Writer and Image Comics partner Robert Kirkman is a busy man these days. In addition to writing his continuing signature series, the superhero epic Invincible and the post-apocalyptic zombie saga The Walking Dead, Kirkman has been working on the latest wave of "Pilot Season" one-shots from Image imprint Top Cow, a miniseries called Haunt that pairs him with Todd McFarlane, a reunion project of the seven Image founders called Image United, and The Astounding Wolf-Man, another creator-owned series set to conclude later this year. In the past, Kirkman has also written Marvel comics such as The Irredeemable Ant-Man, Ultimate X-Men and Marvel Zombies.
When he's not doing comics, the writer is also currently involved in adaptating The Walking Dead for television along with filmmaker Frank Darabont. As of this writing, the channel AMC just ordered six episodes of the show, even before filming of the pilot has begun.
For the the tenth German volume of The Walking Dead (which I'm translating), Mr. Kirkman was kind enough to answer a few questions on the series, on storytelling in general, and on his decision to join Image Comics as a partner in 2008. A German translation of this Q&A can be found at Der Tagesspiegel, as well as in The Walking Dead 10: Dämonen, out now from Cross Cult Verlag and available here, here and here, for instance.
There are spoilers up to The Walking Dead, Vol. 9 or issue #54, if you're not caught up on the series.
MARC-OLIVER FRISCH: Looking back at the last six years' worth of The Walking Dead, are you happy with the way things have gone, in terms of the story and how it's been realized? Is there anything that you'd want to do differently with the gift of hindsight?
ROBERT KIRKMAN: Maybe... maybe I wouldn't have cut [protagonist] Rick [Grimes]'s hand off. I don't know, it was such a cool moment that I decided to throw caution to the wind and just do it.
Other than that... nothing.
The book is more successful than I ever could have imagined and I'm still having as much fun (if not more) as I did when I started it... so I don't think I'd want to change anything.
Since we last talked five years back, the cast of The Walking Dead has changed dramatically—only a handful of the characters from back then remain. Are there any "right" or "wrong" reasons to let a given character die? How do you know losing a cast member is better for the book than keeping them around?
I don't. I have a rule on killing characters... I do it without thinking. I kind of like that... it seems more real to me. If I ever kept a character around because I thought it would be good for the story, I'd feel like I was cheating. That's not how death works. It's supposed to be quick and sudden and disruptive. So I try to keep that in mind.
Nine times out of ten, I know when a character is going to die many issues before it happens, but I try to never consider "what if I kept these people alive?" Once I think of a good reason to kill them, I put it out of my mind... that's it, it's decided, they're dying.
The only character I've ever given a stay of execution is Abraham, and that's because he was planned to die pretty soon after his introduction, but his character changed drastically shortly before he was introduced in the book... so I changed things around to suit that.
As the series progresses and the characters—especially Rick—go through radical ordeals, make tough choices and sometimes do gruesome things, are you worried that the audience might get lost trying to find someone in the book to empathize with and root for?
That is a concern. I do try to make sure that I show their humanity as often as possible. I don't think any characters in the book have gotten to the point where they're irredeemable. If I feel I've gone over that edge of making the characters too unlikeable... I do my best to do something to pull them back over as soon as possible.
I try to be very mindful of the fact that readers need someone to root for, but at the same time, this is a dark story and I try to never pull any punches. We'll see.
Do you think the book could work without a recurring protagonist like Rick? Is he expendable?
He could be... eventually. Maybe I've already said too much. Rick could die at any moment. That's a fact.
Nobody in this book is safe. Whether the book could survive without him, or not... I hope to one day find out.
At this point in the story, it seems the real danger for the cast often doesn't originate with the zombies anymore, but with other people—or with themselves. Were you always aware that this was going to be the direction of the series?
Yes. The zombies are something with a fixed set of behavior. They're something you can learn to avoid.
I always knew I wanted to get to a point in this book where people knew how to deal with them. They're still a threat, but it's something our characters are prepared for.
As far as the Governor is concerned, who was the major villain for a couple of years, I think everyone probably expected a western-style showdown with Rick or Michonne—and then when the time came, things didn't go down quite like that. Do you consciously play with these kinds of genre expectations?
All the time. I try to steer expectations one way and then do something different. That's the writer's job, right?
At the same time, I do try to sometimes give readers exactly what they want. I try to change things up as much as possible to keep people guessing.
With serial fiction that's driven, to an extent, by a "big mystery," there always seems to be the danger of disappointing the audience when it's finally resolved, like, say, The X-Files did with the alien conspiracy angle. Is it a concern of yours, regarding the zombie plague, that readers might at one point demand a resolution, or might be disappointed with the one presented to them?
I've always maintained that the cause of the zombie plague is completely useless in the context of this story. I plan to never reveal it. So hopefully people won't be disappointed by that—because I've been saying that since the beginning.
This book is about the characters.
It seems you'd found a great balance between creator-owned work and work-for-hire assignments, with some very successful results on both ends. Why go through the hassle of joining Image as a partner?
The hassle was doing work-for-hire. It just didn't suit me. I wasn't interested in it. All I wanted to do was creator-owned work.
Also, there's that commonly held belief that you have to do work-for-hire to finance creator-owned work... which most people think never makes any money. But I was doing work-for-hire for Marvel, and it accounted for less than a quarter of my income and three quarters of my work load. I'd always wanted to work at Marvel... and I did it. So it was time to focus on what I enjoyed, which is doing whatever I want with no restrictions.
I'm happier than I've ever been, and sales on all my books have gone up since I left Marvel... so things are great.
From listening to creators, it seems that work for hire is what pays the bills from month to month, whereas creator-owned work is more something that pays off in the long term. Would you say that's a fair way of putting things?
For some, sure... but maybe they're just not putting the same effort into their creator-owned work that they are in their work-for-hire.
I mean, sure... it's hard to start a career in creator-owned work and stay there forever. That's because creator-owned work sells almost entirely based on the popularity of the creator and very few creator-owned books take off like Bone or Strangers in Paradise and allow the creator to stick with it.
I started out in creator-owned, gained some notoriety with it, moved on to Marvel, got my name out there a little more, and now I am able to make a living only at creator-owned books.
I don't agree that you have to continue doing both... especially if it's not something you want to do.
Thanks to Filip Kolek and Cross Cult Verlag.