|"The Walking Dead's" landmark 50th issue is on sale in June|
Cartoonist Charlie Adlard is a comics veteran who began his career in his native Britain on titles like “White Death” with Robbie Morrison and Judge Dredd in “2000 AD.” American readers first saw his shadowy style in Topps’ “The X-Files” comics series in the mid-nineties and in “Astronauts in Trouble,” the critically acclaimed flagship title from AiT/Planet Lar. After a several years of work-for-hire for many of the major publishers, Adlard found himself with a steady gig on a new and and, as fortune would have it, hugely popular creator-owned title, “The Walking Dead,” written by Robert Kirkman and published by Image Comics.
In recognition of the book’s milestone fiftieth issue, CBR spoke this week with writer Robert Kirkman and now Charlie Adlard sits down with us to talk about his work on the last four years of “The Walking Dead.”
For the unfamiliar, “The Walking Dead,” follows an ensemble cast as they try to survive a world that has faced a zombie apocalypse. A stark black and white comic, “The Walking Dead” has captured the imaginations of readers with it socio-political undertones and a focus on realistic human drama over creeps and gore.
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“Its not a zombie comic,” Charlie Adlard told CBR News. “We wouldn’t have lasted fifty issues if it was just a zombie comic. It’s a character book and it’s about the characters and how they survive in an extreme situation. It’s more akin to things like, for want of a better word, ‘Lost’, the TV show. It’s about people surviving in an alien environment. It just so happens that ‘Lost’ has an island and ours is a zombie holocaust.”
Adlard continued, “The general public are aware there’s a sort of zombie revival going on and as soon as you say it’s a zombie book, I think a lot of people actually get a little put off by that because, you know what differentiate our from any other zombie book.”
Looking back on the series and its large and mostly deceased cast of characters, Adlard of course has his favorites. “Well, Robert’s killed most of them,” the artist laughed. “Actually one of my favorite characters is still alive, that’s Michonne, so that’s cool, but I didn’t realize until after issue #48 that he’d killed all the characters that I’d actually created, apart from Michonne, because all the other characters surviving to now are from the beginning of the book. I know that’s not intentional at all. It’s just the way it happens.
“I do have a bigger connection with Michonne because I’ve been with her right from the beginning. It’s nice that Robert gave me just the one,” Adlard laughed again. “One left over to hang on to. Hopefully she’ll be back again, but there’s heaps more new characters coming in. Hopefully he won’t kill them off as quickly as some of the others.”
Adlard tries not to get too involved with Kirkman’s side of the book. “I let him do the writing and he lets me do the artwork,” he said. “Occasionally, when we have a conversation on the phone, we’ll start talking about what he’s planning, I leave him to do what he’s good at. I’m not good at that, so most of the time I think, 'you’re the professional.’
“Also, I quite like to read the scripts as they come in and be surprised like a reader is,” Adlard added, “so I don’t really ask that many questions. It’s all right to read them and go ‘oh, okay. That’s cool.’”
However, being so closely involved with the book means some fore knowledge of events, but even then, surprises lurk in the script pages. Said Adlard. “I know really, really roughly what’s going to be happening in the bigger arc. There, again, what he’s told me three months ago has probably changed. There were a couple of deaths in issue #48 that I didn’t realize he was planning, for instance. So that was as much of a surprise to me as to the readers when I read the script.”
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Those surprises translate into the highly emotive and fresh artwork, for which Adlard has won much praise. “It makes it fresher for me as well. If I knew every tiny detail as it was coming, I don’t think I’d enjoy drawing it as much, because I’m reading it and then I’m drawing it virtually immediately which gives me that sort of excitement.”
Keeping himself in the dark about the future of the storylines is just one part of what makes up Adlard’s take on the zombie-ridden world of “The Walking Dead.” “It’s kind of interesting, my art style, because I don’t have different styles, but I have different ways of drawing,” the artist explained. “I don’t change my style radically to suit a story, but I might change, say, equipment or something. Use something like a different sort of pen or brush for a certain story or book I’m doing. It gives it a different edge.
