Because it’s too good at what it does, that’s why.
Most folks probably know The Walking Dead as a hit TV series chronicling the zombie apocalypse. I guess most of those most folks also know it was a comics series first, and not a few of them have probably read it.
I watched the first series of the TV show and haven’t been back for more, mainly because I just found it a little bit too slow and my time available for TV watching is pretty limited. (Best I can tell from secondhand reports, the second series was yet slower but the third has upped its game considerably – I stand to be corrected by anyone who’s actually watched all that stuff, though).
But I’ve doggedly read a whole heap of the comic series on which this is all based. Over the years, I’ve accumulated 12 trade paperbacks that collect the first 72 single issues; I’m still way behind, since issue #105 or so (?) is currently in the shops. But I don’t think I’ll be buying any more, and I’ve given the reasons why a good deal of thought. So much thought that I predict a lengthy post …
The bottom line is that I find it all too grim. Which might sound rich coming from the author of the Godless World trilogy, in which not a few readers detected a certain grimness. Generally, I don’t mind a bleak tone to my fiction, as either writer or reader, but The Walking Dead has a particular bleakness that I find almost uniquely stressful. I’d almost go so far as to say upsetting, in fact.
Why? Three reasons spring to mind.
1. As the series has gone on and on, patterns and thematic fixations have become apparent that have a cumulative effect to greatly darken the tone of the series. It’s in the nature of long-running serial fiction, to some extent; you have to keep upping the stakes and pushing the limits to achieve the same effect on the readers. Diminishing returns and all that.
In the case of The Walking Dead, the result is a cycle in which glimmers of hope and optimism appear, and are then brutally snuffed out as characters – and readers – learn that no, everything is in fact utterly dreadful and no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. More and more extremes of human suffering and cruelty are not only possible but inevitable.
It all ends up saying (to me, at any rate): Hope is illusory; humans are capable of limitless savagery and cruelty; and that savagery and cruelty is going to be consciously used to manipulate the reader’s emotions and engagement. Now, the first two of those statements may be true, and true or not they’re absolutely 100% reasonable and interesting subjects for fictional exploration, though they’re not necessarily a recipe for sustaining a pleasurable reading experience over the long term.
That last statement – about the authorial use of suffering in the context of reader engagement – is much more complicated, and something I feel more ambivalent about, which leads into …
2. The creators – Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard – are too good at what they do. My problem is that I’m increasingly uncomfortable with what they’re doing. With the creative choices being made. In fact, that’s a big part of the problem: at some point I became too aware that deliberate, conscious choices were being made, and that on some level I found them … distasteful, is the only word I can think of.
Much of what goes on in The Walking Dead is quite brilliant, as a display of serial comics writing. Kirkman’s use of cliffhangers, twists, reveals, reversals and so on puts much of the rest of the industry to shame. For a long time, I was dazzled by the remarkable success of the series in creating layered, engaging characters the reader could care about. I still am, really. My problem came with the growing suspicion that the use to which that success was being put was the heightening of the disorientating trauma being inflicted on both those characters and the reader. By always choosing the darkest outcome, the most extreme manifestation of human suffering and cruelty; by making, in some way, the infliction of suffering not only part of the means but at the same time the point of all that effort put into securing reader engagement.
Early on, I thought The Walking Dead was an interesting and challenging exploration of how real people might behave in the face of an apocalypse. (I thought that because it was, and arguably still is).
But it has also come to feel – I’m specifically not saying that it necessarily is, just that it feels to me – like an exercise in the carefully designed physical and psychological torture of characters. Not for the sake of any larger message or theme, because any such message or theme was fully and convincingly articulated earlier in the series, but for it’s own sake. Pushing the limits further and further feels redundant. Indulgent. Turns out, me no like. An ever increasing number of folk do like, though, and send that message to the creators unambiguously via the sales figures, so clearly I’m out of tune with a large chunk of readers. Which is fine. Tastes vary. Case in point …
3. My tastes have changed. In part that’s probably just me getting older (boo hoo), but in larger part it’s definitely to do with becoming a parent a few years ago. That change in status abruptly and rather unexpectedly changed the way I respond to all kinds of things (shouldn’t be unexpected, and it wasn’t entirely, but nevertheless I wasn’t quite prepared for the all-pervasive ways in which it affected my emotional responses).
In this context, parenthood not only made me rather less enamoured of relentless bleakness in my fiction, but made me vastly more sensitive to, and uncomfortable with, reading about the suffering of children. And children suffer a whole lot in The Walking Dead. They kill and get killed. They undergo acute and extreme psychological trauma that has believably major effects on their behaviour and personalities. That believability is a big part of the problem for me; it’s a tribute to the quality of the writing (again) that it all feels just too plausibly real. It’s not fun, in other words, for the big softie I have become.
(This is the same reason, incidentally, why I have not either seen or read The Road movie or book. Both might be brilliant, and not nearly as stress-inducing as I fear, but the subject matter just doesn’t appeal.)
Oh, and a fourth, rather specific reason occurs to me.
4. Spoilers. I’m generally pretty unaffected by spoilers – I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. But The Walking Dead is conclusive proof that spoilers can have big effects, because a specific one pretty much triggered my final decision to stop reading the series.
It became obvious from even the most casual perusal of comics websites that the landmark 100th issue of the series, which came out late last year, features a peculiarly brutal, graphic and extreme scene. That in itself wasn’t a surprise (see above point about the need to keep upping the stakes to achieve the same effect); what was a surprise was the number of people I saw online – hardened, appreciative long-term readers of The Walking Dead – commenting on just how disturbing and distressing that scene was.
Which is what it was meant to be, of course, and given the considerable skills of the creators concerned I’m not surprised they delivered on that intent. But I was already uncomfortable with what I was reading in The Walking Dead, and with that pervasive intent itself, so knowing something like that was on the horizon became the straw that broke the camel’s back. I more or less literally thought to myself: ‘I’m not enjoying this any more, and it’s only going to get worse. Therefore I should stop.’
So I’m done. At least until my heart hardens once more, and I re-acquire a stomach strong enough for what The Walking Dead is serving up. Good luck to all those still enjoying the series. I still think it’s a remarkable accomplishment, I understand its appeal and addictive qualities, and I genuinely think its success is deserved. But it’s no longer for me.
Perversely, this might even prompt me to revisit the TV series, because I don’t for one second believe they can possibly push things as far, and into such staggeringly dark places, on the TV screens of America as the comic has gradually done. It just might be that that kind of watered-down Walking Dead is what my palate needs these days.