How to Watch Television: The Walking Dead

Today, I want to showcase the launch of an exciting new book, How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell. The editors recognized a gap in the field of television studies between the kinds of essays we ask our students to write (often close readings focused on specific episodes) and the kinds of exemplars we provide them from scholarly publications (often theory-dense, focused on making much larger arguments, and making moves which it is hard for undergrads or early graduate students to match). Contributors, myself among them, were asked to focus on specific episodes of specific programs, to do a close analysis with limited amounts of fancy theoretical footwork, and to demonstrate the value of a particular analytic approach to understanding how television works. Thompson and Mittell brought together a who’s who of contemporary television studies writers and encouraged them to write about a broad array of programs. You can get a sense of the project as a whole by reading the table of contents. I have only read a few of the essays so far, having just recently gotten my author’s copy, but so far, the book more than lives up to its promise.

I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style

1. Homicide: Realism – Bambi L. Haggins

2. House: Narrative Complexity – Amanda D. Lotz

3. Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation – Christine Becker

4. Mad Men: Visual Style – Jeremy G. Butler

5. Nip/Tuck: Popular Music – Ben Aslinger

6. Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television – Jason Mittell

7. The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling – Sean O’Sullivan

8. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy – Jeffrey Sconce

II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics

9. 24: Challenging Stereotypes – Evelyn Alsultany

10. The Amazing Race: Global Othering – Jonathan Gray

11. The Cosby Show: Representing Race – Christine Acham

12. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings – Quinn Miller

13. Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences – Hector Amaya

14. Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives – Ron Becker

15. Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism – Elana Levine

16. Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing – Susan J. Douglas

III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest

17. 30 Days: Social Engagement – Geoffrey Baym and Colby Gottert

18. America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor – Laurie Ouellette

19. Family Guy: Undermining Satire – Nick Marx

20. Fox & Friends: Political Talk – Jeffrey P. Jones

21. M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy – Noel Murray

22. Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum – Heather Hendershot

23. Star Trek: Serialized Ideology – Roberta Pearson

24. The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia – Daniel Marcus

IV. TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures

25. Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News – Anne Helen Petersen

26. I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer – Miranda J. Banks

27. Modern Family: Product Placement – Kevin Sandler

28. Monday Night Football: Brand Identity – Victoria E. Johnson

29. NYPD Blue: Content Regulation – Jennifer Holt

30. Onion News Network: Flow – Ethan Thompson

31. The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes – Matt Hills

32. The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television – Derek Kompare

V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life

33. Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video – David Gurney

34. Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content – Suzanne Scott

35. Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste – Michael Z. Newman

36. Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies – Louisa Stein

37. It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television – Dana Polan

38. One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling – Abigail De Kosnik

39. Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing – Jiwon Ahn

40. The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics – Henry Jenkins

You can order it at the NYU Press website, along with previewing the introduction or requesting a review copy for faculty thinking about adopting it in a class. You can also order it on Amazon. Or please request it at an independent bookstore near you, if you’ve got one.

Thompson and Mitell have shrewdly offered those of us who have blogs the chance to share our own essays from the collection with the idea of helping to build up the buzz around this promising release.  Spreadability at work! So, I am happy to share today my musings about The Walking Dead, written after the end of Season 1. (Don’t get me started about the speed of academic publishing: by normal standards, this one had a pretty rapid turnaround, but we still lag behind any other mode of publication. This is why I so value sites like Flow,In Media Res, and Antenna.)

 

The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics

Henry Jenkins

Abstract: One of the key ways that television connects to other media is by adapting pre-existing properties from films, comics, and other formats. Henry Jenkins uses one of the most popular of such recent adaptations, The Walking Dead, to highlight the perils and possibilities of adaptations, and how tapping into pre-existing fanbases can pose challenges to television producers.

The comic book industry now functions as Hollywood’s research and development department, with a growing number of media properties inspired by graphic novels, including not only superhero films (Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, Thor) and both live-action and animated television series (Smallville, The Bold and the Brave), but also films from many other genres (A History of Violence, American Splendor, 20 Days of Night, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World). There are many possible explanations for Hollywood’s comic book fixation:

 

1. DC and Marvel are owned by Warner Brothers and Disney, respectively, who cherry pick what they think will satisfy mass audience interests.

 

2. Comics-based stories are to contemporary cinema what magazine short stories were to Classical Hollywood—more or less presold material.

 

3. Hardcore comics readers fall into a highly desired demographic—teen and twentysomething males—who have abandoned television in recent years for other media.

 

4. Comic books are a visual medium, offering something like a storyboard establishing basic iconography and visual practices to moving image media.

 

5. Digital special effects have caught up to comic’s most cosmic storytelling, allowing special effects houses to expand their technical capacities.

 

6. Contemporary television and comics involve a complex mix of the episodic and the serial, deploying long-form storytelling differently from most films or novels.

 

7. The streamlined structure of comics offer emotional intensification closely aligned with contemporary screen practices.

 

Despite such claims, comic adaptations often radically depart from elements popular with their original comics-reading audience. Mainstream comics readership has been in sharp decline for several decades: today’s top-selling title reaches fewer than a hundred thousand readers per month—a drop in the bucket compared with the audiences required for cable success, let alone broadcast networks. Some graphic novels have moved from specialty shops to chain bookstores, attracting a “crossover” readership, including more women and more “casual” fans. Adapting a comic for film or television often involves building on that “crossover” potential rather than addressing hardcore fans, stripping away encrusted mythology.

AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-present) is a notable exception, establishing its reputation as “faithful” to the spirit if not the letter of the original, even while introducing its original characters, themes, and story world to a new audience. Robert Kirkman’s comic series was a key example of the crossover readership graphic novels can find at mainstream bookstores. Kirkman has freely acknowledged his debts to George Romero’s Living Dead films, while others note strong parallels with 28 Days Later. The Walking Dead’s success with crossover readers and Kirkman’s reliance on formulas from other commercially successful franchises in the genre explain why producers felt they could remain “true” to the comics while reaching a more expansive viewership.

Using “Wildfire,” the fifth episode from The Walking Dead’s first season, I will explore what aspects of the comic reached television, what changes occurred, and why hardcore fans accepted some changes and not others. As a longtime Walking Dead reader, I am well situated to explore fan response to shifts in the original continuity.

To understand what The Walking Dead meant to comics readers, one might well start with its extensive letter column. Here, dedicated fans ask questions and offer opinions about every major plot development. Kirkman established a deeply personal relationship with his fans, sharing behind the scenes information about his efforts to get the series optioned and then developed for television, responding to reader controversies, and discussing the comic’s core premises and genre conventions (“the rules”). Kirkman summarized his goals in the first Walking Dead graphic novel:

With The Walking Dead, I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events CHANGE them…. You guys are going to get to see Rick change and mature to the point that when you look back on this book you won’t even recognize him….I hope to show you reflections of your friends, your neighbors, your families, and yourselves, and what their reactions are to the extreme situations on this book… This is more about watching Rick survive than it is about watching Zombies pop around the corner and scare you…..The idea behind The Walking Dead is to stay with the character, in this case, Rick Grimes for as long as is humanly possible….The Walking Dead will be the zombie movie that never ends.[1]

If, as Robin Wood formulated, the horror genre examines how normality is threatened by the monstrous, Kirkman’s focus is less on the monstrous and more on human costs.[2] The comic’s artwork (originally by Tony Moore but mostly by Charlie Adlard) offers gorehounds detailed renderings of rotting faces (lovingly recreated for the television series by makeup artist Greg Nicotero) and blood splattering as humans and zombies battle, but it is also focused on melodramatic moments, as human characters struggle to maintain normality in the face of the monstrous. This merger of horror and melodrama may explain why, despite its gore, The Walking Dead comics appeal almost as much to female readers as it does to the men who constitute the core comics market. Early on, some fans criticized the comic’s shambling “pace,” going several issues without zombie encounters. However, once they got a taste of Kirkman’s storytelling, many realized how these scenes contributed to the reader’s deeper investment in the characters’ plights.

Given his intimate and ongoing relationship with readers, Kirkman’s participation as an executive producer on the television adaptation was key for establishing credibility with his long-term readers. Series publicity tapped Kirkman’s street cred alongside AMC’s own reputation for groundbreaking, character-focused television dramas (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) and the reputations of executive producers Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption) and Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator franchise) with filmgoers, establishing an aura of exceptionality.

The Walking Dead was a key discussion topic at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, a gathering of more than 200,000 influential fans. Posters, specifically produced for the convention, compared the television characters with their comic book counterparts. The trade room display reconstructed an iconic comic location, a farmhouse where a family had killed themselves rather than change into zombies. Both tactics reaffirmed that the series was closely based on the comics. And Kirkman was front and center, promising fans the series would capture the essence of his long-articulated vision. If the producers won the hearts of the hardcore fans, they might count on them to actively rally viewers for the series premiere. Thanks, in part, to the fan support in spreading the word and building enthusiasm, The Walking Dead broke all ratings records for basic cable for its debut episode and broke them again with the launch of Season 2.

