KIRKMAN: Why TV's WALKING DEAD Translates to Comics Sales

THE WALKING DEAD Showrunner Talks Season
THE WALKING DEAD Showrunner Talks Season

Comic book retailers describe it as nothing short of a phenomenon.

The Walking Dead TV show, which has already broken ratings records for cable television, is also driving an unprecedented number of people to comic shops to read the Image Comics series on which it's based.

The show is not the first Hollywood adaptation of a comic book story, but retailers claim it's the first to inspire new readership at such a surprising level. While multi-million-dollar movies like The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises might feature familiar comic book characters, those movies don't really affect sales of comics the way that The Walking Dead has.

"The Walking Dead TV show has brought me so many new customers on a steady basis since last Christmas that I have to say the trade paperback sales have been beyond anything I've seen in more than 25 years as a comics' retailer," said Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz.


"Any volume of Walking Dead outsells our entire sales history of any other best-selling title, and usually does that each month," said Adam Casey, manager of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Comic book sales figures have proven retailers' claims, as the Walking Dead collections have been dominating print and digital top seller lists for the last few months. Even executives at publishing powerhouses DC Comics have acknowledged the title as a sales juggernaut.

"The dominance of the book chart by Image — and primarily by Robert [Kirkman]'s Walking Dead stuff — is just astounding," DC VP Bob Wayne told Newsarama recently, but then added competitively: "We will not be saddened when it tempers out a bit and recedes slightly."

Newsarama talked with Kirkman about the phenomenon, why he thinks The Walking Dead has worked like no other adaptation to attract new readers, and whether he thinks the show's success will entice networks to adapt other comics to TV.

Newsarama: Robert, we recently asked comic book retailers if they saw any new readers come into their stores because of The Avengers movie, and while most of them didn't, they all said The Walking Dead TV show had a huge effect on their foot traffic. What are your thoughts on the surprise that retailers are feeling about the number of people who have seen the Walking Dead TV show and are now becoming comic readers?

Robert Kirkman: I don't know. Obviously, I'm very flattered and very excited about it. It's totally awesome. If I got one person to go into a comic shop that wouldn't have normally gone in, that's totally great.

I absolutely love retailers, and I know it's a thankless job to be selling comics these days. So if I can do anything to help those guys, that's awesome. Those guys have been paying my bills for nearly a decade now.


As for their assessment that it seems to be happening for things like The Walking Dead and it isn't happening for The Avengers, I think it really just speaks to having a unified, simple publishing plan. If you want to buy The Walking Dead, and you say, "hey, I've seen that show and I want to read it," all you have to do is find the book with the number one on it, and then find another book that matches that book that has a two on it, and you're good to go.

You can't do that with Avengers. They don't put numbers on most of their spines. A lot of their books don't connect in any way. It's like, I don't know if I want to read this Avengers or that Avengers. There's just not any kind of clear book that's there for them. And I understand that it isn't an easy thing for Marvel to do, but I really think that's the thing that's affecting this.

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Todd McFarlane cover

Looking at TV as an example, people kind of understand the whole "season" thing. You know? I get Season 1, I get Season 2, I get Season 3. They understand that those numbers keep track of the order of the episodes. So I think that simplifying comics that way makes things easier for a reading audience to find what they're looking for.

Nrama: Do you think it's also helpful to have the TV show stay close to the comic, so that TV fans will recognize the characters and settings of the book? Do you keep that in mind at all as you're helping with the TV show?

Kirkman: No, I actually push for changes more than anybody. I just want to tell a cool story. And for me, the TV show is different in a lot of ways from the comic series. I guess we've kept the characters consistent, so if you read Rick Grimes in the comic book, he's the same guy that you watch in the TV show. And I think that's very important, because otherwise, it's just not The Walking Dead. You have to keep those characters consistent. But when I sit down to work on the TV show, I very much come at it from the mindset that anything goes. And if it's cool, then we should do it. I'm never going to say, "If this strays too far away from the comic book, I won't be able to sell comics."

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Bryan Hitch cover

And actually, I think some of those differences really appeal to people. I think being able to watch the television show and enjoy it and have it not spoil the comic book or vice versa, so you can actually enjoy two versions of The Walking Dead and get the same type of surprises and same suspense and same sense of "anything goes" is really a cool thing, and might possibly be leading to people trying the comics and continuing to read the comic, because it isn't going to ruin the TV show.

