Any comic series reaching 150 issues is a significant accomplishment, a representation of tens of thousands of hours of work and more than a decade of dedication and sales. The Walking Dead #150 is a truly special achievement though. Even if you ignore it’s enormous sales and rankings on the New York Times and Diamond’s charts, even if you ignore its multimedia empire including two television shows, even if you ignore the Skybound comics imprint largely built on its success, The Walking Dead #150 is an especially big deal. That’s because The Walking Dead is a creator owned comic in a market that is only beginning to support creations outside of superhero comics in a meaningful way.
The same creative team has produced The Walking Dead for 144 issues. Charlie Adlard has been the only artist to work on the series since replacing the original artist Tony Moore on The Walking Dead #7; Robert Kirkman has written the entire series. There are very few examples in American comics of creator owned series that lasted so long with a consistent creative team. Dave Sims’ Cerebus and Savage Dragon are the only obvious counterparts with 300 and 210 issues, respectively. Whatever your opinion of these series, the dedication of their creators and loyalty of their fans speak to a very rare occurrence within the medium.
The Walking Dead wasn’t a trailblazer or trendsetter though. It does not mark the beginning of an increased popularity in creator-owned and other comics outside of the DC and Marvel publishing juggernauts. The series success helps to chart these changes within the American comics publishing model though, and reveals the current and future potential for original ideas developed there. The Walking Dead isn’t the beginning or the end of this new era in comics, but it certainly picked the right moment to appear.
It’s important to remember that when the series began it was not only a creator owned endeavor, but one being published at Image Comics. The upside of creators working at Image is that they truly own 100% of their work (in this case Kirkman owns all of The Walking Dead, while artists Moore and Adlard do not), but that often means the publisher pays no advance or page rate. Creators rely on the sales of their series in order to make any money, meaning without large enough sales to cover the cost of production they might make nothing at all. The potential rewards at the publisher are larger, but so are the risks.
When The Walking Dead was launched in 2003, Image was not the publisher they are today. They were in many ways still defined by the work of their founders, popular artists who profited greatly from the comics bubble of the 90s. There were no Saga’s or Sex Criminal’s receiving critical acclaim or commercial success there. Neither readers nor speculators were keeping an eye on the I-logo for the next hot, new #1.
2003 was the beginning of a revitalization of the comics market though. The Ultimates line from Marvel comics had just launched in 2000 attracting new and lapsed readers. DC Comics on the other hand was just preparing to push for new readers with an increased focus on event comics like Identity Crisis in 2004. Amidst these changes from the two dominant publishers in American comics, The Walking Dead managed to capture some attention and develop a fanbase.
Rather than facing the standard comics trend of decreasing sales after a first issue, the series slowly began to grow as the word of a Romero-style monthly comic spread. Its success was not unique outside of the superhero publishers, but it was rare and helped build confidence for the future of Image Comics. Kirkman became a steadfast proponent of creator owned comics, and was made a partner in Image Comics after Eric Stephenson was named publisher in 2008. These two would prove to be the most significant forces behind driving the company’s philosophy forward and creating an increasingly successful roster of original comics.
It’s impossible to deny the effects of The Walking Dead being successfully adapted to television at AMC either. Not only has the popularity of the show, which has only increased over six seasons, raised the profile of the comic, but it has enormously benefited its creator. Kirkman’s ownership of the property has allowed him to set the terms of the adaptation deal, but to also remain creatively involved and pursue other opportunities in television like the upcoming Outcast adaptation.
The success of the series is undeniable and worth applauding. Both in comics stores and on television, The Walking Dead is one of the most popular and recognizable franchises in American culture today. It is also likely the most popular comics brand still owned by its creator. Looking at other popular franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Transformers films, the most involvement you are likely to see is a cameo from a creator with no stake in the finances.
While its financial triumphs may be singular in nature, The Walking Dead has helped to draw more creators to both Image Comics and a philosophy of creator ownership. Kirkman’s concept of a zombie movie that doesn’t end wasn’t one in a million, it was simply a well-executed, good idea at the right moment. It might seem like winning the lottery, but it’s really only a matter of time until the next good or great idea lands at the right time.
In fact, Kirkman’s success may have only made it more likely. The Walking Dead has drawn more eyes to American comics, and that doesn’t just count in readership. Hollywood has increased their interest in comics adaptations outside of the superhero genre. Outcast and Preacher are both currently being produced by AMC, while other Image publications like Lazarus and Sex Criminals are in development. Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, both stars at the publisher, are currently helping to develop creator owned comics projects for adaptation under a unique deal.
That success has impacted the direction of the comics market too. Beyond Image’s own growth and success, including Kirkman’s own Skybound imprint, other publishers like Dark Horse and Oni Press have increased their publications of original concepts. In this regard The Walking Dead is a rising tide that may serve to lift all comics.
The Walking Dead isn’t the longest running creator owned series in America, nor is it the first to make its creators successful. It isn’t the beginning of the story, but it certainly isn’t the end. In many ways it represents the dream of many creators working in comics today. It tells the story of a creator who told the stories he wanted to tell, and still managed to find success. Robert Kirkman’s journey shows there’s a path to stardom in comics that doesn’t rely on working at a handful of publisher, but is predicated on one’s own ideas. After 150 issues and multiple other triumphs and milestones, The Walking Dead reveals there’s still a lot of life left in the comics industry.