After celebrating centennial issues for his primary ongoings — “The Walking Dead” with artist Charlie Adlard and “Invincible” with artist Ryan Ottley — the writer is ramping up for the next phase of each comic. In the zombie drama, recent losses suffered by Rick Grimes’ group of survivors are being met in the series with new communities under the thrall of new leaders like the powerful Negan and the charming Ezekiel. Meanwhile in “Invincible,” former teen hero Mark Grayson returns to the title’s namesake identity as his father sets up permanent shop on earth’s moon.
CBR News spoke with Kirkman about both series, and below, the writer describes how the “Walking Dead” comic will never let the TV show dictate its path, how years writing about the zombie apocalypse has emboldened him to create more bizarre characters like Ezekiel and whether war is coming to the series. Then, he digs into “Invincible” and tells how Mark Grayson will be all grown up when he returns to the title in July’s issue #105.
CBR News: Robert, let’s start by catching up on “The Walking Dead.” I was struck reading the new material in this year’s FCBD special at how much you’re able to still mine from the comic’s past while you work on the TV show. Has the writer’s room process impacted where you want to take the book moving forward?
Robert Kirkman: Not really. I kind of pride myself on the fact that I’ve tried not to let the show affect the comic in any story way. I’m not blowing smoke when I say, “Oh, I’ve had this plan for years and years.” When the show actually happened and we started working on it, I already had the next two or three years of the comic pretty well mapped out. We’re starting to get to some elements that have been added since my time working on the show, but I haven’t really been altering the story very much. When I’m writing something for the “Walking Dead” comic, I’m not thinking, “How will this be adapted?” or “Are we going to get to this in the show, and if we do, what’ll happen?” I’m really writing for the comic.
Those origin stories [from the FCBD special] are things I’ve been trying because I do actually try and make an effort to funnel people into comic book stores. When Michonne was introduced in the show, we had an opportunity to do a story for “Playboy,” and I wanted to try and focus on something that would say, “Hey, if you read ‘Playboy’ and are a fan of the television show, here’s this mystery character who showed up at the end of Season 2. Now you can find out more about her in comic form, and if you like that, go out and find some comics.” And when Tyrese was introduced, we did a Tyrese story. The same with the Governor’s story, and the Morgan story existed a long time ago. That’s something we did for the “Image Holiday Special” a while back. I try to do these things that focus on “The Walking Dead” that are special and make it seem like there’s something cool you can only get by going to comic shops. If you’re a fan of the show and maybe picked up one comic at a bookstore, this is something you have to go to a comic shop to get.
I don’t know if that all works or not, but I’m lucky enough to be in this position because of the time and effort comic shops devoted to nurture “The Walking Dead” over the years. And if there’s anything I can do in a small way to veer fans of “The Walking Dead” in their direction, I’m going to try and do it.
The one way I feel the book has been growing since issue #100 is, with the new situations Rick and the survivors find themselves in, they are confronted with some new, charismatic leaders in Negan and Ezekiel. These are pretty much the biggest examples since the Governor of that idea in the series. What’s the draw of these “kingpin” characters for the book?
I think as the timeline progresses in “The Walking Dead,” it hits a point after a while where you kind of go, “I’ve seen Rick and his group survive and how they survive, so that makes sense. But now that they’re encountering new groups or characters that have been living in this world for two or three years in the timeline, how have they survived?” The answer to that is, some unique individuals like Ezekiel and Negan and the Jesus character on the hilltop seem to have adapted to this world. You’re going to see more and more characters that are bizarre and a lot stranger. These are characters that have been so affected by this world they’re living in, they’re vastly different from people we’ve met thus far.
The book has been around long enough now that we’ve seen a lot of normal people — and normal people who have grown into crazy individuals or hardened individuals. Now it’s kind of fun to come to characters at that point. We can just assume they’ve come to that point — not having seen the growth to that point but just coming at them in this really bizarre light. In Ezekiel’s case, you introduce this guy, and people go, “Wait. Who is this guy, and where does he come from, and how did he get that tiger?” [Laughs] It’s just completely strange to me and way more far-fetched than anything we’ve seen in this book. But over time, I can start to peel back the layers and show how things exist or how tigers are still around in this world or how he caught it and taught it. It’s stuff that makes sense after a while. I do like the idea of pushing the envelope and further exploring how this world is now, through characters who are pretty unique.
