Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy Podcast Episode 25 Interview with Robert Kirkman Transcript
Announcer: io9 presents The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, brought to you by Brilliance Audio. And here are your hosts, John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley.
Dave: Hello, and welcome to Episode 25 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy!
John: Hi, this is John Joseph Adams. I’m the editor of Lightspeed and Fantasy magazines, and I’ve also edited several anthologies such as The Living Dead and The Living Dead 2, and Wastelands, and some others.
Dave: And I’m David Barr Kirtley. My short fiction appears in books such as New Voices in Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and my most recent stories are “Cats in Victory” in Lightspeed, “The Skull-Faced City” in The Living Dead 2, and “Family Tree” in The Way of the Wizard. And today on the show we’ll be interviewing Robert Kirkman, who wrote the graphic novel series The Walking Dead, which is now a new hit series on AMC. And AMC just announced that they’ve picked up the show for a second season of 13 episodes. According to their press release, “Since debuting on Halloween, The Walking Dead has broken ratings records, with the series reaching more adults age 18 to 49 than any other show in the history of cable television. So we’ll be talking to Robert Kirkman about his various graphic novel projects and about the new show, and stick around after the interview when John and I’ll be talking about some zombie stuff that we’ve watched recently, including The Walking Dead TV series.
John: And actually, if you enjoy this episode and you haven’t gotten enough zombie talk after listening to the whole episode, we’re going to be re-syndicating all of our old episodes that originally aired at tor.com here on io9 starting next week, and so the first episode that we aired on tor.com was an interview with Chet Faliszek, who’s the lead writer on Left 4 Dead, and so that whole episode is about zombies and the apocalypse and whatnot, so if you enjoy this episode and you want more, you can go listen to that one, that one that’ll be up next week, and keep in mind that it’s not quite as polished — it was our first episode, our first attempt at a podcast, but Dave re-edited it, and so it’s like the “directors cut,” so even if you did listen to it you should listen to it again next week.
John: Okay, so let’s get Robert Kirkman on the phone.
Dave: Hi, this is Dave and John from Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Robert: Hey, this is Robert Kirkman. How you doing?
Dave: Good. Thanks for joining us on the show.
John: Okay, so The Walking Dead puts just as much emphasis on survival as it does on battling zombies. Why did you decide to focus so much on the survival aspect?
Robert: I guess at my core I’m just a big girl that likes soap operas. The thing that I enjoy, the parts of the comic that I really like writing, are the emotional bits, the relationship stuff, the interaction between Rick and Carl. All that stuff. The zombies are really just there to trick dudes into reading it, is basically what it boils down to.
Dave: Could you talk about how much thought you put into the survival aspect. Did you study survivalism or anything like that?
Robert: No, I have no studies in survivalism. I google enough to make it somehow seem realistic when I have to have someone dress a wound. One of the things I most like to do in the book is make things up in a way that seems realistic. In particular there’s one scene where a guy dresses a wound, and I had friends that were like, “Wow, look at you, doing your research, that’s amazing,” but I really made up half of what the guy does because I thought it seemed cool. Because most of the time when I do research, I end up with things that aren’t really exciting, like, “Oh, that’s a really simple way to do that. Oh, you clean a wound by washing it out with water.” That’s dull. So I did something with tea leaves and wax, and I got a letter in from a guy that said that would actually cause it to get infected and he would have to have it amputated, but it seems like a nice realistic thing when you’re reading the comic. And then to counteract how fake it is, I just don’t print that guy’s letter. [Laughter] So that’s how I do that.
Dave: So it’s important that people shouldn’t use The Walking Dead as a reference for medical school or whatever?
Robert: Oh, please, lord, don’t anyone do anything from this comic book thinking that it actually works. I don’t want to be responsible for someone getting their leg cut off … again. [Laughter]
Dave: The Walking Dead is very convincing in the way that it portrays the strained emotions of the characters. Do you have any tricks for putting yourself inside their heads, and did you do any research into that, into disaster psychology or anything like that?
