Just as the one constant in Rick Grimes - hero of Image's "The Walking Dead" comic series - life over the past few years has been the silent presence of a zombie hoard, series creator Robert Kirkman has had a long-standing partner in his creation of the comic leading up to its adaptation as an AMC TV Series: artist Charlie Adlard.
While the artist who's been drawing the book since issue #7 hasn't made the press rounds as much as his collaborator, Adlard is anything but silent. From furiously working away at pages on his drawing board in England to playing drums with his "Prog-rock neo-classical punk crossover from the nth dimension band" Mine Power Cosmic, Adlard has been a reliable purveyor of thrills and chills for fans of the series.
With the TV show only a month away from its Halloween debut, CBR News has teamed up with The Walking Deadcast (a podcast dedicated to the comic and show that can be found on iTunes and at walkingdeadcast.com ) to share an in-depth interview with Adlard where the artist goes into his own personal history with zombies, his rocking out with a horror music legend and how the TV show has affected what he delivers month-in, month-out from Image.
What is it that you especially like about working on "The Walking Dead"?
Charlie Adlard: Same as Robert, really, that it's an ongoing saga. Obviously, I wouldn't have lasted 70 issues if it wasn't for the fact that it had kept me hooked for that long myself as a fan. And of course it's not the concept of zombies that really hooked me in. It was the characters. As soon as I read the script I knew that Robert was onto something a bit more interesting than your average horror comic. And I just kind of ended up going along for the ride.
Yeah, I'm amazed actually. It's pretty rare these days that an artist will stay on a book that long.
I'm amazed, too, yeah.
And I wonder if you get tired of it. Apparently you're hanging in there, and you want to know what's going to happen just like the rest of us, and that helps, right?
I'm hanging in there, you're right to say! [Laughs] You think the idea of this would be a fairly limited concept, but somehow Robert's making it not a limited concept, which is obviously the whole idea and the reason why fans and myself want to keep going with it.
Were you a fan of zombies before you started doing this?
Not particularly - I mean, no more than your average movie fan. I've always been a movie fan, but I like all sorts of genres. There's not one specific genre I completely dislike or completely love. I suppose I tend to lean towards horror/sci-fi material a bit more than anything else, but I like a good old drama as much as the next person!
So, like I say, when Robert came to me with the idea, it wasn't the fact that it was a zombie comic - it was the characters. I like the, shall we say, the bog standard movies. I do like and appreciate, obviously, George Romero's early oeuvre—the later oeuvre leaves a lot to be desired—and "Shaun of the Dead" is great, "28 Days" is great. You know, it's all the obvious ones which are great, and all the unobvious ones rubbish. [Laughs]
So the comic, like you say, is more about the characters. It has a very real-world feel. A lot of the time there are no zombies on the scene, which can mean people standing around a lot. Are you okay with that, as opposed to drawing, for example, action superhero scenes?
Well I think that's where my sort of skill sets do come in a bit more than average. I'm pretty good at drawing that sort of stuff. And I do actually enjoy it. I see it as a challenge. I've always maintained that it's actually quite easy to draw great big action sequences, especially when it's expanded to one or two panels on the page and you can do the big dramatic splash shot each time. Whereas it's quite a challenge to draw seven panels of people talking and make it look interesting. You know, vary the camera angles and do stuff like that.
One of the things we love about the comic is the quiet moments when there's no dialog at all. How do you work with Robert to make those happen?
I agree with you that the quieter moments are the bits that really "float my boat" as well. But God, how do I do it? I think very filmically. Being an all around film fan it does help that you're getting lots of inspiration. But I'm a very natural artist. I find it very hard to explain how I do it. I just seem to do it. In the studio first thing in the morning - because, you know, I've got a wife and family, and once the kids are at school I'm at the drawing board - and I literally do get a new page ready, start from top left-hand corner and work to bottom right-hand corner. It's as systematic as that, every single page. I don't know, I suppose I go into some sort of zen-like trance as I'm drawing and it just seems to kind of happen. That's all I can really explain.
You mentioned your family. Before you were married, how did girls react when you said you were a comic artist?
Ah, interesting. [Laughs] There was an advert on British TV a couple of years ago - I can't remember what it was for, but it was sort of a male fantasy, like, POV shot of this guy walking around talking to these girls. And one girl does say in one very brief sequence "Oh, you're into comic books too! So am I!"
[Laughs] That was a fantasy sequence!
