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Image Month: Robert Kirkman - 20 Years as an Image Fan, Creator and Partner

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by Jason Wilkins and Frederik Hautain

Robert Kirkman has more reason to celebrate Image’s 20th Anniversary than most folks in the comics world. He has a unique, multi-faceted perspective, born of long history as fan, creator, and finally partner of one of the most successful and diverse publishers in the history of the medium.

With two hit comic book series and bonafide pop culture phenomena in the critically-acclaimed AMC television series The Walking Dead, Kirkman is clearly at the vanguard of not only the recent surging creator-owned movement but of the entire comics industry.

There’s no way then, that BF could celebrate twenty years of Image greatness, without checking in with the only non-founder to be made full partner. Think of him as what Captain America is to the Avengers…except without the shield.

BROKEN FRONTIER: As an Image Partner, how do you see the company’s main role in the comics industry? How has that changed over the last 20 years and how do you envision the company’s evolution going forward?

ROBERT KIRKMAN: When Image started it was simply a grand experiment.  Can the top artists in comics take their fan base and bring them with them to their own company and their own creations and make money for themselves instead of making money for Marvel?  It worked.  But in the process of that experiment, the Image founders, Erik, Rob, Jim, Todd, Whilce, Marc and Jim, created the IDEAL comics company for creators.  A company designed to give creators complete ownership and control, with the publisher making only enough of the books to sustain itself, keep employees paid and keep the lights on.  So over time, Image has evolved into, well, as biased as this is going to sound... the single greatest comic book company that's ever existed.  And here's why…

Image remains what it started out as, a company for top talent to come to and reap the benefits of their success instead of allowing larger corporations to exploit their name and talent for profit.  That's what Grant Morrison, Darrick Robertson, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are doing right now with Happy!, Fatale, and Saga.

It's also the ONLY comic company left that will actually go over blind submissions and pluck out creative newcomers who have never done a comic before and give them a shot.  People like Jonathan and Joshua Luna, Jonathan Hickman and y'know... ME.

It's that unique trait that makes Image Comics unique, add to that the fact that we only trade in new concepts and new ideas... and it becomes clear that we really just don't have any competition in this industry.  Nobody does what Image does. 

BF: By now, every true comics fan knows that you grew up on Image Comics and that you got a kick out of almost all of the early books. The one founder you probably learned the most from was Erik Larsen. How instrumental was he for you breaking in, and what was the most important piece of advice you got from him that you’re still putting into practice today?

KIRKMAN: It's kind of a nuts and bolts thing, but left hand surprise pages, that's probably the most important tool in a comic writer's toolbox that a lot of modern day writers seem to ignore.  The only opportunity you have to surprise a reader in comics is when they turn the page.  Put your big moments, your reveals, your cliffhangers on those pages.  I can't stand it when I'm reading a comic and something surprising happens on the right hand page in a book, it's like "I have to read through nine panels of build up on whether or not they're going to shoot a guy -- and I can SEE the guy getting shot RIGHT THERE, the WHOLE time?!"  It's the worst.

Larsen is the best, more than anyone else, I really owe him my career.  He gave me a leg up at Image and really championed all my early books to help get them published.  Also, most everything I know about comic book storytelling I learned from Savage Dragon.  I can't say it often enough, if you've ever liked any of my comics, even if you only read The Walking Dead, you really should give Savage Dragon a read.  It could very well be the single greatest comic series ever created.

BF: You played an instrumental part in getting Rob Liefeld to agree to what has turned out to be a very successful relaunch of Prophet, Glory, Supreme and Bloodstrike. Did it surprise you that these books have found an audience so quickly (hopefully with a nice percentage of new readers)?

KIRKMAN: NO, not at all.  I think Eric Stephenson has done an AMAZING job putting those teams together.  Graham and Roy on Prophet is frankly historic comics.  Glory by Keatinge and Ross is absolutely brilliant.  What a way to take something more than a decade old and make it seem completely new.  It's great stuff.  Tim Seeley writing Bloodstrike is a no-brainer.  His work on Hack/Slash shows that he's just a great writer and he has a huge affinity for the Extreme books, something he and I share.  And bringing in Larsen to both write and pencil Supreme is nuts.  I just read Erik's second issue, the first he wrote, and it's awesome.  Totally great stuff. 

