Friday, December 17, 2010

Pimping My Stuff: DC Writer's Relay at CBR

I've spent the better part of this week falling behind on the blog and about a half dozen other more important things working up transcripts for something over at CBR that I thought I'd plug before getting right back to a strict regimen of typing things all day instead of showering: The DC Writer's Relay!

See, a few months back Jonah Weiland and I got an itch to try a new feature on the site that we shamelessly stole from the BBC's Chain Reaction series of interviews (though we felt less comfortable stealing the name along with the idea). The basic set-up was the idea that one creator would interview another with interviewee then becoming interviewer on down the line until the whole thing revolved back on itself. We decided to make our first test run with some up-and-coming writers at DC Comics we felt would make for some interesting and in depth discussions. Clockwise from the upper left, they were: Sweet Tooth creator and Superboy writer Jeff Lemire, American Vampire and Detective Comics writer Scott Snyder, Jimmy Olsen and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents scribe Nick Spencer and Action Comics and Knight And Squire author Paul Cornell.

And boy oh boy, did those guys impress in terms of really fascinating discussion. in terms of topics, we placed no restrictions on what they could ask each other about, so all sorts of work from Lemire's award-winning Essex County books from Top Shelf to Cornell's "Doctor Who" writing to Spencer's rad Image Comics all worked their way in. And in terms of depth, I think I learned more about how working writers approach the craft and business of mainstream comics listening to them on the phone over the past two months than I have all year.

It's really amazing content that I feel really happy to have had a small hand in bringing to the web, and sadly, I'm starting to worry that either nobody's noticed them or they're just opting not to read them because "shit's too long" or because they're "waiting for some REAL news like a teaser image" or because "nobody told anybody to fuck themselves" or something silly like that. So I'm pulling out some brief highlights below and linking to each interview. Spend some time with the pieces this weekend, huh?

First up, Snyder chatted up his good friend Lemire leading to some really funny and interesting exchanges including the following:

Lemire: I think that's because of all that formative stuff where I didn't know what I was doing. No one ever saw that stuff, and I think I waited until I'd done something good enough to publish before I even sought out a publisher.

Snyder: That's one of the weird things about the contemporary mythology of becoming a comic book writer – you write something and then burst onto the scene, so you have your formative years as a writer. But one of the things that's interesting for me is that a lot of people I talk to do what you did. That's what I did in the literary world in the same way. You discover yourself as a writer before seeking publication.

Lemire: It takes a long time to find your voice, I think, as a writer or an artist. One of the things that is so different now – and I say "now," but it was really only ten years ago when I was in that stage – but with the internet and Twitter and all that stuff, everything is so accessible. Everyone is so accessible to each other, and it's easy to put your stuff out there right away. The line between professionalism and the amateur world is so blurred, now that the formative stuff is in everybody's hands.

Snyder: I feel the same way. I feel like a cranky old man saying it, but I was watching a Rock N Roll Hall of Fame induction. Bono was giving a speech about Springsteen or somebody – my wife was watching it when I walked in – and he was saying that if the music industry was the way it is now when U2 was forming, there wouldn't have been anything past "October." Because they had a gestational period! It's like any of the bands I love – since there wasn't an internet when Nirvana was forming, you have time to play in the dark by yourself and figure out who you are. But it does, now, seem like the spotlight is so aggressive. It's so intrusive that the moment you do anything that shows any promise, somebody can pluck you up. There is a certain amount of protection you have to give yourself as a writer or an artist.

Lemire: I feel like a lot of young people trying to do whatever it is they want to do don't have the patience or the work ethic to really develop. Everybody wants to be famous right away. Hence, the fame and notoriety is more important than the work itself. No one takes the time to find their voice. They just start throwing their stuff out there, hoping it catches. I'm really glad – God, this sounds terrible – but I'm glad that I didn't really have a lot of friends in comics or a lot of friends, period, in that time of my life. Like I said, I spent the good part of ten years alone and working and trying to get better. I'm glad that I have that. It feels like if you go to school for comics and be with all these other kids with so many other influences, it'd be hard to make it. Maybe that's why my stuff is so distinct. I just did it in a bubble.

Second, Lemire picked up the ball by talking to Spencer, who he'd never met, and pulling a lot of information out of the writer on his process for both creator-owned and work-for-hire gigs:

Lemire: That leads into what I was going to ask you next. What's your process like? For me, all my stuff tends to come from a visual place where I'm sketching in a book and a story grows from that. For you, you started to touch on this, but where do things start for you? A line of dialogue? A character? A high concept?

