An edited version of this interview was first published on the Sunday Times of Malta.
Fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead know that there’s only one thing better than the television series – and that is the comic version. I had a chat with CHARLIE ADLARD, the illustrator who brings the original characters to life, ahead of his attendance at this year’s Malta Comic Con.
There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned zombie apocalypse to get business booming, at least if you happen to be in the graphic novels or television business. And few products prove this as unequivocally as The Walking Dead (TWD).
Many of you reading this will be familiar with the name thanks to the AMC television series, which at Season 3 counts over 11.42 million viewers. However, real zombie – sorry, walker – enthusiasts fell in love with TWD way before it became cool to spew Shane, Lori and Rick (three of the early protagonists in the story) memes on Facebook.
The original characters, in fact, were conceived way back in 2003 by writer Robert Kirkman, and published by Image Comics. The monthly black and white comic series was an immediate hit, and went on to win the 2010 Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series at the San Diego comic-con.
And the man who brings the stars of the story to life with mind-blowingly effective illustrations is Charlie Adlard, who took over from Tony Moore on Issue 7.
Adlard is the one who makes it all real. From the stuff of nightmares that are the walkers, to the poignant humanity of the main protagonists – who kill, maim, hunt, love, fight and survive years of post-apocalyptic wasteland without becoming clichés – he is the one who translates them from our imagination to create the strongest visual effect.
The question almost begs itself – does Adlard follow the television series, and if yes, how does he feel about seeing his and Kirkman’s babies being given a new identity by someone else? Putting all myths to rest, turns out he is pretty okay with it.
“I do follow the series. I have to confess that at first it felt like homework, but then I started to genuinely enjoy it. The changes that were introduced were for the greater good. After all, if the television version is an exact replica of the comic, well it would be pointless. They are doing a good job of following the comic plot line as far as necessary, in fact the only character they brought in who isn’t in the comic version is Daryl.”
Whatever the reasons, readers and viewers are certainly gobbling both versions up. With myriad movies and books focusing on zombies, it is natural to wonder what causes the popularity. Adlard believes that such popularity is cyclical – “one season it’s zombies, the next it’s vampires and the following it’ll be something else” – yet, surely there is more.
“I suppose, to a certain extent it is a reflection of the times that we live in. When there are problems in the world, people tend to favour apocalyptic scenarios. Think of the current financial meltdown, the strife in the Middle East, and a host of other current problems that we face as an international community. Having said that, you can’t put down this popularity to one reason, a variety of factors would be involved,” he says.
So does all the doom and gloom affect him on an emotional level? After all, it can’t be that healthy to picture scenarios of Armageddon on a daily basis… However, turns out that Adlard is made of much sterner stuff and is not about to allow his protagonists’ misadventures affect his zen.
“To be fair, I live in a pretty idyllic rural area in Shropshire, the UK. It is so totally removed from city life, and from everything that is Hollywood or LA, that it’s practically impossible for the theme to affect me negatively. When I’m working in my studio I have this vista that gives on to a conservation area, full of green fields. It’s pretty much the opposite of what I’m working on, there’s nothing apocalyptic about it.”
At this point, Adlard must feel the scepticism emanating from my end, because he laughs and defensively adds that “it’s Robert (Kirkman) who has the unfortunate task of dreaming up the apocalypse; he is the one with the problems, not me”.
This serenity may also have something to do with the fact that, while some illustrators like to base their work on factual research, Adlard says that his imagination is his main source.
“With respect to the walkers, I could carry out research in morgues and so forth I suppose. But to be honest they are the easiest to illustrate, my imagination does all the work. The humans constitute a bigger challenge, because they have to reflect real life. They are the ones who make the story come alive, who keep the readers hooked. Without them, the series wouldn’t have lasted 20 issues,” he says.
The challenge, he explains is to keep their personalities interesting and credible, giving them individual traits without resorting to costumes or stereotypes. Particularly, in creating credible reactions to the extraordinary things that are happening around them, all without going over the top. So, given that the creative juices are shared between Adlard and Kirkman, what happens in the case of a divergence of opinion?
“I don’t believe this has ever happened. We are both professionals and we don’t step on each other’s work. We like each other’s work, which is probably why things move so smoothly. Seriously though, there isn’t much to time to criticise and disagree.”
Like it or not, Adlard’s name is by now pretty synonymous with zombies – this despite the fact that he has done myriad other cool work. However, he says that he doesn’t have a partiality for the post apocalyptic genre, and neither for any other genre for that matter.
“I like to keep my work diverse. One of my biggest fear is being typecast, and I suppose to a certain extent it is impossible to avoid completely when you are part of something like TWD.”
So given his credentials, what would be his one weapon of choice in a possible zombie apocalypse? Adlard laughs ruefully.
“Umm. A sharp pen.”
Rick really would not approve.
Malta Comic Con 2013 is taking place on November 30 and December 1 at St James Cavalier, Valletta.