Robert Kirkman is one stubborn guy. The creator of comics Outcast and The Walking Dead, and executive producer on the TV adaptations based on them – along with the force behind Skybound Entertainment, ongoing comics Super Dinosaur and Invincible, and a roster of feature films, docuseries and more – just won’t take no for an answer in his professional life. And he’s not so good at saying it to himself, either.
And now that stubbornness is at the center of his latest collaboration with PepsiCo’s Stubborn Soda. A crafted lower-calorie soda without high fructose corn syrup, Stubborn has partnered with Kirkman for its branding message of “It’s good to be stubborn,” which also involves a series of videos highlighting the benefits of having a tenacious personality.
“My stubbornness has served me well over the years,” Kirkman told me in an interview at last weekend’s New York Comic Con. “At every turn I tried to start something new, especially in the early days, I was told no, or not to do it this way, or it’s not going to work.
“I could’ve taken those rejections, and that would’ve been the end of my career at any turn,” he added. "You have to know when to listen to them, and when not to."
With that philosophy in place, and rooted in the operations of Skybound, the Stubborn Soda partnership is intended to showcase people such as writer Max Landis or host LeeAnna Vamp who, according to Kirkman: “Don’t take no for an answer, don’t follow the set path creative people have, who try to break barriers, and expand the horizon of what you can do creatively.”
For his part, Kirkman said he doesn’t know if he always accomplishes that, but it is still something he sets out to do. In his creative process, he said he strives to ask what hasn’t been done before, or how can he tell an old story in a new way.
Kirkman identifies himself as the type of person who can’t always tell himself no about getting involved in a new project. Not only does he think he’s especially efficient with time when he’s working on more things, he said he gets “agitated” when he’s not tackling something fresh.
'There does have to be a point where you have to be like, enough is enough -- I’m almost there!'
“If I stay focused on one thing for an entire day, by the end of the day I’m sick of that thing; so you get slower, and slower, and I find it helps productivity to jump around.” he said.
And while he joked with this journalist he doesn’t want to have his name emblazoned on a lousy hotel, terrible steaks, or awful wine, “I live with the comfort of knowing at some point I’m going to do something most people think is a piece of crap.”
Obviously that is not a challenge Kirkman currently has, considering the success of Outcast on Cinemax, and the ratings juggernaut of The Walking Dead on AMC – entering its seventh season Oct. 23 on AMC. Although those successes might inspire a different style of stubbornness from the creator once his work is out in the world for everyone to experience, and comment on.
For instance, Kirkman picked up a few headlines at New York Comic Con when he told a fan he didn’t care if they disapproved of who is on the receiving end of villain Negan’s bat in the Season 7 premiere.
“I say those kinds of things for effect, because you’re trying to make a panel entertaining -- but I also mean them!” he said while laughing.
“You can’t write a story trying to make every single person happy, because then you would write a story that makes no sense; I only write stories that make myself happy,” said Kirkman. “You can’t be concerned with how the audience is going to react, and that is kind of the shitty thing about being a creative writer because you have to write the stories to make yourself happy, and just pray that your experience, or personal like and dislikes, apply to the audience.”
Still, Kirkman acknowledged that fan input, complaints, or even sometimes entitlement is a “high-class problem” to have.
“When The Walking Dead comic launched, it was my most successful book ever, and the first book I ever got bad reviews on,” he said. “That’s when I realized all of my books up to that point hadn’t reached a level where people who may not be into it buy it, and the only people buying my books up to that point were the people who knew who I was, and knew they enjoyed my work."
'I’d be getting all these positive reviews, and I didn’t understand because my books didn’t sell!'
And so, said Kirkman, it is a “sign of success” that the show is so popular that someone is always going to be complaining.
Still displaying that stubborn philosophy, Kirkman said he believes it can be a dangerous path for a creator to allow fan reactions to sway storytelling. Such is the case with some of the negative reaction to the Season 6 cliffhanger finale, where audiences did not learn who Negan would choose to kill.
“If you piss off 50 percent of people about this, and you try to tailor the story for them, you’re going to piss off 50 percent of the other people -- and then you’re chasing that thing, and you’ve lost the integrity of the thing you did that got popular in the first place.”
“When we get a negative reaction, like we got to the Season 6 finale, we just have to stay the course,” he said, while adding he heard plenty of support for the finale as well. “We know we were popular, and everyone loved us up to that point, and we’re the same creative team that’s doing things moving forward.”
Kirkman said he stands by the cliffhanger finale, even though audiences won’t see that narrative device in the same way again.
“We expanded the story in a different way – we stuck our necks out there a bit, and tried to change the way we tell stories … it is just a risk we took, and we have to trust, moving forward, we’re going to be telling the same kind of stories we’ve always told, but in different ways, and keep the show evolving, and interesting, and do what we’re doing.”
Perhaps stubbornly for such a busy guy, Kirkman is still writing and publishing comics -- such as The Walking Dead, Outcast, Invincible, Super Dinosaur, and Thief of Thieves – and said he is happy the “insane sideshow” of making and promoting a TV series is funneling people into the comics medium he continues to love.
While waiting to find out who is at bat in the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead, fans can pick up those books in local comic shops, bookstores, and online. They can also tap into the “It’s good to be stubborn" mindset with the first Stubborn Soda “Stubborn Stories” below.