The Many Lives of The Walking Dead
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This chapter looks at why The Walking Dead has been such a successful transmedia franchise. Joyce argues that there are five key reasons. First, the zombie apocalypse benefits from an open rights regime as the zombie is a public domain figure. Second, The Walking Dead benefits from having comics as its narrative core medium as the medium specialises in infinitely suspended narratives worked on by multiple creative teams. Third, the zombie apocalypse can rely on our world for mythos and topos, so The Walking Dead’s storyworld can focus on ethos. Fourth, the franchise guardian Robert Kirkman actively legitimises transmedia expansions. Fifth, the zombie apocalypse allows for immersive participatory fan practices that make it a cultural attractor.
KeywordsWalking Dead Zombie Apocalypse Story World Core Narrative Transmedia Franchise
The first time I experienced a zombie apocalypse, I was coming out of a pub in Düsseldorf after lunch. I had been lunching, as was my habit at the time, on Weissbier. I stumbled onto the street, blinking in the sunshine, to find a few hundred zombies bearing down on me. We eyed each other vacantly. I tried to recall The Zombie Survival Guide’s advice. Eventually I remembered something about not standing there gawping while the zombie horde closes in, but by that time they were on me, shuffling and groaning while I prepared for the inevitable carnage. One of them bit my forearm gently. Then they shambled up the street towards the unsuspecting Altstadt. Zombified, I staggered with them for a while before entering another pub. If the world was ending, then I intended to die as I had lived—inebriated in some foreign city.
Thinking about those zombies enjoying a Sunday afternoon walk makes me hesitate to endorse the view that the zombie is a creature of horror, a blank canvas onto which we project our fears. A brief survey of these arguments may be useful. In both popular and academic discourse, zombies represent almost every social ill imaginable, including the election of Donald Trump. For Stephen Gencarella, “The Walking Dead [TWD] is the only show that actively courts, rather than critiques, fascist ethics” (Collins 2016). Dawn Keetley argues, “While there are many reasons for Trump’s emergence as Republican frontrunner, the huge commercial success of TWD is in part causally connected to what might well be Trump’s successful bid for the Republican presidential nomination” (2016). Actually, given that the show emphasises strong leaders, guns, and walls, maybe she has a point. However, Keetley also notes that TWD can “accommodate all kinds of politics” and that this is “crucial to its success” (2016). This point has been taken up by Harper et al., who argue that TWD “operates as an ‘ecosophic object,’ which has the potential to create a post-capitalist subject; even if that subject may have been persuaded to vote for Donald Trump” (2017, 715). Perhaps this is the great pop culture question of our time: do you think zombies would have voted for Clinton or Trump? After all, accusing them of being incapable of rational choice would be the height of hypocrisy.
Cultural critics generally see the zombie as a reflection of cultural anxieties. Kyle Bishop argues, “Zombie cinema had always represented a stylized reaction to cultural consciousness and particularly to social and political injustices” (2009, 18) and connects the post-9/11 zombie with fears of terrorism, immigration, and pandemics. For Muntean and Payne, “the label of ‘terrorist’ possesses an ontological blankness strikingly similar to that of the zombie, as they are both outward physical threats to Western civilisation whose inner motivations remain hidden from view” (2009, 255). Jon Stratton connects zombie narratives with fears of refugees and immigrants: “the underlying characteristics of zombies are similar to those attributed to displaced people: that is, people predominantly from non-western states striving for entry into western states” (2011, 205). Gerry Canavan contends that zombies conjure “racial panic” (2010, 433) and “zombie apocalypses, like imperialistic narratives of alien invasions, repackage the violence of colonial race war in a form that is ideologically safer” (439).
A number of feminist critics interpret the zombie narrative as a conservative reaction to the collapse of white patriarchy. For Katherine Sugg, “The historical influence of feminist and multicultural challenges to white male supremacy and neoliberal transformations of everyday practices of governance, labour, identity, and citizenship have undermined the privileges and economic assumptions associated with normative white masculinity” (2015, 797). In this reading, TWD returns audiences to a more primitive society in which men are men and women are glad of it. A content analysis of TWD comics concludes, “The majority of the female characters are depicted as weak and men continuously have to intervene for their protection” (Garland et al. 2018, 73). Baldwin and McCarthy argue, “TWD makes a strong case that the most effective method of survival is rooted in patriarchal rule where white men prevail” (2013, 93).
