Thursday, January 20, 2011
One Page At A Time interview...Sam Agro, part 1
Writer, artist, performer...today's guest does it all. And on top of that, he's a really nice guy too! Sam Agro has written for DC Comics, storyboarded for Hollywood and illustrated a wide variety of comics in many genres.
DC: Most, if not all, comic creators start out as comic fans and enthusiasts. What comics do you recall reading and enjoying as a kid? Are there any comics you read as a kid that made a lasting impact on you?
SA: Like any kid growing up in the sixties, I read lots of comics. I was into this syndicated TV western called Fury, so I remember snapping up a lot of western comics, and I used to create my own comics-style adventures of Joey Newton and his horse Fury. I also read lots of typical "kiddie" comics Like Archie, and Bugs Bunny, and several titles from Harvey Comics. I was a fan of the Casper TV cartoons, so I read those, and I especially liked Hot Stuff, the Harvey title about the mischievous little devil.
At age 5 or 6 I wasn't really a collector yet, but I was very attached to my comics. As happened to many of us as kids, mom cleaned up my room one day and chucked out all the comics. My mom only did that once! I pulled the freak-out of all time. I was absolutely livid.
After that, I guess you could say I was a collector, though only in a casual way.
I remember three comics from that first decade of my life that made a huge impact, and set the stage for my superhero obsession.
When I was about 6 I recall our family got to spend a weekend at the cottage of some friend of the family. Whoever the kids were, they left a stack of comics, and amongst them was a fat collected version of several Lee-Ditko Hulk stories from Tales to Astonish. The stories were from issues 62-63 and chronicled The Hulk's first encounter with The Leader. I think there was a Kirby origin story thrown in there as well. The comic at the cottage had no cover, so I've never been able to track down the actual compilation comic, but I remember digging it the most. I really wanted to take it home, but my mom drew the line at stealing other kids comics.
Around the same time I remember going nuts for Action Comics #365 with it's awesome Ross Andru cover of Superman being shot into the sun while Supergirl holds a space-dome of Superman's loves saying farewell. I also remember Issue #78 of the FF by Lee and kirby. I spent hours looking at that splash page of them leaping out of Sub-Atomica, and being fascinated by the Thing's dramatic transformation back into Ben Grimm.
But, the book that really did me in was Incredible Hulk #150. I was 12 by this time, and really ready to become completely obsessed with something. I thought it was going to be cars and motorcycles, but this comic turned me in a much nerdier direction. One day, for some reason, my dad bought a bunch of comics. I have no idea why, but he bought about five or six assorted comics and I found them sitting on his dresser. I have no idea what the other comics were, but that Hulk really grabbed me. I think because it had a motorcycle gang in it, and I totally dug choppers. Btu what got me is this scene, beautifully depicted by Trimpe and Severin of the Hulk ripping out the side of a mountain with a girl perched on top.
What? He ripped out the side of a mountain? Holy Crap!
I couldn't believe it. It's still one of my all-time favorite comics.
I went out that same day on my bike and looked for more Hulk comics at the local convenience and drug stores. I found issue #149 and #151. This was the first time I put together the idea of issue numbers, and continuity. I vowed right then to obtain every single issue of the Hulk. That was the moment I became a collector.
DC: Do you think those issues have made a lasting impact on you as a creator as well as a collector and fan?
SA: They definitely made an impact. They got me started in both collecting and creating.
All the comics I dug during the 70's, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Batman, Conan, Swamp Thing, Tarzan, Ghost Rider, Tomb of Dracula, are still very much with me. As a fan and collector, that era is still my favorite. It's sometimes said: "The golden age of everything is 13", and my teen years are my most fondly remembered, comics-wise.
