A new Witch Doctor: Mal Practice miniseries was the big announcement of the Skybound panel at Image Comics Expo, followed by the stealth announcement of a second Walking Dead novel in the follow-up Kirkman solo panel. Both panels effectively blended into one continuous whole as Kirkman held court first with fellow Skybound creators and later on his lonesome.
The Skybound panel featured Thief of Thieves co-writer Nick Spencer, Witch Doctor writer Brandon Seifert, Skybound editorial assistant Sina Grace (who also draws Lil' Depressed Boy) and a late arriving Robert Kirkman. Assume that I've just made a clever gag about timeliness and Kirkman and Image United. Or not.
Nick Spencer talked about the concept of Thief of Thieves, how a master criminal decides to go straight and deal with the consequences of not knowing where his professional life as a thief ends and his personal life begins. In a departure from the norm in comic writing, Kirkman and Spencer and several other writers yet to be announced are collectively working on the series similarly to how most TV shows are written via a writer's room. While the first arc that Spencer is writing was primarily done with just himself and Kirkman, later arcs had more writers involved, collaborating on the breakdowns of the plot, asking questions and assigning the actual scripting to different writers after everyone has gone over the idea and made appropriate suggestions. Kirkman added that this is a change of pace from his usual habit of sitting alone in front of a computer screen coming up with stories on his own. While he overall prefers the solitude of traditional comics writing, the experience he had with being on the writer's room for the Walking Dead inspired him to try it out on Thief of Thieves.
The series does not have a set ending, as Kirkman finds that starting off with an ending that you have preplanned feels like putting the cart before the horse. The series has been "broken" (a TV writing term that he hates but can't help but use) into arcs and stories and set up until at least issue 25. Spencer explained that Conrad is superlative at the job of stealing things, that he can see past the bullshit that keeps normal people from getting away with crimes. The real drama is that while stealing things is easy for him, it's living that's hard. Spencer admitted that after the carjacking scene in the sold-out first issue that people now look at him funny, because he did the research and knows these sorts of things now.
A fan asked Spencer about his newly announced Image series Bedlam. A criminally-insane mass murderer has been given a medical treatment, confirmed as cured, given a new identity through plastic surgery and in said new identity becomes a consultant for the very police forces that he used to foil. He now solves crimes in the town he used to terrorize. Spencer went on to describe how the setting of the series, the city of Bedlam was inspired by his youth growing up in America's rust belt, cities like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati on the brink of falling apart. He then gave a snappy summation of the series: "What if they cured the Joker?"
Last year Skybound published a rare Non-Kirkman written series, the occult medical drama Witch Doctor. There was a four-issue miniseries, and a one-shot follow up. With the success of those, writer Brandon Seifert announced a six issue miniseries follow-up, "Witch Doctor: Another Malpractice" which would focus more on the effects of magic in the dark occult world of the book. The conceit that this is a setting where magic is medicine and doctors deal with supernatural diseases allows him to explore concepts like what would it be like to treat a vampire. Seifert explained that in this world, vampirism is a condition that replaces your digestive tract and comes up through your throat, something that artist Lukas Ketner was able to properly render as horrifying. "If the first series was about the monsters, this one is about magic." said Seifert.
Seifert answered several fan questions about the series, explaining that many of the characters introduced in the first series weren't originally intended to appear more than once, but in response to how well the series has been received, several of them will make return appearances. Notably the demon-possessed boy from the first issue, and the medical board of directors. The enigmatic Penny received a bit of a backstory mainly because she was so mysterious that Seifert felt that the readers needed to get at least some information about her. The series will continue to be published as a series of miniseries mainly because Seifert and Ketner are so new to comics that they underestimated the workload that doing the series would entail. They plan on releasing as many issues as they can as swiftly as they can, but for now it will not graduate to an ongoing schedule unless they manage to get fast enough. There are a ton of stories that he has in mind, but no set schedule as to when each story will be told. For now he's organizing his thoughts alphabetically by monster, but admits that's not a viable publication strategy.
