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Charlie Adlard: Portrait of the Artist as a Walking Dead Man, Pt 1
Back in the nineties, I had the pleasure of working with Charlie Adlard on Topp’s The X-Files comic. Ages later, the man who draws The Walking Dead was kind enough to spend some time catching up on Skype. And it all went something like this…
Stefan: I leave you alone a while, and you’re surrounded by zombies. Still collecting Marvin the Martian?
Charlie: Good to see you again! I’ve come off that obsession, now it’s Lego Star Wars.
The X-Files comic was based on a show, now there’s a TV series based on your comic – kind of a full circle, eh?
A full circle, but in reverse.
Point taken. Looking back, how do you see the evolution of your work?
If you look at The Walking Dead #7, then #89, which I’m working on now, there’s a definite change, hopefully a progression. It’s weird working on a regular title, because the fans can see how your artwork changes. On a miniseries you might vanish a while, then come back with a different style.
The older I get the less influenced I am by comics and the more by things beyond the medium, primarily a lot of American illustrative art, film poster stuff. Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak, Robert McGuiness, etc…. I lean towards the less representational.
You’ve always worked with a lot of blacks. I imagine with a lot of black areas, the shapes just kind of pop out at you, which lends itself to being more abstract.
Good description. More line work, more shade, and it tends to look more representational. With blacks you’re automatically going into an off-kilter realm. I do still aim to be representational. I firmly believe that to break the rules you have to know them, and I don’t even know if I know all the rules. But, I pore over this stuff and think it infuses my work.
I’ve always been really interested in design. If I had the time and the technical know-how, I’d like to design the whole comic. It’d be great to do the whole thing, but… I’m not Superman! I’m a bit slower than I was when I was doing The X-Files. Then, I could do an issue in two weeks. I look back and say, how did I manage that? Now, on average, it’s about three weeks per issue, so I’ve dropped a week somehow. It’s probably an age thing.
You’re still one of the fastest in the business, so that may be as close as we humans get. Expert Chess players say they no longer see the pieces, they see patterns. When you read a script from Robert, do you see the whole page or the panels?
That hasn’t changed since you and I worked together. I don’t see the whole page. I see individual panels, read each as a section. I’ll lay it all out. A lot is sketched. Faces can be fairly detailed, but the background can just be parallel lines or a grid.
When I ink it, which is the bit I really enjoy, that’s when I see the whole thing. A good analogy is when I was in college studying film. Shooting all day was a bit of a bore. It was the editing I enjoyed most. For me, that’s when it actually came together and became a creative piece.
Are you still straight Bristol board and pen/pencil?
Yeah. Technically I’ll do a few bits on computer, and I scan it to send it off, but 95% is pure hand on paper. I remember you were the first guy to say, do you have a computer? I remember thinking, what is this thing, a computer, that you talk of?
I bought my first scanner just to send you references. Does Robert get into angles?
His scripts are sort of like yours, actually. He doesn’t give me angles. He tends to say large panel, small panel, wide panel, sometimes “tall” panel.
The book’s dialogue heavy, so I also get a lot of Close-Up on X, Close-Up on Y, CU on X, CU on Y – which is fine, because he’s giving me the space to play around.
I see it as a movie in my head anyway, so I’m always thinking of the angles, and, especially with something like The Walking Dead, how to make people talking to each other look interesting.
Drawing pages of dialogue is always the hard part.
Any particular Walking Dead page or cover you were particularly happy with?
There’s one interior page that had a funny genesis. It’s a double-page spread at the end of issues 78, just before the zombie horde attacks the compound in Washington, D.C. Robert actually had the gall to write in the script, “Zombies form in the street, blah-blah-blah, make this the best panel you’ve ever drawn.” And I just thought, you bastard!
But, I have to admit, I think I did do one of my best panels. Normally, the worst thing you can do as an artist, and I’m sure it’s the same for writers, is say to yourself, “Today I’m going to draw/write the best thing I’ve ever done.” It doesn’t happen that way. The best work comes out when you least expect it, or when you’re in a zone where you really don’t care. So the fact that I went in with Robert’s comment, and still did something good, was, I think, phenomenal.
