Practitioners 57: Robert Kirkman

It’s back!! Practitioners, our article featuring the people who made the comics industry is updated occasionally between issues of Moon. Practitioners Reloaded present the previous 1 – 53 (Simon BisleyChris Bachalo) for those who want to read more.

Born November 30th 1978 in Richmond, Kentucky, Robert Kirkman would be the only non-founding member of the third largest comic book company in the US and the creator of a black and white Zombie-fest that would be hailed as the ultimate in ‘independent’ comic books. The Walking Dead picked up on the global enthusiasm for Zombie stories and made it accessible in a way that saw it developed into a mainstream TV series.

Kirkman’s sense of identifying attention grabbing ideas is complemented by his capacity to carefully and enjoyably develop them, walking the line between enjoyment and engagement for the reader.

Kirkman’s first comic book work was the 2000 superhero parody Battle Pope, co-created with artist Tony Moore, and self published under their Funk-o-Tron label. This, perhaps, is the nature of indy publishing. A well presented, deliberately fringe creation never intended to find a place in the mainstream, that engages readers in a way the mainstream can’t and creates a viable alternative. The perfect synthesis between high (and funny) concept and professional execution (something now only too visible in British indy titles such as Lou Scannon, Stiffs and ahem… Moon).

Kirkman Battle Pope 03 - page 03-04

Later, while pitching a new series, Science Dog, Kirkman and artist Cory Walker, were hired to do a Super Patriot (of Savage Dragon fame) mini series for Image Comics. Not content simply on that, Kirkman developed the 2002 Image Series Tech Jacket, which ran for six issues, with E.J. Su. In 2003, Kirkman and Walker created Invincible for Image’s new superhero line. Again, the story lines were acutely mirroring the work being produced on Marvel’s Ultimate line. Invincible, following the adolescent son of a superhero, who develops his own powers and attempts to start his own superhero career. Kirkman’s genius is an extension of Stan Lee’s some 50 years previous. It hinges on the normalisation of the super, bringing it down to the earth without an overly revealing bump.

Kirkman Invincable

Invincible was one of the titles that made the US comic industry a 3 company, rather than a 2 company one. In 2005, Paramount Pictures announced it had bought the rights to produce an Invincible feature film, and hired Kirkman to write the screenplay. Still nowhere to be seen, most likely the success of Walking Dead has put this particular project on the back seat for the time being.

Walking Dead Kirkman

In 2003, Kirkman began his most well-known and mainstream title, The Walking Dead. It represented an unusual change in the already popular gamut of zombie material that has dominated popular culture for the last ten years. Whereas all previous appearances of the Undead had been one-offs (aside from occasional cameos in George A. Romero’s increasingly marginal series of zombie films) this was an ongoing series, with an ongoing cast and an ongoing threat. The expected result of any Zombie film is that all parties will be decimated by the final reel, the relevance of the plot being the journey those characters took in the face of an unending threat, but Kirkman’s series would cause the threat to be unending. There is no indication as to how the series might end as there is no intention for it to, only that, by Kirkman’s own volition, any character is fair game and can be killed at any time. Even the central character, County Sheriff Rick Grimes, has been given a mortality extending only as far as the reader’s interest. It’s ongoing nature has allowed ideas to be developed in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The depiction of a ‘herd’, a force of nature generated by a world populated by Zombies, in which wandering Undead intersect their ongoing paths, the rudimentary stimulus of the physical world causing them to travel in large groups, like a tide being forced through a river. Add this to the effect of a gun shot or explosion to draw the undead from a wide area and the actions of civilians in future Zombie stories will have been changed by this series.

The format also allowed the events taking place to breathe in a way that other Zombie stories couldn’t allow. Whereas convenient environments are found near-fully formed in films such as Dawn of the Dead, with access to food, water, protection, power – in Kirkman’s world, every viable haven is deficient, solutions having to be found in order to make it safe or sustainable. There is interest in this angle and Kirkman’s new format gives this subject room to be investigated. The flaw in the format however, becomes increasingly clear the longer the series runs. Kirkman has applied the rules of the Undead pretty strictly, although augmented. Those being the discovery of a world in which the Undead have taken over, the discovery of the hopelessness of the situation, the loss of society and resources, the loss of family and friends, the discovery of an enclosed haven, the failure of humanity to maintain it, the realisation that humans are the deadliest species. The difficulty with this is that the same plot has effectively been repeated several times, the inevitable breakdown of the walls around the main characters through their own actions becoming obvious and the threat of the Undead increasingly diminished as the characters and societies have to be more established in order to have survived this long. The title has slowly become a doctrine of post apocalyptic politics as the human race gains a grip on a dead world. Whether this was Kirkman’s intention is uncertain but the title remains engaging, even beyond it’s original remit and has always been written by Kirkman.

