Generation Z: Zombie superstars Kirkman and Brooks living up among the undead

Robert Kirkman

If George A. Romero, iconic director of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and the five follow-ups, is the king of the modern zombie movement, then Robert Kirkman and Max Brooks are the deans of the dead.

In October 2003, comic book scribe Robert Kirkman’s Image Comics series The Walking Dead debuted as a monthly title. The celebrated title follows a growing, then declining, group of survivors from Kentucky to Georgia to Washington, D.C., as they attempt to survive and rebuild lives after the dead refuses to die.

Kirkman was already an accomplished comic book creator before Dead, but only 78 issues in – with no end in sight, he says – The Walking Dead is Kirkman’s legacy. Alternating between occasional uplifting moments and many depressing, disturbing scenes, the ongoing story presents world where no main character is safe.

Kirkman’s success with The Walking Dead led to Marvel Zombies in 2005, where he was given the freedom to turn super heroes Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and others into flesh-eating versions of themselves. On Oct. 31, the televised adaptation of The Walking Dead premieres on AMC with a pilot directed by Dead fan/executive producer Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), and is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated show to premiere in the fall.

Max Brooks
Not a month before The Walking Dead was introduced, Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide was published in September 2003. Although previously an Emmy-winning comedy writer for Saturday Night Live, after Max Brooks wrote the critically-acclaimed bestsellers Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War in 2006, he became known as an academic of the slow-moving undead. Far from being in the shadow of his father, comedy director Max Brooks, the 38-year-old is a zombie historian and lecturer who gives presentations on recorded living dead attacks throughout history, and offers suggestions on how best to survive an impending zomb-pocalypse.

With the World War Z being turned into a summer 2012 film, starring and executive-produced by Brad Pitt, and the Guide having been spun off into the Recorded Attacks graphic novel and zombie scanner iPhone app, Brooks has become a zombie superstar – all because the shuffling, rotting corpses from horror movies haunted his dreams.

Along with director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead), Brooks and Kirkman are the Gen-X caretakers of the house that Romero built. Like Romero, both artists treat zombies as terrifying, slow-moving disasters – but it’s the humans who play key roles as heroes, villains and troublemakers. The current fascination with the traditional living dead genre (fast zombies need not apply) which has bitten pop culture is directly related to the work of these two. It is perhaps, no small coincidence that my interviews with both were independently set up and scheduled back-to-back with them.

As a result, the responses from Kirkman and Brooks to the same questions asked them are presented here, together, as one interview.

PPC: What celebrity/historical figure as a zombie would you like to encounter?

Robert Kirkman: As a general rule, I would not like to encounter any zombies in real life. But, if I were to pick a celebrity, it would probably be someone like Shirley Temple or somebody who's manageable. I'm not gonna be picking the Abraham Lincoln zombie or anything. That guy is far too tall and formidable. But, yeah, just somebody you know. Some kid that - what celebrity kids died of an early age, because I could probably pick them as zombies. I could probably handle that. I don't want to get bit. That's basically my problem … I would probably just run away. You know, picking a child zombie was probably not the best idea.

PPC: You know this is going to be the headline for the story: “Robert Kirkman Wants to Kill Child Zombies.”

RK: It's really just because of self preservation. And that's not out of any kind of desire to do that.

Max Brooks: What celebrity or historical figure would I like to encounter? [French painter Henri de] Toulouse-Lautrec because he's short and couldn't move very fast. [I would take him out] like I take out every zombie: with a shot in the head. And with Toulouse-Lautrec you just have to angle down instead of up.

PPC: What’s the weirdest, off-the-wall question you get from people about zombies?

RK: As far as zombie related and stuff like that, I get the question a lot, “How do I think I would fare if there were an actual zombie apocalypse?” And I think people expect me to be like, “Well, I think I'd do really well because I write this comic book and there’s this TV show coming out.” I obviously know a lot about this. But I would jump off a bridge pretty quick just because I don't think I would last very long. And I wouldn't want to get eaten. It doesn't seem like the kind of world that I would want to live in for very long. So I would check out pretty quickly … take the coward’s way out.

MB: Probably “What celebrity or historical person would you most want to meet as a zombie?”

PPC: So I have earned a place in the odd interview question hall of fame.

MB: I think you nailed it.

PPC: Are zombies actually your favorite horror genre? Or is there something you like more but you sort of fell into zombies?

RK: I just want to say that I'm glad this question isn't getting me to talk about my desire to commit suicide or kill children. So I appreciate that. As far as like a horror sub-genre, I guess, yeah, I really do like zombies movies quite a bit. If I were going to pick my favorite I would definitely rather watch a zombie movie than a vampire movie any day of the week …

MB: I'm just a zombie nerd who happens to think about this stuff … I’m a zombie fan before I'm a zombie creator.