With Ezekiel, there is a certain charm to him. He is the leader of this group, after all. Do you want the readers to hope someone like him might actually be benevolent? Does that create some tension in the series or just kind of make it hit that much harder when things eventually fall apart?
Maybe it’s a little bit of that. I don’t want to go into that too much, but you do want people to like all these characters. At the end of the day, while there’s a lot about Ezekiel that seems strange, you want people to see how he’s a leader. If you’re a leader, you need to be a crazy dictator who leads through fear or someone who’s respected and liked — someone who seems to have a good head on their shoulders and actually produces results where someone would go, “Hey, I’m going to stick with this guy because I want to survive!”
The thought behind all these pockets of civilization existing in the book is that people in this kind of a situation have realized that surviving on your own, long-term, is pretty much an impossibility. In order to survive, these people would have to group together and form communities just so they can continue to exist. That’s why we’re starting to see all these little pockets of civilization, and every one will have a leader or a group of leaders who are holding them together. That’s what we’re exploring right now.
And maybe they’ll eventually just evolve straight into armies.
Well, maybe we’ll get there. I don’t know. [Laughs] Maybe you should pay attention to the news coming out of Image Expo.
Shifting focus to “Invincible,” you’re coming up on issue #105 which features the return of Mark Grayson to the costume and is billed as a good jumping on point for new readers. I feel like you’ve been working on this book so long now that this is the third or fourth “new jumping on point” issue you’ve done! Does your approach to opening the series up for folks change with each new clock reset?
Yeah. This is like the third, the fourth, the fifth or the sixth. There have been a few jumping on points, and it seems to have worked out. The book is still growing in readership, and I think that’s exciting. I think the first time I did this, it was kind of a recap of everything that had happened in the book thus far. It was like, “You totally know everything now! You can pick up issue #21 and know what’ll happen next.” But with this new issue, that’s kind of impossible. You can’t say, “Here’s everything that happened in 105 issues. Now you’re all caught up.” It’s more about introducing the world in a clear way and let people get to know Mark in a way that will make them want to follow his adventures moving forward.
It’s cool seeing just how the stories I can tell with Mark Grayson and the characters have changed after 100 issues. We’ll see if this is true, but I feel like I’ve got a lot more leeway in the directions I can take these characters and the amount of crazy stuff I can do. So it’s a little more fun to do a catch-up issue now. It was a bit of a labor back in the day.
Where is Mark’s head as we go into this arc? We had the Viltrumite War, his leaving the guise of Invincible to clear his head and then the death of everybody. Now that he’s taking the superhero role back on, what does he want to accomplish?
The main mode the book is in now is that it was always this “teen superhero comic.” That’s where it started, and that was the sub-genre of superhero comics it was in. It was a book about Mark Grayson, his story with his father, figuring out his powers and who he is and what he does. He made a lot of missteps along the way, but he also accomplished quite a bit.
Now, after the events of issue #100 and moving forward, he’s an adult. He’s in an adult relationship with Atom Eve. She’s pregnant, so they’re having a child together. And so the book is going to be dealing with more adult problems and more adult issues. This is a character we’ve actually seen grow to adulthood over the course of 100 issues, and now things will be changing up pretty drastically. We’re going to see an Invincible who kind of knows what he’s doing more than he has before. He’ll make better decisions. He’ll still make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, but he’ll be learning faster and getting better at things moving forward.
I’ve kind of come to this phase where, if you look at the last 100 issues as a whole, well, has Invincible been a very good superhero? Has he accomplished world-altering things? He’s kind of tripped his way through things most of the time, and that’s going to change, which is very exciting.
Though it seems from the cover to issue #106 that no matter how much you grow up, your old man will always be ready to knock you down a peg.
[Laughs] Totally. The other cool thing about the book moving forward is that Nolan, Mark’s father, is actually in the picture. He’s living on the moon now. He’s not out in space on Tellestria being checked in on every ten or 15 issues. He’s going to be a big part of the book moving forward. He’s going to be a grandfather. It’s kind of fun to tell stories that are informed by my relationship with my father since I’ve become an adult rather than going, “What was it like when I was a teenager and I was figuring things out and was embarrassed when my dad would find out how much of an idiot I was?”