The Walking Dead
Interview by: Bill Jones
Robert Kirkman may be one of the greatest ambassadors to the comics medium alive. As a writer, he has created the best ongoing zombie series comics have seen in The Walking Dead, carved his own space in the realm of superheroes with the popular Invincible, and has tackled the horror-meets-superhero genre with The Astounding Wolf-Man. All of this while keeping control of his properties through the creator-owned publishing model of Image Comics. That is all, of course, in addition to his work at Marvel, where he became known for his run on Ultimate X-Men and launched the Marvel Zombies series. He also earns cred for starting his career with a concept as awesome as Battle Pope.
In addition to juggling a number of comics franchises, Robert Kirkman has been hard at work in the position of executive producer of AMC’s television series adaptation of The Walking Dead, set to debut this October, directed by Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile). Kirkman took some time earlier this month to answer some questions about his long-running zombie series and delve into the gory details of the upcoming show. Kirkman talks about seeing his comic come to life as a show, his philosophy on adaptations of his work, AMC, working with Frank Darabont, how fatherhood influences his work and what fans can expect from both the show and comic.
So, I know you’ve been asked this question a lot lately, but it seems as good of a way to start an interview as any. I’ve read that you’ve been spending a lot of time on The Walking Dead set. What has that been like for you, seeing your characters and stories coming to life in a totally new way?
It’s been completely surreal to walk around on the set and see characters from the comic walking around in real life, interacting, and actually seeing what [Frank] Darabont and the designers and all the production people have done with actually bringing the comic book to life. It’s completely and utterly unreal, I’ve got to say.
And something I haven’t seen addressed much – Going to a totally different, live-action medium, is the visual style of The Walking Dead something that’s been taken into consideration when it comes to the show? Have any of the artists been able to stop by and see what’s going on? In what direction is the visual style of the show heading?
Well, they’re basing the zombie make-up on the art that’s appeared in the comic, and a lot of the settings are eerily similar. There’s been some kind of cosmic coincidence in that we’re hiring the best actors for each part, and in most cases they look eerily similar to how the characters look. But thankfully, The Walking Dead is drawn in a realistic style, so to do a television show where everything is ‘real’ – there’s not a lot of fantastic elements in Walking Dead outside of the zombies, so I think it will translate really well into a live-action series.
But just in terms of style and presentation, how is it being handled? If you look at stuff Zack Snyder has done in slow-motion to give it more of a comic feel – Is there anything being done to give it a distinct comic feel, or are you aiming for something totally different?
I’m hoping that we’re just giving it a distinct television show feel, because I don’t really like it when… I think 300 is a spectacular movie. I think it really worked well the way Zack Snyder did that. But The Walking Dead is a very grounded show. I think it will fit in very well on AMC’s network. It should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Breaking Bad and Mad Men as far as tone and dramatic substance. I would hate for it to be, in any way, comic book-y. The medium is able to do so many different things, and to make this look like a visual comic book kind of thing would be doing a disservice to it. Thankfully, they’re not going to be doing that. So Frank is adapting the material, and AMC is working with him to make the best show they can. It’s just going to look like a kick-ass television show.
Comics creators have run the gamut from wanting to write their own adaptations, to refusing to watch them like Alan Moore. You’ve taken the role of producer with The Walking Dead, and it looks like you’ve got an episode or two of writing credits. What’s your philosophy about having your books adapted?
I have the best of both worlds; I’m going to be an executive producer and write episodes, and later on I’m going to refuse to even watch it. So, I’ll do the Alan Moore thing, and then I’ll do the other thing. My whole thing is I don’t want to be tempted, to be lured into trying to be a television guy or anything like that. I’m happy to be an executive producer and I’m very involved in the show. It was a lot of fun writing Episode 104, and I’m hoping if it continues into Season 2, I’ll be able to write more episodes. But my focus is still squarely on the comics. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve had a good time with it. I’m only planning on being as involved in the show as I can while still focusing 100 percent on the series. So that’s what I’ll be doing.
Would you say it’s been an ambition of yours to get one of your books adapted? I had a chance to sit in on your San Diego Comic-Con panel last year and you mentioned that things have come up before but haven’t worked out. Is it something you’ve always wanted and worked toward, or it just happened and you’re cool with the fact that it’s happening? Did you always hope to see Walking Dead on the television screen?
Having ambitions to see Walking Dead on the television or movie screen is kind of like having ambitions to win the lottery, or having ambitions to get struck by lightening. It’s a very hard thing to have actually happen. I certainly wanted it to happen, just because I knew it would be good for the book. It would be good for my children’s college funds. I’m certainly not against adaptations like some creators – like, I guess Alan Moore is the only guy in that category. It was never something I was upset hadn’t happened yet. I wasn’t dying for it to happen. It was just, if it happened, that’s great. Luckily, The Walking Dead is a fairly successful comic series, and that’s what I set out to do was have a long-running comic series that I was able to control and guide the story on my own to do whatever I wanted with, and that’s what I got. A television show is just icing on the cake.
