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“The Walking Dead” creator and Image Comics partner Robert Kirkman boarded the CBR Yacht at Comic-Con International in San Diego for a wide ranging interview with CBR’s Jonah Weiland that encompassed his many current projects, his thoughts on the future of comic book publishing and what’s ahead for the massively successful “The Walking Dead,” which the writer says is much bigger than he is. Kirkman talks about working through some of his own demons on the exorcism-centric “Outcast” with Paul Azaceta, how it’s been an interesting process developing the comic at the same time as the forthcoming television series, and his surprise at the debut issue’s overwhelming success. Kirkman next shared philosophy on publishing and IP ownership, which he applies to his own books like “Invincible” and the goals for his Skybound imprint — as well as how fellow creators should think beyond the immediacy of debut sales numbers.
Of course, no conversation with Kirkman would be complete without checking in on “The Walking Dead,” and the writer talked about the future of the comic following “All Out War,” why the book jumped ahead two years in and teased Season 5 of the AMC television series. “There’s some cool stuff coming that people have been waiting for for a long time,” Kirkman said, adding that fans who wanted more of the comic in the show will get their wish in the upcoming season.
On how long the story of “Outcast” has been percolating: I was actually at a “Walking Dead” event with Sharon Tal from Fox International and we were just hanging out and she was like, “So ‘Walking Dead’s’ doing really well, what are you doing next?” I thought it was like a casual, “What comic are you gonna do?” like when you’re with comic buddies, “What’s the next creator-owned thing you’re gonna do?” And so I was like, “I’m doing this thing about exorcism,” and I kind of pitched her the story of Kyle Barnes and the different stuff and she goes, “That’s great, I want it.” And I was like, “That’s cool… I have no idea when I’m gonna get that comic out. I have no clue.” It kind of forced me to like ramp up my plans. This was when the “Walking Dead” show had just come out. This is in-between — I don’t know if it was before Season 1 had even completed airing. Since then I’ve just been working on the comic and getting it ready and also dealing with it being something Fox International was developing and working with them on the show. It’s been kind of strange because when we did “Walking Dead” we had sixty issues out when we started working on the show. And this was a thing where I was plotting out the comic and working on the comic while sending outlines to the network being like, “Hey, do you like this?” Like, “What are we doing?” So it’s been kind of developed hand in hand.
On being unafraid to launch new titles despite the perceived “tough sell”: Sales [on Skybound titles] aren’t great. I was talking to a creator — who I won’t name — last night and I was like, “You need to do more comics. What are you doing?” And then his comment was like, “Yeah, but I don’t know man. In the ’90s comics sold 3 million copies so what’s the point?” And it’s like, no, it’s all about building. If you look at “Invincible,” you could say that “Invincible” doesn’t sell so well because single issues of “Invincible” sell 14,000, 15,000 copies an issue. But I look at what is it like “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” “Thor” — they’re popping like what, 25, 35,000 copies. The baseline that they’re at is like 25-35, somewhere in between that range. At 14 or 15, we have 22 trade paperbacks, that are always in print, that are always selling. I’m sitting here right now — somebody is buying that trade, somewhere, one of those 22 volumes. Ryan Ottley, Cory Walker and I are making money right now, just sitting here. On a book that some people might look at and go, “You know what, that doesn’t really sell that well.” So it’s really all about like everything added up together.
Comics aren’t your single issues anymore. They’re not those first-day sales. It’s not the opening weekend of a movie. “Invincible” comes out, it’s a single issue for a while — there’s all these different outlets — and then it’s in book stores and comic shops in collected form, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and if you add all of that up together the numbers start to get to close to where things were in the ’90s in the boom years. And in the boom years, they weren’t selling trades.
On why you don’t need an option for a comic to be successful and how “Walking Dead’s” success in comics allowed Kirkman to wait to make the show: The reason “The Walking Dead” happened the way it did was because “Walking Dead” was so successful before the show ever existed, to the point I was like, “No. Not perfect, don’t like it. You sound weird on the phone, I’m not going to work with you.” I was able to say no to everybody. And it wasn’t until the right circumstances came along, just because you didn’t need it. And that’s, I think, why Image Comics is becoming so successful right now. If you look at the numbers from 2009 to 2014 now, we’ve jumped from 3% market share to 10% market share, and it’s just crazy, exponential growth. I think people are going to talk about it more and more, I feel like people are noticing the change. I think people are open to new IP more than they’ve been in recent years and I think that’s a trend from our medium to other mediums, it’s something I’m very excited about. The thing is, these creators are realizing that it’s not about your single-issue sales, it’s not about your #1 debut, it’s about having that line of trades and owning your publishing like you do at Image. You control your books, you control your IP. And it’s all these people that know, “As long as my book hovers between 15, 20, 30 and is stable, there’s an economy that is built there that can support an entire creative team very well. Much better than your page rates at Marvel and DC.
On what’s ahead for “The Walking Dead” Season 5: There’s no time jump. We come back in the train car. We left the season showing — it’s that moment, “You’re screwing with the wrong people.” This is the Rick Grimes that we’ve had in the comic for a while, but it took a long time for him to emerge, you know, and now he’s emerged. And so the people of Terminus have captured Rick Grimes at the worst possible moment to be dealing with this guy. He’s capable, he’s driven, he’s savage. He’ll do whatever he has to do survive. And so that’s gonna lead to some pretty fucking awesome stuff. And all I’ll say for comic fans, it seems like we’re off the track right now because we always follow the comic but we do little, you know, off trips and do different things here and there, but there’s an awful lot of the comic in Season 5. There’s some cool stuff coming that people have been waiting for for a long time, so I’m really excited about that. There’s a couple of things coming where I’m on set and I’m like, “Ahhhh, that’s gonna be awesome.”