Robert Kirkman first entered the North American comics industry with his own publishing house, Funk-O-Tron. In addition to titles such as Take, which among others included Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard’s „Codeflesh,“ Funk-O-Tron also published Kirkman’s own Battle Pope series. In 2002, Kirkman moved his projects to Image Comics. Starting out with lukewarm initial sales, both of Kirkman’s ongoing series – the superhero epic Invincible and the zombie title The Walking Dead – began to buck the trend in 2003 and have been steadily climbing the sales charts ever since.
Through his success at Image, Kirkman attracted the attention of Marvel Comics. At Marvel, he wrote for company-owned projects such as „Sleepwalker“ (released in Epic Anthology #1), a four-part Captain America story, the X-Men spin-off Jubilee and the fifth-week event Marvel Knights 2099, but most of those projects lacked the critical and financial success of his own creations. Kirkman’s ongoing title Marvel Team-Up has been said to continue until mid-2006, despite mediocre sales. Other upcoming Marvel publications written by Kirkman include the one-shot What if…?: Thor, a short story in Amazing Fantasy #15, the limited series Marvel Zombies and – beginning in January 2006 – the ongoing series Ultimate X-Men. Invincible and The Walking Dead continue to be published through Image Comics, in addition to reprints of Battle Pope, which is being reprinted and for the first time released in full color.
On the occasion of the German release of The Walking Dead through Cross Cult, Comicgate had the opportunity to talk to the prolific author. Translated parts of the conversation can be found in said print edition.
The following interview was conducted via e-mail between October 11 and November 4, 2005. Interviewer was Marc-Oliver Frisch.
Comicgate: When did the idea for The Walking Dead first occur to you? How long did it take from your initial inspiration to the start of the series at Image Comics?
Robert Kirkman: The idea for The Walking Dead came from my love of zombie flicks. I used to watch those movies like they were going out of style and I always wanted to know what happened after the movie. So I came up with the idea to do a comic that was basically a zombie movie that never ended. I wanted to do an open-ended exploration on the zombie holocaust and follow it all the way to its natural conclusion. That was the idea behind The Walking Dead. I came up with the idea probably in October of 2002. I asked Tony Moore to draw up some pages and I pitched the book to Image in December of 2002. Originally I was going to use the name „Night of the Living Dead“ [the title of a classic zombie film by director George Romero –Marc-Oliver] for the sake of recognizability, since I had heard that movie had fallen into public domain. Jim Valentino, then publisher of Image, suggested I just make up my own name, so that I would own the whole thing. I then came up with the title, „The Walking Dead.“ I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked Jim Valentino for making that suggestion. Anyway, I pitched the book and it was accepted aside from a name change. I wanted it to debut in March of 2003, but Image wanted to hold it for October 2003 so that it could ship around Halloween.
CG: Did you always want The Walking Dead (or Night of the Living Dead) to be a comic book series, or was there a point when you considered another medium for the story?
RK: It was always a comic. It’s what I do for a living. I don’t write TV or novels or cereal boxes. I always wanted to do it as a comic.
CG: Can you walk us through the process of creating a typical issue of The Walking Dead, from gathering story ideas to sending the book to the printer?
RK: Well, it starts with me getting ideas for the characters. I have a lot of stuff already planned out for specific characters, have for a while. But I don’t know exactly when those events are going to take place in the book, so I have to figure that out and all the while I’m coming up with new stuff that happens before and after those events. So I’m always running through this stuff in my head, when I shower, when I drive, when I’m eating, when I’m supposed to be having a conversation with someone… it’s taken over my life. When it’s time to do any given issue, I try to organize my thoughts into a rough outline. I lay everything out on paper, organize it chronologically and scrawl out dialogue notes. What I end up with is a piece of paper numbered from 1-22 that has notes for what happens on every page. Then I sit down at the keyboard with that thing and use it as a guide to type up the script. I’m not bound to that plot outline, I veer from it quite a bit-I’ve even completely changed the last half of a couple issues at the last minute because I’ve changed my mind. I’ll decide to kill off a character or I’ll decide not to kill off a character… it’s all up in the air until it’s typed up.
From there I send the script off to Charlie [Charlie Adlard, artist of The Walking Dead starting with Vol. 2 -Marc-Oliver]. He usually spends a month or less on the book. He’s a dream to work with, beautiful pages and on schedule every time. I’d marry him if we weren’t both already married to someone else… and heterosexual. He usually roughs out the whole issue (unless I’ve only sent him a partial script, which we’ll both admit happens more times than either of us would like) in pencils first. He breaks down the pages into panels, roughs in the people, details out any complicated items and then jumps into inking. Once the pages are all inked up he sends them off to me.
Back when I lettered the book myself, everything from issue 19 back, I would letter the book at this point. Now, I send the book off to the letterer, Rus Wooton and the gray tone artist, Cliff Rathburn at the same time.
For Rus, I shrink the pages down to jpegs and I do balloon placements. I go into Photoshop and with a mouse I draw in crude little balloon shapes for where the balloons should go on the page. While I do this I do a final pass on the dialogue, changing things, lengthening and shortening dialogue, making things flow better and fit with the art perfectly… at least, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve rewritten entire pages in this stage before. I frequently pull out lines of dialogue entirely if they’re not needed. Once Rus has the script and balloon placements, he letters the whole book on the computer, using some program or another.
Meanwhile, Cliff Rathburn is toning the pages… doing his beautiful gray wash painting over Charlie’s inks. He does this in Photoshop as well, I believe. I think the tones are very important to this book. It give it a more finished look, closer to a color book than a black and white book that just runs flat line-art. Although, I must say, it’s a shame that people rarely get to see Charlie’s art in stark black and white. It’s mesmerizing to look at. I’ve stated many times that it kills an entire day when he turns pages in, I just stare at them all day long when I get them. And then my schedule takes another hit when Cliff turns in the toned pages.
After the toning and the letters are done, Rus goes in and merges the lettering with the toned pages, to make them one final completed page. Then that’s sent to Image Comics so they can send it off to the printer.
CG: The Walking Dead, like most of your other works, is serialized in monthly 22-page issues (the standard format in North America) before being collected in trade paperbacks. What role do the two formats play in your approach to structuring and pacing a story?
RK: To utilize the monthly format I always try to write to cliffhangers. I always try to end an issue with a moment that will make the readers hungry to come back for more, so to speak. Now, not every cliffhanger can be some startling event, or after a while they’ll lose all effect, so from time to time I have some pretty lame cliffhangers that are just „whoa, they found a generator“ and stuff like that. But I always try to end on something at least interesting.
Since I know that these issues are going to eventually be collected into paperback volumes, I try to make sure that the first page of every issue fits well next to the last page of the previous issue. So that if they’re read together without any interruption, the transition from one issue to the next isn’t jarring.
I never write the story and plot it out with a six issue break in mind. From time to time if I can, I try to end the sixth issue with a resolution of some kind, but only if the story is flowing to that around the time I’m writing that issue. I would never lengthen or shorten a story to make it fit in a trade paperback. Which is why the third volume ends with a cliffhanger.
CG: Are you happy with the monthly format?
RK: Absolutely. I guess most of Europe is all about the graphic novels, and there’s a lot of them here, in the US, also. But for my money, I enjoy the monthly installment plan. I dig buying monthly comics and getting a serialized story. It’s not the perfect format for every book. And I’m told The Walking Dead does read better in collected form, but I love the single issues. I don’t ever plan to abandon the format.
CG: Speaking of Europe, how familiar are you with the European comics scene? Are there any particular European creators or works that have influenced you?
RK: I live in Kentucky, which I guess is considered one of the more rural states in America. That’s not to say that that stuff is unavailable to me. It’s just that I’d have to specifically special order whatever I want. I’m just not that familiar with European stuff. I mean, I love Moebius as much as anything. He’s probably one of the only guys I know by name. I see stuff like Dylan Dog and Blacksaad and Red Hand, the thing Kurt Busiek did recently. I think that stuff all looks great. I’m a huge fan of the oversized thinner graphic novel format. So much so that I hope to do one myself some day soon. But I’m just not overly familiar with the stuff in general. It’s certainly on my to do list.
CG: I suppose you haven’t seen the new Asterix which came out last week, then.
Is there any chance you’re going to take The Walking Dead to Europe or other parts of the world?
RK: Haven’t seen Asterix, no.
The Walking Dead is already published in a few countries over there. I don’t really keep track of where, since I let Image Comics handle all that stuff.
CG: I actually meant the story, but that’s interesting, as well.
Let me rephrase: Are there any plans for showing other countries or continents in The Walking Dead, or do you want to keep the focus on the United States?
RK: Well, I plan on staying with the same group of characters throughout the run of the book. The ones that live, of course. There may be times when the core group splits up and I follow both of them. But the only time I’d show what’s going on in Europe for instance is if our characters took a boat over there to see what’s up. For the time being at least, the book will only take place in America.
CG: Without revealing too much to German readers, The Walking Dead has touched upon several controversial social and political issues, including gun control or the death penalty. Now, the United States has been widely lambasted in Germany and Europe at large for many of its policies in those areas, and vocal critics like Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky are treated as pop stars for their opposition to the American administration. What are your thoughts on those reactions in Europe, as a writer and as an American?