Kirkman showed a cover from an upcoming issue of The Walking Dead, featuring the new arc "Something to Fear." This arc, which follows the events of the current "A Larger World" arc has the cast discovering that there are more survivors out there, and that not all of them can be trusted. The story will begin in issue 97 set to ship in May, and will continue through the San Diego Comic Con-premiering issue 100. Kirkman related an anecdote about how he'd talked about the basic idea of this arc to former Image staffer and current Glory writer Joe Keatinge. Seven years ago. The comic will soon hit an Image record for the most issues released on time, which Kirkman credited to artist Charlie Adlard. The fact that zombies are less of a threat to the cast now that they've had a great deal of experience and knowledge in how to deal with them is something Kirkman acknowledged. There wouldn't be any new types of faster zombies introduced, though Kirkman joked about the potential for "LASER ZOMBIES."
The Walking Dead TV series continues apace, with a new episode having aired by the time you read this. Kirkman explained that while the TV series and the comic are two separate entities, the show is adapting the basic overall plot of the comic even if some of the characters differ. Likewise, characters who have yet to appear in the show may still show up in future seasons. "The comic is the roadmap for the show." elaborated Kirkman. "The show won't wind up with the cast living on sailboats and fighting frost giants." Kirkman prefers that the show be different from the comic, because a literal adaptation means that people who have read the comic will know exactly what is going on and thus there's no drama. You don't need to watch episode 2 because you'd already know what would happen in episode 10.
Kirkman commented on the casting of David Morrisey as the Governor for season three, and how he was present at Morrisey's screentest. Kirkman had to struggle not to make faces at him to relieve his stress. AMC has yet to give any notes asking them to make massive changes, which has surprised Kirkman as he'd thought several times that he'd gone too far. Kirkman explained that he tends to repeat jokes, and when watching the effects for Walking Dead would respond to "any suggestions?" with "Can you add a Dinosaur?" This lead to some of the effects artists redoing the scene where Lori hits a zombie with a car to instead be Lori hitting a raptor. Kirkman has the joke scene on his phone, and showed it to fans after the panels concluded. He will look into getting it released online in some form or another. This lead to him joking about putting Dinosaurs in all his books, given that they're in Invincible and Super Dinosaur. Which inspired him to think of stealing dinosaur bones for Thief of Thieves, and how there would be a black market for them and you could see the gears turning in Kirkman's brain as he seriously pondered the concept.
A fan asked about how they pulled off having Sophia as a zombie without using the actress in background shots so that you could go back and see it coming. Kirkman explained how the combination of no characters who knew her seeing her outside of incredibly dark conditions ensured that the secret remained intact, and that he and the other writers worked hard to ensure it all made sense. The next fan asked about the magical anti-zombie fence, which lead Kirkman to explain that yes, the farm seems much more secure than it should be but that's a plot point, and also that because the initial zombie infections would spread swifter in urban areas where people are more densely packed, that swiftly heading to rural areas would make it seem as if there were less zombies at first. The appearance of the blue meth from Breaking Bad was Kirkman's idea. T-Dog is not Tyrese, clarified Kirkman, and he will be getting more character development as the season progresses. Merle will be seen again.
"I'm a cog in the machine," explained Kirkman when asked about his role on the show. Starting with the second season he's been in the writer's room, helping to breakdown and adapt the episodes, giving suggestions and critiques when needed. There haven't been any major dramatic conflicts on the creative side, as the writers are all very calm and chill people. He pointed out that there are bits in episodes credited to him that he didn't write, as television scripts go through rounds of editing before and after the scripting process, and scenes from episodes get shifted around as needed, unlike in comics where the credits for writing are much more straight forward. Kirkman visits the sets, goes over approvals on the special effects giving advice on things like when more blood is needed or the like,
The upcoming Walking Dead video game was the next topic of discussion. Telltale Games approached Kirkman, and managed to convince him to let them have a shot at the franchise when they explained that they weren't interested in yet another game where people kill zombies, but in doing a character-driven game about survival. There are levels where you have to protect someone and only have so much food and have to decide if you will steal food from others and thus likely condemn them to death. Which characters live or die is something that will change in every playthrough depending on the player's choices, and thus you can get a different experience each time you play. The game will incorporate new characters, bits of backstory from the comic, specifically focusing on Glenn in Atlanta before he joins the main cast. The art in the game is inspired by the comic, which made Kirkman wary at first, as he didn't like that approach in Marvel vs Capcom 3, preferring the visual style used in Street Fighter IV, but when he saw it in action had a change of heart.
