How the living can learn from The Walking Dead

July 24, 2013: 7:39 AM ET

Comic book creator Robert Kirkman explains the power of nerd culture and how he turned The Walking Dead into a media empire.

By John Gaudiosi, contributor

Robert-KirkmanFORTUNE -- The Walking Dead comic book celebrated its 10th anniversary at the nerd Mecca known as San Diego Comic Con 2013. Its birthday party here featured the cast of the television show based on the long-running series as well as other Hollywood celebrities. Robert Kirkman has been popular with this comic book crowd for a long time, but thanks to the critically acclaimed and ratings champion AMC program and award-winning video games from Telltale Studios, The Walking Dead has become a mainstream phenomenon.

Kirkman, 34, has moved from Richmond, Kentucky to Los Angeles. But by all appearances, he remains a humble, down-to-earth guy. A founding partner of Image Comics, in 2010 he launched his own imprint, Skybound. A producer on The Walking Dead TV series, Kirkman has a second comic-based TV series with AMC in development, Thief of Thieves. The multimedia mogul, who owns the rights to all of his creations, explains what opportunities digital technology is opening up for the comic book industry and discusses the secret to wearing multiple hats in the entertainment business in this exclusive interview.

What are the challenges in creating something new that will catch on in the comic book industry today?

Thankfully, those challenges are going away and at a fairly quick pace. Historically, it's been very difficult for people to try new things,  but the comic medium has awoken recently to just how exciting new ideas and new concepts are. I am seeing across the board new comics, new concepts being supported wholeheartedly by the readership in droves, pretty much at equal levels with long-running Marvel and DC titles. That's a really cool thing and I hope it keeps up. Ten years ago it was very difficult to get people to read something like The Walking Dead, a black-and-white horror comic, surrounded by the super heroes of the industry, but thankfully things are changing.

What impact is digital technology having on the comic industry?

It's having a huge impact. Digital changes availability. It makes the book infinitely available to the masses and it really has replaced the newsstand model of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, where kids could go into a grocery store with their mom, see comics and pick them up. Now they can be playing a game on their iPad and then pop over and buy a comic and it's always there. Digital is growing our readership in really great ways and is leading to an influx of new readers.

What surprised you working on television with AMC and The Walking Dead?

There were a lot of surprises. It's a completely new medium, so there were a lot of story processes and tricks of the trade and things that I just didn't know. There are a lot of rules we have to follow that I wasn't aware of so it was a really cool learning experience for me to come in and figure out exactly how this whole TV things works. It was a lot of fun. The amount of people who actually work on a television show is pretty startling. It's a 1,000 or so people who are working on The Walking Dead show, so it's a huge operation.

What are some of the keys to maintaining a successful cross-platform franchise?

Making sure that everything is good. That's the main key and I'm really proud of the fact that the television show is so good and the Telltale video game is top-notch and I think our novel series is very well received. If you start getting lazy, if you start just throwing things out there because, "Hey, The Walking Dead's popular. Someone will buy this. So who cares," I think that's when things start imploding. People all too often fall into that trap. As long as we strive to make every Walking Dead thing as good as it can be, things will hopefully keep going the way they're going.

What are you goals with Skybound moving forward?

Just to keep doing cool stuff. Skybound is a place where people can come into comics and find new genres and different kinds of books. Skybound is a company that works really hard to bring people comics that you wouldn't normally get from other places. We give creators an opportunity to do what they really want, or what they're passionate about, despite what may be deemed popular in the comic book industry. It's a lot of fun to be able to have my own corner of Image Comics to do with what I want and shine a spotlight on some good creators that I think deserve it.

What's the secret to wearing multiple hats in the creative business?

Being able to shift your focus very quickly, or being able to work fast.  The main thing would be to love what you do. I really enjoy what I do, so it doesn't matter that I have to do it a lot.  I wake up and spring out of bed every morning excited about what's going to happen because there are various types of things I'm going to work on any given day. It's a lot of fun. You have to really be passionate about it or it's going to be overwhelming.

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