Also, they led me to a lot of prose material. Batman, Tarzan and Conan introduced me to the amazing world of pulp fiction by Burroughs, Howard, Hammett and Chandler. The horror comics led me to the fiction of Poe, Bloch, Lovecraft, King and Barker,
As a creator it's a bit trickier, but the impact is definitely still there. While the comics I create for myself certainly aren't as simple or naive as the comics from that time period, I definitely take my cues about basic form and the nature of heroism from this material. One of the saddest things for me about modern comics is this recent trend toward heroes who are jerks. The Ultimates was the first time I really took note of this trend. Everyone in that book is basically a dick of some kind. I can't relate to, or enjoy a story where Captain America kicks a helpless Bruce Banner in the head, or Hank Pym beats the snot out of his wife. Being a Hulk fan, I especially hated the way they portrayed him in that story.
You can certainly write a story about an anti-hero, a guy who isn't 100% upstanding or law abiding, but who tries to do the right thing. That's a valid template, and comics have done it well at times, such as with The Punisher. But a superhero is, or should be, another animal entirely. He should be a nobler creature. Sure, they can have problems or be flawed, like Spiderman or Batman, but they must also have a clear code of conduct to which they adhere and a higher standard toward which they strive. The "super" in superhero shouldn't just refer to their powers, it should also refer to their attempts to transcend their lesser, human selves. They may not always manage it, but they should always be trying.
So, that idea is a huge part of anything I would write about superheroes. Other genres have their own paradigms, but I'd still take my initial cue from what comics have done with that style.
DC: What about comic strips in the newspaper? Did you gravitate toward those as well? I have very clear memories of constantly borrowing Peanuts collections from my school library when I was a kid. My teacher actually made a comment on one of my report cards suggesting that I need to vary my reading choices! Later I became very fond of Bloom County...still love it to this day. Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side also hold a special place in my heart.
So, sticking with the topic of daily strips...as an artist and writer and fan...do you categorize them differently somehow in your mind? Or all they all just different branches of the same "comics tree"?
SA: I was definitely into comic strips, and I still am, though there are very few good ones left any more.
Unfortunately, I missed out on the golden era of the adventure strip, but have since discovered Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, Steve Canyon and many other great strips and their incredibly talented creators.
The newspaper's war against comic strips didn't get really going until the early 80's so in the 60's and 70's, I got to see stuff still being printed at a reasonable size, and big, full-color sections on the weekend. I was a big fan of Tumbleweeds, BC, and many others, but for me it was all about Peanuts. Schultz really broke new ground in terms of content, and codified the modern style of comic strips. He was lucky, in that his simple style fared well when the strips started shrinking in size. Many of the great strips you mention appreciating, like Calvin and Hobbes, and Bloom County, owe Schulz a huge debt. He was the big guy for me, definitely. I'm currently collecting the excellent complete run of the strip from Fantagraphics.
Personally I have always put comics, at least humor comics, in a bit of a separate category from the regular newsstand comics, Though, obviously, the early adventure strips had a huge influence on how early comic book pages were designed.
DC: You've had the opportunity to write some very iconic characters for DC's young reader imprint. Can you describe the process of how you "auditioned" or applied for that gig? And was it at all intimidating to work on those Looney Toons characters that we all grew up laughing with and idolizing on Saturday mornings?
SA: Yes, I got to write the classic Warner Brothers animated characters, Bugs, Daffy, Porky, and the whole gang for DC's Looney Tunes comic. For me this was a pleasure because I started out in animation and have a great love for the entire WB pantheon.
I wish I could say I got the job on pure merit, but it was more a case of "who you know". Ty Templeton had worked with DC editor Joan Hilty on a few things, and at the time she was editing the Looney Tunes book. I relentlessly badgered Ty to recommend me for something, anything, and Ty put in a good word for me with Joan. She was kind enough to give me a shot and I ended up writing on the title for about six years. Later, I also did a few stories for the Cartoon Network: Block Party comic, but it was cancelled shortly thereafter. Then, two weeks later, Looney Tunes was turned into a reprint book, and that ended my tenure as a writer at DC. I pitched a few graphic novel ideas to Joan when she was in that department, but nothing ever came of it.
Unfortunately, when auditioning for work on "adult" comics, my experience on kid's books is more a detriment than a benefit. Comics is a writer's ghetto, and kid's comics is a ghetto within the ghetto. I no longer mention it when talking to editors. They hear it, shove you into the "kiddie" pigeon-hole, and immediately dismiss you as a possibility.
