A few years ago I wanted to try to get back into reading mainstream comics. I asked a friend who knew his shit to name some titles I should check out and the first one he mentioned was The Walking Dead.
INTERVIEWS BY JOHNNY RYAN
This image was made by The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
few years ago I wanted to try to get back into reading mainstream comics. I asked a friend who knew his shit to name some titles I should check out and the first one he mentioned was The Walking Dead. I had seen this book around and I just blew it off as another hacky book cashing in on the zombie resurgence, but my friend assured me that it was better than that and I should give it a try. I bought the first collection and was immediately caught up in it. The story follows a cop named Rick who wakes up out of a coma smack in the middle of a zombie shitstorm. He goes on to lead a ragtag group of survivors through this nightmarish landscape, searching for a safe place to hold out until this apocalypse blows over. The book was so compelling I had to get the rest of the series and I tore through it all in a week. I can’t think of too many comics that got me so excited that I honestly could not it put down, so that right there is a pretty amazing accomplishment. The comic has gone on to become a huge international sensation. In fact it’s so fucking great that Hollywood bigshot Frank Darabont has turned it into a hit TV show. Vice knew how much I loved it and asked me to interview the creators of this comic book masterpiece, writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore. I lurched at the chance.
Vice: You do something pretty amazing in this comic in that it’s very text heavy, and usually when I see a comic with that much text in it I want to hang myself. But I find your writing pretty breezy and compelling. I couldn’t put the book down. I can only think of a handful of comics that have accomplished this: Alan Moore’s From Hell comes to mind. Do you take any inspiration from non-comic writers? People that write, y’know… what do they call ’em? Books?
Robert Kirkman: I certainly do. There are traditional-format books that I read and I enjoy those. But I don’t know that writing large blocks of text readable in comic form is [something that’s] learnable, really. I’ll say that large blocks don’t scare away novel readers, so there’s a lesson there. Lettering placement in comics is an art in itself, and the letterer—which is a very real job—often doesn’t get enough credit. A bad letterer, who doesn’t work with the art, makes it very hard to read a comic book. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Rus Wooton, who is very talented and who does our word balloons and text. He trained under the very talented letterer Chris Eliopoulos. I would give a lot of credit for The Walking Dead’s readability to Rus.
You and artist Tony Moore are longtime friends and collaborators. You created The Walking Dead comic together. What prompted Tony to leave the series? Any drama, I hope?
Well, there’s always drama when people as close as Tony and I work together. So, you know, sure. My favourite response to this question is that Tony got pregnant and had to leave the book, because that leaves things interesting and mysterious which is the best way to leave them.
The real answer is much more boring. We were very adamant about scheduling early on, and Tony—fantastic artist though he is—is much more the type that works best on a variety of projects, rather than a single, constant deadline, so we decided it would be best if we went our separate ways for the time being. So, at that time, I contacted Charlie Adlard, who is a fantastic artist, and we’ve been working together ever since.
Men cry a lot in this comic. Are you an emotional guy? Me too. I see a Pillow Pals commercial on TV and I’m a total wreck for days. Do you want to go on a cry date with me?
More than anything else, and I don’t even know who you are. I like that you just went ahead and assumed that I’m emotional. I just want to say that I have never cried in my life, and that crying men are ridiculous. You should be ashamed of yourself. That said, I cry during Pixar movies, trailers for good action movies, and any time my children show any hint of happiness.
Did you get to have a lot of creative input into the TV show or did you just grab the cash and yell, “I’ll see you assholes later!” and then peel out on your Kawasaki Ninja and spray “fuck you” gravel in director Frank Darabont’s face?
It sounds like you were there, so I don’t even know why I would bother answering this question.
Help us wade through the shit and tell us some more awesome comics to read.
Pretty much anything with my name on it is a sure bet. Or so I’m told by my parents and people who are close to me. Otherwise I’ll try to narrow things down to a pretty small list: Y: The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra), Planetary (Warren Ellis and John Cassaday). There are some newer books, like Chew, that I think will soon become modern classics, there’s a serial called Criminal (Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips) that I think people will enjoy. Personally, my favourite of all time is a series called Savage Dragon (Erik Larsen).
Look, talking about comic book lettering is about as exciting as watching paint dry on a butter churn. Let’s get back to talking about authors. Who do you like? Harold Robbins? Tom Clancy? Jackie Collins? I want names.
OK, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King, Alan Moore. That’s enough, right?
There’s that scene in the comic (and the TV show) where the people cover themselves with a zombie’s guts before walking through the streets of Atlanta to hide from the other zombies’ keen sense of smell. Does this mean that if a zombie was chasing me and I blew a big, greasy deathfart it would think I was a zombie too and leave me alone?