Kirkman Walking Dead Headless Dead

This, accompanied with a number of other projects in the same period, hired by Marvel Comics to reintroduce it’s ’90s series, Sleepwalker, sadly cancelled before being published and the contents of issue 1 included in Epic Anthology No.1 in 2004. As the Avengers became increasingly ‘Disassembled’, in Marvel’s dismantling and reboot of the central title, Kirkman was given control of Captain America (vol 4), Marvel Knight’s 2099 one-shots event, Jubilee #1–6 and Fantastic Four: Foes #1–6, a two-year run on Ultimate X-Men and the entire Marvel Team-Up vol. 3 and the Irredeemable Ant-Man miniseries.

At Image, Kirkman and artist Jason Howard created the ongoing series The Astounding Wolf-Man, launching it on May 5, 2007, as part of Free Comic Book Day. Kirkman edited the monthly series Brit, based on the character he created for the series of one-shots, illustrated by Moore and Cliff Rathburn. It ran 12 issues.

Kirkman announced in 2007 that he and artist Rob Liefeld would team on a revival of Killraven for Marvel Comics. Kirkman that year also said he and Todd McFarlane would collaborate on Haunt for Image Comics.

In late July 2008, Kirkman was made a partner at Image Comics, thereby ending his freelance association with Marvel. Nonetheless, later in 2009, he and Walker produced the five-issue miniseries The Destroyer vol. 4 for Marvel’s MAX imprint. It’s unsurprising that Kirkman wanted to continue his association with Marvel, given that he named his son Peter Parker Kirkman, after one of Marvel’s most central heroes.

Walking Dead TV

In 2010, in a fanfare to the success of Walking Dead as a comic book series, AMC began it’s production of the still-ongoing Walking Dead TV Series which has become a mainstay of Sunday night viewing and has brought the original story of Rick Grimes, Lori and his son to a new and much wider audience. This has revealed the capacity for even relatively new books and concepts to find their place in wider media in an industry dominated by titles developed in some case, for more than half a century.

A surprising number of artists have failed to remain working alongside Kirkman, Cory Walker being replaced by Ryan Ottley on Invincible and Tony Moore replaced by Charlie Adlard after 6 issues of Walking Dead. While there is an innate tolerance in modern comic books on precise deadlines (mostly driven by Image and Dark Horse’s independent beginnings) this stands out with Kirkman’s almost solitary retention on the Walking Dead TV series senior team, with some extremely noteworthy walk outs (Frank Darabont the most noteworthy perhaps). These things are always subject to more politics than is publicly visible and are no doubt subject to a great many different pressures, however Kirkman is often the last man standing. This durability and sustainability perhaps the reason he has found himself in such a senior position in Image itself. However, this is open to a great deal of rumour and conjecture and is inevitable when someone such as Kirkman has risen alongside such long standing names of comic, film and TV.

Regardless of what the future holds for Robert Kirkman, he is made an indelible mark on the face of modern comics. He has moved the focus away from super hero comics, even challenging longer established characters and titles in wider fields. He has taken his place among comic book legends to run the third largest comic book company in the world, while still maintaining his own titles. Kirkman should be an inspirational figure to those in independent comics below him and an example of what careful and considered ideas, well developed can achieve.

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Practitioners 44: Andy Lanning

Andy Lanning is a British comic book writer and inker, known, most credibly for his work for Marvel Comics and DC comics and in particular as collaborator with Dan Abnett. For an inker to make the leap to writing one of the foremost titles currently being put out by Marvel, as part of their Cosmic run, is impressive. His association with Dan Abnett has gone from strength to strength for years.

Lanning wasn’t always an inker though, at the spark of his career with Marvel UK in it’s earliest days, he found a position as penciller on the short lived, Jake and Elwood Blues inspired, futuristic Sleeze Brothers was a comic book limited series published by Epic Comics, between August 1989 and January 1990 – a run of just six issues. Written by John Carnell, it followed the titular brothers through a futuristic earth filled with extra terrestrials, pollution, crime and corruption. It was neatly drawn with a warner brothers-esque style with a semi realistic twist. The art style was arguably on par with other artists – Bryan Hitch for instance – who went on to become much more prolific and well known artists – working with Abnett and Lanning much later on their 15 book run on Wildstorm’s The Authority.

