In the second part of my interview with The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard, we discuss the comic and the TV series, the appeal of the zombie apocalypse, his advice for aspiring creators, his future projects and whether we can ever expect to see him in Singapore.
You can read the first part of the interview here.
The universe that you and writer Robert Kirkman have created in The Walking Dead is certainly very bleak and unrelenting. But what do you think it is about the themes of a zombie apocalypse that appeals to people?
Oh God, I think we just hit the zeitgeist. I don’t think it’s anything…it’s always a hard one to answer, that. Because…why are vampires popular? Suddenly, there’ll be a spate of werewolf movies and related things. Suddenly, there’ll be a spate of mommy movies, or whatever. Now, we’re in a zombie age (laughs).
I think we just hit the right time. I don’t know if we started that craze, or if we were just there in the right place at the right time, I just don’t know. I’ve always said, when people say, ‘Why is The Walking Dead successful?’ And I always reply, ‘It’s kind of blind luck’ (laughs). We were literally just in the right place at the right time. I mean, that’s not taking anything away from how good the book is and how good the show is. It has to be good to begin with, but I think a lot of it is being there when stuff hits.
I can’t help but ask, do the two of you have fun inventing new ways to torture the characters every week? Rick’s had his hand cut off, Glenn’s been beaten to death…it’s just one intense moment after another.
(laughs) Obviously, we’re not just having a laugh doing it. It’s not like we’re sitting there cackling and thinking, what’s the goriest, most horrible way to dispatch these characters? There’s a more serious element to the violence. The irony is, funnily enough, (we) prefer the violence off-camera.I think the mind conjures up worse images than anything you can put on film or paper. The biggest disappointment in any movie is always the appearance of the monster, because you’ve always imagined something far, far worse. And suddenly the monster appears, right, that’s all the suspense gone out of whatever you’re watching or reading or whatever. It’s kind of funny. Occasionally, I’ve got to admit, I would have preferred to dispatch a character off-screen, but I also appreciate the reason why we have to show it.
We’ve already passed the 100th issue of The Walking Dead, but how long do you think the story can go on? Or is that something that you and Robert haven’t discussed, the end of it?
Oh no, we’ve discussed the end numerous times, but it’s not going to end any time soon, believe you me. We have an ending in place, but it’s an ending we can implement at any time. We can start implementing it 20 issues down the line, we could implement it 200 issues down the line. So long as people are buying the comic and our ideas are still fresh, there’s no reason, we’re not going to stop, we’ll keep going.
With The Walking Dead, you’ve experienced the opposite of The X-Files, where instead of adapting someone else’s work, your work has been adapted to television. But in your wildest dreams, did you and Robert ever imagine that you would attain this level of popularity?
Oh God, no. I know it’s a cliche, but you never expect this level of success. I was quite happy five or six years ago, earning a decent living off The Walking Dead, the comic book. (laughs) Simple as that. So long as I can sit there and draw every day and make some sort of living out of it, I’m happy..But to get to this point is just unbelievable. It just keeps getting more ridiculous as well. For instance, with Walking Dead #100, who would have thought…we knew it was going to have good sales figures. We didn’t think it was going to be the number one book of the century. I know the century’s only 12 years old, but it still sounds quite impressive (laughs). Things like that, and the TV show, the highest rated cable show on television…you just think, is it ever going to stop? I mean, it will at one point obviously, I’m not naive. In a lot of ways, I just think, where the hell can we go from here? It’s downhill now, all the way.
You mentioned some time back that you were on The Walking Dead set in Georgia. Is there anything you can tell us about your role on the show?
Well, I haven’t got a role. I visited the set for a second time this August just gone, but that was just as a visitor. Everyone knows I was a zombie in the pilot of the first, even though you can’t see me, but there’s obviously pictures and what not. So yes, it’s official guys, I was there! I was in that crowd. But yeah, last time, I just turned up. The week I went out to visit the set, they were just doing (laughs) actor stuff, as opposed to action or zombies. It was just a lot of people talking in rooms. Hmm, a bit like the comic book really! Which was still incredibly interesting, and I’m glad a lot of it was inside, because the heat outside is unrelenting. The first time I was out there, it was all literally on location, so I was outside for three days, and the heat out there was just horrible..
I can’t really tell you anything about it. Suffice to say, there were a couple of times where the hairs on the back of my neck stood up in excitement. I saw the actress playing Michonne, and she just looks amazing. She is just literally torn from the comic books and placed on the screen, which is just fantastic.
