he whispered.
‘Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.’
There is no need to even mention that Terminus, with its veneer of civilization and charnel butcher’s quarters, owes its existence to the numb, desperate world imbricated by McCarthy through such horrifying scenes.
The Walking Dead will outlast us all. When the last human has been eaten and the zombies have populated the far corners of the earth in their mindless maundering, they will owe their dominion first and foremost to Robert Kirkman, but also – at least in part – to the great American writers, George R. R. Martin and Cormac McCarthy.
In the meantime, savour your vegetarian fare, your extended families and above all, civilization. A civilization that affords us the opportunity to do more than just dart from hovel to hovel, hoping the next is not already occupied by cannibalistic survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. For as John Gardner wrote in his last major opus, On Moral Fiction:
‘…outside civilization (privilege) we are nothing, mere battered brutes without choices, whereas inside, however unfair it may be, we have hope, including the hope that our good fortune may spread to others.’
William Gosline is a writer and blogger at ‘The Speculative Fiction of William Gosline‘. He is a strong believer that so-called genre fiction can be serious and that serious literature can be fun. You can follow him on Twitter @wgosline or Facebook.
Images (top to bottom): Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve, public domain; Robert Kirkman speaking at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con International, for ‘The Walking Dead’, at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California (author: Gage Skidmore); Zombie Walk in the Pacific North West (author: iluvrhinestones).