Robert: Well, l I know a lot of troubled people, so that helps. But a lot of times it’s just thinking about, “What I would do in that situation?” and doing the opposite, or thinking about what I would do in that situation if I were a crazy person. But, you know, if I were to always just put myself in that situation and do what I would do, everyone would behave the same way, so it’s really just a matter of changing things up as best you can and trying to keep things believable. The other thing I do is I try to map out how characters react to certain things, and how their reactions are going to change over time based on other things they’ve experienced, so you’ll see a character like Glenn react a certain way in the early issues, but as he goes through those experiences and learns, over time his reactions will vary later on in the series.
Dave: So a prison seems like a natural setting for a zombie story, but The Walking Dead was, I think, the first time I’d ever seen that done. How did you get the idea to have your characters take refuge in a prison, and what sort of benefits or drawbacks were there to using that as a setting?
Robert: You know, it kind of came out of the blood. It wasn’t like a hard study I did to determine whether it was going to be a prison or — It was originally going to be a high school, because the high school I attended had a courtyard, and in the center of it there was a building basically shaped like an O, and I was going to base the high school in the comic book on that, you know, because the courtyard would be a place where they can actually grow food and have a little outside area that was fully protected. And then it occurred to me that high schools don’t really have beds, and as I was writing it I was like, “Oh, and they’ll take the principal’s couch, and what, are they going to fight over that? They’ll be sleeping on the floor, this is awful! There’s like one room with showers in the gym but that’s about it, and that’s not good, and then it occurred to me that prisons and high schools are pretty much exactly the same, except you go to sleep in a prison, so that seemed like a more ideal thing for the story. They would have more things to actually live off of inside a prison, and it would be already be well fortified. It seemed like a natural fit. It is kind of odd to think that no one’s really set a story like this in a prison before.
Dave: Have you spent a lot of time in prison yourself?
Robert: I don’t really like to talk about that period in my life, but … yes. No, I’ve never even set foot inside a prison. That’s why the prison is completely 100% inaccurate and made up in the comic book series.
John: How did The Walking Dead TV series come about, and what was the development process like?
Robert: It’s funny, because the development process was very long and drawn out and very quick at the same time, because there was kind of a false start where Frank Darabont contacted me because he had a deal with NBC and wanted to do a pilot, and he was going to make the pilot of The Walking Dead, and it almost happened at NBC in 2005, but that fell through because NBC decided they didn’t want zombies to be in the show, after they read the script, which is a funny story that he likes to tell, so I feel okay in telling it, but it kind of went into limbo after that, and there was some interest here and there but nothing ever really came together, and then about eighteen months ago Frank contacted me again and said, “What you think about AMC?” and I said, “Well, you know, I love me some Breaking Bad and some Mad Men, so I’m quite keen on AMC.” And he was telling me that they were interested, and Gale Anne Hurd had been brought in somewhere along the way, and she kind of got everything back on track and brought AMC to the table and made it happen. So eighteen months ago we started out on this, and now there’s a show that’s going to be on the air in a week, so it was really kind of an unusually fast process from that point on.
John: How involved have you been in the production?
Robert: You know, fairly involved. I’ve gone out to the writers room a few times, and spent a week here and a week there working with them, and then I actually wrote the fourth episode. So, you know, fairly involved. I’m an executive producer. I could fire Frank Darabont if I wanted to … I couldn’t really. [Laughter] I don’t know. I should call someone and say I want to know. You know, I’ve been on set a bunch. I mean, my job to me is to make sure that the show is awesome, just because I feel that the people who read the comic book and like the comic book deserve the television show to not suck, and so I always wanted to have a hand in it just to make sure that everything was good for them, just because I feel like I owe them, and thankfully I haven’t really had to do much because Frank and everybody involved were also out to do an awesome show, and their version of awesome is the same version as mine, and the show turned out to be pretty great.
John: What kind of changes should fans of the comic be expecting to see in the show?
