‘The Walking Dead’ Creator Spills the Brains: ‘This World Makes Us Soft’

Robert Kirkman, the mastermind behind ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Fear the Walking Dead,’ opens up about swimming zombies and the upcoming sixth season.

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

No one who survived the first season of Fear the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead’s Los Angeles-set spin-off, expected it to end quite the way it did. Sure, an innocent woman was sacrificed to the season finale Big Death gods (RIP Liza, see you at Litchfield). But the final act also introduced a new, mold-breaking “character” who could change everything about the show: Abigail, a yacht. Season 2, apparently, will take the zombie drama to the high seas.

It’s the Walking Dead franchise’s way of finally answering what practical-minded viewers have been asking Fear’s Georgia-set counterpart for years: if all land is hopelessly overrun by the undead, why not retreat to the ocean? Aboard the snazzy, supersized Abigail, our group of survivors gets a chance to weather the zombie apocalypse on the Pacific Ocean while the rest of society crumbles.

Of course, none of this means smooth sailing for long. Robert Kirkman, creator of the ever-expanding Walking Dead universe, cautions that Travis, Madison and their extended family will still have to contend with other seaboard survivors. “[The characters] are probably not the only people who had this idea and so the water is probably going to be fairly populated and dangerous,” he tells The Daily Beast.

Even without the threat of human bloodlust, there’s still the problem of food, water, and other supplies the survivors need to live—meaning that staying aboard Abigail is only a temporary solution. “I don’t think these characters would necessarily go deep out to sea,” says Kirkman. “I think they would stay along the coast, possibly going [onto shore] for supply runs, things like that. A yacht might actually be a fairly stable and secure base of operations, moving forward.”

And then there’s, y’know, the zombies. Aside from the hungry walkers prowling on the shore or on enemy boats, there may or may not be herds lurking below the surface. “I think that zombies don’t really notice boundaries so much, so a zombie wandering into the ocean or walking off the edge of a boat would certainly end up on the ocean floor. I think that kind of thing would naturally happen,” says Kirkman.

The 39-year-old comic book writer is busier than ever overseeing the multimillion-dollar empire built on his Image Comics zombie saga. That means two cable records-shattering TV shows, a few web series, the comics, and the occasional novel (he maintains a movie isn’t inevitable, “but you never know.”) The Daily Beast called him up to talk about The Walking Dead’s sixth season which premieres Sunday, Fear the Walking Dead, and the criticism often leveled at both shows.

Historically, stories about zombies have often been allegories for any number of societal fears. Fear the Walking Dead seems to critique our reliance on the first-world luxuries that make us so susceptible to real disasters.

Yeah, I mean, I think there’s certain aspects of life and civilization that need to be explored and certainly I’m open to that kind of thing. I think if anything, Fear the Walking Dead is probably an examination of just how comfortable we’ve gotten with our modern society and how it doesn’t necessarily prepare us for any kind of disaster. Living in Los Angeles for the past few years, I certainly know that earthquake preparedness is a very important part of life and it’s something that I’ve always meant to read up on but, nope, it’s not something I’ve really gotten around to. If anything serious were to happen, I would more than likely be screwed. So that’s kind of a statement about what a lot of people find themselves in. This world makes us soft, I think. That’s been a main theme in Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead.

Fear also seemed to have a pretty pessimistic view of how the government and military would handle an outbreak. They withhold information from the public at first then just abandon them without a word. Then you have hyper-macho characters like the National Guardsmen who told Travis, “I can do whatever I want, I’ve got guns.”

Well I don’t want to be overly pessimistic about how the government would handle a crisis, but I feel like if something as all-encompassing as a zombie apocalypse were to ever happen…what we tried to show with Fear the Walking Dead was this is something that would happen really rapidly and it was happening all over the country, all over the world at the exact same time. It’s an uncontained phenomenon that would very quickly overwhelm any system, any government. I think it’s only natural to see a government not handle a situation of that magnitude very well. I saw [the National Guardsmen] as one faction of the military that definitely had some chain of command and some communication but probably not full communication and full chain of command. I think some people saw our military portrayal as somewhat negative. Like, “Oh, they’re bad guys.” But our intention was [to show] that they’re very overwhelmed, very outside of their element. It is, to a certain extent, them scrambling to make sense of the world around them.

