We met Charlie Adlard at this year's Erlangen Comic Salon - though we never would have guessed that the interview over dinner which the fine folks at Crosscult had arranged would turn into a three-hour chat spanning the whole of Adlard's career.
G wie Gorilla: Can you tell us a little about your earliest influences? How did you get into comics?
Charlie Adlard: My influences are pretty much the same as most of my British colleagues’. I read comics from the age of five. My earliest memory is my Dad coming home from work and he had something behind his back. That something was the third issue of The Mighty World of Marvel, which was the first time they had reprinted American Marvel chronologically, where you had Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk in black and white. I got every issue after that, also because you had easier access to Marvel comics in these days. I wasn’t really collecting, I was reading it for the story, throwing it away afterwards.
G wie Gorilla: So what was the next step, 2000AD?
CA: No, I didn’t really read 2000AD. I kept to Marvel comics really. But I started my professional career at 2000AD, working on a character called Judge Armitage. That was about 15 years ago. It was fully painted, sixty-something pages of fully painted artwork. Those were the early nineties, everyone was into doing their art in that high quality, fully painted manner. Before I did Judge Armitage I did a one-shot Judge Dredd strip written by Alan Grant, so that really was my first-ever professional comics work. I’m actually working for 2000AD right now. Inbetween working on The Walking Dead I’m doing a strip called Savage with Pat Mills that is based on another strip called Invasion, which in its original incarnation actually predates Judge Dredd by one issue. I really want to finish it, even though I really haven’t got the time. It is about the modern-day world under occupation by alien forces, which really makes it quite relevant to our times. It’s hardly science fiction, it’s more like a What if? scenario. I’m ending up not really doing it for the money, more like for seeing it through to the end right now.
G wie Gorilla: Is there any chance of seeing Savage collected?
CA: That’s another reason I’m still doing it, why we’re working hard on finishing it. They’re actually doing a lot of collections now at 2000AD, so Pat Mills and I are really pushing for it. I’d love to see it as a hardcover. Printing costs wouldn’t be so high, because it’s black and white material. 2000AD [the magazine] only has a shelf life of one week, which is even less than American comics, where there is much more of a back issue market. There’s more of a life to it. The older I get, the more concerned I am about creating work that will endure; when I was younger, I wasn’t really bothered about that. Now, whatever work I do, I want to make sure it’s going to be there for a long time.
Lamentably, only thirteen issues of the quirky The Authority spinoff The Establishment were published by Wildstorm.
G wie Gorilla: What’s your take on creator-ownership? I’m mentioning this because of the recent discussion after the death of Alex Toth about his legacy being somewhat compromised, as it was largely purely commercial work for hire stuff.
CA: Toth spent his whole career just doing work for hire, which is kind of sad really. There are so many great artists who end up like this. And so the older I get, the more I realise how important it is to do your own stuff. Think of some of the people, for example, who have spent their entire career working for Marvel. You know, the only thing you’ve got to show for your career afterwards is that you’ve done a lot of work for other people’s characters. I’m sure they’re being paid really well, but that’s not the point. Their legacy will be, well, they were, again, work for hire artists. People of my generation are only just now getting the hang of this. I’m good friends with Sean Phillips, and recently, he’s been quizzing me quite a lot on creator-owned work, you know, “So The Walking Dead is doing well, is it?” Then again, it’s a lot easier for a writer to do creator-owned work, because for an artist, working on one issue dominates your whole work-time.
And of course it’s great fun to work on Spider-Man, Wolverine, on all these icons. But doing creator-owned work is a more complete experience for an artist. A few years ago, before I was working on The Walking Dead, Mike [Michael Avon] Oeming was telling me one evening in San Diego that creator-owned stuff was the way to go. And I told him that’s really easy for you to say, you know, you’ve got the number one selling creator-owned book and it’s paying you a damn good wage and you’ve sold the Hollywood rights. But I’ve got a wife and two children to support. So, in that sense, I can really understand why people don’t go that way. Of course, now I have my own separate ivory tower, which is The Walking Dead.
Early works: Stefan Petrucha's and Charlie Adlard's work on Topps' The X-Files comics was extraordinarily popular in the early 90s.
