Like any true genius, Robert Kirkman steals.
In his situation to not would be foolish.
And it’s not just because he needs food to survive, like his characters.
As the principal show-runner of one of the most popular programs on cable television, he has the considerable resources of the Entertainment industry at his disposal. Talent flocks to the Walking Dead in herds of ace character-actors, crack writers and auteur directors. Money is no doubt being flung around like confetti. The show’s popularity is only growing.
Under these circumstance, only an idiot would refrain from stealing the choicest morsels from the mostly untapped—at least in mainstream culture—body of word of dystopian fiction.
Happily standing astride the shoulders of giants, Robert Kirkman is no idiot.
His pièce de résistance, “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 often linger after their death. These smaller, individual dramas unfold atop the greater narrative of humanity’s struggle for survival. Most of these types of shows find their antecedents in conventions if not created, than perfected by Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer: the former, the master of scene and the serialized story; the latter, the medieval craftsman who had the vision to use individual subjective tale as threads 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. 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 he “steals” from; no more than any other writer nowadays. What I would argue is that his brilliance 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.
George R. R. Martin and the Game of Thrones.
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, of the Lord of the Rings, dies in epic fashion. 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 it done on a whim. The point being of course that Eddard’s abrupt removal 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.
*As an aside, what fluke of fate is it that the great Sean Bean plays both Boromir and Eddard Stark?*
Far from turning away in revulsion, the reader (or watcher) 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, we tell ourselves, secretly exhilarated: “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 that we have been led to believe is too important to be done away with 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?
The second major contemporary writer that Kirkman owes a debt of gratitude to is the great American novelist, Cormac McCarthy. And this time, Kirkman owes more than just for analogy.
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 magical prose the stultifying hopelessness of the End.
I can almost see Kirkman’s little brain-gears twisting after reading the book, recounting the four Cs of Marketing: “Cannibalism + Character = Cult Classic.”
How does Kirkman get away with such obvious lifting of scenes? The answer is character and subtlety. “The Walking Dead” has ample of the first and none of the second, the exact opposite 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, horrifying tale of the fragile will to persist in a dead world.
To give an idea of the power of McCarthy’s writing, here is an excerpt.
Upon entering a house and searching for supplies the man and his son discover a trapdoor. After wrestling it open, they descend the first steps in exploration:
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.
The one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.
Right? Creepy as all get out.
There is no need to even say that Terminus, with its veneer of civilization and charnel butcher’s quarters owes its sordid and sinister nature to this horrifying scenes and others like it.
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.
On this Thanksgiving, please take time to give thanks for all you have. Savor your food, love your families and above all, cherish your civilization. A civilization which affords one the opportunity to do more than just dart from hovel to hovel, hoping the next is not already occupied by possibly cannibalistic fellow survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. As John Gardner wrote in his last major opus, On Moral Fiction:
…outside civilization (priviledge) 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.