Robert Kirkman on The Walking Dead TV Show, and Why 20 Pages Is Enough [Interview]
The Walking Dead AMC television show is days away from its premiere on the appropriately spooky date of October 31, and by all appearances is a faithful take on its source material, the long-running zombie comic by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard. On the cusp of the small screen premiere, Kirkman talked to ComicsAlliance about watching his creation come to (undead) life, why the television show will hold surprises even for devoted fans of the comic, and how the hero of his comic could someday turn out to be the villain. He also delved into two hot topics within the industry, digital and comics pricing, explaining why he believes in simultaneous print and digital releases, and why 20 pages is plenty to tell a good story in comics.
Some Walking Dead spoilers follow for new readers.
ComicsAlliance: What’s been the most surreal moment for you in seeing your comic book turn into a live-action AMC show?
Robert Kirkman: Each one tops the next. Getting to talk on the phone with [producer] Frank Darabont was really weird; meeting with AMC in their offices was really weird; being on set was extremely weird. I got to go to the Atlanta set for the pilot where they had basically closed off four square blocks of Atlanta and dressed it up like everything had actually happened. So I got to walk past bombed out buses, and I actually got to go on the bus that you can see in the trailers, which was a lot of fun. And dangerous! I could have died on there. But it’s all really bizarre. Meeting the actors — I have photos of Andrew Lincoln and Steven Yuen meeting for the first time and shaking hands. It’s really weird, because Stephen Yuen was in costume as Glenn, and Andrew Lincoln was in costume, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s Rick and Glenn meeting for the first time. In real life.”
CA: It seems like the show has been pretty faithful to the comic —
RK: It’s extremely faithful, but on top of that there are new characters that aren’t in the comic book series, and by adding people in it changes the story a little bit. A lot of the big things you’d expect there to be in the TV show based what’s in the comic book — they happen. But they happen in a different way, so there’s still an element of surprise, which was very important to me. I didn’t want people to be watching the television show and saying, “Oh, this is when this is going to happen.” Or, “This guy’s going to be in the show for a while.”
CA: “I know when the zombie’s going to jump through the window!”
RK: Yeah. So there’s a lot of shock value to it even if you’ve read the comics.
CA: Are there any changes they’ve made where you think it actually works better for the story?
RK: I will say that there are a lot things that I kinda zoomed past on the way to telling more stories. Very early on in the comic book series, I didn’t know how long it was going to last. So there are a lot of things where I would just go, “OK, this happens and then I’m moving on!” They’re able to go back and expand a lot of those things in the television show. You get to know Rick a little bit more everything happens; in the comic he says maybe four lines of dialogue before he’s in the new zombie world. That’s one of the things the show is doing really well: Letting us get to know the characters a little bit more. The character Morgan that Rick meets in the first episode has a lot more screen time, and I think everything Frank added for that character is fabulous. We get to know Shane a little bit better and see more of him… Frank would just come in and find something and say, “This is really cool; I think we can spend more time on this.” And on other things, it was like, “You’ve spent too much time here, Robert, we’ve moving on.” [laughs]
CA: What makes The Walking Dead different from so many zombies properties really is the focus on the characters, especially over time as we watch them coping with the non-stop PTSD of living in the new zombie reality for years and years as the comic progresses. In the comic, we’re starting to see how much Rick has changed since the beginning… Has the trauma he’s experienced pushed him past the point of no return? Is he so broken that he could never function in a normal way again even if the zombies disappeared?
RK: That’s very much what’s going on in the book right now, with the community — this place that seemingly has reestablished civilization and is following the old rules. And we see that the characters don’t really function very well in that society. I like to think that if Rick, in the first few issues, met Rick in the current book, it would be not unlike hm interacting with the Governor. It’s a very different character. And maybe he’s not such a great guy now. That’s something that you have to deal with.
I hope that people still like him enough to continue reading the book, and they’re not like, “I hate this guy!” But at the same time I feel like living in this kind of world would ruin you, and Rick is to a certain extent getting ruined. I think it’s very compelling, and I like writing the book now more than I did started out. I couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out. I think he’s completely broken. That’s the fun thing about the comic: I’ve been able to go to the point of no return, and just keep going. I think it’s going to be fun to see where things go from him. People will be shocked at how far things are going to go with Rick.
CA: You’ve said that in terms of characters dying, even Rick isn’t off-limits —
CA: What I think makes the ruining of Rick so compelling is that we’ve been with him so long in this serial format, so we’ve seen this shift happen slowly, and we understand the circumstances and why he does what he does. And who’s to say I wouldn’t have done the same things in these incredibly insane situations? You understand exactly why Rick has made each of these choices along the way, even if it means he isn’t your hero anymore.
RK: I wonder if there are people who would pick up the book with issue #75 and say, “This guy’s a maniac! Why would anyone read this book.”
CA: Most villains, in real life or otherwise, have reasons —
RK: The best villains are the ones you find some way to relate to. And maybe Rick is the villain of this comic, I don’t know. Spoiler alert! [laughs]
CA: You’ve said you have the series mapped out to issue #150 —
RK: I would say more than that, actually. If the prison was a story arc, and Woodbury was a story arc, and everything that happens after that was a story arc, I have four or five more of those mapped out. I have events and settings and stuff planned out that will get me well past #150. I try to map out as far as I can in advance, because I want it to be as compelling on issue #140 as it is in issue #1. And in order to do that, I feel like I have to have a very distinct road map, and I have to know where I’m going. I feel like people do these long-running series and it reaches a point where it just slows down and people lose their way. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m just meandering. I want to feel like I’m working towards something, and excited about getting there.
CA: Have you talked at all with AMC about how closely future seasons of the TV show will track with the comic?
