10 Questions with Jeremy Barlow

Barlow Headshot02 smallWriter Jeremy Barlow has had a varied and interesting comic writing career covering some big franchises like Kult, Mass Effect, Dethklok, R.I.P.D. and now Hawken Genesis out this week from Archaia.

We got a chance to chat with Jeremy about how his career started, what it’s like to write all those comics and a bit about video games.

Jeremy is the latest victim of Graphic Policy’s “10 Questions”…

You can follow Jeremy on Facebook and Twitter.

Graphic Policy: How did you get involved in the comic book industry?

Jeremy Barlow: Dark Horse Comics hired me as an assistant editor right out of college. I’d just earned an English degree and was moving to Oregon from another state, and happened to time my query as DH had an opening in their editorial department. A few months prior to that I had a couple of great meetings with senior editors Diana Schutz and Chris Warner at Comic-Con in San Diego, which led to a job interview back in Milwaukee. The rest is history.

GP: Do you read comics growing up? Do you read them now?

JB: I sure did. I was buying comics before I knew how to read, off the grocery store spinner racks. It was love at first sight with ROM: Spaceknight and it grew outward from there. I’m still an avid comics reader, though my tastes have changed—I read more manga and European material than I do the superhero stuff—but I’m still a sucker for some good, original American science-fiction.

My buying habits have changed, too. Save for the occasional hardcover collection, I purchase everything digitally now, through my iPad, or I borrow it from the local library. Which cuts down on the clutter.

GP: How did you come to work with Archaia on this project?

JB: Archaia Publisher Mike Kennedy invited me. He and I go way back and have worked together on a number of different projects over the years. One of the first Dark Horse series I assisted on was Lone Wolf 2100, written by Mike and illustrated by Francisco Ruiz Velasco, who also drew HAWKEN’s opening chapter. It’s all come full circle.

Archaia’s been on my radar for years, too—they partner with incredible talent and produce the best looking books in the industry. I always planned to work with them on something eventually, and HAWKEN’s timing happened to be perfect.

GP:  The graphic novel is also tied into a video game. Do you play video games yourself? If yes, some favorites?

JB: I do, but not as much as I’d like. Making time for it is difficult, but when I do play I go deep. I’m obsessively thorough and will chase every last side mission and achievement I can follow, losing weeks at a time to this, if I’m not careful. So I’m very deliberate about what and when I play. Fallout 3 was a glorious black hole, and I spent months in that wasteland. Months.

My favorite games are story-driven, with a strong narrative or unique point-of-view. Red Dead Redemption was amazing, and probably my favorite game of the last few years. The Mass Effect trilogy gave me chills, and I still hop on the ME3 multiplayer now and then.  I just started BioShock Infinite and am having a blast with that so far.

GP: Hawken Genesis acts as a prequel to the video game. How much freedom did you have when crafting the story?

JB: The story was pretty well mapped by the time I came onboard. The game developers and the transmedia guys had already created an astonishingly thorough world bible, and I plugged into that. My job initially was to give it all a unique flavor, and to help them set up what’s to follow.

GP: There’s a who’s who of artists involved with this as well. Did you find yourself writing differently based on the artist? Did you even know who was handling each part?

JB: I didn’t always know who was illustrating which sections, but Archaia was good about keeping me updated as things fell into place. In general, I try to write for every artist with whom I’m collaborating. They’re the partnership’s visual thinkers, and I’m conscious not to dictate panel layouts or camera angles, unless an image needs a specific delivery. My job isn’t to direct, it’s to convey the story’s themes and emotions in a way that gets us all aiming at the same target. If every member of the team is invested, if we’re all working together, the results can be magic.

GP: One of the things I really enjoyed about it, is the breaks between the chapters where there’s a cell phone, tablet or computer screen that has more info on this world. How did that idea come about?

JB: Those are great, aren’t they? That concept was pre-loaded prior to my involvement, and it was an incredibly appealing and efficient way to both build the world and to convey a lot of information in a short space. Joe LeFavi deserves a lot of credit for the idea and the execution.

GP: I know you’ve written for many genres, with Kult, Mass Effect, Dethklok, R.I.P.D. and now Hawken Genesis, any one a favorite of yours? How do these different settings affect how you approach a story?

JB: Yeah, I’ve been really fortunate to play in so many fantastic worlds, and I try not to get involved with projects that don’t have a personal appeal. Writing something you love is hard enough; writing something you don’t care about is a total drag.

The trick with writing licensed or franchise stories is to speak in their voices so convincingly that readers can hear the characters and feel the worlds, while interweaving your own perspective and ideas into the DNA. If done right, the writer kind of disappears into the process. It’s a good tool to have in the box, and I’ve learned to use it well, but if you’re not careful it can keep you from developing your own identity.

It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve come to understand who I am as a writer.  KULT, for example, was a spectacularly failed experiment through which I learned that I can’t write darkness without heart. I need to balance the sinister with the warmly absurd. At the time, watching KULT come together and seeing where I went wrong was hard to take—because in this business, you’re failing in public—but with some time and distance I recognized that I needed that to happen to get some things out of my system. What I’m calling a failure was the most important and educational step I’ve taken so far.

In terms of genre affecting approach, I try to come at every project answering the same questions: What do I have to say about this, and how can I make that as interesting and exciting as possible? What kind of book would I spend my own money to read? Beyond that, genre really doesn’t matter. A good story should transcend the conventions.

It’s hard to choose a favorite, but R.I.P.D. probably best represents my own style and sensibilities, so my heart holds a special place for it.

GP: What types of hurdles have you met creating comics, and any lessons learned you can share? What advice do you have for someone breaking into the entertainment industry?

JB: My hurdles are all internal, and are probably pretty universal. I’m self-critical, I let perfection get in the way of good, I’m always barely a step ahead of my deadlines…

I don’t know that I can advise anyone on how to deal with any of that, but if there’s any wisdom I wish had been shared with me early on, it’d be: 1. You’re going to be terrible at this for while; it takes time to hone a professional level of craft, and that’s okay. 2: Becoming good at this is more important than getting hired, at least early on.

Most times, when someone’s asking how to ‘break in,’ they really want to know, ‘how do I get someone to hire me?’ The answer is both simple and the hardest to hear—become so good at what you do, they’ll want to pay you to do it. If you develop your talents, you won’t have to search for work. It’ll find you. Getting to that point takes years, though, and in the meantime you have to sweat it out and burn the crap out of your system, and the sooner the better.

GP: What can we expect from you next?

JB: I have a couple of stories coming up from Dark Horse on Free Comic Book Day in May. After that, nothing for a little while. I’ve stepped off the track for a bit to work on some long-delayed, original creator-owned projects. With any luck, you’re start seeing those roll out toward the end of the year.