From drunken papal authority to The Walking Dead
Robert Kirkman, if not yet a household name, probably should be.
He is the writer behind the long-running, award-winning comic book The Walking Dead, and one of the people who helped shepherd that comic into what has become the most watched basic cable television show in history. And like some sort of pop-culture hydra, for every one success he sees, two more seem to spring up alongside it.
Now a spinoff of The Walking Dead's show, Fear the Walking Dead, is in the works. Cinemax purchased the rights to Kirkman's Outcast comic before it went into print, and AMC is working on turning a third comic, Thief of Thieves, into a show.
And that doesn't touch on all of the comics that continue to flourish on their own, or the video games, or the movie, or the tabletop game.
Kirkman is an industry.
But despite his many successes, his thriving catalog of works, his growing company and spreading reach, Kirkman seems haunted by the shadows of possible failure. And it doesn't seem to be just a fear of failing, but of letting down comic book fans, creators, comics.
In 2008, Kirkman did what at the time seemed like the unthinkable: He gave up a job at Marvel Comics to work full-time at indie comic book publisher Image Comics.
Years later he explained why.
"The main reason, the reason I want to talk about now," he said in a 2013 YouTube video, "is I did it to save the entire comic book industry."
The nine-minute video, which has become known as the "Robert Kirkman Manifesto," delves into all of the things that Kirkman saw were wrong with the comic book industry.
No one, he said, reads books or watches movies and only ever aspires to create sequels to those books or movies. People don't get into those creative jobs to make Pulp Fiction 2 or write Moby Dick 2. But that's how the business of comic books works, he said.
"I did it to save the entire comic book industry."
"We come into the comic book industry to create our own work and we eventually graduate up to Marvel and that's the end of the story," he said.
What comics need to thrive are more independent comics, more people who create new ideas and own and control those ideas, the theory goes.
The video was the launching point for something that has always shaped Kirkman's career: creator activism.
Earlier this year, South by Southwest organizers contacted me to ask if I'd like to interview Kirkman on stage during the March show. Creator activism is the topic he wants to discuss, they said.
I ask him about it when we first meet over breakfast in a little hotel restaurant in Austin. It's the day before we're set to go on stage and talk in front of an audience about his ideas and creations.
"You have to be aware that that unrelenting, zombie-like force is chasing your career at all times."
The way Kirkman describes it, creator activism sounds like a strong belief that the best creative works come from the people who can maintain control of what they make. That, tinged with an underlying fear that despite his tremendous, almost unbelievable successes in comics, games, television and soon, perhaps, movies, everything may at any moment come crashing down around him.
"All I'm saying is, creators should always try to keep their own best interests at heart," Kirkman says. "This is a tough gig. I'm two days away from not being popular. When your career's on a downturn, it's very hard to turn that around, and so writing and writing well and doing new jobs well — if you're working in video games or comics or TV or whatever — that's an essential part of having a career. But recognizing the opportunities that come along, because they're always happening, and knowing when to jump and when to pivot and when to change gears — it's an essential part of making it. No matter how popular or successful you are — I always try to keep in mind that there have been many people way more popular than I'll ever be that couldn't get arrested now.
"You have to be aware that that unrelenting, zombie-like force is chasing your career at all times. Do whatever you can to combat that."
From hard-drinking papal authority to the shambling undead
In the beginning there was Walmart.
Kirkman grew up in a small town in Kentucky, and a single comic book rack lost in the back of the chain megastore's toy section was the only place he could buy comics. And Marvel was his only choice.
So, naturally, he was a Marvel fan.
By the time he entered high school, his tastes and the availability of comics in town had broadened.
"In high school I was going to comic shops and so I would read some DC stuff," he says. "But it wasn't until later that I started getting into more independent comics and stuff like that."
By the time Image Comics sprung to life in 1992, Kirkman had built up a complex palate for comics. He followed the artists and writers and noticed that a lot of Image Comics' new books were being created by folks he read in Marvel.
"Watching movies is fun, watching TV is fun. But at the end of the day I'd rather be reading a comic."
