You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Friday, May 26th. The gang and I woke up and prepared for our second day of Megacon. Matt and I decided to cosplay, him as Jason Voorhees (leaving quite the mess of fake blood in the bathroom that hopefully did cause some poor hotel maid to faint). Lacking creative but making up in looks, I brushed my hair back with product, put on a suit, and went as John Wick armed with a handgun and stuffed doggie. As it would turn out, plenty of people knew Jason but were blanking out on Wick. It could’ve been my blond hair or nerds showing poor taste.
As reporters, Jeff and I made plans to go to certain panels since those are where the really interesting stuff about comics are discussed. Jeff went to a lot more than I did because my goal that was to meet Tom King and ask for an interview. If you don’t know who Tom King is, clearly you’ve been living under a rock but I’ll get you up to speed. He is the critically-praised author behind brilliant series such as The Vision, The Omega Men, and Sheriff of Babylon. What has made him such a household name is the use of genre fiction for dark, thought-provoking subject matters such as war, family, and religion. He also co-wrote Grayson with Tim Seeley and showed off the character’s butt a lot because, you know, even the moodiest writer needs a spark of joy.
Recently, Tom King has gotten big due to his run on Batman. It’s a highly contested run, some finding it trying too be smart or confusing for its own good. I on the other hand think it’s an emotional run about Batman coming to terms with his darker elements and attempting to become emotionally open and available to his friends. You know, while shooting out of his car to stop a plane crash and breaking into Bane’s fortress to take out thousands of goons. High literature! In all seriousness, this run has made me care about Batman again, and I’ll die on a hill defending it. I brought with me the first trade and waited eagerly in line for his autograph. I was also hoping to get an interview with him discussing his approaches to the series and Vision.
Tom King was exceptionally nice and energetic, appearing to be genuinely excited to meet fans. He wondered who I was cosplaying and guessed right away that I was supposed to be John Wick. He signed my trade and took a photograph with me. When I asked about an interview, he said that unfortunately he was not allowed to do interviews, that I had to ask permission from a Twitter handle I forgot. After Megacon, I would later find at least one video on YouTube of Tom King being interviewed with Scott Snyder. I remembered that Megacon instructed we had to go to a media room for approval, but it was a good walk back to where I had attained my press pass. Instead of pursuing this, I gave up too early and decided to move on. I did not attempt any other interviews that weekend. I was too caught up in the idea of interviewing Mr. King to think of alternatives. I will say though that I did request an interview with him online when filling out my press pass but never got back a response.
That day was marked by two errors: 1) Make sure to persist in an interview and find out all your options, 2) Be prepared with a backup plan. I do have to comment that last year, I was allowed to interview comic guests simply by asking their permission and doing it at a time that would not interfere with their signings. I managed to do this with both Gail Simone and Brian Azzarello, the latter of which was a high profile guest that year with his work on TDKIII: The Master Race with Frank Miller. I appreciate that Megacon was running the con more efficiently this year, but at the same time restrictions being put on the press in regards to conducting interviews were needlessly strict and complicated.
Since I was unable to interview Tom King, I decided to go see him at a panel called Writing Comics 101. Along with Tom King were Gail Simone (Clean Room, Red Sonja), Greg Rucka (Lazarus, Wonder Woman), and Jody Houser (Faith, Mother Panic). They discussed what it’s like writing for comcis as a living, both creator-owned and work for hire, giving personal anecdotes to how they learned each lesson ever on the job. The moderator of the panel asked a series of questions, and each guest took time to give thoughtful answers.
1) When did you first realize there was such a job as writing comics?
Jody Houser, went first, saying that she always knew she wanted to be a writer but thought you had to write a novel or stage play to get recognized for it. She had always read comics here and there, but Mad Love by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm was the first she read that made her think “Man, comics are really good.” She first started off making webcomics before getting offers at bigger companies. It’s only recently now that she has so many high profile projects that she considers seriously pursuing them.
For Tom King, he always wanted to be a comic book writer, but he couldn’t say what that moment was. He distinctly remembers during Christmas when he was reading both The Dark Knight Returns and a trade of Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. He had no idea at the time who the writers were, so when he read them he thought “Man, these guys really know their voices!” King grew up in L.A., a mecca for failed writers. His father was run, so the thought of becomign one seemed absurd. He jokingly said he only realized you could a year ago when his wife stopped asking him if he wanted her job.
With Gail Simone, it took her five years into writing comics before she realized it could be a career. She always knew she wanted to be a writer, she always told stories, and the first big reaction she got was from a story she wrote in third grade. Everyone liked it, but Gail’s family talked her out of it, saying it wasn’t a viable career. Gail went on to be a hair stylist, owned a hair salon, and stayed at that while writing until it made no sense to continue. It was a scary moment to let go, but she eventually felt relieved. “Yay, I”m a comic book writer now!”