Kirkman came up with the title for the Walking Dead based on the phrase he'd heard describing zombies in the past, as it sounded cool. The conceit that the survivors are the real Walking Dead was something he felt was incredibly pretentious, but ended up using in the book anyways because it would make a nice ending to the first hardcover. When it ended up being used as dialog in the comic, the fans latched on to it, and AMC found it incredibly profound when they came aboard.
The Walking Dead Board Game had little creative input from Kirkman, because board games aren't something he's very knowledgeable in. The folks at Skybound had a day of pizza and playtesting the game which Kirkman was saddened he had to miss because he was on set for the show. There's a strong possibility that an expansion set for the game could be released later this year.
The next issue of Invincible, featuring the new black Invincible was Kirkman's next main topic. He explained how recent events in the comic have lead to Mark being infected with the Scourge Virus, putting him on the brink of death and requiring someone else to step up as the new Invincible. Kirkman explained that Mark is near death, and could die next issue. "He's not going to die." quipped Kirkman. The fate of his replacement wasn't going to be revealed at this panel, given that the comics featuring him have yet to be released to the public, but Kirkman suggested that introducing him just to kill him off would be rather disappointing. The Viltrumites who are hiding on Earth haven't been forgotten but will be on the back burner for the time being. They'll make a reappearance before issue 100. There won't be any Invincible novels to match the Walking Dead novel that recently came out, as Kirkman doesn't want to do Invincible without artist Ryan Ottley. There will be a second Walking Dead novel however.
A man with a baby had difficulty getting her to be quiet during the panel. Kirkman advised that a swift slap on the leg would help. Jokingly.
The kid-friendly title Super Dinosaur was the next of Kirkman's titles to be spotlighted. Kirkman felt that since he's now a father, he'd like to have books his children can actually be exposed to. His approach to writing the book was to make it kid-friendly but not kid-focused, remembering how he got into comics through old X-Men and Spider-Man issues that were aimed at an older audience but still acceptable for children to read. The ninth issue of Super Dinosaur will be out soon, and the second trade will be released in June. Kirkman finds that writing a more light-hearted book like Super Dinosaur is a change of pace from his normal dramatic workload, and who doesn't like dinosaurs shooting missiles?
Kirkman would one day like to bring back his other superhero titles such as Capes, Tech Jacket, Astounding Wolfman and the such, and said that seeing at least one of them again might be a possibility in the near future.
A fan who asked for a jumping on point for Invincible as he found the monthly comic to be hard to get into was advised to either pick up the first issue, try the Invincible Returns one-shot which was collected in the 14th trade, the 10th trade or even to just torrent the series. This began a digression as Kirkman knew that he probably should have been more aggressively against torrenting, but cares more about getting people to read his books. He has enough money, so it's okay right? He then told a story of back when he worked at Marvel he needed research on Annihilus and couldn't find the issues so it was off to torrent he went! (Also, he didn't get the pun of "Annihilate" and thus always pronounced it wrong as a child, and thus even today needs to pause a bit before saying the name.) Kirkman pointed out that he started reading comics with Amazing Spider-man 343 and had no clue who this Flash Thompson was, but slowly picked it up as he was reading. Also, that every guest to the Image Comics Expo received a free copy of Walking Dead #94 which also included a Comixology code redeemable for the first Invincible trade. Which he then admitted would soon be leaked onto the webs so that everyone could get a chance of reading it. Kirkman shrugged and joked that he's at least somewhat communist by nature.
Answering a fan queston, Kirkman explained that while he doesn't balance his heavy workload well, he usually doesn't work on weekends. He joked that his routine includes watching TV with his wife so that he doesn't have to talk to her. Kirkman now spends a good chunk of his weekdays in the writer's room for Walking Dead, and manages to squeeze in his comics work in between that. Knowing that he has to keep his artists with a steady supply of pages to work on helps keep him going, leading to occasional late Sunday nights where Kirkman stays up late so that Charlie Adlard can get more pages to work on before the morning in England. He gave a recent example of an intricate double page spread for an upcoming issue that requires hours of research, which Kirkman dreads as he prefers to just make stuff up and be wrong, and took him much longer than usual to get done, and Adlard had it done within a few hours.
