Robert Kirkman began his comics career by publishing his own work through the label of Funk-O-Tron. The most notable of this output was the infamous title "Battle Pope." His success there soon led Kirkman to bigger things like a four-issue "SuperPatriot" miniseries for Image Comics, which in turn led him to shutter his own publishing house and put out his own creator-owned projects through Image. In early 2003, Kirkman launched the superhero title, "Invincible," garnering both critical and popular acclaim. Kirkman then followed up on that success with something quite different, a black and white character drama set against a zombie apocalypse called "The Walking Dead," consistently the best-selling black and white title on the stands.
As "The Walking Dead" counts down to its milestone fifthieth issue, Kirkman sat down with CBR new to discuss the fan-favorite work.
"Rick Grimes is arguably the main character," Kirkman said of his "Walking Dead" cast. "He's the only character who's been in every issue so far...and he's the only character we've really focused on at all times. For the time being at least, 'The Walking Dead' is his story. He's a small town police officer whose life has been turned upside down by this zombie apocalypse business. He's got a young son, named Carl who will be taking a more active roll in the book starting with issue 50.
"There are a lot of characters for people to get to know in the book and they come and go as characters die off and new characters are encountered. This book has amassed quite a body count over its 50-issue run."
"There are aspects of different people here and there in the characters," Kirkman said of the basis for the large, though individually distinct cast, whose diversity and lifelikeness have made the book startlingly believable despite its fantastical premise. "A lot of different characters have aspects of my personality, I think, but for the most part, I'm just making people up. Not one character is exclusively based on one person. Except for The Governor, who is exactly like Joe Quesada. They are literally exactly the same."
As readers have learned, no one is safe in "The Walking Dead." The book has seen a great many characters leave it's pages, including some popular, well-liked ones. Kirkman said, though, that it doesn't get harder to make the death toll climb, no matter who it may be. "There have been times where I've held off on killing people because I didn't think they had become established enough. It's more fun to kill the characters that I'll miss. That has more impact. I've never killed off a character just to kill someone in an issue.
"For the most part, most people die because that's what would realistically happen. I recently killed off a big chunk of characters, not to shock people or shake the book up... but because a situation had arisen in the book where it would logically, be very hard to survive."
Despite their penchant for ending up six feet under, sometimes the characters spring to life in ways that even their creator doesn't expect. Said Kirkman, "There was a point in issue #18, I believe, where right up to the last minute Lori and Rick were plotted to get into a big argument and decide to split up. That was the plan for them since the beginning of the series. I was writing the pages and I was trying to steer the dialogue to where the plot needed it to go. I'd type Rick saying something and then Lori reacting and vice versa and I just could not get them to a place where splitting up was logical. It was like I wanted two people to break up--and they started being rational and agreeable to each other right in front of my eyes... and the scene came to a close with them still together. Weird stuff."
With such a large cast and in a seemingly constant state of flux, as characters die and new ones come onto the scene, some readers wonder whether Kirkman regrets populating "The Walking Dead" with so many substantive characters.
"At times, yeah, I wish there were less characters in the book," Kirkman confessed, "but really that's the nature of this kind of book. The characters live in a very dangerous world. If there were less of them the book would be over by now. I need to inject new blood into the book from time to time. And it's fun dealing with all the different personalities and points of view. So sometimes it's frustrating but for the most part, it's exactly what makes 'The Walking Dead' the book it is."
