Have you spent considerable time thinking about how you would survive the zombie apocalypse? To a large extent, you have Robert Kirkman to thank for that. He created the comic book “The Walking Dead,” which became one of the biggest TV shows of the century, not to mention an empire of novels and video games and a spinoff TV show.
Zombies aren’t the only beasts in Kirkman’s imaginary menagerie, however. He’s behind the horror series “Outcast,” which was released simultaneously as a comic and TV show on Cinemax in 2016. His company released the 2015 sci-fi thriller “Air” and is working on a remake of “An American Werewolf in London.”
But Kirkman’s longest-running comic series is actually about a superhero named Invincible, and it’s coming to a close, just as word came out that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are going to make it into a movie.
Kirkman was in town for the first Image Expo the independent comics publisher has held in Portland since moving here last year to announce his newest series, “Oblivion Song,” about an alternate universe that swaps places with Philadelphia.
Kirkman stopped by the OPB studio to talk zombies, superheroes and shacking up with monsters.
Q&A with Robert Kirkman
Aaron Scott: Before you started “The Walking Dead,” that same year you started a superhero comic series, “Invincible.” I believe it was when you were just starting to get into comics. Can you take us back to that time and tell us how you came up with these two widely divergent series that have continued parallel to each other?
Kirkman: It’s funny. When you think back to that time and, “Oh he started ‘Walking Dead’ and ‘Invincible’ around the same time” — I actually did like nine or 10 different comic series within the span of that year. It’s just all the other ones died.
I’d done self-publishing leading up to that. I’d done this book called “Battle Pope,” and then I got my foot in the door at Image, and I was like, I’m not going to waste this opportunity. So I think I pitched a new book to them like every few weeks for a very long time. And when they wouldn’t pick it up, I would just change a couple things and pitch it again and be like, “Come on, you guys, you really want to do this.” And then I would somehow persuade them to pick it up. So I was very productive that year. I did a lot of stuff. I was poor, I had no income to speak of. It was just like, I need to make this comic thing happen.
Scott: Looking back, what do you think it was about “Invincible” and “Walking Dead” that made it them stick?
Kirkman: I don’t know. I was passionate about all of them. So it’s hard for me to be like, “Oh those are the two I really loved.” But they both, out of all those books, are the two family dramas. There is a very relatable emotional core in both of those stories. You started “Walking Dead” with Rick and Laurie and Carl as a family unit, with a lot of crazy stuff around them. “Invincible” was Invincible and his father, Nolan, and his mother, Debbie, as another three-person family — a very normal family to a certain extent in the middle of all the superhero chaos. So it was like horror chaos over here, superhero chaos over here and two very relatable family dramas. So I think what I’m saying is: I’m not very creative.
Scott: You’ve got such a heart for families. Your parents must be very proud.
Kirkman: They’re so proud.
Scott: Granted, you turn one of those fathers [Invincible’s dad] into a serial murderer.
Kirkman: And Rick Grimes: not often father of the year. He falls short most years.
Scott: I want to focus on “Invincible” for a little bit since that’s the series you’re wrapping. It starts out with his family unit. It’s a little play on the DC Universe to begin with. Invincible’s dad, Omni-Man, is similar in powers to Superman, and the idea is: what if Superman had a family, what if he had a son?
Then he works with this group called Guardians of the Globe, who are very similar to Justice League. And then he kills them off, which sets up what you’re doing with the whole series. Can you talk a little bit about what you wanted to do, maybe starting from the pitch and how the series evolved to invert superhero tropes?
Kirkman: Cory Walker, the co-creator, and I, we sat down to basically create from scratch a superhero book, because we heard through the grapevine that Image was trying to do a little line of superheroes within their publishing line, and we wanted to be a part of that. I’d come up with a teenage superhero angle because I’d always liked Spider-Man, and Spider-Man was an adult: He’d been married for, at this time, for a long time. And Robin had become Night Wing. And while I was writing the pitch to Image — “Oh, it’s everything we love about superheroes put into one book. It’s this great teen superhero, and he goes on these adventures, and he fights this person and he fights that person, and he falls in love or he doesn’t fall in love” — I was like this is all just standard nonsense. It needs something more.
And then I came up with the idea of: what if your dad — who is the greatest superhero on earth, and you’re living in his shadow — one day you realize he’s not what he’s been telling you. And so you find out that he’s actually a villain. Not only is the father that you knew essentially dead and stripped from you in a really dramatic fashion, but you also now have to fight him to save the planet. So I was like, “Oh that works. That makes things more interesting.”
We love superhero comics. That was something that was very important to us. But there’s a lot of room to poke fun of the superhero genre. And we also, over the course of the run, used it to great storytelling effect, because there’s so many troops in superhero comics that superhero comic book readers — “Oh, I know where this story is going because it’s going to be like that Justice League story from 1974 that did this,” or “Oh, this is the classic Spider-Man/Doc Oc, and they’re going to do something like that” — to have an audience that is trained in a genre as much as comic book readers are in superhero comics, to play with their expectations, it’s a lot of fun.
