Kirkman, Robert (The Walking Dead)


Image Comic’s first volume of The Walking Dead is aptly subtitled Days Gone Bye – a farewell to loved ones ravaged by the undead, an adios to civilization now collapsed and forced to begin anew. Read into it deeper, and the moniker Days Gone Bye can be felt as a melancholic remembrance to the cinematic zombie romps we used to see on the big screen. Those bygone days when corpses shambled, flesh tore with all the elasticity of a weak rubber band, and we cared for the poor sonuvabitches who had to survive the mess the world had become. Writer Robert Kirkman resurrects these elements from “the good ol’ days” in The Walking Dead.

Romero alone (and I’m talkin’ about the George Romero, not Caesar Romero, kids) proved that the fly-swarmed backdrop of a zombie epidemic was fertile ground for intense, often truthful, human drama (give me one his Dead films from the holy trilogy over any Oscar-winning yawner any day); and this is where Kirkman goes a-wanderin’ each month for inspiration to continually serve us one of the finest horror comics on stands today.

Days Gone Bye, which collects the first six issues illustrated by Tony Moore, follows Officer Rick Grimes, who is shot in the line of duty and sent into a coma only to awaken months later to discover nothing is as it once ideally was. His wife and kid are gone, their whereabouts unknown. The streets are empty. His old neighborhood is a shambles. Oh, and let’s not forget about the zombies milling about. Shocked, yet determined, Grimes sets out to find his family, who he believes ventured into the “safety” of the big city, along the way meeting other survivors and facing plenty of gruesome dangers.

At the time of this interview the series is entering its eighth issue, the second with artist Charlie Adlard on pencils and inks.

Ryan Rotten: The Walking Dead’s narrative addresses humanity before horror; can you talk about that a bit?

Robert Kirkman: I do that out of necessity more than sheer want to do it. You can’t really do horror in comics. That’s just my opinion; Steve Niles will obviously tell you something different. But I think the horror genre and the “jumping-around-the-corner” scares are so reliant on motion and sound that when you do a horror comic book, you have to focus on atmosphere, dialogue, and other stuff. You can’t really get the “Oh!” reaction by turning the page and finding there’s something shocking going on. I mean you can do that, but it’s not necessarily all working towards the goal of shocking people; in a comic it’s just to creep people out or whatever. To me it’s more entertaining to work on the book just focusing on the people and following their lives than just having some half-naked chick running around in the woods being attacked all the time.

RR: Plus you’ve got to provide enough engaging drama to keep the series going.

RK: Oh yeah, I gotta have stuff to keep this thing going for a while so I can cash in on its success! [laughs]

RR: You took a lot of flack in the letters column because of Dead’s similarity to 28 Days Later and how you introduced the character of Rick.

RK: That was a lot of fun.

RR: Mind clearing up the chronology of it all? When you wrote the first issue versus when 28 Days Later came out.

RK: I don’t have a leg to stand on because 28 Days Later came out in Great Britain so long before it came out here, but this whole book was planned to start in April or March of 2003 instead of October. When we pitched Image [the idea] and they accepted it, we were ready to go, and all the stuff was planned out and the opening was already written. We had already started production on The Walking Dead to a certain degree, and it would’ve debuted in March; but when we pitched it, Image publisher Jim Valentino said they were putting together a horror line for October and they wanted us to be a part of that. They wanted to hold off on the release until October. 28 Days Later came out in June, so . . . yeah, I hadn’t even seen it. I swear! The similarities – you know, Rick wakes up in a bed, he’s in a hospital – that’s pretty much it. I don’t claim that it’s the most original idea in the world, so I don’t really care. It was just something I could start the story off with the main character being as clueless as the reader so he can learn about things at the same time the reader does and there wouldn’t be any gaps I would have to go back and fill in.

RR: Each issue has concluded with a cliffhanger of some sort, be it physical or emotional.

RK: For now I’m trying to do this with every issue. There’s varying degrees of cliffhangers. I think there are some endings that I haven’t really considered cliffhangers that some people have said, “Oh wow, best cliffhanger ever!” I don’t know, I’m trying to make the endings shocking so people will come back for the next issue. Since it’s so early in the run, I want to keep the deck stacked in my favor.

