For ten years, Robert Kirkman has led readers through a world overrun by zombies while beloved characters have met gruesome and shocking ends. During Image Expo, Image Comics celebrates not only the tenth anniversary of "The Walking Dead," but its creative relationship with the writer turned Image Partner as well.
Kirkman kicked off his spotlight panel by recalling the first time he met Image Publisher and co-panelist Eric Stephenson at a barbecue in Chicago, happily talking about his fanboy glee at interacting with the one-time "Brigade" writer.
"I loved everything Extreme and I read everything by you," Kirkman told Stephenson. "I know how much you hate it when I bring that up."
The two briefly discussed Kirkman's first work at Image, "Superpatriot," a spinoff from Image founder Erik Larsen's "Savage Dragon." Kirkman would later pitch his first creator owned series to Image, a book called "Techjacket." After getting his foot in the door, the writer began developing a pitch for a series titled "Dead Planet."
"'Dead Planet' was about zombies from another planet," Kirkman said, adding that he felt he needed to tweak the concept of the series to make it more relatable. The end result was "The Walking Dead." "I felt I needed to do something more down to earth."
Of course, not everything from "Dead Planet" was thrown out when it went from sci-fi flesh-eaters to a survival horror tale. For one thing, Kirkman said Michonne was originally intended for that series.
"In the pitch, I talked about Rick trying to form up an army and trying to take back the world," he continued, pointing to another aspect that more or less survived the genre-shift.
"I have a road map for years and years to keep this series going," Kirkman assured fans before opening the floor to questions from the audience.
Asked about what has changed in his approach to writing the comic book now that there is a television series, Kirkman answered quickly, "Nothing."
Though it is not influenced by the AMC series, the comic's storyline has changed somewhat from Kirkman's initial plans, sometimes in rather dramatic ways.
"I had rough ideas for how we would get to this stage in the series, but a lot has changed in getting to there," he said. "Michonne was supposed to have died several times, but that changed."
Stephenson talked about how at times he would advise Kirkman to do things differently in the book, joking that the writer's response was, "Fuck you!" Stephenson quickly pointed out that at Image, creators ultimately have the final say in what happens in their books, and they are not required to change their plans to suit the advice of editors.
"That's the big thing at Image," Stephenson said, "People can go with their gut."
In talking about Glenn's death, Kirkman said the means by which the popular character was killed was something he'd come up with years before it actually happened. "I had an idea to do a sequence in which (the villains) do the eenie-meenie-miney-mo song on the group and then they kill the person it lands on. I got that idea around issue sixty."
The writer said he deliberately tried to keep the readers guessing about who would die during that sequence, but he always knew how it would turn out. "I was trying to play with people's expectations. I knew that Glenn was gonna get it."
Another change made while writing the series is the continued survival of villain Negan, who was supposed to die three issues after #100. "Issue #103 was supposed to open with Rick carrying a cardboard box up a hill. At the end of it, he would open the box and Negan's head would be in there and he would present it to Maggie."
When asked whether the series would ever be printed in color, Kirkman took the opportunity to announce that for the first time ever, the very first issue of "The Walking Dead" is set to be reprinted in full color with work done by celebrated colorist Dave Stewart, as a special celebration of the book's tenth anniversary.
"I am very fond of Andrea," he answered when asked for his favorite character. He then pointed out that it is not necessarily a good thing to be one of his favorites. "I miss Glenn a lot. I really liked Axel and Tyrese. Most of them are dead.
"I have to be honest. Carl is my favorite character because he's the weirdest… One of the most fun things about 'The Walking Dead' is watching Carl grow up. That's how I think you would grow up in that situation."
Kirkman also talked about the television show and about how long it took to bring the comic to the small screen. "'The Walking Dead' was first talked about for television in 2005," he said. "It took 4 years to get it made." The series has multiple writers on staff, a group of eight people who get along well together and are in the same mode. "I feel like I am spoiled for television because I hear other shows have problems."
Kirkman laughed, answering a question about what the appropriate age is for readers of "The Walking Dead." "I like to say thirty-five. People tell me their seven-year-olds read it and I'm like, 'They should not be reading that.' If they grow up to be a serial killer, that's on them."
Laughing again, Kirkman answered a tongue-in-cheek question regarding the "obvious homosexual overtones" in the series and his relationship with actor Norman Reedus, who plays Darryl. "My relationship with Norman Reedus is platonic -- at least for now."
Kirkman responded to a comment that "Walking Dead" features some of the most consistent art and writing in comics today, saying this is because there are only two people working on the book, himself and artist Charlie Adlard. This led into a brief discussion about inker Stefano Gaudiano, who is coming aboard to help longtime series Adlard with the upcoming seven-month bi-weekly schedule that kicks in with issue #115.
"It was very important to me that the art not change much," Kirkman said. "Ninety percent of the people won't notice."
As for his plans for a grand finale, Kirkman said the series was nowhere close to an ending so he doesn't worry about it. When pressed on whether or not if he knows how the series will end, he answered in the affirmative. "There is an ending in mind and how it will happen.
"My goal is for the television show to run its course," Kirkman said. "I'm hoping for the comic to continue strong well after the show is over. I see the comic going a long time after the television show is done, so the endings for both are very different."