"My overriding goal, in all things, is to be entertaining," The Walking Dead executive producer Robert Kirkman says. Nearly ten years after he wrote the first issue of the comic book on which AMC's ratings-juggernaut zombie drama is based, he's had a chance to achieve that goal in front of a bigger audience than anyone could've imagined. The show ended its second season as the highest-rated drama series in basic-cable history, while the comic's recent landmark 100th issue by Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard was the best-selling comic book of the 21st century.
That success hasn't been without its shadow side: the network fired original showrunner Frank Darabont in the middle of making Season Two; Kirkman recently settled a lawsuit from the comic's original artist, Tony Moore, over credit, rights and royalties; and the characters' bickering and bad decisions during a stretch of Season Two left some viewers rooting for the zombies.
But by all accounts, The Walking Dead hits the ground running under the firm control of returning showrunner Glen Mazzara with the Season Three premiere, airing this Sunday. And you've got characters and plotlines lifted directly from Kirkman's comic to thank: There's Michonne, the dangerous, samurai sword-wielding loner introduced in the Season Two finale and played by Danai Guira; the Governor, played by David Morrissey, who rules the survivor community of Woodbury with an iron fist; and the abandoned prison where Rick and his motley crew are prepared to make their stand. If the comic's any indication, the show is about to get a lot more epic, and Kirkman seems as excited as the next fanboy to see it go down.
You're about to introduce The Walking Dead's first honest-to-God bad guy, the Governor. Having a genuine antagonist is a big change.
Season Three, much like that era of the comic book series, really does change the status quo a great deal. Up until this point, this is a show about people struggling to survive in a world inhabited by zombies. The zombies are the central threat, the main thing that they worry about. As we approach the prison storyline, the introduction of Woodbury and the Governor and Michonne, and all these new elements that were thrown into the comic book series – it radically changed things, to the point where we did have a clear antagonist, and there was a villain in the world for the first time. We started to delve into the danger of humans, and how threatening and scary encountering humans in this world could be. Now that we're getting into that era in the show, it's dramatically altering the kind of stories we tell. I've joked a lot in the writers' room about how this show is so successful but we haven't even really gotten to the good stuff from the comic book yet. It makes it a cooler, bigger show, with a larger scope. And a lot more conflict, which is always cool.
The character of Michonne is another break from the past – she carries a sword and keeps zombies on a leash, which gives the story a more overtly post-apocalyptic flair. It's still about survival, but she survives in style.
It's one of those elements that gets thrown in where you're like, "Wow, this is somewhat fantastical" – this woman is hacking zombies' heads off with swords like a samurai. What's going on here? But swords exist in this world and would be one of the most practical weapons that you could have in this environment. So while it is cool and she is a total badass and there are some very genre elements that stretch what the show can be, it's still very realistic, and it's something that you would expect to happen if something like this were to actually occur.
Without spoiling anything, the conflict with the Governor goes to some truly dark and disturbing places in the comic. Are you concerned with how that will go over on TV?
I think that to not portray this world as savage and dark and jarring and unsettling would just make it fake. In the writers' room, Glen Mazzara and I, we talk a lot about trying to make sure this show is as real as possible, despite the fact that there are zombies walking around. In an effort to make things realistic, you have to acknowledge just what this world would do to people, and how it would twist them and corrupt them, and the terrible, horrible things they would do as a result of that. You gotta put that on screen or you're just not being honest. Maybe this season will alienate some viewers, maybe they'll be shocked by some of the roads we go down and some of the things that happen, but I think at the very least they'll be entertained.
Frank Darabont exited the show in the middle of making Season Two, so this is the first season with Glen Mazzara's regime in place from conception to completion. How does that change what ends up on screen?
It's definitely a different regime. It's a new take on the material. It's a different process in the writers' room. Weighing one against the other is somewhat difficult, and while I think the differences will show up on the screen in a positive way, I can't really say . . . You know, it is what it is. The situation with Frank Darabont definitely occurred, and things are different now. It's kind of hard to comment on. I will say that Season Three will be the best season of The Walking Dead thus far.
You recently settled a lawsuit with the comic's original artist, Tony Moore. As a reader of the comic, I thought he was a big part of the series' initial success but was treated pretty unfairly by the press as the settlement news broke. How do you feel about putting that dispute to the side just as Season Three of the show gets underway?
I mean, you know, it's definitely great to have it behind me. I'm very pleased with the outcome and happy that Tony Moore and I have come to an agreement that we're both very happy with. It was an unfortunate thing, and it's definitely something that should have been avoided, or would have been great if it hadn't happened, but I'm glad that we were able to settle things, and I'm happy to be moving on.
Do you think these situations would have been handled differently, on either side, if it weren't for the massive success of the show?
I don't really know. That's the kind of thing that happens when things get as big as this is. There has been turmoil on the show and in the comic and a lot of crazy behind-the-scenes stuff, but at the end of the day, I'm not going to lie to you – it's all worth it. It's fun to have a successful comic and a successful show. Having a show as big as The Walking Dead that really is drawing attention on the comics industry as a whole and is definitely bringing new readers into stores . . . You know, the comics industry is very near and dear to my heart, and so, because this thing has grown into this giant machine that does seem to be serving a lot of purposes and doing a lot of good for a lot of people, if I have to deal with a couple of headaches from time to time, I think it's completely worth it. It is a double-edged sword, but swords are pretty nice.