The man at the heart of the zombie apocalypse is indeed stepping away.
More than a month after news broke that The Walking Dead star Andrew Lincoln would be exiting the AMC zombie drama, comic book creator and series exec producer Robert Kirkman on Thursday addressed the loss of his leading man for the first time.
In his first public comments about Lincoln's future, Kirkman confirmed season nine would be the last for his star. When asked during an interview with Kevin Smith if the upcoming ninth season would be Lincoln's last season, Kirkman gave a reluctant but clear answer in response: "It's looking that way."
"It does make the differences between the comic and the show more pronounced," continued Kirkman, acknowledging that Rick Grimes remains an active part of the Walking Dead comics even as the character is about to exit the TV adaptation. "But at the end of the day, it's all about Andrew Lincoln. This is a human being. This is someone I have known for almost a decade, somebody that I love. He's been sweating in Georgia, away from his family, for so long."
Kirkman's comments came during an IMDb interview with Smith, taped in advance of this year's San Diego Comic-Con. (Watch it, below.) His remarks are the first time anyone connected with The Walking Dead — including AMC — have confirmed LIncoln's exit. Kirkman and several other stars and producers from the Walking Dead universe, including Lincoln, are slated to make appearances at the convention on Friday, where the looming loss of Rick Grimes — be it the character walking away from the storyline or the character getting killed off — will either be an unacknowledged elephant in the room or the biggest point of discussion.
"He cares about the fans," Kirkman said about Lincoln. "He cares about the show deeply. He wants to do something special on the way out. We have something amazing planned. I wouldn't want to spoil anything, but anybody who has been a fan of his journey, who loves Rick Grimes, who loves the world of The Walking Dead, you're going to want to see what we do."
For her part, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, showrunner Angela Kang would not confirm Lincoln's exit, but provided a preview of Rick's season nine arc all the same: "Rick opens up the season in a place where things are relatively good and peaceful for him. He made that unexpected decision to let Negan live at the end of season eight, and we'll deal with some of the aftereffects of that because it was such a momentous thing. And the trauma of losing his son Carl, even with the passage of time, is something that is still painful for him. We're going to see him try to turn that pain into something positive for everybody. Rick will face some real challenges along the way. The thing that I hope the audience will respond to is seeing how Rick's underlying goodness and leadership will shine in moments of great adversity."
Amid Lincoln's pending departure, star Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl, has been in negotiations for a new $20 million-plus deal to take over as The Walking Dead's leading man.
AMC did not immediately respond to THR's request for comment on Kirkman's remarks.
The Walking Dead is set to return in October.
Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for full coverage of the zombie drama.