By the time The Walking Dead reached the air, Kirkman had produced and published 12 full-length graphic novels, representing more than 70 issues. Yet, the first season of the television series only covered the first six issues. On the one hand, this expansive narrative offered a rich roadmap. On the other, it threatened to lock the producers down too much, making it hard for the series to grow on its own terms. Speaking at the Paleyfest in Los Angeles after season one, Kirkman acknowledged that exploring different paths through the material allowed him to explore roads not taken in his own creative process.

The challenge was to give veteran fans recognizable versions of the established characters and iconic moments. Fans must be able to follow the story structure in broad outlines, even as the producers were changing major and minor plot points, adding new themes and character moments. The audience anticipated that any changes would be consistent with Kirkman’s oft-articulated “ground rules” and yet the producers wanted the freedom to take the story in some new directions. The Walking Dead had built its reputation for surprising its readers in every issue—any character could die at any moment and taboos could be shattered without blinking an eye. How could the television series have that same impact if the most dedicated fans already knew what was going to happen next?

“Wildfire” was perhaps season one’s most emotionally powerful episode, where many core themes came into sharpest focus. It was based upon the final chapter of the first graphic novel, which set the tone for the rest of the comics series. The episode includes several memorable moments from the comics, specifically the death of two major characters (Amy and Jim), yet also several shifts that hinted at how dramatically the producers had revised things. Fans embraced some of these changes, while others violated their collective sense of the franchise.

As “Wildfire” opens, the protagonists are recovering from a traumatic and abrupt zombie attack that killed several recurring characters and forced the survivors to confront the vulnerability of their encampment, preparing them to seek a new “home” elsewhere, a recurring quest in the comics. The attack’s basic outline remains consistent with the graphic novel. For example, Amy gets caught by surprise when she separates from the others, while Jim gets chomped in the ensuing battle. The brutal attack disrupts a much more peaceful “fish fry” scene, which provides an excuse for characters to reveal bits of their backstory. The ruthless battle shows how each character has begun to acquire self-defense and survival skills.

Yet, a central emotional incident, Andrea’s prolonged watch over her dead sister Amy’s body, occupied only two panels of Kirkman’s original comic. There, Andrea tells Dale, “I can’t let her come back like that,” capturing the dread of a loved one transforming into the undead. The television series used this line as a starting point for a much more elaborated character study, built across several episodes as the two sisters, a decade-plus apart in age in this version (though not in the original), offer each other physical and emotional support. The two sisters talk in a boat about the family tradition of fishing and how their father responded to their different needs. Andrea plans to give Amy a birthday present, telling Dale that she was never there for her sister’s birthdays growing up. The image of Andrea unwrapping the present and hanging the fishing lure around her dead sister’s neck represents the melodramatic payoff fans expect from The Walking Dead in whatever medium. The expansion of this incident into a prolonged melodramatic sequence has to do both with issues of modality (the range of subtle facial expressions available to a performer working in live action as opposed to the compression required to convey the same emotional effect through static images) and AMC’s branding as  network known for “complex narratives,” “mature themes,” and “quality acting.”

 “Wildfire” shows Andrea protecting Amy’s body as the others seek to convince her to allow her sister to be buried, We hear the sounds of picks thrashing through the skulls of other zombies in the background and watch bodies being prepared to burn. And, finally, Amy returns to life for a few seconds. Andrea looks intently into Amy’s eyes, looking for any signs of human memory and consciousness, stroking her sister’s face as Amy’s gasps turn into animalistic grunts. The producers play with these ambiguities through their use of makeup: Amy is more human-looking compared to the other zombies, where the focus is on their bones, teeth and muscle rather than their eyes, flesh and hair. In the end, Andrea shoots her sister with the pistol she’s been clutching, an act of mercy rather than violence.

Much of the sequence is shot in tight close-ups, focusing attention all the more closely on the character’s reactions. This is the first time the television series has shown us humans transition into zombies. Several issues after this point in the story (issue 11), the comic revisits this theme with a troubling story of Hershel, a father who has kept his zombie daughter chained and locked in a barn, unable to accept the irreversibility of her fate (an incident which was enacted on screen near the climax of the series’s second season). Here, Andrea’s willingness to dispatch Amy is a sign of her determination to live.

