Steve Morris wants to know "What's so funny about funny books?" So each week in Killing Jokes he'll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
It’s an unofficial Zombie Month here at Comics Bulletin in what appears to be a dubious tribute to that Zombie Pioneer, Jesus Christ. He was less interested in eating brains than he was in taking mankind’s original sin and burning it away, but he still counts as a Zombie VIP. In honor of our Zombie Month — in which you can join in with Paul Brian McCoy and watch a number of zombie films as part of an undead marathon, let’s take a look over the first issue of Robert Kirkman’s now-classic Image series The Walking Dead.
Zombies have always been inherently funny, so have most monsters when you strip them of context. Take Dracula, for example. When he’s in his eerie castle with bats and wolves and mist everywhere, he’s scary. Take him over to Brooklyn, and you’ve got yourself an Eddie Murphy romp which absolutely NOBODY remembers fondly. In the same spirit, the most famous zombie film of all time –- Dawn of the Dead -– spends most of its time making fun of the shufflers. Take zombies and look at them: They’re mindless, can’t work a padlock, slow-moving, and probably can’t swim very well. To kill them, you have to hit them very hard on the head in the great tradition of Laurel & Hardy or The Three Stooges. On their own, they’re silly and stupid. They’re funny, and they deserve to be laughed at. It’s only if you happen to be in a deserted hospital, where you can’t find an exit and there’s plenty of dead-ends and locked-doors, that zombies become a scary, terrifying threat.
Thus is the problem Robert Kirkman had to face when he decided to write the longest-running zombie story in history. The premise of The Walking Dead is that of a standard zombie story –- only this time the story doesn’t end at the usual place. Most zombie films have to end with either the humans all dead, the zombies all defeated, or everybody suffering the indignity of an enigmatic finale. In a comic-book setting, provided you get the fanbase, you can keep the zombies going for as long as you want. Great for fans, but difficult for writers. How can you write a zombie series for almost a hundred issues without the threat starting to dilute and the monsters becoming silly? Eventually the humans are going to get so demoralised that they start to mock the zombies every chance they get, and the zombies in turn lose most of their power? So far Kirkman has managed to avoid getting trapped in such a situation, but only because he planned things so carefully.
Issue #1 of the series was written by Kirkman and drawn by Tony Moore. We jump into the zombie story very quickly –- within about five pages our hero Rick is running around, trying to escape from the undead while trapped in one of those terrifying hospitals I mentioned earlier. He eventually finds a way out and heads off, looking for his family. Then he gets hit by a shovel. In a World overrun by zombies, there’s typically not a lot of funny stuff going on — the eventuality of death makes things kinda depressing. So Kirkman decides that he’s going to try something we’ve seen before in zombie stories, but never explored fully: He’s going to try and make everything banal. Instead of people being worn out by zombies, sarcastically mocking the undead as a defence mechanism . . . people are just going to treat zombies as an everyday experience. That’s where the humour will come from.
There’s a point towards the end of the first issue where Rick goes back to his old office (a police station –- he’s a sheriff) and goes through his drawer. When he stumbles upon his old service revolver, he smiles and laughs at the familiarity. He immediately cuts himself off, saying “I feel guilty for laughing.” His laugh comes from recognising something from his past, from the ‘before’ times. It’s that banality which gives the series its distinctive feel. More than anything else –- more than the grimness, the despair, the conflict –- it’s the joy of banality which makes The Walking Dead so original. The characters want to make things like they were before, and take most of their enjoyment from anything which reminds them of the past. It’s depressing, optimistic and funny all at once.
When Rick gets hit round the back of the head, we find out that his attacker is actually a young boy, who thinks Rick is a zombie. The boy’s father runs over and they bring Rick inside. After being shot, falling into a coma and waking up in a zombie apocalypse, this time Rick wakes up from being hit round the head to find himself in a tranquil domestic environment. The father and son have decided to keep to routine as often as possible, keeping themselves mindful of how things were before zombies took over. There’s a quaintness in this act, which becomes funny when Kirkman reveals just how calmly these two are taking the situation. “Sorry about my boy. He hit you over the head with a shovel” casually says the father, as he sits down for an evening meal. It’s so matter-of-fact and unexpected (usually in these stories, the house is barricaded, the lights are off, and everybody’s eating cold beans) that it forces a laugh from the reader. Like Rick, we’re won over by the charm of banality.
And that’s the main appeal of The Walking Dead. Every zombie story has optimists -– but usually they’re hoping for the zombies to all die. In Kirkman’s dystopia the characters are more concerned with hoping that they can go back to how things were and live their lives in peace, despite undead brain-munchers wandering about all over the place. Time after time, as the series continues, we see the human survivors go back to this basic desire for peace and domesticity. Whereas other zombie stories eventually turn on the monsters and use them as a source of fun (just look at George Romero’s Land of the Dead for a definitive look at this); The Walking Dead instead makes the humans repetitive in motive and turns them into the source of entertainment. We’r
e all aware that the main appeal of a zombie story is in seeing the humans get picked off one-by-one, punished for making mistakes. The Walking Dead plays that up for laughs with numerous red herrings and surprise deaths. But it’s because the characters want things to be simple and laugh at memories of the past that they are so engaging for readers. The Walking Dead may not be obviously funny, but Kirkman uses comedic devices all the time. That’s what makes the series so distinctive and unpredictable. That’s the fun of it! Comedy as drama. With zombies!