Disegnare The Walking Dead. Intervista a Charlie Adlard

First of all, a mandatory question. After 13 years and more than one tv series, The Walking Dead remains an unstoppable transmedia phenomenon. What lies behind this success?

Two little men! Well, not so little… Robert Kirkman, myself and a fantastic team overseeing the rest of the comic. Not to blow our own trumpets, but I suppose that’s where it all came from. If it wasn’t for Robert e-mailing me, out of the blue, twelve years ago – nearly thirteen – saying “do you fancy working on this small comic I’m doing for Image?” this probably would not exist, so it is quite incredible.

You started working in the UK, and then you moved to American comics. Does your cultural and artistic background influence your work on TWD?

Yeah, sure. Being British, you are obviously brought up with a certain mentality, a certain work ethic. Moreover, the majority of artists that worked for British comics in the seventies and in the eighties did everything themselves, so they pencilled and inked. Therefore, you are brought up to do that, you just assume that is what you have to do, whereas American artists tend to specialize more as pencillers, or inkers. So I think that kind of mindset has been a determining factor. I was also being influenced – and in a more conscious manner – by French comics. And this sort of influence is stronger for me than your average British comics artist. I remember going to Angoulême back in the early nineties, and it was one of the most incredible professional experiences I’ve ever had. I was already aware of the obvious stuff from France, like Asterix, Tintin, Moebius and Métal Hurlant, but I couldn’t imagine the level of what was over there in Europe. Thus European and French comics have been a big influence later in my life as well, and those are the things that feed into my style for TWD.

One of the peculiarities of TWD is that the series spans over a long period of time. Characters grow older and the environment is modified. How do you deal with this temporal aspect?

It’s tricky, because we are trying to do things in a subtle manner. It’s not always like the issue 127, in which there is a two-year leap into the future. It’s almost day-to-day, and half the reasons we did do the two-year leap was that we realised we weren’t going to be able to tell the whole story at the length we were doing it, as three of four issues could just narrate a day in the life of the story. There are moments which we feel as natural occasions to show visible changes. A character grows a stubble, a beard or something like that. Occasionally, we have had a small timeskip to do a few things, because it’s virtually impossible to try and age characters every issue in a subtle way. You have got to pick your moments. It was brilliant to have that two year-leap because it felt like we were starting a new book, and a new level of creativity came in here. If we were feeling slightly stale just beforehand, we certainly weren’t after that, because it was the best thing both of us have ever done. It really reinvigorated the vision and the storytelling. Oh yeah, I am also trying to convey that the zombies are slowly decaying.

It is pretty noticeable, if you are attentive enough.

Yeah, and I am very conscious of the weather. The issues I’m doing now are set in autumn and the characters are slowly putting on more clothes, and we are getting into winter soon…things like that. It is totally different from the TV show, in which there is perpetual hot weather because they are filming it in Atlanta! (laughs). We do get the luxury of changing the seasons, which again visually helps, and it makes things more interesting.

How do you manage the workflow with Robert Kirkman, considering that must produce an issue on a monthly or even biweekly basis?

I always am the one – ironically – snapping at Robert’s heels. This is not to say he’s just sitting there being lazy, but that he’s juggling so many books. I mean, it is obvious that he can physically write a whole issue in one go and then go on to something else, but I don’t know how Robert manages it, to be honest. As for my own workflow, I suppose that the secret to my speed is that I am routine-type person. I enjoy the sort of regularity of going to work and getting the work done, and I set myself goals every day. And if I don’t I might get frustrated. Well, I might be weeks ahead and still get frustrated, because I set to do three pages in a certain day, and I do two and a half, and hence get frustrated. I am quite driven in that respect.

Working on such a tight schedule, don’t you regret having little or no time for other projects?

That is my only regret, actually. It’s the gilded cage that I am in. You can’t complain too much, for it’s been a creatively brilliant time. Moreover, the series has done so well, and the money is fantastic. Everything is great, but the only downside represents a particular problem for an artist. A writer can tackle multiple projects –  it’s just physically easier for a writer to do more than one issue – whereas an artist cannot. Being able to concentrate upon other works is the main reason I’ve started just doing pencils. In the States, All Out War was biweekly, so there were 12 issues coming out in six months. Therefore, the reason I went to pencil only was just to speed the process up, so I could do two issues a month. After that, I stayed on just doing pencils with the intention of doing other stuff. That was the idea, and I am doing something else, albeit slowly.  I am doing a French book called Vampire State Building for Soleil, of which there are two volumes now almost finished, so I am doing stuff in-between. People ask me what I will do when TWD does end – and it will end one day –, and I reply that I want to get better at my art. I’ll finally have time, for now it’s such a rush. There are pages I just look at with pure horror after a while.

However, there are also many advantages to working fast, because it means that you are not overthinking everything. A lot of stuff comes out naturally because you are not thinking. The worst thing in the world is to say “I want to do the best page ever today”. I’ll never happen. So the best option is not to worry about, and just let it flow, and that is the great thing about TWD. If you know it’s fast you just don’t have the time to think. But, by contrast, I am looking forward to the time when I can just sit back again and relax into a comic, and not doing such a big project like TWD, but doing mini-series, or one-shots. I’d like to spend four months on one single book, but without overthinking it at the same time, and still putting it away at the end of the day.

How do you change your approach when you draw the cover illustrations?

C: That tends to be a more thoughtful act than the average page. Basically, it’s again another simple process – Robert and I just thrive off simple processes. There is hardly any toing and froing, with us discussing issue after issue. He just basically sends a script, and I draw it. It’s as simple as that. And it’s the same with the covers. He sends in a description of what he would like, because obviously being the guy that knows what is in an issue he can give me a cover. Again, it is a bit frustrating, because sometimes it would be nice to know the plot of that issue, so I could up with some ideas. But I can’t, because I have no clue about what is going to happen three months ahead (since it has to go out in the American catalogue previews). So, he just sends a description, and I am allowed to adhere to it, or completely do something else. It really depends, so I just do it to how I see it. I see Robert’s description as very rough copies.

Is there a character you were particularly fond of, and you are sorry he or she has been killed off the series?

You know, no one really. I was quite sorry to see Ezekiel go. I like drawing Ezekiel.

He’s a very cool guy.

Yeah, it was a shame because I think that the guy had a lot more to do and to say. But I see what Robert does. The reader thinks that this character is going to be around for a long time, because he’s got all this potential, and he’s got the unresolved relationship with Michonne, and so on. And all of the sudden – pop! – he’s gone. And that’s the way of TWD: getting rid of a guy you think he’s going to stay because you least expect him to be the one who goes. So I understand the reason why Robert killed off Ezekiel, who is probably the most central character in that story arc. Apart from that no regrets, because I knew from the beginnig that TWD was going to be a book about this: “no one is safe”. Something that gives it half its power.

No one besides Rick and Carl, isn’t it?

No, even them are not safe. This is not a spoiler; it is just me theorizing. I think Rick or Carl could quite easily be killed and the book would not be affected, in terms of sales. We are not keeping these two guys on just because we think that if we get rid of them the book is doomed, and the show is going to collapse. No one is literally safe.

Recently, the Walking Dead tv series watchers have been thrilled by Negan. Do you think that Jeffrey Dean Morgan is able to portray the wickedness the original character?

Well, I hope so. I confess, I haven’t seen the episode yet. And I haven’t seen season six so I’m quite far behind. To be honest, I feel like watching the show is a bit like homework, because I am so obviously close to it. When I heard Jeffrey Dean Morgan was going to be the guy –  and I knew there was plenty of quite named actors who would audition for the role –  I thought it was the right choice, because the guy has got that twinkle which Negan needs. Unlike the Governor, who was not nearly as charismatic, Negan has to have that charisma, which Jeffrey can definitely bring to the character.

Speaking of your other projects other than TWD, one of the most interesting things you have done is Curse of the Wendigo. Would you like to tell us something about it, as it is not really spoken of?

It was published by Soleil, and it was in a bunch of other books that came out, just appearing without much fanfare. Apart from oversea stuff that was being reprinted in Franch, Wendigo was my first official French book. As I said before, I am a massive fan of the industry. Therefore, getting to do a book for the bande dessinée market was fantastic. I had been doing TWD for two or three years when I went to Angoulême –  I had not gone for quite a while –, and it was weird going back because for the first time for years I had taken a portfolio with me. Being a professional I didn’t need to take portfolios and show people my work, for it is published. But I wasn’t sure how much my work was known in the European marked, what they have seen. So I took obviously TWD, but I also took Savage that I had done for 2000AD. Since I had consciously drawn Savage in the European style, I thought that could have been my calling card to Europe. And funny enough, the editors I talked to were zeroing in on Savage as opposed to TWD. They heard of TWD, but they zeroed in on Savage. So I reached an agreement with Jean Wacquet, the editor-in-chief at Soleil. And eventually, a year or so later, I had the script of Wendigo to draw. I got a really nice script from Mathieu Missoffe, and of worked on it like I’m doing Vampire State Building, just in-between issues of TWD. It took quite a while to finish because, as you can see, it’s quite done in the style of your typical European stuff. It’s great to be doing The Vampire State even though it is for Soleil again, because Soleil has been taken over by Delcourt, my good friends who publish TWD in France. It’s perfect, as it’s like we are one big happy family now.