Charlie Adlard Interview – Portrait of the Artist as a Walking Dead Man

Back in the nineties, I had the pleasure of working with Charlie Adlard on Topp’s The X-Files comic.  Ages later, the man who draws The Walking Dead was kind enough to spend some time catching up on Skype.

Charlie Adlard

And it all went something like this…

Stefan:  I leave you alone a while, and you’re surrounded by zombies.  Still collecting Marvin the Martian?

Charlie:  Good to see you again!  I’ve come off that obsession, now it’s Lego Star Wars.

The X-Files comic was based on a show, now there’s a TV series based on your comic – kind of a full circle, eh?

A full circle, but in reverse.

Point taken.  Looking back, how do you see the evolution of your work?

If you look at The Walking Dead #7, then #89, which I’m working on now, there’s a definite change, hopefully a progression.  It’s weird working on a regular title, because the fans can see how your artwork changes.  On a miniseries you might vanish a while, then come back with a different style.

The older I get the less influenced I am by comics and the more by things beyond the medium, primarily a lot of American illustrative art, film poster stuff.  Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak, Robert McGuiness, etc…. I lean towards the less representational.

You’ve always worked with a lot of blacks.  I imagine with a lot of black areas, the shapes just kind of pop out at you, which lends itself to being more abstract.

Good description.  More line work, more shade, and it tends to look more representational.  With blacks you’re automatically going into an off-kilter realm.  I do still aim to be representational.  I firmly believe that to break the rules you have to know them, and I don’t even know if I know all the rules.  But, I pore over this stuff and think it infuses my work.

I’ve always been really interested in design.  If I had the time and the technical know-how, I’d like to design the whole comic.  It’d be great to do the whole thing, but… I’m not Superman!  I’m a bit slower than I was when I was doing The X-Files.  Then, I could do an issue in two weeks.  I look back and say, how did I manage that?   Now, on average, it’s about three weeks per issue, so I’ve dropped a week somehow.  It’s probably an age thing.

You’re still one of the fastest in the business, so that may be as close as we humans get.  Expert Chess players say they no longer see the pieces, they see patterns.  When you read a script from Robert, do you see the whole page or the panels?

That hasn’t changed since you and I worked together.  I don’t see the whole page.  I see individual panels, read each as a section.  I’ll lay it all out.  A lot is sketched.  Faces can be fairly detailed, but the background can just be parallel lines or a grid.

When I ink it, which is the bit I really enjoy, that’s when I see the whole thing.  A good analogy is when I was in college studying film.  Shooting all day was a bit of a bore.  It was the editing I enjoyed most.  For me, that’s when it actually came together and became a creative piece.

Are you still straight Bristol board and pen/pencil?

Yeah.  Technically I’ll do a few bits on computer, and I scan it to send it off, but 95% is pure hand on paper.  I remember you were the first guy to say, do you have a computer?  I remember thinking, what is this thing, a computer, that you talk of?

I bought my first scanner just to send you references.  Does Robert get into angles?

His scripts are sort of like yours, actually.  He doesn’t give me angles.  He tends to say large panel, small panel, wide panel, sometimes “tall” panel.

The book’s dialogue heavy, so I also get a lot of Close-Up on X, Close-Up on Y, CU on X, CU on Y – which is fine, because he’s giving me the space to play around.

I see it as a movie in my head anyway, so I’m always thinking of the angles, and, especially with something like The Walking Dead, how to make people talking to each other look interesting.

Drawing pages of dialogue is always the hard part.


Any particular Walking Dead page or cover you were particularly happy with?

There’s one interior page that had a funny genesis.  It’s a double-page spread at the end of issues 78, just before the zombie horde attacks the compound in Washington, D.C.  Robert actually had the gall to write in the script, “Zombies form in the street, blah-blah-blah, make this the best panel you’ve ever drawn.”  And I just thought, you bastard!

But, I have to admit, I think I did do one of my best panels.  Normally, the worst thing you can do as an artist, and I’m sure it’s the same for writers, is say to yourself, “Today I’m going to draw/write the best thing I’ve ever done.”  It doesn’t happen that way.  The best work comes out when you least expect it, or when you’re in a zone where you really don’t care.  So the fact that I went in with Robert’s comment, and still did something good, was, I think, phenomenal.

