Although Robert Kirkman may be the defacto public face of the zombie craze thanks to the success of The Walking Dead, series artist Charlie Adlard is the one who turns Kirkman’s written word into comics magic. Over the course of six years and sixty-plus issues, the veteran artist has taken this survivalist road trip through zombie-infested lands and put a face to it and the horrors Rick and the gang have seen. Replacing original artist Tony Moore, Adlard came onto the book not trying to replicate his predecessor’s style and instead gave it a bolder town comprised of heavy inks and shadow effects in tune with the story’s tone. Adlard joined the series in 2004 with the series’ 7th issue, and together Kirkman and Adlard have had one of the longest and most successful uninterrupted runs in modern comics.
And for Adlard, it’s something he’s been wanting to do his whole career. Adlard broke into comics almost twenty years ago on the UK comics scene on Judge Dredd, but bounced around UK and American comics as a journeyman artist working on such titles as Warheads, X-Files, Shadowman and The Establishment. He did a series of titles published by AiT-PlanetLar in the early 2000s like Astronauts In Trouble and CodeFlesh, and worked on a glossy sci-fi revamp of classic Marvel character Warlock before joining up with Robert Kirkman on The Walking Dead. Fast-forward six years and he’s still at it; although the monthly schedule can be grueling, Adlard has found time for side projects and a visit to the set for the TV adaptation of the series, where he got to suit up as a zombie himself. Newsarama talked with the artist by phone last week about the series, the schedule and the success of The Walking Dead.
Newsarama: Charlie, when did the reality of a Walking Dead TV series finally sink in for you?
Charlie Adlard: It was one of those things you couldn’t predict; with most TV shows and films that come from other media, the gestation of it seems to go on forever. When the TV series actually started to happen, there wasn’t one specific point where you could say “Oh, That’s IT!”. It was a series of gradual things that happened. Literally, then they’re suddenly making the TV series.
But having said that, it hasn’t been that long of time – it wasn’t until the beginning of 2010 that things started to happen. When you think about it, in the span of 11 months they’ve gone from “they might be making it” to the TV show is completely done, finished and airing.
Nrama: The Walking Dead is airing on AMC this Sunday, but for those like you in the UK who don’t get AMC it’s appearing on FX on November 5th. Will you be watching it?
Adlard: I’d love to, but I don’t get that channel. That channel is a sort of pay-per-view channel, and I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to that. We have BBC and pay for it with out taxes, so I refuse to pay for TV that has adverts. Plus it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch.
But thankfully, I was sent DVDs of the show just this past week so we’ll be watching it that way.
Nrama: They filmed The Walking Dead in and around Atlanta, Georgia – and I read you flew out and even got dolled up for it. Can you tell us about that?
Adlard: I went for three days during the middle of June, and they had shut off four streets for filming. It was known as “Zombie Weekend”, as they were filming a big big zombie bit where they had over 100 extras all dressed up in various zombie guises – from detailed prosthetic make-up to less defined work for those only appearing in the background. It was amazing, and funny really, because I really began to realize how far TV production had come since the 70s – they compete with film now in terms of budget. It felt like I was on a professional film set – incredibly expensive, and filled with set dress to make it look like the apocalypse! [laughs]
I also got to be a zombie for a day on the show. I got the full treatment of prosthetic make-up – not just a mask and some tacky clothes. I was privileged enough o sit in Greg’s make-up trailer and have one of his guys do proper zombie make-up for my screen debut. The only downside was the heat – everyone was complaining about the 100% humidity and 35 degrees Celsius heat. It wasn’t very comfortable. I had the option for being a zombie for two additional days, but I fancied hanging out and watching whats going on rather than being in it. It’s also nice to hang out in shorts rather than a couple layers of clothes in the sweltering heat. I could also seek shelter in the shady bits.
Everyone was really friendly on the set, and I had a fantastic time. I’m grateful AMC allowed us to do it.
Nrama: When I talked to Robert he said he was on the set for a large part of the production. I know you’ve inevitably met in person before, but was he there when you were there?
Adlard: Yeah, I’ve met Robert at least four or five times including on the set.
Nrama: So what do you guys talk about when you’re in person? Is it all business or do you get a chance to relax?
Adlard: It’s a bit of everything really. A lot of work is talked about, but there’s also a lot of maniacal laughter about how much money we’re making. [laughs]
Obviously we spent quite a bit of time on the set together. It’s just a couple of guys talking – we talk about our families, and how hard it is being away from them on TV sets. So yeah, we get on pretty well. We seem to share the same sense of humor.
Nrama: Robert has a real deadpan humor about him.
