Warning: spoilers for the first season of “The Walking Dead” lurk ahead.
Southern lawman Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors of the zombie apocalypse have certainly seen sunnier days, but for fans of “The Walking Dead,” things have never been brighter.
Not only has Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s long-running Image Comics series continued to flourish on the printed page, but the television adaptation of “The Walking Dead” debuted less than two months ago with more critical and commercial success than many had anticipated. In addition to numerous positive reviews, the new AMC series based on the popular comic also holds the distinction of being the most watched TV show on any cable network of the year. Needless to say, the dead will continue to rot on television screens around the world for some time to come.
With the first season of “The Walking Dead” under our belts, CBR News reached out to comic book creator and television series executive producer Robert Kirkman to discuss the show’s past, present and future. In the first half of our special two-part interview, Kirkman spoke about his feelings on the success of “The Walking Dead,” the exhausting promotional process, deviations from the source material and how Shane’s continued survival could effect the future of the series.
CBR News: Congratulations on a successful first season, Robert. The folks at home seem to be enjoying the series: the ratings have been phenomenal and reviews have been great as well. Before the show began, I know that you were routinely asked about how it feels to see your creation come to life, and you had to give the same “surreal” answer every time. Now that the first season is over and the show has really proven itself, has that answer sort of changed to “relieved,” in a way?
Robert Kirkman: You know, I don’t know. I guess to a certain extent I’m relieved without ever really realizing that I was tense and hoping that it would do well. Going into it, I wanted it to get picked up for a second season and I wanted it to do well, but it got made and it was good. There’s really nothing you can do past that. I’ve had it beaten in to me that no one can really explain why a TV show is successful: sometimes things catch on and sometimes they don’t. I always knew we were one bad news story away from politicians getting involved and our show getting pulled off the air, so I was a little worried about the subject matter, and there’s just so many moving parts in television that it never really occurred to me to even bother hoping for a hit. I just kind of sat back and said, “Cool, here’s the TV show.”
But seeing that it’s actually technically the highest rated drama on cable, that you can actually say that about this, it’s ridiculous. The fact that it was on the cover of “Entertainment Weekly” – I don’t really think “surreal” applies anymore. I think “stupid” is the only thing that makes sense. [Laughs] I don’t know. It’s been a good year. It’s been really crazy.
This series has been your life for the past several months. When the show was first developing, did you have any idea how much it would take over your life? You’ve been getting flown around all over the place in promotion of the series – where did you go in October, was it France?
Yeah, the promotion kind of took me by surprise. I was told that I was going to be doing a little bit here and a little bit there, and I kept getting calls saying, “Hey Robert, can you do this? Hey Robert, can you do that?” It was very flattering that AMC and Fox International thought of me as someone they could go to for promotional stuff, but holy hell, if I’m ever on an airplane again, it’ll be too soon! [Laughs] It was rough. In October, I was traveling more days than than I was at home, which didn’t go over too well with the family. But I got through it and I was able to get some work done along the way, because I’m able to work on planes. But international flights are not fun.
Well, from that standpoint, you’re probably one of the few people on Earth who isn’t so upset that the show won’t be coming back for a little while.
[Laughs] Well, it’s weird, because for me, I’m already talking with [director, producer and writer Frank Darabont] about the second season. Work on the second season has already happened. When I see people going, “Oh my God, what about the second season?” Well, we’re working on it! We’re working on it as fast as we can. We’re knee deep into it. I don’t know what more we could do, other than just doing it as a reality show and start filming tomorrow. But no, there are no breaks in TV. I don’t think it’ll really start getting crazy until after Christmas, but there’s conference calls and all kinds of stuff still going on right now.
Looking at this past season specifically, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody who was reading what both you and Frank Darabont had been saying in terms of deviating from the source material: if there’s a story that seems cool and worthwhile but it’s off the path from the comics, you’ll go and explore it, as long as you get back on the path later. There were a few of those deviations this season, with the Center for Disease Control in the season finale being one of the biggest and most memorable. That one came up because the CDC really exists in Atlanta, right?
