I don’t remember where this interview originally appeared, and can’t find it on the ‘Net. But I thought it was worth a look…
1. Most comic professionals recommend reading works other than just comics to understand the craft of writing. What other types of writing do you read? What influences or lessons from these other types of works do you bring to your own comic writing?
I read a fair amount of fiction, mostly mysteries or SF/fantasy. And I’ll read whatever nonfiction appeals to me—I just finished a book about the Pepsi-Cola Company hiring blacks to more effectively market to black consumers in the 1940s and 1950s, which was an enjoyable read.
As for what influences or lessons they bring to my work…well, if they’re good stories, they’ll teach me something about plotting, about structure, about characterization, pacing, suspense—whatever they do well. For the most part, I’m reading for pleasure, but I’ll often find myself analyzing out why a particular bit worked for me or didn’t, whether I’m reading a book, watching TV, or whatever—as long as it’s storytelling, there’s something to be learned from it if it affects you as a part of the audience.
Reading nonfiction also gives us that oft-described window into someone else’s world, whether it’s the world of a black man with a sales job in hostile areas of the American South, unable to stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant, but with a job to do that was helping change the way business worked. Or the world of a baseball manager trying to hold a fracturing team together long enough to make the playoffs, and so on. The conflicts they deal with, the emotions they feel are specific, but not so specific that they won’t give you a better sense of how the world works for other characters.
So whether you’re learning knowledge or technique, good writing is good writing.
2. What goes into the process of creating a story for you? How much time do you spend researching? What about outlining? Do you usually make an outline for your stories or do you jump in and see where the story takes you? What are the advantages of your approach?
I don’t know that I have an approach—or at least not a consistent one. Someone watching me might be able to tell you better, because they’d be able to report objectively, and I’m stuck in the middle of it.
But generally, I think up a story, which can happen lots of different ways—I might be asking the question “What would Ultron do next?” or “What’s it like to be Lois Lane?” or “How can I relate the rules of baseball to the rules of magic? Is there a story in that?” The process of structuring out an idea into an actual story is largely instinctual, after 25 years of doing it professionally—I just mess around with it in my head until I have a story that works, and if I can’t make it work I usually call someone and bounce ideas off them until the problem’s solved. But there’s no formula to it beyond “Make sure the core idea is being served well.”
How much time do I spend researching? The only real answer is “Enough.” In some cases, that’s no time at all—I know a lot of this stuff already. In other cases, it’s a few minutes on the Internet. In the case of Marvels, it was months of reading and note-taking. It varies.
I do outline—I’ll rough the story out on a yellow legal pad, and when I have a strong sense of it, my outline goes page by page, very neatly. When I have a weak sense of it, and I’m getting ideas down to see how they fit together and where I need bridging moments, or character bits, the resulting outline can look like an organizational chart made up by a demented killer. Sometimes it’s just a loose description of the story beats with page breaks jotted in after I’ve got the chain of events down. Whatever the case, once I’ve got an outline that works, and will fit in the requisite number of pages, I’m ready to start writing.
If I’m writing plot-style, I start typing up a plot from the outline, fleshing it out as I go. If I’m writing full-script, I’ll start writing script pages. Either way, I know what I’ve got to fit in, and how much space I have to fit it in, so I’m good to go.
Used to be, I’d outline the book down to panel-breaks, not just page breaks, but the more experience I’ve gotten, the less necessary that became. I’ll still break down a tricky sequence into panels or even sketch it out, if I’m having trouble with it, but usually that’s something I do while I’m writing—the main outline is structure enough.
3. Comic writers mention tailoring their scripts to meet the strengths of different artists. Can you give us some examples of how you do this? How does a script for George Pérez differ from one for Brent Anderson?
Well, a script for George is a plot, and a script for Brent is a full script, but beyond that…
George paces stories his way, and is terrific at it. But there’s not much point giving him a detailed script; it just makes it harder for him to do what he does best. With Astro City, though, I need to be in control of the pacing, so a full script is called for. Plus, I don’t have any qualms about throwing a ton of stuff at George, because he thrives on it, and even if I were to give him a plot for a sequence of three-panel pages, he’s going to flesh them out into nine-panel pages, so it’d be silly of me to try to tie him down. But if I threw that much content at Brent and asked him to make sense of it, I’m not sure he’d do so well—I think Brent’s very good with a crisp, measured script, so why not give him that?
On a simpler level—Walt Simonson is great at grandeur, Brent is very, very good with street-level reality, Carlos Pacheco can combine Rockwell-like enhanced-reality with Frazetta-like majesty. If I’m writing for John Romita Jr., I’ll think in big powerful images more than in multi-panel talking heads. If I’m writing for Kerry Gammill, it’ll always be in the back of my mind that he’s great at drawing animals. Peter Vale, a newish guy who’s drawing some Superman material, is great at architecture. And so on.