This new Youngblood book by screenwriter John McLaughlin and Jon Malin is going to be great too.  Jon has a very cool Liefeld vibe, without outright aping Rob, and John is bringing a lot of "new" into Youngblood and changing it up, which really is the spirit of Youngblood, it's constantly evolving from book to book, year after year, and that's what keeps the concept so fresh. 

Really, though, all these Extreme titles are great, but at their core, you've got to recognize that Rob Liefeld is undeniably a brilliant creator.  Prophet is vastly original, but the framework from Rob's original creation is there.  The fact that all these characters are so well-conceived that you can tug and twist at their concepts while still staying true to the original stories and also be doing something completely new, is amazing.  Rob's got a list of creations as long as his arm that are viable and exciting two decades later.  I can't think of another modern comic creator that can say that.  You can complain about how the guy draws knees all day long but while you're doing that, he's creating characters your grandchildren are going to love.  So he wins.

     

BF: This summer, your Skybound imprint will celebrate its second anniversary. With all the different genres Skybound is putting out, it doesn’t seem like there’s a “signature” feel to what an ideal Skybound series is, versus a Top Cow or McFarlane book.  Still, what’s the glue that holds everything at Skybound together? What do you look for in new talent to give them a shot at the imprint?

KIRKMAN: Honestly, I prefer there not be a "typical Skybound book."  My main goal, and it's a lofty, slightly pretentious sounding one, is to produce comics that bring the medium forward.  So in the two years since we've launched, we've debuted four new books.  Witch Doctor, Super Dinosaur, The Infinite and Thief of Thieves.  Horror, All-Ages, Science Fiction and Crime.  It's not like there aren't comics being produced in those genres but they're not quite as prevalent as say, superheroes. 

So, we're trying to widen the medium, expand what people's perception of it is.  We're FAR from the only people doing this, thankfully, but I feel it's important to do my part, as I'm under the spotlight because of a certain TV show, to show people what comics can be.   

BF: Are you actively recruiting any more established voices to join this new wave of stars that have landed at Image you've mentioned in Brubaker, Chaykin, Phillips, Morrison, Robertson, etc.?

KIRKMAN: That's mostly the work of Image publisher Eric Stephenson, but if you're asking if there are more shockingly awesome announcements that are on the horizon, I'll say yes, absolutely.  People are really starting to recognize what Image is and what it can do for them, or more importantly what Image allows them to do for themselves.

BF: One of the biggest splashes you’ve made as an Image Partner was your 2008 Creator-Owned Manifesto. What made that particular time the right moment to rally the troops, so to speak? And, do you feel that in a period where the Big Two, especially Marvel, are seemingly struggling for bold new ideas (AvX clearly isn’t), it now rings more true than ever?

KIRKMAN: I think it remains true, I don't think it could ever become more true.  People say that manifesto was controversial, but for the most part I was really only pointing out a few things that a lot of people already know and more people should know.  Marvel and DC is a dead-end career.  It just is.  No one has ever retired from there.  Think about that.  They're companies that have been around for decades and they employ people on a freelance basis.  There's no pension, no gold watch and a retirement home in Florida waiting for anyone. 

I mean, WORK there ... I did, I actually had a good time there. Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso are awesome dudes to work for.  I did enjoy my time there.  But I knew Tom wasn't my friend.  We'd talk on the phone for hours at a time, but I knew we weren't actually friends, he had to keep me at a professional distance because at some point in the future, I wouldn't be popular, and he wouldn't be able to hire me anymore.  Because that's how it worked.  That's a horrible position for Tom to be in, but it's not his fault.  No matter how much he may like a creator, he can't make a corporation spend money on them if they're not getting money back in return.  That's not a safe system and it's not something anyone should allow themselves to get trapped in.

So the message remains clear.  Work there, build a name, leave.  Leave before they ask you to, or the fans ask you to.  Take your name when it still has value and put it to work for you.

Don't write nine thousand different Avengers series until your name can't sell your creator-owned work.  That may be fun and you may love The Avengers, but at the end of the day, that's not a good long term plan for you.

