Post-Apocalypse Now?

On my honeymoon, I read both The Stand and The Road — because what better time to consider life after the apocalypse than the two weeks after you get married?

King’s soapy, genre-serial epic — which is now, unsurprisingly, a comic book (and a rather good one, too) — works on the assumption that, following the total collapse of civilization, the survivors more or less immediately begin working to rebuild a functional society. McCarthy takes the opposite tack: After almost everyone dies, the remaining few quickly descend into a violent, anarchic free-for-all.

The key difference between the two situations presented is that in The Stand, King leaves the remnants of civilization standing. Most people die, but America’s infrastructure, at least, remains. That allows King to more or less ignore the resource problem. Everything that ever existed becomes free, and with so few people left alive, the book’s assumption is that, with a few exceptions (military-grade weapons), there’s plenty for all.

The Road‘s world, on the other hand, is an ashen wasteland — burnt to a crisp by a season of firestorms. Resource collection is not just the first order of business for survivors, it’s the only order of business. There’s no time to reestablish civil society, or any social cooperation, because there’s barely enough time to track down the few remaining scraps of food.

I suppose I have a harder time believing in McCarthy’s vision, mostly for its lack of human innovation and cooperation. It’s not that I think that a world like he describes would be entirely peaceful; on the contrary, I think it’s more than likely that there would be ongoing war, or at least irregular violent squabbling, between various ad-hoc tribes. But it seems to me that there would be tribes of some sort, and cooperative systems, however crude, put in place in order to increase the welfare of the tribe (or at least some of its members). There would be resources to develop and harvest — at Volcano National Park, even the darkest, most barren lavascapes still showed signs of green — and humans would gather together to attempt to gather those resources and put them to use.

The Stand‘s vision of cooperation, on the other hand, is far too easy, consisting mostly of minor squabbling at town meetings. Granted, King’s book is informed by King’s clear to desire to craft a doorstop-sized epic, which in practice means pitting humanity against itself in an age-old battle between mystical forces of good and evil. One gets the sense that the societal structure questions the book raises are mostly interesting to King as diversions on the path to the inevitable apocalyptic showdown. Disappointingly, I think, he never really figures out what form that showdown should take. So when he cannot delay the conclusion any longer, he whiffs, blowing everything away with a nuke-ex-machina.

For a better balance between the two visions, you can turn to Robert Kirkman’s too-good-to-be-a-comic-book* zombie serial, The Walking Dead. You’ll hear a lot more about this series in the neat future, as Frank Darabont is producing a TV adaptation for AMC this fall. Volume 12, in which the characters finally reach Washington, D.C., just hit stores this week, and, as always, it’s thoroughly gripping. The thing about the series is that it’s not really about zombies. Sure, there are hordes of undead running around Kirkman’s East Coast, but they’re fixtures in the apocalyptic landscape rather than the story’s focus. Instead, Kirkman’s series is about surviving after the apocalypse, about how the bonds of family and friendship hold up under the greatest possible strain, and about how small societies form and breakdown in the absence of civilization.

As in The Stand, you see some cooperation between individuals, some attempts to permanently settle and improve their collective lot. But it’s never as easy, stable, or binary as in King’s book. Tiny tribes and outpost form and fall, some successful, others less so. Usually, those societies must face the unintended consequences of their decisions — to stay in a particular location, to rely on a particular set of resources for food or energy. The question that the characters always seem to be responding to is that one that drives most societies: Given the limited knowledge, time, and physical resources we have, what do we do now? When there are disagreements over the answer, you see fissures in the social framework; friends fight, shift allegiances, become enemies. Moments of hope become moments of terror, and vice-versa.

As drama, it’s as smart, inventive, and addictive as any genre serial I can recall. But even more than that, it’s a surprisingly subtle exercise in imagining how societies composed of contemporary Americans might form, fail, and succeed in the absence of national authorities. For King, civilization was about taking a stand against a looming, certain evil. For McCarthy, it was about whether the existence of progeny is enough to maintain the self-will to survive. But Kirkman’s obsession is with something less grandiose — yet, for most of us, far closer to home: the day-to-day struggle for comfort and stability. It’s both the reason we build societies and the reason we leave them, hoping to find something better. It’s also a large part of the reason why we get married, buy homes, and settle down. And I for one am just be glad not to have to do it while being attacked by zombies.

*I should note that I don’t actually mean this as an insult to comics. I’m a pretty huge comic book geek! It’s just that Walking Dead strikes me as a really superior example of the form, and one that ought to appeal to folks who don’t typically like comics as a medium.