How long has Frank Darabont been attached to this project? I’ve read a few things that make it sound like he’s been on board going back to pitching this project to other networks (like NBC) before AMC picked it up…
Yeah, it’s been a long time. I don’t remember the exact year. I want to say 2005. He’s been attached off and on. He was always kind of in the picture, always trying to make it happen. The NBC thing didn’t work out, but we kept in touch. I would have dinner with him every year in San Diego. He did The Mist, and while he was doing The Mist he kind of took some time off from trying to get The Walking Dead made. But he’s been attached in some way for awhile. He told me early on, ‘Don’t worry, man. I’m going to get this thing made. I really care about this. I really love it.’ And you don’t know a guy. You’re from Kentucky and you’re meeting Hollywood people. I’m kind of like, ‘Yeah, all right, buddy. That’s real nice of you to say, but I know how things work. You’re probably just blowing smoke up my ass.’ But to Frank’s credit, he’s never really steered me wrong. He’s always come through on his promises. It’s really kind of impressive. So he pulled it off.
What’s it like knowing he’s at the helm of the series you created? You mentioned The Mist, and he’s probably best known for his Stephen King adaptations, interestingly enough two of them – Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile – taking place in prisons…
It’s extremely flattering to see someone of Frank’s caliber interested in the material and actually…it’s lovingly adapted. He definitely cares about the original source material, and you can tell that in the way he’s adapting it. It’s an extreme validation of the work. I’m extremely thrilled to have him. Never in a million years could I have thought that if Walking Dead were to ever be adapted that everything would be going this well. I think that that’s all because of Frank. It’s really awesome. I don’t know how to put it any other way.
A lot of people initially questioned the pick-up by AMC, maybe underestimating how graphic a cable network can get. But you’ve mentioned before that there’s a lot more to The Walking Dead than just gore. So that brings me to two questions. 1) What kind of show can we expect on AMC, in the hands of Frank Darabont, in comparison to the nature of the comic? And 2) If the gore, in the scheme of things, isn’t what’s important, why do you opt to include it in the comics?
Well…I include it in the comic because, you know, shit happens and it’s a realistic part of the story. It’s cool. I will point out that in the series it’s never extremely excessive. There are a few shots where it’s extremely prevalent. It’s always a little toned down. But I’m really excited with the fact that the show’s at AMC, just because the expectations are that things will be toned down, and from everything that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot of footage), I think a lot of people are going to be shocked with how much this isn’t toned down. To a certain extent, I think they’re probably going to have more gore in some parts of the show than there is in the comic. There have been a lot of shots of extremely nasty stuff. And I’ve been told by all the network executives that they’ve got everything cleared and everything’s going to make it on air. It’s really kind of astounding. So, I’m glad that expectations are that things are going to be toned down, because I think that when the show finally does air, people are going to be blown away. It’s going to be pretty neat.
In general, how closely is the show tied to the books, and where does it depart? In essence, what makes this Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead versus any other zombie movie or show?
Every character from the comic book, for the most part, is in the show, and they all act and behave the same way. So it’s really the same cast. Their predicament is the same, and for the most part the settings are the same. It does follow the book very closely in a lot of parts. I can’t really point out the points where it diverges, but you’ll see that in the show. It’s a good thing for me, because the show kind of weaves in and out of the comic book narrative. So you get the high points. You get a lot of the important moments that are in the book, but in a way that things still come as a surprise. There are a lot of different things that are going on. There are a few characters who aren’t in the comic. So, anybody who is familiar with the comic series is going to be able to watch the show and enjoy it as if they were watching something completely new. And then sometimes they’ll be surprised, like, “Oh, Wow! They totally did that one thing,” or, “Oh, crap! I didn’t know that’s what they were building to. That’s that.” And a lot of times things will be fairly close to the comic. So it’s exactly what I wanted; it’s a faithful adaptation, 100 percent as far as tone goes. And the story takes all the good stuff and adds even better stuff. It’s going to be great.
In line with that, we’re going to see some characters on the screen who have met their fates in the comic back to life on the screen. Do you see this at all as a second chance to explore an alternate reality of Walking Dead, as if certain scenarios ended differently or certain characters hadn’t died?
Yeah, and I think that’s going to be really fun as the show goes on, because the characters in the show…some of them could die sooner than they did in the comic book, and some of them could die way later. So we’re bound to see different characters in different lights, and maybe get to explore a few characters a little more than we did in the comic. That’s a really exciting aspect of the show for me.