The comic explores Jim’s death, by contrast, in more depth. Jim’s family had been lost in a previous zombie attack: Jim was able to escape because the zombies were so distracted eating his other family members. The book’s Jim is a loner who has not forged intimate bonds with the others, but who aggressively defends the camp during the zombie attack. In the comic, Jim is so overwrought with guilt and anger that he smashes one zombie’s skull to a pulp. In the television series, this action is shifted onto an abused wife who undergoes a cathartic breakdown while preparing her dead husband for burial. On the one hand, this shift gave a powerful payoff for a new subplot built on the comic’s discussion of how the zombie attacks had shifted traditional gender politics and on the other, it allowed a tighter focus on Jim’s slow acceptance of the prospect of becoming a zombie.

In both media, Jim initially hides the reality of being bitten from the other campers. Finally, he breaks down when someone notices his wounds. While the producers used the comic as a visual reference for this iconic moment, there are also substantial differences in the staging, including the shift of the bite from Jim’s arm to his stomach and the ways the other campers manhandle him to reveal the bite.

Jim’s story conveys the dread with which a bitten human begins preparing for a transformation into a zombie. In both the comic and the television series, Jim asks to be left, propped up against a tree so that he might rejoin his family when the inevitable change comes. Here, again, the television series elaborates on these basic plot details, prolonging his transformation to show the conflicting attitudes of the other campers to his choice. The television series is far more explicit than the comic about parallels with contemporary debates about the right of the terminally ill to control the terms of their own death.

In both sets of changes highlighted here, the television series remains true to the spirit of the original comic if not to the letter—especially in its focus on the processes of mourning and loss and the consequences of violence, both often overlooked in traditional horror narratives. Both represent elaborations and extensions of elements from the original book. And both link these personal narratives with the community’s collective experience, as in the scene where many from the camp say goodbye to Jim as he lies against a tree awaiting his fate. Some offer him comfort, others walk past unable to speak.

On the other hand, two other “Wildfire” plotlines represent more decisive breaks with the comics—the confrontation between Shane and Rick and the introduction of the Center for Disease Control. Rick had been cut off from his wife and son when Shane, his best friend, helped them escape, while Rick was lying comatose in the hospital. Believing Rick dead, Laurie and Shane couple until Rick finds his way back to his family. In Kirkman’s original, Dale warns Rick that Shane made advances on Laurie. In the television series, Rick has no idea of the potential infidelity, but the audience knows that Shane and Laurie have made love. In the graphic novel, the two men go out to the woods to have it out. In the final panels of the first graphic novel, Shane attempts to kill Rick and is shot in the head by Rick’s 8-year-old son, Carl. The boy collapses in his father’s arms and says, “It’s not the same as killing the dead ones, Daddy.” Rick responds, “It never should be, Son. It never should be.”

In “Wildfire,” tension mounts throughout the episode as the two men clash over what the group should do next. Both turn to Laurie for moral support, which she is unable to offer, instead saying, “Neither one of you were entirely wrong.” In the television version, Shane initially mistakes Rick for a deer in the woods until he has his friend in his gun sights and then finds himself unable to draw down. Dale, rather than Carl, comes upon the two men, ending Shane’s moral dilemma. When he returns from the woods, Shane seems ready to accept Rick’s leadership. Shane’s survival represents a decisive shift from the original, though by the season’s end, its ramifications were not clear. Perhaps this is a case where Kirkman saw unrealized potentials that, given a chance, he wanted to mine more deeply.

But, in removing Carl from the scene, the television producers could be accused of pulling punches, given how central the sequence of the young boy shooting the adult male (and its refusal to engage in sentimental constructions of childhood innocence) had been in the comic’s initial reception. Carl’s repeated brushes with violence, and his willingness to take action when adults hesitate, is a recurring motif throughout the books. If the comics often shocked readers by abruptly killing off long established characters, here the producers surprised some viewers by refusing to kill a character whose death represented an early turning point in the comics.

The visit to the Center for Disease Control, which is introduced in the closing scenes of “Wildfire” and becomes the focus for the season’s final episode, “TS-19,” has no direct counterpart in the comic book series. One of the hard and fast rules Kirkman established in the comics was that he was never going to provide a rational explanation for how the zombie outbreak occurred. As Kirkman argues in an early letter column:

 

As far as the explanation for the zombies go, I think that aside from the zombies being in the book, this is a fairly realistic story, and that’s what makes it work. The people do real things, and it’s all very down to Earth… almost normal. ANY explanation would be borderline science fiction… and it would disrupt the normalness. In my mind, the story has moved on. I’m more interested in what happens next then what happened before that caused it all.[3]

One reason Kirkman has Rick in a coma at the comic series start is so that the audience is not exposed to the inevitable theorizing which would surround a society coping with such a catastrophe. ( A web series, produced for the launch of the second season, further explored what had happened when Rick was in his coma, offering a range of contradictory possible explanations for the zombie epidemic.)