RR: Obviously you’ve proven, too, that nobody is safe in this series.

RK: That’s another thing you have to be mindful of in a book like this. You kind of lose the suspense factor if you know someone isn’t going to die. It’s like watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and it looks like Picard is all messed up, but you know he’s going to be fine the next episode.

RR: What strikes me as great about what you’ve done is that amidst all these films and comics that are trying to put a new, but nonetheless cool, spin on zombie lore, you’ve just stayed true to what Romero established with his Dead trilogy.

RK: Well, I’m a big lazy hack! [laughs] The thing about it is that the Romero movies are the be-all, end-all of the zombie genre. They represent the perfect zombie story you could do in movie form. We’re doing pretty much the same thing [Romero did], but it’s all different characters, all different settings, different dramatic stuff. We’re just doing the Romero film that never ends. This could easily be the fourth Romero film – I like to look at it like that. The Walking Dead is different enough to stand on its own, but I’m trying to keep it in tune with the Romero stuff just because it’s what I like and it’s about time someone canonized the zombie rules. Werewolves and vampires, they all have a set rule system. Everyone pretty much follows it. Zombie stuff? People just go crazy and do whatever they want.

RR: A lot of people I talk to feel that, while you always deliver on the surprises, there’s something really big looming on the horizon for our leads.

RK: Really? Oh man, I hope I don’t disappoint. I’m not going to give anything away, but I’ll say that the scale is going to get bigger and bigger as the series goes and the cast is going to get bigger and smaller. I don’t have a set ending or a one big climactic thing coming up, but there are a lot of shockers though.

RR: What’s your writing process like? Do you map out your story arcs well in advance, or do you even have a blueprint? I can’t imagine you tackle each issue as it comes.

RK: What I have are six-issue arcs in mind. At the beginning of this arc we’ve got this happening, and at the end of it we’re going to be here. So I have that planned out. Then for each character I have their story pretty much mapped out. I have plans for just about everybody in the book. The problem with that is that I’m gonna have to kill these people. What I end up doing is I plot an issue out; then in one of the pages of the plot I put “somebody dies.” Then I sit down and say, “Okay, I’ve got this story laid out for this guy, but I need to kill somebody so who’s it going to be?” And I just have to take what I had initially planned for this person and throw it out the window. I have everything pretty much laid out for a while. For the most part, I know what’s happening to Rick, Lori, and Glenn, but I don’t know how it all lays out chronologically between everybody else. It’s like throwing a puzzle together every time I do an issue.

RR: I entered the series just as artist Tony Moore was leaving and Charlie Adlard was coming in. What happened? Why the transition?

RK: Tony’s on a maternity leave. We’re not in Canada so I don’t have to keep his position open for when he comes back. [laughs] We’ll see. Nah, he had trouble keeping up with the schedule, and it hit a point where the book was either gonna have to go on hiatus for a while or he was going to move on to other stuff. He chose to do other stuff, so that’s what we did.

RR: Zombies, it seems, offer more flexible dramatic value in a survival situation than, say, werewolves or vampires. I mean, why not explore a world overrun by vampires or werewolves?

RK: Zombies are the only ones that easily bring an end-of-the-world scenario into play. Vampires and werewolves – people are turning into them left and right. It’s always some type of contained thing. For some reason, I don’t know why, but the zombie genre seems more realistic. It’s easier for people to relate to the characters, and in an end-of-the-world scenario, you have to have that. Zombies just lend themselves to that.

RR: Do you see any more horror books in your future?

RK: I’m not really a horror guy. People who only know me from The Walking Dead are asking me when I’m going to do a vampire book. I’m not going to have a slew of horror books coming out in the next few months. I’m more of a superhero, action/adventure guy, which is why The Walking Dead is “kind of” a horror book, it’s not just a straight horror book. It’s basically a soap opera that zombies walk into every now and then.

RR: And if Hollywood came sniffin’ around, you’d answer?

RK: [without missing a beat] Oh God, yes! In a minute! I’m not retarded! [laughs]

Special thanks to Robert and the folks at Image!

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