Nrama: Do you think it has anything to do with not having costumes and capes involved? After all, you've written both types of comics. I find it fascinating that TV shoes don't seem to function well with costumed heroes — like Smallville practically forbidding capes and tights — yet the movies do. Why do you think the adaptation for television seems to work better when there aren't capes involved?

Kirkman: Yeah, I don't know. I think the mass audience is slowly being trained to accept those visuals through all these superhero movies. I think historically, most people have not really responded to the idea of a guy pulling on a costume in order to do good. I don't think it's something a mass audience can take seriously. But I do feel like that's changing. I don't think anybody watching The Avengers was going, "Oh, I totally can't buy this Captain America guy because he looks ridiculous." And honestly, as much as I loved Chris Evans in that part, he does look kind of funny in that movie. I mean, that's a weird-looking costume.

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Frank Quitely cover

I think people are accepting that more and more, and I think you might see really cool superhero stuff on TV.

But I think it's a historical thing. You've got to get people trained to be able to see that kind of stuff and not go, "he looks like he's wearing pajamas!" You know?

Nrama: TV seems to have no problems with a shared universe. There are several CSI's, so there could be several Walking Dead TV shows, couldn't there? Has that been a training for audiences through franchises like Star Trek and others?

Kirkman: Yeah! Star Trek did that really well. The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager stuff was absolutely awesome. And I think, more and more, people are really responding to the cable television model, which is much more of a continuing narrative than a lot of the things that you see on network TV.

The thinking on network TV has always been, you know, everybody needs to be able to sit down at any time and watch an episode and know what's going on and get a complete story, which is a little bit like how comics used to be done. But with things like DVRs, and people buying DVD sets, people actually do sit down and watch CSI and watch every episode, and they watch season to season and they don't lose an episode. So those things can have a more continued narrative.

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Marc Silvestri cover

Cable shows tend to do that to a huge extent. If you miss a couple episodes of a cable series, you're usually just completely lost. That's something that is becoming more and more popular, and ratings on some cable TV shows are higher than some network shows. And I think getting people trained to pay attention to the episodes and notice all the little things you would get out of a particular story in a shared universe is really getting people geared up for that kind of stuff. The Marvel movies are a really good example of that. And I think it's a fun evolution of the viewing audience, and it's going to lead to a some really cool stuff, because it does seem like the audience is getting more and more used to things being a little more complicated, and responding to the cool Easter eggs. I think we'll see more stuff moving in that direction.

Nrama: Do you think The Walking Dead has opened the door for more comics being adapted for television? Obviously, it's been done before with varying degrees of success. But do you think the accomplishments of The Walking Dead TV show and the fact that you're also developing Thief of Thieves is a sign of more non-superhero comic properties being adapted for TV?

Kirkman: I think the comics-to-television translation is a lot more natural than comics to movies. I think most comics are designed to tell a continuing story that runs for years and years and years that you get pieces of every week or every month. So television fits with what we're already doing.

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Ryan Ottley cover

When you take a comic and turn it into a TV show, it's going to be a lot easier than doing it for a movie. So in a lot of ways, I think that television is really the ideal place to adapt almost any comic, you know? If the budget was there, getting an Avengers movie every week would be totally amazing. I mean, everybody would really dig that.

issue #100 Charlie Adlard cover

I think Hollywood as a whole is really noticing that there's this amazing wealth of cool and original ideas coming out of comics. When you see things like Chew getting picked up and Powers and Thief of Thieves, it's like they're finally noticing that there's a lot of cool stuff here. And I'm sure there's more on the horizon.

Nrama: Do you think The Walking Dead's success will help move that forward?

Kirkman: I don't know. The trend was already starting. If Walking Dead did anything, I think it opened the eyes of TV network executives to try new things. I think The Walking Dead that I never thought would be made into a TV show, just because of the subject matter. And I think AMC taking that risk and saying, "Ok, well there's never been a zombie TV show before, but we're going to try it," and making that decision, and then having such great success because of it — that's making people look for new and interesting things you can do on a TV show.

I think the fact that The Walking Dead is also a comic book may be feeding into that view of comics as source material, but people were looking at adapting comics long before Walking Dead came around.

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