Yeah, that’s one of those dumb Robert Kirkman-not-taking-the-time-to-do-his-research-properly things. Whatever! Who cares? [Laughs] But that was definitely Frank going, “Hey, the CDC is in Atlanta,” and me going, “What?” It was a cool addition to the show. Everything that diverged off the path set forth by the comic was a cool addition. There was a lot of great character work that happened in the last two episodes. At the same time, there are still a lot of bits that were pulled directly from the comic books. It’s going to continue to do that. Season two, which we’re mapping out right now, I know that Frank has spoken publicly about Hershel’s farm. But there’s always going to be something different in the show. Sometimes quite a bit, and sometimes just a little bit.
I’m always pushing for these changes, because I want the show to be something that comic book fans can watch and be surprised by. Like you said, nobody should have been surprised if they were reading my interviews. Hopefully now they’ll believe me! I’ve been very adamant. I’m the guy in the room pushing for more changes. I’m the guy going, “I don’t care, kill Rick now! That’ll be crazy!” I just want the show to be exciting and great. I don’t really care if it’s a carbon copy of the comic book; above all else, I don’t want it to be a carbon copy of the comic book. But I don’t want to scare anybody, either. I think that the first season is a perfect example of what we’re doing.
Sure, there’s definitely material that’s pulled straight from the comic books. You got to tackle that yourself in writing episode four, “Vatos,” when the walkers attack the survivors’ camp – that’s straight out of the early days of “The Walking Dead.” As much as you’re enjoying the deviations, are you able to appreciate it when the comic is translated so faithfully for the TV series?
I guess there’s some satisfaction to seeing the scenes that I wrote in the comic appearing in the show. That’s kind of neat. But for me as a writer, it’s boring as hell to write a scene that I’ve already written. If I do end up having time to work on the second season, I’ll be pushing to get the episodes that are vastly different from what happened in the comic books, just because it’ll be more fun for me to write something new. I definitely enjoyed writing the camp attack scene, and I wanted to make it as different as possible, but it ended up being kind of the same.
To a degree, yeah, but the way your team handled Amy’s death and subsequent resurrection was certainly a little different. That must be a nice perk of being a cast member on this show – even if you die, maybe you get to come back for a severely messed up scene in the next episode.
Yeah, that’s pretty neat. [Laughs] I’m sure there’s going to be some actor along the way that everybody likes so much that they end up coming up with some reason to chain a zombie and keep them with them forever. “Oh crap, we didn’t read that actor’s contract – we need him for seven more episodes!” [Laughs]
Going back to the new material, did you have a personal favorite in terms of deviations from the comic book?
The addition of Merle and Daryl Dixon, in general, I liked the addition of those two characters to the series. I love the fact that Merle is still out there and nobody knows where he really is or what he’s doing or if he’s alive or if he’s dead. And Daryl, he’s added such an interesting dynamic. He kind of came in and added more of the conflict that in the comic book we have between Rick and Shane. It’s a more extreme degree. It was cool seeing that conflict come in.
There are all kinds of little additions, like the scene where Amy came back to life. That was a really great and memorable piece of television that wasn’t in the comic book at all. Anytime that there’s something like that where I’m kicking myself going, “God dammit, I should have done it like that,” those are actually great moments – and luckily, there have been a few of those this season.
You know, it’s really fun to go back and see all of these characters again. It’s cool seeing Glenn when he was young and not the character that he’s grown to become in the comic books now. It’s kind of cool watching the show come together, seeing the early stages of this, seeing Rick feeling his way out and trying to figure out what he’s going to do, as opposed to Rick in the comics now who’s just very headstrong and does whatever he thinks is right immediately. It’s cool seeing these characters acting a little bit differently [from the way they’re currently written in the comics].
One of the most fun things for me is the fact that Shane’s still alive and how much that changes how things will be moving forward. Anytime we go to Hershel’s farm or anything like that, Shane wasn’t there in the comic books, so just by design, throwing him into the mix is going to change these stories dramatically. There’s a lot of potential for a lot of cool things that people won’t expect because of that. That’s the stuff that I find the most exciting about the series – just exploring the changes and adding different layers that comic book fans won’t expect.
Check back with CBR tomorrow for the second half of our interview with Kirkman!