Greg Rucka’s mother was a journalist and his father a worker’s comp attorney, so writing was always in the house, plenty of books everywhere. He distinctly remembers hearing his mother’s typewriter going at machine speeds followed by an occasional DING! There was no mystery to writing. He knew it was a thing people did. As for comics, the first time he realized there was such a thing as authorial power in the medium was age 14 or 15. He was part of a group of Marvel Zombies, reading the comics they did. One day, he found something different from all the X-Men books they were reading, and that was Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. He read it and described it as a book where you can’t know it’s not written. You could hear Frank Miller’s voice in the story. He didn’t fully comprehend the story, but it made him realize “Oh, wow. There are really people writing these things. That would be kind of cool.”
2) Who were writers that were touchstones for you, names that you started paying attention to and followed?
For Gail Simone, that was Steve Gerber, writer of Howard the Duck, who she found to be a genius with a boundless imagination and brave enough to do things that no one else did. She also read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Garth Ennis’ Preacher, and other Vertigo titles. These writers made her comics could be literature. Even now, she finds that comics currently have the best writers and artists working.
Tom King hated to be cliche, but Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work really inspired him. A good number of superhero works also influenced him, especially during his Marvel Zombie years reading Power Pack, New Mutants, X-Factor, and Roger Stern’s work on Avengers.
Jody Houser hated to be cliched as well, but Alan Moore and Frank Miller for her as well, especially Moore with his transitions as she described as having a rhythm like music. Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America also was a huge influence. More recently, Jason Aaron and Mark Waid are influences, their books getting her back into Marvel. Oh, and of course everyone sitting at the panel.
For Greg Rucka, it was Dennis O’Neil. He tracked down everything that he wrote. When he started writing comic scripts, Rucka referenced Miller and Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. Although he advised to pay attention to the structure of the book, NOT the actual script writing because it is radically different from how scripts are usually written. Also, do not do 18-something panels unless you have the right kind of artist, or else the artist you’re currently working with will kill you. He also remarked that on him being the oddball out not being a huge Alan Moore fan. He respects him, but doesn’t click with Moore’s work.
3) As I understand, sometimes working relations between writers and artists can be tricky in terms of communication. With creator-owned, it seems more direct. What have your artist collaborations taught you over the years?
Greg Rucka recounted how while a novelist, the communication was very direct. His editor was great and helpful even though she didn’t really like him. He would take 6 months to write a draft, send it to her, and she would give back notes on how to fix it. Even though they had a relationship where they stood in each other’s corners, they would communicate and see each other. It was easier to do that kind of relationship in novels than comics though when there are normally more than one person involved. When first starting at DC, there was a strict policy where writers couldn’t communicate with artists. Yeah, you could request a phone number, but usually the answer would be no. Everything went strictly through editors. Looking back at his old work, Rucka could see all the problems with it because of a lack of communication. Part of it was his failure to communicate clearly through the script, the other was editorial not giving a rat’s ass (his words, not mine). Things have evolved, fortunately. With social media, it’s easy to communicate with an artist and editorial is no longer as controlling.
Gail Simone said different projects come out differently. She always writes full scripts, so it is what it is. However, she understands things have to go through an editor. Each step, a little bit of the initial energy gets lost. When you’re working directly with your artist, there’s this energy on the page you cannot replicate if you have to go through ten people to get that message across. She finds that creator-owned work tends to have more of the original energy intake. Simone has also worked with artists whose second language is English. The frustration is that if she can directly talk to an artist, an issue is resolved in two days. If it goes through editorial, it can take two months. It’s important to have a good working relationship with an artist, one where they know what you’re saying and can do it without much instruction. It’s best when the editor of a project understands this and doesn’t feel the need to micro-manage so much.
Tom King had run a gauntlet of experiences. With Omega Men, Barnaby Bagenda (the artist) he never met him, never talked to him. He found Bagenda on Deviantart. He lives in Indonesia and has an agent that handles communication. He drew 11 issues perfectly, King did layouts which helped. The thing that is most important is to know your artist cares. If they don’t, that’s where you’re in a bad spot.
Tom King did his best not to curse at first, but when realizing the only child present was a baby let loose. Rucka informed the crowd that if they expected a room full of writers to not curse, they’re sadly mistaken. I can speak from personal experience as a writer. We curse like sailors. Worse than sailors, actually. So, like…demon sailors?