Working consistently alongside Dan Abnett, no one has ever been more of a fix-it guy on so many varying projects. He drops seamlessly into whatever position is necessary on any given project, pencilling, inking, co-writing and writing – he’s either the most prolific hanger on or one of the nicest, most capable people in the industry. To be able to work alongside so many names of the industry, including Abnett who alone is responsible for the sales of more than 1.5 million novels and hundreds of thousands of comic books, he has to be a hell of a guy to work with. Bouncing ideas backwards and forwards past him must be akin to a Chinese / South Korean ping pong final at the Olympics.

Lanning’s partnership with Dan Abnett began early on, with a Judge Anderson: Exorcise Duty for the Judge Dredd Annual 1991, with art completed by Anthony Williams. Lanning found popular acclaim inking Liam Sharp’s pencils for the industry shaking Death’s Head 2. A title with more than 500,000 preorders DH 2 was a flagship example of success at a boom time for comic books that’ll never be seen again. His sublime work on Liam Sharp’s detailed and precise and exacting illustrative work shows an incredible attention to detail. With Marvel UK Lanning was involved in Digitek (with John Tomlinson and painted art by Dermot Power) and Codename: Genetix (with Graham Marks, Phil Gascoine and inks by Robin Riggs in 1993)as part of Marvel Uk’s second generation wave of titles.

Lanning graduated to Marvel mainstream with Punisher: Year One (with Abnett, Dale Eaglesham and Scott Koblish) and the Avengers West Coast replacement, Force Works (again with Dan Abnett), which featured Iron Man, USAgent, Scarlet Witch, Wonder man and a long disappeared alien warrior guru named Century. Force Works was elevated some time later into an animated series.

Moving over to DC shortly afterwards with a run on Resurretion Man (with Jackson Guice), The Else world One-shot Batman: Two Faces (with Anthony Williams), Abnett and Lanning (or DnA as they are otherwise known) found a home with DC’s resident spit curled former-resisdent of Krypton, Superman with Prime-Time, The Superman Monster, Return to Krypton and Strange Attractors (on which he worked with Gail Simone as well as Abnett). It was the title for which Olivier Coipel became famous that raised the status for both Lanning and his writing partner as they took on Legion Lost, a reimagining of the debunked Legion of Superheroes title, that later became the ongoing Legion. In many ways Lanning maintains his Mr Fixit role in almost every job he undertakes, working alongside the big names of the industry and putting out consistent and notable writing. Impossible as it is to discern where Lanning ends and Abnett begins, it clearly works – as Abnett has worked diligently beside Lanning on almost all major projects (excluding his 2000AD output) for the last 20 years. To maintain a working arrangement like that for so long is notable in that as the profile of the two writers became greater, one would have stood apart as the creative mind. However, in 20 years, no cracks appear to have shown in the partnership. If anything both have had increasing fun obliterating universes together.

Based on Abnett’s other work (with Warhammer 40k), Lanning appears to be the populist and more comic book orientated, perhaps the thing that brings Abnett’s writing into line with audiences with less of a need for heavy weaponry and enormous armies. However it braeks down, Lanning’s partnership with Abnett clearly spawns enthusiastic and impressive ideas and narratives including some of the best character zingers ever heard. The pair have improved and enhanced their reputation in comic books by simplifying and man handling their characters and allowing events to take hold that other titles fail to. Effectively an editor’s potential worst nightmare, when handed a sand box that they have creative control of the effects are absolutely brilliant.