I wouldn't say I was intimidated by the characters. Generally speaking I'm a pretty confident person, and I believe in my abilities. And, hey, what's more fun than creating action and dialogue for these wacky personalities? My background in animation and my experience as an improv and sketch-comedy writer/performer served me well. I wrote several stories I think turned out to be very good and very funny. I'm extremely proud of my work on that book.
DC: When crafting a story (while wearing your "writer" hat), can you talk a little bit about process? For example, what comes first for you, an outline or a focus on character? And also, something that fascinates me...is the process of story creation different depending on the medium you're working in? ... Or is it all basically the same thing?
In my case it differs slightly if I’m writing established characters rather than my own, but only a little.
For me the most important part of a story, whether it’s prose, film, theatre or comics, is the idea. The premise is the foundation of any narrative. Whether I’m writing for an established character, or one of my own, that’s where I begin. Finding a premise is actually easier when I’m working with a pre-established property, because I’m already familiar with its parameters. (Or, if not, I do my research and find out.) Then, I just think of an interesting situation that plays to the strengths of the character and go to town.
I write ideas down in notebooks, on scraps of paper, the back of my hand, etc., and then I transfer them to my computer. It could be ages before I pursue an idea, and after a little development it may be ages before I come back to it. It’s all a pretty organic process until I’m into the actual writing, where I attempt to be very focused and disciplined.
And so, we come to plot.
This is a highly contentious topic, in the writing community.
Some writers think plotting is the death of creativity, and that only divine inspiration will do for a truly creative individual. Some think plotting is only within the purview of genre fiction and should never taint the purity of “literary fiction”. Some think it should be used, but only sparingly.
Others are believers.
I fall into the latter category.
Personally, I would never dump on anyone else’s approach to writing as long as it works for them and you can see good results. But, many on either side of this issue do snipe back and forth, and it is usually the genre writers vs. the literary fiction crowd. I don’t think it’s a debate that will ever be adequately resolved, and perhaps it never should be. I can really only speak for myself, and for me it’s the only way to go. I think having a plot to follow ensures a strong narrative drive, an efficient creative process, and a satisfying ending.
I generally adhere to a basic structure of SETUP, CONFLICT (CONFLICTS) and RESOLUTION.
This is also where I would do most of my research. Reading about the city and other environments in which the story takes place. Researching the era if it isn’t current. I choose and educate myself on the careers of the main characters, and any other stuff that may inform my story. Solid research is crucial in creating a believable backdrop for you characters and narrative. While the internet is an amazing resource, live interviews with those who know may be in order in certain circumstances.
Then I write. For me this is where most of the character work is done. I have the basics before I start, but the subtleties are explored in the text and dialogue. The occasional dead end may be encountered for one of the personalities, but one just deletes the useless verbiage and tries another tack. Still, some might prefer to develop the personalities first, and who am I to argue. It certainly can’t hurt.
I develop characters just like I build narrative, by using the question and answer technique. How old is this person? What sex are they? How intelligent are they? Are they physically and mentally healthy, or challenged in some way? Are they fundamentally happy or sad? What do they want from life? What event in their lives defined their perception of the world? The more questions you answer, the more developed your character becomes. However, you still have to keep in mind the situations in which your character will find himself in the narrative, and build a person who fits the bill.
Dealing with an established property is different, of course. The writer already knows who the character is, and his energy is spent attempting to stay within the boundaries of what is believable for that individual.
Now, where do the ideas come from?
The answer is: everywhere!
Fortunately for me I have never experienced a shortage of ideas. Which is not to say they are all good ideas, but I certainly have a ton of them. I have files so chock-full of interesting ideas, and I’d never be able to explore them all in two lifetimes. Of course, after a little work you realize some ideas don’t really work. I recently wrote about 2000 words of a short story about time travel before realizing I couldn’t make it work in a logical, believable way for the reader. Maybe someday I’ll come up with a solution, maybe not. For now it’s on the shelf.