Going back to Tom King’s point about an artist caring, you need to know what they care about. Do they care about the project? Do they just want to reach a deadline, make some great pages for a portfolio? Hell, maybe they just want to draw scenes of hockey. That actually happened when King collaborated on Batman with Jason Fabok. Fabok is a Canadian and a big fan of hockey. So, that’s why in a recent issue of Batman, Bruce Wayne is watching hockey. King decided to attract Jason Fabok to the project by giving him hockey scenes he could draw. Point is, not matter what, just make an artist care enough to deliver good work.
Jody Houser was originally a screenwriter, and unfortunately got bad advice that comics were like that. They’re not. Houser’s original scripts were too sparse for an artist, and they had a zillion questions for her after reading them. It’s a balance between writing enough detail for your artist to have an idea of what to do but also room to do their own thing. Houser has only done work-for-hire so far in her career, so it all goes through an editor. However, there are projects like Mother Panic with rotating artists, so they’re all giving commentary on the scripts and art turned in, which Houser finds to be a cool process. There are other times where she likes to push an artist to draw something outside their boundaries, such as with Marguerite Sauvage on Faith. This artist is well known for her beautiful drawings, particularly with fashion. But Houser was happy on one issue of getting her to do horror-style art, since those are the kind of stories Houser likes best. Mixing things up is always a good idea.
There were many more questions like this, but to list them all would take too long. In summary, what I learned from this panel is to always have constant contact with artists, figure out what they like/don’t like to draw, sometimes push them outside their comfort zones, to always hope that you get a good editor and if not work around that. At one point, the audience lined up and asked questions for the writers. My question was:
4) When doing a creator-owned book, do you think while writing a story of a particular artist who will draw it because they fit the aesthetic you want? Even if it ends up a situation where you’re not going to know who the artist is until after some scripts are written because of, like, it’s a corporate work-for-hire thing, do you write your story to fit that artist’s style?
For Greg Rucka, creator-owned work tends to have more direct collaboration between writer and artist. Even then, you have to know what they don’t like to draw. Liam Sharp doesn’t like to draw cities or tech, but while on Wonder Woman, Rucka had to tell him to bite the bullet sometimes when it became necessary. Once he do this we’ll get to the stones and dancing demons, I prom. To me, story has to have primacy. The story must have primacy over comfortability. Michael Lark is another example because he hates almost everything Rucka asks him to draw and then will deliver it beautifully every time. He’ll be mad about it but also admit it looks good.
Gail Simone added that some of the best things come out when you’re uncomfortable. For her, it depends on the project. With Crosswind, she had Cat Staggs in mind. She approached her and Staggs made sketches and got the concept right away. She doesn’t worry much about it all after that point. With Walter Giovani whom she’s doing a creator-owned all ages project, they loved being a team on Red Sonja and wanted to work together again, so Simone sent Giovani some ideas and asked him which one was he most interested in. Giovani chose the all ages one because he has two young daughters and wanted to work on something they could read. Once she knows the artist and what they’re capable of doing, Simone likes to push it a little bit because she believes if you’re working on something and you’re comfortable, you should start over. You should be feeling uncomfortable whether it be anger, love, or horniness or whatever.
Speaking of his Batman collaborator Mikel Janin, Tom King said they have been working together for three years yet fundamentally disagree on how comic books should be done. King thinks comics should be in small boxes on a grid and read as a vertical medium. Mikel thinks of them as a horizontal medium, which means double page spreads. He’ll take King’s pages and smoosh them together. However, King sees Janin as a superior storyteller and trusts his judgment. In one issue, King did what Janin wanted and made an entire issue of just double-page spreads as revenge, and he ended up turning in his best work.
Last but not least, Jody Houser said it’s easier when you know who the artist is ahead of time and plan things out. That’s what’s going on with her current DC title Mother Panic. Each artist on the book has a distinct style, so each story is catered around to them.
Afterwards, I went back on the floor to pick up more comics from independent creators, including Cursed Pirate Girl by Jeremy A. Bastion. I also snagged mainstream books, such as a signed copy of Secret Six from Gail Simone.
The final victory of the day was getting Scott Snyder to sign my trade of Wytches and compliments for Graphic Policy being fair and balanced in our reporting. Hot dog!
The gang and I left the convention to go out for dinner. We stopped by an Asian restaurant where I picked up a mere salad. This would prove a mistake. I later joined up with my good friend Sorah Suhng and had cocktails with her. We had a pleasant about comics, the industry, music, etc. Unfortunately, Sorah was buying the cocktails and I was not keeping track of the amount of Maker’s Mark I drank. By the end of our conversation, I was very drunk. An uber back to the hotel prevented any roadside damage, but the swirling or the headache going on in my head. I went to bed feeling like I was tumbling through water. That would not be the end of my misery though.