If you’re working with a guy who’s great at drawing planes, maybe a story involving them is a good idea. If you’re working with a guy who’s lousy at planes but great at mood and shadow and desperation, maybe they get the story that’s set in the trenches of WWI, while the plane guy gets the dogfight story.
A guy whose layouts cramp up when he puts more than five panels on a page gets written for differently from a guy who’s brilliant with lots of claustrophobic little panels.
That sort of thing.
4. Much of your work (your run on The Avengers comes particularly to mind) recalls earlier eras in comics in terms of tone and the amount of action contained in the story. What’s your personal take on the “gritty/angst” and decompressed movements? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on decompression. Peter David says that it’s not a movement to decompress stories but, rather, a movement to make comics more movie-like. Do you agree with this assertion? If it is a move to make comics more like cinema, is this a good thing?
A lot of different questions in there. I suspect my Avengers stories are paced the way they are because of a combination of my own sensibility of how much story goes on a page, and the artist’s. Certainly, the issues George drew wound up with a lot more incident on each page than the issues Steve Epting drew, but both might have the same amount of overall story structure.
I think angst and grittiness are different things—angst (at least as a movement in comics) suggests to me the hypermelodramatic soap opera of the Claremont X-Men (or before that, the Conway Spider-Man), while the grit thing is more about a patina of crime drama, of seaminess and violence and bruised souls, where even the heroes are to some degree soiled. And with both of them, as with most anything else, my reaction to them is that I like them when they’re well done, but I like other things too. I think there should be lots of variety in comics. There’s room for plenty on angst and grit, so long as it’s not all we get.
As for decompression, I’m not sure even that everyone doing it would agree on what it means. For some writers and artists, it’s about putting less on each page so that you can slow things down and see the smaller, more nuanced moments come to life—comics paced more like a lot of manga. For others, it’s about boiling a story down to its most powerful elements and making those elements big and loud—a sparer skeleton to accommodate larger images. Or it could be about packing more story into each moment so you wind up with fewer moments, but they’re more complex. Or, in some cases, it’s just the realization that if you do in six pages what your predecessor would have done in three, you make twice the money.
For some writers, I’m sure it’s about making comics more cinematic. And as with anything else, if it gets good results, great—but it’s only one tool, and there are plenty of others that can be used well too. In general, I think that making comics more like some other artform is limiting comics—you’re throwing away what comics can do that movies can’t, in favor of something comics can’t do as well as movies in the first place—but there’s nothing wrong with choosing certain craft tools and techniques and sticking to them. It only gets out of hand if you start demanding that other creators limit themselves the same way you have, as if whichever way you like it the only “right” way.
I like the idea of some creators trying to make comics that are movies on paper, other creators trying to take the strengths of prose narrative and find a place in comics to use it well (and there, I’m thinking more of, say, Daredevil: Born Again than that recent Batman that was all prose), other creators embracing all the traditional old-fashioned comics tools, others trying to use collage to tell a story and on and on and on. If one guy strikes off in a new direction and finds gold, the lesson to be learned from that is not to follow his path, but to do what he did—strike off in a new direction, and see what you find.
5. You’ve mentioned before that you enjoy reading and creating stories that grow out of character rather than out of a plotline. Can you elaborate on this? What defines a character driven story rather than plot driven one? Doesn’t character come through as reactions to events in the plot?
Character is reaction to events, events are created by characters acting—it goes both ways.
But for an example of plot-based writing, try reading Gardner Fox’s run on Justice League of America. There’s not much character writing in those—the characters act to set up the plot, move the plot along, solve the plot. What makes Superman a different character from Batman doesn’t come up, except to the extent that they have different abilities. Their personalities and emotions don’t drive the story.
On the flip side, how many Spider-Man stories, during the same era, started because Peter Parker needed to make money, so he went out looking for news or to try some scheme, and wound up tangled up in an adventure plot? There’s plot in that, yes, but it happens because the characters are driven by their needs and emotions, and not because the writer needed to come up with an explanation for why the JLA are all being changed into trees, or chained to the oars of a space-going galley.
I usually find my starting point in character—in someone thinking or feeling or acting, and the story shaping itself out of what they do and how others react to it. The Maltese Falcon is driven by character—if Sam Spade doesn’t feel that when a man’s partner is killed he ought to do something about it, the story passes him by. And solving the crime is less important than exploring the conflict between Spade’s love for the woman he meets and his need to see justice done for his client. Murder on the Orient Express is driven by plot—it’s a big puzzle with all the characters created to work as appropriate cogs in the plot. In one story, the plot is built to make the character stuff matter, in the other the characters are built to make the plot function.
There’s character and plot in both, but they come from different places.
6. In my research for this interview, I get the impression that you’re constantly trying to stretch as a writer, push outside your comfort zone. Where are you pushing the envelope now? What directions/experiments do you want to take in the future to improve your craft?