With such challenges, "The Walking Dead" is an ambitious book that sometimes seems to make its own decisions. Said the writer, "I've had a pretty loose plan that I've followed up to this point that I had worked out before I pitched the series. I had planned for them to arrive at the prison at the end of issue #7--not issue #12. I knew Michonne [a mysterious, katana-wielding woman] was going to show up with the two zombies in leashes, but I didn't know that would be issue #19. So things changed along the way. I always planned on them getting into a battle with another well-established group of survivors, but Woodbury and The Governor specifically came to me as I wrote the series. But the main points of the book were all in place at the start of the series. There are a few bits left that I haven't gotten to yet. I had big plans when we started this series. "
Kirkman still has big plans. "Once we hit issue #12 or so, and it was clear that we'd be around for a while, my mind just sort of exploded with possibilities. So at this point, I've got a roadmap that could take us to issue #300, assuming the readers want us around that long. Now, that doesn't mean I know what happens in the next 250 issues, that would be absurd, but I've got, like, ten or so big landmark events and getting to them and setting them up has a lot of little specific things that have to happen, so I don't know what issue things will fall in or even what order some of the things will happen in, but it's all just a matter of plugging in the events and working toward them."
While Kirkman has adopted a longer view of the series, it's not an infinite view. "I think the book is destined to end at some point," Kirkman confirmed. "Nothing lasts forever, and I don't see this as a 'Spider-Man-like' series that I would pass on to someone else at some point.
"Also, who knows... sales could tank at any moment and I'd have to end the book. It's unlikely but who knows when I'll say, 'this book is more popular than Jesus and turn the whole fan base against us.
"I really, really enjoy writing this book and all I've ever wanted out of my comics career is the opportunity to write a long issue-spanning story that I control 100%, so ending that seems foolish to me. If I ever saw that I was writing on co-pilot or not enjoying things or if readers were really hating the book, I'd do us all a favor and put a stop to it. Right now I feel like I could write this book for the rest of my life and be completely happy."
As the series has grown, so has Kirkman's storytelling. "I like to think I'm a better writer now and that I consider certain angles that I hadn't or wouldn't have back then," he said. "Who knows? I certainly don't see a significant difference in my writing but I'm sure there is. I think I'm more critical of my work now. I second-guess myself a bit more now than I used to, which is something I hate because it slows down the process a bit. I used to just lay out the ideas and keep moving, but now I examine, consider other angles, I'm doing things now that I probably should have been doing all along."
With that in mind, there is a type of story that Kirkman has yet to depict in "The Walking Dead's" pages, aside from the social, political, dramatic, comedic and horrific tales he tells from month to month. "I think it would be neat if there was a stretch of the book that was more action-oriented," the writer said, "but only if it occurred naturally. It's all about the characters at this point. I just go where they take me."
More than just Kirkman's writing has grown since the series began in 2003. "I've grown a lot as a person since I started this book," said the writer. "I'm almost 30 now, I have a son. My personal life is completely different. When I started this book I didn't have two nickels to rub together. Now I have many nickels, enough nickels. To say this series changed my life completely would not be an overstatement. My career would certainly not be where it is today without this book."
Over the last five years, "The Walking Dead" has amassed a devoted following. "It's very odd. I've talked to other creators about this, but we seek out the negative comments," the writer explained. "I'll go to a message board and skim positive messages about a given issue and then the one I read is the one that starts with 'This book sucks' or 'I quit.' We all do it, I think. It's like the negative feedback is all that matters. I print a lot of mail in 'The Walking Dead.' but a sure-fire way to get printed is to send me a critical letter. I can't do anything with 'I love this book' other than say 'thanks,' so I don't print a lot of those. I actually enjoy the little bit of negative response I get--as long as it's intelligent and not just 'This book needs more nudity and/or gore' or 'Please put out the book in color.' I could do without those."
Added Kirkman, "I think, like most creators today, there's a pretty open line of communication with the fans and myself. I'm super easy to get in touch with and I actually to respond."
Sometimes, with genre fans, there comes a point where they take ownership of the characters they love and become more possessive of them and, in turn more critical about how they're handled by those whose actual job it is to tell the story. With "The Walking Dead" hitting fifty issues, Kirkman has seen little of this syndrome.