The biggest fantasy sequence. Yeah. You see my wife has a very unhealthy disregard for the medium and what I do so it probably keeps me fairly grounded and keeps my ego in check. It's kind of funny because my kids aren't that interested either. I mean, my eldest is interested if I've drawn something particularly nasty. [Laughs] Other than that, if they come into the studio and go "What are you drawing?" and I show them a page of people talking, the just sort of go "Hmm" and walk out very unimpressed.
Are you listening to music while you work?
I listen to the radio. I am a big music fan, which is a problem, listening to music, because it would distract me. I'd get into it and start listening to the music rather than working. But I don't like silence, so the radio is a good compromise. I can have it in the background babbling away and I can still concentrate.
It sounds like you really enjoy the drawing while you're doing it. Is that true?
Oh God, of course! It's not the sort of job that if you hated doing it - you certainly wouldn't be doing it. If you hated doing it the motivation to get to it would be hard enough, let alone the motivation anyway sometimes even if you enjoy it. I find the older I get the more I procrastinate in the morning. The advent of the computer has been a deadly tool, especially in the last ten years since I've had it in the studio. First thing in the morning I'll turn it on and if there's nothing interesting coming in on emails or anything like that, I'll actively sort of look for something interesting for about a half an hour before I get to work, instead of thinking "Oh, there's nothing interesting on the emails. I'll get to work!" [Laughs]
Do you ever draw something that's not a work-for-hire, but solely for your own pleasure?
Umm… No! Not really. I just don't have the time. Every day there's something to do. Which is not me moaning at all. I'm eternally grateful for that. Other projects that I look for are obviously something I'd like to do "for fun." And "The Walking Dead" has been fantastic to me, and financially it pays the bills. And then some. Other projects I do occasionally - It's not a money factor. I can actually pick and choose and think "That'll be an interesting one to do. Oh, it's not paid? It doesn't matter." There is that luxury I have. So you could argue that the stuff I do for fun are the other projects. but I just like to keep working.
[Hammering heard in the background] What are you having them build there?
I'm having an extension built to my studio believe it or not. I'm glad you haven't got me on video because, literally, I'm amongst cardboard boxes and everything's got sheets over it to stop the dust. I mean we're calming down a bit now. [Laughs]
I heard you in another interview saying you had moved into a house that was owned by a doctor, and it had a surgery in it. Is that right?
Well that's what I'm actually in at the moment. It's the existing surgery. I mean good God there's not operating tables in here or anything like that.
That's what I was wondering!
[Laughs] That would be quite apt, wouldn't it?
No, it's just a space. I'm having a room built on the side to house some more books and things. And upstairs, basically I'm having a room full of boys toys. I'm having a home cinema upstairs. And a drum room! [Laughs] My own drum room!
Are you still playing drums in a band?
Yes, we had a gig last weekend, in fact. In Strasbourg, believe it or not! It was our Europen tour, the one gig! [Laughs]
What were you playing? Was it a concert? A bar?
Actually it was a film festival. One of the organizers is a big comics fan and he was trying to shoehorn comics into it somewhere. And obviously because of the TV show, etc…. He asked me ages ago and he was being really persuasive on the e-mails. And I was iffing and ahing for ages about going there because Strasbourg from the UK, even though it's relatively near, is not the easiest place to get to. You've got to change in Paris, etc. I was kind of not that enthusiastic, and then he mentioned the fact that they had live bands playing and I sort of half jokingly said "Oh, you could have my band play!" And after that he was really enthusiastic to get us over. Next thing we know, we're playing. Actually, are you a fan of Italian horror? Like the films of, for instance, Dario Argento, like "Susperio" [or] "Inferno." No? Yes?
Umm… we'll say yes.
Dario Argento was, well at one point they called him the Italian Hitchcock, which is a bit of a misnomer. I mean he was great in the '70s and '80s. He's appalling now. I've seen some of his later films. They're just awful. But anyway, the music was written by this guy called Claudio Simonetti of an Italian prog rock band called Goblin. And "Susperio" is one of my favorite horror movies. So if you ever get the chance, get "Susperio" on DVD or Blu-Ray. It's unbelievably good. Anyway, since Goblin disband and he's stopped writing for movies, he formed a heavy metal act called Demonia, and that's who we [opened for]. I was a bit in awe play before Claudio Simonetti. I was like "Oh my God, you did the music for 'Susperio'! You were in Goblin! Ooooo!!!"
But it was kind of weird because the rest of the guys in the band were in their 30s. You know, how you'd imagine Italian heavy metal blokes to look like. I don't know what images that conjures up…And Claudio is in his late 50s. So it looks like a band who's got their dad in it because he's got a bit of money or something but the dad insisted he join the band. So anyway, they were…well, they were okay. If you ilke that sort of thing. [Laughs]
That's great. What's the name of your band?