Honestly, I don’t decide to push in some particular direction, I just get kinda naggy at myself if a story’s too easy. You may read it in ten minutes, but I’m going to spend a week on it, so it had better be worth spending that week. If something’s too easy, I find myself trying to make it better—find a way to bring the characters through better, to make the narrative stronger, to develop theme more thoroughly—or maybe just to try to do something I don’t know how to do, and figure out how to make it work.
I don’t know that it’s a matter of trying to stretch, so much as being uncomfortable in the comfort zone—I don’t want to just put in time, I want to do new tricks. If that makes any sense.
7. You’ve written comics for the Big 2 as well as created your own universe in the pages of Astro City. What positives do each offer? Which is the most satisfying of the two?
Both are pretty satisfying. In Astro City—or in other books where I get to build the world from scratch, like Arrowsmith or Shockrockets—I get to control everything, and build the world just the way I want to build it, which is great. In a shared universe setting, like the Marvel or DC Universe, or even a pre-established world like Conan’s Hyborian Age, I get to build on neat ideas other people set down, and that’s cool too.
There are other factors—there are more readers out there already interested in the X-Men, so it’s easier to reach an audience with X-Men than with Superstar. But then, there are fewer readers with preconceptions of what Superstar should be than there are reader with preconceptions about what X-Men should be, so I’m less likely to have a part of the audience I do attract insisting that I use some aspect of the series that I have no interest in if I stick to my own works.
In the long run, if I had to pick one, I’d pick working in worlds I create myself. But I’d just as soon do both, because I like both sets of advantages.
8. There has been much discussion about the status of the industry and the need to bring in new fans but I haven’t come across too many definite, concrete plans to accomplish this. What’s the Busiek formula for expanding the industry? Is the need to expand/revamp even an issue to your mind?
If we had definite, concrete plans, we’d all be implementing them and getting rich (or trying to). But we tend to be far more able to point out the problems than to come up with functional ways around them.
Do we need to bring in new readers? You bet. Always. The existing readers are great, but they’re going to get old and die. So reaching new readers—whether new readers for the existing lines of material or readers of new kinds of material—is a crucial part of any publishing industry. Random House doesn’t blow off their existing readers, but they don’t assume that anyone who doesn’t already like James Bond (or whatever) isn’t worth pursuing. You’ve got to please the audience you have and reach out to new people, too.
I don’t have a master plan—at least not one that doesn’t require a massive investment from someone fabulously wealthy—but I do have a four-part basic principle of how to successfully reach out to new readers:
1. You have to do material the new target audience will like. If you want romance readers, for example, you’re going to be better off doing romance comics than trying to make Captain America more romance-oriented. Making Captain America more romance-oriented won’t pull in a lot of romance readers (because of the costumes and the jumping around and the smacking with shields), and it’ll probably annoy your core audience (because they like the action-adventure).
2. You have to put it in a package they’re willing to pick up. The traditional comics-format package is one that most non-comics readers don’t look at, so even if you put stuff they love in it, they won’t ever know about it, not if it doesn’t look like something they might pick up. It’s no coincidence that manga took off in bookstores, in the form of paperback books, rather than in traditional comics-periodical format.
3. You have to put it somewhere they’ll see it. Whether you do this by luring them into comics stores with Stephen King’s name, or sticking the books in bookstores they shop in, you’ve got to bring the audience together with the material. “If you build it, they will come” is a mantra from a fantasy movie, it’s not a marketing principle.
4. You have to tell them it’s there. If you don’t promote the material to an audience that will want it, how will they know it exists?
So given all that, let’s assume for the sale of argument that I want to get more 14-year-old girls reading comics. On the one hand, I can invent a 14-year-old girl superhero and put her in the Avengers, which will probably bring in almost no new readers and may well annoy the ones I have. It has the advantage of being cheap, but the disadvantage of not being likely to work.
But how about this: I come up with a project called Steeplechase Farms, about a riding academy attached to an exclusive girls’ boarding school. The lead character is the daughter of the staff large-animal veterinarian, and she gets to attend the school for free, but there’s a class divide between her and most of the other girls. And there’s horses, romance, rivalry, social-clique drama and so on. That’s more likely to appeal to a large number of 14-year-old-girls than a new female Avenger of any age.
I’d next try to make a deal with, say, Seventeen magazine or one of the other magazines aimed at 14-year-old girls, pitching it as a natural synergy—it’s a way for them to hop on the “comics are cool” bandwagon and a way for me to reach their readers. 4 page chapters every month in a girls’ magazine will expose the project to lots and lots of the target audience, and will result in a 48-page story each year, that could be collected in book form. And if I’m selling Steeplechase Farms graphic albums in bookstores, maybe I’ll do original, unserialized albums as well, for them to grab off the shelves.
