SNUFF PORN! Getcher SNUFF PORN! ICE COLD! (My review of Walking Dead 100, revisited for the Season 7 Premiere)

I haven’t moved my entire library of old blogs from LiveJournal to StevenHWilson.com, but here’s one from back in 2012 that’s relevant tonight. The Season Premiere of The Walking Dead was a shot-by-shot adaptation of issue 100 of the comic series. It seems fandom is split on whether this was a good or bad show. I made my decision four years ago, and I stick by it. The words I wrote then, when I stopped reading the comic, apply tonight, as I stop watching the show. And here they are

I try to avoid negative reviews of works. This time, though, I think there’s a lot of intellectual meat in a discussion of a work I had a very bad reaction to, and why that same work has been overwhelmingly popular. Here we go. Below are vague spoilers. No names mentioned, but some events described.

I’ve been behind on the graphic novel series The Walking Dead. Way behind. Volume 17 is due out next month, and, as of last week, I had read through Volume 8. Ordinarily, I’m not normally one of those comic readers who waits for the graphic novel to come out. There was no such thing as a “graphic novel” when I was growing up. Comic books came out monthly or bi-monthly, and you read each issue as soon as you had it in your hands. There was no waiting for the trade paperback edition to come out a week after the last part of the story was published, and stories were not designed to flow better as 144-page novels than they did as 24-page chapters. Now the creators are so conscious of the release of six or twelve issues at a time that reading a single issue seems almost pointless, like reading a page of a novel once a month. Nothing happens, and you lose the thread of the story.

So I’m becoming one of those readers who waits. And, in the case of The Walking Dead, I’ll wait a long time. Volume 8 roughly coincides with what will be the end of Season 3 of the TV series, and it’s damned intense. You don’t want to revisit that universe for a while after you read Volume 8. But the monthly comic series hit issue 100 in July, and issue 100 was controversial, billed as the goriest, most graphic story told to date in a gory and graphic series. My older son decided he couldn’t wait for the trade paperback to come out in December, so he bought the individual issues a couple of weeks ago on his iPad. He was very excited, even knowing that some ugly stuff was supposed to happen. He sat down eagerly to read them. A brief time later, he came to me with Volume 9 of the trade paperback series, handed it to me and said, “Could you get caught up reading this? I need someone to talk to about it.”

So I got caught up. We’ve talked about it. Us talking about it is not enough. And, after last night’s brutal episode of the TV series, it seems a timely topic for the blog, not just to talk about Issue 100 of the comic, but to talk about some of the themes presented in The Walking Dead as a whole, what it means, how it effects us, why we like it, or don’t, and what it says about us.

And before I sound too scholarly, let me present a strong opinion, so you can stop reading now before I beat your sacred cow too hard. You can label me as a zealot and a heathen, dismiss my opinion as unworthy and be done with me.

Though I overall consider the series to be an excellent body of work, I found Issue 100 of The Walking Dead to have no redeeming social value.

I don’t say that lightly. I don’t call most pornography or erotica filth. I’m not offended by Fanny Hill, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy, or The Story of O. I think Internet porn is a wonderful thing, and my only complaint about Hustler magazine is that the models look too fake and their activities too posed.

But the events depicted in this comic do not entertain, do not enlighten, do not motivate and do not educate. They meet none of what I consider to be the goals of storytelling. The author has said that his goal was for people to have an emotional reaction. He accomplished it. I had one. I have not been this devastated by a work of fiction since I read 1984 in my Junior year of high school. And that’s about the only other time that a written work has made me feel so hopeless and so uncertain about the basic goodness of humanity.

So, that’s good, right? 1984 is a classic, right? The rats, the rats, “Do it to Julia!” It’s a great moment in literature! Orwell was a genius who wrote the quintessential work which demonstrated the horrors of tyranny. It was a cautionary tale, designed to warn readers of a world which might be around the corner. Isn’t that worth some feelings of hopelessness for a while?

Yes, it is. But I got news for you. Big Brother? Yeah, he’s lurking around the corner.

And he’s not a zombie.

