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Negan will haunt your dreams on ‘Walking Dead’, says Robert Kirkman

It’s almost Halloween, which means The Walking Dead will return from hiatus.

The AMC show based on the long-running comic book by Robert Kirkman finally delves deep into the story of Negan, one of the most interesting antagonists in the series. As fans of the series know all too well, Negan has killed off one of the show’s long-standing survivors and this season we’ll find out who went down.

Kirkman continues to map out new adventures for The Walking Dead comic book at Skybound Entertainment and is actively involved in the show, while also overseeing the Cinemax series based on his demon-hunting Outcast comic. In an exclusive Digital Trends interview, Kirkman explains why Negan is so scary, and talks about the power of The Walking Dead – which makes even him cry at times when characters meet their doom.

Spoiler alert! Those who aren’t yet caught up with TWD season 6, proceed at your own risk.

Digital Trends: What was the challenge when writing the comics of creating living characters who are far scarier than the undead walkers that surround everyday life?

Robert Kirkman: The biggest challenge in writing the comic was knowing from the get-go that I wanted this to go for many, many years. That takes a tremendous amount of planning, more than any other project that I’ve done. I had to be far-reaching with all of my plotting and all of my thinking because if I had started the series at a 10, then 11 doesn’t exist on the scale, and there would be nowhere to go. So I always have to be building and planning on that next thing that’s going to evolve the story in an interesting way, and also in some sense top what I’ve done already because you have to follow that story narrative of building to a climax and then leading to a resolution in any storytelling form.

To tell a continuing story over many, many years you have to have that escalation of the story present, despite the fact that you’re telling the story over a much longer period of time. It takes a lot of work to be able to know that they’re going to encounter this town where the crazy guy cuts off Rick’s hand in the comic — not in the show. And then they’re going to lose this person, or they’re going to be hunted by human beings like animals, and then eventually encounter this guy, Negan, who’s going to change the rules. Every single one of those steps along the way is an escalation that evolves the story in an interesting way and ups the ante to keep people engaged. But that happened over the course of 100 issues, so that story management has been somewhat nerve-racking. And there are definitely issues here and there where I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t quite pull that off as well as I’d like to.” But overall I’m pretty proud of the way the story has evolved.

You just mentioned Negan, where does he rank among all of the antagonists that you’ve created?

I find him to be the most interesting just because he’s the most nuanced … he is evil, for lack of a better word, and he is sadistic, but he’s also charming and completely relatable. Once you get to know him and you find out his skewed mindset and how he sees the world and what his rules are, you can kind of relate to him to a certain extent. He’s one of those really interesting villains that you don’t even really love to hate him. You kind of just love him because sometimes he makes a whole lot of sense, and other times he doesn’t. Having him be able to be all over the map as a character is a lot of fun to write. Sometimes he’s a complete lunatic and you’re like, “I don’t understand that. That doesn’t make sense. He’s really crazy.” And at other times you’re like, “Oh my God, am I agreeing with Negan? This is crazy.” So it’s a lot of fun keeping people on their toes that way.

“It’s nerve-racking and downright heartbreaking to kill a character on the show”

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as an actor is always someone that’s very likable and usually plays a lot of nice guys in movies and TV shows. What’s your take on his portrayal of Negan?

Honestly, Jeffrey Dean Morgan just takes it to the next level because the character is in the comic and he has that charm, and he is unnerving in how friendly he is when he’s being really mean to you. But seeing that charm come to life in the way that JDM handles it really makes it that much more unnerving because the way he cocks his head and the way he cracks a smile is so warm and so inviting that your two emotions are kind of at war. You like this guy, but you hate what he’s doing and you don’t understand it. There’s just the way he delivers lines that are so playful and there’s such a confidence about him that really works well for that character. He’s really leveled-up Negan as a character through his portrayal.

How difficult is it for you to see these characters you’ve created killed off in the TV show even if they’ve already died in the comic book pages?

I don’t care about the character so much as the actor. Killing characters is a necessary part of storytelling, especially in a world that’s supposed to be (so) dangerous, where it has to happen frequently. When writing the comic and working on the show, I actually do get upset. I have teared up on occasion, especially when writing the comic, it … it’s a very moving experience. That’s reassuring because if it’s moving for me as I’m writing it, hopefully it will be moving for the reader when they read it. But it’s still a fake character in the comic.

It’s nerve-racking and upsetting and downright heartbreaking to kill a character on the show because everybody works in Georgia and they spend time together and they become great friends and then their kids get to know each other and they all rent houses together and they have picnics on Saturdays, and then you basically tap somebody on the shoulder and tell them you’re no longer allowed to be here. In a lot of cases, it’s because they’re great. They’ve done such a good job that the loss of their character will be so monumental to this show that it drives the story for so many other characters and makes our job easier. And because of that, they have to go. So it’s not fun. And after so many seasons – and so many characters recently — I’ve found myself being the one that’s like, “How about we just get a season where no one dies? Wouldn’t that be weird? Let’s try that for once.”

Most of the characters you know and love will return on Sunday, October 23 at 9 p.m. ET for The Walking Dead’s season 7 premiere.