I sat in the car, the meter across from me ticking off the minutes and seconds until I became eligible for a parking ticket. In my hands I held issue 83 of The Walking Dead, freshly purchased from Earth Prime Comics a small store nestled at the bottom of Church Street.
I could not believe what I was seeing. The two page spread could not be real. Carl’s face sat front and center, the left portion of his boyish features obliterated by a stray bullet that had taken with it not just an eye, not just a huge portion of his skull, but my very breath.
“Dad?” He whimpered in a speech bubble.
Still in shock I turned the page, “Carl!” cried Rick, Carl’s father and the franchise’s central character. Tears streamed down his face; he had clearly come to the same conclusion that I had: there was no way in hell his son could survive this. Scooping his child up, Rick forced his way through the mob of zombies surrounding them and ran to the nearby infirmary begging Carl in broken words to just keep breathing, to keep going against the odds.
For the uninitiated, The Walking Dead is one of the most unflinchingly brutal narratives currently on the market; over the course of its many pages more than half the essential cast had died, often horribly. Women, children, even an infant have been killed, all sacrifices to a vision of the zombie apocolypse that is devoted to realism. In a world defined by violence, no one gets away scot free.
Rick and Carl are pehaps the most essential examples of this. At the beginning of the series they’re both idealistic and largely innocent. As the story progresses however both are transformed by the necessities of survival. Rick goes to extreme lengths to keep his dwindling family alive. In issue 83 alone he abandons a woman that he had previously been sleeping with and her child after they’re attacked by zombies. When she won’t let go of Carl’s hand, Rick promptly hacks it off with his trusty hatchet, uttering a shallow apology before leaving them to be eaten alive.
The knowledge of what Rick is willing to do, and moreover, what he’s already done for the safety of his son is easily what makes Carl’s likely death so painful for the reader. It doesn’t help that, despite what we’ve seen both of them do, they’re still likable characters. Both Rick and Carl are demonstrated to be monstrous people at time, but there brutality isn’t without rhyme or reason. They aren’t arbitrary killers out for blood. They’re merely a father and son doing what they must to survive.
In short, I’m outright apprehensive for issue 84 because I very plainly wanted things to work out for them in the end, at least to some degree. I really, sincerely want them to make it on a personal level even if it isn’t realistic, and while I have enormous respect for writer Robert Kirkman for having the cajones to stick to his guns and not pull any punches, suffice to say he will be breaking my heart if he goes the route that he all but has to go at this point.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I should expect anything less. While a lot of entertainment is still thoruougly devoted to maintaining the status quo, there have been more and more emerging examples of film, books, and video games succinctly devoted to walking a hard line. Whether it’s The Dark Knight blowing up Rachel, A Game of Thrones offing it’s main character, or The Darkness forcing the player to watch helplessly while the main characters girlfriend is sufficiently splattered against a window, there isn’t exactly a requirement nowadays that things work out fine in the end.
I wonder if there ever was. Perhaps this is less a changing of the times as it is a change in myself. With my youthful naivete draining away like soiled bath water I’m finding I have less and less of a taste for entertainment where everything winds up alright in the end. The world rarely works this way. Events constantly call on people to suffer and sacrifice and for every story of remarkble rescue and brave endurance there’s an untold tale of loss, tragedy and often, savagery. Perhaps, I’ve just come to a point in my life where, being able to recognize the world for the cruel place it can often be, I just can’t enjoy unlikely happy endings the same way anymore. Perhaps the death of the happy ending is very simply just the end of innocence.