Let me enlighten those who have not read this particular issue, or perhaps even any of The Walking Dead series. For roughly 2400 pages, readers have followed a band of survivors as they travel the wasteland of America’s East Coast in the aftermath of a plague that has turned the majority of humanity into zombies. These poor, soulless creatures are demonstrated to have no higher brain functions, no sense of identity. They are organisms which know they need to eat living flesh to survive. Got it? Okay. It’s been hard, and a lot of good people have died along the way, but the survivors have managed to eke out a kind of hope for a future despite it all. This is not a horror story, we’re told, it’s a human drama. It shows how the human spirit reacts to extreme circumstances. But for whatever reason, in this particular issue, the writer, Robert Kirkman, chose to select one long-standing character, seemingly at random, and have that character beaten to death with a baseball bat while that character’s friends and family, and about fifty others, watched. The psychopath with the bat, Nagen, jokes to the victim about how gross it is to see eyes popping out of the smashed skull, while the victim passively accepts death (albeit asking nicely not to be killed) to protect the others. We are treated to several pages of this murder, ending with the close-up view of a skull smashed flat, brains oozing out, an eye on the ground next to it.

Yum.

When Winston Smith screamed “Do it to Julia!” I understood, depressed as I was, that the point of all this horror was to make me angry and frightened about what could happen to any of us if we were to allow any one man or small group absolute power over our lives.

What’s the point of this? I see none.

Here’s the kicker: as far as I can tell, the majority of fans ate this up. They described themselves as “shocked,” and “appalled.” The favorite word seemed to be “heartbroken.” But they loved it. So I can’t fault Robert Kirkman. Clearly he’s giving audiences what they want. The question is, why do they want this? This is not human drama, this is graphic torture; this is snuff porn! And no, I don’t think I’m being extreme.

Fans of comics, horror and science fiction are a strange breed. We tend to enjoy stuff that others don’t, well, enjoy so much. I would venture to say, as geek has become chic, that our likes and dislikes have become less defined as our numbers have increased, and there’s a plethora of genre-related material becoming popular with the public. Still, I think the core of the genre fan ad his/her likes or dislikes remains, and I can speak from experience about what would attract some of our number to this kind of material:

– Catharsis – some people like material which lets them “have a good cry.” Their negative emotions are apparently bottled up inside them, and they need prompting, an excuse of some sort, to let them out. Real life give us plenty of things to cry over, but it’s not socially acceptable to become too emotional about your own problems, unless they happen to be covered on the nightly news. So, for those of us deprived of the opportunity to weep to a news anchor and her camera crew, we have books and movies which give us something to cry about. Not trying to stereotype, but this need for catharsis seems to motivate women more than man. Men aren’t comfortable if they’re seen to be crying over fictional works, but women actively read and watch “with a box of Kleenex.” The sub-genre of fan fiction that is Hurt-Comfort has few (if any… I’ve never met one) male followers. But that is neither here nor there. Me, I’ve never sought catharsis from an entertainment. I’m quite capable of accessing my negative emotions. And I tend to cry in movies at uplifting moments more than at grisly deaths. The movie I watch with a box of Kleenex is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

– A need to feel superior – some of us can only feel better about our less-than-perfect lives if we know someone else’s life is worse. I suppose we all succumb to this in small ways. We appreciate our families more when we’ve spent time around a severely dysfunctional family. I know that I appreciate my dog more when I’ve spent time with an ill-behaved dog. But this need to see the less fortunate gets taken to an extreme sometimes. I don’t think I need to explain that statement in much detail, I just need to give a list: Jerry Springer, Jersey Shore, Honey Boo-Boo. I can think of no other reason that these programs succeed but that some of us find it comforting to look at, and laugh at, stupid people: people who are mired in problems because they’re too dumb to think of a way out of them. We’ll never have their problems, because we’re smarter than they are, and that makes us feel good. I use “us” liberally. I don’t watch Jerry Springer because it depresses me to think that there are people that stupid in the world. I haven’t seen either of the other shows. I know they wouldn’t entertain me. I derive comfort only from knowing that there are people out there who are my equals or better in intellect and competence. That knowledge gives me hope. So the “Jerry Springer” factor doesn’t work for me.

