If you drive through Culver City, Los Angeles, past the fast food joints and tattoo parlors, you'll come to a nondescript building tucked away on a side street. Go up to the fourth floor, and you'll find a cozy office filled with folks chattering over gigantic iced lattes and copies of Fast Company in the reception area. Other than the partially decomposed corpse on the kitchen counter right next to the coffee machine, you'd have no idea that the end of civilization is being meticulously planned out here on a daily basis.
The rotting torso (its Christian name is "Bicycle Girl") was a gift from an director Greg Nicotero and his FX team to the man who has dreamt up every possible variation of shambling, groaning, perpetually starving zombies: Robert Kirkman. The 37-year-old Kentucky native, comic-book writer and executive producer of AMC's hit TV show The Walking Dead has turned the pages of a meager black-and-white comic book into "a zombie movie that never ends" juggernaut. The show not only spawned an L.A.-based spinoff — Fear the Walking Dead — but a hit show in which people discuss episodes immediately after they air (Talking Dead). Every time a major character dies, which is often, Twitter practically bursts into flames. The comic, which recently published its 155th issue, has sold over 50 million copies worldwide and been translated into over 30 languages. Cosplayers dress up as Dead heroes and villains at conventions; one Comic-Con attendee reportedly dressed up as a zombie version of Kirkman himself.
Sitting in a conference room in the offices of his company Skybound Entertainment — one which overlooks the same city that Fear has engulfed in post-apocalyptic flames — Kirkman smiles broadly beneath a buzzcut and bushy beard, alternating between warmth and a slight wariness. "You going to say I have a 'bulky physique' like the last guy?" he jokes, referring to a 2013 Rolling Stone cover story that included a comparison to The Simpsons' Comic-Book Guy. He's now bringing another one of his comics, the supernatural thriller Outcast, to cable TV in the hope that it will do for demonic possession what his breakthrough work did for zombies. Centered on a tortured young man battling an evil-spirit epidemic in a small town, it's a mix of religious horror and rural dread — The Exorcist crossed with Grant Wood's "American Gothic." (It premieres on Cinemax on June 3rd).
But despite the many projects, rabid fanbase and no longer having "12 credit cards' worth of debt," Kirkman still has a conflicted relationship with success. "Look, I live extremely comfortably now," he says, "more than I have a right to." He used to worry that he would never make it, and then that he peaked too soon. "It used to haunt me that this thing I came up with when I was 23 years old would define me," Kirkman admits. "My tombstone will say 'Here lies the idiot who made The Walking Dead.' But hey, there are worse things. I'm OK with that now." It would not be the end of the world.
What do you remember about growing up in Lexington, Kentucky?
My mom was a homemaker and my dad was a sheet-metal fabricator and an entrepreneur. I have a distinct memory of being in my dad's truck, saying to him, "Your job seems so hard." He said, "That's what you do when you're an adult. You get up every morning and go to work." I was like, really? This sucks! [Laughs]
When did the idea that dead might rise and walk among us come across your radar?
I wasn't allowed to see horror movies as a kid — my parents would rent them and watch them in the basement, and I'd hide behind the couch and sneak peeks. So there was always a fascination with them. One night, after I'd moved out of my parents' house, there was some local Fox affiliate that happened to be showing Night of the Living Dead. I remember thinking, "This is crazy. There are people trapped in this house and zombies are trying to get in." Then I'd heard George Romero had made sequels; I bought them and must have watched them every night for months.
Have you ever talked to George Romero about this? Or compared zombie notes?
I would love to do that. I watched him go into a bathroom at Comic-Con one time, when Walking Dead was still [just] a comic, and I thought: Should I be that guy and try to talk to George Romero? I waited for a bit for him to come out, then I had to go do a panel or something. I don't know if he even likes the show. I took this thing he developed and turned it into a goofy soap opera, so … I'm a firm believer that, you know, Stephanie Meyer is to Bram Stoker as Robert Kirkman is to George Romero [laughs].
Give yourself a bit of credit.
I'm more interested in people kissing than biting each other.
Did it surprise you that TV started becoming interested in adapting the comic?
I mean, there had been some interest in a few of the comics that I'd done before, but I was in Kentucky — the whole concept of the movie and TV industry was all fairy dust to me. When somebody told me Frank Darabont was interested in doing The Walking Dead as a TV show, I was like, "Um, who's Frank Darabont? What's The Shawshank Redemption? Never heard of it." I had to go out and rent the movie, at which point I was like, oh, he gets it. This isn't about the prison, it's about these two guys and their emotions. That's what I'm trying to do.
And then you step through the looking glass.
It's weird, you go from doing this comic book with your childhood best friend — and then you're standing on a set where there are burnt out cars and wrecked helicopters and what you've imagined is standing right in front of you. There are people in zombie makeup everywhere and Frank Darabont is firing a gun instead of saying "Action" while you watch a scene of a little girl being killed. I mean, somebody turned this thing into a movable Disneyland, and I got to visit it? It's fucking surreal.
At what point did you realize that this had gone from your average show to a pop-culture phenomenon?