“With ‘The Walking Dead,’ I do it very quickly. The reason I did it quickly to begin with was that the first issue I had to do had to be done in two weeks. To Image and Robert’s credit, they said ‘It has to be done in two week, but please, please, please, if you can’t do it in two weeks, don’t worry.’ I thought to myself ‘No, I’ll set my self a challenge. I’ll do it in two weeks.’ And I did kind of get it done in two weeks, so that sort of established the look.”
Adlard continued, “Over the years that I’ve been drawing it, the quickness has worked in its favor, I think. Because it’s a horror book, I think that the sort of sketchier approach that I use for it is more edgy, more angular. It’s not so refined, giving it that slicker, more super-heroic look, perhaps. Because it’s scratchier, it gives it that grit that more associated with harder-edged sort of stuff. So it’s not just me thinking 'I’ve got to get the book done. Get it quickly. Get it out.’ It’s something that works with it.”
In discussing the origins of the quick-style Adlard employs, he thought back to how he got the “Walking Dead” gig in the first place. “I knew Robert very, very vaguely,” he said. “I did a book with Joe Casey, called ‘Codeflesh,’ for Image. The last three issues weren’t actually done by Image, they were done by Robert when he was doing Funk-O-Tron [Kirkman’s now-defunct publishing house], publishing ‘Battle Pope.’ He really liked the series and offered to publish the last three episodes. So he put them out and after that I didn’t really hear from him at all until one day, I got an email out of the blue. The email actually started off with ‘Do you want to earn money?’
“Obviously he knew that ‘The Walking Dead’ already was doing well enough to guarantee a certain amount of money. That was sort of his ‘in’ with me. Luckily, he just got me when I was in, shall we say a ‘low period’ and looking for work. I had something on the go, but it really wasn’t anything to shout from the rooftops. So, in many ways ‘The Walking Dead’ came along and saved me from going down another road that would have been a lot less profitable.
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Charlie Adlard’s involvement with the book has done a lot more for him than put money in his pocket. “I’ve got a lot to thank ‘The Walking Dead’ and Robert for in the end,” said Adlard. “I wouldn’t have dreamt in a million years how well this has book has done financially, professionally and creatively for me. On a professional level it’s changed ht way I see how I do things in the industry. Before ‘The Walking Dead’ I wouldn’t have touched a creator-owned book with a barge pole. Primarily because I’m the artist, it takes longer to draw it than it does to write it, I have a wife and two kids, I have to support them, it’s just not logical to go down that road the way the industry is at the moment.
“The only creator-owned in this industry worldwide, though I don’t know about Japan, are European books. In most European books they give you a page rate, but in the United States and Britain, with a creator-owned book, you’re taking the big risk. You’re doing it for nothing. If it’s successful, great. You reap the rewards. If it’s not, you’ve basically just done X number of pages for free. Sure, you’ve fulfilled yourself creatively, but time wise, you’re exhausted and you’re poor at the end of it. Doing ‘The Walking Dead’ has completely changed my outlook on that.
“Also, I’m lucky becauseI have spare time to do projects I want to do as opposed to doing it because somebody’s offering me money for it. I did another project for [AiT/Planet Lar] with Joe Casey called ‘Rock Bottom’ which was basically, you know…” Adlard laughed. “I haven’t received nickel spent for that book. I just wanted to draw it because it was so good. I’m doing a European book now and I’ve spent two days doing a page where, with ‘The Walking Dead’ I spend three hours. It’s not financially viable to do it for me, but I’m able to do it because of ‘The Walking Dead.’ It’s a fantastic position to be in.
Fans of Adlard’s work on “The Walking Dead” have no cause to fear that Adlard’s “better position in the industry” will lead him to seek greener pastures. He has not desire to mess with a winning formula. “I’ve been on ‘The Walking Dead’ for four years now. ‘The X-Files’ was only two. I see no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of me leaving the book. I can see another four, five, ten years.”
Adlard remarked that he never though he’d be able to say something like that. Because of ‘The Walking Dead,” the artist said, “I can see my career further ahead of me than I ever have before.”
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