RK: It’s something I can’t really discuss publicly to a certain extent, but I can say the things Frank has already said publicly. He definitely wants to deal with Herschel’s farm, which is a big part of the second volume of the comic book series. And I know he wants to introduce Michonne earlier.
CA: Because she is the best.
RK: Yes. We’ll probably see her fairly early in the second season. She’ll be played by Morgan Freeman. Spoiler alert! [laughs]
CA: How much is the first season itself going to cover?
RK: I can’t say, because that would be a spoiler. In some cases it doesn’t cover a lot, and in some cases it covers quite a bit. It takes different things from different issues; it’s not an issue to episode comparison.
CA: Do you think at all when you’re writing about how it might look on the screen?
RK: No. If the television show ran for 10 season, I don’t know that it would definitely catch up to me, because the comic’s been running for so long. So it’s not even a consideration, and that’s good. I didn’t write the rest of the issues thinking about TV, so I’m happy that I’m in a position where I can continue to write the comic and not feel influenced at all.
CA: It seems like television was really the ideal format to translate the series, considering its scope, as compared to a movie adaptation.
RK: We had a lot of offers to turn it into movies that I was able to turn down. The comic book was successful, so I wasn’t sitting around going, “I need to pay my bills! Please! Uwe Boll please make my movie!” We turned down quite a few offers from people who just wanted to turn it into an action movie, and that’s not what it is. It’s a long-form character study, and TV is exactly what we needed to adapt it. If it wasn’t going to be turned into a television show, I just wasn’t going to do it.
CA: Do you see Walking Dead as an opportunity to bring in a lot of new readers outside the niche, and are you hoping to use digital distribution to do this?
RK: We did just go day and date with Walking Dead, so the issue that comes into [comic] stores on Wednesday you can buy digitally the same day. I guess it’s somewhat controversial, but we’ve got this show that’s coming on that will be seen by a lot more people that read comics in general, and digital comics are much more accessible than print comics just because of the way our distribution works now. I feel like we need to capitalize on that. We’re on the verge of experiencing a renaissance in comics, because if we embrace the digital medium we’re not going to lose the print buyers. Because the print buyers, like myself — I want to buy a print comic. That’s how most of the people who go into stores every Wednesday operate. I think we’re going to gain a whole new audience that wouldn’t necessarily buy a [print] comic but will buy it digitally. I’m hoping we’ll basically end up with two markets, and that the Walking Dead show and the Walking Dead comic available will facilitate some of that.
CA: Along with digital, price points have been a topic of much discussion in the comics industry recently. DC is planning to drop their prices from $3.99 to $2.99, but also to cut stories from 22 pages to 20 pages. I mention this because your comic Invincible has been at 20 pages of story per issue for some time.
RK: It’s the dirty secret of Invincible! [laughs] In defense of DC, Invincible has been 20 pages since issue #21 and no one noticed.
CA: Was it a financial consideration?
RK: It was a scheduling consideration. I did the math, and if you shave off two pages an issue, it ends up being an issue less a year. So [Invincible artist] Ryan Ottley gets to take a vacation. It’s not like it’s never been done before; Savage Dragon was 20 pages for a really long time in the ’90s, and Marvel Comics were 17 pages for a really long time. The only reason they went to 22 pages was because there was a huge price jump and they wanted to justify it. The page count of comics has always been kind of fluctuating; people seem to think that it was always 22 pages, but comic books have been getting shorter for decades. I try to pack as much story as I can into the 20 pages, and it reads like a full-length comic book to me. The Astounding Wolf-Man is 20 pages; my Marvel Team-Up issues at Marvel were 20 pages and nobody noticed. A lot of issues of The Irredeemable Ant-Man were 20 pages. I don’t think anyone will notice unless they sit down and count the pages.
CA: Honestly, I think decompression in storytelling is a way bigger problem than losing pages.
RK: It’s the story that you tell, not necessarily the page count you tell it in.
CA: I remember when Casanova first came out, and I felt like I’d read two comics for the amount of story I got in one, and that was only 17 pages.
RK: You can read a 22-page story where two things happen or a 20-page story where eight things happen. So where do you feel like you got your money’s worth?
CA: With all the fluctuation and changes in price points going on in comics, what do you think is the ideal price point for a single comic?
RK: The ideal price is 5 cents. Honestly, that’s the ideal price point. Realistically, I don’t know. it is very strange to me that my first comic was published in 2000, my Battle Pope comic was $2.95, and I’ve been working in comics for 10 years now and every comic book I’ve done is $2.95 or $2.99… When I started, Marvel books were $1.99. But over the course of the last five years, Marvel and DC books have actually gotten more expensive. Which to me tells you that was an inflated price that wasn’t really necessary, and the fact that they’re dropping prices now kinda proves that.
There’s been a lot of discussion going on at Image, and I feel like every book Image probably should be $3.99 since everything at Marvel is $3.99, and historically independent books have always been a dollar more. When you think about all the advertising and the different things that go into Marvel books that independent books just don’t have, it makes sense for it to be a little higher. But we don’t do it because it’s just not the time; it’s a tough time for people out there and it’s not fair to them… I never raised the prices on any of my books, and I don’t plan to do it any time soon. I make a fine living with all my books being $2.99, and I’ll keep it there until I can’t.
CA: You’ve got a new imprint, Skybound, coming out soon. What’s the price point going to be there?
RK: That’s going to be $7.99 an issue.
RK: I’m joking. [laughs] I don’t know yet. It might be $3.99 or $3.50. We’ll have to do some number-crunching. But it’ll probably be $2.99. It’ll be [coming out] before summer… Witch Doctor is a really good book. Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner do a great job, and it’s amazingly original — probably the smartest-written book I’ve read in a long time. I just loved it when I saw those mini-comics, and I’m happy to try to bring it to a wider audience.