We're called Mine Power Cosmic. As in what the Silver Surfer says. You know [in Silver Surfer voice] "Miiine power cosmic!" Phil Winslade, the comic artist, he plays guitar in the band as well. We were actually formed to play a convention a couple of years back with Liam Sharp on vocals, but Liam got so busy that he couldn't get the time to keep up with the band so we got in a couple of other guys, and we changed the name then. Before we were called Giant Sized Band Thing.
[Laughs] Very good.
Do you guys have some music up online?
We will soon. We aim to get recording as soon as possible. We've just been so busy. We had a gig at Bristol Convention in May and we just got the two other guys in January so they had to learn the set as it was for Bristol. We don't practice all that often because it is only a "fun" band. We have to keep reminding ourselves as we get really serious about it. [Laughs] And then of course the Strasbourg thing reared its head. And lots of us were on holiday - I had San Diego - in the meanwhile. But hopefully now we've got a bit of extra time and we're going to knuckle on down, because the idea of this band is actually to do original material. We don't want to be a bunch of 40-something doing sad covers in pubs. [Laughs]
I love those bands! [Laughter]All right, let's bring it back to the comic for a minute.
Yes, let's. That's what we're supposed to be talking about, yeah. [Laughs]
In the introduction the the first trade paperback of "The Walking Dead," Robert Kirkman wrote that "The Walking Dead" isn't so much about trying to be scary. He said if you are scared, that's great, but it's more about the characters and the survivalist aspect. Do you agree with that? And do you ever try to "draw scary?"
Well, zombie movies and zombie stories aren't scary per se as in the classical haunted house sort of "Boo!" scary anyway. I've never been actually scared by a zombie film. Like hiding behind the sofa type scared. What is scary about them is that they represent the apocalypse, more than any other classic genre staple. From that point of view, Robert is definitely right about it not being scary.
Also it's really hard to be classically scary in a comic book because you can turn the page. It's not like something can jump out at you. That's why I think horror comics are a weird thing to do. The whole idea of horror is to be scared. There are certainly ways to be scary and affect people and shock them. Disturb people. But to be scary in that classic sense is beyond our remit, to be honest.
The previews of the TV show look like they're going to be able to capture that kind of thing a lot better.
It's very hard for zombies to leap out at you, because they movie so slowly. So you've got to set up your scares in probably a more clever way than other horror ways. I don't know, I think zombie films are definitely a lot more disturbing, in terms of what they represent. I think zombie films show off society more than other horror genres. Definitely.
Oh yeah, often the most scary character in the zombie genre is the human.
Of course. I know it's a cliché but it always is. In every zombie film, every zombie story, the only reason the zombies succeed in eating everybody, which generally seems to be what happens, is the fact that the humans are totally fallible and they screw up themselves. In other monster stories or horror stories it doesn't have to be that the humans screw up. The beasts or whatever could be so deadly that it's just a run and hide sort of scenario. Whereas with zombies, if everyone was seriously together they would be quite easy to fend off. And keep fending off.
But the zombies in "The Walking Dead" seem to be a little bit sneakier than other zombies.
You reckon?! [Laughs]
Yeah, I mean like Donna. She - well I guess she shouldn't have gone off -
Well that was her own stupidity, wasn't it?
Yeah, I guess so. [Laughs]
Standing at the front door or whatever. And she wasn't the brightest spark.
Glad to see her go!
That's for sure! [Laughs]
What's your favorite character to draw?
It's a fairly obvious one. It's Michonne. If Robert ever killed her I'd be seriously pissed off. There's no one I don't enjoy drawing.
Who's your favorite character in general? Is it her too?
She's up there. But I also think Andrea's really interesting, because she's come the furthest in a lot of ways. Her character arc has been really interesting. So has Carl's, obviously. Carl's is probably the most interesting of the characters actually. But it's just a bugger to try and draw children!
Yeah, they are really hard to get right, and to get the right age, specifically. It's easier to draw toddlers or four- or five-year-olds. When you get to Carl's age - he's probably nine now, I think - I mean I've got a nine-year-old, so I keep looking at him. Half the time I'm thinking I'm drawing Carl way too young. I'm drawing him in a more clichéd child way. But when you try and draw him older, he just suddenly morphs into a teenager, and you're going "No! No! That's too old!"
The ones that are the best to draw are the older characters, where you can get a bit more into the mark making and into the skin. I really enjoy drawing Dale, for instance. Dale is a great one to draw. And I'm really enjoying drawing, um— I've forgotten his name, now, whoever's leading the community. The guy with the goatee.