Many fans were anxious about the introduction of the CDC subplot, which implied a medical explanation. At the same time, the closing scenes at the CDC also represent the first time we’ve cut away from Rick or the other members of his party to see another perspective on the unfolding events (in this case, that of a exhausted and suicidal scientist). For both reasons, many fans saw this subplot as another dramatic break with the spirit of the comic.

And it came at an unfortunate moment—at the end of the abbreviated first season, as the last taste before an almost year-long hiatus. If the series’ publicity and presentation had largely reassured long time readers that the series would follow the established “rules,” these final developments cost the producers some hard-won credibility, especially when coupled with news that the production company had fired most of the staff writers who worked on the first season, that AMC was reducing the budget per episode for the series, and that producer Frank Darbout was also leaving under duress.

By this point, The Walking Dead was the biggest ratings success in AMC’s history, leaving many comics fans to worry whether their support was still necessary for the series’ success. It would not be the first time that a series acknowledged a cult audience’s support only long enough to expand its following, and then pivoted to focus on the new viewers who constituted the bulk of its rating points.

As this Walking Dead example suggests, there is no easy path for adapting this material for the small screen. There are strong connections between the ways seriality works in comics and television, but also significant differences that make a one-to-one mapping less desirable than it might seem. Television producers want to leave their own marks on the material by exploring new paths to occasionally surprise their loyal fans. The challenge is how to make these adjustments consistent not with the details of the original stories, but with their “ground rules,” the underlying logic, and one good place to look to watch this informal “contract” between reader and creators take shape is through the letter columns published in the back of the comics. It is through this process that the producers can help figure out what they owe to the comics and to their readers.

Further Reading

Gordon, Ian, Mark Jancovich, and Matthew P. McAllister, eds.  Film and Comic Books 

(Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 2007)

Jones, Matthew T.  Found in Translation:  Structural and Cognitive Aspects of the Adaptation of Comic Art to Film (Saarbrücken:  VDM Verlag, 2009)

Pustz, Matthew. Comic Book Culture: Fan Boys and True Believers (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2000).

 


[1] Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone By (New York: Image, 2006).

[2] Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Bill Nichols (ed.) Movies and Methods vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 195-220.

[3] Robert Kirkman, “Letter Hacks,” The Walking Dead 8, July 2004.

 

 

Comments

  1. Julieta Montero says:

    I think this analysis emphasizes a separation between media as supports of the narrative that is vanishing among fans (hardcore or not). When fans of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, LOTR / The Hobbit or The Walking Dead go from the text or graphic novel to the screens, what they see is a new chance to enter in a world that they love and of give new life to the characters and their stories. In this sense, compare what happens in each media is more fun than stressful, and actually helps the hardcore fans (defined as those who came early to the story, before the crossover) to take a role within the new fan community as key informants and experts.
    I also think the article refers to two central aspects of the crossover to be successful: the involvement of the author (or a crazy fan like peter jackson) and the maintenance “the rules” proposed at the beginning. These features allow fans to consume the story in different media as a whole and should lead us to think of these objects of analysis not as adaptations but as a transmedia story in which different logics and interactions are shaping a cultural product with multiple surfaces of existence.

    • Henry Jenkins says:

      Yes, I know a few things about transmedia. :-) But, we need to be clear that the producers see The Walking Dead television show as essentially a separate story from the comics, at this point, a parallel universe, but not an extension of what readers already know. For us to see it as part of a transmedia system, we would need to let go of the idea of a continuity-based version of transmedia (one where the extensions add logically to a single universe, as is, for example, presumed by the U.S. Producer’s Guild definition which Jeff Gomez produced) and accept multiplicity (that is, multiple versions which self-consciously tell the story differently from each other) as part of a transmedia system. I’ve been advocating that we at least explore the idea. By contrast, since I wrote this article, they have announced plans to make a second Walking Dead television series, which will explore a different set of characters operating on a different part of the same world as the current Walking Dead. This is technically not a transmedia extension, since it is being developed for television (the same medium), but it is much closer to the model of intertextual relations that many of us mean when we think about transmedia. The same would be true, for example, of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland or the new trial balloon circulating for a second S.H.I.E.L.D. series, Agent Carter, set at an earlier historical moment or for that matter, J.K. Rowlings’s plans for a new Harry Potter film not set at Hogwarts. These all follow a logic of narrative extension, rather than simply adaptation, but are in each case, extending within the same medium. But, the current Walking Dead is much more of an adaptation that has taken on a life of its own than it is a transmedia narrative as classically understood.

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