Robert: Well, Rick is a duck. [Laughter] And they all live in a spaceship … No, there’s some cool characters that I kind of wish were in the comic book. Merle and Daryl Dixon are pretty awesome, and they’re wholly original to the television series, and there’s other characters like T-Dog and Morales and Jackie that you’re not going to recognize from the comic because they’re not in it, but they’re welcome additions and they bring a lot to the show and there’s cool stuff going on, and there’s little storylines here and there that kind of crop up, and aren’t from the comic book but they fit seamlessly into what the comic book has always been about, and if you have a poor memory you may not remember that they’re not in a comic book, and so they don’t really stick out in that respect. But there are a lot of things that Frank did that I’m just jealous of, where he would take a scene and add to it, where he would read the comic book and go, “You know what, Kirkman? That was a cool couple of pages, but I’m going to do this with it,” and it’s so obvious and awesome that I look back I’m like, “Why didn’t I do that begin with? Like, what the hell’s wrong with me? So, you know, there’s a lot of things like that that just kind of piss me off, so I’m a little bitter about the show.
Dave: So one recent issue of The Walking Dead featured a color story by Ryan Oteley. How did that come about?
Robert: Well, one of the most frustrating things about The Walking Dead series is that since day one, when I wrote a text piece in the back of the first issue about how I plan for this series to go on for years, and this is a zombie movie that never ends, yadda yadda yadda, I started getting letters from people that would say, “Well, you know, the third issue is pretty good, and I like these three issues, but I just don’t see how you’re going to get this to be interesting for a year.” Or like when issue ten would come out it would be like, “It’s been pretty good for ten issues, but I don’t see how you’re going to keep this story interesting, because it just seems like it can become repetitive and mundane, and not be able to keep this thing going it seems like you’re going to run out of ideas,” and so I would start jokingly replying that I’m fully aware that I’m going to run out of ideas, I’m clocking that I will probably run out of ideas by around issue 75, and at that point I’m not going to stop the book, because I’m a sellout, I’m just going to add aliens into the book to make it more interesting, and that’ll be my “jumping the shark” moment, and the book will swiftly be canceled after that, but for a time there will be aliens in the book. And it was all a big joke, and at the time, you know — issue 3, issue 10, issue 12 — issue 75 seemed really far away, and it seemed like, “I may never make it to that, I mean, we’ll see, who knows?” And so it was something that came up in the letters column, a lot people would respond and be like, “You know, I’m going to read this book until issue 75 when the aliens come, and then quit.” So I feel like the hard-core fans, the people who actually read the letters column, were very acutely aware that issue 75 was coming, and I didn’t want to just not do anything, but I wasn’t actually going to put aliens in the book, so I thought it would be fun to do an out-of-continuity backup story that was a fun gag that played off of the “aliens in issue 75” joke that had been running through the letters column for like 75 issues, and much to my dismay some fans thought that it was in-continuity, and so I got some letters from some people who had never read the letters column, who hadn’t even read the letters column in that issue, where it talks about how the story is just a gag, who thought that I had somehow decided that the book was in color now, and drawn by Ryan Oteley now, and featured aliens and science fiction weaponry and stuff. I don’t know, there weren’t that many people who thought that. So I think most people just thought it was a funny gag, but I sure had a lot of fun doing it. It was kind of fun to write the characters in a different way, and seeing Michelle with a light saber was pretty awesome.
John: So it was recently announced that you’ll be doing some Walking Dead novels co-written with novelist Jay Bonansinga. What can you tell us about those?
Robert: The novels will basically be some expanded back story for the comic book series, so they’ll take place in the comic book continuity, and I don’t really want to say who the first one is about just yet, but it’s basically really awesome characters from the comic book series that aren’t in the comic book series anymore, so it’s people that … well, they’ve died. It’s fan favorites that people want to know more about, and so we’re going to be telling a really cool history of this character and how they came to the point where they were at when we met them in the comic book series.
Dave: So in recent years all sorts of new variations on zombies have appeared — fast zombies, zombie romance, zombie superheroes. What’s been your take on all of this?