Speaking of that, The Losers creator Andy Diggle told me that when he stepped onto the set of The Losers movie adaptation, the actors looked like they had just stepped out of the comic book. Is that a feeling you get every time you watch the show?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If it was all just taken from the comic book, I think it would be a very weak series. It’s got to go its own way. And I’m not naive, I don’t think, ‘Andrew doesn’t look like Rick from the comic book’. That’s stupid thinking. You don’t get actors just because they look like their counterparts from the book, you get them because they can act the role well..There are going to be characters that are going to look different to the people in the comic book. Andrew Lincoln doesn’t exactly look like Rick, but he is Rick. God, he is totally the character. I think it’s great for people who are familiar with the comic book, at least they can watch it and be surprised as well, without just knowing the beats of the whole story. ‘Well, we know that this is going to happen now’. That’s kind of dull.
You’ve obviously had a lot of success with The Walking Dead, but would you fancy a regular penciling gig on a big mainstream title like say, Spider-Man or Superman?
To be honest, I can never see doing regular penciling or inking gigs on somebody else’s characters any more. That’s the thing with The Walking Thing, it’s put us on a bit of an ivory tower in terms of where we are. It’s very easy for me to sit there and say, ‘Creating your own comics is the way to go, kids! That’s the way to go’..But to be honest…that is the way to go. And I think we’ve proven, and other creators are now proving the same thing, that it is a lucrative business if you create your own characters. And I don’t ever go back from that. If and when The Walking Dead does come to an end and I end up with some spare time, the last thing I’m going to do is go back to Marvel or DC. I would be exploring other avenues in other creator comics. I just want to create stuff now, I don’t want to do anybody else’s stuff anymore, even on a fanboy level. And I’m a big fanboy.
Is there anything you can tells us about your future projects? Can we expect to see more of your own characters?
This is the problem. At the moment, The Walking Dead is taking up so much time, that it’s really hard to get anything else off the ground, just because of the time factor. Robert and I are working on another one-shot book which has been in the works for the last couple of years, called The Passenger. It’s done like a European album format, large format with nine, ten panels a page, 48 pages for the book. But literally, it’s been so manic (that) this year, from January till now, I’ve done one page of it. One page! So it is a struggle..But ideally, what I’d love to do is, because I love the French industry. And I love the way they produce the books, I love the way the industry works, I like the way that it’s non-genre specific. And obviously, it’s a lot nearer for me to go to France than it is the States. So I’d love to do a lot more books for French publishers, it’s just finding the time. There’s a couple of projects that I’m circling, shall we say, but it’s all down to the fact that I’ve got to get Passenger done first, which could be however many years still on the drawing board, and then it’s finding the time to do another European project.
Going back to what you said earlier about how you would much rather be working on your own characters, is that your advice for aspiring writers and artists? Create your own characters and create your own opportunities?
It’s a hard one, really. Before I started doing The Walking Dead, other writer friends of mine had said, ‘Shall we work on this?’ And I said, ‘Well no, I’ve got a wife and two children, I can’t afford to work on something like that. I have to go for the paid work i.e. the Marvel and DC stuff’. So I can appreciate it…especially artists, their commitment to a single project is longer than a writer’s commitment. So I can appreciate the fact that you have to go, just to earn a living, where the money is, directly..I suppose my advice is, unless you have a set of parents who are willing to fund you while you work on your creative characters or something like that (laughs) is to perhaps, bite the bullet and do the work for Marvel or DC, until you either build a reputation or funds, take yourself away and do your own thing, and then see what happens. The opposite is, creatively, it’s a lot more fulfilling doing your own characters, I find. And if you can afford to, it certainly would be my advice.
But do you have any advice on the creative process? I was just speaking to Marjorie Liu, and of course, she’s approaching it from the writing angle, but her advice was to read as much as possible, in order to refine your own process. Do you have any advice for artists?
My advice would be exactly the same, but from an artistic point of view, which is to keep your eyes open at all times and just keep drawing. Before I got to be a professional, I was still drawing every day. I was lucky, I’d moved home so I didn’t have to actually get a job. So I was one of the lucky ones, I could literally sit at home and draw all day and get money for it. But obviously, some people aren’t lucky enough to be in that position, other people obviously have to go out and work and do jobs and draw in their spare time, which I imagine must be horrendous. But if you can, just keep practicing. If you’re serious about it, you’ve got to take it seriously.
Last of all, this is a question for the fans in Singapore, because there are plenty of us here who are watching The Walking Dead. Might we see you in Singapore any time soon?
(laughs) Well, no one’s ever invited me! One of the great things about doing the job I do and (having) this level of success is, I’ve got the opportunity to literally travel the world. But of course the downside is, I’ve only got so many weeks of the year that I can afford to take off. I have a wife and kids, and they’d like to see me occasionally (laughs). So I have to kind of pick and choose where I go. I’ll be in your neck of the world in 2014 probably, where I’ve provisionally agreed to do the Philippines. Nearer to you than the UK! (laughs) But again, I can only really afford the time to do two, arguably three big foreign trips a year, and I’m talking about jet lag type trips (laughs), either your part of the world or the States or wherever. I’d love to see Singapore, I’ve heard so many nice things about it.