One thing Robert Kirkman wanted SXSW attendees to know right up front: He really loves comics. The creator of many cross-platform franchises, most notably pop culture juggernaut “The Walking Dead,” began originally as a guy who wanted to make his own comics: First, self-publishing them, then working with Image Comics — a publisher that lets creators retain the rights to their own work. “I started doing comics. hat’s how I got into comics,” was his way of summarizing his origin story.
And retaining the rights to his comics is what’s helped Kirkman create the company Skybound Entertainment, which develops ancillary materials around not just Kirkman’s many brands, but other creator-owned properties. It was the focus of the conversation at a panel this Saturday at SXSW, which also covered the ways Kirkman has taken the stories he wants to tell, and spread them across not just comics, but television, film and video games.
What it came down to, for him? “Waiting for the right deal.” That’s how Kirkman described the process of bringing “The Walking Dead” from the page to the screen, because when Hollywood originally came calling, they wanted a whole lot for very little.
“At the time, the average option price for a TV show was like $5,000,” he said, “And that could be two or three years without anything happening.” By not giving up his ownership of the material, he was not only able to maintain creative control over the project, but continue with the merchandising he was doing himself — selling “Walking Dead” books, t-shirts, toys and so forth directly to the “Walking Dead” audience.
“Holding those rights was more valuable than taking those deals,” he said. “I was defending this thing, but by defending it gave me the opportunity to do what I’m doing now.”
And What He’s Doing Now Is A Lot
On top of “The Walking Dead” comic, Kirkman is now a producer or executive producer of three related TV series — the original cable blockbuster, accompanying chat show “The Talking Dead,” and the forthcoming companion series (not a prequel series, as he explained at one point) — as well as a critically acclaimed video game produced by Telltale Games. Beyond “Walking Dead,” there’s also “Air,” a sci-fi thriller starring Norman Reedus, and a fourth TV series, “Outcast,” also based on a comic, which was picked up to series by Cinemax last month.
Kirkman is actively involved to some degree or another with these projects, even participating in the writer’s room for “Walking Dead” and tracking the show’s production. “Was the one where Rick dies last week?” he fake-spoiled at one point (a joke he then admitted to using on many other panels).
The Next Big Thing: “Outcast”
“Outcast” came about when Kirkman was hanging out with an exec from Fox International at Comic-Con, in between “Walking Dead” Seasons 1 and 2. He mentioned the idea for the comic, and the exec immediately said that she’d buy it — so without even a single issue of the comic published, he’d found a home for the series adaptation with Cinemax.
By the time the series starts shooting in July, the comics that align with the first season will be out by then, but similar to “The Walking Dead,” there will be some differences. “I want people who read the comics to watch the show and be surprised,” he said.
“Why do the comic?” moderator Brian Crecente, News Editor at Polygon, then asked.
“How dare you!” Kirkman shot back (with a laugh), before clarifying. “You’d be working under the assumption that you only do comic books to get TV shows, which is not the way I see things — I actually prefer working in comics… Comics are better, you haven’t just realized it yet.”
But Video Games Are Also Pretty Good
Because the conversation fell under the banner of SXSW Gaming, Kirkman and Crecente devoted a fair amount of time to discussing not just Kirkman’s love of the game “Destiny” (if you know the game at all, know that Kirkman is at Level 5 and has an icebreaker gun that sounds pretty cool), but his many other gaming properties. In development are twelve active projects, though only two are public — “which is kind of like saying I’ve got a girlfriend in Canada,” he cracked.
While licenced games, in Kirkman’s words, are usually “somewhat crappy,” he blamed that on the fact that most video games based on a movie or TV show usually have to hit a specific release date, whether or not the game is ready.
Meanwhile, Kirkman said that the way he avoids that trap is by letting each property stand on its own. “We’re doing a thing that’s its own experience, as opposed to being a licensing barnacle,” he added.
“Walking Dead: CSI: Miami”
That was Kirkman’s joking title for the upcoming companion series AMC recently greenlit for two seasons. “There are lots of sunglasses,” he added.
The Los Angeles-based series will begin, chronologically, slightly earlier than the original show (which began telling the story of the zombie outbreak about a month after the initial onset), will eventually catch up, time-wise, with the Andrew Lincoln-led series.
The goal, he said, was to expand the universe of the show a little more, a response to questions and requests they’d gotten from the beginning.
“I wouldn’t call it a prequel,” Kirkman said, adding that characters in the LA series will make certain discoveries at different points than the original. “One thing we’re doing with the show is making sure it can stand on its own… And then we’ll cross it all over in an ‘Avengers’ movie.”
Everything’s Its Own Thing
That seems to be Kirkman’s guiding philosophy towards his vast number of properties — making sure everything can be enjoyed on its own merits.
What does Kirkman aspire to? The answer echoed back to his self-publishing roots. “It’s kind of ridiculous that you can create a TV show without having an ownership stake in it,” he said. “I’d like to get to a point where I can self-finance TV shows the way I self-finance comics.”
“It’s maybe not possible,” he added. “But I like to give myself something to work for.”