Several scholars see the zombie as symptomatic of capitalism’s contradictions and impending collapse. For Dan Hassler-Forest, “The zombie, as the uncanny bearer of colonialism’s horrific legacy, is one of the most potent symbols of capitalism’s machinic dynamic of subjection and enslavement” (2016, 151). Evan Calder Williams interprets zombie narratives as reflecting how “the global economic order and its social relations depend upon the production and exploitation of the undifferentiated” (2011, 8). Torie Bosch argues, “the zombie apocalypse is a white-collar nightmare: a world with no need for the skills we have developed. Lawyers, journalists, investment bankers—they are liabilities, not leaders, in the zombie-infested world … in TWD, the strongest survivors come from blue-collar backgrounds” (2011).
However, these attempts to connect zombies with racial, gender, or capitalist panic don’t quite capture what anyone can see at their nearest zombie run, now a global pop culture phenomenon. While there may be only one Terminator, anyone can be a zombie. Anyone can tell a zombie story, because we all know the basic rules. If you get caught in a zombie walk and someone bites you, then you’re morally obliged to start shuffling up the street with the rest because, once you’re bitten, you’re part of the zombie horde. Rather than see the zombie apocalypse as a reflection of contemporary fears, I prefer to focus on its creative, participatory elements. The zombie apocalypse is perhaps the greatest example of detached transmedia storytelling, told across media from literary fiction to the trashiest straight-to-video flick, each entry a window into a massive collective imaginary event. Even the contradictions serve to validate the confusion of civilisational collapse beneath the zombie hordes.
One way of considering the zombie apocalypse’s popularity may be through Klastrup and Tosca’s three core features of transmedia storyworlds: mythos, topos, and ethos (2003). Mythos refers to the overall backstory, “the central knowledge one needs to have in order to interact with or interpret events in the world successfully.” Topos describes the environment, “what is to be expected from the physics of and navigation in the world.” Finally, ethos denotes the “knowledge required in order to know how to behave in the world.” For most fantasy or science fiction worlds, mythos and topos can rapidly cause continuity problems. For the zombie apocalypse, however, mythos and topos are simply our world plus zombies. This provides a richly detailed but easily grasped storyworld. From fan events to blockbuster cinema, anyone can participate in the zombie apocalypse without damaging the narrative universe’s integrity.
In this final chapter, I consider the success of TWD as being in large part because it is a localised version of a vast, pre-existing transmedia storyworld: the zombie apocalypse. TWD focuses on events in Georgia, although the spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead moves the same concept to the west coast. What makes TWD a significant transmedia franchise is that it breaks new ground in at least three media (comics, television, and video games) and seems to be successful at not only building audiences in each medium but also transferring those audiences across media. TWD is a popular and acclaimed comic (Kirkman et al. 2003-present), winning the Eisner award for Best Continuing Series in 2010. The TV series (2010-present) is the first cable show to match broadcast network audiences, with viewership ranging from 10 to 17 million. Telltale’s TWD game (2012) won over 80 game of the year awards and, by 2014, the company had sold 28 million episodes (Ohannessian 2014). The spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead is into its fourth season and there are also several novels by Jay Bonansinga. I can think of no other franchise that is as successful and critically acclaimed across so many platforms; this is all the more impressive in that it does not rely on a mega-conglomerate such as Disney or Time Warner. TWD represents the final triumph of the zombie apocalypse, marching unstoppably across our mediascape in a spectacular transmedia conquest. Why has it succeeded where The Terminator failed?
The zombie apocalypse has benefited from an open rights regime.
The franchise has benefited from having a comic as the narrative core medium as comics are particularly suited to media franchising.
The zombie apocalypse is an infinitely suspended narrative centred on ethos rather than continuity of plot and character, which facilitates flexible collaboration in the same storyworld.
The franchise guardian, Robert Kirkman, has encouraged multiplicity across platforms, thus legitimising new entries.
The zombie apocalypse encourages creative, participatory fan cultures, which TWD has encouraged through digital media.
Open Rights Regime
After summarising the many scholars who interpret the zombie apocalypse as a thundering jeremiad against social ills, I will now advance a stunningly boring reason for its global popularity: someone in the 1960s incorrectly followed copyright procedure. I know—the doom prophets are more interesting. Yet the zombie has benefited immensely from not having any copyright owner, allowing different creators freedom to experiment with the concept.
Although the zombie exists in earlier folklore, the modern zombie follows the rules established in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968): the zombie has no higher brain functions, it devours human flesh, it can only be killed by destroying the brain, and it infects humans by biting them. This creation should have been the filmmakers’ IP, but prior to the Copyright Act of 1976, films were required to print copyright ownership in the credits. Unfortunately, the first prints contained the wrong title. According to Ben Hervey, “it was Night of Anubis, then Night of the Flesh Eaters, until the producers of The Flesh Eaters threatened legal action. In the hurry to substitute the final title card, the copyright declaration was omitted, and Night entered the public domain” (2008, 14). It was not long before “some theatre owners discovered they could simply purchase a print from Thunderbird Films and show the film without paying a rental. … That lack of copyright notice immediately placed the film in the public domain and cost the producers millions of dollars” (Pierce 2007, 129). Moreover, the lack of copyright meant “anyone could use this new cannibalistic creature without the need to pay” (Moreman and Rushton 2011, 3).
