Image Comics’ monumentally successful ongoing series Walking Dead presents itself as a story of survival – specifically the survival of the comic’s protagonist Rick Grimes in an apocalyptic world that has been overrun by flesh-eating zombies. But beyond the relentless horror and gore that has defined the title since its debut in 2003, writer Robert Kirkman has also managed to craft an ongoing series about the frailties of human nature, often raising questions about who are the true monsters inhabiting this universe: the zombies or the survivors?
One of the ways in which Kirkman brings these issues to light is through a motif that has been used extensively in perhaps the definitive story about human nature. In the Old Testament of the Bible, God presents Adam and Eve – two humans created in his own image – the paradise of the Garden of Eden under the condition that they are not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. However, Eve proves that humankind is fallible and tastes the fruit. These feelings of curiosity and desire earn Eve and Adam banishment to the “wilderness,” outside the sanctuary of Eden. The wilderness is a world filled with danger, pain, labor, murder, crime and punishment.
In every major story arc in Kirkman’s Walking Dead, Rick and his frequently changing cast of supporting characters (who are all expendable regardless of their relationship to the protagonist) seek sanctuary from the horrors of the wilderness in a variety of venues – farms, prisons, gated communities, etc. – while also trying to establish a sense of life’s “normalcy” from before the zombie apocalypse. But like Adam and Eve in Eden, these stays in the garden are always shorted lived. That’s because Rick, his group, and other survivors who are introduced throughout the series, are inherently flawed individuals susceptible to decisions motivated by greed, lust, jealousy and vengeance.
The Walking Dead is a series built around the hopelessness of humanity. And in his own quiet way, Kirkman establishes on the very first page of Walking Dead #1 that humanity is screwed regardless of the zombie invasion. This first page gives the reader the only glimpse he will ever see of what the world was like before the zombie apocalypse. That visual is of Rick, a police officer, getting shot by a criminal. One page later, Rick is gasping for air in a hospital bed, awakening from a coma after an undetermined amount of time. The viciousness of humanity – in the “normal” world that everyone aspires to return to, mind you – is what sent him to the hospital. And once Rick leaves his bed and goes searching for a doctor or nurse, he finds whole new level of inhumanity and violence.
The world is even more terrifying outside of the hospital. One of the first things Rick sees outside in the “wilderness” is a half-eaten zombie creature grunting and gasping lying next to a child’s bike. Rick puts two-and-two together and realizes that the zombie carcass used to be a child and is overcome with grief. He attempts to ride the bike, but the horror of this new world overwhelms him. He kneels on the ground with his head between his legs, sobbing before continuing his nightmarish journey.
Rick’s next stop is his suburban home, a symbol of the working class American dream. But there’s no apple pie warming on the windowsill waiting for him. Instead, the entire community is deserted. And while he doesn’t see any zombies, Rick does get whacked in the head with a shovel by a young boy named Duane who mistakes the man’s confused gaze as the vacant stare of a zombie. Rick is finally brought up to speed by Duane’s father Morgan and learns that sanctuary, and his wife and son, might be waiting for him in Atlanta if he’s capable of getting into the city.
Atlanta is an even bigger nightmare than suburban America. The once-modern metropolis has been reduced to a wasteland of zombies wandering the streets aimlessly, waiting for the next living creature to cross their paths. A distraught Rick screams, “What the hell is wrong with you,” at the zombies as if this exclamation could make this nightmare disappear. Instead, the zombies turn to attack Rich, and just as he’s on the verge of being overtaken when another survivor, Glenn, pulls him into an alleyway and leads him out of the city.
After leaving Atlanta with Glenn, Rick finally comes upon a garden amongst the wilderness – a roadside camp site on the outskirts of Atlanta where his lost wife and son, Lori and Carl, are there with Rick’s former police partner, Shane. The group only has an old RV for shelter, but Rick immediately celebrates the availability of a shower. And of course, Rick is relieved to be back with his family. In one Walking Dead #3 scene, Rick is sleeping next to Carl and Lori in a tent when he awakens and sees his family beside him. He reaches out to touch Lori’s cheek and smiles. The moment demonstrates that small doses of serenity can be found in this apocalyptic world. Unfortunately, these feelings of peace and safety are fleeting.
This campsite “garden” starts revealing its flaws quickly. The group has only two guns for defense and the women have not been properly trained to use them. Just beyond the campsite, Rick and Shane run into a zombie feeding on a deer carcass, which puts the sanctity of the food supply into doubt. On the way back from washing clothes by the lake, the women are attacked by a zombie.
Beyond the physical danger the site presents, there is something else sinister developing. Shane is caught staring longingly at Rick whenever he’s bonding with his family. That’s when it becomes apparent that Rick’s return from assumed death has completely upset the social order that preceded his arrival. Namely, Shane was the alpha male of this group who was looked on to protect everyone as their leader. Additionally, it’s revealed that back when Rick was thought to be dead in a hospital, Shane and Lori had been involved romantically.
Once she’s reunited with her husband, Lori tells Shane that their tryst was a “mistake.” But the affair clearly means much more to Shane. The campsite had come to represent a chance at a second life for Shane, surrounded by new friends and a family he had always wanted. Shane seethes with jealously at how Rick’s return has shifted all of his relationships back to the way they were before the apocalypse. Shane’s self-absorption as the world continues to disintegrate around everyone puts his ability to think of the group’s best interest in serious doubt.
When Rick suggests to Shane that perhaps they need to find a safer spot to establish camp, Shane goes on the defensive. He calls the earlier zombie attack an “isolated incident,” and says he and Rick are obligated to “protect these people.” Shane makes decisions based solely on emotion. As a result, he ignores obvious signs that the paradise he built for these people may actually pose a fatal threat to them.
As Rick predicted, the camp comes under attack Walking Dead #5 and two members of the group die including Amy, the sister of Andrea (who would go on to be one of the comic’s longest surviving characters). The ambush transpires while the group is enjoying a moment of rare joint tranquility, sharing stories about their pasts around a campfire. If the group had remained vigilant, the attack could have been prevented. While they all talk about the past, no one is keeping watch for zombies. The roaring fire and small of food probably attracted the walking dead. The group was so caught up in that moment of “normalcy” they dropped their guards and left themselves vulnerable.
Shane of course refuses to accept that they must leave the garden and becomes violent with Rick, telling him it is “not my fault.” In Walking Dead #6, Shane tells Rick that “everything was perfect” until he showed up. He points his rifle at Rick and prepares to shoot him when a bullet from another gun cuts Shane down.
The gunman is revealed to be Rick’s son Carl. This act demonstrates another major theme born from the garden and wilderness motif – how expulsion to the wilderness saps individuals of their innocence. A distraught Carl tells his father, “It’s not the same as killing the dead ones,” referring to killing Shane. Rick embraces his son and tells him, “It never should be.”
But this is only the first major arc of the Walking Dead series. These characters – those that survive long enough – only become more hardened and cynical. As the series progresses, the characters learn that society’s old rules of ethics and morality no longer apply. What becomes paramount for Rick and his family is that they, by any means necessary, try and regain some sense of humanity and normalcy – a garden that is protected from the violence, disease and human flaws of the wilderness.