Western culture generally idealises childhood as a time of innocence and purity, but many contemporary narratives have begun to ‘push back’ against such nostalgic views.
Writing in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Mark Heimermann, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, explores the horror comic The Walking Dead for its rejection of what he calls ‘the feasibility of maintaining childhood innocence’.
He writes that the comic, set during a zombie apocalypse, “illustrates the impossibility of preventing children from being exposed to ideas or situations many adults would prefer they not experience or witness.”
“In doing so, it denies the Romantic ideal of children as innocents in need of sheltering in favour of an acknowledgement that the most reasonable way to raise children in a violent world is to prepare them accordingly.”
Key to Heimermann’s research is his close study of the central characters – the child Carl and his father, Rick, as well as their friends – who all struggle to survive in an unforgiving, violent world. The constant tension between protecting innocence and preparing children to take on adult responsibilities is demonstrated through both the comic’s text and images, as is the tension between Carl’s adult behaviours (including murder) and his young age.
In Heimermann’s opinion, there is a disconnect between The Walking Dead’s view of childhood innocence and that of contemporary Western society.
He writes: “The Western world is changing: increased globalisation, technological advances like the internet and social media, and the continued emphasis of traditional media outlets on reporting violence has made it commonplace for children to be exposed to the dangers of the world. The ubiquitous nature of this exposure makes it harder to delude ourselves regarding the extent to which children may be sheltered and their innocence preserved.”
He concludes: “Maintaining childhood innocence is a conceit which is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in contemporary Western society … The Walking Dead demonstrates that the sheltering of children is untenable and rethinking this approach may be necessary in a world so very different from just a few generations ago.”
Heimermann suggests that the best today’s adults may be able to do is “provide comfort and understanding” as they acclimatise children to the realities of the world, and hope that “the sense of right and wrong we instil in them can serve as a moral compass”: sound advice whether or not zombies are at your door.
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