Robert Kirkman didn’t just burst onto the comic scene in 2000 fully formed and ready for the spotlight. Yes, he had his trademark beard and muted sense of humor, but it was a long path from Battle Pope to the red carpet of The Walking Dead TV series and the board room of Image Comics. He initialized started out self-publishing, but early on hooked up with Image Comics — which he grew up reading.
Two of Kirkman’s strongest supporters — especially early on — were Erik Larsen and Eric Stephenson. Larsen is creator of Savage Dragon and one of the Image founders, while Eric Stephenson has risen through the ranks of the Image office from marketing to his current role as publisher. In our interview with Robert earlier this week, he pointed to these two men as mentors saying, “I’d bounce ideas off those guys and they would give me advice, and tell me different things I should do. I definitely learned a lot from those guys — and I still do.”
Newsarama talked with Erik Larsen and Eric Stephenson about Kirkman’s induction into comics, his path to success, and what stands out to them about his work and how he carries himself professionally.
Nrama: First off guys, how did you meet Robert?
Larsen: As Robert likes to tell me — he called me up to interview me for something and we chatted for quite a while, and that was how we met. I have no memory of that but given the fact that he does, I'm willing to go along with it. Then one year in Chicago, Robert said he'd give me a ride to the airport and it was like some kind of comedy routine finding the damned place. Luckily, I made my flight. I'm pretty sure that's when I met him in person, but I could be wrong. He's been reading comics since he was a kid. He could have been a kid at some show at some point who spilled pop all over my stuff and he's hoping I'll forget that incident. Turns out I have, so he's in the clear.
Stephenson: Robert and I corresponded via e-mail and talked on the phone before we ever met in person, from around the time he and Cory Walker started working on SuperPatriot. I guess that would have been sometime in early 2002, when I was first settling in as Director of Marketing. We met in person at a 4th of July barbecue in Chicago in 2002 and hit it off right away. Working with Robert has been one of the highlights of my career in this business.Nrama: You are uniquely positioned to have seen Robert grow over time in comics — what do you think was the real moment where he broke through into a major talent?
Stephenson: End of the first story arc in The Walking Dead.
I always tell people that I'm not a zombie fan. Haven't seen many zombie films, definitely don't seek out zombie comics. Like Jim Valentino, I was initially very skeptical about The Walking Dead's chances for success. I liked Robert's work, I like Tony's work, but based on the premise — a zombie movie that never ends — I wasn't immediately hooked. But over the first few issues, Robert really won me over, and by the time issue six rolled around, I realized what he was doing was actually quite special. It's been one of my favorite comics ever since, not because it's a good zombie comic, but because it's one of the best comics published today, period.
Nrama: Erik, what about you — when did Robert break out?
Larsen: When he told Marvel comics to go fuck themselves. That was pretty epic.
Nrama: Robert credits you two as being invaluable when he first started out in understanding the inner workings of the comic industry. Can you recall a specific instance, story or moment you two had that has stood out to you?
Stephenson: I don't know if there's any specific instance I could point to that was particularly interesting, especially when it comes to understanding the inner workings of the business. Robert either asked questions or wanted to do things that got us into discussing the ins and outs of various aspects of the business and he's really good at retaining information.
Beyond that, I think he and I just developed a really strong rapport right from the beginning, which is kind of odd really, because our tastes aren't all that similar, especially if you take comics out of the equation. We talk about movies all the time and frequently disagree wildly about things we've seen. I think we both have a similar vision of what makes good comics, though, and we both have a deep-rooted admiration for Image's founders. Outside the Image partners, I don't think you're going to find two more supportive voices for what we do here, and I think that's made it really easy for us to work together, to plot and plan for the future.
Larsen: When Robert was struggling to break in and getting nowhere I let him do a SuperPatriot book and keep every dime from it as though it was his own creation so he could establish his reputation and get a start. From that point on we have pretty much been on the phone like a couple of teenaged girls. It's embarrassing.
Nrama: Both of Robert’s core titles, The Walking Dead and Invincible, have bucked the industry trend by steadily increasing in sales… and without frequent changes of the creative teams. What are your views on what he and his team have built and nurture?
Stephenson: Well, I think they're two of the best comics currently being produced. I think Invincible is the best superhero comics out there, period. They're both drawn by phenomenal talents: Charlie Adlard has been on The Walking Dead since issue #7; Ryan Ottley has been on Invincible since issue #8, and you really don't see that kind of commitment from an artist these days. Almost no one does that kind of run these days, but Charlie and Ryan just get better and better.
In terms of content, they're not particularly similar books: One's a bleak survival story set against a zombie apocalypse, the other's a superhero comic. They're both fairly uncompromising, though, and even if they settle into a groove for a while, they always manage to surprise and subvert. Just when you're comfortable with the status quo, Robert pulls the rug out from under you. Characters change and die. There's a real sense that anything might happen.
Larsen: It's a hard thing for a lot of indie guys to establish an audience. Part of doing that is reassuring readers and retailers that you will be there month after month. That takes actually doing the work and getting it out there and doing a good job. Robert's done that. And in both cases that meant having to say goodbye to collaborators who were slowing down the process. In both books he had to change artists and in both cases those book exploded once they were coming out on a more regular basis. I'm still waiting for readers to notice that Savage Dragon is coming out regularly. My day will come.Nrama: Robert says he’s learned a lot from both of you — but what have you learned from him?
Stephenson: To speak my mind a little more freely.
Larsen: How to say really offensive things and still seem like an OK guy. I mean, sh*t — we're just having fun, right? Who doesn't like having fun?Nrama: The idea of inviting Robert in to be a partner at Image was, and is, huge news. Whose idea was it, and what sold you on his involvement with Image not just as a creator but a decision-maker?
Larsen: It was bandied about. I think a number of us thought it was a good idea. Todd was the one who broached the subject at a partner's meeting but there were no objections. We all thought he was a worthy partner and you know — no regrets. He's been great.
Stephenson: I think that once Robert and Todd started working together, Todd saw in Robert what Erik and I already knew, which was Robert's tremendous loyalty to Image and his ongoing support for what Image does.
Robert has a lot of good ideas and tends to think outside the margins. He's good at anticipating what's around the corner, too, and a very quick thinker.