“I think I’m a little more focused. I take it a little more seriously. There’s a lot of pressure.”
“The Walking Dead” run of comics turned 15 this month, something that creator Robert Kirkman thought would never happen and, he tells Variety, while he knows how the comic book series will eventually conclude, he doesn’t think that moment will be happening anytime soon.
“I know what I have to do to get where I’m going,” he said. “I know the stories that have to be told, the deaths that have to happen, the changes I need to make to push things forward and evolve. When I get to those points I’ll know it’s time. I don’t think anyone should have concerns about things wrapping up too soon.”
Until then, Kirkman writes the comic as he always has: By himself, by hand, in a constant mix of disbelief and delight at the comic’s continuing success.
Back in 2015, Kirkman spoke with Polygon about his desire to empower creators and support an independent comic scene through Skybound Games, the company he co-founded. He also discussed his constant fear of sudden failure, likening it to an “unrelenting zombie-like force.”
Little has changed for Kirkman in the years since. If anything, the pressure he puts on himself has increased.
“In the early days, it was this fun comic book I did paying tribute to all of the zombie movies I loved,” he said. “Now it’s this thing with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fans invested in it and I need to do it justice, I need to tell a cool, evolving story.”
And Kirkman believes that’s a little more difficult with a book like “The Walking Dead” than with traditional superhero comics.
“When you have a superhero comic you can introduce a strange race of monsters, new planets, another dimension,” he said. “You can do all kinds of crazy stuff. But in ‘The Walking Dead’ — apart from the zombies — it’s very grounded, very realistic. So all of those bigger threats have to sit in the world and work sort of like real life.”
He adds, “That’s the kind of thing that makes ‘The Walking Dead’ more difficult, but also more fulfilling. With those restrictions, it makes the stories more human, more relatable, more entertaining.”
The process of writing those stories hasn’t changed at all, Kirkman said, He’s been careful of that, though he may write more these days on airplanes than he ever did back in the early days.
“It’s me coming up with notes,” he said. “Jotting down ideas in my phone. Then I sit down and handwrite all of my plots on paper. That’s the process I’ve done from issue one to now.”
He also keeps track of the now 15-year plot in a binder packed with neatly typed pages of summaries that break down every issue of the comic. Then he uses the binder and his notes to type out the script, just him, not a writers room (“I’ve been tempted before,” he notes.)
“Me in a room writing the script and then sending it to (artist Charlie) Adlard and it becoming an issue is what makes ‘The Walking Dead’ ‘The Walking Dead,” Kirkman said.
It’s almost poetic that Kirkman keeps the evolving storyline of “The Walking Dead” alive by knowing exactly how it all ends, how the comic essentially dies. That’s another important part of how Kirkman works, he said he is always planning three or four major story arcs ahead of where the comic’s story currently is.
“When you see the prison around issue 50, I already have the hunters planned and I’m sowing seeds to do that,” he said.
The planning makes it easier for him to temper the emotions of the comics arcs. What he plans with the governor and Rick’s family, is in some ways shaped by the savagery of later issues.
“It’s all written in arcs and chunks,” he said of his planning notes. “It’s not broken down into specific issues.” But he does have a good sense of how many issues each arc will take to run.
He currently has over 50 issues of solid ideas, packed across five or six nebulous arcs, floating around in his head and notebooks. Most importantly, though, Kirkman has a destination for the comic in mind.
“I know what I’m building to, to eventually wrap things up,” he said. “If I didn’t have that I’d just be twisting in the wind trying to lay track. I don’t know if that’s going to come in 1,000, issues or 100 issues, but I know what the conclusion of the story is and what has to happen to get there.”
From Sitcom to Cable Drama
While Kirkman backtracks a bit from the bravado of his famous, perhaps infamous video “manifesto” from 2013 and 2015 interview with Polygon on the topic of saving the comic book industry, he still believes “The Walking Dead” and the core values of Skybound have helped change the industry.
“The comic book industry has never needed saving,” he told Variety. “It struggles, but it is doing fine.”
Kirkman said he believes the success of “The Walking Dead” has been a big boon to comic book retailers because it drives people to the stores.
“That’s a benefit,” he said. “I also think it’s shown comic book creators who may have stayed at Marvel or DC doing work for hire, that there is — for a lack of a better analogy — a pot of gold at the end of that journey. If I create my own thing, it may be as successful as ‘The Walking Dead.’”
That got a lot of creators, he believes, doing a lot of great work. Just like, Kirkman said, he was inspired by Image Comics. I’ve reminded people of the success they can have.”
There’s also the idea that while comic books have long been evolving into deeper, more nuanced creations than their 1930s’ forebearers, “The Walking Dead” underscored that change weekly through AMC’s television show, of which Kirkman remains a big part.
“I think comic books in the olden days were like sit-coms with generally interesting events, but characters that didn’t evolve much,” Kirkman said, speaking of comics in general. “But today comics are more like cable drama.”
“The Walking Dead,” now more than 30 story arcs through its life and quickly approaching issue 200, may be increasing the pressure Kirkman puts on himself to deliver, but he still loves what he does. While Kirkman spends time with the television show’s writing room, and gets involved on some level with the slew of video games spinning out of “The Walking Dead” universe, it’s the comic to which he seems most devoted.
“It’s a gift to be still writing this comic,” he said. “When I did the first comic I thought if I get to do this for years and years it would be insane. All I wanted in my career was to be able to do this.
“Now, every time I sit down to write an issue, every minute, even when there’s a struggle, I recognize what a tremendous gift this is.”