Robert Kirkman says he’s boring, but he’s not.
Asked to talk about himself as he marks 20 years since his creation “Invincible” first took to the skies, he makes a bold claim for a man who fills worlds with homicidal superheroes and ravenous zombies. “First and foremost, I’m boring,” he said, uncomfortable with the question. “I enjoy working. I don’t do a lot else.”
He was laughing — jokingly chastising his interviewer for showing “glee” at his distress — but he had a point. This is Robert Kirkman, one of the most prolific and successful writers in comics. He’s best known for co-creating “The Walking Dead” with artist Tony Moore, writing all 193 issues; thanks to creator-friendly policies at publisher Image Comics, they retained creators’ rights for the move into TV, where zombie fever gave us 11 seasons and umpteen spinoffs.
His comics resumé is even longer, listing dozens of titles and characters, from “Ultimate X-Men” to contemporary alien horror “Outcast,” which also became a TV show. Now Kirkman, who’s 44, is working on the animated version of “Invincible,” which ran to 144 issues of comics. Season 2 lands on Prime Video later this year. This is indeed a man who works a lot.
And it’s when the subject switches to work that Kirkman really comes alive. Eventually, he was persuaded to talk about himself briefly — “I’m from a small town in Kentucky; I’m a blue-collar guy” — but really he wanted to talk about science fiction, fantasy, horror, superheroes and especially about messing with people’s heads.
Now it was Kirkman showing glee.
“The thing that I look for in all stories, regardless of what kind of story it is, is something that surprises me,” he declared. “As a very young boy, I went to the movies and I watched ‘Transformers: The Movie’ in 1985 — I saw it in the theatres. And Optimus Prime, my favourite character, dies 15 minutes into that movie. I think that kind of informed what I wanted out of entertainment for the rest of my life.”
He was making the point with humour, but he meant it. “I feel like I’ve always been looking for that charge in storytelling ever since then,” he added.
“It’s that kind of experience that I’m always trying to provide to the people who read and watch my work. I want to shock them. I want to provide them something that is a different experience to what they’re used to getting and definitely different from what they expected to get.”
That principle is built into “Invincible.” Asked to sum it up, Kirkman said: “Mark Grayson is a teenager living in the shadow of his father Omni-Man, who is the greatest superhero to ever live, but there’s a dark secret that he’s actually here to take over the planet.” His snappy summary is a human story, ironically, but with a twisted nature.
“People love to go see horror movies because they get to feel scared at a time when they are safe,” Kirkman continued, extending the thought to “elation, joy, sorrow” and every kind of story.
“That’s one of the reasons why ‘Invincible’ seems so odd to people, especially when I would pitch things to an Amazon executive. It’s a superhero story, but it has emotional stakes and real relationships, and you do go into some really crazy, weird, dark places that you would never expect to experience in a superhero story.”
Kirkman likes to joke that he’s repeating himself with his storytelling, but there’s a wild originality in everything he writes. That, in part, is because his success brought financial and creative freedoms few in his industry can enjoy, even at Image, a publisher that prides itself on empowering artists and writers.
He values the work of editors but prefers their feedback late in his creative process. He’s more constrained in television but, thanks to comics, accustomed to collaborative work and feels he’s improving with experience; that means his TV storylines are taking fewer liberties with the comics.
“I’ve learned a lot more about adapting,” Kirkman said. “With ‘Walking Dead,’ I was much more like, ‘Yeah, change it! Let’s do this, let’s not do this. This character didn’t die in the comics, let’s kill him in the show. That’ll be funny.’ I was a lunatic.
“Learning from that experience going into ‘Invincible’ … I’m taking a more ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. There are going to be new elements of the show that aren’t present in the comics, but the overall arc of characters should remain somewhat intact. I think ‘Invincible’s’ going to be a much more faithful adaptation than ‘The Walking Dead,’ but again with the surprise and the twists and turns. An audience that read the comics still needs to get something new out of the show.”
Robert Kirkman is not a boring man, though he insists he’s an ordinary guy who treats his work as if he were doing a blue-collar job. “I tackle things like I’m going down to the factory to make widgets.” That’s fascinating.
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