Robert: You know, the more the better. I actually like it. Zombie superheroes … I guess I was kind of a part of that. But yeah, I’m all for it. Zombie romance sounds a little gross. But I like zombies, and as long as it’s good, I don’t care if there’s a zombie cooking show, as long as it’s entertaining. I’m certainly not a zombie purist that can’t stand running zombies. They’re not right for The Walking Dead, I mean, that’s not what the show or the comic book is about, but I really like the Dawn of the Dead remake. It’s a really cool movie, and the fast zombies don’t really bug me. It’s ridiculous that they’re busting through walls and stuff, don’t get me wrong, but it works for that movie, and so I don’t really have a problem with it. It’s better than vampires, right?
Dave: So do you think that the zombies as we’ve seen them in The Walking Dead — the sort of Romero-style zombies — is that what Walking Dead is always going to be, or will there ever be any sort of other supernatural element introduced further down the road do you think?
Robert: No supernatural elements. I swear. You know, while I do think zombies of different variations are very cool, I don’t think that they’re cool for The Walking Dead, so the classic Romero zombies that we have now are not going to change very much. Now, we see in the comic books that there are different things that happen to a zombie over time, you know, in the comic book series there’s even some that have grown a little bit lethargic and aren’t quite as threatening as fresher zombies. But they’re not going to be sprouting wings anytime soon, basically. Although that is a pretty good idea.
John: Your short story “Alone, Together” appears in my anthology The Living Dead 2…
Robert: Oh, we’ve got to plug your anthology, blah blah blah… [Laughter]
John: Yes, we do. So … what was the process of writing that story like, and how is writing a short story different from writing a comic book?
Dave: And don’t worry, we only have ten questions on this subject. [Laughter]
Robert: No, it’s a very good anthology, everyone should run out and buy it. It’s the one with the blue cover. It’s funny, I was actually in a bookstore waiting in line, and someone in another line across from the register, was there buying the book, and I thought that was very cool, and I didn’t say anything to them because I’m actually quite shy. But anyway, it’s very different because when I’m writing a comic book, I can go, “Hey, Charlie, do something cool, they’re saying this,” and he turns it into an awesome panel, and people read it and they think, “Oh, that Robert Kirkman guy is a great writer, because he told Charlie to draw something cool,” and I didn’t really do crap, so comic writing is much easier, and then when you sit down to write prose … it’s funny, that’s actually the first prose I’ve written since high school, just because I’ve been busy, dammit, but you know, it’s work, it’s hard, because you have to like … take words and actually make them … read well, I guess, so there’s a reason why Jay Bonansinga is working on The Walking Dead novels with me. I think it’s a pain in the ass. But I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s a good story, people should buy those books, right? It’s a good story, right?
John: I agree.
Dave: Yeah, it’s great.
John: Well, I put it first in the book, so obviously I thought it was pretty good.
Robert: Yeah, what’s up with that?
John: So how did you first break into writing comic books?
Robert: I did a comic book and I published it myself. I was lucky enough to meet Tony Moore in seventh grade, and so I knew that guy, and was able to trick him into drawing comic books for me at a very young age. So shortly after high school the two of us started working on a book called Battle Pope, and then from that I started a publishing company called Funkotron, and I published that starting in June of 2000, and then did that book for about two years before I started getting work at Image comics, and the rest is history.
John: How difficult was it doing that, publishing your own comic book starting from the ground up?
Robert: You know, in a lot of ways it was easy, just because there’s not a lot of moving parts in comics. There’s one distributor that distributes to all the comic book stores in the country, and there was a printer that was in Canada that most people used, and so I would work with Tony Moore to make the comic book, we would send that to Canada, and then that would be sent from the printer in Canada to the one distributor, and then it would go to comic book stores, so once you get that system down it’s really a fairly easy process, but there’s a lot of troublesome financing stuff that came into it, and then the actual production of a comic book is not something that people just know off the top of their heads — you know, what kind of paper to draw your pages on, how you make the word balloons, and different things that have to be done in order to turn a bunch of pieces of paper into a comic book, or things that I kind of had to teach myself, but it was a lot of fun, and it seemed to lead to something, but it was a very hard time in my life. By the time I started actually making money in comics I was about $50,000 in debt, and by “making money in comics” I mean I started making about $500 a year, so there were some tough times along the way, but in the end it all worked out swimmingly. I couldn’t be happier.
