Everyone wins when Hollywood goes geek

Patrick Fugit (above left) and Philip Glenister (above right) star in Outcast.
Patrick Fugit (above left) and Philip Glenister (above right) star in Outcast.PHOTO: FOX INTERNATIONAL CHANNELS
Robert Kirkman.
Robert Kirkman.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead franchise, says comic-book nerds do not lose anything when comics gain mass appeal

Geek culture has gone mainstream as Hollywood steals ideas from the world of comics, and comic book writer Robert Kirkman has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend.

His comic series, The Walking Dead, has inspired two of the most successful shows on television and he recently unveiled the new demonic-possession drama Outcast, based on his comic of the same title.

The drama is the third TV project he will produce based on his comics, along with The Walking Dead and its spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead. It airs in Singapore on Saturdays at 10pm.

In an interview with The Straits Times in Los Angeles, he defends the adaptation of comics for the screen as a win for both mainstream audiences and the nerds who first embraced the source material.

The affable 37-year-old says: "I think the fact that geek culture has had the respect that it's had, that the biggest, most successful TV shows and movies are coming from the stuff that I love, is pretty amazing.

"It's a testament to how much unbridled creativity is at work in comics. Comics are a place where you don't really have to worry about budgets or production, it all just depends on the imagination, and that's bred decades and decades of amazing stories that many people are only now becoming aware of."

We've gone from vampires to zombies to demonic possession. Now I'm just waiting for werewolves.

COMIC BOOK WRITER ROBERT KIRKMAN

Stories from Marvel and DC Comics have long fuelled the superhero boom on screen, but Kirkman's The Walking Dead was more niche when he launched the comics in 2003. By the time it was picked up for TV in 2010, however, the prolific graphic novelist had already won the prestigious Best Continuing Series Eisner Award twice for the series.

The TV adaptation, which follows a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, continues to be a ratings juggernaut, ending its sixth season this April as the No. 1 show in the United States, with more than 18 million viewers tuning in for the last episode.

The companion series, Fear The Walking Dead, which launched last year, has been a hit too, attracting a record 10 million viewers for its premiere, the most for any US cable show.

Kirkman believes that graphic- novel fans have not lost anything as these stories gain mass appeal.

He says: "It doesn't detract from all that amazing stuff in any way. The Watchmen comics series is not any better or worse than it ever was just because a movie exists now.

"The movie is completely separate; you can still go and read that comic and it's the exact same comic that you were reading in 1985."

He is similarly sanguine about Hollywood's invasion of San Diego's annual Comic-Con fan convention, which has been increasingly used to promote films and TV shows.

"I love how commercial Comic- Con has become," he says of the event, which takes place next month. And he believes "it's a ridiculous argument" that fanboy culture has suffered as a result.

"Everything that people miss about Comic-Con is still right there. They've just built all of this other stuff around it," he says.

"So if I want to go and look in long boxes for a comic from 1973 that I haven't been able to find anywhere, it's still there. But now, I get to walk five feet over here and shake hands with (The Avengers' movie star) Samuel L. Jackson when I'm done. That's just a bonus to me."

He concedes, however, that the event has ballooned as it has gone mainstream.

He says: "Yes, it's crowded, and I guess I can say that because it's very easy for me to get in. The fact that for some fans it's harder to get in is probably a little annoying.

"But there are so many comic conventions all over the world now that you still get to get that experience."

The Walking Dead is credited with fuelling the recent zombie revival in popular culture, but he struggles to explain why these, and other monsters-of-the-moment, capture the public's imagination at any one time.

He says: "When I was first promoting The Walking Dead, it was all vampires. There were five vampire shows on TV. And they were saying, 'Do you really think people are going to watch zombie shows?'"

With Outcast, which is about a man trying to figure out why so many people around him seem to become possessed by demons, Kirkman hopes to resuscitate the long-dormant exorcism genre by offering a twist on the standard storyline.

"If you look at everything from (the 1973 movie) The Exorcist on, they're kind of all telling the same story. For the most part, someone gets possessed, some other person shows up and tries to deal with it and at the end of dealing with it, they move on.

"But Outcast is going to be the story of this man, Kyle Barnes, who is at the centre of this phenomenon, and he's going, 'Wait, why isn't anyone trying to solve this problem and keep other people from getting possessed?'"

Whether it is zombies or demons, however, Kirkman insists that his monsters are not metaphors for more abstract ideas such as social alienation or oppression, as some fans like to speculate.

He says: "I just try to tell my stories. I think it's better to let the audience interpret that kind of stuff. I certainly have things I'm trying to work through in my personal life (with these stories), but I'm not going to come out and say, 'Oh, I'm trying to deal with this here.'"

He adds with a grin: "It's also fun to sit back and watch people come up with theories that are sometimes accurate and sometimes wildly inaccurate."

He does, though, have his own theory about why the horror genre continues to be so popular.

"I live a very comfortable life, but I recognise that I'm in the minority, and it's a big struggle for most people out there," says the writer, who is married and has two children aged six and nine.

"That makes horror very appealing because you get to sit back and see people in much worse situations than you are and you're able to say, 'Well, if they're dealing with that, I guess I will be able to deal with my problems.'"

He also observes that given the popularity of the genre, it cycles through trends "very quickly".

He says: "We've gone from vampires to zombies to demonic possession. Now I'm just waiting for werewolves."

•Outcast airs in Singapore on Saturdays at 10pm on Fox (Singtel TV Channel 330 and StarHub TV Channel 505).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Everyone wins when Hollywood goes geek'. Print Edition | Subscribe