Let's Call Walking Dead "Zombies-a-poppin'"

Bloggified by Jake on Sunday, March 11, 2012

I think I would like "The Walking Dead" TV show a lot more if it wasn't called "The Walking Dead" and if the characters all had different names. Robert Kirkman let it be known early on that the TV series would take a different path than the comic, but it's hard to understand why.

The Walking Dead is an established story that has won awards and become the flagship title at Image Comics despite plenty of doubts. A friend who works at Dark Horse found a rejected, decade-plus-old pitch for the series amidst a stack of boxes in one editor's office a few years ago. I met Tony Moore at a comic convention in Las Vegas trying to push the first issue on me. I recall reading it and dismissing it as a 28 Days Later ripoff as soon as Rick awoke from his coma in the abandoned hospital on page 3.

Obviously, Kirkman has a good thing going to have overcome many doubters, so why change it? I know the comic book community is infamous for treating minor continuity changes in other media as apocalyptic, but this is different from giving Spider-Man organic webshooters or making the Punisher a Gulf War vet from Miami instead of a Vietnam vet from New York.

Most comic book movies or shows are based on the characters, and as comic readers, we've see a lot of different takes on those characters. Superman's powers have fluctuated depending on writers and editors, going from being extra tough, strong enough to bend a steel bar, and able to leap over tall buildings with a single bound to being able to push a planet out of orbit and fly faster than time itself. Batman, who refuses to ever touch a gun or kill a criminal, used to carry a gun and, in his first appearance, punched a dude into a vat of acid and remorselessly declared it "a fitting end for his kind."

So we come to accept that, as long as certain key elements about the characters remain the same, we can overlook some changes. As long as Spider-Man lets a crook get away only to have that crook murder Uncle Ben, it doesn't matter if the crook is burglarizing the Parkers' home or carjacking Uncle Ben. As long as Bruce Banner turns into a green mass of muscles when he gets mad, it doesn't matter if he was exposed to gamma radiation through medical experimentation or the explosion of a gamma bomb.

However, turn Daredevil, the ultimate "justice lies in the hands of the court" advocate, into a vigilante who tracks down guilty criminals who get off on technicalities and murders them in cold blood or replace the British John Constantine with Keanu Reeves and move him from London to Los Angeles and you lose your audience.

The difference is that "The Walking Dead" is not a character. It is a story. And unlike Bruce Wayne being a rich guy who dresses up like a bat and fights crime to avenge his parents' deaths at the hand of a mugger, "The Walking Dead" is not just a few key elements. It is all key elements. It is a chronicle of the activities of a group of characters as an event unfolds. And once you decide to change those, you are no longer telling the story.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this would be to consider if Marvel announced it was making a Daredevil: Born Again movie. Not a Daredevil movie, but a film specifically adapting Frank Miller's Daredevil #227-233 story arc.

But when you go to the theater, eager to see one of the greatest comic stories every written projected on a forty-foot high screen, you find it opens not with Karen Page selling Daredevil's secret identity for heroin, but instead Typhoid Mary revealing it on a radio talk show. And Kingpin doesn't ever get the secret identity because he's murdered by the Owl around 20 minutes into the movie. So instead, Matt Murdock's life is driven to ruin by a completely new character made up by the screenwriter (and who is later written into the current Daredevil comic). And Nuke attacks Hell's Kitchen around the 40 minute mark instead of the movie's climax and the entire second act is about Daredevil and him palling around and fighting crime and Nuke struggling with how to tell Daredevil that he's asked Karen Page to marry him until the third act turn where Bullseye shows up to kill Daredevil, but Nuke leaps in the path of the bullet, saving DD.

While all that might work in a generic Daredevil movie (albeit a terrible one), it is not Born Again. Likewise, while it makes sense that Rick and his group might try to get to the CDC to learn more about the zombie plague and see if there's a cure/immunization, it's not The Walking Dead.

Instead, we have a TV version of a Walking Dead What if...? comic. Now, I am on the record as loving What if...?, but there's a reason the stories in them are one issue long. While we may be curious how the world would be different if the Avengers lost the Evolutionary War or if the Fantastic Four never got their powers, we don't want to read about it open-endedly month after month. That's why so many What if...? stories end with everyone dying.

Sure, it's interesting to find out what would happen if Carl didn't kill Shane within the first few days of Rick arriving at their camp.
But that moment in issue #6 is a key element of The Walking Dead. Similarly, Dale is one of the most important characters in the book, briefly serving as the leader of the group and saving the lives of most of the current group by leaving the prison before the massacre there, and his relationship with Andrea is a cornerstone of the story, but instead he's been killed by a zombie before the group even reaches the prison... if they get there at all, and he and Andrea argued from the start of season two through to his death.

Adding to the What if...? air--and making things more frustrating--as pointed out by David Anaxagoras, is that the show keeps visiting certain key moments from the comic, making it just similar enough to remind you that you could be watching an adaptation of the comic you love.

Overall, what I find most frustrating about "The Walking Dead" is my inability to objectively tell what I think about it. Is it a bad show, or does it just fail to satisfy my desire for an adaptation of The Walking Dead? Would I enjoy it more if I didn't know who these characters were and how they were supposed to interact or would I realize they are flat and undeveloped without that knowledge I am bringing to the table?

Ultimately, as is the case so often for comic readers, I will continue to watch no matter how far short of my hopes and expectations the show falls because I want to keep hoping it will get better and don't want to miss out when it does, then cursing myself for continuing down this disappointing path.

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