But for a quirk of fate, The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard, 46, might have been a rock star today. “I lived in London for a while trying to make it in a band, believe it or not, playing the drums,” confesses the father of two. But it wasn’t meant to be, and he went on to become part of a phenomenon that has spawned more than 100 issues of The Walking Dead monthly comic series, a wildly popular TV adaptation and even a zombie obstacle course.
I met the British artist at his booth at the San Diego Comic Convention, where he was doing sketches to benefit the Cartoon Art Museum. We kept in touch thereafter, and Charlie was kind enough to grant me an interview just last week – and at the ungodly hour of 830am (UK time) too, from his hometown of Shrewsbury, England (Singapore is seven hours ahead).
It was a pretty lengthy interview, so I’ve split it into two posts. In part I of our conversation, Charlie holds forth about his career pre-The Walking Dead, Judge Dredd, breaking into the comics industry, the merits of black and white comics versus colour, The X-Files and of course, The Walking Dead.
What was your first job in comics?
My first job was the Judge Dredd magazine. I can’t remember the date, I think it was…92, 93? I had spent two years trying to break into the industry, seriously, literally spent every waking hour getting portfolios together, going to as many conventions as I could. I was lucky in the fact that, when I was trying to break in, the comics industry was having a renaissance, shall we say – you know, The Dark Knight, Watchmen…so there was a lot of money flowing around. I was lucky to ride that crest of the wave, so there were lots of American editors who could afford to come over to our UK conventions. I didn’t have to go all the way to the States. But having said that, I ended up getting my first job with a UK publisher – the Judge Dredd magazine..
But was it always your long-term goal to get into comics?
Oh yes, I was drawing comics since the age of about six or seven. And I was fairly fixed on that goal. Right from almost that age, I hardly deviated.
What did you do before that?
Nothing! (laughs) I had a couple of dead-end jobs. I lived in London for a bit before I moved back home, because I was born and bred here. But I lived in London for a while trying to make it in a band, believe it or not, playing the drums. And obviously, to keep me alive, I had to take some jobs. Apart from that, the only thing I’ve ever done is what I do now.
Just curious, what kind of band was it? A rock band?
Yeah, it was a rock band. It was…I don’t know how you describe the music. We were good, I got to admit it, even if I say so myself (laughs). I reckon, not to blow my own trumpet, but the music we were playing was quite grungey, but it was before grunge. So we’d have been innovators if we had been successful.
One common theme among comic creators that I’ve spoken to, is that there always seems to be a certain discouragement from family and friends when they express their aspirations to work in comics. For example, The Losers creator Andy Diggle was just here, and he says that at an early age, after saying he wanted to be a comic writer, a careers advisor told him that he should work in insurance. Did you experience that as well? Did your friends and family advise you to work in something else?
To be honest, any creative industry, people will advise you not to do it, whether it’s comic books, acting, painting, whatever. I don’t think it’s just specific to comics. But I was lucky, my parents always supported me in whatever I wanted to do. I think actually, to be honest, after my brief sojourn with rock stardom and being in a band, they were quite relieved that i came back to comics. They perceived it as being a lot more safe (laughs)..To be honest, I wasn’t academic…so the only thing I did have was art, and obviously I was really good at it. I had no real pressure to do anything else. Even at school, no one sort of recommended, like Andy, [that I go and do something else]. They could see the talent, they just encouraged me to keep pushing on, because they could at least see something I was good. And I think the same with my parents, same with everybody else. Yes, I’ve been fortunate in the fact that no one’s dissuaded me from it at all..
I wanted to ask about your run on the comic adaptation of The X-Files with Stefan Petrucha, which was where I first saw your work. Your style has certainly evolved a lot since then, but do you ever miss colour? Or do you prefer drawing in black and white?
I do love black and white, there’s no doubt about it. It serves my purpose, because I’m an impatient sort of guy, so I like to see product. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m so fast, I like to get a sense of the story and I like to see this stuff being, inverted commas, churned out. Not that I churn it out! So as much as I like it, colour inhibits my process..But I do enjoy doing colour. When I get the chance, I’ll certainly jump at the chance to do more colour, but it tends to be just covers and things like that. I don’t think I’ll ever do another full-colour strip. For the first year of my professional career, all I did for the Judge Dredd magazine were full-colour strips, fully painted that was as well, not even computer coloured. This was before computer colouring was as popular as it was, and that just slowed me down horribly. I wasn’t used to it, and I didn’t really get to grips with it, even though I was doing it for a whole year, so it was a nice relief to get back to black and white.
But is it more challenging to tell a story in black and white, given that you have to play a lot with shadows, and you don’t have the full range of the colour spectrum?
Well yeah, it is more challenging, because you got to to fill the image, and obviously, you don’t want it to make it look empty. You take the colour out of a lot of other people’s artwork, it wouldn’t look bad, but it would certainly look extremely empty. A lot of people do draw for colour. Obviously, the X-Files is coloured up, even The Walking Dead has a grey tone, so I can take liberties..A few years back, I was doing a strip for 2000 AD called Savage, that was black and white, but there was no grey tone, it was just printed as I drew it. And out of all of them, that was the biggest challenge because I really could not do a single panel and think, ‘Oh, the colourist can fill that bit in’, ‘That looks a bit empty, I’ll leave that for the colourist’. So that was kind of an interesting challenge, to make it look printable. Even Walking Dead, occasionally, I can sort of do a page and think, “oh I can leave that for Cliff (Rathburn) to grey tone”, something like that..Generally, I’ll do it to a point where I think, “well, that will look good on the page”. Actually, that’s aways been my raison d’etre. I must be the colourist’s worst nightmare, because generally I’ll draw the page and finish it to a state where I think it will look good as black and white on the page, regardless of whether it’s going to be in colour or not..
Were you a fan of The X-Files? Do stories of the paranormal appeal to you?
Yes, I did enjoy the X-Files. When I got the job, I hadn’t even heard of the TV series. I don’t think it had even been aired in the States. Topps Comics sent me the first four episodes on VHS cassette, and I remember watching those episodes and thinking, this is okay, I quite like this. It felt like we weren’t really adapting it that much, as I only had four episodes to go on. The phenomenon of it hadn’t hit yet, so it felt like we were doing it in tandem with the TV show, not just blindly adapting it for another medium..
You replaced the original artist Tony Moore on The Walking Dead from issue #7 onwards. But were you apprehensive about coming onto a series where a certain look had already been established? Did you feel like you had to follow that template, or were you allowed to start from scratch?
Oh no, I was allowed to start from scratch. Robert (Kirkman) wisely just let me run with it. I always assume, if someone’s going to employ me to do something, what’s the point of ringing me up and employing me to do something, and then I just turn up and try and draw like somebody else? That seems illogical to me, why get in touch with me in the first place, they know my style..To be honest, it was easy enough for me to take over from Tony, it was a lot harder for the fans to accept, initially. You take over something like, an iconic character like Spider-Man, Batman, whatever, even Judge Dredd, that character’s been drawn by hundreds of artists over the years. So the fans are kind of used to change, it’s inevitable, because these characters have been around for decades..Whereas obviously with The Walking Dead, it was just the one artist, the one look, and I had to come on and take over from Tony on that. So of course, the fans were just totally used to Tony’s interpretation and not mine, so I think it was hard for them to accept me. Plus the fact that I draw completely differently to Tony. Robert could have gone out and got someone who drew like Tony, there’s plenty of people out there who draw more in that style, whereas I was almost the opposite in style to Tony, so I think that was hard for the fans as well. But you know, after almost a hundred issues, I hope I’ve turned most of them to my side (laughs).