Them zombies, they’re a comin’.
Over the course of seventy-four issues and counting, the zombies of writer Robert Kirkman’s comic series The Walking Dead have stalked comics fans and stalked the sales charts, bucking trends and like his superhero opus Invincible, continually rising in sales from issue to issue. Kirkman, along with original series artist Tony Moore and current artist Charlie Adlard, have told the story of a humble county Sheriff who sets out with his family and a small group of survivors to chart a course through the zombie horde and to some kind of safety. In recent issues, they’ve found themselves surprisingly at peace, inside the safety of a community relatively untouched by the savage sea of zombies that have encompassed the earth. As calm as it might be, The Walking Dead isn’t going into its own Brightest Day or Heroic Age; the upcoming seventy-fifth issue promises a turn for the worse.
With that milestone seventy-fifth issue due out only days from now [Newsarama Note: It’s scheduled for a July 21, 2010 release. Happy Comic-Con!], film director Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) is meanwhile translating the stories of the survivors of a zombie plague into a television series set to debut on AMC this Halloween. AMC just announced that they will be debuting the first footage from the television series at Comic-Con International in San Diego in a Friday panel, along with several opportunities for fan interaction and even a chance to get ‘zombified’ (in a good way) on the floor of the convention.
In the midst of all of this, Newsarama caught up with Robert Kirkman shortly after he returned from visiting the set of The Walking Dead in Atlanta to talk about both the comic series’ 75th issue and the impending release of the television series.
Newsarama: You’re a busy man, Robert. While you’re embroiled in the start-up of the TV series, you’re keeping pace with the comic series and doing a special 75th issue coming out right before San Diego. In the last couple issues they’ve been setting in on a nice town not ravaged by the zombies, so what can people expect with #75? Is it bright & shiny Heroic Age / Brightest Day from here on out?
Robert Kirkman: It’s the beginning of what’s coming next. The cast has been living in a peaceful community for a few issues by now, but there’s been some tension in the interactions with people living in the community. We get a sense of something bubbling under the service there… and issue #75 is where the s#!t hits the fan. A couple of things are coming to a head here – and we’ll be setting up the main conflict inside the community that will play out for the next dozen or so issues. It’s going to be the beginning of a lot of cool stuff.
Nrama: Speaking of cool stuff, this issue will contain a Walking Dead first – a color story, done by none other than Ryan Ottley. How’d that come together to do it in color, with Ryan? And will be in continuity with the rest of the series?
Kirkman: Well, early on in the run, The Walking Dead starting getting letters questioning how a book like this could run for a long time. The general thrust of their comments were that it didn’t seem like a concept that someone could sustain. I made a joke in the letter column of the third or fourth issue I made a joke that I was going to try to keep the book lively, but if I ran out of ideas by issue 75 then I’d have aliens invade. When I made that joke, I didn’t know that I’d be fortunate enough to make it to #75 but now here we are. I don’t like making a promise that I don’t keep, so as we got up in numbers I thought that at some point I’ll have aliens show up. This is going to be a fun, out of continuity back-up story that appears to be something it’s not. It’s going to be fun, especially with Ryan drawing the characters from The Walking Dead in a new light – a full color light. I want to stress that this is out of continuity, but should be fun for long-time readers.
Nrama: You probably get this a lot – but how far out do you have the series mapped right now?
Kirkman: At this point, I have a rough idea up to #150 just because I have to have benchmarks to work towards. Each story-arc leads to the next, and I’ve got the next four or five major events planned out. When you’re doing a series that’ll last this long, it’s important to plan it out far in advance. It’s important for readers to know and understand that the story isn’t aimless, and it’s important to keep people interested. With these benchmarks, I know what I’m working towards and the things I’m building to.
Nrama: As far as I know you didn’t do any formal schooling on writing, so developing this sort of thing just learning by being a comic fan and a comic creator?
Kirkman: To a certain extent, you learn from reading other books and see people do series; you’ll see what works and what doesn’t. I learned from doing, but certain things are common sense. That’s kind of an easy one. You don’t want your book to be boring. But you know, I’ve done a lot of comics by this point … and made my share of mistakes and learned from them. Like you said, I don’t have any formal training in writing – but I’ve learned it by doing and talking to others.
Nrama: Are you the type of writer to go back and read your earlier work? Did the upcoming TV series lead you to re-read early issues of The Walking Dead, and if so, what was that like?
Kirkman: I try to re-read the series as frequently as I can. Luckily, due to the nature of The Walking Dead it’s always a rotating cast of characters so I don ‘t have to remember every single detail. For example Donna, who died fairly early on in the series. I try to stay well-versed in the book, because the last thing you need is discrepancies. I try to stay pretty much up on what happens and what’s gone before.
Nrama: Going back and reading those early issues is also a chance to read a younger version of you writing. Is there anything in those early issues you would have done differently now?
Kirkman: The earlier issues of The Walking Dead are a little more wordy than they probably needed to be. At the time, it was done on purpose as an experiment to see how much dialogue I could fit in the book. “Did the readers like having that?” It reads a little unusual going back – never in a million years would I think now that I could fit that much into a panel. There are certain things I’d do different; a few places where I say “I can’t believe I did that!”
