The following is an excerpt from Dissecting The Walking Dead: Slicing Into The Guts of Television’s Hottest Show, available in paperback and for Kindle. Dig it:
Robert Kirkman is a Kentucky boy. There is no mistaking him for anything but.
He is one of TV’s hottest properties of the moment, yes, and for the last decade he has also been the dominant force in creator-owned comic books, but talk to him and he’s still the same quiet, considered dude he’s always been. Thick beard, plain T-shirt, eyes that make you believe he’d rather be anywhere but in the spotlight – his appearance hasn’t changed much over the years, even if his bank account has. Oh, he’ll sport a decent sports jacket now instead of a ragged T-shirt, but otherwise?
Still the same Robert Kirkman.
Kirkman was born in Richmond, Kentucky in 1978. Richmond is the county seat of Madison County and seventh largest city in Kentucky, but that isn’t saying much. Its population of just over 30,000 is modest by non-Kentucky standards. It was even smaller in 1978, long before the 1990s boom that saw it grow to more prominence in the Bluegrass region.
It’s not the size of a community that matters, though, it’s the people who live there. Richmond is a college town, home to Eastern Kentucky University, and college towns are often epicenters of offbeat creativity. Eastern alumni tend towards the sports- and politics-focused – alumni include a slew of Kentucky Assemblymen and more than a dozen pro football players – but creativity, especially when it comes to music, has taken root there, too. Bluegrass pioneer Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts hailed from Richmond. So did Jimmy Stokley of the band Exile, which had 10 number one hits on the country charts.
Famous writers, however, have been in short supply.
Kirkman changed that, though perhaps not in the traditional way. He may be the most famous writer to come out of Richmond, but his fame didn’t come from writing the Great American Novel. It came from writing a tiny little black and white comic book about people trying to survive in a world filled with hordes of zombies.
That tiny little book eventually became one of the biggest pop culture sensations in recent memory and one of the most watched shows on cable television.
That’s not what he set out to do, however. His initial goal was simply to be a successful comic book writer. That’s all he wanted.
Like any young man, Robert Kirkman worked at the usual entry-level jobs, including the old cliché of comic book writers everywhere: he once worked in a comic shop. But that’s not what he wanted out of life. He wanted to write comics, not stand behind a counter and sell them.
He had been working another job at Kentucky Lighting’ Supply when he decided to make a move towards realizing that dream. He went all-in, too, quitting his job and devoting himself completely to making it a reality. He didn’t tell his parents he quit, of course. Too much drama if he revealed his cards too soon. Instead, he maintained the illusion of having a day job for over a year until they caught on, even claiming to work at UPS when they discovered he was no longer with Kentucky Lighting & Supply.
But all that time, he was clacking away at the keyboard writing comics.
Kirkman’s plunge into comics began in the same way many other comic creators got their start: with lots and lots of debt. In 2000, he collaborated with artist Tony Moore on Battle Pope, a sacrilegious parody of the superhero genre that featured a drunken pope waging war against world-conquering demons. It was just as absurd as it sounded, but at just 19 years old the self-published book put Kirkman on the map – and in debt.
I did a bunch of books early on that I got like $40,000 in debt on, to get my name out there and actually have things published. There was a time when I was $40,000 in debt and I was making about $200 a year. Invincible and Walking Dead, the two series that are reaching their 75th issues now, came right after that period. They’re like books eight and nine of my career. Books one through seven I pretty much lost money on hand over fist.
Battle Pope wasn’t just the twisted brainchild of a creative writer, it was a calculated effort to get attention in a crowded industry. Some might even call it a little cynical. “I was really hoping to offend people with Battle Pope and get some protests going, get some bad press,” Kirkman said. “It’s so hard to break into this industry, particularly at the large companies like DC Comics and Marvel. You have to catch somebody’s eye.”
One could argue that his bid for attention didn’t work, at least not in a way that made that specific comic successful. Battle Pope sold only a few thousand copies and was quickly forgotten. But if the book didn’t make him money, it did manage to spark a series of events that got him the telephone number of Erik Larsen of Image Comics.
Most people know Marvel and DC, publishers of heroes like Spider-Man and Batman, respectively, but Image is a name generally known only by comic geeks. In the early to mid 1990s they were kind of a big deal, created by a group of “rock star” comic creators who left Marvel and DC to go out on their own. The company was on the downswing by the time Kirkman hooked up with them, but they were still (and remain) an important name in the realm of creator-owned comics – and creator-owned comics are a topic Kirkman is passionate about.
At Marvel and DC comics, the people writing and drawing the books have no ownership over the comics they create. They are hired guns, paid to push out more adventures of heroes like Captain America and Superman but who are otherwise not invested in the financial success of those intellectual properties. At Image, the people writing and drawing the books actually own them, too.
Erik Larsen, creator of the Savage Dragon comic, is one of the founders of Image. Getting a chance to tug at Larsen’s ear helped give Kirkman his big break, according to a Polygon interview.
“I knew a guy who was running a website that was doing interviews for people. The website never got off the ground, but I found out that he had scored an interview with Erik Larsen, so I went to him and said, ‘I’m gonna do that interview!’ I had never interviewed anyone before, but I’d read the comic. I could talk about it. So I got a little tape recorder and I called the guy on the phone, and did a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Erik Larsen.”
Kirkman then began to call Larsen on a regular basis. They hit it off and became friends. And Kirkman, deceptively shrewd guy that he is, was not shy about calling in favors. He’d make pitches to Image Comics, some would get rejected, then he’d call his friend Erik and get them approved. “If people tell you that nepotism doesn’t help you get a foot in the door of any industry, they’re wrong. Do whatever you can to make friends with people. Hard work is not the only thing that’ll help you out.”
Around 2003, his comic career would actually start reaping dividends.
