'Walking Dead' Creator Teases Andrew Lincoln's Season 9 Exit: "It's Very Heartbreaking"

Robert Kirkman - Skybound Entertainment Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Skybound Entertainment

As The Walking Dead prepares to lurch forward into a new era without leading man Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, fans are understandably left wondering what to expect next from the AMC drama. In that regard, the man who created Rick in the first place — Robert Kirkman, who launched the Walking Dead comic book series 15 years ago in October 2003 — was on hand Thursday at New York Comic Con to address concerns about the future of television's No. 1 zombie thriller.

Just one problem with that: Kirkman's first remarks on the matter. "Don't ask me about Andrew Lincoln's exit. It's very heartbreaking to me and I'm sick of talking about it," he said. "But it's going to be cool! Just trust me. I'm going to miss that guy."

"Just kidding," he quickly added, "you can ask me about it."

The free-wheeling panel, moderated by Kirkman himself and fueled by back-and-forth with audience members, quickly hopped into the future of the Walking Dead franchise. One audience member asked how the major changes between the comic and show — including losing Lincoln, the allegedly forbidden topic — would impact the planned ending for Kirkman's illustrated series. The creator quickly downplayed how the loss of Rick will influence his future comic book plans.

"It's a deep bench on the Walking Dead show," he said. "I know we're all upset over the loss of Carl and equally upset over what's going to happen with Rick. But we all still love Michonne, Carol and all the other characters. Negan's still around. There's a lot of great stuff coming. Those changes, while they bring us further from the comic, aren't going to limit us from adapting stories from the comic. You're still getting the Whisperers this season, and it's spectacular. There are some creepy, intense moments coming from the comic. There's a lot to be excited about."

Kirkman also downplayed his involvement in how the show plans to handle Lincoln's exit, instead giving the lion's share of the credit to showrunner Angela Kang and chief content officer Scott M. Gimple for controlling the day-to-day aspects.

"They consult with me and talk about plans, but for the most part, I let them handle it," he said. "There are always meetings before the seasons [about what's adapted from the comics], and I'm completely on board with what's happening. As far as the day-to-day stuff? I'm comfortably sitting at home taking credit."

In terms of the Walking Dead comic books, Kirkman remains the person pulling all of the strings, to the point that he knows exactly what fate will befall Rick Grimes eventually — and as far as that goes...

"I know exactly how Rick Grimes dies in the comic book," he revealed. "It's possible there will be some differences between the comic and the show. One of those is the death in the comic could happen in the next issue, or could happen 10 years from now. I could change my mind."

Speaking of changing minds, Kirkman provided some insight on a character to keep an eye on after Lincoln's looming departure: Judith Grimes, Rick's young daughter, who died long ago in the comic books but has remained ever-present on television since season three. Kirkman joked that he has long advocated for the death of Judith on the show.

"When you see season nine, you will be happy that no one listened to me," he said. "There's some very good stuff coming up with Judith. I was wrong to want to kill her every season from season three on."

Whether or not Rick Grimes dies on the show, Kirkman reflected on many of the characters who have died in the comic book and on the TV series over the years.

"I regret killing all of them, because I do miss them," he said. "I don't like to play favorites but I would have loved to tell more stories with Andrea, Glenn and Tyreese. I really enjoyed writing Axel way back in the day. But I don't really regret it. They were all important parts of the story. It's much easier killing characters in the comic than the show, because there isn't a human being who doesn't get to hang out with you anymore." 

Kirkman then addressed the fate of someone who may or may not still be alive on the show: Heath, the survivor played by Corey Hawkins. The actor left the series in season six, when he was cast in the lead role of the since canceled 24: Legacy. According to Kirkman, plans are still in the works to bring Heath back into the mix, even though they are very far from finalized.

"We're hoping to get him back to tell that story," he said. "There are definitely plans in place there. It's complicated. But we'll eventually show his skeleton if we have to. Just kidding!"

Not a character death, but potentially the death of another project: the Walking Dead video game series from Telltale Games. The company announced its closure in September, leaving many to wonder if the final installments of the game will ever see the light of day. For his part, Kirkman seemed less concerned about the future of Clementine, the protagonist voiced by Melissa Hutchison.

"Stay tuned," he said. "Everybody involved is trying to make sure Clementine's story is told. It's an unfortunate situation. Hopefully we'll come out of it in a positive way. I'm not concerned at the moment about telling it in comic book form. I'm hopeful the game gets finished."

Some other news from outside of the Walking Dead world: the end of Outcast, one of Kirkman's long-running comics, which will draw to a close starting with the final 12 issues kicking off this December. The news of Outcast ending follows the cancellation of the Cinemax series of the same name.

"It was a victim of reshuffling at Cinemax," Kirkman said, explaining the show's cancellation. "They held it for a year. There was restructuring. There were logistics where we lost contracts with actors and couldn't go into production on season three. It was a victim of circumstance. It was a huge hit, internationally." He added that it's not impossible Outcast could return in another form eventually, potentially as a feature film.

Kirkman also spoke about Invincible, his fan-favorite superhero comic book series that first launched in 2003, the same year Walking Dead arrived; Invincible wrapped its comic book run earlier in 2018. There are plans for a live-action film adaptation from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, for which Kirkman provided an update: "Things are moving along nicely. You will hear more soon I think. Things are looking very good. I'm in constant contact with Seth and Evan. They know what they're doing. They're doing amazing work. We hope we'll be sharing that work with you very soon. It's going to be bloody."

Additionally, there's an animated hourlong drama adaptation of Invincible coming to Amazon in the future, as part of Kirkman's deal with the streaming service

"It's coming along very well," he said. "It does take a bit of time, which is why we haven't talked about the release date or shown anything. I'm very hopeful we're going to do a big rollout at Comic-Con next year. We're doing some really great stuff from the comic. We're bringing new elements in to a certain extent. It's going to be a kick-ass cartoon: very mature, an hourlong drama in animation form. It's going to be unique. I'm really excited."

As for the content of both the film and the TV series, Kirkman told fans of Invincible to expect just as much violence as what's contained in the visceral comic books: "Possibly more than you've seen in the comic. Some of the stuff is coming and I'm thinking, 'Ooh! What are we doing?'"

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