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[This story contains full spoilers for The Walking Dead comic book series from Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Skybound Entertainment.]
Hitting comic shops one month after the creative team of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard killed leading man Rick Grimes in an unceremonious assassination, The Walking Dead #193 leaped forward several years down the line, showing how Rick’s son Carl and several others (including the sword-swinging Michonne and the rising politician Maggie Rhee) fared on their way toward rebuilding civilization.
Kirkman’s most circulated comments about ending The Walking Dead come from the final issue itself, in the form of a sprawling afterward in which he revealed his fears about the conclusion. “I think you could tell when you’re reading it that I’m very worried everyone was pissed off at me,” Kirkman tells The Hollywood Reporter about his final letter to the fans. “That was something I was really worried about: even if they liked the story, they’re probably going to be mad that it ended.”
A year on from the issue’s surprise release, the verdict remains largely what it was: a strong and uplifting final chapter in the Grimes family saga, even if the greater Walking Dead universe continues forward in the form of the various AMC television series, a promised movie spinoff, and even the occasional comic book resurrection. Far beyond the zombies of it all, Kirkman’s comic book work continues in the forms of Die!Die!Die! (co-created by Walking Dead chief content officer Scott M. Gimple) and the newly released martial arts epic Fire Power, co-created by Eisner-winning artist Chris Samnee.
But as the just-released Negan spinoff issue indicates, there’s no real escape from The Walking Dead universe, even one year later. In an interview with THR conducted in March (roughly two weeks before lockdowns were enforced across America), Kirkman sat down and opened the pages of the Walking Dead series finale, stopping down for a closer look at the end of his seminal work.
What drove your decision to end The Walking Dead without announcing the end in advance?
Robert Kirkman: I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan. I love Game of Thrones. If I had been watching that last season not knowing it was the last season, I would’ve been like, “Whoa. What the heck? Wait, this is crazy.” That’s the thing that most entertains me, that makes me most excited about works of fiction: the surprise. In Breaking Bad, when [spoilers removed] dies, I was like, “Of course he dies. It’s the last season!” The last season of The Sopranos, last season of Breaking Bad, I feel like some of those events don’t have the impact they should have because you know the season is ending. But Rick Grimes dying in the comic? I got two or three months of questions: “How does the book continue after this? Oh my god. What does this mean for the book?”
Not only did you drop the final issue as a surprise, then, you dropped a final season as a surprise.
There was a time when you said you were planning 300 issues…
There’s an issue where everyone’s at the fair in Alexandria. I was like, “Okay, so if we’ve already built civilization up to that point, I don’t think I’m going to make it to issue 300.” And so that’s when I started getting worried about, “Wait a minute. How much story do I actually have?” I think people have the misconception that I’m like, “The Walking Dead is popular. I’m going to figure a way to keep it going forever.” But I always had a story I was building to and I knew each new safe place that they got to had a reason for being and set up the next place they would go to because I know for a while, it seemed like, “Oh, I get it. There’s just a psycho when these people go to a prison and then they stay here and then they stay there.” But there was a reason for all those places.
The group does lock into Alexandria [in The Walking Dead #69], which is where they remain for the rest of the series, by and large.
Yeah, and that criticism was mostly before they locked into Alexandria. But once that fair happened, I was like, “Okay, I’m not going make it to issue 300.”
Did you think about different road maps to extend the run?
So, I knew we would end [around] the Commonwealth, a civilization that’s grown large enough that it could be sustained, long-term. I thought about there being another place before that. But that would have just been a stepping stone to the main event, and we might as well just do it. Around that time, Breaking Bad ended and when Breaking Bad ended and everybody was going crazy over the ending, Charlie Adlard was like, “Can we do that? Can we go out on a high note while we’re still popular? I think we should start think about wrapping it up.” And I was like, “Well, I have an ending in mind … how much of an appetite do you have?” And he was like, “Well, I’m in till the end. I’m not going to leave, but I do feel like we should have an end point in mind.” And that’s when I sat down and was like, okay, well, how does [the series] publish [across different formats]? We’ve got the six-issue trades, and the hardcovers, and the compendium. If we don’t end on a compendium, then we have to do 48 more. So it became a question of whether to end at the end of the fourth compendium, or would we have to continue on toward a fifth compendium, which would have been 48 more issues.
You need to have that mapped out, logistically…
You don’t need to, we could have just had a smaller compendium.