"So I stopped reading all the Marvel books and followed those guys over," he says. "Being a big fan of comics at the time made me a little bit more aware of the creators' rights issues that were going on in comics, the fact that all these popular creators that I looked up to were being entrepreneurs and doing their own thing instead of continuing to work at the big companies. And so I think that because I was keenly aware of that situation at a young age, it put me on the path of always wanting to do my own thing."
That understanding of the shift in comic book creation mixed with a deep love of the medium inspired Kirkman to try his hand at comic creation.
"I read comics as a kid," he says. "To me, I don't know, watching movies is fun, watching TV is fun. But at the end of the day, I'd rather be reading a comic, I think. It's just a magical storytelling medium that I really enjoy.
"I like to think that I'm kind of an idiot, and so I didn't really have any real skills. I didn't go to college or anything. I had some menial day jobs and one of those was working at a comic shop. I realized from working at a comic shop that it would be really easy to actually publish a little comic and get it distributed, because there's only one major distributor that goes to all the stores in the U.S. and worldwide."
So at 19, Kirkman teamed up with Tony Moore, a friend he'd known from seventh grade, to create their first comic. Kirkman wrote and did the layouts and lettering for Battle Pope and Moore did the art. Kirkman ran the publishing company out of his house in Kentucky, printing the comics in Canada and shipping them through a distributor he knew through his days at the comic book store.
"From Kentucky I was publishing this little book that was all over the place, and because it was somewhat controversial it actually did fairly well," he says. "I guess I started doing comics ... that's how I got into comics."
While plugging away on his self-published books, Kirkman caught a break, managing to get his hands on the phone number for Erik Larsen, creator of Savage Dragon and one of the founders of Image Comics.
"I knew a guy who was running a website that was doing interviews for people," he says. "The website never got off the ground, but I found out that he had scored an interview with Erik Larsen, so I went to him and said, 'I'm gonna do that interview!' I had never interviewed anyone before, but I'd read the comic. I could talk about it. So I got a little tape recorder and I called the guy on the phone, and did a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Erik Larsen."
After the interview, Kirkman says, he would mark on his calendar dates to call Larsen back, just to chat with him.
"I would just call him and be like, 'Hey, it's that guy that interviewed you, what's going on? How you doing?'" he says. "So we kinda hit it off. It was through being buddies with that guy that then I ended up being able to leg up and pitch new books to Image Comics."
While Kirkman says the pitches didn't always work on Image publisher Jim Valentino, it didn't matter because he would just go to Larsen with his failed attempts.
"I would call Erik Larsen and be like, 'I think this comic's pretty good!' He'd be like, 'Ah, yeah, we'll publish that,'" Kirkman says. "That only happened a couple of times. But if people tell you that nepotism doesn't help you get a foot in the door of any industry, they're wrong. Do whatever you can to make friends with people. Hard work is not the only thing that'll help you out. Definitely try to score as many favors as you can from people, and good luck trying to get my phone number."
Thanks to that contact and his work on Battle Pope, Kirkman began doing freelance work for Marvel and Image. Eventually, his work at Image became so popular, with comics like Invincible and The Walking Dead, that he stopped working with Marvel and became a partner at Image.
"I kind of became a cornerstone of their publishing plan or whatever," he says. "That eventually led to them making me a partner, and then once they made me a partner, that gave me the opportunity to build out my own company around the books I was doing ... one of those was Walking Dead."
"Because I'm an idiot?"
A successful line of comics, an incredibly popular television show, two more in the works and a movie about to be released.
Kirkman is on a roll. But his success has more to do with the freedom he enjoys in controlling his own creations than in his own abilities, he insists over our breakfast in Austin.
Later, on stage during our South by Southwest talk, I question that concept again.
"You have Walking Dead, obviously, which is super popular," I say. "Outcast is soon to be, it sounds like, a TV show. Both of those are properties that you've created. How do people look at this who are creators? How do they know that this isn't just because you're awesome and the stuff you make gets turned into great stuff? How can they maybe have the same chances you've had?"
Kirkman only pauses for a moment before responding.
"Because I'm an idiot?" he says. "If I can do it anybody, can do it. But I don't know. I'm having trouble answering that question. I think that valuing yourself and valuing what you're doing more than a lot of people do ..."