The consequences of this error have revealed the creative possibilities of an open rights regime. This is rarely possible with Hollywood properties. However, in Hollywood’s Copyright Wars, Peter Decherney discusses some interesting alternatives to monopoly adaptation rights, which have prevailed since the landmark Ben-Hur case of 1908:
The absence of copyright over the modern zombie promoted the kind of situation the Ben-Hur decision foreclosed. Anyone was free to make a zombie movie and thus a thousand flowers bloomed, or more accurately a thousand weeds bloomed, but some flowers among them. Anyone who has seen Detention of the Dead (Alex Craig Mann 2012) or Zombie Strippers (Jay Lee 2008) may want to curse whoever failed to copyright Night of the Living Dead. Yet the overall outcomes have largely been positive.
Before the [Ben-Hur] decision, there was a competitive market for adaptations. Many companies would adapt the same novel or play, and the best one would emerge as the more popular or successful version. Of course, book and play authors were not properly compensated for the exploitation of their work, but it is a problem that Congress might have solved without creating monopolies on adaption rights. Congress could have imposed a compulsory license for film adaptations, as it did with song performances and recordings. Many companies could then have adapted the same novel as long as they paid the author the price determined by statute. (2012, 55)
The profusion of zombie narratives means that virtually every media consumer knows the basic mythology. George Romero may have lost a fortune with Night of the Living Dead, but the film’s public domain status helped create a mass audience for his later zombie movies, such as Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Land of the Dead (2005). Moreover, “the tradition of Romero’s zombie apocalypse is increasingly supplemented and augmented by individual filmmakers and writers wanting to explore what happens to their places when the end comes” (Moreman and Rushton 2011, 3). One may argue that there is only one zombie apocalypse and every entry in the genre is a transmedia localisation of this central event.
With so many versions, the ideas latent in the concept have emerged into a coherent form. TWD has inherited the best of what has already been achieved. Instead of focusing on zombies as objects of horror, the series focuses on the apocalypse’s impact on characters, their efforts to construct a viable new ethic for this brutal world, and the construction of new communities amidst the wreckage of the old. This balance of fear and hope is the emotional source of the dystopia/utopia strain in post-apocalyptic fiction, a balance that Robert Kirkman emphasises on the back cover of every comic: “How long has it been since any of us really NEEDED something that we WANTED? The world we knew is gone. … In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.” TWD maintains narrative tension through the possibility that the survivors may one day create a better society, while always knowing that the zombies will overrun any refuge. If TWD has built a storyworld that fascinates millions of fans, this is partly because it has freely built on the work of those who have gone before.
Comics as Narrative Core
TWD, which published its first issue in 2003, had become by 2009 one of the biggest titles in comics. In Comichron’s list of the most popular comics issues of the twenty-first century, TWD’s highest issue comes in eleventh place. However, the raw numbers hide the true picture. Virtually all the titles above it are #1 of a new comic that either drew on popular source material (Star Wars, Orphan Black, Big Trouble in Little China) or took part in established comics universes (Secret Wars, Dark Knight III Master Race). In contrast, TWD issues inside the top 20 are #100, #115, and #132, suggesting that readers have become more engaged as the storyworld develops in richness and complexity. The only other long-running comic with an issue in the top 20 is Amazing Spiderman and that is primarily because its March 2009 issue put Barack Obama on the cover. In terms of continuous, infinitely suspended narratives, TWD stands supreme.
All the franchises discussed so far have used comics as ancillary expansions, but a feature of our current mediascape is the prevalence of comic book adaptations. Hollywood has always raided the bestseller lists and Broadway for inspiration, but the current influence of comics suggests a structural shift for which comics are suitable raw material. Liam Burke writes, “At the start of the twenty-first century Hollywood faced certain cultural, technological, and industrial challenges that comics were uniquely equipped to surmount, thereby facilitating their ascendancy from subculture to mainstream fodder. However, modern comic book film adaptations were not merely symptomatic of these filmmaking practices, but proved influential in their development” (2015, 4). Burke posits four reasons why the genre emerged: the post-9/11 need for superheroes; the rise of digital technologies that allowed film to portray comic book stories; the emergence of a new generation of film producers who were also comics fans; and the ability of comics to tell serial narratives in open-ended scenarios worked on by multiple creative teams.