I don’t hold the work to be sacred or anything, and with the opportunity of doing this television series I often get questions from the crew saying “are you fine with the changes being made?” And I look back at the issues and I see mistakes and room for improvement. It’s fun to see them go back to that original material and see how they interpret it. In some cases, the changes they’ve done have had me wishing I had done it that way.
Nrama: You launched Invincible and Walking Dead virtually in the same month, and they’ve remained your key titles – and made your name for you. What’s it like now 75 issues later with a TV show in the works, and the comics being so successful? Can you talk about doing such a long uninterrupted run on a series?
Kirkman: It’s been tough. It’s been – Jesus, I don’t know how many years… seven? It’s been a long time, and my life has changed quite a bit. I have a nicer house now, and children... so definitely a lot of things have happened since the series debuted. I’m definitely a much different person now, but I’m still not in a position to be objective about this sort of thing. I think it’s cool that I’ve been able to do exactly what I set out to do, which is a long-running zombie / survival story.
Nrama: In an interview with you I read that you’re been actively avoiding reading the popular zombie novel World War Z until you finished The Walking Dead. Does this apply to all zombie stories, in comics, prose and movies/tv? If so, can you tell us about being so inspired by something, and now cutting yourself off for the sake of the story?
Kirkman: That avoidance was really just for Max’s Zombie Survival Guide. I’ve had conversations with Max Brooks, where he expressed how much he liked The Walking Dead. I admitted to him that “Heck, I haven’t read your stuff – because it’s stuff I feel like I might inadvertently steal”. If I read that book, I couldn’t help but have that book influence me. Someone actually bought Zombie Survival Guide as a gift, and I opened it up to a random page and it was an instructional on how to turn an apartment building into a safe place to live, starting with destroying the stairs on the first level and only living above the 2nd level. That was brilliant, and something I would totally do in The Walking Dead if I had thought of it. If I had read Max’s book, I would have probably eventually done every single thing in that book. Not intentionally, but just the fact of those things entering my mind might have them leak out into the comic.
Like you said, I’m not going to read the Zombie Survival Guide until I’m done with The Walking Dead –which won’t be for a long time. Max told me he did the same thing when writing World War Z; he waited until he had finished that book before reading The Walking Dead.
Nrama: So have you watched any of the numerous zombie movies that have come out since The Walking Dead came out?
Kirkman: Although you might not think it, the zombie movies haven’t really inspired me. All of those stories about the initial wave of zombie and living with that – The Walking Dead is about what happens after it’s all sunk in.
Nrama: Any specific zombie movies you’ve liked recently?
Kirkman: I saw Zombieland, and that was really good – especially the story.
Nrama: I’ve held off as long as I could – lets jump into talking about The Walking Dead television series. First off, how early on were people sniffing around the comic from Hollywood?
Kirkman: It was pretty early on. The first time we got interest was around the seventh or eighth issue. It was before the crew had even reached the prison that people were inquiring.
Nrama: I’ve read that you just returned from a set visit to Atlanta where Frank Darabont is shooting the TV series. What’s it like to get out and see this entire production surrounding an idea you had years ago in your house as an unknown writer?
Kirkman: The word I’ve been saying often is ‘surreal’. It’s kind of weird.. and bizarre, seeing people working on this stuff. Seeing stand-ins, actors in costumes, tanks being moved on set, and streets being shut down for filming. They have a base camp of trailers and tons of makeup effects people. It’s weird to walk around and see how big of production this is --- they have a cafeteria for Christ’s sake. This all came from a comic… I thought that was kind of cool; really kind of cool.
Nrama: Has it sunk in yet?
Kirkman: Yeah, I think so – I realize that even though it’s happened – any minute it could all go away. I’ve let it sink in – and I’ve given myself a moment or two to really experience it, but at the same time I’ve got comics to make.
Nrama: [laughs] The Walking Dead TV series is filming in Atlanta, Georgia – the actual place you set the series to start out. What’s it like for you to stick to the true location you had planned out and not doing this in Vancouver or something?
Kirkman: It’s good for the city of Atlanta. They’re employing a good deal of people, and being able to have the real setting is a boon.. it’s something that’ll be even better than the comic in terms of authenticity. They’ve been very faithful in the adaptation, and Frank Darabont is top notch. Frank’s adding his own elements here and there, and it’s cool to see what he thinks of it all.
Nrama: About Atlanta… what was your personal connection with Atlanta to set it there?
Kirkman: It was the convenience of the location. I am familiar with the city, since I live in Kentucky and I drive through there to visit family in Florida. Every now and then I stop there while going down I-75 on the way to Florida. The cast eventually made their way to my home state of Kentucky, but still Atlanta is the closest large metropolis in the region.
And I love peaches.
Nrama: [laughs] What have you been up to in regards to being on set and participating in the filming?
Kirkman: Well, I’m there in an official capacity as creator and producer. A lot of time the press is there so I’m talking to them, but I’m also watching scenes with Frank leaning in to ask about shots. So I’m there as a producer doing whatever it is that a producer does.
Nrama: One last question before I let you get back to work, Robert: Any chance you’ll make a cameo in the filming?
Kirkman: I’ve chosen not to, mainly because I don’t like looking at myself and I don’t need to see myself onscreen. I’m really looking forward to watching the show when it’s done, and nothing would take me out of the show more than seeing myself walking by.
What are you more excited for? The Walking Dead going 150 issues or the TV show kicking off?