One of my favorite covers is one of the earlier ones – a fish-eye helmet view of the zombies.  I also like the one for Fear the Hunters, which Delcourt used as a cover.  It’s just the feet of these hunters, with bloody footprints going off into the shadows.  There’s another of Rick and Laurie, a really simple one of them embracing.  He’s cradling her when she was pregnant.

I kind of like the simple ones more – the more designed they are, as it were, the more I liked them.  The problem with doing covers is I don’t know what’s going on in the book.  They need the cover for solicitations, long before I’ve even seen the script.  Sometimes I’d like to come back to it and say how about this for an idea?  But I can’t because I haven’t a clue as to what’s going on.  To be honest, half the time Robert’s not that sure what’s going to be happening.

What’s the grossest thing you’ve been asked to draw?

You can’t get any grosser than the torture scene with Michonne – it’s the only time I actually phoned Robert up and said, hey, let’s talk about this.  Especially, since I’ve been such a big fan of the horror being off camera.  I’ve always believed your mind has the ability to conjure something a lot worse than an artist or filmmaker can.

The funny thing for me is that thinking about it is the hard part, reading it in the script.  By the time I draw it, it’s just marks on paper.  I’ve deconstructed it by then.  I wouldn’t say it was emotionless.  I’m not sitting there like some robot, but I’m just in the zone, and it’s pen and ink, that’s all it is.  I’m not physically smearing pig’s entrails on the art.

Any horror film influences?

Ironically I’m not a particularly a big zombie fan.  I say that light-heartedly.  I don’t dislike zombies, but I like them as much as vampires or werewolves.  Some of my favorite horror movies are, again, ironically, the ones where the horror tends to be off-screen, like The Haunting or The Innocents from the sixties, more recently, Halloween or The Shining.

Having said that, yet again ironically, my favorite horror film is probably John Carpenter’s The Thing.  It hit me at the right age, sixteen ,and was a total influence.  After I’d seen it, I was inspired to make my own movie, just like the kids in Super 8.

What was your horror movie about?

It was called Sweet Dreams.  It predated Nightmare on Elm Street, and had a similar theme, about a ghost that haunted people in their dreams.  So… Wes Craven I’m gonna get ya!  I also did a sequel, Sweet Dreams 2, which had a larger budget – all because of The Thing.

Is film something you’d like to do again?

Not really.  Doing comics is very egotistical because it’s all your own thing.  I never saw it as a springboard to something else.  If I left, I’d be a small fish in an extremely big pond, and I quite enjoy being a big fish in a small pond.  It’s as much creative control as you can have in any art form – perhaps not so much on The X-Files.  Unless circumstance forces me out, I’ll be a comic artist until the day I die.

The only thing that might take me away would be if someone asked me to be a conceptual artist/consultant for a film.  That would be interesting.

You’ve said The Walking Dead is not a zombie book.  You’ve likened it to Lost, saying it’s really about the people, not the monsters.

Out of all the iconic monsters, let’s face it, zombies are the dullest.  They’re shambling corpses with no personality.  Compare that to something like Dracula or the Wolfman, where there’s reasoning, character.  With a zombie, there’s nothing.  You have to focus on other things.

On the flipside, would The Walking Dead be as a successful if it were a WWII book or a plague story?  Isn’t there something about those boring hunks of flesh that makes it click?

Interesting point.  As a horror concept, zombies work as a group, never as an individual.  There’s hardly any menace to them, they’re classically slow, easy to kill, easy to get away from.  Where the horror comes in is in the whole apocalyptic feel.  They’re the only monster that really represents the end of humanity, the end of the world.  On a more intimate level, it’s the loss of personal humanity as well.

They’re also the only monster you don’t have to feel bad about killing.

Sure – they’re dead people and should just be dead.  We’re far removed from the King Kong territory, where you feel for the poor, pathetic beast.  Most movie monsters generate some sort of sympathy, whereas zombies, no remorse.  It’s a good thing to kill them.