Then he interrupts himself.
A lot of his success, he says, has to do with knowing when to wait and when to jump when a deal comes along. That's what happened with The Walking Dead. He passed on offers for a TV show, waiting for the right one to come along.
"Not doing that can lead to getting a bad deal," he says. "Marvel Comics is a good example. If they had waited two years before they did that X-Men deal, they would be in a much better position right now. But because they were struggling and in bankruptcy, they did that X-Men deal where they don't control a lot of it. They don't get to do a lot of stuff with the X-Men. The Spider-Man deal is much better, and then they did their own movies. Now they're Marvel and they're doing all this crazy movie stuff, but they don't have access to the X-Men because they gave that to Fox."
And that's it, Kirkman says, the key to success. It boils down to something pretty obvious on some level: When people make great things, they should maintain control of those great things.
Slipping through undead fingers
It's hard to peel Kirkman's thoughts on creator activism away from the nearly overwhelming successes of The Walking Dead and the creation of Skybound Entertainment, a new studio he created inside Image Comics.
It's like figuring out which came first: the undead chicken or the invincible egg.
Skybound was initially born out of a very specific need.
"It was really when The Walking Dead show was about to happen," Kirkman says. "I sat down with my manager at that time and was talking to him about being on the eve of The Walking Dead becoming this television show. I have all these opportunities. I'm at the center of the show, one of the executive producers. I'm writing all these comics. I'm gonna have all these opportunities slip through the cracks. I was working with him and I said, I need somebody to help me do T-shirts when T-shirts are an opportunity, do merchandising and licensing and all these other things that are becoming opportunities for us.
"Through that we formed Skybound."
It was later, Kirkman says, that he realized he had perhaps accidentally created something that fit in neatly with his beliefs on creator ownership. Skybound allowed Kirkman to stay at the center of things as the creator of The Walking Dead while also helping him expand the brand into television, merchandising and video games.
"It became clear that we could take other creators and bring them into this system, and allow them to be more involved in their creations than any other company would allow them to be," he says. "Too often something gets optioned in Hollywood and they say, 'Great, you did a good job. Now we can do it better because we're the experts.' I think that by keeping me involved in [AMC's] The Walking Dead from day one, it led to that show having a bit more credibility.
"The creator's voice is still involved in the TV show, even though I don't make TV for a living. It was all new to me. I think that's something that Skybound is keeping at the core of everything it does. It's a big part of our success."
What started in the comics space, as a publishing imprint of Image Comics, has become something far greater. Not only is the company able to give creators a leg up, but it has the ability to both expand a concept across mediums and, in some cases, decide where a creation should first plant its flag.
"I try to think of Skybound as a company that I would have liked to have in my early days," Kirkman says. "When I was doing Battle Pope. If future me could have called and said, 'How about trying this and this? Let's do that,' I would have been thrilled. That's kind of my goal there."
That Skybound is so inexorably connected to The Walking Dead has also helped the company grow and get people to respond.
"If you call somebody and you say, 'Hey, we're Skybound, we want to do Walking Dead this or Walking Dead that,' it helps you get in the door," Kirkman says. "That's something that we've had a tremendous opportunity with. If I do something with Thief of Thieves or Invincible or Manifest Destiny or all the other things we're doing, people already want to talk to us because of The Walking Dead. We're able to use that opportunity to get those other things through the door when we otherwise wouldn't be able to."
As Skybound's aspirations continue to grow, the company is building out its portfolio of internal talent as well, hiring people who can help usher through original creations not just in the comic, television and movie worlds, but also in video games. Last year, Skybound brought on Dan Murray, a former vice president at gaming-centric transmedia company Foundation 9 Entertainment, to head up the company's interactive division.
From train wreck to game of the year
That the only two currently existing big Walking Dead video games can serve as a perfect case study for the importance of creator ownership is, perhaps, just a lucky bit of coincidence.
In 2012, Telltale Games reinvigorated adventure games with its release of the highly praised The Walking Dead video game. The game, which was followed by a successful second season in 2013, garnered game of the year awards from the likes of Wired and USA Today — and Polygon — and was praised for its strong writing, acting and use of the source material.
