'Walking Dead' Creator Defends Surprise Comic Ending, Teases Negan Spinoff: "There's an Option"

At Comic-Con, creator Robert Kirkman unveiled some secrets behind the shocking conclusion to his historic comic book series.
Courtesy of Skybound Entertainment; Getty Images

[This story contains spoilers through the final issue of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's The Walking Dead comic book series.]

For the better part of two decades, The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard regularly kept readers on their toes with devastating twists and turns, character deaths especially — a ruthless list that even includes Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln in AMC's live-action adaptation of the historic comic book franchise. But no death was bigger than the death of the comic book itself, shockingly ended without any warning whatsoever in an extra-sized 193rd issue.

Outside of a final farewell in the pages of the series finale, Kirkman has kept a low profile regarding the ending of the comic book that launched a multibillion-dollar franchise that spans comics, video games, television series and a planned series of movies starring Lincoln as Rick. Consider the profile raised, thanks to the creator's spotlight panel at Comic-Con, where he opened up in greater detail regarding his decision to conclude the series after 16 years.

"Anything interesting happen lately?" Kirkman said as soon as he stepped out onstage, surveying the crowd. "Does anyone want to do me any physical harm? My wife made me want to check." Kirkman looked specifically at an attendee dressed as Negan: "Please, sir, put down the bat."

Using the panel as an opportunity to speak with fans directly, Kirkman started by digging into the final message of the series: "For the characters inside the story, in hindsight, it's a better world than what came before. It's a world where people appreciate things more, come together, work together to solve problems instead of fighting and picking problems. People have been pushed to their limits, and they are in a mindset that's different from where we are now. It's a more peaceful world and it makes people appreciate what they have more. That's the message: The zombie apocalypse happens, people die, but at the end of the day, you learn to appreciate what you have."

Kirkman said that the need for the ending came from a desire to not repeat certain story beats. "I know people criticize the book for being repetitious sometimes," he said, before cracking: "I go on the internet, I'm human, and I go on the internet and see things that make me sad — and then I go back on the internet to look for more things to make me sad."

"I feel like the story wasn't repetitious," he said. "I felt like it escalated. But I was acutely aware of how it could become repetitious and I really wanted to avoid that. I wanted there to be a narrative flow, and in order to achieve that, I knew I would have to wrap it up."

In his farewell column, Kirkman revealed he nearly ended The Walking Dead more than 100 issues earlier, going so far as to detail out a rather morbid ending — certainly darker compared to the hopeful tone of the eventual series finale.

"It was a futile ending," he said. "It was me as a young writer figuring out how to cap everything off. It was really unsatisfying, because it made everything pointless. I considered it, but I was having fun with the book and I kept generating new ideas for the book. When I came up with the idea of the ending, that's what it brought it about. The ending gave it purpose. It made everything matter. It gave purpose to everything Rick did, and how he impacted the world. It's hopeful to see how people who are struggling and dealing with loss are making the world a better place and making a world that's better and good. Once I came up with the storybook, and [Carl] is reading to his daughter, I became very laser-focused on getting to that moment."

Asked if he would ever consider releasing his original ending, Kirkman was quick to shoot down the possibility.

"I'm really proud of the fact that The Walking Dead stands as a solitary piece," he said. "You get a complete story. If you wanted to follow Amazing Spider-Man, you would need to follow all these different [issues], it gets tedious. I love that you don't have to do that with Walking Dead. It's also work, and I'm very happy to have less work right now. It would be fun to explore that stuff in the future, but there are no plans to do it."

But are there plans for more Walking Dead comic books? Quite possibly, in the form of Negan. Kirkman hinted at the character's continued survival both in the narrative of the final issue as well as in his farewell column. Pressed by a fan on that front, Kirkman was initially reluctant to answer, before admitting "there's an option there." 

"Negan is alive," he said. "I think that's a cool tidbit. He's still out there, theoretically living in that farmhouse. There might be a story to be told there. It's possible that's my escape hatch if my career takes a nose dive when I'm 42. The joke is I'm very nearly 42."

For what it's worth, Negan does not even appear in the final issue, aside from a flashback. Indeed, several different characters were missing in action in the series finale, which was almost not the case; according to Kirkman, the issue very nearly featured an extended courtroom scene that would have pulled in a great number of cameos. Why didn't it come to pass? "I realized that was just the Seinfeld finale."

"To me, that's what made The Walking Dead cool, and where I built in the surprise," he continued, speaking to how zombie drama tropes fueled his storytelling. "It's a genre people are familiar with and it goes in a certain way. It helps take readers into a certain direction where you expect a thing to happen. You want to zig when people expect you to zag."

Of course, the two most popular forms of Walking Dead have zigged and zagged in very different directions. The comic books' ending centered on an adult Carl Grimes, who is very much dead in the television version of events. For his part, Kirkman doesn't bemoan those differences, or the fact that the AMC series' eventual ending — whenever it occurs — will have to be very different by design.

"I like that everything is different and they change it up," he said. "I definitely have conversations with [Walking Dead chief creative officer] Scott Gimple where I say, 'If we lose this, you lose this,' but he says, 'Yes, then we gain this.' The audience doesn't get to see that, so it can be tough when a major character dies and we have a plan."

"I hold that I've endorsed everything, for better or worse," he continued. "If you're mad about something that happens on the show, please be mad at Scott Gimple — but I am a little bit culpable."

Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage.