Charlie Adlard interview: The Walking Dead, comic book adaptations and zombies

With The Walking Dead now an acclaimed TV series, Matthew caught up with the British artist behind the original comic, Charlie Adlard...


To be on the safe side, don’t read this if you want The Walking Dead spoilers

Charlie Adlard is the British artist of the hugely successful comic book, The Walking Dead which has now been adapted into an award winning television series with season one soon to be released on DVD in the UK.

Earlier this year, I got the chance to talk to Charlie about The Walking Dead, seeing it transformed from page to screen and his art and influences…

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With regard to The Walking Dead, the television series, hopefully finding new readers of the comic, how would you describe the comic to someone who has never read it?

In pretty much one sentence I would describe it as: it’s a comic about a disparate bunch of people who have to cope with an extreme circumstance and the drama that comes from that sort of circumstance. The extreme circumstance is the zombie apocalypse. I try not to say it’s a zombie book, because I think that puts the demographic further away from the core genre audience.  

I do believe that’s what it is and it’s handy to have that description, as it opens it up to a broader audience. I’d also like to specify that’s what I do honestly believe as well. It’s a book about a disparate bunch of people who are coping however possible with a dramatic situation.

With the comic, it’s always as though the zombies are there in the background, but it’s not about the zombies.

The zombies are basically just a massive MacGuffin. They are only really there to assist our characters in getting from a to b within the plot. It’s as simple as that. It kind of sounds like I’m putting the zombie genre down, but, to have a comic that is such an anomaly like ours in terms of its success, in fighting against the whole superhero genre which seems to still dominate the American comics industry specifically. 

The more I think about stuff like that, the more I think, “How the hell did we get successful?”

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 It’s one of those things when you describe a book like that. You think even less of the success of the book, because it’s just the sort of thing that wouldn’t work in the comics industry at the levels of success it has.

Are you surprised that it has lasted as long as it has?

Yeah, I am. I’m genuinely surprised, because of the uphill struggle that we had to face originally. Having said that, that’s not to take away from the quality of the book. 

There are plenty of books out there with as high a quality as ours, if not better, that are far less successful. It’s one of those weird things you can’t predict. I genuinely think it’s amazing we are successful, because of the industry. Simple as that. Nothing to do with quality, just the way the industry is set up.

When you first took over as artist on The Walking Dead from Tony Moore, what attracted you to the book?

It was pretty much what I bottled down into that one sentence. It was the characters. It was weird, actually, because I didn’t immediately have that ‘Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever read’ sort of feeling about the script that Robert set.  

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Admittedly, he caught me at a time when I was in-between jobs, so it was easier for me to say yes to something than if I was really busy.

It’s been a slow burner, but I think that’s how it works with most people who read the book. They pick it up, less so now, because people hear it’s popular, check it out ,and have an instant reaction to it. But the first twenty or thirty issues, people were picking it up and thinking “That issue was alright. I’ll read another one just to see what happens.” Suddenly they’re hooked in and after two or three issues.  I

I think the same happened with me. I just sort of kept with it, in a lot of ways because I had nothing else to do and suddenly I found this amazing book. Robert had to give it the hard sell to get me on board, because there was nothing particularly original about it. It hasn’t got that Hollywood sentence where you can say. “It’s such and such meets such and such.” It’s the originality of it.

Basically, Robert could have come to me and said, “I’m writing a zombie book’,” and you would just think, “Really?'” You don’t think, “Wow, that sounds so original,” because it wasn’t. His idea was let’s see how a zombie story progresses after the first couple of days or whatever that, say, a film or other genre has dealt with. Robert obviously wants to deal with the whole world, the whole store that hasn’t been tried before.

When you get the scripts from Robert, how much input or freedom does he give you?

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Apart from what he writes, I’ve got total freedom to do whatever I want within reason. I don’t get the basic script. It’s the full script. None of that sort of Marvel-style rubbish. 

Robert writes in a very loose manner. The descriptions aren’t overly detailed. If he wants something specific, he’ll ask for that, but it tends to be ‘close-up of Rick, close-up of blah blah blah, pull back’.  Just real basic instructions. So, it gives me a lot of freedom and the panel description, panel shapes, borders and stuff are just generally ‘large panel, small panel’. It does give me a lot of leeway.

I remember the double page spread with the highway and all the zombies spread out. Did that come from yourself or Robert, and if it was scripted, was it just ‘massive page, lots of zombies?’

Yeah, that’s kind of how Robert would have written that one. It would have been basically ‘Car comes over the hill. Suddenly there’s thousands of zombies.’ 

The thing an artist dreads, actually, is that classic ‘The army comes over the hill. Page spread. Full stop.’ and you think, “Jesus, how long did that take you to write? How long is it going to take me to draw!” The irony with something like that was, description-wise, it was a couple of sentences and for me to actually draw it was, well, long.