In 2013, Activision published the Terminal Reality-developed first-person shooter The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. It was, to put it mildly, a train wreck. Racking up an average score of just 32 on Metacritic, the game was eviscerated by critics for its bland settings, broken mechanics and terrible writing.
How did two games born out of the same source material have such wildly different results?
One was created with the help of Kirkman; the other wasn't.
"We had nothing to do with that," Kirkman says, when I bring up Survival Instinct. "That was the Activision/AMC game."
Survival Instinct, it turns out, came about because of what Kirkman calls a "very unique licensing situation."
"Skybound has licensing control of Walking Dead outside of the television show," he says. "We can do our own games, T-shirts, whatever, based on the comic book series. Then AMC has their own licensing division that licenses the television show. Much the same way that Lord of the Rings was in a similar situation. The difference being, the game that AMC did was not very good, and the game that we did [with Telltale] was awesome."
Kirkman jokes that the Telltale game is a title that he shouldn't take credit for, but does anyway.
"It's a fantastic game," he says, adding that he plays the game and keeps up with development. "It's weird for me, because I'm in calls and story meetings and stuff — 'Hey, we're gonna do this. We're gonna kill this person.' But then when I play the game I'm like, 'Hey, they did that well.'"
He says he's also been playing Telltale's Game of Thrones.
"I haven't gotten the second chapter of the Game of Thrones game yet," he says. "But I did play the first Game of Thrones chapter, and at the end of it I was like, 'Whoa, what happened? What's going on?' And then I realized, 'Oh, this is what it's like for people.'"
Kirkman says he doesn't think Activision's flop harmed the property or the potential of future Walking Dead video games, because people nowadays understand some of the complexities surrounding licensing. Murray, president of Skybound Interactive, added that while some people bring up how bad Survival Instinct was, it just creates an "opportunity for a conversation."
"The strategy that we're trying to go out there and do is, we're not just a licensing shop," Murray says. "We're more in the spirit of a production shop. We're trying to augment development in a lot of different ways. I've gone and out and talked to developers and it's been a very easy message to sell, because we already have a relationship directly with Telltale. It proves that by having the creator involved with the developer, the product became much better. We were able to stretch it into something that a lot of people felt was something new. It felt like a new story, new characters, almost like a new IP within this existing universe. A lot of times with licensed products, you don't have that. The developer doesn't have the flexibility to do that."
And this comes at a time when licensed games seem to be on the way out, or at least not nearly as popular and successful as they once were. Murray says the key is making sure you pick properties that deserve a video game.
"Whether you're building an adventure story or a platformer or an RPG, it doesn't matter," he says. "If you're looking to come up with the game first, what is it that creatively dictates what you should go out there and try to do? Versus the other way, which is typically where you get a license and then you look at ways to milk money out of it. It becomes a business proposition first. If you focus on the creator first and dig in with the creators and the developers, instead of treating them as contractors, and allow them to own the property and own the business around the game, then you have a different conversation as far as how you treat them as partners."
That bucks the traditional approach to licensed games, which often are tied to the release of something, typically in hopes of helping to promote it.
"We look at things in a much different way," Kirkman says. "We're trying to make sure that all these games exist because they're good games, as opposed to because it's a popular license. A good example of that is this Air game we're doing."
Air is an upcoming movie created through Skybound that will star Norman Reedus (who plays Daryl Dixon on The Walking Dead). But the game itself won't have Reedus in it. In fact, the game won't even be a retelling of the movie's story.
Kirkman says they avoided that because it would have created a derivative experience, not an additive one.
"What we're doing instead is taking the story of what Air did, taking the writer and director of that movie, or the co-writer of that movie, Christian Cantamessa, who's big in video games, and he is actively participating in producing this next game that's going to be set in the same world with different characters who have their own story," Kirkman says. "The video game is not going to be a derivative experience where you have to watch the movie or understand the movie. It's going to be something where you can experience both things separately. The game itself will have its own complete story experience that will fulfill any kind of enjoyment without being dependent on the movie."