The last point is the most relevant for TWD. Comics occupy a prominent position in our mediascape because they faced the challenges of convergence culture before the internet’s arrival. They had already evolved narrative and production strategies that today’s media franchises would require once on-demand content, media conglomeration, and more powerful groups of dedicated fans became the norm. These strategies enable multiplicity and creative flexibility, balance seriality and continuity, and encourage sustained fan engagement.
Media franchising requires that multiple creative teams be able to use the same IP without fundamentally changing it. Comics have been addressing this challenge for decades. The rights to characters such as Superman and Batman belong to the publisher, not the writer, which means various writers and artists have worked with these characters over the decades. “Until the beginning of the 1980s, the logic of individual creation did not exist in the universe of mainstream comic books” (Gabilliet 2009, 122). As writer Dennis O’Neil recalls, “I have been fired off books and didn’t know it until I suddenly realized I hadn’t done a Wonder Woman for four months and found out there had been six issues done in that time” (1991, 27). This industrial organisation meant that comics developed flexible, collaborative strategies for storytelling, which makes them ideal for media franchising. “Many different creators have interpreted comic book characters over decades of publication. Consequently they lend themselves to franchise reinvigoration more readily than comparatively inert sources like novels and plays” (Burke 2015, 63–64). Even though TWD as an independent comic is more of a vehicle for individual vision, it still operates in a medium built around infinitely suspended narratives developed by creative teams. While Robert Kirkman has always been the writer for TWD, Tony Moore provided the art for the first six issues with Charlie Adlard taking over from #7, showing how useful it is for comics to develop a creative approach that allows for the departure and replacement of key members of the creative team.
Comics also had to grapple with issues of continuity and seriality two decades before the internet allowed on-demand content for every medium. In 1973, Phil Seuling created the direct sales market, which led to the rise of specialist comic book stores. These stores could make every issue available in a systematic manner, which allowed greater continuity between issues. “Thanks to the direct market, it is now possible to get every issue of everything. Back in the old days, it was sort of newsstand roulette and fans couldn’t worry about consistency because they didn’t have all the stories” (O’Neil 1991, 23). Once content became accessible on-demand, comics became more narratively complex as they balanced individual issues with longer story arcs. According to Peter Lunenfeld, “The entire American comic book industry serves as a model of the perpetually suspended movie” (2000, 16). Once other media had distribution channels that allowed audiences to access content on-demand, they also moved towards being perpetually suspended movies. Comics, however, wrestled with these challenges 20 years ahead of other narrative media. With the advent of complex television, it was perhaps only a matter of time before a television producer approached TWD to discuss its adaptation into a television series.
With greater seriality came dedicated fans who valued continuity and drillability. These fans encouraged creators to write more expansive, challenging stories because this smaller, more cohesive fandom was keenly following each narrative development. According to Dennis O’Neil, “I think maybe the audience is more cohesive. Comic books are not read on a hit or miss basis anymore. They are read by fewer people than they were in the ‘40s but the current fans read a great deal more intently and with a great deal of care. … Also, letter columns did not exist back then so there was no arena to exchange opinions, nor were there conventions and all those other places where fans can get together and compare notes” (1991, 23). Well before the internet allowed fan forums to proliferate, comics printed letters from fans that demonstrated their level of engagement and influenced the understanding creators had of their audiences. Continuity became important as fans demanded greater consistency in their heroes’ fictional universes. “This continuity is a vital part of comic books, and relies upon the imagination and memory of its readership to retain fluency in storylines, and often very discrete subplots, that can take months and sometimes years to develop fully, helping to demarcate distinctions between fans, and thereby promoting hierarchical structures of knowledge” (Wolf-Meyer 2003, 500). In TWD, Robert Kirkman’s “Letter Hacks” column allows him to address fan questions, indicate the series’ future direction, and gauge how fans assess plotlines or characters. For example, in #2 Kirkman addressed a letter about electric power still operating in #1 by explaining, “Places like police stations and hospitals would have backup generators and I’m thinking for the most part that power would remain available until something went wrong.” The question indicates how fans want TWD to be solidly grounded in our world and the selection of that letter and Kirkman’s answer indicates his desire to let fans know he has thought about the realistic basis for events.
Thus, the flexible production strategies, serial narration, and active fan cultures that emerged with the internet already existed in comics, which had developed strategies for addressing them. As media franchising grew in importance, other industries looked to comics for inspiration in serial storytelling for highly interactive fan communities. If TWD became a television sensation in the 2000s, then that owes a great deal to its narrative core medium being ahead of the curve in developing serial narratives and cultivating dedicated fan groups.