"Not so much, thankfully," said the writer. "I know what you're talking about though, and it's always been kind of funny to me. Everyone in comics gets so bent out of shape about characters acting 'in-character.' Now, yes, Thor would probably never rape someone and Spider-Man wouldn't rob a bank. That makes sense. But if I had Rick cut off his son's head in the next issue, that would seem way out of character, but humans--are y'know, living breathing creatures who sometimes snap, flip out--and whatever. I never show you what Rick is thinking. For all readers know, Rick has been planning on cutting Carl's head off for years. People don't always act consistently with their inner selves and people, on average, do keep a lot of emotions hidden, for whatever reason. Frankly, anyone is capable of anything, and as long as the story is told well, abrupt changes in a person's behavior is quite realistic."
With a solid fanbase and now a solid history both in sales and story, now is the time that "The Walking Dead" would be primed to move beyond it's own monthly pages. But don't hold your breath. Kirkman has earned lots of attention from Hollywood regarding his zombie epic, "but I'm not going to take a deal just to take a deal," he said.
"My creator-owned work is very close to my heart and I'm lucky enough to not really need option money to survive, so I'm waiting for the right deal to come along. I don't want to just farm this thing out. I only want to do it if it's going to result in something good. I will say we came really close once and I was very excited, but this isn't horse shoes or hand grenades, so close doesn't count."
Nor is Kirkman about to start expanding out the series into a comics empire. "I think that's the mistake books make when they become as successful as 'The Walking Dead.' If I did a second series, it would make money--yes, it would be an instant success but how long would it last? I think dividing readers focus is a short-term cash-grab and a long-term detriment to the success of the book. If readers suddenly need to buy two books to get the whole story and they have to keep track of the order things occur in and things get more complicated, it weakens the integrity of the comic. Right now if you want to read 'The Walking Dead,' all you need is issues one through whatever-issue-just-came-out. Those are collected in trade paperback and hardcover to help you along--but you only need point A to point B. You don't have to know that 'The Walking Dead: Fire Bad' issues one to six take place between issues 46 and 47. If I was only in this to make money, I'd do three 'Walking Dead' series. There'd be tons of books carrying that brand, but I'm really here to tell my story, and I recognize how lucky I am to get to do that. I'm not going to do anything to mess that up. "
While a milestone like the series' fiftieth issue inspires a lot of looking back, Kirkman's also looked toward the future, both in the book and for the book. "There's a dramatic shift in the book starting with issue 48," said Kirkman. "I actually don't like talking about what's coming up in the book at all--because we've done a good job thus far of keeping things a secret and the book doesn't seem to have to telegraph upcoming big events to sell well. So things are changing a bit, and if you've read the issue you know what I mean. I will say--the characters are out of the prison. Things are more dangerous and the book is going in new directions it hasn't gone in before. We're all very excited."
Kirkman did drop one hint. "Charlie Adlard going to be drawing more buildings very soon."
"In the real world, [there will be] more issues, more trade paperbacks and more hardcovers," Kirkman continued. "The Book Four Hardcover containing issues #37-48 will be out this year, and our second deluxe hardcover, sometimes referred to as an Omnibus, containing issues #25-48 will also be out in time for Christmas this year.
"In other news, I'm committed to getting the book out on a perfect schedule. I don't like to apologize for our schedule. We've gotten to issue 50 six months shy of five years, so I think we're doing phenomenally well for an independent series basically because has there ever, eve rbeen another comic that's done that? Maybe 'Cerebus,' but what other independent book has made it to #50, let alone done it in such a short amount of time. That said, there's no reason we couldn't have reached issue #50 in month #50, so that's what I'm working toward; shipping the book even better than we have been. I do fell like we owe it to the fans and retailers who've made this possible. The least we can do is get them the book on a regular schedule."
Since "The Walking Dead" debuted, zombies have become something of a cultural meme and have seen resurgence in virtually all forms of entertainment media, and Kirkman thinks they're here to stay. "I think zombies have risen to the level of vampires and werewolves and will always be a staple of popular fiction -- with highs and lows like vampires and werewolves experience -- but I think they'll always be around in some form or another and I honestly wouldn't have it any other way."
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