The game, which is due out sometime this year on Steam, tablets and potentially consoles, is in development by Gaming Corps. The company's previous works include Kill the Dot and Riddick: The Merc Files. The game is meant to be an episodic adventure-mystery title that is taking a page from Telltale's approach to game development.
A dozen games in the works.
Skybound is awash in comic creations, but it also has an entire division dedicated to gaming headed up by Murray.
"My hope is that all of them will be realized. Because of the type of deals we're putting together, we're not doing game development — we're not doing deals in the traditional sense where there's a timeline with all these restrictions and forcing people into that. We're doing games of many different scopes. Not everything is a big Starbreeze game or a Telltale game. We're trying to find ways to integrate into existing games with DLC packs."
An example of the latter would be the recent deal with Argentinian developer Pixowl, which introduced Invincible to mobile game The Sandbox. The add-on for the game is an example of the smaller things Skybound wants to do. How the deal came about also shows how easy the company can be to work with.
"I was speaking at this conference called the Gaming Insider Summit," Murray says. "During the panel, [co-founder Arthur Madrid] from Pixowl raised his hand and asked me some question. From there we had a conversation. It didn't take very long for us to do that deal, because I saw the game and saw right away how fun and unique it was. We had an existing audience. We were interested in what we could do with Invincible as far as introducing it to the game space. It felt like that was an excellent way to do that."
Of the dozen things Skybound is currently working on in games, only a few have been announced.
There's the work with Pixowl, which continues. There's continuing work with Telltale on its series. (Murray calls Telltale the company's "premier partner.") There are a lot of Skybound characters in indie multiplayer game IDARB. (Murray sees this as a way to introduce a cross-section of the company's characters to a game in a "more playful way.") There's the Air project and a couple of other announcements coming this summer. The biggest traditional game the company is currently working on with a developer is the Walking Dead title being developed by Swedish game maker Starbreeze Studios, Murray says.
Kirkman says the Starbreeze game is Payday-esque but with a much grander scope. Starbreeze's Payday and Payday 2 are cooperative online games that have players working together in first-person shooters to pull off heists. Murray says Skybound and Starbreeze will have a lot more to share about their game at E3.
"What can I say? Not much," Murray says. "I think it's safe to assume that we're going to be telling a wide variety of non-linear sorts of entry points to Walking Dead. I'd look to what they've done in the past and see where that is heading. We're not just going to leverage Payday 2. They're going for a much more ambitious approach to it. The team has come up with some big ideas. I can tell you that it's not going to be a small game. It's not going to lack for innovation.
"These games start and then they build; that's the point."
I ask Murray what Skybound's appetite is for games like that — big AAA games.
"It's interesting," he says. "There's this divergence going on right now where there are AAA games, but that space is seemingly shrinking into an almost atrophied thing that's not changing very much. Then you have this massive indie scene that's always changing, but it doesn't produce a Call of Duty. The AAA independent game studios, like Starbreeze, they're still out there. A lot of them are still making big traditional games. We're having conversations with all those folks. They're all looking at what Starbreeze has done. They've been extremely successful. A lot of them have been making headway going into this transition, where they can take a bit more of a front seat in how they run their games business over time."
So the ambition and desire is there, Murray says, but it takes more time to figure out how to fund those titles.
All of Skybound's approach to gaming seems centered around that important relationship between original creator and creation. It's what drives the decision and what prevents Skybound — at least so far — from helping to create a crappy licensed game.
"The key that I think is important," Kirkman says, "is that we're not doing,'Hey, it's Daryl Dixon running around shooting zombies because you like Daryl Dixon,' or 'It's Rick Grimes doing this because you like Rick Grimes.' We're telling our own stories and doing our own things, almost as if they're original games. Air is a movie. It's co-written and directed by Christian Cantamessa. It's about Norman Reedus' character and Djimon Hounsou's character in the world that they're in and all the different things that happen to them. The game takes place in the same world, but it doesn't feature the same characters. It has its own story. It has its own entry point. Christian, who came from the video game world, is working directly on the game as well. And so instead of it being a derivative experience where you kind of enjoyed a movie so you play the game, and it's not as good as the movie, we're doing a thing that's its own experience and stands on its own as a cool game, as opposed to just being a licensing barnacle to this popular movie.
