Robert Kirkman: I Can Do 1,000 Issues of 'The Walking Dead'

'I have an end in mind,' says the series creator, 'and I wrote the final scene the other day'

Robert Kirkman in San Diego, California.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for AMC
Robert Kirkman in San Diego, California.
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In anticipation of The Walking Dead's season premiere on Sunday, October 13th, Rolling Stone will publish an exclusive interview with a new cast or crew member every day this week. Yesterday, backwoods survivalist (and fan favorite) Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) listed the serious injuries he's received on set. Tomorrow, the Governor (David Morrissey) explains the price you pay for security during an undead apocalypse.

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When did you first start thinking about writing comics?
My dream was to write and draw my own comics, because my favorite books were written and drawn by writer-artists, guys that did the whole thing themselves. When I grew up and realized I was a terrible artist and was not good enough to actually do that, I was a little upset. Then I realized that the writing part is more fun, and, you know, less time consuming.

Did you go to college?
No. My last year of high school, I didn't do anything. I was an art student, so I would tell my English teacher, "I'm going to go work on my art project." Then I'd leave and go hang out and eat at Long John Silver's. I mean, I skated by with B's and C's, but I just knew that education was not for me.

After you started publishing comics, how long was it before you could make a living at it?
It happened fairly quickly, but by the time I started making money, I was, like, $40,000 in debt and making $200 a year. I had a publishing company, so I'd make a comic, and that comic would cost $3,000 to manufacture. But I had pre-sold it, and I was going to make, like, $3,500 for it. So I would pay for the printing on a credit card, get the $3,500, take the $500, which is technically profits, for the people that worked on it, then live off of the $3,000 that I put on a credit card.

Oh, wow. There's an accounting problem there, I believe.
[Laughs] That's how I was going. I ended up doing the math: At one point I had 12 credit cards and it was like $3,000 a month just to pay the minimum payments. I was like, "Yeah, this is really bad."

When you began The Walking Dead comic, how much of the story did you have mapped out in your head?
At that point, a lot of my books had failed, so I wasn't really in a position where I could say, "This comic is the zombie movie that never ends, and it'll go for years and years and years." But I had years of story lines planned when the first issue came out. I knew they were going to get to the prison. I knew they were going to have that area where they were going to be safe and they were going to start building a little civilization.

What kind of stuff were you reading and watching when you were creating this world?
I did a lot of research on World War II and the Holocaust, because that was the most modern equivalent of what it would be like to survive in an apocalyptic setting. A lot of places in Europe were just completely bombed out, and a lot of horrible things happened to people. I looked into that stuff to get a sense of what it's like when people are pushed to their limits.

Did you think that this was something that could work on TV?
People would ask me, "Wouldn't it be awesome if it was a TV show or a movie?" I would always say, "Well, it'll never be a TV show or a movie." There's never been anything like this on television. Zombies are essentially people who eat people, so it's a cannibal show. I was like, "I can't foresee there being a cannibal show on television!"

Do you find that you are more or less faithful to the comic than other writers on the show?
By the time I'm writing the script, it's completely divorced of the comic. The real changes to the comic happen in the writers' room when all of the writers are discussing things. I feel like I am less true to the comic than a lot of people just because I would be incredibly bored if I was in the writers' room talking about stuff that I'd written six, eight or 10 years ago. I want people to be able to say, "This didn't work in the comic," without feeling like I'm going to get mad.

Do you try to keep a distance between yourself and the cast, just knowing that you're going to have to kill some of them off?
That's a difficult one. I know I'm sometimes uncomfortable around the actors. There was a recent death on the show, and I was on set for it. It was weird because everyone on set is sad, and the actor is upset because their time on the show is ending. It's a very emotional thing, and I kind of feel like I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was in the writers' room going, "This death is important!" There was an argument about this person dying, and I argued for it! Now I'm surrounded by all of these people who wish this wasn't happening right now! But, yeah, sometimes it's a little awkward. Having to remove someone from the family is absolutely terrible.