I forgot his name too. [Douglas]
Again, he's a guy in his sixties, and it's just really interesting to draw somebody like that. Every time I draw him it just seems to come out right, whereas with Carl sometimes I'm rubbing out the face at least two or three times to get it vaguely okay. [Laughs]
When you draw these characters do you think of them as either people you know? Or at least do you feel like they're real people?
Robert's skill is to make them feel like real people. I mean his dialog is exceptional. But you read it in the script and it doesn't sound as real as when you see it on the page. I don't know why but there's something about reading it in script form that's not as - I mean it's still good, but as soon as I see it in the comic or when I get sent the proofs, I'm reading it and I'm thinking God, that's incredibly naturalistic! Some of the stuff they say, you just think wow, that's exactly what that character would say. There's no conceit to it whatsoever. It's incredibly well thought out.
Definitely. That's one of the things I love about the comic is that you get so attached to the people because they seem so real.
Well yeah, exactly. That's the classic, isn't it? If you don't care for the characters, you're not going to care for them when they get dispatched either, are you?
Have you been to Atlanta to the set of the AMC TV adaptation?
I have indeed! I was a zombie on the set.
Did you go to zombie school?
No, I didn't go to zombie school. I just came in for three days when they were filming the big "zombie weekend" in Atlanta. They sealed off four streets and set dressed it like the apocalypse. It was just amazing! It felt like I was on the set of a proper movie. I know nowadays TV shows virtually have movie budgets, but it was quite incredible to see all this stuff just going on. I had the opportunity to be a zombie for two days, but what I found was that being a zombie you felt like you should be with the extras, and you were sort of shepherded off and when you weren't required on set you were in a room waiting. At that time I was thinking "I really want to be upstairs watching what's going on." So I just did it for a day in the end. But I'm kinda glad, because the heat was just punishing out there. My heart went out to all the actors and cast and crew that had to endure that.
Especially the zombies.
Well especially anyone in makeup. It was just intense. But even stuff that Andrew Lincoln [who plays Rick Grimes] was shooting. I was sweating in a T-shirt and shorts standing in the shade, and it was blisteringly hot. He was in the middle of the sun in his full policeman's gear having to crawl under tanks and things like that. And you think "I'd just be wreck! I'd just be a wet sweaty mess on the floor!" [Laughs]
And the people in proper zombie makeup, to be standing there with the sun, literally no shade, sun beating straight down on the street, hanging around, and they had two great white reflective boards on either side as well. They looked so uncomfortable. And I was thinking "I'm so glad I'm over here with my drink in the shade of this very tall building."
Are they going to be able to capture all the winter scenes?
Well this is going to be interesting. If we do go to season two, for me personally it'll be the interesting stuff because they'll get around to my illustrations. Plus of course, it's getting cold. You know, standing there in the 35 degree heat [that's 95 Fahrenheit] with the 100% humidity I was thinking "Does this place actually get cold?!" But obviously it does. I'll be up for going out there again next year if there is another season, just to not be so uncomfortable in the sweaty heat! [Laughs]
And to see your work brought to life. That must be surreal.
It was the surrealness of it which was the most prevalent. You sort of had to kick yourself occasionally and realize what in fact was going on around you. You kind of muscle on through the set thinking "Oh, I shouldn't really be here. I'm an unwelcome guest." You're just wandering around chatting to people who you assume might not be too busy to listen to your blatherings. [Laughs]
Come on, you're the creator!
It's still a weird thing to be walking around when everyone's really really busy trying to get this thing done and you're standing there sort of looking into the sky, ho-humming away.
I've read they're using a lot of your designs as a reference. Could you see that?
Yeah, I suppose. Everyone kept saying to me how much they'd looked at the book. They've obviously taken the zombies and apparently scenes directly from the pages of "The Walking Dead." Yeah, that's an honor. People have asked me loads of times if I've had any input into the series. And I said no, I haven't. I was never asked. But on the other hand I've never put myself forward to do it. "The Walking Dead" is not like a design-heavy TV show. We didn't draw a science fiction comic or a fantasy comic where there are lots of designs I'd be really precious about and say "I want to make sure they create that world just like my world." Because it's just a natural world. It's reality. Atlanta, for instance, to the people who're shooting the show, is Atlanta. It's the real city. Ours, arguably, is the copy, the knockoff, because we've drawn it. You see what I mean? Even zombies, if you're doing a realistic dead person you do your research in the morgue. You don't do your research from a comic book. Any bit they've taken from the comic is just an added bonus to me because they really didn't have to do anything. I'm not overprotective of what I've drawn, because like I say I've tried to base it on reality. When they keep telling me "We've taken a lot from the book," and I see that they've taken a lot from the book, it's just a little bit of the icing on the cake. Especially since they really didn't have to at all.