When you get the scripts, and given that, other than Rick and Carl, no character seems safe, do you have moments where you think, “I can’t believe we’re doing that” or “I can’t believe we’re killing so and so”?

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First off, why do you think Rick and Carl are safe?

You know you’re going to get misquoted on that now and everyone will assume you’re killing off Carl next issue.

Yeah, Robert has shocked me a couple of times. Unless I’m talking to Robert. as we’re talking now on Skype, I tend not to ask about plot. I know he’s busy. I’m busy. Last thing we want is to be emailing tracts of stories and description.

I must say, as a fan, I really enjoy reading it. It’s nice to get the scripts and be surprised as well. Robert usually outlines roughly what will happen when we talk; of course. The other reason I don’t ask is I know he’ll change by the time we get to that point. If he’s told me something’s going to happen, it’s almost not worth knowing at all. 

He shocked me with Lori and the baby. Last time I spoke to Robert, I think he said he was going to wound Lori and crammed in this big dramatic change. There was no talk about killing the baby. Then, of course, I pick up the script and suddenly he kills them both and you think, “Oh, my God!” 

That was probably the most shocking moment I’ve read in The Walking Dead, the fact he’s just killed off two characters you didn’t think he wouldn’t have the guts to kill off.

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Are you watching the television series as a fan because of the changes to the comic? Or were you aware beforehand?

I knew a few things, because Robert told me in strictest confidence. Not that much, actually. I like the television series, I’ll say that now. I also find it very hard to watch it objectively. because I’m so close to it. Not only because I draw the book, but I’ve been on set, seen it being filmed, I was ‘in it’ for a day.

It’s very hard to sort of look at it and decide if it is better or worse than what we’re doing. Especially the sixth episode, as it deviates most from the book. I’m thinking, “Is that better than what we’re doing or not?” I really can’t tell, and it’s so hard to step back and view it as a fan because of that. 

I definitely enjoyed that episode. It was kind of nice to see something that wasn’t predictable to me or fans of the book. I didn’t realise they we’re going to go there and things happened which you didn’t expect. It was interesting, to say the least.

I can’t deny the quality of the acting, of the writing. It was definitely a well put together episode. I just don’t know whether it was better than what we are doing with the book or not.

Are you surprised by how well the television series has been received by the mainstream audience?

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Even before it got to television, everyone had such high hopes for it. I think it would have been a real surprise if the thing was a turkey. Not just the level of the people involved in front of and behind the camera, but the fact it was getting all this hype and the hype had to come from somewhere. It wasn’t just AMC putting out lots of information. There was something, rumour, speculation that was all positive. So, when it did come out and it was successful, it wasn’t a surprise.

 What did surprise me was the level of its success, when all the figures are coming in and it was breaking records. Considering there are shows that are deemed to be successful that don’t even get a million viewers in the States, we’re getting slightly beyond that. I mean a lot of these shows tend to function more on their critical success and build up an audience slowly through DVD boxsets etc. If we’ve come out of the gate like this already, what the hell are the DVDs going to sell? What’s the second season going to do? 

I get the impression that the second season might do better, because it’s more an official season, rather than a taster season. I’m kind of surprised and not surprised at the same time, is the very long winded answer.

I’m aware of you appearing as a zombie in the first episode. Have you spotted yourself in it?

I’ve got to admit there was kind of a problem when I saw the pilot. AMC kindly sent me the press pack two or three weeks before the show aired. There was something wrong with the formatting of them, which meant when played on the television, it was all squashed up in one the corner of the screen, making it unwatchable. That said, it did play on the computer.

We had friends over for this premiere, so the four of us huddled around the wife’s laptop watching the bloody episode! I haven’t had time to go back and go through slowly the scenes I might be in.

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One of the guys working on my extension says he think he saw me in the television show, so I’ll take his word for it that I’m in there somewhere!

Returning to the comic series, are Robert and yourself heading to a conclusion?

When sales start dropping, we’ll wrap to a conclusion, believe you me!  Joking apart, that’s probably the only thing that’s really going to stop us and, hopefully, if sales dip slowly, we can work out a conclusion which would be satisfactory. 

I don’t know how long we can go on for or how many stories Robert has got to tell. Having said that, he’s told me we’ve got many, many years worth we can do. 

To be honest, I think as long as there are still comic books, and as we’re selling enough to make it viable, I can’t see a reason why we would stop. He has got the vaguest of story arcs for the end, but with stuff like that, it’s so loose it’s probably changed since we last talked about it anyway.

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Do you feel the zombie genre is at risk of overexposure?