Adlard: Yeah, but that dry humor fits well with us Brits. I get the same when we’re emailing back and forth. I like to think I know him well enough to know when he’s joking, but there are moments where I question if he’s being serious or not. But my sense of humor is similar.
Nrama: When I talked to Robert, one of the things he told me is how you prefer not to know anything about the future plots of The Walking Dead before you get the script. Why is that, and how do you dig into a script once you get it?
Adlard: Well, one of the reasons I’m probably one of the fastest artists in the business is that literally when I take a script, I can see it all in my head. I don’t do thumbnails, and there’s not really much thinking involved. I kind of just sit down and go through it – I start at the top left-hand corner and work to the right; that’s it, page done. Admittedly there are some times that things could be done differently if I would have thought about it longer, but generally 80 to 90% of the time the first idea is always the best. If I don’t visualize the panel instantly – if I have to work on something – then something is wrong. So when I get a script I can literally start drawing as soon as I read it.
When you’re illustrating a monthly book, you can’t procrastinate too much over stuff. You’ve got to do twenty-two pages a month or the book’s not going to come out on time. The downside of doing this as a regular job is you can’t sit and mull over it days on end, as nice as it would be; you just have to get straight in there and work. A big downfall for artists is overthinking stuff – and you procrastinate because of it. Thinking too much makes you overlook the most natural idea for the panel and the page. It’s almost like a designer who has to come up with 4 or 5 different designs, regardless if the first idea was the best. When you’re working fast, you can’t come up with three different designs. There is a lot of serendipity, and once you start doing this regularly, your mind evolves to see the most natural composition and takes the pressure of making it the best page you could possibly do.
Nrama: Is it different for you when you’re doing covers?
Adlard: [laughs] No! Generally I get an email saying “this cover has to be done tomorrow!” [laughs]
Okay, not normally – but quite often that’s the case. Of late what’s been happening more and more is that Robert and our editor Sina Grace send me the outline for the next five covers. We’re thinking ahead, and we end up doing a series of covers. So I do a batch of covers, then draw an issue, then some more covers usually.
I just finished thee wraparound cover to the 3rd hardcover omnibus – the ones with 24 issues in one book – and that probably took me the longest to do; it was literally two covers, since it was a wraparound. That took me a couple days.
Nrama: As the artist, you’re technically the first reader of every new issue of The Walking Dead – one more reason for fans to be jealous of you. What’s that like to be able to see Robert’s story unfold, and you adapting it to comics?
Adlard: Like you said, I tend not to ask what’s coming – partly because when I do talk to Robert he cuts me in on what he’s got planned, but invariably it changes by the time he gets to the script. I like reading issue to issue like a proper fan. I am a fan of the comic, regardless of if I’m drawing it or not. Robert has often blown me away from plot twists, like the big one where he killed off Laurie and the baby. Earlier when I talked to Robert he said he was going to wound Laurie and the big question would be “Is she going to survive?”, but then when the script came in she was shot and killed. I remember sort of thinking, “Woah!”. It was kind of cool to read it in that state and not have Robert lay out the plot twists before me.
Nrama: Over the course of your career you’ve done all sorts of comics, from cosmic adventures to superheroes. But with the Walking Dead, you’ve worked almost exclusively drawing a zombie survival book for going on six years now. What’s that like for you, to be hooked into something so deep?
Adlard: I’ve never seen it as just a zombie book; if it was just a zombie book then I wouldn’t have stayed on it this long. The Walking Dead is a character book, about a bunch of disparate people surviving in extreme situation. The big macguffin is the zombies. But it’s kind of weird – I literally work on each issue, but then all of the sudden years go by and I’m still working on it. Obviously Robert must be writing something pretty gripping for it to fly by like that – I have no reason to leave the book. And it’s not like I’m killing myself doing this book; if it was that hard of work, I wouldn’t be doing it.
Nrama: How long does it take you to do a typical issue?
Adlard: About three weeks – that gives me a spare week each month to do other projects or have a holiday or whatever. So that’s a factor for me as well. I’ve always wanted to do an epic of this stature. It’s really nice to get so involved and have so much affinity for these characters by drawing them for so long. A big part of the complaints I had when I was a journeyman artists was I did three issues on a title and then left just as I was getting comfortable. At this point in The Walking Dead, I can draw half of these characters in my sleep. You’re so used to drawing them that they just fall out of the pen when drawing.
The sole frustration I would say from working on the book is that like so many artists, you can only do one book at a time. I’ve been offered so many projects in the past seven years that I’ve had to turn down. As a writer its easier to work on 2 or 3 books a month, but for an artist to do more than 1 book per month is an incredibly amazing feat. For me, to fit in another project they have to have a massively long deadline or be small jobs that I can do inbetween issues.