Spencer: Almost every idea that I have tends to – a lot of times I'll get a high concept first. It's a weird thing where I'll be sitting on the subway or I'll be walking through the park, and a general pitch line will float into my head. I have no idea where it comes from, but usually from there, I start thinking about, "Okay, what does this say? What's the theme of this story? What's the moral here? What's the question?" Then I start thinking about characters or who's going to be a part of that story. I usually think of myself as a "scene first" writer, but it usually comes out of some general premise that sprung up. And that process can take months.

So with "Existence" as a really easy example, I think the initial idea was "A guys wakes up in the body of the hitman that just killed him." Then you let that roll around in your head for a bit, and you think, "This is a story about a guy who had a life previously, and then he moved into a new life." Then it becomes a story about how when we make mistakes or even when we're unhappy in our lives, the solution isn't always to just go start a new life. The people in our old lives and our feelings for them reconnect us with what we've left behind. So then you start to flesh out the character. Who is this guy? He becomes this self-absorbed physicist who's been stealing from his partners and cheating on his wife, and he's made a general mess of everything. Now he's got this new life where he's a dangerous hired killer. And it's glamourous, and he's better looking. But then his daughter gets kidnapped, and he has to go figure out what happened to her. He's got to go back into his old life, and the choices he ends up making spin out of that.

So you can see how it starts from this standard line that the Hollywood guys love, but you never leave it there. I feel like a lot of writers go, "Oh, that'll be fun!" [Lemire Laughs] But you've got to put substance in that. You've got to build out layers, and that took months of having the idea roll around in my head.

Lemire: That's interesting. How regimented are you in your writing routine? Do you do the same thing during the same hours, or are you a little more open?

Spencer: No. Right now, it feels like it's just a continuous state of writing. [Laughter] It's all just bled together where there's no more times of "break." There are more times writing than there are not writing. I tend to write a lot at the start of the day and a lot at the end of the day. I'll wake up, and I'll have a few hours. Then the head gets a little tired, and you've got to take a break. Then later at night, I tend to be able to bang out a few more hours. I used to be a strictly late night person where I didn't get much of any writing done before ten or eleven P.M., and it wouldn't at all be weird for me to write until six or seven A.M. It was working fine, but I've sort of adjusted now, and I've broken it up into a couple of big blocks. Even though the time is probably about the same, I feel like it's better because I feel like I'm getting twice as much done because I'm sitting down to write twice. It just really depends. Every book is different in terms of how quickly it comes and how much time I have to spend on it and how many times I need to stop and start on it.

The Action Comics had a team-up next as Spencer interviewed Cornell while they both happened to be in the UK, leading to some highly British discussions:

Spencer: I really wanted to ask you some questions about "Captain Britain," which was one of my favorite series of the past decade. I just reread the first arc in anticipation of talking to you, and I'm in London right now, so it was a blast to read it here. The first thing I wanted to ask about was that this was an amazing story about patriotism, but it's also a story about how people don't wear their patriotism on their sleeves. You get goosebumps from these amazing calls to affection for your country, and then the very next line will be somebody making fun of that. Or there's that great splash page of, "We don't like to make a fuss about it." I was curious as to how you handled those moments and tried to strike that emotional chord.

Cornell: That's the nature of British patriotism, I feel. We have a very complicated relationship with our flag especially. And we can never say something straightforwardly patriotic without undercutting it with a joke or irony immediately afterwards in case somebody might think we were being too above ourselves or too serious. British patriotism annoys the hell out of me. It's really complicated. I think I am a British patriot in a lot of ways, but that's a very complicated thing to be. You could ask me that question ten different ways, and I'd have ten different answers. That book is an attempt to honestly address what the Brits would like these days in this field. It doesn't always succeed, honestly. A lot of people tend to view that run as what we like over here to call "jingoistic" which you would just call "patriotic."

Spencer: And at the same time, you wrote Gordon Brown there. How was the feeling of that?

Cornell: Obviously, the only way that a real British politician is going to be in "Captain Britain" is if he's portrayed as absolutely wonderful in all respects. [Laughter] There's no real figure that's going to enter the pages of one of my comics who is still alive and has the option to legal redress by "the Lord High Chamberlain" who is not going to be portrayed in a good way. We actually did have it where the leader of the opposition was supposed to be meeting Dracula on the moon at the start of "Vampire State" rather than Dr. Doom. And we were going to have it that he would initially seem to go along with Dracula and then once he got back home, rush in to call MI-13. It would've been a bit of a fake out. But then our lawyers informed us that that might not be the best idea. I'm the only person in the world, I think, who replaced David Cameron with Dr. Doom. [Laughter] Although, now I'm wondering how Dr. Doom would react to being in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That's a comic unto itself.