Personally, I think it’s an overused genre. I’m amazed that it still has life in it. But, then again, I’m amazed the vampire genre has still got legs. Obviously, it does have legs and there are different ways of telling the story.

I think the problem with the zombie genre is so many writers just want to have a bit of fun with it, so you end up with something fairly inconsequential. I think that sort of damages the whole genre, and non-genre people tend to look down on stuff like that.

 I find I have to make up excuses for what I do. It’s a tricky one to answer, but I do think sometimes I’m amazed that you see something else comes out and it’s a zombie story, really? And then you are amazed at what new stories occasionally they can tell.

There’s always, with any genre or even sub-genre, ninety percent rubbish and ten percent good stuff. Perhaps I’m just more acutely aware of the good stuff.

Both with The Walking Dead and Savage in 2000AD, the stories are in black and white and in a ‘realistic’ world. As an artist ,were these projects a conscious decision, more in your style?

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It was conscious decision. I‘ve got to admit that it is definitely the stuff I’m more comfortable drawing. For starters, I’m a very big European comics fan. If you’re aware of your European comics at all, you know the classic material spends a lot of getting the backgrounds, atmosphere, vehicles, and the basics research right. Cars aren’t just boxes on wheels.

I’ve taken a lot of cues from that, which it goes back to being a kid reading Asterix books and things like that. What I loved about the Asterix universe was it might have been cartoon characters wandering around, but it was an incredibly real environment that they were walking around in. The same with Tintin etc. That’s where I’ve taken my cues from, and because of that, I’ve taken it on board as a style thing.

I do find it more comfortable dealing in ‘reality’ more than the muscular, spandex-wearing people just hitting each other all the time. In fact, funny thing was, Savage was intended, especially books two and three, as a calling card. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed drawing them as well. They weren’t just a glorified, showboating portfolio piece. They were kind of designed for the European market, for me to show European editors and companies what I can do.

You kindly gave me a copy of your Breath Of The Wendigo book that was released in Europe. How well did that do in Europe?

Ah, sunk like a stone! I was a bit disappointed in its performance. More from the fact that I don’t believe it was promoted particularly well, or perhaps the books didn’t do very well because people didn’t like it. I don’t know. 

I’m actually still talking to Soleil, the publishers, so they must be doing something right or I wouldn’t be talking to them. Thankfully, it hasn’t affected my standing with the people that do know me in the European industry. 

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I’m definitely talking to other publishers about doing another book or album at some point when I can fit it in. I loved doing it. It was a dream come true, actually, doing something like that. In a lot of ways I don’t care how well it did. It was nice to have a forty-eight page, classic, hardback European copy in my hands, so I can say I’ve done one, finally. If there was one ambition left to fill, I filled it a couple of years ago.

What artists influence you and who are your favourite artists?

When I was young, the first artist I remember noticing and looking at the credits to see what his name was, was Michael Golden. He was the first guy I sort of latched onto and it was interesting, because it was when he was doing Micronauts, and it was when it was being reprinted by Marvel UK. So, of course, it was being reprinted in black and white. 

You see, Michael had a stronger sense of black and white than I would say the majority of American artists at the time. I don’t know if that struck a chord with me more beyond just being fan, but as an artist as well, that these sort of strong use of blacks and whites and that began a love affair with Michael Golden’s artwork and I’ve always loved his stuff. 

He’s one of the rare artists, a guy who’s getting to the twilight of his career, he’s better now than he was ten years ago, twenty years ago. He’s constantly improved. Where so many artists of that era have hit a plateau or got worse, he’s got better. 

There’s also the kind of obvious stuff. I’m a big fan of Alex Toth and Will Eisner’s stuff. There are contemporaries I really like. Well, two of my friends are my favourite artists, Sean Phillips and Duncan Fegredo. I love Tommy Lee Edwards’ artwork. I think he’s one of the best American artists, probably the best one working out there at the moment. Who else? 

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There’s a slew of European artists that no-one will have heard of that I absolutely adore. The other thing I really like at the moment is, which is not really comics, coming into the late fifties, early sixties classic American illustration artwork people like Bernie Fuchs and Robert McGinnis. I actually bought a Bernie Fuchs piece when I was in San Diego a few months ago and it was just a preliminary. It wasn’t even a proper painting. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

What tools do you use?

I’m a Luddite, actually, when it comes to tools. It’s really, really funny. With The Walking Dead it’s real basic stuff. I use a Rotring art pen for most of the line work. A thicker, bizarrely, Isographs are not the easiest pens to work with, but I do like a two point five Isograph for thicker blacks and textural stuff. I do deploy brushes occasionally, especially with other projects, brush pens.The Pental colour brush pens are really nice, a nice bit of kit. That’s about it, a couple of pencils, some rubbers, the usual sort of thing. There’s not much more.