Nrama: I’ve been trying to track down the strip you’re doing in the UK, Savage, that you’re doing simultaneously to The Walking Dead.
Adlard: I’ve been lucky with Savage, as it’s done in six-page increments for 2000AD that had fairly long deadlines. The book I did with Joe Casey, Rock Bottom, was a virtually non-existent deadline so I got to work on that as I had time. I’m also working on the French comics scene with Soleil, who has an association with Marvel in the states. The European books are perfect, as their deadlines are years out. I can literally do a page a week and it doesn’t impede on the progression of The Walking Dead.
Nrama: It seems like the comic artist’s equivalent of stretching your legs once in a while.
Adlard: Right. It’s nice to have the variety, even if it’s a small thing. One of my main requirements for these side projects is that I won’t do a horror book; I’m doing that every month with The Walking Dead. That’s why Savage was so interesting – it was more action. And I’m doing a new secret project at the moment that is science fiction, and its taking a long time to do. It’s good to stretch my other muscles for a week so when I come back to the next issue of The Walking Dead I feel rejuvenated. If I had to do The Walking Dead day-in, day-out it would be frustating.
Nrama: Early on in your career you did fully painted work from time to time, which is a long way away from your monotone work people know you for now. Any chance to see you bust out the paints once more?
Adlard I’ve always been open to doing painted covers, and its definitely a style I’d like to go back to. Not painted script pages, because that took too long. To do a painted comic, you get too involved with the minutae of each panel that you never get the opportunity to step back to see the whole page. The Walking Dead literally takes me two to three hours to do page, pencil and inks. Working fast like that allows me to get a real sense of the story since I’m doing a handful of pages each day. With painting pages, you can get bogged down in doing a nice bit of shrubbery and the whole day has blown by.
So yes, doing some painted covers would be great. The last thing I did was an exclusive for the recent Bristol Con which I did in watercolor. I haven’t used watercolors in twenty years, so I fancied trying it out. It’s one of the most challenging thigns to paint in, as once a color goes down its permanent. With oils or acrylics you can change things up. The watercolor process is quite fraught, but it came out really good and I was really pleased with it. I’d like to try more watercolor stuff in the next couple years, but like I said earlier – it’s about finding the time to do it.
I was asked to do a film poster for George Romero’s last zombie flick, Survival of the Dead, and to be honest I was hoping they would ask me to paint it – but they just wanted black & white. I was pleased with what I came up with, and I did some Photoshop work to add some red blood to it but its not the same as painting.
Nrama: Since you make your wage working with zombies, Charlie… when’s the first time you heard of zombies?
Adlard: Dawn of the Dead was the first zombie move I saw. I was a teen in school, and at the time the UK government had a crackdown on videos like that so they were hard to come by. Most little shops sold them in the bag, but they started to ban a lot of the videos because they realized underage kids were getting their hands on what they perceived as “Video Nasties”. A lot were nasty, but that’s no reason to ban them. Unfortunately, a lot of films suffered -- Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead; a lot of films that had legitimate reasons to exist.
When my friends and I started renting them, we’d rent them from some tiny video store. There’d be some appalling horror movies and we’d enjoy the goriness of it all. We saw some horrendous trash out of that, but also found good stuff. I remember renting Dawn of the Dead and realizing that it wasn’t trash; Dario Argento’s Suspiria as well. We’d rent a batch of titles and watch them on one of our weekend horror nights, not knowing whether the films were going to be junk or class.
Nrama: I see your work and compare it to others like Sean Phillips and Duncan Fegredo – it seems like you all came into comics around the same time and took your own path, but ended up being able to work on your own projects – or at least non-Marvel/DC on creator-owned stuff. Is there a camaraderie between you and any comickers?
Adlard: It’s kind of funny, as both of those guys are friends. We’ve all been doing this for about twenty years with Sean doing it the longest; he started when he was 14 or something. Our careers have gone all over the place with us occasionally crossing over, but generally we each went our own way. And it’s interesting that we all ended up in a similar place – creator-owned comics. Early on when I was working on The Walking Dead Sean would ask me about the success and how to do creator-owned books, and I think that’s why he ended up doing Criminal with Ed; he saw the benefits, and I think Criminal and Incognito worked out pretty well for them.
We all show up at the same UK conventions like Bristol and Birmingham, and they’re basically an excuse for us to socialize. It’s lovely to see my friends having good critical and financial success from the same type of thing I’m doing.