And this has nothing to do with Image, I'm not saying Image is always the answer.  Look at someone like Terry Moore, that guy is his own boss, he does his own thing.  No one can say, "Terry, it's time to pack it in" but him.  That should be the goal of every creative person, to work for yourself.  Do whatever you have to do to make it possible to work for yourself.  

Then your creativity REALLY has no restrictions.

The problem with my manifesto is that it wasn't planned, I just rambled and recorded myself.  I should have done a series of messages or something.  I also made points about making comics accessible for younger readers, valid points, but they kind of got lost in the shuffle.  The whole thing was a mess, but I don't regret it.

And these days I think it's becoming clearer and clearer that my message was right as more and more of the detractors of my message at the time fall into the traps I was calling attention to and warning them about.  I don't feel good about that at all.  Just sad, really. 

BF: When people think of your comics, they probably name The Walking Dead first and Invincible second. Looking at how long these books have been around, there have been quite a few memorable moments in each. Do you have like, a personal Top 3 for each series?

KIRKMAN: The thing about these series is that I'm always looking forward.  I feel like the three best stories in both titles are the next three coming up.  I truly love working on these books with Charlie Adlard, Ryan Ottley, Cory Walker, Cliff Rathburn, Rus Wooton and even our editor, Sina Grace.  The fact that we're reaching issue 100 on both titles is baffling to me.  I really do feel like we're just getting warmed up and there's all kinds of cool stuff on the horizon.

I'm very proud of the fact that we've created memorable iconic villains like The Governor and Conquest, and told their stories, killed them, and moved on to new things.  That, I think, is a unique thing you don't see in a lot of comics.  We don't cherish our best stuff by diluting it over time by copying it over and over.  We tell the stories and move on to new things.  

BF: Having worked with Ryan Ottley and Charlie Adlard for so long, how organic has working with them become? And, can you recall how both gentlemen became attached to Invincible and Walking Dead respectively?

KIRKMAN: Well, they were both brought on when the original artists couldn't meet their deadlines.  I don't think that's a secret.  It's strange to see that happen on both of these books but I think my desire to work with Tony Moore and Cory Walker greatly outweighed my knowledge of what they were capable of schedule-wise.  It's really my fault when it comes down to it.

Those two guys are brilliant and have gone on to do absolutely amazing stuff since, but not on any kind of regular schedule.  Thankfully, I have found ways to continue working with Cory Walker, with him coming back to do issues of Invincible every now and then.  I'm really thrilled to have him coming back to do a lot of work in issues 92-96 alongside Ryan, that's going to be a really cool story and having both artists in the same issues is going to look totally rad!

Charlie and Ryan both have been sort of, for me, the high watermark of a collaborator.  I'm truly spoiled with these two gentlemen.  I honestly can't gush about them enough.  You can SEE how talented they are in the work they produce, but the thing you can't see is how professional and reliable they are.  They're usually the ones pushing me to keep up with them, which is amazing and challenging and really keeps me energized and invested in both books.  I've developed a pretty simple shorthand with them script-wise, where they know what I'm asking for and I know what information they need and don't need.  So it's really just smooth sailing.

Honestly, if they ever decided they didn't want to work with me anymore, I'd seriously consider retiring from comics.  I don't think I could do it without them.
Another thing, far more important than talent or reliability, they're both just really nice guys.  Really nice, sometimes annoyingly nice.  It's a good feeling to know that you're working with good people, it really makes all the hard work worth it.

Okay, all this sincerity is making me uncomfortable.

BF: Between Brit, Battle Pope, Tech Jacket and so on, and for all the success you’ve had, do you feel one of these books that’s still pretty much undiscovered by fans?

KIRKMAN: I mean technically, they all are.  I'm proud of everything I've done although I do admit that not everything I've done is as good as I wish it were.  I think Capes was a fun book.  I worked with artist Mark Englert on that, it was to be a fun comedic sister book to Invincible hat didn't pan out.  Also Astounding Wolf-Man with Jason Howard, I wish more people had read that.  It was a lot of fun to do and Jason really is a great artist.  Of course nothing I've ever done is as cool as Super Dinosaur.  I'll never be able to top that

         

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