It’s become a bit of a cliché to say that living people—and not the shambling undead—are the most interesting thing about zombie fiction. And while that’s true in The Walking Dead, what makes the series stand apart is how it makes its characters and readers relive human history. Now, the latest issue of the hit horror series puts the future of humanity at stake. But, whatever happens, it sure seems like we’re fucked. WARNING: MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE WALKING DEAD SERIES.
The Walking Dead celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and, in a bit of freakish coincidence, it couldn’t be more relevant. Issue 115, out this week, kicks off the All Out War storyline, which pits two of the last human factions against each other. The storyline starts after main character Rick Grimes has finally put down real roots for himself and his band of survivors after months without a true home. The peace of their restored suburban hamlet was only temporary, though, and Rick finds himself having to marshal two communities against a marauding army led by a insane, charismatic biker tough called Negan.
The clash in All Out War isn't just going to be about getting access to another group's stores of food or bullets. Rick vs. Negan represents a battle of philosophies between men who've managed to survive in very different ways. Negan has used force and intimidation to demand tributes and servitude from the living left in the series' post-disaster world. The best way to make sure anybody survives, he thinks, is to have a ruthless power keeping everyone in check. Rick, on the other hand, has tried to help his fellow man by allying with other non-zombie humans. Trust, not fear, has been what he's formed his clan around. So, the coming conflict is essentially an example of 'irresistible force meets immovable object.'
And because it's Walking Dead, even if Rick's side wins out, you know the costs extracted will be heavy. This isn't superhero comics. There haven't been any magic reset button or rise-from-the-dead plot devices in the series' ten-year history.
Readers who've been along for Rick's entire journey have seen him and his crew move through different archetypes of collective human behaviors. First they were hunter/gatherers, concerned with only the most basic food/shelter survival needs. As their rapport coalesced, they became a nomadic society, living in various locales while conditions allowed but moving on when the elements turned against them. And now they have tentatively resurrected civilizations like the ones lost when the zombie plague hit.
It's appropriate that this new era of The Walking Dead comes out during a week when the American federal government is comatose because people in power can't even talk to each other. The federal shutdown is an example of how the worst in human behavior manages to survive inside systems meant to ensure equitable existences for everyone. Basically, these people are supposed to know better. Yet here we are. The survivors in The Walking Dead are in the same boat: making mistakes that indulge the worst parts of their natures even when they should be drawing on prior experiences that tell them to do the opposite.
This arc is the tipping point of a turnabout of how conflict has been handled in Robert Kirkman’s zombie epic. Arguments and violence have happened on smaller scales, either person-to-person or between smaller enclaves of survivors. But now entire societies are ready to kill each other in a war that will wipe out huge swathes of the precious few people presumably left on the planet.
The most wrenching part of The Walking Dead has been the children winding up either tragically hardened by their circumstances or as casualties of the horrific new landscape. It's a terrible series to read as a new dad, wondering how much strength either me or my kid would have under such a harsh reality.
So, yes: people are the worst thing to happen to each other, the same way it’s always been. The Walking Dead does more than ask what makes us human, though. It pushes even further and wonders if human nature needs to fundamentally change under harrowing circumstances. Whether it's yes or no, the answer is more horrible than having a long-dead person trying to make a meal of your intestines.