"That's what we try to do in all our things. We try to come up with some way to make it exist in its own right, as opposed to cashing in on the success of Walking Dead or whatever we're doing."
The same is true for Telltale's game. Telltale's staff can, Kirkman says, come to him at any time and run ideas by him. They don't run their concepts by someone who's thinking about how the game can be made valuable; they're running it by the person who cares deeply about his own creation and knows on some very deep level what does and doesn't work.
"Because I understand every facet of the Walking Dead world, I know when you're breaking those parameters and when you're playing in them correctly," Kirkman says. "I'm able to give Telltale the leeway and the freedom to do what they do well, as opposed to trying to dictate to them what I think Walking Dead should be, to a certain extent, if that makes sense."
Traditionally, licensed games have been terrible because they are often pinned to a set release date and with a set motive in mind; everything else is secondary.
"That's the simple answer right there," Kirkman says. "Most licensed games have some lackluster element to them because the licensee says, 'You have to hit this date. Game's not good? Nobody cares.'
"We'll just push things back to make sure it's good."
From comics to bedsheets, television and fabric
"There's this soulless corporate idea of transmedia, but then there's also an organic, almost accidental transmedia, which I think is a little bit truer," Kirkman says when I ask him how Skybound isn't simply a transmedia company.
The difference seems to be both in the intentions and how the many medium-crossing deals come about.
Where typical transmedia deals involve carefully plotted rollouts of a brand to comics, movies, TV, bedsheets, you name it, what Skybound does is more based on what the team thinks makes the most sense, not necessarily what makes the most money.
In a way, a big part of Skybound is about protecting creators from companies looking to snag a property and transmedia it.
That lesson all comes back to The Walking Dead for Kirkman. He says he had a lot of opportunities popping up as the comic made the leap to the television show. They all promised small chunks of money in return for small amounts of rights for that property.
Holding out, making sure you retain your rights to a property, doesn't just mean you'll make more money in the long run; it also means your creation will continue to flourish as you continue to shape it, Kirkman says.
"Holding those rights was more valuable than taking those deals," he says about his early days discussing The Walking Dead's future. "And so it kind of got to a point where I was defending this thing with Walking Dead that was very important to me. But by defending that it gave me the opportunity to do the stuff I'm doing now."
That also means that Skybound, which started out as an imprint of Image Comics, doesn't always think a new creation has to start out as a comic book. That's in part because Kirkman, who still values comics most, doesn't want to use the medium as a means to an end. For instance, he doesn't want comics to become a proof of concept for a movie.
"That's something that we'll never do," he says. "If we come up with an idea that's perfect for TV, but doesn't really fit in the comic space, we just won't do the comic. While we are working in video games and TV and movies and comics, not everything we do has to plug into every one of those sections of the entertainment world.
"We're just trying to make the best stuff possible."
In terms of his take on what makes a good video game, Kirkman says he thinks there are a lot more opportunities than people realize.
"There are certain out-of-the-box ways of thinking that people don't necessarily do," he says. "I think there are games where people are like, 'That could never be turned into a movie.' But they just haven't thought of the right way yet. I'd say there are definitely some things that can't translate. I'm not going to box myself in by saying something I've done could never fit as that, because we just haven't thought of it yet. But I feel like there are certain things that should never be.
"Like, what's the Destiny movie? The beauty of Destiny is building this character and inhabiting this world. If we were just watching those random guys you create talk to each other, I don't want to see that movie. 'Cool helmet, bro! I couldn't get those boots! I worked really hard.'"
Essentially, Murray says, it comes down to that initial creative idea.
"Everything begins with what Robert was saying — does this make sense as a comic, a game?" Murray says. "You start with the one idea. What we try to do is find creators in those fields, and if it makes sense to go in that direction, find that creative property."
And it's important for Skybound to find those creators and those properties before someone else snatches them up, like the Marvels and DCs of the entertainment world.
Murray says they use a sort of network of creators to help scout out future projects. In the video gaming world, that means finding studios that have made a transition from simply creating games for publishers to running a game both as a business and entertainment product.