I think, in a lot of ways, it probably gets me the reputation of being so fast because I’m not making too many equipment choices then. The one pen hardly ever leaves my hand, so I’m constantly drawing with it and not changing to something else or dipping a dip pen in ink or likewise with a brush, or anything like that. It’s fairly rapid speed with the one instrument. Probably a lot of people would put their noses in the air and say, “You’re an idiot! Those are really crappy bits of equipment.” But I’ve been using them for so long, it’s hard to change now, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, either.

With a lot of art now being solely digital, how do you feel about using a computer?

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I do the basics. I’m a bit of a technophobe, but at the same time I accept technology and I do occasionally get dazzled by the bright lights. I’ve just brought a brand new super duper Apple Mac. 

I do all my scanning and send it all to Image via the computer, so I’ve stopped posting stuff.  If I do get the chance to colour, I will, but I get the chance to colour so rarely ,half of me wants to do it for real with paints and the other half wants to do it on the computer, because I really should keep abreast, and keep my knowledge up and remember how to colour on Photoshop at the same time. 

I just did a charity page for Travelling Man, the shop.  hey’re putting together a charity comic in a similar style to DC’s Wednesday comics. That was an opportunity to do some computer colouring just for my pace, so I relished that. But the thing is, I colour so rarely, especially on the computer, it took me about twice as long to colour the artwork rather than draw, it which is just ridiculous. I spent so long colouring on the computer, but it probably doesn’t look so, because all the colours seem to be brown in the end!

Complete fanboy question. The phone rings tomorrow and it’s the company of your choice offering the character of your choice. Which character?

The funny thing is, if someone offered me a character and somebody at the same time offered me a creator-owned project, I would always go with the creator-owned project, regardless.

I’m lucky. The Walking Dead has done really well, so I can say these things. It’s a different matter if you’re struggling. 

Now I’ve tasted the forbidden fruit, I don’t want to go back to doing somebody else’s character anymore. I’m happier doing my own characters, something I’ve created. But having said that, if anyone offered anything and I had some time, and it was just a bit of frivolous, and it wasn’t going to impede on my grand designs or anything like that, it would probably be Doctor Doom actually. I’d love to do a villain book and I’d love to do Doctor Doom.

I’ve always wanted to do Doctor Doom. I think he’s one of the most interesting of the Marvel characters, anyway, whether he’s a villain or a hero.

In a lot of ways, I don’t think he’s ever really been done justice. I’d see him more as that classic rusty armour look, rather than the shiny hi-tech armou,r and I’d certainly stick him in some sort of medieval castle, rather than a more fanciful Cinderella castle, which sometimes gets drawn. 

I’d love to have at go at characters. I’d definitely be more grounded in reality, so characters like Daredevil or even Spider-Man would be more up my street, rather than, say, doing Thor or The Avengers or something like that. 

Going to DC, Batman is more up my street than Superman. Having said that, the best ever story I did superhero-wise was a two issue Superman story with Joe Casey. It was a bizarre thing. I never thought I would get offered something like that. I just thought the way Joe wrote Superman was pitch perfect and I really enjoyed working on that story. And in a lot of ways, people ask, “Who is your favourite writer? Who would you like to work with?” And I say there’s no-one I particularly want to work with, because in the end, I might not get on with them, or might not like the project they do.

But people I know, people I can count as friends, colleagues and people I work with, at least I know they’ll give me something of worth, and at least I know their strengths. So, I know we’ll work well together, so I’ll always pick somebody I’ve already worked with, regardless of how big a name they are over the Alan Moores or Mark Millars, or whatever of this world.

You mentioned creator-owned projects. Do you have any planned for the future?

As I’ve said, there are a couple of European things and most European things are creator-owned anyway. Just another reason it’s an industry I want to carry on working for. They’re all stuff I can’t talk about, because they’re all completely in the first stages. I mean, we haven’t even signed contracts yet. 

I’m kind of holding back on that, just because I know how crazy last year was with The Walking Dead and there’s no reason it will get less crazy next year. 

There are a few things. There is something I have drawn a lot of. Some other project which, again, I can’t talk about, but it’s taking a long time to get off the ground but I have, like I say drawn a lot of it. It’s just getting to the next stage, but it’s just starting to drag it’s feet. So, hopefully, that will be completed at some point. 

Apart from that, I do want to get on and do something else. I like the variety of working in different styles, different genres. If I was doing The Walking Dead twenty four seven I think I would have burnt out by now. But thankfully, I’ve had other things lead me away occasionally, which keeps me fresh on both projects. So, hopefully, within a year, year and a half, there will be something else out that’s not The Walking Dead, anyway.

Charlie Adlard , thank you very much.