Ethos and Society in the Zombie Apocalypse
Another reason TWD has been so successful across platforms is that the storyworld offers ample scope for continuity and multiplicity. Whereas a single core narrative involving Sarah and John Connor binds The Terminator, TWD is bound by a global event, the zombie apocalypse, of which we only see local manifestations. “The pieces of the puzzle refer to the same world in decomposition, one that, owing to its potential infinity, allows for a myriad of different stories that can each develop following a stand-alone narrative model. However, these pieces may potentially and effectively be linked together” (Genovesi 2017, 354). This allows TWD to develop single episodes, multi-issue stories, and season-long arcs, for new characters to appear and disappear, for conflicts to arise and be resolved without the overall situation changing. As Dan Hassler-Forest explains, “While the many different versions across multiple media platforms thus each provide possible entry points to the larger franchise, they remain unified by their shared use of a central brand and a common set of aesthetic and narrative conventions” (2016, 163). To understand the success of TWD, it is important to grasp these shared conventions and the central conflicts of the narrative universe.
While other fantasy worlds focus on mythos and topos, TWD is concerned with the ethos of the zombie apocalypse, on the ethical challenges normal people would face adapting to a Hobbesian state of nature. The crux of the problem is that the ethics required for individual survival—kill or be killed, trust no one, look out for yourself first—are incompatible with developing a community. The characters of TWD are infinitely suspended between individual survival and precarious micro-societies that experiment with new ways of being before falling inevitably through internal dissent or before the zombie hordes.
The series protagonist, Rick Grimes, continually faces ethical dilemmas with opposing sides of the debate voiced by other characters. While Season 1 of the TV show is primarily concerned with bare survival, Season 2 grapples with the morality required to survive in this new world. On one side we have Dale Horvath, who articulates “what he conceptualizes as ‘reasonable’ moral and socio-ethical behaviour based upon a pre-apocalyptic code of western rationalism” (Williams 2016, 54). While he originally occupies a paternal position, watching over the group with his rifle from the roof of his RV, he becomes increasingly isolated as he attempts to impose pre-apocalyptic views of morality. In “Judge, Jury, and Executioner,” the group decides they must kill a hostile prisoner to prevent him escaping and revealing the farm’s location. Dale pleads in vain for them to reconsider:
“That’s what a civilised society does.”
“Who says we’re civilised anymore?”
“The world we know is gone, but keeping our humanity? That’s a choice.”
Shane, in contrast, espouses the survival of the fittest approach Dale decries. In “Save the Last One,” Shane and Otis try to escape a zombie pack with medicine necessary to save Rick’s son, Carl. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that Shane shot Otis in the leg, thereby sacrificing him to the zombies in order to escape. Television critic Zack Handlen commented, “His decision to sacrifice Otis is easy enough to rationalize; somebody had to get back for Carl’s sake, Shane was faster, and both of them probably weren’t going to make it. That’s the beauty of it. In a certain light, he made the right choice” (2011). Nate Rawlings in Time looked forward to the coming showdown between Rick and Shane: “Given Rick’s extremely rigid moral code and Shane’s now demonstrated willingness to do whatever it takes to survive, the showdown promises to be bigger than just a battle of two alpha males. The Rick/Shane divide is a battle of two leaders with different ideas of humanity and survival” (2011). Fans regularly debate these moral conflicts. As Murali Balaji puts it, “In TWD graphic novel and television series, survival is predicated upon the living being able to make choices that test their previous constructions of what it means to be human” (2013, 8–9). The ethical questions facing the characters, rather than the zombies, are the true engine of the series.
Although Rick begins as TWD’s moral centre, he slowly abandons any moral code other than survival. In the final encounter between Rick and Shane, Rick unexpectedly stabs Shane to death, thereby winning the battle but losing the war as he has accepted Shane’s morality. When he returns to the group, he declares, “This isn’t a democracy anymore.” In the comics, when they discover the perfect refuge at the prison, Rick kills the inmate Dexter in cold blood to secure control of the penitentiary. Engstrom and Valenzano argue that the collapse of pre-apocalyptic morality is depicted visually in the series’ churches: “earlier a clean and respected structure, a church is now just another building, devoid of the meaning and institutional power it once held” (2016, 132). Yet characters making what we might consider ethically correct choices are often responsible for the most damage. When Andrea refuses to kill the Governor in his sleep, her failure to act results not just in her own death but the deaths of several others. In Season 5, Morgan spares a member of the savage Wolves gang, only for the Wolves to attack the Alexandria settlement and butcher many residents at the beginning of Season 6. In TWD, ethical behaviour is liable to get you and everyone around you killed.