It was like that story of the frog in the boiling pot: They're doing an art book? Cool. Now's there a video game? Hey, great. And there are action figures? OK, wait, what the fuck is going on here? I think I piss people off sometimes because I'm not very excitable. I mean, I knew we were just one bad news story away from our zombies never making it to TV. After the pilot aired, [AMC programming head] Joel Stillerman called me up and told that something like 5.3 million people had watched it, and my response was, "Cool. So ... is that good?" [Laughs] I don't know how many people watch TV.
You're an executive producer on the show ...
Yeah, but I didn't struggle in TV. I don't know what the normal experience feels like and that sometimes bums me out. I know that I would be having a better time and I would be appreciating it more if I had any kind of concept of what it's like to actually do all the work that goes in a TV show and then have the world go, "How about 'fuck you'?" Maybe Outcast will give me that [laughs].
Why do you think a zombie show hit such a nerve with mainstream culture?
It's the global economic crisis, income inequality, the post-9/11 world. Everyone is scared shitless. It's not the worst time ever to be alive, but you know, it's tough out there. I feel like if you worry everyday about the world around you and then you go home and watch a guy get chased by zombies — it's like, well, could be a lot worse. Listen, if I could wave a magic wand and make the world a better place and make Walking Dead less successful, I would wave it without hesitation. I feel like I'm a misery profiteer sometimes.
You had a legal battle with the book's original artist, Tony Moore, back in 2012, where he claimed he was cheated out of profits. Are you guys still on speaking terms?
He just did a cover for issue #150, so yeah … from time to time. He has his take on the matter, I have my take, and I guess we just agree to disagree for the rest of our lives. It's a bittersweet thing. He was my best friend. I miss him. When we started Walking Dead, I knew there was a very good chance that I would have to replace him, because he worked really slow — he was not a monthly guy. And I didn't want to do that. We got into some heated arguments. I remember there was a point where I was screaming at him: "We could be making $50,000 a year each on this book if things keep going this way. Are you crazy?" At that point, I was still tens of thousands of dollars in debt from self-publishing. When Walking Dead took off, I would have chained Tony to that table to make sure that we were able to do this. You know? And yeah … he didn't want to be chained to that table.
"I'm a firm believer that, you know, Stephanie Meyer is to Bram Stoker as Robert Kirkman is to George Romero. I'm more interested in people kissing than biting each other."
Did it surprise you when people were up in arms over the recent season finale?
We knew that people might be upset, but come on! Everybody wants to see what happened. That's what a cliffhanger is. I'll probably get crucified for this, but I feel like there's a culture of instant gratification now: Netflix, social media, everything is on demand at all times. Nothing is withheld. You can't do 52 episodes a year. It's just not feasibly possible. If you can do something that has people talking about your show in that gap between seasons, that's great. We just ask that if you've enjoyed the show so far, just know, Season Seven is going to be pretty great.
The show has become increasingly bleak — how much of it reflects your view of humanity?
I try not to be the glass-half-empty kind of guy. But I do feel like if society were to crumble, we would all be killing each other for resources. It's terrifying what a human will do to survive, you know? Monsters are real and they are us. Once I had kids, I remember thinking: Yeah, if that guy tried to kill my kid, I would rip his head off. Though who knows? [Pause] We all like to think we're Liam Neesons, but most of us are George Costanzas.
Do you have an end game for Dead in mind?
For the books? I do. I know how the story wraps up. The big question is when and how far in the distance that is. But I think that most people think, oh, why would he end it? It's so successful, he's going to keep throwing shit at the wall to keep it going. And that's not going to happen. You'll eventually be able to see that it all kind of comes together.
There's still plenty of story for the TV series to get to; you could tell the writers where you're going, and …
I would never do that. That's the one thing I'm disappointed in George R.R. Martin for doing. He should have just been like, Fuck you. You make it up now, I'll get to mine when I'm ready.
You've been developing another of your comics, Outcast, as a show for Cinemax. You've said you're not a particularly religious person, but the books and the show seem remarkably influenced by it.
It comes from my slightly religious upbringing, which I completely glossed over when you asked me about my childhood earlier [laughs].
Your mom went through a big religious phase when you were young, right?
I ... yes, she did. I don't want to be disrespectful of religion. My mom went to a Pentecostal church for a number of months, maybe years — people speaking in tongues and all that. My mom would be like, I don't want you to go to hell, so we're going to church.
But where did the idea of doing a series on possession, specifically, come from?
Look … all right, fine. I witnessed an exorcism while I was at that church. I don't like talking about it. This person was spitting and biting and growling and all kinds of crazy stuff. I don't remember being scared. It seemed almost normal to me" "Right, they're getting a demon out of that person." When my mother was in her very religious phase, it was explained to me that people that are sick actually have demons in them making them sick. Weird shit like that. [Long pause] I wouldn't say it messed with my mind. It was an interesting thing. I witnessed an exorcism.
Like zombies, it's a rich metaphor for exploring abstract ideas.
No one had really dealt with the long-term exploration of how people would deal with a zombie epidemic before we did The Walking Dead, and I feel like this is sort of the same thing. No one has really treated demonic possession like a solvable problem. Maybe it's something that a community could be proactive in terms of treating, instead of reactive. That's where the show is eventually going to go. It's terrifying to think there could be a thing out there that could go inside of you and make you not you. That's something that we all deal with, to a certain extent. I think back to how I was as a 19-year-old, and how all my life experiences have changed who I am — and if I met him, I don't know if we'd get along. He's probably an asshole.