I’ve described zombies as the biggest McGuffin in the whole book.  To a certain extent that’s true, but there are other reasons they work.   People come because of the zombies, then, hopefully, stay because of the characters.  I’m not saying we use zombies as a calculated way to get readers, as opposed to setting it in the wild west.  It is a zombie story, in the end.  I’m certainly not embarrassed to admit that’s what we’re doing.

Stefan:  Did you wind up watching more zombie movies after you got involved in the book?

Charlie:  I’ve seen all the obvious ones.  The only others I’ve watched, since I was involved with them artistically to a degree, were the last two George Romero movies.  I did a exclusive DVD cover for Diary of the Dead, and a proper film poster for Survival of the Dead.

Speaking of people involved with zombies a long time, how do you keep it fresh?

All I need is the characters.  I know them so well, it’s the perfect way to work.  My big frustration after The X-Files and before The Walking Dead was that I was never on anything long enough to get into it.  I’d just get the hang of drawing a character and be on to something else.  Now, I’m locked in arguably as long as I want.  It’s just brilliant to be able to spend that kind of time on it.

And, obviously, Robert keeps writing great scripts.  I sound like some sort of promotional machine, but it’s true, Robert writes great scripts.  If he stopped writing great scripts, I’d think twice about doing it.  All the money in the world isn’t worth getting up in the morning and thinking “Agh!  Do I have to do more?”  Thankfully, I still enjoy it.

That’s one thing I don’t understand about the current comics industry.  Artists seem reluctant to stay on a monthly book for more than six issues.  Doesn’t anyone want to do a big chunk of something anymore?

Maybe it’s the smaller audience, and fewer books that have that kind of longevity.

Yeah.  The X-Files was selling what?  100k copies an issue?  And we were number 20 in the charts.  Sell that now, and you’re number one.

How long before all comics are online?

If you’d asked a year ago, I’d have said it’d never happen.  No one’s going to read it on their phones or screen.  Electric stuff still feels really transient, like you don’t actually own it.  That’s why I still buy CDs.

Suddenly, they invent the iPad, and it all becomes incredibly clear to me.  If my local comic shop didn’t exist, I think I’d be downloading them, especially the monthlies.  They do need to bring the price down.  Online comics are still really expensive.

I do still like collections.  I like to display them.  Even though we’ve all got our monthlies in boxes somewhere, you don’t put them out.  So, while there’ll always be print books, I think the time of the monthly is nigh.

Back to the present.  Seen any of the second season yet?

I’m waiting on the DVDs.  I did have the first three episodes for season one quite a while before they aired.

Is season two where they’ll start to get more into your stories?

As soon as they leave the camp, they’re in my territory, so to speak.  But, of course, the show deviates quite remarkably, so you don’t get to see what I was drawing.  For instance in “Wildfire,” they leave the bitten Jim on the roadside after they’ve left the camp.  In the comic, he’s left beforehand.  So, they’re still dealing with stories from the first issues.  But once we’re into season two, we’re going to see my characters appearing.

Has seeing any of it onscreen influenced the way you do the book?

No.  It’s just… cool.  Even when I was on the set, I didn’t think, “Oh, that’d be a good way to draw something.”  We did a good thing at San Diego last year, a massive forty foot banner that had the TV characters on one side and the comic characters on the other.  That was a good statement–this is one thing, this is another.  Robert doesn’t want to start, for commercial reasons or whatever, putting elements from the show into the comics.

During season one, you were a zombie extra–have you had any other involvement in the show?

I thought you were going to ask if I’ve had any acting offers!  But no.  People often ask that, and I say I’m not involved in the show apart from taking money and seeing bits and parts way in advance of anyone else.

To be honest, I don’t want to be involved, so, I’ve never actively pursued anything.  It’d take me away from the comic.  That’s my field of expertise and where I want to be.  I’m doing enough of it already.  The time I do have to spare, I’d like to work on something that’s not a zombie book.

It’s easier for Robert to do the show and write the comic, because writers can have that kind of output.  For an artist, doing a monthly, there isn’t time for anything else.  It would just overkill it for me, and I would get seriously bored.

Are there particular things you think the show does well?

I think they’ve really captured the book.  I’m certainly not sitting there thinking, uh, Carol doesn’t look like Carol.  That’s stupid thinking anyway.  As long as the characters work.