But as a comic book fan, and this was a series you were invested in as a reader, you would not be happy if the compendiums didn’t all line up.
One hundred percent. I do approach things like that. If I was a fan of this series, would I want all of these books to be the same size? I would. So that’s how I decided, the fourth compendium would be the end. I sat down and was like, “Okay. I’ve got four years and 48 issues left.” And we hadn’t quite finished the third compendium at that point. We may not have been even close to finishing the compendium; I don’t remember how the timetable exactly breaks down. But the fourth compendium should have ended at The Walking Dead #192. But I knew I had to solicit the series beyond that point, for issues #193 and beyond, to give folks a sense of a new beginning and a continuing story so people didn’t catch wind that the series was ending.
Next, Kirkman breaks down several key moments from The Walking Dead #193. Final warning, spoilers and images from the issue are ahead.
The first scene features a walker approaching a farm house…
I’m going to use the word “zombie,” because I’m lazy. (Laughs.) There wasn’t a lot of zombie stuff in the book up to this point. The last three or four years is fairly zombie-light. I wanted to end with a really cool zombie moment. At this point, I’m still trying to hide the time jump. I want people to think, “Oh, I guess, Negan’s in this house and the zombie’s going to come out and somebody’s going to kill it.” And then we show the sword, and I’m hoping people are like, “Oh, I guess it’s Michonne!” And then you’re like…
“…who is this guy?”
How did you describe Adult Carl in the script? Pretty much just that: “Old Carl Grimes”?
Yeah, I pretty much let Charlie handle that. It’s Carl Grimes. He’s an adult. I did describe the eyepatch in detail. I wanted something that was somewhat medieval looking because they’re making stuff on their own. But this is the moment you realize it’s Carl, and then Sophia comes out, and I’m making sure we’re saying their names, so you now realize: “Oh, crap. This is way in the future… wait, they’re adults now? Is this the book now?”
What was your reaction to seeing Charlie’s rendition of Carl as an adult?
This whole issue is very emotional for me. It’s this kid who grew up in the apocalypse. He’s lived into adulthood. He’s gotten to a point where he’s comfortable living in a safe world. It is such a weird departure and I don’t think anyone could have anticipated that that’s where the story was going. I know in interviews I have said, “This is a story of hope, guys. I know it doesn’t seem like it but we’re going to get there at some point.” And I think I stopped saying that after a while because I was like, “You’re kind of revealing too much when you answer that.” But I always knew that it was going to end with this happier moment. But yeah, getting this page, it’s like, “Holy crap. It’s all come together.” And frankly, I didn’t know this book was going to last six issues when I started it. So to get to 193, to be able to do whatever I wanted along the way, to have the support all the way through to the last issue, it’s a pretty meaningful, emotional thing for me. This fan base came together and allowed us to tell the story exactly the way we wanted to, in a way that for all intents and purposes, we really shouldn’t have been able to. It’s a really unprecedented thing to be able to tell a 193 issue story. So I do feel extremely fortunate. I would get pages like this and be like, “Oh god. I can’t believe it all worked out.”
Even with its brains sprawled out on the grass, it’s unsettling to watch someone stick their hands in a walker’s mouth.
I think this page is important, in that it helps show we’re in a different era. They don’t check zombie teeth in The Walking Dead. We’ve done it in the show, I think, because they were trying to make sure a zombie hadn’t eaten Sophia. But I wanted this to be like a CSI moment, where he’s wearing this glove, checking the teeth. It’s clearly a different time.
The drama of the issue stems from Carl’s conflict with Hershel, Glenn and Maggie’s son. Given the time jump, you would just assume these two are close, since their parents were all close. You offered up a different take on Hershel than certainly I would have expected.
More than anything, I wanted this issue to be about how much the world has changed, how it’s different from what we’ve known. The idea of a zombie is so rare that somebody is traveling from town to town like it’s the old west: “Pay me a nickel and I’ll show you this [zombie].” I thought it would show how much time has passed and how things have evolved. And to have Hershel doing it? It’s a surprise. And the reason he’s doing it is very emotional and it’s explained at the end, but for now, I just wanted him to look like he had grown into a shitty person. (Laughs.) I really enjoy making an audience hate a character, and then going, “Aren’t you guys kind of assholes for hating this character?”