What is the vibe like in the writer's room?
I'm sometimes disappointed because I hear stories about other writers' rooms where people are, like, throwing their lunch against the wall and storming out. That sounds exciting to me!  Our writers' room is more like eight people hanging out in a living room just chatting about stuff that they like.

What's your relationship with the showrunners been like? Is there tension over who is steering the story?
I've had a pretty good relationship with every showrunner on the show. I defer to them as much as I can. My mindset is, "I'm at your service." Scott Gimple is the final word. If Scott wants to do a story and I don't want to, I might pull him aside and be like, "You really want to do that? Maybe we should do something differently." But I recognize that the show is the show and the comic is the comic, and I control the comic. I can do whatever I want in the comic.

What's your feeling about going through three showrunners in four seasons?
Showrunners change all the time on so many different shows, and it's for a myriad of different reasons. And so, you know, it is unfortunate that there is this huge spotlight on The Walking Dead for this thing that just happens all the time on different shows. Dexter has had more showrunners than The Walking Dead has had in pretty much the same amount of time. Hell on Wheels just changed showrunners.

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What parts of you are in The Walking Dead?
Stupid stuff. I worked at a pizza place, and so that's why Glenn worked at a pizza place. One fun thing is that I didn't have any kids when I started The Walking Dead. So when I would write Rick and Carl's relationship, I was Carl and my father was Rick. Then my son was born around the time of issue 30, and so now, when I'm writing it, I'm Rick, and my son is Carl.

The show has had incredible ratings but not really the critical respect to match that. Does that bother you?
I think it would be nice to have an Emmy just because I'm from Kentucky – none of my friends have Emmys. But I'll take the ratings over the Emmy any day. Plus, there's like a thousand great shows on television right now. So I can't complain about The Walking Dead being snubbed when I would rank 15 shows above The Walking Dead personally – Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, The Americans and American Horror Story.

How long could you keep the comic book going?
I'm doing the math on this. I'm 34 years old. By the time I'm 65, I might actually get pretty far. If I don't get bored and people are still enjoying the story, I can do 1,000 issues of The Walking Dead. So it is actually possible to tell a story that follows the collapse of civilization into the dark ages into the rebirth of civilization, where things are completely different. There could be an issue 700 of The Walking Dead that's about people delivering mail. That is exciting to me.

Do you have an end in mind for the whole thing?
I have an end in mind for the comic, and I actually wrote the final scene the other day. I know what I want the final dialogue to be. It may change but the interesting thing to me is that I can never tell anyone involved in this show what the ending that I have in mind is because the comic book most likely will outlive the show. I can't have any nugget of what I have planned making it into the show, because if the show ends on season 12 but the comic doesn't end for, eight, 10 or 20 more years, my ending will be spoiled. That would piss me off.

Is there a philosophy or a message that you feel like is reinforced by the story?
Be thankful for what you have. Sometimes I think about how life now is not cool. We made a mistake at some point in our history, a hundred years ago, when we were living in houses that we built, growing food that we ate, interacting with our families and living our lives. Looking back on that era, it seems kind of appealing. That's a life that makes sense. Now, we're doing jobs that we don't enjoy to buy stuff that we don't need. I don't mean to sound like Tyler Durden, but it seems like we've screwed things up. There doesn't seem to be any kind of movement to continue evolving how we live, who we are and what our purpose is as human beings. That's unfortunate. So it's fun to look at the world of The Walking Dead and see those things taken away. Is life going to be better? A lot of people think the show is very bleak and depressing. And it is, oftentimes.  But I can see where the story is going to go in the next ten years, and I think about it optimistically. Maybe it's going to make us better people by the end of it.

So the zombie apocalypse as the great cleansing?
[Laughs] Maybe. But I will say this, I love Pizza Hut and watching DVDs, so I don't want it to happen. But wouldn't you rather be growing a carrot right now, instead of talking to me?

I tried to grow carrots once and they came out gnarled and small and tasted like crap.
I guess the grass is greener on the other side.

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