“Becoming Who We Are”: The Horrors of Survival in ‘The Walking Dead Vol. 12: Life Among Them’

Here comes the rain again,

Falling from the stars.

Drenched in my pain again,

Becoming who we are.

As my memory rests,

But never forgets what I lost.

Wake me up when September ends.

— Green Day, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”

“No reason to get excited,”

The thief, he kindly spoke.

“There are many here among us

Who feel that life is but a joke.

But you and, I we’ve been through that.

And this is not our fate.

So let us not talk falsely now

The hour is getting late.

— Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”

Its title itself recalling the apocalyptic gathering of the “many here among us” in Bob Dylan’s classic song “All Along the Watchtower”, the latest installment of Robert Kirkman’s zombie epic The Walking Dead, entitled Life Among Them, is a harrowing study of what happens when your need to survive and protect those you care about becomes such a fervent obsession that it actually becomes self-defeating, and is the best volume of the series in some time.

Having finally found a safe haven, a home, a community, series protagonist Rick Grimes is, of course, skeptical. As readers of the series will know, Rick’s not had an easy few years: waking up from a coma in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, he had to track down his family, only to find his wife pregnant by his old partner. His life began to unravel even further when the Grimes family and their group were discovered by the villainous Governor, whose devastating final stand almost thirty issues ago still haunt the characters to their core.

It’s with the Governor in mind that Rick approaches his new haven, always keeping an eye open for trouble. He instantly doesn’t trust leader Douglas Monroe, a former politician who reminds Rick too much of the Governor, and Monroe’s advisors are weary of Rick because of his alleged similarities to a man named Davidson. The dramatic irony inherent here, in that both groups have no idea of each others’ histories with similar situations, makes the reader want to scream, to cry out, to reach into the world of the book and force these survivors to speak to one another about their pasts so as to stop history from repeating.

The theme of trust, of course, has always been a staple of The Walking Dead from very early on. Characters like Shane and the prison inmates were always looked upon by certain characters with a degree of concern and mistrust, and as with Kirkman’s story and Charlie Adlard’s art, the human drama is where the series has always shined. In this, Life Among Them is no exception. The characters’ desperation is palpable; each group knows they can trust their own cohorts, but anyone new is instantaneously a possible threat. This is complicated by the arrival of the Washington caravan recently encountered by Rick, Carl, Michonne and the rest, who have somewhat tenuously integrated into the main cast, and who themselves have their own internal conflicts and complicated histories. When one of them is exposed as a liar to the leader of that group, no punches are pulled and no feelings go unexpressed. For a series allegedly about zombies, the concept of human emotion being the star is a concept most modern filmmakers would do well to remember.

Much of Life Among Them also consists of small inversions of key moments throughout the series, with Douglas’s sexual advances towards Andrea paralleling a moment during the series’ prison years, and the “miraculous recovery” at the end of the last chapter serving as a reminder of even the gang’s worst enemy’s tactics. Finally, Rick seems to be letting his obvious Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder get the best of him, something that, in the early days of the series, he would have tried to hide. The amount of people he’d called insane even through the previous volume, the slightly weaker Fear the Hunters, would most certainly get their comeuppance this volume merely by watching the apprehensive, stress-filled Rick pretend, like Dexter Morgan, Sam Winchester or Gaius Baltar, to be an ordinary person. If nothing else, Here Among Them shows how desperate survivors of great catastrophes will go to pretend to be normal in public, but in private show their true, ugly colors.

As Tommy Jeppard, one of the leads in Jeff Lemire’s post-apocalyptic Vertigo series Sweet Tooth, remembers what made him human, Rick parallels that by slowly forgetting that, remembering only what is needed to survive, to save the most people, to do what he thinks he knows is right. One can’t help but think that by the time the two series end, Lemire and Kirkman should have a sit-down and discuss Jeppard and Rick’s journeys to and away from humanity.

Life Among Them also crystallizes a famous moment from a previous volume, turning it on its ear and trapping it in amber for all its readers to see from a new perspective forevermore. Earlier in the series, when Rick proclaims to his friends prior to the Governor’s attack that they’re merely going through the motions, struggling to remember normal life, that the zombies aren’t the title’s shambling masses but that his human companions “are the walking dead”, the readers are hit with a punch to the gut as Rick convinces them he’s right.

Now, though, as Rick walks clean-shaven through a school zone in a constable’s uniform but secretly plots a raid on the town’s armory just so he and his can feel safe, confident and secure (surreally and brilliant drawn by Adlard), one has to realize that Rick didn’t mean that Michonne, Carl, Dale, Lori and the rest were the walking dead.

Rick Grimes is the walking dead, and the only walking dead this series has ever truly seen. While his physiology may differ from that of the undead, his actions don’t. He justifies it with a dog-eat-dog worldview, but deep down, he probably knows it too.

If Davidson turns out to be another Governor, Rick will be vindicated, his steps towards becoming the victim of a total mental breakdown. On the other hand, should Rick be revealed as the second coming of Davidson, well…he might want to revise his statement.

He might want to say “I am the walking dead.”

I read the graffiti in the bathroom stall

Like the holy scriptures of a shopping mall

And so it seemed to confess.

It didn’t say much, but it only confirmed

That the center of the Earth is the end of the world

And I could really care less.

City of the dead, at the end of another lost highway.

Signs misleading to nowhere.

City of the damned, lost children with dirty faces today.

No one really seems to care.

– Green Day, “Jesus of Suburbia/City of the Damned/I Don’t Care/Dearly Beloved/Tales of Another Broken Home”

RATING 9 / 10