The Walking Dead has swept across American popular culture like, well, a zombie plague. The comic book is one of the most critically acclaimed series running and the television series that it inspired is one of the most popular on cable television. Scholars of pop culture, history, religion, and hybridizations thereof have taken notice, no doubt to the chagrin of some zombie lovers. The first of, no doubt, many collected essays (I’ll be contributing to a forthcoming collection) recently released. While not the most scholarly collection, James Lowder’s Triumph of the Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s Zombie Epic on Page and Screen is full of contributions from die hard walking dead lovers. The essays are, most often, fun(ny) and should spark conversations about both series and the themes they address.
The contributors to Triumph of the Walking Dead cover the series from about every conceivable angle. In a way, the collection reminds me of those critical reactions to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ like Mel Gibson’s Bible, Re-Viewing The Passion, or After The Passion is Gone, although with less thematic structure. The most entertaining essays come from fans of the series who are creators of zombie content in their own way. Scott Kenemore‘s “A Zombie Among Men” considers the superiority of zombies over humans and how Rick Grimes survives (so well) because he embraces the way of the zombie. Kenemore writes, “For humans to survive in the apocalyptic wasteland, they must become killers–at least of zombies and probably also of other humans. That is, there are no longer any innocents. Nobody who has made it this far has done so without blood on his or her hands” (193). Rick recognizes this more clearly (and quickly) than anyone else.
From a pop theology perspective, the most interesting essays cover morality, meaning(lessness), personhood, race and gender, and redemption. In his essay, “Take Me to Your Leader,” Jonathan Maberry examines post-zombie morality through Rick’s position of leadership among the survivors. The most fitting conclusion, it seems, is to abandon all concerns of (im)morality because existence in this world requires amorality. Craig Fischer‘s “Meaninglessness: Cause and Desire in The Birds, Shaun of the Dead, and The Walking Dead,” offers a brief but fairly brilliant comparison of the three. Examining the “cause ” of the apocalyptic events of each film and the comic book series sheds informative light on the others. While they may all be related, in varying ways, to sexual desire, they could just as easily all be meaningless. Fischer makes a great case for Hitchcock’s The Birds as a “proto-zombie film” (69).
Brendan Riley, in “Zombie People: The Complicated Nature of Personhood in The Walking Dead,” argues that the book and television series are so popular (and, by extension, the entire zombie genre) because they provide a perfect avenue through which to discuss personhood, identity, and humanness. Riley draws attention to the “situated nature of our identities” and how they change as we are faced with changing realities (83). In the series, the survivors and zombies represent different states or stages of personhood. In her essay, “No Clean Slate,” Kay Steiger addresses the critiques of The Walking Dead from race and gender perspectives and, while affirming some of them, argues (though perhaps not strongly enough) that Kirkman might be up to something different by employing racist and sexist characters in his zombie narrative. Rather than “affirming” racist or sexist positions, by including them in this post-apocalyptic setting, Kirkman shows how deeply entrenched they are in the human experience. The apocalypse doesn’t, unfortunately, re-set humanity as racism and sexism survive even as the limited number of survivors dwindles on a daily basis. This is yet another explanation for zombie superiority.
Finally, Kim Paffenroth (a co-editor of an upcoming collection of essays on theology and the undead) considers the (potentially) redemptive acts of the survivors in Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse. He argues that Kirkman’s narrative is more optimistic than Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) because, for one reason, family (both nuclear and extended) plays a more morally valuable role in the former. Love, against all odds and often fleeting but never futile, serves powerful, salvific roles in Kirkman’s series.
Triumph of the Walking Dead includes a handful of other essays that cover the series from perspectives on comic book history, violence, novel writing, science, mythology, and objectivism. This is no meaty text, but there is enough meat here to whet a zombie lover’s appetite and to spark conversations about these important themes. The contributors do prove that zombie narratives, and especially The Walking Dead, deserve our critical attention and have much to contribute to our parallel “real world” discussions of life-giving…and life-draining…issues.