A mini-series called Super Patriot came first, but it was Invincible that garnered him his first acclaim at Image. The book began life as a throwback to the early days of Spider-Man, a comic about an adolescent trying to balance teen troubles with his double life as a superhero. It would later evolve into a galaxy-spanning, ultra-violent adventure book that is a Technicolor meditation on responsibility, consequences, and intensely gory bloodshed.
The real magic began later that year with The Walking Dead #1. Debuting in October 2003, and featuring the art of Battle Pope collaborator Tony Moore, the comic was a loving homage to what made the George Romero movies such landmarks of the genre. Films like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead were clearly major influences on Kirkman, but he wanted to take things a step or two further. The movies were great, but they always ended. “I started to think, ‘What if one of those stories continued indefinitely?’”
His timing was fortuitous. The zombie genre had been on the wane since the 1980s, but was about to experience a sudden resurgence thanks to movies like 28 Days Later (2003) and Shaun of the Dead (2004). Kirkman got on board just as the zombie waters were starting to rise.
While penning his zombie book, he spent some time at Marvel, one of the two big juggernauts of the comic book world. There he wrote characters like Spider-Man, Ant-Man, and others. This was a big deal. Getting a chance to write for the big players is the dream for most aspiring comic writers.
Unusually, though, Kirkman’s success didn’t come from writing American icons like Peter Parker, it came from his own creations. Readership of his own books, especially of The Walking Dead, grew at a slow but steady pace almost entirely by word of mouth. Accolades began to pour in. It became a mainstay of bookstore racks, was consistently the top selling black and white comic on the shelves, and the collected editions (known as “trade paperbacks”) were on their way to becoming perennial best sellers. Eventually, he was doing well enough on his own that he decided not to do work for Marvel anymore.
The move seemed ridiculous to scores of other aspiring comic writers. Walking away from the biggest comic publisher in the world?
Yep. Kirkman was doing pretty well with his little zombie comic.
In the process, he was helping bring attention to the idea that comics are fertile ground for adaptation into other mediums.
For Kirkman, one of the primary joys of comics is that they offer him the kind of pure, unadulterated freedom to create that other mediums don’t always offer.
“Comics are a fantastic storytelling medium,” he said. “I think that because there’s not a lot of money in the game, there’s not a lot of control hampering that creativity and expression, and I think that people are starting to recognize that some of the newest, most original, and coolest ideas are being explored in the comic medium.”
By 2008, he had become one of the biggest proponents of creator-owned comics. He posted a now famous (in the comics world) video manifesto outlining his belief that comic writers and artists should focus on their own creative vision instead of seeking out checks from the big corporate publishers.
Two years prior to the debut of the show that made him a household name, Kirkman appeared content with the enormous success he was enjoying in the comic world. “When I started this book I didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” he told Comic Book Resources. “Now I have many nickels, enough nickels. To say this series changed my life completely would not be an overstatement. My career would certainly not be where it is today without this book.”
Just two years later, his stash of nickels would grow exponentially. Initially lead by three-time Academy Award-nominated director Frank Darabont, the television adaption of The Walking Dead would become the most successful show on cable television, a pop culture juggernaut that finally made zombies mainstream once and for all. It’s in its sixth season as of this writing with no end in sight, and a second television series, Fear the Walking Dead, debuted in August 2015 to enormous ratings.
Oh, Robert Kirkman’s estimated net worth these days?
A cool $20 million or so.
Not bad for a guy whose biggest ambition in life was to write comic books.
These days he’s as much a television guy as he is a comics guy, though. He’s been nominated for Writers Guild of America and OFTA Television awards. In fact, he’s now more often interviewed for his show than he is for his comic.
Part of that transition has meant learning how to write for television. It’s a different beast than writing for comics, after all. When writing comics, he sits in a room alone, emailing scripts out to his artists. It’s solitary work, and there are few people (if any) taking a hand in guiding the story other than himself.
On the other hand, for television he spends hours in a room with other writers, digging into the nitty gritty of the show and exploring the twists and turns it might take. Often the other writers will pull apart his comics, riffing on what works and tossing out what doesn’t.
“I’m actively sitting in a room with six other people who are critiquing my work and trying to improve it, which is a lot of fun. We have discussions and we have to bring up storylines that I wrote like seven years ago.”
Watching as others take his precious creation, chop it up, reassemble it, and make it their own can be a little unusual. Unusual, but also gratifying.
“I love how awkward it is. I really enjoy that part of it. At certain times they’ll be like, ‘Oh, we could adapt this story from the comic, but I didn’t really like how that turned out.’”
Despite all his success, Kirkman still worries about failure in the way he might if he had only just started to catch a lucky break here and there. That hasn’t hampered his ambition at all, of course. He continues to develop new comics, created Skybound Entertainment to spread his vision to even more mediums (their biggest success so far as been the critically acclaimed The Walking Dead games developed by Telltale Games), and has even more television shows and movies in the works.
He is, in a very real sense, a one-man empire at this point.
He may not be playing poker on weekends with Stephen Spielberg, but few guys from the world of comics not named Stan Lee can boast having as broad a reach as Robert Kirkman does right now. Does this mean his goals have expanded beyond those early dreams of just being a successful comic book writer?
“I don’t know. My goal is to not be homeless, so I think in that respect I’ve succeeded. Anything after that is gravy. So I don’t know.
It’s unlikely he’ll be homeless any time soon.
And it’s all thanks to zombies. The soap opera of how the show got made is as dramatic as the soap opera we see on screen. Keep reading here…
For more about this amazing show, including how it was created, in-depth examinations of each season, a look at characters like Rick, Daryl, Carol, and more, check out Dissecting the Walking Dead, available in paperback and for kindle, but not for your brain because we don’t have brain technology yet.