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Robert Kirkman on the ‘Really, Really Ugly’ History of the Comic-Book Industry

Robert Kirkman Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Nearly ten years ago, Robert Kirkman recorded a manifesto. In a video entitled “Mission Statement by Robert Kirkman,” the writer and creator of Image Comics’ The Walking Dead — at the time just a comic book — spoke about why he would no longer work for the so-called “Big Two” publishers, Marvel and DC.* His plan was to only make comics that would allow him to own the underlying intellectual property, rather than let his destiny be controlled by corporate behemoths. It proved to be a turning point in the recent history of sequential art, inspiring other creators to also take control in an industry that has long sucked up ideas generated through cheap labor.

The historical injustice done to comics writers and artists is one of the main focuses of Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics, a documentary series that debuts Monday night on AMC. It’s a collection of stand-alone docs, overseen by Kirkman, about salient tales from the industry’s past. The first round of episodes tackles stories ranging from writer-artist Jack Kirby’s battle for co-creating much of the Marvel universe, to the rise and fall of diversity-oriented Milestone Media, and the saga of Kirkman’s own beloved Image Comics. We caught up with him to talk about how 9/11 affected superhero fiction, what potential topics didn’t make the cut, and finding out that actor Michelle Rodriguez is a huge geek. (Note: This interview was conducted before the comics industry was rocked by news that DC editor Eddie Berganza had been accused of sexual misconduct, which led to his suspension by the company.)

What were the origins of this show?
Well, AMC recognized how successful Preacher and The Walking Dead and various comic-book-related things have done on their network. Also, outside of their network, comics are very popular on TV. So, they came to us and they said, “Would you guys be interested in doing some kind of comic-book-focused docuseries? We don’t really know what the subject matter would be, but we really wanna explore this material in a little bit more depth.” So I started thinking about all the stories that comic-book creators tell after-hours about the history of comics, or things that they’ve hear from a friend, or that happened to them, or different creator stories, and it’s all quite fascinating. Some of it not quite appropriate to put on TV, to be completely honest. There’s a wealth of stories out there that are completely untold, and they all intertwine with these characters and stories and events that have kind of taken over pop culture. It was a really great opportunity to peel the curtain back, and show how much hard work and dedication have been put into these stories and the medium for many, many decades, and how that has resulted in this pop-culture goldmine that is driving the entire entertainment industry today.

What was your exact role with the show? Each episode has a different director, so I’m curious about what your influence was.
I worked with the directors and some of our research teams to try and figure out exactly which subjects would be the best to tackle and what angles that we would explore within those stories. I really just kinda oversaw the project. I kinda consider myself, maybe, the comic-book ambassador. I knew that, because my name was gonna be on this, and because I’m a very entrenched member of the comic community, it’s on me to make sure that this is accurate as possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been watching a History Channel show on comics, and I’m like, “That’s not how that happened.” Or, “That’s not what happened there.” Or, “That’s totally wrong there.” So it would be embarrassing if that were to happen here. With that said, I’m sure that there’s gonna be some aspect of one of these episodes that I slipped up on.

Yeah, I mean, I had my share of nitpicks.
You’re gonna have to me send me a list of the things we got wrong.

I mean, for example, the Jack Kirby and Stan Lee episode had them making up at the end of Jack’s life. I wrote a profile of Stan last year and it seemed pretty clear to me that they still weren’t on great terms back then. But we’ll leave that aside for the moment. Was it hard to get DC and Marvel to play ball, given that a lot of the episodes are pretty critical of them?
A little bit. DC seemed to cooperate a little more than Marvel did. We got access to [DC co-publisher] Jim Lee for the Image episode, which we’re very grateful for. They were very involved in the Milestone episode because they’re doing a Milestone relaunch. But, y’know, I think that a lot of the worst things that Marvel and DC have done in their history, hopefully, are behind them. I think that it’s different people at the helm at this point, and I think they recognize that. So, it wasn’t too terribly difficult. And it’s not like the people that work at DC don’t think that [Superman co-creators Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster were given the short end of the stick.

Along those lines, why do you think the comics industry has broken the hearts of so many creators?
I don’t know. If you go all the way back to vaudeville, the entertainment industry, as a whole, is absolutely brutal. I’m sure you could find some horrible stories in the world of book publishing. It’s just such a profit-driven endeavor that people tend to get steamrolled until there’s an awareness in the creative community that builds up that can prevent that. I think that things are on a much better footing in modern times, in the history of comic books, you can see that it was a really, really ugly business.