The conflict with Hershel puts Carl in the court system’s crosshairs…
The whole issue is Carl being in trouble for killing a zombie. That is super bizarre in the world of The Walking Dead. You’re like, “Wait, you’re not supposed to kill zombies? That doesn’t make any sense.” I like that the reader is very much in Carl’s point of view for the entire issue because they’re like, “What are you talking about? We have 192 issues where you just lay waste to these things immediately, and all these weird people in this weird setting are behaving completely antithetically to the way they’re supposed to.
Eventually, we see Hershel’s mother: Maggie, who is now the President of the Commonwealth. And that’s what we’re calling this whole sprawling community?
Yeah, it’s like the Commonwealth expanded, and Maggie is the head. It’s worked with little pockets of civilizations that we haven’t met or discovered yet. It’s grown to take over east of the Mississippi, so any pockets of civilization east of the Mississippi are the Commonwealth. Later on, we learn that there’s another group who has basically done the same thing on the west coast, and these two civilizations are about to meet up and start interacting.
With Maggie, I wanted to show as many of the original characters as possible to show where they’ve gone and how they’ve evolved and everything, but I wanted to make it as organic as I could. I didn’t want it to be this long string of, “Well, we had to go here because of this character. We had to go here to see this character.” I didn’t want to stretch believability to show characters. This seemed like a very organic way to check into the world and progress the story.
Carl and Sophia don’t exactly see eye to eye with Maggie these days…
It’s not a definitive statement on who Maggie is. I’m just trying to give hints that there’s a lot going on here and the relationship between Maggie and Sophia has evolved and changed over time, and that Maggie is [Carl and Sophia’s daughter] Andrea’s grandmother. She’s a big part of the family and I’m just trying to give some hints to that family dynamic. Carl is essentially Maggie’s son-in-law, you know?
Fair enough. We have time in the apocalypse to get mad at our in-laws. What a luxury!
This issue is specifically set up to be as mundane as possible. Everything is supposed to be just like the normal, most boring thing that’s able to happen, all because of all the things Rick did.
The court system rules Carl must replace the walker he killed, which of course he does not do. Instead, he goes out on a long supply run, and he’s joined along the way by Lydia, still wearing the classic Rick Grimes hat.
I wanted to show where she ended up and give a sense of the messiness. He was in a relationship with Lydia the last time we saw him and now they’re very much not. But they’re still very friendly. She still has Rick’s hat. I thought that was an important thing to show. This scene does a lot. It shows that Carl has a job, and it gives us a believable way to tour the world and see a certain extent of it. There’s a need for messengers in this world.
Carl is basically the Postman now. He’s the Kevin Costner of The Walking Dead.
Oh, god. I wish you hadn’t said that…
Robert Kirkman, not a Kevin Costner guy. You learn something new every day.
No, no, no, I love The Postman, but Carl is not a mailman. This is not a ripoff of The Postman, I swear.
There are worse things to rip off. You could be ripping off Waterworld.
Negan does not appear in the final issue, though it’s strongly suggested he’s still alive and living alone. You are on the record about Negan being your favorite character. Was it tough to keep him off-page?
I wanted to leave that thread completely open. It gives readers something to think about. “Where was Negan? Why wasn’t he there?” I wanted to keep it as ambiguous as possible. If Negan’s in this issue, he takes up so much space. There’s so much between him and Carl. It would be such a big deal. I didn’t have room to let Negan take over this issue like he took over the comic for so long. I’m scared of this fictional character. I can’t give him too much power!
Late in the issue, in the closing montage, we see Negan but it’s as if no time has passed …
He hasn’t aged at all, so it’s a moment in the past with Negan that isn’t in this timeline at all. Part of the reason is that if I ever do come back to do anything with Negan, his story is not told, and there’s nothing set in stone for him. If I ever get to a point where I want to explore this world again, it’ll probably be through Negan.
Do you have story beats in mind for what happened to Negan?
I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with that guy. I don’t know … you write a book for 16 years. There’s definitely a number of events I have in mind for him that pop into your head by accident to a certain extent. It’s like, “Damn it, Negan! I don’t have time for you right now! What are you doing? Go away!”
And to be clear, I am not saying I’m going to do anything with Negan. I may never do it. I probably will, but never say never.
[Editor’s note: months after this interview, Kirkman and Skybound announced a special Negan Lives issue of The Walking Dead series, released exclusively in comic book shops on July 1, 2020.]