One of my favorite covers is one of the earlier ones – a fish-eye helmet view of the zombies. I also like the one for Fear the Hunters, which Delcourt used as a cover. It’s just the feet of these hunters, with bloody footprints going off into the shadows. There’s another of Rick and Laurie, a really simple one of them embracing. He’s cradling her when she was pregnant.
I kind of like the simple ones more – the more designed they are, as it were, the more I liked them. The problem with doing covers is I don’t know what’s going on in the book. They need the cover for solicitations, long before I’ve even seen the script. Sometimes I’d like to come back to it and say how about this for an idea? But I can’t because I haven’t a clue as to what’s going on. To be honest, half the time Robert’s not that sure what’s going to be happening.
What’s the grossest thing you’ve been asked to draw?
You can’t get any grosser than the torture scene with Michonne – it’s the only time I actually phoned Robert up and said, hey, let’s talk about this. Especially, since I’ve been such a big fan of the horror being off camera. I’ve always believed your mind has the ability to conjure something a lot worse than an artist or filmmaker can.
The funny thing for me is that thinking about it is the hard part, reading it in the script. By the time I draw it, it’s just marks on paper. I’ve deconstructed it by then. I wouldn’t say it was emotionless. I’m not sitting there like some robot, but I’m just in the zone, and it’s pen and ink, that’s all it is. I’m not physically smearing pig’s entrails on the art.
Any horror film influences?
Ironically I’m not a particularly a big zombie fan. I say that light-heartedly. I don’t dislike zombies, but I like them as much as vampires or werewolves. Some of my favorite horror movies are, again, ironically, the ones where the horror tends to be off-screen, like The Haunting or The Innocents from the sixties, more recently, Halloween or The Shining.
Having said that, yet again ironically, my favorite horror film is probably John Carpenter’s The Thing. It hit me at the right age, sixteen ,and was a total influence. After I’d seen it, I was inspired to make my own movie, just like the kids in Super 8.
What was your horror movie about?
It was called Sweet Dreams. It predated Nightmare on Elm Street, and had a similar theme, about a ghost that haunted people in their dreams. So… Wes Craven I’m gonna get ya! I also did a sequel, Sweet Dreams 2, which had a larger budget – all because of The Thing.
Is film something you’d like to do again?
Not really. Doing comics is very egotistical because it’s all your own thing. I never saw it as a springboard to something else. If I left, I’d be a small fish in an extremely big pond, and I quite enjoy being a big fish in a small pond. It’s as much creative control as you can have in any art form – perhaps not so much on The X-Files. Unless circumstance forces me out, I’ll be a comic artist until the day I die.
The only thing that might take me away would be if someone asked me to be a conceptual artist/consultant for a film. That would be interesting.
You’ve said The Walking Dead is not a zombie book. You’ve likened it to Lost, saying it’s really about the people, not the monsters.
Out of all the iconic monsters, let’s face it, zombies are the dullest. They’re shambling corpses with no personality. Compare that to something like Dracula or the Wolfman, where there’s reasoning, character. With a zombie, there’s nothing. You have to focus on other things.
On the flipside, would The Walking Dead be as a successful if it were a WWII book or a plague story? Isn’t there something about those boring hunks of flesh that makes it click?
Interesting point. As a horror concept, zombies work as a group, never as an individual. There’s hardly any menace to them, they’re classically slow, easy to kill, easy to get away from. Where the horror comes in is in the whole apocalyptic feel. They’re the only monster that really represents the end of humanity, the end of the world. On a more intimate level, it’s the loss of personal humanity as well.
They’re also the only monster you don’t have to feel bad about killing.
Sure – they’re dead people and should just be dead. We’re far removed from the King Kong territory, where you feel for the poor, pathetic beast. Most movie monsters generate some sort of sympathy, whereas zombies, no remorse. It’s a good thing to kill them.
I’ve described zombies as the biggest McGuffin in the whole book. To a certain extent that’s true, but there are other reasons they work. People come because of the zombies, then, hopefully, stay because of the characters. I’m not saying we use zombies as a calculated way to get readers, as opposed to setting it in the wild west. It is a zombie story, in the end. I’m certainly not embarrassed to admit that’s what we’re doing.