This obviously creates problems for building a new community, which is the second major focus of TWD. “The zombie imaginary interrogates the nature of the social bond in the face of civil society’s collapse. It calls into question the nature and extent of individual responsibility to and for others” (Coonfield 2013, 18). TWD feeds into the doomsday prepper interest in imagining alternate societies. Peter Paik has argued, “The crucial limitation of TWD, and perhaps the main source of its popular appeal, is the inability of the narrative to get beyond the motif of the Hobbesian state of nature” (2017), but returning to a Hobbesian state allows the series to reimagine the social contract. The survivors lurch from one refuge to another, each one dramatising a possible society amid the chaos. The pastoral farm is undermined by the group’s inability to agree on the ethics of their new society. Woodbury is rendered safe by the Governor’s tyrannical rule. The prison is destroyed by a war between Rick’s group and the Governor’s, while Alexandria is an oasis of pre-apocalyptic civility that Rick mistrusts because the residents have never experienced the horror outside the walls. For Geoffrey Wright, “The television series stages a debate between tyrannical and democratic philosophies of political and moral governance” (2017, 148). However, it may be more accurate to say these micro-societies exist along a spectrum between the two with no privileged moral centre. In TWD, exemplary democracies may just be vehicles of death for those inside them.
Some have criticised TWD for not taking the opportunity to sketch a better world or for representing conservative choices. However, as Dawn Keetley explains, “one of the (many) things I love about TWD—a thing I’m convinced is crucial to its success—is that it accommodates all kinds of politics” (2016). TWD resists the post-apocalyptic genre’s pull towards either utopia or dystopia and instead explores the spectrum in-between, which allows the narrative to stay infinitely suspended between dread and hope. Moreover, the establishment of a new utopia would offer narrative closure in a form that benefits from open-ended structures and probably run counter to the enjoyment we derive from zombie tales. “So much of the pleasure of the zombie narrative in both cinema and other forms originates in the audience’s knowledge that the heroes’ preparations and fortifications will never be sufficient, that no matter what happens in the end the zombies will break through and kill nearly everyone” (Canavan 2010, 445). The survivors face a Sisyphean task, but for viewers the pleasure comes from evaluating the different attempts.
The importance of adapting the series’ focus on ethos can be seen in the fate of two video game adaptations. In 2013, Activision published The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. The game, a first-person shooter, was licensed by the TV series with a plot that functioned as backstory for Daryl Dixon, a character unique to the show. However, aside from being criticised for poor gameplay, graphics, and overall design, the game suffered from trying to allow players the chance to explore the storyworld’s mythos and topos, when what matters in TWD is the ethos. “While the shooter mainly reproduces the act of killing zombies in a quite tiresome way, it completely misses the overall emotional tones which are constituted by the character-driven serialized original” (Beil and Schmidt 2015, 81). In contrast, Telltale’s game was licensed by the comics and, as game developer Kevin Bruner explains, “We were not going to pitch a game that was about killing zombies. Instead, we were going to pitch an episodic story game that focused on the thing we felt made his books so compelling: normal people adapting to impossible situations” (2013, 38). Instead of exploring spaces, “we knew that in TWD you’d be confronted with awful choices, not much time to consider these choices, and then have to deal with the fallout of those choices” (Bruner 2013, 39). Although Activision’s FPS may have seemed a better vehicle for exploring the storyworld, Telltale’s narrative-focused adventure game allowed players to experience the ethical dilemmas at the heart of TWD.
The video game tells the story of Lee Everett, a history professor convicted of a crime of passion just before the zombie apocalypse occurs. On his way to prison, the police car crashes and Lee flees, finding an eight-year-old girl, Clementine, stranded at home alone. The two become members of a fractious group of survivors. Much of the game is spent managing character relationships. According to Bruner, “we also discovered that smaller, more intimate details often worked much better for us than giant, sweeping, branching opportunities. For instance, it’s often more interesting to let the player slight or insult NPCs than it is to let the player outright steal all their belongings or completely betray them” (2013, 39). Conversations have indicators letting players know how characters feel about their responses. “The uncertainty this generates serves not only to unsettle the player and keep them on their toes but also to convince them that, as stated, The Walking Dead is constantly reacting to their choices” (Smethurst and Craps 2015, 281).
Players have no idea which decisions will have significant consequences, at least during the first playthrough. Sometimes the choices are false. On Herschel Greene’s farm, the player is suddenly presented with a choice between saving Herschel’s son Shawn and saving a young boy called Duck. On my first playthrough, I chose Duck, who remains a character for much of the game, which left me wondering what would have happened if I had saved Shawn. However, no matter what choice the player makes, Shawn dies and Duck survives. The choice has no meaning, except for conditioning how Duck’s parents feel about Lee, but this does not change the feeling of agency the game provides as players wonder about the choices not taken. It is difficult for games to offer the feeling of both meaningful choice and narrative structure, but “TWD gets close to this ideal situation, offering the player enough choices so that the holes in the decisional field almost pass by unnoticed, giving a strong illusion of agency” (Prundaru 2016, 112).