Lanning and Abnett collaboarted on the ongoing Nova series for Marvel in 2007, following the cataclysmic Nova series from the previous years Marvel Cosmic crossover Annihalation. Lanning and Abnett were handed the scenario whereby the Xandarian Nova Corps would be destroyed completely within 12 pages by the incoming Annihalation wave. triggering an intergalactic war. Some might have balked at the idea but this was Lanning and Abnett’s Raise en dentre. Grabbing the Xandarian Nova Corps helmet by the polished brass, they didn’t destroy the Nova Corps, they really Annihalated it. Thousands of Starships pummel the Nova Corps unexpectedly during a Corps meeting and rather than holding back slightly and allowing certain survivors to pick themselves up from the rubble and try to carry on, Lanning and Abnett killed every single Corpsman but one, our very own Richard Rider in less time than it usually takes to have a two headed character discussion. Rider doesn’t simply get knocked aside, he survives because he’s effectively at the heart of it. He spends four or five panels flirting with a fellow Corpswoman only for her head to be smashed to pieces and is sent hurtling backwards down to the planet below, trapped in the flaming wreckage of the Corps hall he was just in and had tried to fly through in order to escape. Issue 2 sees a battered and injured Nova, trapped under rubble in a quiet tableau of post apocalyptic destruction, snow and ash falling from the grey sky. He spends the rest of the issue scrambling through the rubble, a beautifully rendered example of the pause after immense death, tempered with Nova’s obnoxious banter with the discovered Novacorps Artificial Intelligence. Lanning and Abnett are patient and confident writers, allowing the events to breath and never afraid of the possibility of tragedy, carnage, laughter or brevity to take place within a panel of each other.

In June 2008, Abnett and Lanning announced they had signed an exclusive deal with Marvel and they have served the populist hulk very well. They piloted the Annihalation: Conquest storyline, in which the Phalanx take advantage of the vulnerability of post Annihalation wave societies and block off Kree space. This became a more paired down sequel to Annihalation, focussing very deliberately on very, very specific figures. From these, the title Star Lord, a reimagining of the adapted character that appeared in the late ’90s spawned a new Guardian’s of the Galxy title.

In this Lanning and Abnett have hit their stride absolutely. With a play pen involving some of the most notable characters in the Marvel Universe, they decided to opt for a Green Nymphomaniac murderess, a smart mouthed hero of the Annihalation wars, a warrior built to kill gods, a fallen space mage with schizophrenic tendencies and a talking Raccoon. The inclusion of Rocket Raccoon alone is worth a pat on the back and a pint in the hand. Rocket Raccoon was last seen frequenting 1980s Marvel comic books, being chased by Keystone cops in an absurdist forest surrounded by oddball creations. It was hard to see how the character existed then, let alone could find a place in modern comic book teams. But Rocket Raccoon returned, found in a Kree holding cell, he befriended Groot, a walking tree king so he could use him as a platform for his heavy ordnance. As tactical leader of the team, Rocket is one of the finest examples of writing outrunning the lunacy of a plot. Rocket, along with all the other members of the team are written sublimely. Private progress reports give each character their own distinctive voice and has seen Guardians become one of the most talked about series in years for fans in the know.

Lanning and Abnett have a habit of taking crackpot ideas and breaking all the rules, to positive effect. Their run on War of Kings, described usually as the Cosmic aftermath of Secret Invasion dwarves the events that took place on Earth. With the apparent death’s of Cyclop’s new-found brother Vulcan you would think they were resolving an unfortunate creative choice from the X-men universe (Vulcan wasn’t well liked and leadened the X-men universe immeasurably) until you realise that the External’s King Black Bolt, an iconic and famous figure in books, often stood beside Reed Richards, Namor, Iron Man, Captain America as pillars of a character filled universe dies with him, blowing a massive hole in the side of creation from which nasty things pop out for the Guardians to deal with. The death of a long standing Shi’ar leader (and X-men regular) in Empress Neramani and the raising of Gladiator as new Emperor of the Shi’ar state is plotting that had been denied for nearly 20 years. These character’s were seemingly immovable on the chess board of Marvel’s tactical board. Lanning and Abnett set fire to the Chess board.

But more than that, the love story between Ronan the Accuser and the External’s Crystal is thought provoking and engaging as the clumsy Accuser finds himself out of his depth but slowly charms the warm and emotionally open Crystal to him with his honesty. Gladiator’s struggle with his obvious rise to power is touching as a picture of man who’s devotion is to the seat of power but comes to understand that his future is at the service of his people. It’s powerful stuff, more than acceptable for a historical, political play or romance but it is found in the pages of a comic book in which a Raccoon bounds about the panel shouting insults at his fellow team mates as they fight at the edge of space. They have brought back the multi layered space opera unexpectedly and I know that we at Beyond the Bunker will continue to read it for as long as Lanning and Abnett continue to put them out. Long may they write of Empire building in far distant galaxies. They could even show a certain bearded film maker a thing or two….