Yeah, I was gonna ask: What do you think the comics industry needs to do better these days?
I think the main problem is that when Marvel and DC Comics first started and everybody was creating all of these characters, there were not set work-for-hire rules, there were a lot of verbal contracts, and there was not a clear understanding as to what these creators were actually doing. So, some creators understood that they were collecting a paycheck, other creators did not quite have that understanding, and that led to some very ugly business. I think that, nowadays, there aren’t creators that work for Marvel and DC and create new characters for them without being fully aware that that’s completely work for hire, and those characters are going to be owned by those companies. That’s why you see so few new characters coming out of Marvel and DC, because people are aware of how it works and it just doesn’t happen. But I think there are companies like Image Comics that offer great alternatives to the larger publishers that retain rights. And so, at the very least, there are options in the industry now that weren’t present before. So I feel like we’re at a pretty good place.

One of the true delights of the series is the fact that Michelle Rodriguez keeps popping up. How’d that happen?
You never know when you bring people in, how they’re going to play, but she had such an enthusiasm, and was very knowledgeable, and was definitely into all of this stuff. We started realizing, “Oh, she’s got a lot to say about a lot of different subject matter.” And so, that’s why she got more and more prevalent in the episodes.

For the Wonder Woman episode, did you guys reach out to Jill Lepore, who wrote the big book about the character? I was surprised to not see her in the piece.
You know, I honestly don’t recall. I’d have to check with the director.

Why did you decide to do an episode about 9/11 and the war on terror? That one came out of left field for me.
We were just trying to think of moments in history where the comic industry had a pivot point. I think that’s something that anyone watching the episode can relate to because we all know where we were during 9/11. It’s a big part of all of our lives, but we also are all pretty familiar with how the world changed as a result of that, and how our perception of the world changed. It’s interesting to explore how that affected the comics world, and how the comics world changed the kind of stories that were being told, and all the different aspects of that. So just to see how something that we’re all so familiar with affected this medium that a lot of people aren’t quite familiar with. It seemed like an interesting episode.

How did the episode on Milestone come together? That was the highlight for me. It’s a story that hasn’t been told nearly as much as the others. Why did you choose to do it?
One, race is such a huge issue and has been for a long time, which I think is one of the themes of the episode. And it’s such an important story. We didn’t want everything to be about the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s. We didn’t want it to be all the early days of Marvel and the early days of DC. We already had a Wonder Woman episode, a Superman episode, and the Marvel episode, and so we wanted to try and make sure we were covering a lot of different eras in time. The Milestone story is just an absolutely great story. I mean, the story of those guys getting together and doing this — Denys Cowan and his childhood friend [Derek T. Dingle] — it’s pretty remarkable. So as we sat down to figure out what stories we would tackle, there was a point where we had 15 different episode ideas, and as we were narrowing things down and cutting things out, the Milestone episode just kept rising to the top. It became pretty clear early on that it was an episode we were gonna have to do.

What were some ideas that landed on the cutting room floor?
Well, I would have loved to do an episode about [writer-artist] Frank Miller. I think that his life story, especially his story with comics, is something that is really very important. I’d love to do an episode focusing on [writer] Alan Moore. One of my big ones was [writer-artist and Spider-Man co-creator] Steve Ditko, and we really struggled with Steve Ditko ’cause I wanted to put that in the first batch of episodes, but he’s so press shy, and there’s been so little done with him over the last few decades that it’s hard to do something that isn’t a direct copy of the thing that Jonathan Ross did for the BBC. So that was a difficult one, but I’m hoping that we can figure out a good angle and do it, because I think that Steve Ditko, sadly, is becoming kind of a forgotten architect of the comic-book industry at this point.

I wrote a profile of Ditko last year and managed to get him to open his office door for me. Before I could even finish saying “Mr. Ditko,” he closed it.
At least he opened it.

What did the show teach you about the comics industry? What did you learn that you didn’t know?
Jeez, man, gosh, that’s a tough question. I’m hoping that I knew a lot of things going into this, because if I didn’t, I never should’ve done it, but I don’t know. It is a tough business, and if anything, I think the best lesson for me to take from this is that, no matter how popular The Walking Dead gets, it’s just gonna be a … I could definitely be a forgotten creator at some point, or just be an interesting story some person tells. It’s interesting seeing the cycle of popularity, seeing just how long the time span of these characters actually is. I’m aware that Superman’s been around since the ’30s, but when you really get into it and you start studying the story of Siegel and Shuster, it really kinda shows you … The Walking Dead, as cool as it is being at the center of it as I am, it’s really just a drop in the bucket in the history of comics. And so I’ll be lucky if it ends up being more than a blip. I think it’s a little bit more than a blip. I mean, one of the things that you really come away with is what we were talking about earlier, which is that creator rights are in a different place now than they were, and The Walking Dead was a real turning point for that. You being able to control your own destiny with that.

Would you ever do an episode that’s just about making The Walking Dead?
I mean, I don’t know. I would prefer someone else do that one.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It has also been updated to reflect that Kirkman is the creator, not the co-creator, of The Walking Dead.

Robert Kirkman on the ‘Really Ugly’ History of Comic Books