They're also scouting indies. Earlier this month, Skybound Entertainment announced it was teaming up with IndieCade, which some call the video game industry's Sundance, to create programs to bring more awareness to indie gaming projects, and that it's also exploring the idea of creating a video channel for IndieCade nominees and winners.
"We're talking to a lot of young developers or, I should say, new development teams of certain kinds, some of them veterans in the game space, about new ideas," Murray says. "We're having conversations. A big part of our transition from where we've been, as far as leveraging our portfolio and having these conversations with multiple potentials, is new IP. It doesn't matter as far as the scope and the size. What matters is the idea, whether or not it fits with what our fans want. When we look at things, it's not about what we see as an opportunity for us as much as, it's an opportunity for our fans to engage with us. That's where you build a path to success."
In some ways, this seems all about Kirkman trying to pave that path to success he used. To make it easier for ambitious, talented creators to find their success. And he sees that happening on its own already to some degree with video games.
"The technology has gotten to a point where I feel like teenagers are making games and putting them online," he says. "The pipeline for getting them to consumers and the technology with which you create them is very much coming to the space where I was when I was making comics.
"I knew, from working at a comic shop, how to make a comic and how to get it into comic stores. Now video games have gotten to a point where kids who are about 19 can say, 'I know how to make a game and get it in front of people.'"
And services like YouTube, Twitch, Hulu and Netflix are in some ways doing that for television.
"It's getting to a point where a network is basically just a website," he says. "It's very easy to build a website. YouTube and things like that are making it very easy for people to make shows and movies and things like that. We're moving into a place where people will be able to create their own content and own it all and control it all in the same way you do in comics. That is a huge transition. It's leading to all these amazing indie games that are doing crazy business and are fun and innovative."
Comics, too, continue their march to more creative freedom.
"I think that Walking Dead, to a certain extent, has made people more aware" of indie comics, he says. "They were always aware of the possibilities of doing creator-owned comics, but having Walking Dead out there and my dumb face on Conan O'Brien and all these weird things that have happened to me makes people a bit more aware of how easy it is. Honestly, I am a moron. If I can do it anybody can do it. Someone like Brian K. Vaughan is infinitely more intelligent than me. The future of something like Saga can dwarf what I've done with Walking Dead."
Kirkman has his creative touch involved in myriad things, but he remains faithfully, loyally, a comic book creator first.
"Comics are a medium that is dependent on an individual; 10 people can read the same comic and all get a different experience out of it," he says. "I think that's awesome. Because the pacing and so many other things, the inflection on dialog and all this other stuff, is based on you. That freedom for an audience member to kind of control their experience is really awesome and unique. You might read them at a different speed and get a different thing out of them. I think that's the coolest thing about comics."
But as he's grown as a creator, it's obvious that his early ambitions, that drive to fix the comic book industry, has grown to encompass all of these other fields.
When I ask him about that, if his goal has broadened to include the other things he works on — TV, movies and video games — he falls back into the blunt honesty powered by that fear.
"I don't know," he says. "My goal is to not be homeless, so I think in that respect I've succeeded. Anything after that is gravy. So I don't know."
Kirkman knows he's not an expert in television, movies and games, so the notion of expanding what he says about comics to them might be absurd. But ...
"But I do think it's somewhat ridiculous that you can create a TV show and not really have an ownership stake in it," he says. "I would say that a long-term goal for me would be to try and get to a point where I can self-finance shows in the way that I self-finance comics, own shows in the way I own comics. That's, in a sense, an unobtainable goal. But even though that's something that will probably never happen, I like to give myself something to work toward. That's probably the end goal.
"In comics, I think things are changing. Image Comics in particular, nobody would have expected eight years ago that there would be this number of amazing, ground-breaking comics coming from the absolute top creators in the field coming out of that company. There's probably, like, 30 really important comics coming out right now that people will be talking about for decades. That's all coming out of one company. I think it's because of the creator rights deal that Image gives. Skybound is some part of that. But I think in a sense that's transforming the way comics are done, which is going to change the industry for the better for years to come."