Yes, yes it does. No. Lord. Yeah, the sense of smell thing is tricky because it tends to make you think that zombies are bloodhounds and can smell better than humans can. The way I always looked at it was that the absence of rotting smell would make zombies able to hone in. The whole idea stems from the fact that zombies aren’t very smart, but they don’t eat each other. There are relatively few visual cues—for example, “staggering” wouldn’t prevent a zombie from eating you—so I figured smell would work just fine.
How far ahead do you plot out the series? Do you have an ending in mind? Do you ever see a time where you’ll be too old and senile to write it and someone else will have to take over, or will you end it before then?
I think it’s time to end it when I’m not having a good time and the readers aren’t having a good time. If I’m still having a good time, though, even if the readers aren’t, I’ll run it happily into the ground. As a reader, I’ve always liked stories that just kept going, and I have a lot of ideas for The Walking Dead, and think I can keep it up. So yeah, I see myself writing it until I’m old and grey and completely horrible at it, and the book sucks. I see it as an endurance race, with this major commitment to making things interesting along the way—I’m proud that we’ve gotten to issue 80, and I think I’m up to the challenge of keeping things compelling through at least issue 400. Let’s see if I pull it off.
Name one of your comic book artist heroes who you met that turned out to be a total dick.
Everybody has these stories about different creators—John Byrne is the top candidate on that list of people you meet who turn out to be assholes and that ends up being disheartening. I’ve never had the privilege of meeting him, and I’m a huge fan and will continue to be a huge fan; I don’t care if he is a huge dick, I’ll still buy his comics. I will say, some great artists are nice people: Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane are both amazingly down to earth and fun guys to be around. Joe Quesada is kind of a dick but I never idolised him when I was younger, so...
What are the other comics that you’ve written that are equal to or better than The Walking Dead?
I think all of my comic books are equal to or better than The Walking Dead, of course. Haunt is still very young—we’re wrapping issue 12 before the new year—but I think it has great potential, and some horror elements. It’s about ghosts as opposed to zombies, so there’s a parallel there, and great art by Greg Capullo too. On the superhero side, I’d say Invincible—long-running, similar to The Walking Dead, we’re nearing issue 80. There’s very layered storytelling, and a lot that has been building for eight years. But everything else I do is awful.
I have an idea for a TV show about a helicopter with these really big testicles that hang down which it uses to bonk people on the head. It’s kind of like Airwolf meets Boogie Nights. It’s called Ballscopter. The next time you see Frank Darabont can you just pass this idea along to him? Y’know, see if he’s into it.
The Walking Dead is probably one of the best comics series in the last ten years. Please explain to the readers how you go about making a comic that doesn’t totally suck shit.
Be worth a shit at what you're trying to do. Try your absolute damned best. If you weren't born awesome, attempt to become educated in the field you wish to enter, so that at least you can draw from the knowledge of those who came before you. It will also open your eyes to things that suck shit, so that you don't unwittingly join their ranks.
Seriously, though, I think The Walking Dead's success largely comes from a lot of love for what we were trying to do. We truly loved the stories that inspired us to make the book, and did our absolute damnedest to create something we both felt was worthy of standing alongside them. Fortunately, people picked it up and felt the love we put into it.
This is a previously unseen drawing by Cliff Rathburn. Thanks to Sina M. Grace for image assistance.
Well, despite a brief run on Spike TV, I seriously doubt that Battle Pope will ever be a smash hit. Even if they made a funny version of the cartoon, I still doubt it'd carry. Even at its best, in a world where The Tick gets cancelled twice, Pope doesn't stand a chance. Everything else, though... TV GOLD!
I’ve collaborated a few times with other artists. It always starts off cool, but then I quickly become irritated and want to get the fuck away from the other guy as quickly as possible and then talk major shit about him on the internet. Which collaborations made you do this, too?
Well, Kirkman and I have clearly gone our separate ways. We had our disagreements about how things were supposed to operate, and since then, our different perspectives have given rise to what each believes to be the key issues leading to our split. Over the years, he's publicly espoused some views on the artistic process that are so fundamentally dissonant from my own that they will likely remain a wedge between us for a long, long time. I don't talk shit on anybody, but I'm not going to hide or sugar-coat my feelings on the matter. On the flipside, though, Rick Remender and I have been collaborating for about seven years now, and still going strong. We operate on the same creative wavelength and respect each other enough to put the cards on the table and deal with shit. I think that's the secret to longevity when it comes to maintaining a work relationship, especially with friends.
Did you have any creative input into the storyline of The Walking Dead comic? Or did Kirkman just hand you a script and say “Get to work, slave!”?
Not really. I had a couple ideas for things that got into the book, such as Andrea being a crack shot, that made it into the book, and I chose to interpret some events in the script a little differently than Robert intended, but overall I trusted him to do his job and he trusted me to do mine.