AS: Why write these stories that are so focused on the people that survive horrific events?

RK: I put a lot into The Walking Dead, but it's not really just a horror thing. There are a lot of different characters; it's a very human story. I try to do just basically a straight drama that has zombies walking around in the background.

MB: The reason [George A. Romero] is the godfather of zombies - it's basically his world, we're just living in it - I think the reason that he is The Man, is because his movies are about people. And they are all about social commentary.

PPC: Why did you write the stories, then?

MB: I wrote them for me. I didn't expect anybody to really be into this stuff. My books are just answering my own questions. I went looking for zombie survival guide, believe me. I wanted to read this thing and nobody had written it. And so, I wrote it for me. When it came time for “World War Z,” all the zombie books and all the zombie movies and stories in general, comics and video games, they are all micro. They're all one story of one person - which is good, I'm not dissing that - but zombies in nature are big, they are global. I wanted to read a big, global zombie story with survivors from all around the world. And I couldn't find it. And I'm like, “you know what? I'm going to do it.” I'm going to answer my own question. I am going to feed my own need. I think that's the thing with me: If I'm going to do it, anything with zombies, it's gotta be because I can't stop thinking about it.

PPC: There are people who actually believe the zombie threat is real, and are preparing for it with guns and bunkers. Is the appeal of zombies – and for some, and actual belief - that it’s easier to discuss how to defeat the undead than it is to figure out how to solve the healthcare debate or financial crisis?

RK: Exactly. You can't just shoot the healthcare crisis in the head. It's a much more manageable threat.

MB: I think you have just nailed it right on the head. 100%. I think why zombies are successful in general is because we live in very uncertain times, and I think we are constantly being assailed by crisis after crisis. I think most of these crises are really hard to get your brain around. How the hell did our economy suddenly melt down over night? And why is the planet melting? And what do these terrorists really want? I think there are so many complex issues with so many complex solutions. Something like zombies is a very manageable way of dealing with our apocalyptic anxieties. Because in a zombie story, the world still goes to hell, like it would in any other scenario. But, a walking corpse I can shoot in the head. I get it. I think it calculates our fears and gives us literally and figuratively a magic bullet.

PPC: At what point do you want to take people aside and say, "Yeah, I believe it's real but p.s., it's not real."

MB: I think that the reason the book is successful, honestly, when you take away all the compliments, I think the reason it works, is that when you take away the zombies, it's still a disaster preparedness manual. Which is exactly how I went about it. I went about it very realistically. I thought, ok, if zombies were actually real, forget movies, forget plot devices and gimmicks and drama. How would you really survive? So all the knowledge in there is knowledge that you would need in an earthquake or a riot or any kind of disaster. So the nice thing is there's nothing in there that is zombie specific.

RK: I don't want to believe that zombies are real.

PPC: [To Kirkman] Have you read Max Brooks’ work?

RK: I was given the Zombie Survival Guide as a gift, and I just flipped to one page looking through it to see how it was formatted and stuff because I didn't really know how the book was done. It was a page about how you can fortify an apartment building by destroying the stairs on the first level and living on the levels above the first level - zombies wouldn't be able to get up there - but you've got a rope ladder so if you needed to get down or up, you could. I was like, “Oh my God, I could totally do that in Walking Dead; that's totally a practical thing that the characters could do and it's totally cool. And I can't do it now because it's in this book. Damn it!” So I closed the book and I decided I was never going to look at it … I didn't want to feel influence by it so I just avoid his work.

MB: [Responding to Kirkman] The poor guy is so paranoid about that. I met him once. The first thing out of his mouth is, “I didn't read it.” And I'm like, dude. First of all, I don't care if you did. And I don't care if you do rip me off. George Romero would be the first guy to tell you he ripped off Richard Matheson … I don't care if you do rip somebody off. As long as you do something cool with it. Isn't that how it's supposed to work? I'll be the first person to tell you I ripped off Studs Terkel - shamelessly. He wrote a book called, “The Good War.” It's an oral history of World War II where he interviewed survivors of World War II and he was a big influence on me and I shamelessly ripped him off.

PPC: When does the zombie work end?

RK: I don't really have an end in mind for Walking Dead. I could say, “Oh, it'll take 10 years or 15 years.” But I could see it going 20 more years. I really, I set out as a young man to get into doing comics and writing comics for a living, and to get to tell stories for a long period of time over a number of years with the same characters and have complete control over those characters in that book. And I have exactly that. So with Walking Dead, I'm doing exactly what I set out to do. And I'm having the time of my life … I think I'll be able to keep the book going for a good long while.

MB: There's definitely zombie projects that I think of - not necessarily novels or stories but there's definitely elements of zombie survival culture that I've been thinking of. And there's one I've been kicking around. … Not a novel, not another big World War Zombie project. Nothing like that; just a little side thing. We'll see.