When Chris Roberson first outlined his comic-book series iZombie, he was thinking Hollywood. “I was very mercenary about it,” the Duncanville-raised writer says. “I structured iZombie as the pitch of a TV show.” For instance, in the comic’s first five issues, there are only three interior locations, which would cut down on a show’s production costs. And despite a cast of characters featuring zombies, vampires, mummies, ghosts, and a “were-terrier,” the action scenes that Roberson and artist Mike Allred came up with wouldn’t call for high-dollar effects.
Five years later, on March 17, the 44-year-old Roberson got his wish, when the television series iZombie premiered on the CW, with another Texan, Rob Thomas (of Veronica Mars fame), writing, directing, and producing. The show uses little from the comic—there’s not a were-terrier in sight—save for the main character and conceit: a recently deceased girl must feast on brains to keep her humanity intact. Being a zombie-with-a-heart, she harvests only the gray matter of the already-dead, which puts their memories into her head, forcing her to tend to their unfinished business.
Sitting at his home’s kitchen island, Roberson says he isn’t bothered by the liberties Thomas took with the story. “Tonally it’s very similar to the comic; they had the comics on the set and were using them in hair and makeup. I honestly think if someone had tried to do a literal adaptation of iZombie, it would have been a cult favorite that would have been canceled before the end of the first season. Instead, they created something that is much more apt to survive.”
Roberson spent most of the past 25 years in Austin, where he was a Plan II major at the University of Texas (his senior thesis was a science-fiction novel) and worked in laptop product support for Dell. His breakthrough as a writer came as a member of Clockwork Storybook, an Austin writing group that also included Bill Willingham, now famous for his Fables series for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. Roberson had written more than a dozen novels, but when Willingham’s success with Fables created comics opportunities for his friends, that was that. “I stopped doing prose,” Roberson says. “Comics were my first language and my first love.”
Roberson had a good run at DC, writing iZombie, the Fables spin-off Cinderella, and even Superman, until his conscience caught up with him. While he was happy with his own experience working for DC, he’d grown increasingly uncomfortable with what he regarded as the Warner Bros.–owned company’s shabby treatment of the creators of some of its most iconic properties. On April 18, 2012, he shared his feelings on Twitter. “Aside from the Fairest arc I already committed to doing, iZombie will be the last time I’ll ever write for DC,” he tweeted. “The short version is, I don’t agree with the way they treat other creators and their general business practices.” iZombie’s cancellation had already been announced, and after his tweets, DC spiked him from Fairest (another Fables spin-off).
That same year he made a second departure, leaving Texas for Portland, Oregon. Roberson and his wife, Allison Baker, decided they had had enough of Austin’s heat and sprawl (“Our friends lived a thirty-minute drive away”). Plus the couple’s touchstone hangouts (the rock club Liberty Lunch, where they met at a Ben Folds Five show; the old Mueller airport, where Roberson proposed; and Las Manitas, where they ate most Saturdays) were long gone.
But the DIY ethic of Clockwork Storybook and Austin’s music and film scenes have stuck with Roberson. He and Baker run their own digital publishing company, Monkeybrain Comics, and he is still writing comics for a bunch of independent houses. “I’m working on a lot of things I can’t talk about,” he says. And if the TV show is a hit, Vertigo might try to talk him into bringing back the comic, despite the hard feelings.
“Nothing’s impossible,” he says. “The terms of the deal I made with them are that if they bring it back they have to ask me if I want to write it. And they still pay me something even if I don’t.”