The official announcement on Tuesday of a new horror series by Robert Kirkman looks promising, but can it repeat the success of The Walking Dead? The co-creator of one of most successful comic books of the past decade has become one of the high-profile figures in the industry, so the new project (with artist Paul Azaceta) calls out for a closer look.
When his zombie comic debuted in 2003, Kirkman was primarily known for superhero comics, like the more traditional Invincible, which had launched only months earlier, or the parody Battle Pope. A black-and-white horror comic that had none of the Spider-Man-style lightheartedness of those early Invincible issues or the dark humor of Battle Pope was unexpected from the writer. Even his lesser-known work, like Tech Jacket, Brit, Superpatriot or (how’s this for obscure?) the Masters of the Universe: Icons of Evil one-shots and Space Ace, all typically fell somewhere within that spectrum, never getting too dark and sometimes heading into outright comedies. Of course, any writer worth his salt can do more than one genre or tone. The Walking Dead definitively stepped out of his known territory, immediately proving itself to be startlingly tense, dark and dead serious. And like 30 Days of Night the year before, it demonstrated once again that comics could do horror.
Word of mouth about the series soon spread, with sales of each issue improving during an industry-wide slump. It became a cult hit, and by the time the first collected edition was released, back issues were beginning to spike on the resale market. Each subsequent year, sales seemed to grow exponentially, until it became the perennial hit that it is today. Needless to say, this led to a television deal with AMC and the pop culture phenomenon that it’s become, which has helped accelerate a zombie craze.
Probably unintentionally so, but the timing of The Walking Dead caught that growing craze at just the right time. Resident Evil and 28 Days Later were reawakening the subgenre. Everything else mostly lived in the shadow of George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, which introduced the zombies to mainstream audiences. Kirkman tended to lean toward Romero’s shambling depiction of the undead, although the writer’s revenants could pick up the pace at times. What helped his take stand out was the focus on the living and their struggle to survive. Kirkman also stubbornly refused to use the Z-word and kept the focus on average people who were left clueless over what led to this apocalypse. Despite the flesh-eaters, it was the most grounded and emotionally honest material we had ever seen from him. As he matured as a writer, he got a better handle on his expository tendencies with dialogue and embraced the power of silence between characters, giving more room for artists Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn to really shine. Another strength was the open-ended sprawl of the story: Kirkman repeatedly stated early on that he wanted to see what happened after the credits of a zombie movie. That sort of ambitious long-form narrative had never been done to explore the long-term effects of a zombie apocalypse.
After The Walking Dead juggernaut established itself, you’d think we’d see more hits from Kirkman. Of course, The Walking Dead is still doing gangbusters — the fourth season of AMC’s hit television adaptation premieres Sunday — and that would be enough success for anyone. But Kirkman has shown he’s not content to simply rest on his laurels. Invincible, while long ago eclipsed by The Walking Dead, carries on as a solid performer, even expanding to its own mini-franchise, but it seems to have lost the hit-making buzz it first had. After his stint with Marvel fizzled out, Kirkman became adamant about sticking to creator-owned material; I admire his position but unfortunately not much else has really caught on. The Astounding Wolf-Man with Jason Howard seemed to be the first successor but maybe an adventure/superhero/horror series starring a werewolf was just a little too left of center to catch fire. Pairing Kirkman with Todd McFarlane seemed like a ready-made blockbuster, but Haunt never seemed to click either. Needless to say, partnering with Rob Liefeld for The Infinite didn’t do any better, nor did Hardcore with Marc Silvestri. I was sure that the kid-friendly Super Dinosaur, again with Howard, was going to do gangbusters, but nope. At least it’s still trucking along, though.
Then came the crime series Thief of Thieves, which also seemed promising, with an interesting “TV show writers’ room” experiment to the way it’s co-written, but again it hasn’t torn up any sales charts, to my knowledge (like Outcast, Thief of Thieves is being developed as a TV series for AMC). With all of these, Kirkman is experimenting with different genres and a variety of collaborators, making it clear he loves creating comics and isn’t content merely coasting with The Walking Dead.
After all of those, Outcast seems to have the greatest potential for capturing that lightning a second time: First of all, Kirkman is working with another talented artist, Paul Azaceta, who’s excellent at portraying mood, character and suspense; like all great comic artists, he’s a storyteller first. Another good sign is that Kirkman getting to put his spin on another horror subgenre that could be on the cusp a comeback. It’ll be interesting to see how he portrays the exorcism and demon-possession tropes. Another important distinction is the intention for this to be a long-form narrative, not a miniseries; while there is an ending, it won’t be reached for years. But more so it will be interesting to see how he has his characters exist in such a world where exorcisms and demon possessions happen frequently. And once again, characters look to be his focus — and as with The Walking Dead, Kirkman has already said he’s not afraid to kill them off. Despite the commonalities, it feels not like a rehash but a craftsman experimenting with the pieces that clicked last time and seeing how to shift them just so.
Will Outcast be the next Walking Dead? Repeating that kind of colossal success may not even be possible. It might end up being like one of Michael Jackson’s siblings trying to compete with the success of the King of Pop. But on any other scale, there’s nothing wrong with how Janet Jackson did. Outcast is already set up for a TV adaptation, so I’m sure everyone is hoping it will be the successor to the throne. Regardless of how it stands up, creative people making great comics is good news for everyone.