This book has a fuckload of awesome zombie violence, but were there things in TWD that you hated drawing? Like, did you ever wake up in the morning and think, “Shit! I gotta draw another four-page scene of some dude crying and talking about his feelings! Goddammit!”?
I'll never complain about a few pages of talking heads. They pull my ass out of the deadline fire on a regular basis. The only scene that stuck in my craw was the scene where they put the guts on themselves to camouflage themselves from the zombies. I've just never bought this angle of smell being such a big giveaway. Half of 'em don't even have noses, and none of them are actively breathing, so what are the chances of them catching a whiff? Also, this isn't the first time this has happened, but it's an anecdote that applies to the situation, and felllow dog owners can relate: my dogs got out today and one of them managed to find something that smelled like death and vomit, which, of course, she rolled in. She maybe got a couple of teaspoons of that greasy filth on her, and she was out in a pretty heavy storm. When she got inside, the stink filled my whole goddamned house and we had to give her a pretty vigorous shampooing, which i'm still not sure got it all. So, on top of not buying the zombies smelling people, I also don't buy that a few minutes of even the heaviest rain can just rinse that shit off to the point you smell like Irish Spring from a distance. Also, if you rubbed that shit on you, you'd get sick as a fuck, and only an idiot would do it on purpose. All in all, that whole scene annoyed me. Oddly enough, though, the rainy escape from zombie infested Atlanta was maybe one of my favourite scenes I've ever drawn in a book. The creepy zombies, the rain, the tension... it all made for a really fun scene to draw, and I still think it was one of my most successful sequences.
After all the success that the book has had are you pissed that you left it, or are you all like I don’t give a shit, I get paid anyway?
Not really. I was pretty miserable by the end, and clearly things weren't working out. I can't complain. If I hadn't left it, I might not have gotten to do any of my subsequent books, which I immensely enjoyed and I co-own. Also, I got to do some pretty crazy shit at Marvel, too. Not to mention, I might not have gotten married to an awesome gal, Kara, who helps run my business like a Swiss fucking watch, and also happens to have an awesome vagina what squirted out the awesomest baby daughter that was ever squirted out of a vagina. At the end of the day, my hands are clean and the cheques clear, so what, me worry? Life's good. I don't have the time or energy to carry that kinda baggage.
Charlie Adlard took over drawing TWD after you. Do you like what he’s done with the book?
I do. He's a great storyteller with balls of steel when it comes to slinging ink around. Also, a super nice fellow and a real workhorse. I've got a lot of respect for the guy.
If you were on a boat with Kirkman and Charlie Adlard and you and Adlard fell out of the boat and were drowning, who do you think Kirkman would save?
Charlie is clearly much more useful to him. I'd wager I was pushed out of the boat in the first place.
What comics are you working on now and when will they become TV shows?
Well, I'm working on Fear Agent right now, which I co-created with Rick Remender. It's wrapping up forever pretty soon, and it breaks my heart. It's a big epic space opera starring an alcoholic cowboy, in the vein of the high-adventure sci-fi of EC's stuff from the 50s and old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials from before that. I don't know about a TV show, but I do know that the fine folks at Dark Horse are working very hard to set it up as a motion picture in Hollywood, and things are looking pretty good so far. Also, I had another book called The Exterminators, which I did at Vertigo with Simon Oliver. It's about the band of misfits and fuck-ups employed by an extermination business in LA, and the crazy myriad of shit they encounter in the line of duty. Plus, it has some good creepy X-Files-type supernatural overtones. Dexter producer Sara Colleton got it optioned at Showtime, but things fell apart around the writer's strike a couple years ago, and it's still looking for a home. With Sara's success on Dexter, and now The Walking Dead doing so well, i think it's got a pretty good shot of landing somewhere. Plus, the writing is awesome. Really twisted dark humour, with some quality gross-outs, and some great characters. Glen Morgan wrote a pilot for it that knocked my damn socks off.
Beyond that, I'm working for Marvel these days. My next book hasn't been announced yet, but I think people will dig it. It's a pretty drastically different take on a popular fan-favourite of the 90s, who has been out of commission for quite a while. Mouth-breathers will be upset at the change, and their poor mothers will hear about it for months. Intelligent people who read comic books to have fun will get a real kick out of it.
List the 250 biggest assholes in the comics industry and please write a paragraph or two explaining why.
Anybody who ever touched pen to paper for Kieron Dwyer's Lowest Comic Denominator is right up there on the list. After reading Klassic Komix Klub, I'm pretty sure your name is on there at least 15 or 20 times, Johnny. Poor old T.K. Ryan worked for 40 years on Tumbleweeds, and then his only begotten son turns out a filthmonger and a sexual deviant. I hope you're proud of yourself.