John: What advice would you have for aspiring comic book artists and writers today?
Robert: Give up! [Laughter] No, I mean, one thing that is much more prominent now than it was when I was starting out is the Internet, so people these days could do exactly what I did, and instead of losing money by getting it all printed up and distributed and stuff, they could actually just put it online, and that’s mostly free if you teach yourself how to do it, and spread the word through message boards that your website is there, and that’s really the way I would recommend it. It’s also easier if you’re better. The better you are, the easier it is to break in, which I know sounds simple, but it’s really hard to recognize if you’re not good. If you can recognize that you’re not good, that’s really important, because if you’re not good you can either give up or get better, and if you think you’re great you’re probably not going to get better, and then it’s never going to happen. Unless you are great, and then it’s going to be easy. You’ll probably have to play that back a few times to get it, but it all makes sense, I promise.
Dave: So what do you think about the current state of the comic book industry, and are there any changes you’d like to see made?
Robert: Well, sure, there’s tons of changes. You know, on one hand I like it, I think it’s cool, there’s good comics being made, and everybody’s having a good time. On the other hand it frustrates me that most people — It’s harder to do creator-owned material, I understand that, but I wish that people were taking more risks with comics and doing more creator-owned stuff, and not simply just working for Marvel and DC, I mean, that’s the main frustration that I have. Also I wish that the books of Marvel and DC were better. But whatever, there are a lot of good books coming out from them, so I probably shouldn’t really complain about that, but I don’t know, there are a lot of things that you could complain about, but I’m actually really optimistic, just because as we move into the digital era I think that the problems that we’ve had with distribution, getting books out to large larger audience, are going to go away, and as we start to reach a larger audience we’re not going to be selling comic books to the same people we’ve been selling comic books to for the last twenty years, and so we’re not going to try to sell original material to an audience that’s pre-disposed to keeping their runs of Daredevil intact, and so hopefully we’ll be finding people that are more open to create their own stuff and new ideas, and that’ll make for a better comic book industry because people will be doing more original stuff, and I think more original stuff is really what we need.
Dave: And you’ve talked particularly about the comic book industry not doing enough to appeal to younger readers…?
Robert: Yeah, I mean, that’s another thing with mainstream comics catering to a fan base that is aging, they have kind of lost the younger audience, and so I wish that more people were doing books for a younger audience, and I’m happy to say that I’m working on a number of books that are for all ages, that I’ll be rolling out soon, so I’m going to try to fix that problem instead of just complaining about it. But yeah, it’s kind of sad that someone — you know, my son, for instance, if he were to see a Wolverine cartoon and want to read a Wolverine comic, that’s a very hard thing for him to do. You know, the trade paperbacks in bookstores are a convoluted mess. It’s not like in manga where you can go, “Okay, here’s Volume 1 and here’s volume 37.” If you go to buy Wolverine, there’s 35 different trades with different names, and it’s hard to figure out where to begin. I just wish that things were set up more for a wider audience and appealed to a wider audience more.
Dave: Yeah, and could you talk about some of the books that you’ve worked on besides The Walking Dead, and which of them would you most recommend to readers who are new to your work?
Robert: Well, I do another book called Invincible, which is a superhero title. It’s kind of everything I’ve ever liked about superhero comics boiled down and put into one comic book. It’s a universe-spanning superhero tale that you can get in pretty much all in one series. It’s also been running as long as Walking Dead, so it’s rapidly approaching Issue 80, so that’s kind of cool, and there’s trade paperbacks available and stuff. The premise is that Omni Man is the premiere superhero of the world, and Invincible is his son, who has just reached puberty and gained superpowers, and Omni Man — he thought that his father was this alien from another world who came to help earth, but actually it turns out that he’s there to conquer, and Invincible and he are at odds, and so he ends up having to fight his father, and that happens very early on in the series, so there’s a lot more story that happens after that. And then I do another book called The Astounding Wolfman, about a werewolf superhero, that has recently come to an end. I decided to end that with issue 25 so that I could focus on some newer projects, and I think there will be four trade paperbacks available for that — that’s one I do with Jason Howard. It’s pretty cool. And I co-created another book with Todd McFarlane called Haunt, that is kind of an espionage book with supernatural ghost elements added in. It’s about a secret agent who dies, and then his brother who’s a priest is able to see him and interact with him as a ghost, and together they’re able to form a super secret agent that’s got ghost powers called Haunt, so it’s a lot of fun that book. People should try it.
