This week, writer Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard released Negan Lives, a special one-shot follow-up to their beloved creator-owned comics powerhouse The Walking Dead. The issue arrived almost exactly one year after Kirkman and Adlard sprung a surprise ending to the series on readers, and its equally surprising presence on comic book shelves was meant to boost sales for retailers struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it turns out the issue itself wasn't the only surprise Walking Dead reveal this month.
In the "Letter Hacks" column in the back of Negan Lives, Kirkman revealed that the title character — one of The Walking Dead's most memorable characters and perhaps its most popular villain — was originally going to die way back in issue #174. So, why didn't he? It turns out the character was granted a reprieve after an appeal by his co-creator, Adlard.
In the letter to readers, Kirkman explained that he wrote the full script for The Walking Dead #174 — featuring an ending in which Maggie tracks down and kills Negan to avenge the death of Glenn back in issue #100 — and sent it off to Adlard to draw, only to almost immediately receive a reply from the artist. Kirkman pasted Adlard's email directly into the back of Negan Lives. Here's part of what he said:
"As I said, the more I got to know Negan — especially over these last few years — the more I wished he'd stayed around till the end," Adlard wrote. "I wish redemption would've worked for him. This is absolutely no criticism of you at all, but more a criticism of western [at least] literature/entertainment, where, because the majority of us find the death penalty — therefore an eye for an eye adage — abhorrent, we carry it out in fantasy. Hardly any western villain gets away with not dying at the end. We, as an audience, always demand the ultimate punishment for our fantasy bad guys. It's a shame we didn't break the mould with Negan... the baddest of bad guys, but very far down the road to redemption and forgiveness, who pays the usual ultimate price — death. Imagine, if he lived, what we could say about our society?"
Kirkman went on to explain that Adlard's email was "all it took" for him to change his mind about the character's death.
"I didn't really want to kill Negan, deep down, I already missed that guy," Kirkman wrote. "Charlie's impassioned and very thoughtful email about the state of villainy in Western culture really moved me."
So, while issue #174 would ultimately be Negan's last appearance in the main Walking Dead series, the character was allowed to fade away rather than be snuffed out in an act of revenge, and Kirkman and Adlard went on to conclude the entire larger story with issue #193 last year. Elsewhere in his letter to readers, Kirkman explained how he was inspired by discussion among publishers and distributors about the comeback of comics to pitch Negan Lives to Adlard, complete with the idea that they'd foot the bill for production and shipping of the book themselves so all the money made from it would go to retailers. With that, Negan was back one last time.
But is it the last time? Because this issue marked the first return to The Walking Dead on the comics page in the year since the series ended, Kirkman also had to address the possibility that he and Adlard might revisit the story somewhere down the line. It turns out the door is open...just a little.
"I can honestly say I don't know if we'll ever actually say 'what happens next,'" Kirkman wrote. "To me, you see the headstone in #193, that story is pretty much told...but I'll never say never.
"But probably never. Probably..."