G wie Gorilla: Ever thought of writing yourself?
CA: No, not really. Well, there was one idea I had, years and years ago when I was doing Mars Attacks!, I had an inkling for a story. I would rather leave the writing to the actual writers. But my first creator-owned book was called The White Death, which I did after I had finished The X-Files. I knew there were certain things that I wanted to do: I wanted to do it in a certain style, I wanted to set it in World War I, and I knew the opening three pages and the closing three pages, which was a zoom-in on a skull in the snow, and a zoom-out at the ending. So I phoned up Robbie Morrison, who I wanted to write it, and I gave him my ideas, and he came up with the whole story. I had no structure, no plot or anything. I started the process, but Robbie finished it. So that’s the closest I’ve really come to actual writing.
G wie Gorilla: In the same vein, how much of an influence do you have on the plot of The Walking Dead?
CA: Robert and I talk loads, but the one thing I don’t really know about is what happens next issue. I prefer not to know about anything, really, because that way, I get to experience it like a fan would. But I was quite pleased to discover that in the issue I just finished, one of the characters goes out on Rick’s bike, and he crashes it. And I said, ‘Yes!’, because I hate drawing bikes, ‘I will never have to draw a bike again!’
G wie Gorilla: You often seem to go for the odd choice when it comes to the books you work on, choosing quirky or unusual projects like The Establishment at Wildstorm over more commercial ventures. Any particular reason for this?
CA: I thought I was an odd choice for The X-Files, because I don’t do likenesses very well. Topps chose me because they said I do the atmosphere so well. But The Establishment being an odd choice, that’s interesting. I think that might be because Wildstorm is really associated with more flashy artwork than mine. I really liked the first four or five issues, the way Ian Edginton wrote it, where it’s really quirky and really British, with all the in-jokes to Fawlty Towers and all this stuff. My editor Jeff Mariotte told me, “It’ll be really good, it’ll be like the secret history of the Wildstorm Universe”, which is exactly not what I wanted it to become. In a lot of ways, I’d love to draw that series now, because at the time I was doing things in a slicker, more precise style. It’d be interesting to see how I would draw it now, in a more loose style. The last thing I did before I started The Walking Dead, that was a Batman inventory issue, for which I had about twice the amount of time I usually have for an issue. So I decided to make it look extremely slick. When I finished it, I took a look at it, and I was asking myself, was it really worth the extra effort? Then I had to finish the first issue of The Walking Dead in two weeks, so I went back to a much more sketchy way of doing it. And by now, I really prefer the looser style I’m using these days.
The Establishment: as usual, Adlard excels at atmosphere and highly elegant storytelling.
G wie Gorilla: Do you have any favourites among contemporary artists working in the field today?
CA: Two of my favourite artists are good friends of mine. First of all, there’s Sean Phillips, who is just as fast as I am. He’s super-quick. Duncan Fegredo is probably one of the best artists in the field. I think he’s fantastic. He’s the new Hellboy artist as well, and he was showing me some pages at Bristol last month, and they’re just to die for. It’s the best work he’s ever done, absolutely beautiful. I’ll try to get some pages off him. I really like Tommy Lee Edwards and John Paul Leon. Edwards is doing something for Marvel now called Bullet Point. He’s also done a lot of film work, conceptual artwork. I really, really like Jason Pearson and Adam Hughes as well.
G wie Gorilla: Since The X-Files, your style has undergone quite an evolution. In The Walking Dead especially, your framing techniques seem to have become much stricter, more precise.
CA: I’ve never been into really crazy panelling. Anything beyond a rectangle I can’t stand. Another artist whose work I really love is Eduardo Risso. I just think the way he arranges panels is really amazing, the way he uses two full bleed panels so that they merge on the page, so that there is nothing in the way of a joint. But Risso never does crazy panels either. When I came to doing The Walking Dead, which is primarily a dramatic book, not a horror book, I thought it would be appropriate to do it in a really restrained way, so you can completely concentrate on the story and not be distracted by such vacuous exercises in style.
G wie Gorilla: I also get a very precise sense of mise-en-scène, of the characters moving around in very believable, solid spaces from your work. Do you lay out the scenes in advance? Do you have any special techniques blocking your scenes?
