‘Walking Dead’ creator isn’t dark and brooding
LOS ANGELES – This is the guy who created and writes “The Walking Dead” comic book and TV series? Robert Kirkman himself said that folks who meet him often say that they expected “a dark and brooding type.” Instead, he is a funny dude, a bear of a man with a full beard, in an Everyman polo shirt and jeans. Robert’s humorous quips are not what you may expect from the mind behind what Time magazine described is “arguably TV’s most relentlessly disturbing and violent drama.”
“The Walking Dead,” which stars Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Danai Gurira, Lauren Cohan, Chandler Riggs, Melissa McBride and more, is also wildly popular, with its recent season five debut becoming the most watched non-sports telecast in cable history. From the first comic book that Robert wrote when he was 20, which initially led him to thousands of dollars of credit card debt, “The Walking Dead’s” success led to the development of Skybound Entertainment, a full-blown media company poised to release its first movie, “Air,” next year.
While Robert now lives in LA with his wife Sonia and two kids, a son, 8, and a daughter, 5, he said he still returns often to his native Kentucky. Excerpts from our interview:
If you saw a real zombie on the street, what would you do?
I am taking pictures of it and selling it. Because that’s going to get me on the news. If it was just one, I would probably try to capture it. I wouldn’t try to kill it immediately because you never know what kind of zombie it is. Maybe it’s some science zombie that can be turned back into a human.
You want to find out what the rules of this particular zombie apocalypse are before you act, which is something that I would recommend to everyone. You want to do something, but really, I don’t know what I would do. You would like to think you would do something good and save somebody but you would probably just run and hide.
What is the best thing to kill a zombie with?
I always say a car. People are always thinking like a gun, a knife or a bat. But if you are inside a car, it’s going to take a lot for them to get to you, as long as you have gasoline. Well, maybe an electric car because you could possibly get electricity better in the apocalypse than you could gasoline. Or a solar-powered car – some kind of car that’s going to be able to run for a while in the apocalypse.
You should donate your brain to UCLA so they can find out where all this madness came from. Were these ideas forming in your head when you were a kid?
The short answer is, I don’t know. But I started writing in 4th or 5th grade in school. They would have writing assignments and that was really the first time I did it. I actually found a little handwritten story that I had done. It was about a bunch of little kids who murdered an alien that was trying to take over their town. That was in my 5th grade.
“The Walking Dead” is a really great avenue for telling very human and dramatic stories against a backdrop that makes the stories that much more interesting but also at the same time makes them a little bit easier to digest. Because you have these elements that are completely unreal to things that are completely real.
The thing that I most enjoy about writing is exploring human nature and what it is that makes us who we are. I am really fascinated by these concepts, like nature versus nurture, and what it is that sets boundaries for us, who makes the rules, why are there rules. I find that stuff infinitely interesting. That’s what I am trying to explore with “The Walking Dead” to a certain extent.
Can you talk some more about your writing process? Do you have to drink blood or sit in the middle of a cemetery? Where do you get your inspiration?
I sit in close proximity to Transformers toys because I collect those things from the 80s – cars that turn into robots. I think they are cool. People often meet me and they are like, “I expected some kind of dark and brooding type.” I get all my issues out on the page. So it’s all clean up here (points at his head).
I write very frequently and I write as often and as quickly as possible because I do enjoy my job. I like working and I love creating. I wish I were writing right now. No offense. I don’t really have a weird process. I write on planes and in hotel rooms. I have written in cars, driving to events so anywhere, however you can do it.
Once, I had to work on “The Walking Dead” companion series and I was traveling. I didn’t have my laptop. I ended up writing a ton of stuff on the notepad of my phone. There’s this huge document on my phone. I was just working stuff out for the spinoff. I was just sitting there and I was worried I was going to lose my phone and somebody would find it. That would be a big security leak, but that hasn’t happened yet. It’s still on my phone if anyone wants to try and steal it.
I don’t have any kind of weird rituals. But I do have one thing – my father gave me a Pentel 7 millimeter mechanical pencil when I was in 7th grade. I usually do a lot of notes and stuff to prepare for everything that I have ever written and all of my handwritten notes are written with that pencil. It’s just because I don’t want to get a new pencil.
Writing for a comic book and a TV series is obviously different from each other. But can you describe your process in writing for each medium?
One of the things I love about writing comic books is that it’s a very solitary job. I am sitting at a desk; I am by myself. The script goes to an artist so it is a very collaborative medium in that we work together to produce the final product. But I am not often in direct conversation with Charlie Adlard, the artist on the book, so I absolutely love that aspect of it.
What’s great about the television medium and my favorite thing about that is that it’s entirely collaborative. So you are in a room, you are discussing story.
Some days I like the solitude of writing comics, and some days I prefer the camaraderie of writing on a television show.
