Kentuckian who created 'Walking Dead' comes home for a chat

Lexington native Robert Kirkman now serves as an executive  producer of the hit AMC series The Walking Dead.
Lexington native Robert Kirkman now serves as an executive producer of the hit AMC series The Walking Dead. Jordin Althaus/AMC

A decade ago, Robert Kirkman was living in Central Kentucky, toiling at dead-end jobs and struggling to earn a dime writing self-published comic books on the side. Now he lives in Los Angeles, working as an executive producer on The Walking Dead, one of the most successful shows in cable television history.

Kirkman will discuss that transition Tuesday at a Q&A session hosted by the University of Kentucky Student Activities Board, giving behind-the-scenes perspective on the show and discussing how the rabidly followed Walking Dead, which he created as a monthly comic book in 2003, has changed his life.

"There's a lot of history in (The Walking Dead) that ties into Kentucky, so I think that UK thought it would be a good idea to come and discuss a little bit of that," Kirkman said by phone Tuesday from his office in Los Angeles.

For the uninitiated, The Walking Dead follows a motley band of people who have survived a zombie apocalypse. Led by a small-town lawman, the survivors battle zombies, aka "walkers," as they trek across the South trying to find safety. It's geeky, gory, smart, violent, sometimes glacially paced, action-packed, touches on themes of existentialism and morality — and people love it.

The season three premiere earlier this month drew nearly 11 million viewers and almost as many for the second episode. Even more impressive, the season debut's ratings among viewers ages 18 to 49 were the highest of any entertainment series this fall, including all broadcast shows. Millions more will be able to watch the third episode Sunday because AMC recently worked out a contract dispute with Dish Network to begin airing the channel again.

Kirkman, 33, who moved to California about two years ago, has remained tied to his Kentucky roots. He was born in Lexington and grew up in Cynthiana, a setting in the comic-book version of The Walking Dead (although not the TV show, which has been set exclusively in Georgia).

He visits Lexington several times a year, he said, to see friends and family — and to eat at some of his favorite restaurants, including deSha's and Gumbo Ya-Ya.

"I have tried gumbo place after gumbo place here in L.A., and there is nothing that compares," he said.

Struggling to work long distance on The Walking Dead compelled Kirkman to pack up and move out West with his wife and kids when the show's first season premiered in 2010.

Since then, he and his family have acclimated to Hollywood life — mostly.

"It's been a fairly smooth transition," he said. "It's definitely a little strange coming out here and being in a much bigger, much busier city."

Sometimes he hears gunshots in the distance from his office, he said, a sound he never heard working in Central Kentucky. And L.A.'s stop-and-go-but-mostly-stop traffic presented a learning curve for Kirkman, who was used to driving on clear country roads.

"Now, I've gotten used to L.A. traffic, so it's a little bit strange to be on the road (in Kentucky) and be able to actually drive, which you can't really do here," he said. "Sometimes I find myself speeding because I'm not used to being able to control my own speed."

The event at UK is the first in what organizers say will be a series called "Behind the Lens," which will chronicle actors, directors and producers with Kentucky ties.

Gabrielle Dudgeon, vice president of promotions for the Student Activities Board, said the group contacted Kirkman after learning of The Walking Dead's Kentucky connection.

Not only is Kirkman from here, but the main character of the show and comic books, Rick Grimes, was conceived as a police officer from Cynthiana who had never fired his gun in the line of duty before the dead came back to life.

In the comics, Rick and other survivors make several trips between Cynthiana, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. However, Rick's hometown is never specified in the TV show.

Kirkman said Tuesday that Grimes was not based on any particular Cynthiana police officer.

"I led a pretty boring life, so I didn't have a lot of contact with police officers in Cynthiana," he said. "Rick is pretty much wholly created in my head.

Tuesday's event is open to the public, and tickets are not required, but Dudgeon recommended that people show up early. She said the Student Activities Board expected Memorial Hall to fill to capacity quickly.

"It's a very popular event, and a lot of people are really excited for him coming to Lexington," she said.

Kirkman said he was looking forward to the talk and the trip home. His Kentucky heritage helps keep him grounded in the face of The Walking Dead's massive critical and commercial success.

Kirkman said he's enjoying the ride, putting his stamp of approval on every aspect of the show's production, but he's preparing for the day when it ends.

"I'm having a lot of fun with it, but 15 or 16 years down the road, I could be in a very different place doing very different things," he said. "I try to always be aware of that."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader