Robert Kirkman has a fairly grounded perspective for someone whose independent, creator-owned comic book ended up being the biggest thing to hit cable since The Sopranos. Ten million more people watched the season five premiere of The Walking Dead on October 12 than watched last year’s season finale of HBO’s blockbuster hit Game of Thrones. 13 million more watched the episode than watched the MLB Playoffs that night. Even the unstoppable juggernaut that is the NFL was outdrawn by The Walking Dead among viewers 18-49 on Sunday night. So what’s it like for Robert Kirkman–who still writes the Walking Dead comic book every month, in addition to his responsibilities as a writer for the AMC show–to realize that this thing that was borne out of his imagination has captured the collective imagination of America?
“I try not to think about it that way,” Kirkman laughs over an extended phone call shortly before the premiere. “It’s all about luck, and being in the right place at the right time, and people being into this kind of story because of things that are going on in the world. I don’t really attribute it to my imagination per se, because then I would become full of myself and be unbearable to be around. But it’s great that people like it.”
Kirkman has had several years to get used to the fact that The Walking Dead has gone from being a potentially risky comic book series (lots of people have made zombie comics, and lots of zombie comics have been killed) to the smash hit of stalwart indie publisher Image Comics, to the biggest scripted show on television by a wide margin. (“I drove by a billboard for season five the other day and I was like, ‘That’s normal,’” Kirkman recalls. “I’m not going, ‘Oh my God, there’s a Walking Dead billboard! That’s crazy!”) All of this makes the fact that he’s still very thoughtful about his good fortune, and still very invested in telling this ongoing, never-ending zombie epic in the exact manner he has since he started it with Image in 2003, seem less surprising than you might think. With the money from the show–and the subsequent video games, merchandising, forthcoming spin-off series, etc.–Kirkman could presumably hire other creators to take over the comic book, and devote himself fully to Hollywood (or, like, a life of leisure somewhere). But aside from the fact that the artist on the book switched from Tony Moore to Charlie Adlard with issue #7 (issue #132 was recently released), the process for Kirkman hasn’t changed.
Kirkman talks to us here about keeping yourself grounded, and keeping your creative juices flowing when the thing you’ve always done has gone from an idea you flesh out in the dark to a massive part of pop culture.
When I ask Kirkman how different the process of working on the comic book is now that he’s shaping the groundwork for a TV series that could well run indefinitely, he doesn’t mince words. “It’s the same,” he says. He mentions a fellow writer whose comic had become an unexpected hit recently, and the pressure that writer began putting on himself to really deliver for all of the new readers, and sees a pitfall he managed to avoid.
“I think that can be kind of a self-defeating proposition, because when you were relaxing and having fun, and just writing from the heart and doing your own thing, you created something that people really liked,” Kirkman says. “So if I sit down to write an issue of The Walking Dead, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people because the comic is so popular, and this story is going to be analyzed by a writer’s room that I’m in–I’m going to have to sit surrounded by seven people who are going to tear this story apart four years from now–I would possibly get nervous, and that would make the comic book not good. So to me, I try to ignore all of that, and I just sit there and I write my comic the way that I always have.”
For Kirkman, that’s a very specific sort of ritual: He writes in a basement now, like he did 10 years ago, ignoring phone calls and emails for a few hours, and it’s almost like a vacation for him–a chance to remember that it’s still just a comic book that he does with Charlie Adlard.
“It’s still the same. It’s great to retreat back to that for the times when I’m alone–and then the book comes out and everything goes crazy again, and I live in the world of it being a TV show and a video game and all this other stuff,” Kirkman says. “But when I’m working on the comic, I just focus on that.”
Kirkman still writes The Walking Dead comic book the same way he always has, but he’s also got new responsibilities as a writer for the show. Comics are a collaborative medium, but in ways that tend to be pretty specific: the writer writes, the artist draws, the editor oversees, and the roles don’t change too much.
In a writers’ room, meanwhile, there are several personalities who are all trying to lay out a clear vision for a script. And for Kirkman, that script tends to have started as something he thought of in the basement.
“It’s awkward and fun. I think if I had a different personality, it would be absolutely terrifying, because there are times where somebody who didn’t work on the comic is like, ‘Well, that didn’t work! We shouldn’t do it that way,’” Kirkman, who publishes active and argumentative feedback from readers in the comic’s letters page, says. “I really like it, because there are often times in the writers’ room where I’ll be like, ‘Listen, guys, we’re getting to this storyline–I did this, but I got a bunch of letters that said that. A couple of those letters were right.’”
Getting the chance to, as Kirkman puts it, “crap on [his] own work” is a chance, in other words, to get right things that he might have struggled with the first time.
Good stuff might come out of the writers’ room collaboration, but Kirkman isn’t tempted to step away from comics to pursue that sort of environment full-time. The list of creators who’ve reduced their comics workload when Hollywood came calling isn’t short, with comics wizards either by farming the work out to other writers and artists (as Todd McFarlane did with Spawn) or by publishing on an erratic schedule (as Brian Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming have found themselves doing with Powers, which will be one of the first series released on Sony’s Playstation Network in December).
With that in mind, the fact that Kirkman hasn’t missed a beat with The Walking Dead is actually downright impressive. So what is it that keeps him loyal to comics?
“Um, the fact that it’s the best entertainment medium in existence?” he says. “Any day, I would rather read a comic book than watch a movie or a TV show, or read a book without pictures. Christ.”
That’s a slightly facetious frame of a very sincere response–the appeal of comics is the form itself, for Kirkman.
“I talk to people who absolutely love film, and so they know about lenses and stuff, and I have absolutely no idea,” he explains. “But that’s me, for comics. I know how gutters work and how to lay out a page. I don’t draw, but I know all the ins and outs of how a page is constructed, and how you can tell a story with still images, all the different historical things that have been attempted, and what’s successful and what’s not successful. I have a somewhat encyclopedic knowledge of who did what and when, and what comic was popular in 1974. I live and breathe comics, and so it’s fun for me. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like television and film and all these other things–but in comics, your imagination is your only limitation.”