At the 2015 Image Expo, news broke that Eisner winner Brian K. Vaughan (Saga) and his longtime collaborator and creative partner, artist Marcos Martin, would create a one-off comic set in the world of Robert Kirkman’s multimedia zombie juggernaut, The Walking Dead. Today, Vaughan and Martin’s work, The Walking Dead: The Alien, is finally a reality, premiering on the duo’s DRM-free digital comic website, Panel Syndicate.
“Robert [Kirkman] was really generous,” shared Vaughan. “When Marcos and I were talking, we’d known there were secrets or histories, and we thought, why not take a big swing and see if Robert would let us tackle this in the course of the story? And we thought he’d definitely say no.” Kirkman said yes, however, and according to both creators, the writer of the epic horror series has remained supportive and open during the process.
“It started with [Vaughan and Martin’s previous sci-fi noir comic] Private Eye, which Robert was a really huge fan of,” Vaughan said. “And he said, I love what you’re doing, I love the idea, but you have to realize a lot of people still read print, and there’s a huge print opportunity. Won’t you please come over to Image, where I was already working on Saga, where we can do a print version? And Marcos jokingly said Image can have The Private Eye if we can have The Walking Dead, and Robert said, ‘Sold!’” And we really thought he was joking, but it was Marcos who thought it could be an amazing opportunity. It was too big an opportunity to turn down.”
“I’ve been kind of oblivious to how big The Walking Dead is,” added Martin. “It’s big all over the world, but I guess being in Barcelona you’re not living it every day. But I’m staring to realize now how big it is and I’m staring to get a little nervous.”
Martin and Vaughan’s story, which marks the first time the series hasn’t been written by Kirkman, takes place in Spain, a choice made by Vaughan and supported by Martin. “It felt like I’d been reading The Walking Dead for 100 plus issues and I couldn’t remember them ever cutting away from the U.S.,” explained Vaughan. “So it felt like an opportunity to show what was going on in the rest of the world.”
“That was Brian’s idea,” Martin said. “It came to him almost right away when we were talking about doing it. He wanted to set it somewhere else other than the U.S. because it would be cool to show The Walking Dead universe out of the U.S., and show what the plague looks like. I thought it was going to be Paris, London, Moscow, and so when he came back to me with the proposal, it was actually Madrid. I thought if it had to be Spain, it might as well be the city I live in.”
To say that the duo felt pressure taking on a title with such a big fanbase and scope would be an understatement. “I felt a little more pressure than I probably ever felt doing work for hire… I guess because there are so many interpretations of the characters, and they’ve been around for so long, so I never felt the pressure of drawing them,” said Martin. “Also the fact that it was happening in my city didn’t help, because you can’t help but feel a responsibility. As much fun as I’ve had with this story, it’s really been the one where I’ve felt more pressure.” It was the same for Vaughan who, despite garnering critical acclaim with Saga and other comics including Paper Girls and Y: The Last Man, worried about stepping into Kirkman’s world.
“I broke into comics doing work for hire, and it was always hard for me—it was never really my passion. I always wanted to do new things and new creations, so I was reluctant to do anyone else’s characters, especially The Walking Dead, which is this beloved, worldwide phenomenon,” said Vaughan. “I think once we decided we can do a story that won’t step on Charlie [Adlard] and Robert’s toes… It was tough. I loved that comic and we didn’t want to take Robert’s voice, and Marcos didn’t just want to throw on Charlie’s style. We wanted it to be us, but be true to the universe they created.”
One way to straddle that line? Keep the black-and-white palette of the main series, using sporadic instances of bright red to move the story forward. “In talking to Robert, it came up whether we would be doing it in black and white or color, because it was a possibility,” explained Martin. “But we felt that stylistically, it would make more sense to keep with the concept of the series being black and white. At one point, I also considered using grays, but that was my decision. I felt like it was more powerful just to make it black and white. And I knew I wanted to bring in color as a narrative element at the end.”
Vaughan doesn’t take for granted the luck he has in playing with this universe he’s been allowed to contribute to creatively. “As much as The Walking Dead is this empire now, I appreciate how sacred Robert has been,” said Vaughan. “I think Marcos and I were the first people who had taken a stab and gotten to do something with this world.”
So what can fans expect from this highly anticipated story?
“This is going to reveal something Robert has never revealed before,” teased Vaughan. “And we hope that’ll be a hook to pull people in.”