Interview: Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley

For anyone who has ever put pen to paper to try to create their own comics, the career of Robert Kirkman is the ultimate inspiration, moving from struggling self-publisher to underground hit to the go-to guy at Marvel in barely a half decade.

It all started in 1999, when Kirkman and artist Tony Moore began publishing the hilarious religious parable-cum-action epic Battle Pope as Studio Funk-O-Tron. “Self-publishing wasn’t fun,” says Kirkman. “Way too much work.” Kirkman’s writing caught the eye of Erik Larsen, who encouraged Kirkman and artist Cory Walker to make the move to Image Comics. “Erik Larsen really liked Cory Walker’s art, which he had seen in a SuperPatriot pinup Cory did,” Kirkman recalls. “He suggested we do a SuperPatriot mini [SuperPatriot: America’s Fighting Force], since Cory was so good at drawing the guy. From there on out, I did all my books at Image.”

Kirkman’s first two creator-owned books for Image couldn’t have been more different. The Walking Dead, featuring Battle Pope’s Moore on art, took the cliché of a world swarmed with zombies and instead focused on the human drama of the survivors. “I like to think of The Walking Dead as a very dramatic book,” says Kirkman, “so much so that the ‘zombie’ part takes a back seat.” Meanwhile, Invincible, with Walker on art, tackled the tried-and-true superhero epic, with a teenaged Mark Grayson developing superpowers and attempting to follow in the footsteps of his dad, Omni-Man, who carries a dark secret. Kirkman’s writing is uniformly excellent on both books, with dramatic scripts that never skimp on the laughs and a litany of genuinely shocking twists.

The audience for both books steadily grew through uniformly positive word of mouth, eventually catching the eye of Marvel, who signed Kirkman to a unique exclusive contract that allowed him to continue his creator-owned books at Image. “I’ve often said, when you do creator-owned stuff, the main selling point of the book is you,” notes Kirkman. “When you do corporate-owned books, the characters are a big part of the sales. So to a certain extent I think there are a lot of people buying my Marvel work that don’t even know who I am.” Kirkman has taken full advantage of what Marvel has to offer in Marvel Team-Up, from heavyweights like Spider-Man and Wolverine to the second-tier heroes making up the upcoming “League of Losers” arc, and will soon add the insanely popular Ultimate X-Men to his already lengthy resume. The busiest man in comics, Kirkman still creates The Walking Dead, with new artist Charlie Adlard, and Invincible, with Ryan Ottley taking over the art chores. “It just became clear that Cory Walker wasn’t going to be able to keep up with a monthly schedule,” notes Kirkman, “and with Cory’s blessing, I asked Ryan to stay on full time.” The pair’s work on Invincible has been nothing short of phenomenal , resulting (in this writer’s opinion, anyway) in, hands down, the best superhero comic published today.

Getting to draw the book is a treat for Ottley, one of its biggest fans. “The stories are so great on this book,” says Ottley. “I’m just happy to be working on [it]. That blurb we put on the cover every month—‘Probably the best superhero comic in the universe’—I believe that, and I think it becomes more true every month.”

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Full Interview

The Complete Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley Interview

November 2005 – By Jason Green

How did you make the transition from self-publisher at Funk-O-Tron to working at Image?

Robert Kirkman: Erik Larsen really liked Cory Walker's art, which he had seen in a SuperPatriot pin-up Cory did. When he found out we were pitching a book called Science Dog, he and others at Image suggested we do a SuperPatriot mini instead [SuperPatriot: America’s Fighting Force – Ed.], since Cory was so good at drawing the guy. From there, it became clear that Battle Pope had hit its ceiling and while it pained me to do so, I brought it to an end, with hopes of continuing it some day. From there on out, I did all my books at Image. Self-publishing wasn't any fun. Way too much work.

How did Ryan end up becoming the regular artist on Invincible?
 
RK: It just became clear that Cory Walker wasn’t going to be able to keep up with a monthly schedule. I found Ryan on Penciljack.com and asked him if he’d like to fill-in for issue #8. And when he finished issue #8, Cory and I had realized that he would never be able to get the book on track, and with Cory's blessing, I asked Ryan to stay on full time.

Ryan Ottley: Are you sure? I thought I was on full-time from the beginning.
 
RK: No, it was supposed to just be a fill-in because #7 was so late, but then you finished #8 before Cory even finished #7…that’s why it took so long for #8 to ship; we were still waiting on #7.

RO: Huh! See, what do I know? [laughs]
 
With all the different things Robert keeps throwing at you, like the Allen the Alien issue, is there anything you find particularly hard to draw?

RO: Actually, it’s mostly the quiet scenes, like Mark talking to his mom in the kitchen. It’s kind of like, “oh, man, another talking head scene…” Those scenes take the longest, not because they’re difficult to draw but because it’s hard to keep my motivation up.

RK: Just wait ‘til we get to the “all kitchen” issue! Just Mark and his mom in the kitchen for 22 pages!
 
How far in advance is the book planned?

RK: Right now, I’ve got rough outlines up through issue #75, but that wasn’t always the case. There was a point in time when I thought #13 would be the last issue, so it seemed silly to me to plan that far in advance, but once the book’s sales started increasing right around then, it seemed safe to start planning further ahead.

Why do you think Invincible had such an upswing in readership?
 
RK: Well, it finally started coming out on a more regular basis once Ryan came aboard, plus I signed the exclusive deal with Marvel, plus the book was optioned for a movie, Wizard magazine started covering the book regularly, and the book was nominated for the Eisner Award for best new series, all within a very short time period. The book was in the press all the time, and that kind of boosted its profile.
 
When you do signings like this, do you tend to see more of the Marvel stuff or more of your Image work?

RK: It's a good mix. I've often said, when you do creator-owned stuff, the main selling point of the book is YOU. When you do corporate-owned books, the characters are a big part of the sales. So to a certain extent I think there are a lot of people buying my Marvel work that don't even know who I am… and wouldn't care to have the books signed by me. Because of that, I think there's a little bit more of the Image stuff being brought to me at
signings.

Now, you have two different sides in the minds of a lot of people, there’s the superhero guy, and then there’s the zombie guy.

RK: Well, as far as the “zombie” guy thing goes, I really only have two zombie books: The Walking Dead and the Marvel Zombies mini-series coming up. And that one was another case of Marvel coming to me, because they had introduced this world in Ultimate Fantastic Four where all the Marvel superheroes had been turned into zombies. They asked me if I’d do it and I said “sure.” I like to think of The Walking Dead as a very dramatic book, so much so that the "zombie" part takes a back seat. I'd much prefer being the superhero guy, and the drama guy… but I love zombies, so I'll take whatever anyone is happy enough to give me.

Do you see much of a crossover between fans of Walking Dead and your other works?

RK: Oh, yeah. I mean, there's certainly a good number of people who are zombie movie fans who just pick up The Walking Dead but any comic fans who first read my work in The Walking Dead seem to eventually find their way over to Invincible and the Marvel stuff.

Do you guys collaborate much on the story for Invincible, or is it more of a “one guy writes it, one guy draws it” kind of thing?”

RK: Oh, no, it’s ALL me, baby! [laughs]
 
RO: No, it’s pretty much all him. I mean, the stories are so good on this book…

RK: I think you meant “great.”

RO: [laughs] Right, great. No, the stories are so great on this book, I just work with what he gives me. I’m just happy to be working on the book. That blurb we put on the cover every month, “Probably the best superhero comic in the universe,” I believe that, and I think it becomes more true every month.
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