Dave: So are there any other recent or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
Robert: I have a new imprint at Image comics called Skybound, which is basically my corner of Image comics to do whatever I want and bring new books into the fold and shepherd them out to the audience, and one of the first books we’re doing there at that imprint is called Witch Doctor, which I’m very excited about. It’s about a scientist who basically uses scientific and medical know-how to combat supernatural things — werewolves, vampires, monsters from other dimensions — with science, and so it’s a very realistic take on a supernatural story, and that’s written by a new writer by the name of Brandon Seaford, and an artist named Lucas Kentnor, who are doing this thing, and it’s probably one of the smartest comic books I’ve ever read, and that’ll be coming out probably — I want to say March or April of 2011. We’re still trying to nail down those dates, but yeah, I think’s going to turn a lot of heads, and it’s definitely a unique story — it’s got horror elements, but it’s a realistic take on that stuff, which I think is really cool.
Dave: Okay, great. So, John, was anything else you wanted to ask?
John: No, nothing really comes to mind.
Robert: It’s called The Living Dead 2…
John: Yeah, right, I was going to say, can we talk some more about how awesome The Living Dead 2 is?
Robert: It’s really amazing. It’s a great book.
John: Well, thank you. I mean, I don’t know if you’re just jokingly saying that to appease my ego or if you really mean it, but thanks anyway.
Robert: No, I wouldn’t have agreed to be in it if I didn’t like the first one, and I almost think the second one is better, and not just because my story’s in there, I swear.
John: Well, that’s nice of you to say, I mean, I’m glad you think so. Actually, a lot of people have also mentioned that, and I’m hugely flattered to hear that, just because The Living Dead collected so much of the classic stuff that bringing in all this newer stuff, it was really a challenge to follow that up, but…
Robert: Well, any time I can read a new zombie story written by Bob Fingerman, I’m totally on board.
John: Oh really? Oh, wow. Well, I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to hear that.
Dave: Actually, one thing that really struck me is that The Walking Dead is so grim, and in interviews you’re so funny. I mean, do you have any…?
Robert: I put it all on the page! No, it’s weird for me too. I don’t know, I get a lot of people that meet me and they’re like, “Wow, I always pictured you as being more depressed.” But, you know, I have a good life. I have healthy children and a friendly wife, and things seem to be going well, and I don’t know where the shit in Walking Dead comes from, to be honest.
Dave: Are any of your other books that you do, are they humor? Do you do any humor writing?
Robert: Well, books I’ve done in the past have had kind of the humorous slant. My first book Battle Pope was obviously comedy. But those books didn’t do well, and so I stopped … actually, my most successful book is The Walking Dead, which is depressing as hell, so I think after having a few comedy books that fail and then having a depressing book that is kind of a hit, it kind of tells me that the audience is sad.
John: So how do you think you would fare in a zombie apocalypse situation? Would you be one of the first to die, or do you think you’d do all right?
Robert: Oh, I would be one of the first to die. Yeah, people are like, “Oh, but you wrote that big comic, and you must think about how things would go, and you’ve probably got plans, right?” No, I mean, I know a zombie apocalypse isn’t really going to happen, but even if there was any kind of end-of-the-world kind of thing that happened, I would be the first one jumping off a building. I mean, I love my kids, I’d try to protect my wife and kids and stuff, but especially if they were already gone I’d be out the door. I mean, it’s just not something I want to live through. You know, I’m a big giant sissy, and so I’m not going to be able to get through any of that stuff. I would be the first to kill myself. See, that’s depressing, right?
John: I was going to say, that’s a good happy note to end the interview on.
Dave: And that was our interview, so thanks so much to Robert Kirkman for joining us on the show.