Much like the series, there is no obvious end goal. No refuge will ever be safe enough. At the beginning of the game’s second episode, the group is ensconced at a fortified motel but running low on supplies. Duck’s father wants to run for the coast, while Lilly insists they stay where they are safe. Both sides want Lee’s support, leaving the player to choose in a classic TWD dilemma. Ultimately, the player’s decision won’t affect the overall narrative, but it will affect his relationship with other characters. “We didn’t set out to make a game you could win or lose. We wanted to expose difficult and interesting possibilities to players and reward them whatever they chose, while still leaving the choices not taken as a lingering possibility” (Bruner 2013, 40). By capturing the ethos of TWD in a way that took advantage of the medium’s capacities, Telltale Games showed how the franchise could expand flexibly across any platform.
While The Terminator’s franchise guardians inhibited its growth, Robert Kirkman has been instrumental in encouraging fan acceptance of TWD’s expansions. Most importantly, he has legitimised the differences between the comics and the TV show, thus minimising conflict between the narrative and industrial cores. Right from the beginning, the TV series introduced show-only characters, such as Daryl Dixon, and proceeded to change the destinies of important characters from the comics. Dale unexpectedly dies at the farm in Season 2 and Carol, the downtrodden homemaker, metamorphoses into a ruthless warrior. Such changes could have alienated fans of the narrative core, but Kirkman has helped legitimise these changes by celebrating them:
Kirkman identifies the core of TWD as the storyworld ethos rather than canonical plot details. This defuses potential criticisms from fans demanding strict continuity, while legitimising multiplicity across different platforms. Producers thus know they have creative flexibility and can do what they feel is best in their medium.
One of the most important aspects of The Walking Dead that makes the comic book so successful … is the fact that you never know what’s going to happen at any time. Anyone could die, anyone can leave, new people come in; and it’s a very volatile comic that you can never really expect what’s coming. If we were to adapt the show directly, be extremely faithful to the comic, we would lose that key component. (“The Ink is Alive” 2012)
The franchise guardian’s role is primarily to sanction expansions, which is important not just for fans but for creative teams on other platforms. Kevin Bruner of Telltale Games, for example, declares:
Kirkman’s role here is less authorial than managerial, approving the concept and installing collaborative partners who understand his vision for TWD. As long as the ethos is maintained, the details of plot, character, mythos, and topos are up to the creative team involved. As Kirkman explained about the Telltale game:
Robert Kirkman and everyone else at Skybound were (and are!) amazing partners. Even as the television show was becoming a runaway hit, they always made time to ensure we had the feedback and support we needed. One of the best things Robert did early on was introduce us to his friend Gary Whitta (screenwriter of Book of Eli and After Earth). Robert trusts Gary, and Gary really understands what makes The Walking Dead unique and special. (2013, 38)
Whereas authorial figures assert control of the canonical narrative core, what makes Kirkman such a successful franchise guardian is that he deprivileges the narrative core he controls and spreads canonical weight across the dual industrial cores of the franchise, regardless of issues with continuity.
I was slightly more involved in Season 1, I think, but really it was just a matter of me approving their story when they ran it by me. The team there did an enormous amount of work to get the tone and feel in line with what I do in the comics before they ever came to me. Before we started Season 2, they asked me a lot about where I was going in the comic and some things they should avoid, and I gave them some notes, but for the most part, those guys have taken the ball and run with it … to what I think we can all agree is great success. (“I’m Robert Kirkman” 2016)
The importance of Kirkman’s perceived contribution for fans can be seen in reviews of TWD novels by Jay Bonansinga. There are six novels exploring the backstory of the Governor and the Woodbury settlement. The first four are written by Kirkman and Bonansinga, although it is unclear the extent of Kirkman’s involvement. Again, Kirkman has been highly supportive: “Jay Bonansinga is killing it with those books and I’m really excited about doing more” (2016). On Amazon, there are currently 703 positive reviews and 156 critical reviews of the first book, The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor (Kirkman and Bonansinga 2011). The positive reviews are mostly from fans who “really wanted to know more about the Governor, and this book shows us just how he became who he is” (Zelazny 2015) and felt “it’s a much-needed backstory to one of the most fearsome villains in the Walking Dead universe” (LC 2017). However, some fans felt Bonansinga’s sixth novel, Invasion, was a disappointment and “the novels that Kirkman wrote with Bonansinga were better, obviously more thought out and character driven than when Bonansinga writes alone. … Kirkman needs to either take the reins again or close this part of the series down because it’s starting to lose what we love about the Walking Dead universe and become another money making spinoff/sequel” (Baldwin 2016). Fans often blame inferior entries on the franchise guardian’s lack of direct involvement.
The only entry Kirkman has specifically disavowed is Survival Instinct: “I’m pretty sure there’s an AMC logo before the title of that game and not a picture of my face. If there was a picture of my face in front of the logo, then I’d be completely responsible for that. I can only oversee/be involved in so much … and my efforts were focused more on the Telltale games series” (2016). The game becomes a running joke throughout his Reddit AMA, which helps cement Kirkman’s bond with the fans. By acknowledging areas where the franchise has let itself down, Kirkman demonstrates sympathy with fans and that he will work to maintain the standards they expect. Through his “Letter Hacks” column, interviews, and public comments, Kirkman has legitimised multiplicity over strict continuity, encouraged the creative teams on each platform to take a flexible attitude to adaptation, distributed canonical authority beyond the realms he directly controls, and reassured fans through selected criticism of some entries that he is working to maintain TWD’s standards.
As well as providing an expansive transmedia storyworld, TWD also has highly active online fan communities, who have created numerous fan sites. Recognising the importance of online material, AMC has created transmedia bridging projects to bring fans to its official website, where they can be sold show-related merchandise. Short webisodes offering backstory were released on the AMC site in the run-up to new seasons, while the site also offers an official blog and fan forums. Since the Season 3 mid-season finale, each episode of TWD has been followed by The Talking Dead, in which fans join host Chris Hardwicke and special guests to discuss the episode. TWD also tops Nielsen’s Twitter rankings: “With an average of 435,000 Tweets sent about each new episode, TWD topped our social TV series list for the third consecutive year” (“TV” 2016). The second screen audience for TWD is bigger than the total audience for most TV series: “On average, about 4 million people saw one or more of the 424,000 tweets sent about each new episode, and these tweets were sent by an average of 153,000 unique authors and seen about 28 million times” (Kissell 2016). There is no doubt AMC has skilfully used social media. “The network used the web to create a consumption cluster, leaking storylines from the second and third seasons on fan pages and zombie blogs while airing its own original web content in the leadup to season two” (Balaji 2013, 231). However, fans of TWD are not simply herded like sheep. Fan communities are quite vocal about their favourite characters, with the “If Daryl Dies We Riot” meme taking hold across the internet and inspiring fan merchandise from T-shirts to bumper stickers to crossbow mugs (a mug with a crossbow handle, in case you were curious). Fanfiction.net currently records 18,600 TWD fan stories, while Archive of our Own has 15,712, making it one of the most popular series for fan fiction. The active fan community is one reason TWD has become a cultural attractor.
However, looking online may actually be misleading. Regarding a TWD theme park attraction, executive producer Greg Nicotero explains, “Genre fans are unlike any other type of people because they really want to experience every aspect of a show … to walk through and see the bullet holes in the wall and the blood splattered on there” (Schwartz 2012). Zombies enable immersive fantasy experiences. Zombie walks, zombie runs, and zombie survival challenges are popular across the globe. A photo journalism article for The Atlantic details dozens of “zombie events from Peru, Japan, Mexico, the United States, Italy, the Philippines, England, Taiwan, Serbia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Israel, Germany, Costa Rica, Spain, and Australia” (Taylor 2015). In the UK, the entertainment company Zombie Experiences offers “movie grade special effects make-up and professional horror actors bringing the events to life … now is the time to not only face, but to experience, the fear” (2018). Minneapolis’ Zombie Pub Crawl, begun in 2005, holds the world record for the largest gathering of zombies with thousands of revellers descending each year to perfect the drunken zombie shuffle. Everyone knows the basic rules of zombie behaviour and appearance, which don’t require elaborate preparation. In an era when cosplay has grown in popularity, zombies represent an instantly recognisable costume idea with plenty of variation. No matter where you are in the world, no one with a zombie costume ever has to be alone.
Perhaps the biggest reason TWD is so successful as a franchise is that the zombie apocalypse is bigger than the show. Robert Kirkman is open to new expansions of the storyworld on different platforms because it isn’t really his storyworld. The core of TWD is the focus on the storyworld’s ethos, but its mythos and topos belong to everyone. If we look at fan practices, we may see that the zombie is not an empty signifier onto which we displace modern anxieties about climate change, capitalism, pandemics, terrorism, and so on. Instead, it is a triumph of collective participatory imagination. Since 1968, we have built a global understanding of a wholly fictional event. Each media entry in the genre offers another window into a global panic that happened everywhere and nowhere, which we all remember though none of has lived through. Anyone can participate or contribute their own entry in this infinite fictional history. TWD succeeds because it is already taking part in a vast transmedia franchise that spans decades and continents and genres. And it is all possible because, back in 1968, some unknown individual incorrectly followed copyright procedure.
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