Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Robert Kirkman and the Creative Life of Walking Dead

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

Writer Robert Kirkman has no illusions about The Walking Dead, his creator-owned zombie apocalypse comic that has more than shambled through over 100 issues and into its third season as a successful cable TV show.

“I am certain that I will never be able to top it, and I’m coming to grips with that,” Kirkman admits. “It’s somewhat disconcerting that something I created when I was 23 will be something I’m remembered for when I die, when I’m 35 (or whenever it is).”

“I’ll be 34 in a little bit, so I wasn’t being too optimistic for myself,” he adds with a laugh.

Kirkman has successfully managed to embrace commercial success as an independent creator while not alienating himself. Given his career—from the self-published Battle Pope in 2000, to his stint at Marvel Comics, and back to becoming the first second-generation partner of Image Comics—it’s really hard to accuse him of selling out.

“I think shining a light on the availability of creator-owned comics and steering readers to that as best I can, and showing creators someone who is focusing solely on creator-owned comics and having success at it as my only career, has been a very important thing,” he notes. “We’re now getting to the point where I’m seeing creator-owned comics getting bigger every month, and each one seems to launch bigger than the one before it. I know a lot of readers are excited about all of these new ideas.

“What’s really most important to this industry is having new ideas and having them be successful and get embraced by the audience, and then having that lead to more new ideas. I think that’s going to lead to an industry that is radically different, more exciting, and fresher to a new generation over the next few years. It’s what we need to do to survive. I think we’re working towards that goal, and I would never claim responsibility for that myself, but I like to do my part.”

The video is a little grainy. Kirkman, wearing a gray t-shirt and sitting in front of a green wall, admits that he has left working for Marvel Comics to save the industry.

“I know that’s a little arrogant and a little goofball, and that’s fine,” he admits. The backwards industry, he says, needs new people and more original creations to keep the medium alive. It’s pretty simple and common sense: if creators only focus on working for the big companies as work for hire, the industry will continue to stagnate. But it’s not a nine-minute tirade against DC or Marvel, but the cold hard reality of the limited audience of today’s industry.

“One of the things that I did say in my message is that you have to build a name for yourself, and you have to build that in any way you can,” Robert says. “I think that Marvel was a very important stepping stone in my career. I was more secure at Marvel than when I was doing Battle Pope. That book was selling 2,000 copies and wasn’t generating enough income for me to survive.

“Working at Marvel did work in tandem with other things that were going on—selling Invincible as a movie, and Walking Dead and Invincible becoming the early successes that they became—led to that stability. The really important thing to note there is that Marvel was a stepping-stone; it wasn’t the be-all, end-all of my career. I always recognized, from day one, that no one has ever retired from Marvel Comics. You’re there, they pay you for a little while, and then they fire you. That’s your future: getting fired by Marvel Comics.

“There is no gold watch, there is no retirement package, and there is no dinner where they usher you off in the golden age of your life. They go ‘Well, you’re not selling comics anymore for us, buddy. Goodbye, now go away.’

“While I do think that it’s great to work for them, and they were pretty good to me (I don’t have any weird complaints or strange stories), it’s just recognizing the nature of your business. They’re not your friends and it’s not something that’s going to sustain you for the rest of your life. The goal, with any career, should be to figure out what will get you to your later years and doing that. Marvel and DC are definitely not that.”

A year after his manifesto, Marvel was bought out by Disney while DC Comics was restructured into the more corporately minded DC Entertainment. Since then, there has been an exodus of creators leaving both companies—creators like Brian Wood and Ed Brubaker—in the name of creative freedom. As the movies become part of a multi-media plan for the big two (now rebranded as entertainment companies), there’s a looming fear of a return to the creator hostile 1970s.
If anything, Kirkman can be accused of prescience.

“As more people are able to make a living doing it, I think we’re moving into an atmosphere were creators are able to define their careers more than creators in the past have been able to,” he observes. “Relying on Marvel and DC is no longer becoming a viable option, because the contracts aren’t viable and the rates aren’t set. They make the rules. A lot of people have fooled themselves into thinking that’s stability but are now realizing that it’s the exact opposite. The real stability is controlling your own career and being in a position to hire yourself, generating ideas that are enough to make you a sustainable income, and also controlling those ideas and your own destiny. That’s the new stability and that’s something people are realizing. I’m very optimistic that it’ll be something that is here to stay.”

Kirkman doesn’t see The Walking Dead’s success as a sign of weakening the comics’ medium, but of strengthening it by bringing new readers into the fold through the TV gateway.
“I hope that the success of The Walking Dead TV show will get people to discover the magic of the comics,” Kirkman notes. “While television is recognizing the power of comics, and you have things like Powers and Chew in development as TV shows, I’m optimistic that will lead to more people reading comics and looking to comics as a viable entertainment medium in and of itself.

“Then I look at something like Invincible that isn’t enjoying that kind of success, but is still a comic that I enjoy doing. I think the digital age and all these other things going on now will lead to more readers that will make comic books an even cooler thing.”
The strength in The Walking Dead’s successful television run is in its unapologetic comic book origins, proving to the non-comics reading world that the medium is about more than just men in tights punching one another out and also embraces human drama and other genres.

“It’s unrealistic to think that anything I do could eclipse The Walking Dead, even though I’m not going to stop trying,” Kirkman states. “I’m committed to new ideas and if I do something that is a quarter of the success that Walking Dead is, it’ll be pretty danged successful and I’ll be happy doing it. As long as I’m enjoying what I’m doing, that’ll be it’s own fulfillment. It doesn’t have to top Walking Dead.”

A version of the article was originally published in Creator Owned Heroes #8, Image Comics.