So many birds! Another shot of the sky, following earlier in the issue, when we see the stars at night.
There’s no light pollution. The night sky has returned to what it would’ve looked like ages ago when there wasn’t all this civilization to muck everything up. And then the bird flock … pioneers used to hunt birds when they first came over to this continent by just shooting guns straight in the air when they would fly over because the bird population was completely out of control. There are stories in their journals about flocks of birds blocking out the sun. But we came over and thinned all that out. So in the zombie apocalypse, I was thinking some of those populations would restore.
When Carl eventually returns, he stands trial for killing more of Hershel’s “property.” Good news: Carl’s old friend Michonne is presiding over the trial as Judge Hawthorne. I believe this is the first time we’re even learning Michonne’s last name, right?
Being lazy comes in handy.
It really does!
I purposefully try to never nail down anything until I absolutely have to. It has served me so well in writing. It’s my number one tip for anyone writing. If you don’t have to nail down a date, don’t. If you don’t have to nail down a location, don’t. If you don’t have to nail down a name, don’t. When I was coming up with the courtroom drama stuff, I was like, “Wait a minute, Michonne’s a lawyer!” Then I decided she would ultimately become a judge. I realized I hadn’t given her a last name. It all came together.
The hope is you’re reading the issue wondering about Michonne. She’s present in the story because Carl has her sword. You think at one point, Michonne gave it to him, not needing it anymore. These days, in a sense, she is rebuilding the law of the land. It’s something she takes very seriously. I want you reading this scene thinking, “Okay, now Michonne’s a different person.” She’s very by the book. But then later, when she’s alone with Carl in her quarters, it’s the reveal that, no, she’s the same Michonne you’ve always known.
After the trial, Hershel confronts Carl, and reveals the reason behind his traveling zombie show: it was a way to connect with his father, Glenn.
This scene should’ve been three or four pages. I had so much more planned for this scene and I wanted to really dig down deeper into it.
What would you have done differently?
It definitely would’ve just landed in the same place. I think I probably would have had them talk a little more. I would have had there be a little bit more of an emotional moment between Carl and Hershel so that you saw them more on the same page and just got a sense that there was more of a relationship between them. Glenn is very much present in the final issue because he was such an important character to the life of the comic, and even though he died 93 issues ago, I think that his presence was still very much intact through that last half of the run.
The closing sequence involves Carl reading a storybook to his daughter Andrea, all about the period of time now known as “The Trials,” and the legacy of Rick Grimes.
I think that if anyone had been told that this is how The Walking Dead ends at any point, even a month before this book came out? They would be like, “That sounds like the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” But I feel like it works. I’m very proud of what we were able to do. I mean, it’s a 16 year journey for myself and for Charlie Adlard. To get to this page and to see these two people happy, kind of shows that it’s all worth it. It was all worth it for us to get to this moment, it was all worth it for the audience to read to this moment. All the horrific things that Carl lived through were worth it because Rick was right and everything he did accomplished something and got us to this point. And now he is able to live that life and be rewarded for all that sacrifice.
Beyond this, there’s your final letter to the readers…
I did want to make sure that I explained why it is that we’re doing what we’re doing and what it means to me and I always wanted to make sure that the audience knew that we didn’t kill characters lightly. We were not behind the scenes cackling as we killed your favorite characters. It was as emotional for us as it was for you and I think that’s why it worked and this was the same. The feel of regret and loss that you’re feeling now that you know the series is over, I’m feeling the same and that we’re ending it to tell the correct story. I wouldn’t want to continue the story past its logical point and I had an end to the story and I had to honor the end of that story. I couldn’t force it past that point just to keep the book going.
A year on from The Walking Dead, you still have several comics in production, including Die!Die!Die!, Fire Power and Oblivion Song. But The Walking Dead was an explosive piece of pop culture. Do you ever feel like you have to try to top that, as you’re crafting new project? Is that where madness lies?
It’s definitely, one hundred percent where madness lies. To try and do something that does what The Walking Dead did? It’s insane. That said, it’s what drives me. I created The Walking Dead when I was 23. That guy was an idiot. I should be able to do better than that now. I’m constantly trying to come up with stories that mean something to me and tell emotional stories. I love world-building. I love creating new characters. I don’t know what it was that The Walking Dead had that made it happen. But I’m always trying to crack that code.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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