RK: I don’t really see how relevant a political question is in the scheme of this interview. Is it okay if I decline to answer this question?
I mean, it would be like asking me about religion. You divide the audience no matter what your opinion is.
CG: Fair enough – feel free to decline any question.
The relevance of the question, to my mind, is that these subjects definitely come up in The Walking Dead in a prominent fashion. Given that they’re fairly relevant political issues in the United States and elsewhere, I thought it would be interesting to have some insight into your thoughts.
Would it help if I rephrased the question, e.g. by leaving out the international aspect?
RK: I’m not really trying to make a statement along those lines in The Walking Dead. That stuff cropped up only because it’s logical that it cropped up, not because I had something to say on the matter. I’m not a writer that tries to forcefeed his views about anything on the public through his work.
That could be my answer to the rephrased question.
CG: Fair enough. Let’s move on, then.
Early on in your career, you created and published a title called Battle Pope, featuring a rather idiosyncratic version of the Pope, which is currently being reprinted at Image. Have the recent death of John Paul II and his replacement with Benedict XVI, a German (and a Bavarian, to boot), given you any ideas for a potential continuation of the title?
RK: Battle Pope was never even remotely based on the real pope in any way. Battle Pope was basically a superhero comic, featuring a character who happened to be the Pope. I made little reference to Catholicism or anything like that. So no, a new pope wouldn’t have any kind of bearing on what I would do in future Battle Pope stories. That book is way too silly to be based on anything remotely real. I would like to continue the title if the reprint series continues to do well.
CG: Your Image Comics series Invincible was recently promoted with a special issue which was sold at the reduced price of $ 0.50 and aimed at attracting new readers to the title. Could you shed some light on the economics involved with this sort of promotion, and whether it’s been successful so far?
RK: Invincible #0 was an astounding success. We did a much shorter story, 12 pages, and lowered the price a great deal. As a result of the low price, Invincible #0 sold almost five times what the current issues were selling, and then afterwards the sales on the title abruptly shot up by 20% and have maintained a steady climb since. With the number of copies sold, the issue still broke even. So we didn’t make money off the book, but it helped sales on the series as a whole and it didn’t cost us a dime to do. I was very pleased with how it all turned out.
CG: Were you worried at all that the issue could turn people off the first few collections of the series? After all, Invincible #0 basically reveals the plot of the first 22 issues, spoiling some fairly big surprises for potential new readers in the process.
RK: No, the issue 0 was for people who more than likely wouldn’t buy the trades, so they needed a little push. It spoiled things, yes, but if they liked it they could read the full story by going back and getting the trades or they could continue on with the book from that point on.
I have no regrets.
CG: Except for The Walking Dead, all your current works are superhero titles, and Marvel Zombies, your upcoming limited series, seems to take this dichotomy to its logical conclusion, showing Marvel’s superheroes as zombies. Are you concerned about being typecast as „the superhero guy“ or „the zombie guy“?
RK: I’m not concerned at all. I think there’s enough variety inside my superhero work itself to keep things interesting. My zombie book is also just a character study-it could almost just be straight drama, so I don’t really think I’m in any danger of being shoehorned into either category.
CG: In your Marvel titles and in your online column („Buy My Books,“ at Comic Book Resources), you make no secret of your affection for some of the storytelling approaches (like the Michelinie/McFarlane/Larsen Amazing Spider-Man formula of structuring arcs and introducing subplots) and characters (such as Sleepwalker, Darkhawk or Terror, Inc.) that were tremendously popular throughout the early nineties, but seem to have largely fallen out of favor since. Wherein lies the appeal of those styles and characters for you?
RK: That’s back when comics were fun for me… and I think the only reason for that is that I was at „that age“ when I read those things. Everyone who reads comics always has a fondness for the books they read first, the books that got them into comics. They may not be the best comics, and I’ll admit that… but they were what I was reading when I started reading when I was 12 or 14 or whatever. They’re special to me, flaws and all.
CG: Obviously, those books and characters must have made quite an impression on people back then, given that it was the most thriving period of American comics in recent history. Can you elaborate on what you think the strengths of those titles are? In particular, the way you set up subplots and the way you cut back and forth between Peter Parker’s personal life and his exploits as a superhero in Marvel Team-Up reminds me of the approach creators like Michelinie and Larsen employed to great effect fifteen years ago. Would you say that’s a fair comparison?
RK: Absolutely. To me, that’s just how comics are done. A core story for each issue or arc, something that’s entertaining and fairly important… and subplots setting up future core stories. I don’t like it when an entire story is self contained in six issues, followed by another completely self-contained arc. I want things to build in my stories… and build up to payoff, so that people feel rewarded by reading long runs of the books. That’s what I liked as a fan, about those books in particular, and that’s what I like in the books I write. It keeps me interested.
CG: One of the first Spider-Man stories I read was that two-parter with the Punisher, by Michelinie and Larsen, which was followed by a two-parter involving Venom, and then the six-parter which brought back the Sinister Six, and so on – as you say, I liked the way those built on each other and never left you off the hook as a reader. At some point, however, this way of combining flashy „Villain of the Month“ stories with ongoing soap-opera plot threads seems to have been abandoned, and is something of a „lost art“ these days, a few exceptions like Marvel Team-Up or Gødland aside. Why do you think that’s the case?
RK: Things are always changing. I think really all it takes is for someone to get popular doing something else and then it begins to spread throughout the industry. I don’t know where the current seemingly disconnected arc style came from, but I think it had a little to do with the rising popularity of trade paperbacks. It also probably had a little to do with the need to get new readers and to keep things light on continuity so anyone can pick up the book. Personally, I prefer comics the other way. I think dropping things in a story that reflect to old stories makes a new reader want to hunt down back issues. So that’s how I do things, the way I prefer. That’s really all I can do. I’m writing this stuff all day, every day. I’m the one that has to be kept happy.
CG: How personal are your stories? Especially in your longer creator-owned works, The Walking Dead and Invincible, are there any characters or situations you particularly identify with?
RK: All of them, really. I mean, 80% of the time I’m just trying to figure out how I would react to certain situations and writing that. In a lot of cases I try to have characters react in ways I think no one would, just to spice things up, but most of the time, it’s me. So as far as that goes I identify with the characters very much. Now, the situations they’re in and their interactions with other characters, that’s all made up. Some people think writers only write stuff based on their lives and that all stories are thinly veiled retellings of things that happened to them. Not me. If that were the case my life would be way too stupid.
CG: So, to clarify, what you’re saying is that there are no zombies in Kentucky, either?
RK: Correct. Well, for the most part.
CG: What’s your take on the current trend to legally or illegally distribute comics in digital formats, be it as DVDs or CDs, as simple downloads or on platforms like the PSP, Ipods, cell phones or handheld PCs?
RK: I certainly don’t support it. But I don’t get pissed if someone who would never buy my book gets to read it for free, though. I think to a certain extent it can lead to more sales. But it could also, very easily, lead to much, much less sales. I think I’m on the fence with a wait and see on that one.
CG: There appears to be a widespread negative view of manga in the US comics industry which sees Japanese comics as a threat or, at best, as an entry drug for American comics. Do you have any thoughts on this particular debate?
RK: I like Manga. I don’t view it as a threat at all. To see kids reading comics in any form is a good thing, I think.
CG: Which comics are you currently enjoying or looking forward to?
RK: Ultimate Spider-Man, Doc Frankenstein, Planetary, Savage Dragon, Shaolin Cowboy, Runaways, Captain America, and countless others.
CG: Final question. In an old interview, you said: „I don’t think I’ll ever write a book I don’t letter, because I don’t think it would be as good. And I’m such a lettering geek, I don’t think I could trust anyone.“ You’ve since changed your mind, right…?
RK: Well, times change. At the time I was doing only one or two books a month, if I recall. I actually enjoyed lettering back then. The thing about it is, I was so anal about lettering placement and what not I never really got that fast at it. So it took me almost an hour to do some pages and nearly an entire day or more to letter a book. I from time to time will still letter a page or two if it’s easy and I don’t feel like explaining to Rus Wooton (my letterer of choice) exactly what I want. I lettered a page in Invincible #23 and some pages in The Walking Dead #24 recently.
The reason I said what I said in this old interview is because I would often redialogue entire pages while I was lettering. I’d add lines, take lines away, I would make all kinds of changes. Now, I do the same thing, but when I do balloon placements for the letterer instead of when I’m actually lettering. Also, I like lettering to look a very specific way and Rus Wooton has been able to match my lettering almost seamlessly. Rus is a great letterer, he’s a big part of why I feel comfortable working with someone else. He was a sort of understudy for Chris Eliopoulos and Chris’s lettering is kind of what I’ve based all my lettering on, his and John Workman’s stuff… so Rus was the perfect choice.
CG: Robert Kirkman, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!
Robert’s website (no content at the moment)
Cross Cult (German publisher of The Walking Dead)
Image Comics (US publisher of The Walking Dead)
Walking Dead is TM and © Robert Kirkman, 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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