Would that work? I don’t know—for one thing, that 48-page album sort of pales in the face of 200-page manga volumes. So maybe that years’ worth of chapters adds up to one story in a longer package? I don’t know, I’m winging this.
But it’s both harder and more expensive, on the one hand—and it stands more of a chance of working, on the other.
We need to put comics that readers will like in front of their faces. That’s why Marvel put Ditko Spider-Man reprints in Sunday newspapers nationwide. It’s why the TPB market grows faster than the direct market, and benefits both DM shops and bookstores. It’s why manga, with its more varied content, snags readers that American comics had been having no luck with. Comics that readers will like, in their faces.
However you can do that, whether it’s a Parade-Magazine-style anthology insert in Sunday papers or a ten-page Jaime Hernandez story displayed at large size across the front of a comics store that gets lots of walk-by traffic, so people can read the material rather than just seeing covers, I don’t really care. Comics are attractive. If we can show people comics that they like, the job’s half done.
9. You’re somewhat infamous for you knowledge of comic trivia, which, to my mind, gives you a unique perspective on this next question. How much should continuity play in a comic story? For example, you have a terrific idea that goes against established continuity but doesn’t go against established character. Do you run with it?
Depends on the idea. There’s no set rule to any of this—it’s all case-by-case judgments. If someone wants to bring Bucky back to life, and it’s a lousy story, don’t do it. If Ed Brubaker pitches Winter Soldier, though, then cool.
There are comics stories that don’t depend on continuity at all, and comics stories that wallow in the stuff. In both cases, the good ones are good and the bad ones aren’t.
I find that deciding ahead of time what your policy is going to be is limiting—I think you’re better off staying flexible. It’s a part of continuity that Don Blake, him what used to be the mighty Thor, once built a functioning android. I have no problem quietly pretending that story never happened. But if you can get a good story out of the third Phantom Zoner on the left in a story from 1963, well, go for it.
I like continuity because I like history, and comics continuity is nothing but fictional history. But it’s the frosting, not the cake. If you try to make everything that was ever published fit together first, and make a good story second, you’re causing yourself unnecessary problems. On the other hand, Lex Luthor has appeared in at least two stories post-Infinite Crisis that presented him as the CEO of LexCorp, even though he’s a wanted fugitive these days, and neither of them would have been harmed by using him as a wanted fugitive. So you balance whether using the details of a shared universe helps or hurts, and how much, and you make your decision based on all that.
10. What’s the hardest book (or story, for that matter) you’ve ever had to write? What made the work so difficult?
A few different answers come to mind.
On a structural level, writing Astro City vol. 1 #4 was difficult, because it just wouldn’t come out right—I kept reworking and restructuring it, but it never did what I wanted it to. The end result was a story with enough ambiguity to it that people had lots of different responses to it and we won an award, but that didn’t make it any easier.
On a more surface level, when I wrote the issue of Untold Tales of Spider-Man that was narrated by Mary Jane, it was a brainbuster to get into her speech pattern and make it sound right. I wound up starting each day of that job by typing out all the MJ dialogue in ten issues of Stan Lee-John Romita Spider-Man, just to get the rhythms of her speech pattern in my head.
And on an emotional level, there was the time I dialogued a job where the penciler had taken it upon himself to “improve” the plot—adding scenes, eliminating characters, putting a big “room for explanations” page right before the big reveal, and more. It took forever to write the dialogue, in part because every time I managed to make a scene work, I was angry, because I was making that sonofabitch look good…
Anyway, take your pick.
11. What’s one comic story that every fan should read? What makes this story so special?
I doubt there is any one story every comics fan should read—and if there is, there shouldn’t be, any more than there should be any one novel that all people who like prose fiction should like. People have wildly different tastes, and there should be so many different kinds of comics that it’s possible to read a lifetime’s worth of great stuff without ever overlapping with some other reader’s lifetime of favorites.
That said, I’m tempted to pick “Ten Minutes,” a great Spirit story written by Jules Feiffer as a story that a whole hell of a lot of people should read. It’s a tight little work of crisp structure, gorgeous Eisner art and deadly irony. Aside from being an emotionally-involving story, it’s also a quickie master class in what comics can do well.
12. Which single story that you’ve written are you most proud of? What are your reasons for choosing this story?
Used to be, my reflexive choice was Astro City #1/2, and “The Nearness of You.” It just plain works—it was a pleasure to write from concept to completion, and readers seem to like it as much as I do, so it feels like a real home run of a story.
But Superman: Secret Identity is a personal favorite as well—I think the emotion of it really works, the story manages to be sentimental without being cloying, it ends well, has nice human moments along the way, and Stuart Immonen made me look much better than I deserve.
I do have another Superman story in mind that I’d like to do someday, that might click as well as those, but we’ll have to see when I get there…