– Porn – what’s porn for? To induce in us feelings we enjoy experiencing, even if maybe we’re a little ashamed of having them. Porn excites us. Is it like catharsis? Maybe. Pardon my being a bit vulgar, but, if done right, they both require Kleenex. I think porn is a bit different from cathartic fiction, though, in that it tends to arouse positive feelings, to make us directly feel sexy and lovable, as though we could be the recipient of the attention and affection that’s implied, if not graphically depicted. I think the most charitable thing I could say about The Walking Dead’s anniversary issue is that it’s porn that just happens to not be my kink. But it’s clearly someone’s kink. The sadomasochistic overtones of the death scene are pretty hard to miss. I’m not saying Kirkman is a pervert who gets off on grisly death, nor am I suggesting that, if you liked this story, you’re a psychopath. I am saying there are such creatures, and I think this story plays to them.

– Proving we’re grown up – fans of comics and science fiction, even in these enlightened days of The Big Bang Theory, have a hard row to hoe. We’re made fun of for our choices of reading and viewing material, and, if we maintain them as adults, it’s usually suggested that we’re arrested development cases, that we’re into “kid-stuff.” For decades, comic fans my age and even older have been determined to prove that comics aren’t kid-stuff, and the comic creators have been right in there helping them by making comics Dark-n-Gritty ™. “Look at us! We’re not reading about unbelievably good people who fly around in silly costumes saving the world, we’re reading about bad people who pull people’s heads off… while wearing silly costumes and saving the world! So there!” These fans are the first to call you shallow, insipid or childish if you dare to suggest that maybe one of their gods is just a manipulative shock-jock. Clearly, you’re just too stupid and immature to understand his genius. And don’t complain about death in comics or fantastic literature or film. After all, such works aren’t believable unless there’s a lot of death involved. You only know the threats are real if someone dies. Never mind the fact that, according to the CIA World Factbook, 99% of the population made it through the year alive in 2009. Maybe it was just a good year? Or maybe death isn’t as commonplace in our experience as these anti-Peter Pans would have us believe.

This last category is probably the one which applies most broadly. We like to laugh at death. We enjoy Hallowe’en, telling ghost stories and watching scary movies. We like to challenge our fears. Indulging in this practice is not new to comics. The E.C. horror comics of the 1950s, home of Tales from the Crypt, went way over the top in showing us death and psychopathy. The field has been informed by the works of Poe and Lovecraft. There’s dark stuff behind a lot of our entertainments, and comics have been right in the thick of it. I love horror stories, when they’re well done.

But there’s laughing at death, and then there’s laughing with it. I think the line is crossed here, not only by the marketers who are ready to release a third printing of this issue, but by the fans who are cheering its torturous content. The murder weapon, a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, has a name. I won’t say it. I refuse to say it. I find the way this thing has been used in marketing campaigns vulgar, and I won’t pay it tribute by naming it. But the third-printing of the issue is being sold with a special cover depicting this murder-weapon as though it were a character in the story.

Which leads me to wonder, what is Kirkman saying about the world, and how is he trying to shape our view of it? Some might be tempted to say “He’s not saying anything. It’s just a comic book!” That’s pretty naive, I’d say. Every writer is trying to shape your worldview, whether he admits it or not. The most trivial entertainment carries with it the author’s assumptions, often unchallenged, about life. I won’t pretend to psychoanalyze the author. I hate it when people psychoanalyze me based on my writing. But it bothers me that stories such as this desensitize people to violence and death, make them think that, most of the time, they have no choice and should be comfortable with that. I worry that people are being set up to accept less than they should.

This story depicts helplessness, hopelessness, defeat, the death of innocence, the torture of the good… All of this, we’re told, is to provoke in us an emotional reaction. The emotions? Anger. Fear. Shock. Comic books are about little else but shock any more. The only goal seems to be to shock the reader more this issue than you did last issue. Hit them with something they didn’t see coming. It doesn’t matter if characters are likable, moral or consistent. All that matters is that shock jump out, like a costumed character in a haunted house, and make them jump. Shock works once, then it passes.

Fear? We deal with fear. There are no zombies, and we’re unlikely to meet someone as evil as the murderer in this story. We might lose a few nights’ sleep.

So we’re left with anger. And here’s the big question: at whom and about what are we angry? George Orwell left us angry at the forces which would use political power to oppress us. He made us fear and resent them, so that we’re always on the lookout for them, and ready to pounce on them and stop them. It doesn’t always work, because we’re dreadfully stupid, and we don’t recognize big brother when he’s singing hymns or handing out recycling bins, but the anger and fear brought on by 1984 serves a purpose.