There’s plotting, planning and things that go into the comic. It’s fun for me because I get to go into my own world and just say, this is going to blow up or this guy is going to die or this is going to happen. I can map all that out really without discussing it with anyone, which is fun.
I don’t give notes; I don’t have to do. I tell the artists, you have the freedom to fail. I have the total freedom to wreck “The Walking Dead” comic if I want to. It’s like walking on a high wire when I am writing that book because I feel like I could fall at any moment. And that’s exhilarating.
But on the flipside, especially on this television show for “The Walking Dead,” it’s a lot of fun getting into the room because a lot of what we are doing in the writer’s room for this show is analyzing the work I have done many years prior on the comic book. So, oftentimes we are sitting around a table with seven colleagues. We are like, “Yeah, that didn’t turn out so well.” Or “The character should have done this…”
One of the things that the show does really well is when the writers take a storyline that I have developed for the comic. They will say, “We will build up to it in a different way with this and we will add this element that will heighten the thing you already did, and also we will pay it off in this way.”
How did the comic book start?
I had a day job that I had quit a couple of years prior to running my small publishing company. I started publishing my own comics and that’s how I got into the business. I was basically financing the publishing of comics by printing a comic, selling a comic and maybe making a dollar over what it costs to make. And then putting the production costs on a credit card so that I could actually have money to live on.
So when I created “The Walking Dead,” I have amassed tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt. I was making about five dollars a year so I was living my own “Walking Dead.” I would get these bills and I would look at them and I would say, I don’t know what to do with this.
I would do the math. The way that the credit cards work, as we all know, is that you have your minimum payments. But when you pay your minimum payments, you might as well be throwing your money in a well. It was tough.
I was living a life of uncertainty. I didn’t know if I was going to have a house. I was being eaten alive by debt. I was already married so my wife and I were struggling through this together. I was acutely aware of my dependency on other people and their dependency on me. That was the stuff that was really on my mind.
Also, I had been watching a lot of (George) Romero movies because I was trying to take my mind off of all the horrible things I was living through. So it all came out of that. It’s what got me out of debt so that worked.
What was the weirdest encounter you ever had with a fan?
The fans are usually pretty nice. I go to Comic Con and I have people follow me into the bathroom. But I can’t say that I wouldn’t follow Tom Cruise into the bathroom. When else are you going to get a chance to talk to that guy? So I can’t really blame people for that.
The ones that are the weirdest for me, the hardest ones to deal with, are the real sincere ones – where they are like, “I had a really tough time. My wife left me and I read this comic to get me through it.” I don’t really know what to say to that because I am like, “I am sorry that that happened to you.” It’s always touching too. It throws me because I try not to show emotions in any way whatsoever.
What is the scariest Tweet that you got from a fan?
I get scary Tweets all the time. My weirdest fan interactions are Tweets because man, people say some weird things to me sometimes. One guy said, “If you kill Daryl Dixon (a character in ‘The Walking Dead’), I am going to burn down my entire apartment complex.” Not necessarily threatening to me but that’s a terrifying thought.
I have to think that most of these people are joking because Casper the Friendly Ghost is their icon. But I do get a lot of like, “If you kill Carol (another character), I will kill you.” It’s like a cavalcade of death threats every time I get on Twitter. I think I should probably take those seriously but I am a big guy.
What’s your Twitter handle?
I am just @RobertKirkman. I am easy to find. Please follow me on Twitter. I will ask you to buy something.
Are you a big celebrity in your native Kentucky?
I am in Kentucky frequently but I do live in LA because I am working in the writer’s room and all that kind of stuff. No one cares about me here (in LA). So that part is nice. Every now and then, I do get recognized. I do get recognized more in Kentucky than I do here. Oftentimes, it’s my favorite thing: “So, why are you here in Kentucky?” Because they don’t know that I am from there so it’s alien to them that I would be there.
There was one time when my wife and I went to eat there in Kentucky. There was a nice couple that was finishing their dinner at the table next to us. I didn’t notice but they sat through our entire dinner, watching us so that they could take a picture with me afterward. I was like, “You should have interrupted me.” Because we were there for like an hour and a half. And they were just sitting there. I am sure the waitress was very angry because they have to move people in there. They are working on tips.
When you told your parents that you wanted to write comic books, how did they react? Did they want you to get a “real job”?
I didn’t tell them. My parents came to me when I was 19 and said, “Son, we are moving to Florida. You can either come with us or get a job and move out if you want, whatever.”
I decided to get a job and move out. They moved to Florida and I stayed in Kentucky. We talked often over the phone but they weren’t around so they didn’t know that I had quit my job. They didn’t know that I was doing comics. One time, my mother called the place that I used to work at. I wasn’t there because I had quit like six months before.