CA: Amazingly, I don’t. It’s usually like this, if the right idea doesn’t come to me within ten seconds, it probably never will. It sounds really arrogant, but that’s not how I mean it - I’m obviously a natural at it. I don’t do sketches or anything. The only sketches I had for The Walking Dead were some initial designs to show Robert in which direction I was going. Having said that, for Savage, I quite often do thumbnails, which I don’t do for The Walking Dead. I think Savage is more European in style, there’s more going on in the background, more detail.
G wie Gorilla: You mentioned that you went to some kind of film school.
CA: Yes, I did. It wasn’t a very technical course, though. Ironically, I spent three years in college and came out with a degree that was useless. I made some inquiries what jobs I could get, I was living in London at the time, and all the people who got back to me were asking, ‘Would you like to be a runner?’.
G wie Gorilla: Does actual photography have a great influence on The Walking Dead then? Your work on that has a very definite chiaroscuro, cinematic vibe to it, with great attention paid to lighting effects.
CA: I’ve always been into light and dark, heavy blacks, right from the beginning, when I was doing stuff for 2000AD. Recently, I’ve started to really look at black and white movies, some of the lighting effects they use. It’s just fantastic to look at, because they do look like black and white comics, the blacks are so heavy. You can always tell if a film is a proper black and white movie, because in modern films, if they do it in black and white, they tend to shoot it in colour and then take the colours out. You can always tell.
G wie Gorilla: What do you think is the appeal of The Walking Dead? Why do you think you’ve been so successful?
CA: It staggers me why that’s the one that’s broken through. It’s not like we’re leading the charge, there’s not a load of other books that aren’t about superheroes coming up behind us. We just seem to be floating around on our own. There might be a built-in audience for zombie books, but that’s even smaller and more specific than the superhero audience. And none of the other zombie books are going through the roof. It’s a phenomenon that I can’t really explain. And I don’t think there’s a new kind of reader who’s found his way into comics, it’s just the same old fandom. Which actually has its good sides, because they’re reading something other than superheroes for a change. If I was a publisher two years ago, and Robert had pitched The Walking Dead to me… But now it seems like we might actually get to finish this thing, however long it takes, you know.
Rock Bottom's incredibly detailed, kinetic style is somewhat reminiscent of Geof Darrow's.
G wie Gorilla: And finally: you mentioned that you were working on an original graphic novel for AiT/Planetlar with Joe Casey. Can you tell us a little about that?
CA: It’s called Rock Bottom, and it’s basically about a man who turns to stone, but not in a superhero way, and not in a way like [Paul Chadwick's] Concrete either. It’s a 102 page graphic novel about a man who’s coming to terms with his own mortality, because at a certain point in the story, he’s told that the process is irreversible, and he’s going to die. Eventually, his whole body is going to turn into stone. For the last 40 pages, he is in hospital. What really got me about it was, it could have been a really depressing story, but Joe’s managed to twist it, so it’s really uplifting as well, even though you know he’s going to die. There’s not some big twist or anything like that to it, but he just manages to get it to a point where you’re not depressed after reading it. It has such a lovely ending. And that’s what I like about it, it’s not written in Joe’s usual, rather aggressive style. I really enjoy having the freedom of doing whatever I want to do besides The Walking Dead, and I couldn’t really refuse Rock Bottom because the script was so good. It also helps to keep myself fresh, because the artwork is slightly tweaked. This has got no blacks, it’s just pure linework, and it’ll just be black and white. I’ll just be adding a greytone texture to the main character as he turns to stone. It’ll be out in September, and I’m really excited about it. Up until now, I was the proudest of White Death, but I think Rock Bottom will end up being my proudest achievement in comics.
G wie Gorilla: Thank you very much for taking such an extensive amount of time to answer our questions.
Another really interesting interview with Charlie Adlard can be found at the online magazine Comicgate : take a look, Charlie had a few more things to say!
Interview: Colleen Coover
Interview: David Lloyd
Text Copyright: 2006 Jochen Ecke, Thomas Nickel
Images Copyright: Charlie Adlard, Wildstorm / DC Comics, Joe Casey, Topps / 20th Century Fox, Robert Kirkman