In The Walking Dead, the only people you can really be angry at are the creators of the story. And lots of readers are, make no mistake. But I’m afraid more readers are drooling over the thought of how their hearts will be broken next. ‘Cause I guess, for them, there’s just not enough heartbreak in the world. Or maybe the point is that this is a heartbreak they can survive.

Me, I want my entertainment to amuse me, to give me hope, to show me something better than what I see day in and day out. I want to see heroic behavior. Yeah, I guess meekly offering yourself to be bludgeoned to death to save your friends is… kinda heroic. Kinda noble. But what’s accomplished? Damned little. The survivors who are left are going to go on a quest for revenge, a quest to ensure their own safety. And, despite the creators’ and their fans paeans to the realism of these stories, we know that the villain will die and his dozens of followers will also die. Perhaps they won’t be directly murdered by the protagonists. Maybe they’ll only be eaten by zombies. Maybe a few of them will join the survivors to become fodder for future psychopaths and zombie attacks. But the “bad guy” will be defeated, and at least a couple of the “good guys” will live to string readers along to the next story arc.

Me, I’ll move on to other entertainments, and end, uncharacteristically, with words from Saul of Tarsus: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

2 thoughts on “SNUFF PORN! Getcher SNUFF PORN! ICE COLD! (My review of Walking Dead 100, revisited for the Season 7 Premiere)

  1. Pingback: Hymn for a Sunday Evening - Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Watch Something Other than The Walking Dead - Steven H. WilsonSteven H. Wilson

  2. I confess I stopped watching The Walking Dead around February (after being an avid fan since the first episode), as I had finally reached a point where I felt that the series would never be showing any improvement in the lives of the characters. They were forever doomed to wander the wasteland as the world around them continued its fall into madness and decay.

    At which point I had to ask myself: Why the hell am I *watching* this…?

    The series has moved far from what I thought originally was interesting about it: survivors of the plague surviving by *killing zombies.*

    But now it’s completely devolved into people hating and killing other people; zombies are just a distraction, obstacles to be avoided like wild dogs or rats. Now it’s pretty much exclusively about the different horrible ways that human beings can destroy other human beings.

    I’ve never done more than flip through Kirkman’s graphic novels and noted the graphic gore and violence; I’m just not into that anymore.

    I had been hearing about this Negan character for a while, and out of extremely morbid curiosity read through the pages where Glenn meets his demise; the graphic detail Kirkman drew into his death shocked and disgusted me, and I tried to imagine them doing this on the show but couldn’t.

    As I said, I stopped watching in February, and didn’t watch this Season 7 premiere; but I did click on an article that reviewed the episode, and they had the “crucial clips” attached…

    Curiosity got the better of me and long story short, I saw the deaths. All the way through to Jeffrey Dean Morgan raising his bat over his head and striking downward over and over and over and over….then the POV shot showing that he’s actually striking some bloody hash of the remains of a human head…and the camera showing the reaction faces of the remaining family members as they watch their brother/lover/father-of-their-child get beaten into a bloody sauce–oh excuse me, *just his head*, not the rest of the body which is shown just lying there, head-mush spilling out of the shirt.

    And the psychopathic jeering of negan–first to the victims, before they’re/he’s decapitated-by-bludgeoning, for the indistinct mumbling that is all they’re capable of because of the brain damage inflicted by the first blow–then to the traumatized family for being “pussies.”

    Snuff film, torture porn, whatever you want to call it; it fits the definition of obscenity as far as I’m concerned.

    And this is on fucking TV. This is the kind of thing you see in unrated theatrical releases. Quentin Tarantino, no shrinking violet when it comes to violence in his films, didn’t go this far in a very similar scene in “Inglorious Basterds.”

    I didn’t need to see this, just as I don’t need to see terrorist decapitation videos.

    Maybe it’s because I’m now a parent, and that changes your perspective on living things, with parents and families.

    Death I can live with on TV and in movies; it’s “a fact of life.”

    But I don’t think anyone needs to see, simulated or not, the complete physical destruction of a living thing, while it suffers and pleads, and watch the reactions of the victim’s family to that complete destruction.

    As I said: obscenity.

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