Like many teenagers, Robert Kirkman loved reading comic books and going to horror movies. Unlike many teenagers, Kirkman made that love into a career.
In 2003, Kirkman released the first issue of The Walking Dead, a grim, gory horror comic about a group of people struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse. In addition to achieving great critical and commercial success, the comic caught the eye of acclaimed director Frank Darabont. Kirkman and Darabont's TV adaptation of the series has netted dozens of glowing reviews and earned AMC its best ratings ever.
Last week, The Atlantic spoke with Kirkman about the comics, the TV series, last night's season finale, and his personal tips for fighting off the walking dead.
You're the creator of The Walking Dead, and you've been extensively involved with the Marvel Zombies comic series. Why are you so interested in zombies?
Well, they're kind of awesome. [laughs] Also, as far as horror goes, your stories have to be about the people—just because zombies can't talk ... When you're telling a horror story that's about regular people dealing with these fantastic problems, I think that's always going to have a lot more appeal than watching vampires go and get coffee together, or seeing werewolves hanging out in the woods. No one can really relate to getting bitten by a werewolf, and turning into a werewolf, and how that's going to affect them, and how hard that is to deal with. But being chased by something scary, having to figure out how to survive ... those are all emotions that people can relate to on a human level.
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What's unique about your take on zombies in The Walking Dead?
There's very little "new" that's brought to the zombie plate here. [The Walking Dead] is kind of my effort to canonize zombie lore. Vampires have a set bunch of rules, werewolves have a set bunch of rules—but a lot of time, when people try to do something with zombies, they try to reinvent the wheel ... It's confusing, and they have to explain it all. So I decided to start with the base, core—what I consider to be the ideal, perfect zombie—and go from there.
You've been writing The Walking Dead since 2003. What's it like seeing actors play the characters you've written about for the past seven years?
It's extremely bizarre. You're opening it up and letting other people play with it ... In all cases, there have been things that have surprised me, and things where I've been like, "that's really cool." There are certain movements that Andrew Lincoln [series protagonist Rick Grimes] will do that are unique to him—or unique to Rick, they're not even things that he does in real life ... Comic book panels aren't moving, so it takes a lot of space to do subtle actions like that, and that doesn't make it into the comics very often.
Does it bother you that the TV show's plot has diverged from the plot of the comics?
If anything, I think there are too many scenes from the comic that made it into the show.
Were there any specific scenes from the comics that you were disappointed didn't make it into the series?
Anything that I wish had made it into the first season will probably make it into the second season. If there's anybody out there who's saying, "Ugh, they should have done this scene, they should have done that scene" we'll get to it eventually. Don't worry.
What about a favorite scene that wasn't in the comics originally? There's a lot. All the stuff that was added about Morgan [Lennie James] in the pilot episode, with him trying to shoot his wife and not being able to, that's not in the comic. The scenes with Carol and Ed [Melissa McBride and Adam Minarovich] in the fifth episode, when she drives the pickaxe into his head after he dies. That's not in the comic. Anything involving the Dixon brothers, Merle and Daryl [Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus]. There's a lot of awesome stuff being done with those characters in the first season, and those are two characters that aren't in the comic at all.
Would you ever write any of the show's new characters, like the Dixons, into the comics?
It's something I've thought about. There hasn't been a lot of room for it right now, with everything that's going in the comic series, but it's something that I'd be open to, if the story was right and it all made sense.
Let's talk about the events of last night's finale, "TS-19." The comics avoid revealing what caused the zombie outbreak, but the TV show's finale gave us what was actually a fairly coherent medical explanation. Can you explain that decision?
I'm certainly not afraid of giving people answers, and I don't think it ruins anything or takes anything away by giving some people some tidbits ... I wouldn't want to go too much past [what "TS-19" revealed], as far as getting into an actual cause, or anything like that. But I think that where it went was a good tease. And it also brought up more questions than answers. I think that's always a good thing.
Is the medical explanation that Jenner (Noah Emmerich) offered in "TS-19" the one you have in mind for the comics?
It's a little bit of a departure from where things are going in the comics. But I think it worked in the context of the show—actually, added to it. That's really the only important criteria that I'm looking for.
Another interesting part of the finale was the opening flashback, showing the events that led to Shane (Jon Bernthal) leaving Rick in the hospital when the zombie outbreak first happened. Are there going to be more flashbacks showing events before the outbreak?
Where it's needed, there will be things like that, but it's not going to become a regular thing. Like the comic book—I think there have been maybe four flashbacks in the 80 comic issues we've done. It'll probably be like that for the television show, when there's something cool that you kind of need to see. I think that flashback was great—seeing why Shane left [Rick] in the hospital, and how he made the decision to tell Lori [Sarah Wayne Callies] that [Rick] was dead. It explains a lot of Shane's character, and really makes him a lot more likable.
The Walking Dead will be back for another season next year, with 13 episodes instead of six. What would you personally like to see happen in the second season?
I wouldn't want to give any direction away by saying what I'd want to see ... [Executive Producer Frank Darabont] said publicly that he'd like to get to [comics character] Hershel Greene's farm, and I'm 100 percent on board with that. Seeing the Greene family, and introducing Maggie [Hershel's daughter] so that Glenn [Steven Yeun] will have a love interest in the show.
Frank Darabont has said he's a pretty big fan of the series' most notorious villain, The Governor. Oh yeah. We'll be seeing that guy eventually.
The Atlantic has been running a "Zombie Survival Tip" in our recaps each week. As a zombie expert, can you give our readers an exclusive tip for surviving the zombie apocalypse?
Find an island and hide ... Maybe a nice houseboat—a houseboat would work, that would be fine. Weapons aren't going to work after a while, and no matter how much planning you do, any kind of structure is eventually going to be overtaken ... So if you're not near an island, kill yourself; if you're on an island, stay there.
[laughs] Very bleak.
Well, that's zombies.