But the first season was so short, six episodes, it wasn’t enough to really establish it.  I think we had a taste of what we can do.  Now that we have a full-on thirteen episodes, that’ll really get into the meat and potatoes.

Favorite scene from the show so far?

The episode that really stuck out for me was Robert’s “Vatos.”  That’s not me blowing smoke, Robert doesn’t need it anyway.  Some parts were from the comic, but the main thrust was meeting the other survivors, and discovering that they’re looking after these old people.  I really liked that twist.  It gave the show a seal of approval to do different things.

Is there anything from the comic you’re looking forward to seeing them do?

I don’t know if she’ll be in this season or not, but I am very much looking forward to seeing Michonne.  I’m also really intrigued to see how they do the whole Hershel’s Farm thing.  Now that we’re out of Atlanta, it’s going to give the series a nice breath of fresh air, like it did with the comic.

Anything you think comic does well, that because of the media, the show would be hard pressed to do?

It’s weird, but I think we can get away with being a bit more languid than the show.  The show needs to keep moving.  It’s not like the old days, where a TV audience would be happy with the same time, same place, nothing changing.  Now they’re used to things constantly evolving.  So, the show has to move–which is another reason it has to deviate more from the original.  Otherwise it would catch up with the comic.  If we remained successful, in four or five seasons, they’d be chasing our tails, so to speak.

The comic works really well, perhaps better, when it can afford to slow down a bit more.  Which is interesting, because you’d think it would be the other way around.  The comic readers, apart from the new ones we’re getting because of the show, are mostly our bloody age, so they’re used to things being a bit slower… (laughs).

You mentioned that one of your dreams had been to do a European style book, a dream fulfilled with Breath of the Wendigo.  Any more dreams, or are you done now?

Robert announced in San Diego that we’re doing our own European-styled comic book called The Passenger.  People are already asking when it’s coming out.  Well, when I’m finished drawing it.  It’s taking somewhat longer to do, per page, than The Walking Dead.  With that I can ink three pages a day, but with The Passenger, I struggle to make a page a day, more often a day and a half, because it’s so intricate, so detailed.  It’s in the classic European style.  It’s very satisfying, a nice break.  It’s also science fiction, so it’s a completely different genre..

What’s the plot?

I don’t know how much Robert revealed, but suffice it to say, it’s got a giant robot and a spaceship, as well as Robert’s usual knack and spark.

Off the back of that I’m still talking to Delcourt, the people who publish the French edition of The Walking Dead.  Outside of the US, the comic is its most successful in France, which I love because I’m such a big fan of French comic books.  It’s just amazing to look at the charts and see us at number one.  Delcourt has become the biggest independent comic publisher in France.  They bought up Soleil, ironically, the publishers of Breath of the Wendigo, though the imprints remain separate.  So, I’m talking to Delcourt about doing one thing, and talking to Soleil about doing another.

I seriously love the guys at Delcourt.  They are the nicest and most professional publishers I’ve ever worked with.  They obviously have my taste, because without my saying a word, they always pick my favorite cover for the books.  Thierry Mornet, the editor, has become a good friend, not just a colleague.  His English is so impeccable it’s embarrassing.

And the French, well… I’m doing this big Walking Dead appearance, along with some other zombie-folk, in Les Mans, which I assume is where they do the racing, and they hired out an Abbey for the event.  At the same time, I’ve got an exhibit of my work going on in Paris.

You don’t get this sort of stuff in Britain or the United States.  The French regard comics as so much more of an art form.  Here, even though I get loads of invited to conventions and everyone’s really nice, you don’t get the same level of attention.

But enough about you, let’s talk about me!

Well, I read your book!  Dead Mann Walking was the perfect length for a seven-hour flight, and I really enjoyed it.  The chak society was great–the zombies aren’t just a bunch of slobbering mindless creatures, unless they go feral.  That was a neat twist.  And your detective isn’t this great physical specimen; he has a lot more failings than he has things going for him.  You got yourself quite an interesting universe there.  Welcome to the zombie club!

Thank you, sir, a fine club that.  Fifteen years and we’re both still involved in horror.

I don’t know what it is about horror… well, I do know why I ended up doing horror, because I use a lot of black…