The main criteria he looks for when selecting creators to work for Skybound is being handsome, joked Kirkman. Seifert was inordinately pleased with that, leading Kirkman to respond that occasionally he makes exceptions. For Nick Spencer. Seriously, Kirkman looks for people who have a proven track record in self-published work. He wouldn't have picked up Witch Doctor had it only been a written pitch, but the fact that they had self-published the book meant that he could trust their capacity to get the job done. Nick Spencer was chosen to work on Thief of Thieves because he'd done close to 900 Image comics on his own, exaggerated Kirkman. He went on to say that Skybound doesn't take submissions, but rather Skybound will find you.
An annoyed Kirkman yet again answered the question of whether he thinks he'd survive a zombie apocalypse, which he now gets asked at every appearance he makes, by saying no, he'd probably die and thus decide to quickly kill himself to prevent an even worse fate. There would be no holding up at Costco for him. He struggles with writing super intelligent characters such as Science Dog or Dinosaurus because he knows that he shouldn't just have them hit their enemies, but it's so much simpler to write that than coming up with an appropriate intelligent alternative. He's found that he's become softer since becoming a father, which now leads him to try and continue to push the envelope in his comics to prove that he's not just holding back because he's a dad.
When asked his opinion of the various .1 and .5 issues that have sprung up lately, Kirkman answered "They're ridiculous and no one wants them."
Savage Dragon made a cameo appearance in Battle Pope partially in response to the idea years ago that Savage Dragon would be appearing in comedic backup features in Joe Madureira's Battle Chasers "back when Joe Mad gave a shit about comics." explained Kirkman. He had been calling Erik Larsen up on a regular basis after having interviewed him for a friend's website, because A) he truly and honestly loved Savage Dragon and B) because he wanted to slowly endear himself to Larsen in the hopes of furthering his career, to the point where he'd keep track of how long it had been since the last time he'd talked to Larsen to ensure that he wasn't overdoing it. He totally was. In any case, Larsen explained that he approved of the silly proposed cameo because he felt that most crossovers were too worried about making sense, and that he wanted to see something like the Dragon being a hot dog vendor in someone else's comic. Which is why Kirkman made that literally happen in Battle Pope.
Kirkman told the story of how Image nearly passed on the Walking Dead as they felt that the story needed more of a hook to grab readers than just being set in a zombie apocalypse, which lead Kirkman to concoct a "Plan 9 From Outer Space"-esque tale of how the zombies were actually animated by an alien race that was preparing to invade Earth by disrupting its infrastructure. That was enough to get Image to sign off on it, though Kirkman had no intention of actually using that plot. When he tried to get Invincible launched, the first few issues weren't selling that strongly and it seemed as if Image might have to cancel the book. They asked if there was anything exciting that would be coming up that might increase sales, and Kirkman explained the entire concept of Mark's dad being evil and him having to fight against his father for the sake of the Earth. Which in Kirkman's original plans would have been revealed around issue 25. It was pointed out to Kirkman that if he didn't move it up and do it soon, there wouldn't BE an issue 25.
Part of the reason why Kirkman wants to do long running series is that in his mind's eye, Walt Simonson's seminal run on Thor was much longer than it really was. Likewise David Micheline's run on Amazing Spider-Man. Writing an ongoing series is easy, writing endings is hard because you have to wrap everything up and resolve all the issues. Kirkman pointed out that his difficulty at writing endings can be clearly seen in Astounding Wolfman, where the series doesn't as much end as introduce some new concepts and then stop. He does hope on following up the last minute introduction of Dracula to that series with an "Astounding Wolfman vs Dracula" miniseries in the future.
He has some vague ideas for endgame scenarios for Walking Dead and Invincible, so that if the sales begin to radically drop he can slowly start leading up towards them, but he's not actively leading up to an ending at this point. In fact, he worries about the fact that one day he'll have to end them, as he doesn't believe he'll be able to do them justice. To that end, he currently plans to keep on writing them until he dies. "Likely due to cholesterol. It's funny because it's true."
Peter S. Svensson writes for Bleeding Cool, manages SpaceCat Comics in San Jose, and still has yet to finish the first season of the Walking Dead. Supposedly it's a good show.