Spencer: Who would you replace Nick Clegg with?

Cornell: Nick Clegg is obviously Loki, the god of mischief.

Spencer: [Laughs] That's fantastic. But "Captain Britain" did use a lot of British iconography and Excalibur. One of my favorite lines was when she said to Dane, "You're with the N.H.S. now." I wondered how you approach that, knowing a large portion of the book's audience was going to be in the States? Did you think about that at all, or just say "I'm writing this for myself"?

Cornell: I tried really hard to make it not "that British book." I think an American audience likes a little tiny bit of Britishness...but not too much. I think we tried to strike a balance in "Captain Britain" whereas there wasn't anything that had to get explained, but contextually, you'd see the point of what we didn't explain. Maybe it was pretty obvious in context, I don't know. But I tried not to have stuff that had to be explained.

With "Knight And Squire," on the other hand, it's almost offensively British. We don't get any reviews that go, "Oh, that was all right." [Laughter] We either get great love or screaming hostility. I think it's interesting that I've managed to sell to British people both the quite serious superheroics of "Captain Britain" and the over the top Dick Van Dyke superheroics of "Knight And Squire." The Brit audience seem cool with both, which is a bit of a surprise. I thought they might dislike "Knight And Squire." In terms of the American audience, nobody much read "Captain Britain," which was always the problem, and now nobody can quite understand "Knight And Squire." Even with my translator's notes at the back!

Finally, Cornell brought it full circle by talking to Spencer about stuff like the metaphorical dimensions set to run through Detective:

Cornell: Sideline here that you may not be able to answer: Are the birds meaningful? Are they metaphorical? Are they set dressing? Are the plot?

Snyder: Well, I try to make them all of the above. [Cornell Laughs] I'll show the bones of it. They're metaphorical in the way that Gotham is transforming into a Gotham that's a manifestation of Dick's strengths and weaknesses and also sort of a nightmare funhouse mirror of his psychology as opposed to Bruce's. For me, there's an aspect to it that's about making it all feel tribal and animalistic and raw in a way that's changing itself. And the reason there are vultures in the beginning is that the first mystery deals with memorabilia. It turns really dark in the second issue, and for me it's all about the fact that Dick hasn't accepted the fact yet that he's the Batman of Gotham – even though he has Bruce's blessing. It's a light nod to this idea that Bruce's villains are on hiatus, at least for this series and run. The vultures are the whole idea of that Batman being dead and now you're Batman.

So they're metaphorical in that way, and they're plot-driven in a way that I wanted something that carries over into the backup. Thematically, we use them in issue two, and then they come back in #874, also. Hopefully it's not just window dressing for me.

Cornell: Well, it is literally. They're dressing that window. [Laughter] For me, it's a bit like Carl Jung, isn't it? You think of a beetle in a therapy session, and then that particular beetle flies in through the window. It's like Dick's attracting the pathetic fallacy in the form of birds to him.

Snyder: Exactly! I feel like the fiction that I write is pretty paranoid, too. The character is usually anxious and struggling with some diorama of the world that's projected around them with representations of those insecurities or fears so that you're facing those nightmares in a physical form. That's what I'm trying to do with "Detective," now. Hopefully it is a big story about the way that Dick is a very different character than Bruce, psychologically. I want him to be challenged by Gotham, where the mystery will have this effect to show him the ugly face of Gotham's people – its citizens. There's a possibility of them being really ugly in some ways. The second arc is about the new face of crime now that the Black Mask is gone and the Falcone's are diminished. I want this slow transformation of the city into Dick's worst nightmare that culminates in the end of the run.

Cornell: That's beautiful. I mean, how many comics these days ever have an unconscious dimension?

Snyder: I mean, reading them, I feel like your's and Grant's and all my favorite stuff! [Laughter] I do feel like the bar is so high now. I remember it feeling significantly lower when I was a kid where there were a few great comics and then a slew of comics in the middle. Now it feels so much more porous between the literary world and novels and comics and mysteries. The writing quality is so high across the board that it's inspiring to look around, but it's really intimidating too.

Trust me, there is so, so, so, SO much more in each interview than what I've got above. Please read them and share them around with your crew on the web. If this goes over well enough, I might be able to organize something like this again!


Ben Morse said...

Excited to curl up over the weekend and read all these! Great idea!

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