There's one thing I want to be sure and get to. I love the book, but there's one thing I found kind of disturbing. Can you guess what it is?
The torture scene?
Yep! [Laughs] Talk about that. How did you feel about that?
I'm a big fan of offscreen horror. Most of my favorite horror movies - apart from John Carpenter's "The Thing," which is one of my most favorite horror movies most of my other favorite horror movies tend to be ones where most of the horrible stuff happens offscreen.
Hmm mm. It's scarier.
Yeah, I genuinely believe the mind has the ability to conjure up images far worse than what is presented onscreen. From that standpoint, every time I have to draw something gory, I am thinking "Is this really necessary?" Having said that, the zombie genre by it's very nature is the most gory of horror staples. You're dealing with wandering corpses that are decomposing constantly around you and want to eat you. It's very hard to get subtle. But when Robert came up with that plot, it was the only time I've phone him in the history of working together, seven years together, and said "Come on Robert, you've got to convince me to draw this." And he did convince me. He explained the character motivations and reasons why we had to show it all. In the end, I agreed with him. People ask me if it was disturbing to draw. It was disturbing to read it, and probably disturbing to think about how I was going to approach it, but when it came time to actually draw it, it's just marks on paper. It wasn't disturbing to draw at all. It's like you say, a surreal act when you're drawing. You've got a pen. You're putting these black lines on a piece of paper and suddenly you've created a picture. [Laughs] It was exactly the same act for that issue. It's just creating a picture and it's just a bunch of marks on paper. It's kind of an emotionally detached process. The emotional connection was in reading the scripts and thinking about it beforehand.
I'm loving the way you're describing how you work. I've heard writers say the act of writing is torture but the satisfaction comes when you're finished, but it sounds like when you're working it's a zen-like experience.
Yeah, the inking especially. I draw a lot of it straight down in ink. That's probably what makes me so fast. It takes me about half an hour, three quarters of an hour to lay out in pencils one page. And they're very rough. That actually is the work for me. Out of anything, that's when I really have to concentrate and think about it. In a lot of ways that's the hard work. The inking, which thankfully takes up three quarters of the time, is what I term to be "the creative process." It's like if you go out and do principle photography on a movie, it's hard work because you're getting scenes together and you're mindful of the time, you're clockwatching because you've only got a certain amount of time to do it in, you've got to get all these scenes together, and it's a bit of a slog. Where the fun comes in with film making is the editing, because when you've got all your material, that's when you put it together and create the story, create this big concept. It's kind of the same with what I do. The slog is the penciling, the principle photography as it were, and the inking is the fun bit where I'm bringing it all together, I'm drawing backgrounds, I'm putting the detail on the faces, putting the shadows in, doing all the fun stuff and creating a really nice page. Hopefully anyway. [Laughs]
Have you done some film making?
I did it at college. Over here in the U.K. we don't have a comics degree course, so my actual art degree was in film and video. I spend three years with a camera in my hand. So yeah, I'm fairly versed in the language of film, I'd like to think anyway. Lots of people comment on my work and say it's really filmic.
Has the advent of the TV show changed your approach to the comic at all?
No, not at all. No, no. I think Robert and I probably both say we just tootle on as normal. This monstrous thing is happening all around us. It's probably even less of an effect on me because Robert is an executive producer and I know for a fact that he's constantly off on plane trips to Hollywood and blah blah blah, and probably doing four times more American conventions than I could ever conceive of doing, and doing all the press junkets, etc., etc. And he's the one with the agent and everything. [Laughs] And I'm stuck here in little old Shrewsbury in the U.K., quiet little town in the suburbs, just tootling away, completely oblivious to anything. [Laughs]
What part of Englad are you in?
It's the midlands. I'm about three quarters of an hour up from Birmingham, so it's very central. Shrewsbury is the birthplace of Charles Darwin.
Yeah, all right! Wooo!
[Laughs] It's the Darwin fan club!
Also I went to the same school as Michael Palin of Monty Python. Not at the same time, I hasten to add. We were a few years apart. But that's the one that really impresses myself. [Laughs]
Us too. [Laughs] Thanks for talking to us Charlie. You're very articulate.
[Laughs] Thank you!
So we have one rule on the show, and that's that everyone has to make a zombie sound.
[Laughs] That impressed you? Better get it on tape everyone.
I'll put it up on eBay. Not sure if that'll work…. Thanks so much Charlie, we appreciate your time.
Okay, no problem guys. Good luck with the show.