Scott: As you said, both with “Invincible” and “The Walking Dead,” they’re at their heart family dramas. It seems like they use capes and superpowers or zombies as an amplification to explore questions around what it means to be human.
Kirkman: Yeah, I don’t know what it means to be human, so I’m trying to work that out, and get paid to do that I guess. I’ve often said I just really like writing about people having conversations while they drink tea, but that would be super boring. So I just have zombies walk by or a superhero try to blow up the moon. When things get boring, it just gets interrupted.
Pretty much everything that I do is some kind of interesting construct to drive character drama, but then there’s some dumb element that hopefully is unique that shows up to make things interesting.
Scott: At the Image Expo, you joked multiple times about being sick of zombies.
Kirkman: I shouldn’t have done that [laughs]. I don’t mean it.
Scott: So is there an ending for “Walking Dead” in your mind?
Kirkman: I have an ending in mind. I am sick of zombies, but there’s not a lot of zombies in “Walking Dead” anymore [laughs]. And when they show up, it’s cool and refreshing, so I feel like I’ve got a good structure going. I think it’s a tremendous gift to be able to sit down every day and write a continuing narrative for so long. The apocalyptic setting of “The Walking Dead” is so ripe with dozens of different directions I could go in. There’s almost 100 characters living in that world that I could just pick up and do something with. It’s just great fun.
I do know where I’m going with the story, because again, that kind of stuff is important. You need to be able, every year, make sure there is some kind of escalation to the story or some kind of transition to the narrative that keeps the story moving. I know where I’m going and what I’m working toward, but it is far off.
Scott: A lot has been made recently that the TV series has diverged from the comic book series.
Kirkman: In places, yeah.
Kirkman: That’s a big one.
Scott: How does that affect your own storytelling process? Have you divorced the tow in your mind at this point?
Kirkman: To a certain extent, the two have been divorced in my mind since the very beginning. The comic book is a solid, set-in-stone, carved-in-marble template that they can use at their will. And I say “they” including me because I’m often in the mix saying, “Change it! Make it more interesting, it’ll be great! Kill them now; people will be surprised!”
It’s funny, because there are some people online who’re like, “Gimble, oh that Gimble [Scott Gimble, the Chief Content Officer], killing Carl. Oh man!” And that was his idea. But more often than not, I’m the guy that’s like, “Let’s change it, it’ll be great. The fans will freak out, and they won’t know what’s happening. It’ll be really startling!” Because that’s really important to me. That’s something I love in entertainment. I love when I sit down to watch a movie or a television show, and I’m just freaked out and just shocked. Anytime there’s something that really surprises me, that’s my bread and butter. So to be able to get to do that to an audience, that’s my goal. And some people don’t like that [laughs].
Scott: Can you introduce us to your newest series, “Oblivion Song”?
Kirkman: “Oblivion Song” is the story of Nathan Cole, who is a very brilliant scientist, and he was in a modern-day Philadelphia, much like the one that exists in our world. But the only difference is 10 years ago there was this event, called the Transference, where this large area of the landmass of the city transposed with an exact-same-sized area from another dimension. So 300,000 people from Earth got sent to another dimension, and all of the creatures and aliens and weird stuff that were in that dimension got sent here. And there was a big cataclysmic event where those monsters attacked the city, and the National Guard had to come in, and the U.N. came in to help clean up.
And then they realized, wait, where did all those people go? And Nathan Cole, the scientist, was able to perform this, essentially this strike team, that would use his technology to pop back and forth between dimensions, and they could go over into the dimension that came to be known as Oblivion and rescue people.
And it was this big public operation, he was a big hero. And as the years went on, they started rescuing fewer and fewer people, and the government, because it was a very expensive program, eventually had to shut it down. But Nathan keeps his technology working with a shoestring budget and takes it upon himself to go into Oblivion every day because there are still tens of thousands of people that are lost over there. And he explores the dimension and risks his life fighting the native creatures and monsters that live over there in the hopes of saving people.
Scott: What are the things you wanted to explore with this that you weren’t able to do with “Walking Dead” or “Invincible” or your other series?
Kirkman: Kickass monsters is a big one. Because there’s not a lot of weird cool monsters in “Walking Dead.” Every now and then I’m like, what if these two zombies merged together and they shot lasers out of their eyes, that’d be cool, right?
I think emotionally, at its core, it’s about our greatest strength as people is that we’re very capable of getting used to changes in our environment and bad things that happen to us. We’re very adaptable. And that does sometimes cause trauma, but it’s something we’re very good at.
And that’s also one of our greatest weaknesses. When things happen, and we normalize them, and we begin to take them for granted, and we begin to lose sight of where we were before said event happen. I’m not trying to get too political here, but there’s many examples that are probably coming to mind — so just that. This is a world where 300,000 people in a massive American city just disappeared, and 10 years later people are like, “Oh that guy still goes over there to find those people?” They act like it didn’t happen.
Our conversation covered so many more topics, including why Kirkman chose to end “Invincible” and the movie deal that was recently announced with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg at the helm, plus his recent streaming deal with Amazon. “You’ll probably be hearing some stuff very soon, in the coming months around Comic Con,” he teased. Hear it all in the extended interview above.