You mentioned that through all of this, the comics are still the key interest for you. How is the production of the show affecting your work on The Walking Dead comic and Invincible? It seems like you’ve usually got a million things going on at once, and have become somewhat known for working at your own pace and putting things out when they’re done, not always on a strict schedule. Does the show make it much harder to work on the books?
I do a lot of writing on planes, so luckily when I walk on an airplane it seems to make me focus more. I try to do a lot of plotting before flights so I’m able to get a lot of work done. So the traveling, to a certain extent, does kind of help get some things done. Basically, it’s a lot more traveling and a lot more work, but I’m able to juggle it all. I’m happy to say The Walking Dead shipped monthly, on time, last year. We’re going to be shipping 12 issues again this year, too. So, I’m able to stay on track. It’s a little bit difficult because there’s a lot of workload because of the show, but I’ve been able to juggle it. And we’re mid-way through production at this point, so all is well.
Do you find yourself writing anything differently knowing there’s a show in the works? I wouldn’t claim to know how he writes, but many people suggested that when Mark Millar knew Kick-Ass was going to be a movie, he started writing the comic with a movie in mind, if that makes any sense. Do you see the show influencing your comics work in any way, good or bad?
No, because thankfully I’m so far down the road on the series that I could already be to a point far past where the show could get, and the show could take a completely different path. So, it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that we’ll get to the things I’m doing in the comic book right now. TV is a tough business; who knows how many seasons this will last? So, it’s not really influencing me much with how my plotting and what I’m doing with the characters goes. I’m still planning on killing Rick next issue, so I haven’t changed my mind there.
…That was a joke. But I was working on a recent issue after spending a week in the writers’ room, and I found myself using words I don’t usually use. They use the word ‘walker’ a lot for zombies. They try not to say ‘zombies’ in their scripts because they think that’s neat or something. I usually say ‘zombies’ in the scripts all the time, and I find myself saying ‘walkers’ instead. There were neat little things creeping into my comics scripts from the way I had written my episode. That was kind of funny.
And what can people expect from the current arc in The Walking Dead comic? You’ve introduced them to hope in the form of a walled-off city where people cling to a way of life from before the zombie times. But you’ve started to raise questions about how they can live in such an environment after going through and adapting to everything else? Where does it go from here? What can fans expect on the horizon?
We’ve kind of gotten to a core cast that has lived together for a long time. And now that they’ve gotten into the community, some people are adapting better than others. Some people are adapting in an extremely poor way. Moving on in the next few issues, we’re going to see some of the characters start to crack up, and really lose their ability to exist in a normal society. That’s going to cause a lot of fractures in the group, and we’re going to see people start taking sides. There’s going to be a lot of conflict. And then at some point there’s going to be some more zombie action, so stay tuned for that.
And going back to the workload we were discussing – You’ve had a couple of children at this point. How does that affect the balance of work you do, and more importantly, how does being a father change your outlook on life? Do you find yourself bringing a new perspective to your comics?
As far as workload goes, I have a strict working schedule. I stop every day at 5 and don’t work on weekends so that I can be there and spend time with my kids. Aside from traveling and everything, I don’t want to be away from them any more than I have to. I do that because I don’t want to be an absentee dad or anything like that. The workload does get out of hand sometimes, so I end up stealing some nights when I should be sleeping. After the kids go to bed, I’ll just stay up and work. That seems to be working out so far – we’ll see. I’m sometimes tired a lot, but I make it through.
And as far as informing the story content, I try not to let it. One really big problem that happened is…Once you have kids you become kind of a sissy. It’s really hard for me to watch a movie where any kid is in danger. There’s a lot of stuff with the kids in Walking Dead. It’s a harsh world, things happen. I found myself not wanting to push the envelope as far as bad things happening to the characters. Having a child really does kind of soften you up a bit, so I’ve had to force myself to recognize that. So oftentimes I’ll be plotting the series and go, ‘I really don’t know if I should do that. I don’t know.’ Then I go, ‘Stop being a sissy,’ and that makes me do it. And the interesting thing is, in thinking about it, I probably would have second-guessed myself sometimes before I had a kid. But now that I have a kid, I kind of blame it on the fact that I have a kid that’s making me a sissy, so I probably end up doing more things than I would have done before I had children because I don’t want to feel like I’m pulling my punches. So, I think it’s made me do more violent stuff in the book. Go figure.
For more info, www.kirkmania.com
July 22nd, 2010 at 7:52 am
Wow. Great interview, asking questions I’ve wanted Kirkman to answer but other interviews never got around to asking.
I’ve been a fan of the site for a while but this interview takes it to a new level of awesome. Keep up the good work.
July 22nd, 2010 at 1:32 pm
Nice job, Bill. Very good read.
September 5th, 2010 at 3:09 pm
Very interesting and I have been waiting for the TV series to get started up. It definitely sounds promising.
October 17th, 2010 at 11:03 am
Trailer for the show which starts this month!