She called me in a panic, saying, “Hey, what’s going on? Did you get fired? What happened?” I lied and said I got another job. But after about a year and a half, when I got to a point where I was fairly stable, I brought a big box of comics down to Florida. I was like, “This is what I have been doing for the last year and a half.” I have done a lot of comics in that time. They took it well. They were like, “Oh, this is weird. You are a weird guy.”
Is your wife also in the comics business with you?
No, my wife hates what I do, which I find refreshing. It’s very important to my wife to be able to go home and have her say, “Oh, you did the interview today? That’s great. Go do the dishes.” Then she’ll be like, “Did you see Jeremy Renner? I heard he was there.” I will say, “No, I didn’t, he left really quickly after and I was very upset.”
I asked her to read the comic once. She read the first six issues in that first collection. She was like, “I don’t know. It’s okay.” So I never asked her to read it again. But when the show came out, she watched it and said, “I really like this. I think I would watch this if you hadn’t worked on it.”
Do you sleep well?
I do actually. People ask me all the time if I have had zombie dreams. I have never had a zombie dream or nightmare or anything like that. Ghosts though – I am terrified of ghosts.
What scares you?
I am scared of doing bad work. I am scared of all kinds of stuff. I am scared of my kids getting sick. That’s a major fear that all parents have so that would probably be my top fear.
Since your new show, “Outcast” (based on Robert’s latest comic book series) is about demons and possessions, can you talk about that?
I have a slightly religious upbringing. I grew up “religion adjacent.” So I have always been fascinated by it. Having religion explained to you at a fairly young age can give you weird misconceptions about it sometimes. I used to think the Holy Trinity was Jesus, Santa Claus and God because one guy watched over you and wanted to make sure you were safe and the other guy brought you presents, which I thought was a good thing.
With “ Outcast,” I am trying to explore what it is that is outside of our world and what could be going on that we are just scratching the surface of. Ghosts, for instance, if that is a thing that is actually happening – there are many people out there who claim that they have seen it, a dead human being who is still somehow active in some kind of form. Or is it something else and because of our limited understanding of what the world actually is, we just imagine it’s that thing.
That’s something that we are going to be doing with “Outcast.” As popular and scary as zombies are, we are never really going to encounter a real zombie. But there’s a very large portion of the population that does believe demons are real. There are people who tell stories about having experiences with demons. I think that makes demons infinitely more terrifying. Getting to the heart of that and dealing with something that could in some way actually be real, is going to make that a very heightened story. That’s going to be a lot of fun to tell.
You are producing your first film, “Air.” What can we expect?
It stars Norman Reedus and Djimon Hounsou. It’s a post-apocalyptic movie because I am in a rut. Basically the atmosphere of the Earth has become contaminated and all of the very important people, who were meant to rebuild society when the contamination died down, were taken into these bunkers.
So you have a situation where there are all of these cryogenic stasis tubes, holding botanists, philosophers, scientists and all these very important people. But because they might possibly be in cryogenic stasis for thousands of years, there are two maintenance workers that get woken up every six months. They have to go through the tunnels and catacombs and do maintenance, making sure all the tubes are working, everything is going well and testing the atmosphere to see if there have been any developments above.
So it’s like a blue collar exploration of this apocalyptic situation. It’s just about these two guys who have formed a kind of a family in these catacombs because literally all they have are each other. Bad things happen and they have to work through it. It’s kind of a buddy cop, stuck in a hole, apocalyptic love story.
Do you already have an ending for “The Walking Dead” comic books and the TV series?
I do. To me, everything comes from the comic book series. I know where I am going with the comic book series. I know where the eventual end will be. I don’t have it pinpointed as to what the exact issue would be. It is very far off into the future. There’s a lot more I have to do to get to that ending but I do have it in mind.
The way things are going right now, it’s possible that the comic will completely run its course. Then at some point in the far future, the show will end and adapt that ending properly. I don’t really know how things will go on in the show but I definitely do know what we are building toward.
That’s something that Scott Gimple (cowriter) and I talk about often – what the overarching story of “The Walking Dead” is. One of the things that really excites me about this is that “The Walking Dead” is an evolving story. It’s really going to surprise people when it’s all said and done because what you start with is, hey, it’s this cop trying to keep his kids together and safe and there are all these zombies attacking them.
We are already getting to a point in the show where it’s much more about surviving in this world long-term and how we are changing in order to do that. It’s going to be much more of a story about the human condition and what we are capable of doing, than it may have appeared when it first started.
I am really excited about eventually getting to the end of it and being able to step back and say, oh my God, like they started here, in this apocalyptic end of the world story that’s very much like the kind of stories that people have been telling for years. And they actually followed it and it evolved in a way that we couldn’t have foreseen.
By the end of it, you are going to see a very different kind of story, which I think is going to be pretty cool.
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