Like Madison and Travis had to.

Yeah, it was very much about Madison and Travis scrambling to make sense of the world around them. Mistakes are a big part of that and doing the wrong thing is a big part of that. So this was very much about seeing characters learn through this process. We’re gonna see these characters continue to evolve from season to season—and now I’m going off on a whole other tangent, but I think that seeing Travis evolve over the course of that season is a very good example of how this is a show about the kind of people that aren’t prepared, that aren’t so capable and seeing whether or not they can learn to be capable.

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On to the sixth season of The Walking Dead: one fear fans seem to have going into this season is that Glenn is doomed. I know you’re always saying no character is safe but wouldn’t killing off Glenn feel like more sacrifice than it’s worth? He’s one of only four characters left who have been around from the beginning—and losing Steven Yeun as a romantic lead would feel like a loss for TV in general.

First I would say no character is safe no matter how important they are to the series. So there’s always the potential for Glenn or any character to go in any episode. That, I think, is a very important element of the series—the likelihood of certain things happening. That’s all very much in the air and you’ll just have to watch the show to find out. But I have to say, I do see that there’s a lot of speculation surrounding this, but there was certainly a lot of speculation about Daryl Dixon not surviving Season 5 and he definitely survived Season 5. So I wouldn’t necessarily buy too much into what you read online.

Alright, phew. Either way, six seasons in, big deaths are practically part of the Walking Dead routine. How do you still surprise people?

I mean, look—it’s all about avoiding patterns and not letting anything ever become predictable. We’ve been very careful not to have a big death in our finale every year, we’ve been very careful not to have a big death in our penultimate episode every season. Those were the two big patterns where you would lose a big character in a TV show, so we try to buck those trends, just to try to make sure there’s isn’t anything too predictable so you really can always keep people guessing.

The cool thing with this show is that it’s almost gotten to a point where it’s surprising and it’s shocking when a character doesn’t die. We try to play against those expectations and I believe that’ll keep things pretty engaging and shocking moving forward. There’s always big stuff ahead and always ways to escalate things with the rules of war. So I don’t think we’re gonna get to a place anytime soon where the death of a Walking Dead character is mundane. If that ever happened, we would have failed on any number of levels.

In Sunday’s Walking Dead season premiere we meet a lot of new characters [including Heath, who is straight out of the comics]. Keeping the cast realistically diverse and reflecting the demographics of the show’s huge audience always seems to be a priority with both Fear and The Walking Dead—which I think a lot of people appreciate.

I think that the diversity of our cast is really just a byproduct of trying to accurately represent the world that we live in as best as we can. No one ever sat down and said, “Ooh, let’s have a diverse cast!” We always just try to naturally recognize that there are a lot of people of certain colors in this world and to have a predominantly white cast on any show is a mistake. I guess it is a mistake a lot of shows have made in the past. I’m very happy that that is changing. It really just seems like the most boring, easiest thing to do, you know? So I don’t think it’s anything of note. We’re just trying to accurately represent what you see outside your window. That goes down to the emotions people feel when they experience these kinds of things. It’s important to us and I appreciate that some people are recognizing that we’ve done that, I guess.

At the same time, both shows have been criticized for killing off so many black characters, especially black men.

There’s only so much you can do. It’s a byproduct of having such a diverse cast. If you have such a diverse cast, there are certainly minority characters who are naturally going to get killed off. I’ve seen some sites point out that the percentages of different races that we kill off are all actually pretty even. We kill off the same level of white characters that we do black characters and so on. But people see what they want to see, I guess. So it’s not something we take to heart so much. I guess it was bound to happen with a cast so diverse.

With two shows, a new web series and the comics, does a movie seem inevitable at some point?

I don’t know that I would say “inevitable,” but there’s a lot going on in the world of the Walking Dead, with Season 6 launching. And we’re hard at work on Season 2 of Fear the Walking Dead right now. So bandwidth-wise, I don’t think it seems inevitable but you never know. It’s certainly possible. There are no plans for that yet. We all in The Walking Dead universe have plenty to do right now so we’re not in any hurry to continue to expand this Goliath.