And, sometimes, you come up with a good premise for something that just isn’t inside your area of strength. We all have to do research for our stories, but all the research in the world might not be enough if you don’t have some affinity for the milieu.
I get ideas all the time. Based on the news, or interesting tidbits on the nature or history channel, or from weird things my friends say or do, or weird things my pet does, or something I saw at the mall. They come to me in the shower, or on the streetcar, or while doing my exercises, or while in that soft place between sleep and consciousness. Sometimes the whole story emerges full blown in an instant, other times it’s just an interesting image, or line of dialogue, or title, or character idea.
What often makes the difference between those who amass plenty of ideas and those who don’t is simply the act of writing it down.
I know, and appreciate, that an idea is fleeting. It pops into your head, then back out again just as quickly as it came. So, when I get an idea, I try to write it down somewhere and transfer it into my computer idea files as soon as I can. I’ve lost literally hundreds of ideas by not doing so, and many more by misplacing the scrap of paper I wrote it on. But, I have also nailed down a ton of concepts, and a few of them are even good ones.
So, keep writing the ideas down whenever you get them.
This is the basic overview of how I work. As a teacher I’ve codified a lot of things on a more nuanced level, but that would be a fairly long document.
There are a million ways to work out any story, and what each writer needs to discover is what works best for them.
DC: As you mentioned, you've worn a lot of different "storytelling hats"(improv comedy, writing, illustrating, animation). Do you have a favourite? Is there one that fires up your engines more than the others, or is it an ever-changing answer?
SA: Yeah, most of my life has been dedicated to storytelling of one kind or another. I’ve had my finger in a lot of creative pies, including animation, live-action film, theatre, comics, prose, improv and sketch comedy. I love them all, of course, and I’ve focused more exclusively on one or another at different times in my life.
The one I love the most, and the one that really broke my heart, is animation.
When I was in my teens, I had three great interests; writing, drawing and acting.
One fateful night, I took a date to see Disney’s “The Rescuers”. About twenty minutes into the film I finally managed to get my arm on my date’s shoulder, and was able to concentrate on the screen for a bit. That’s when a few important ideas began to filter into my dense teenaged brain. Somebody had to draw this stuff! They drew characters, and made them act, and told stories! It was like an explosion in my brain. Everything I dug rolled into one amazing medium.
After high school I attended the exceptional animation course at Sheridan College in Oakville. I really threw myself into that course, worked very hard, and dreamed of working for Disney one day.
But, as we all know, reality and dreams seldom correspond perfectly.
I came into animation in the early 1980’s, which was a very bad time, a sort of perfect storm of negative energy for the animation business. I also made a few incredibly poor choices.
First, some truly evil ad executive realized that you could create a series of animated advertisements based on toys and run it as a TV series. These shows exploded onto the Saturday morning programming schedules.
Second, some genius discovered that you could farm out your actual animation to Korea and Taiwan and cut your bottom line significantly.
Thirdly, for many years Toronto’s Nelvana Studios had been making wonderful, animated TV specials. But, after the failure of their feature film, Rock and Rule, they fell on hard times, and decided to do a bunch of “toy shows”. The first was Strawberry Shortcake. I had done some in-betweening at Atkinson Film Arts in Ottawa, but I needed work badly. I did an animation test and a layout test for Nelvana. I guess my animation test wasn’t too spectacular. (I didn’t find Strawberry Shortcake very inspiring.) However, they liked my layout test and offered me work in that department.
Here’s where I made a very bad decision. I said yes.
While working in layout, I was doing nothing to improve my limited animation skills. I liked the money and the freedom that came with it, and like any young man, I wanted to prove to my parents that I could make a living. So I spent a lot of years working on toy shows, mostly Care Bears, which can really stomp on a guy’s love for the medium. Later I got fed up with layout, but by that time all the actual animation was being done overseas. I flipped into storyboarding, and did that for a few more years. Storyboarding has served me well, but by that time, I’d forgotten everything I knew about animating.
I had a few decent opportunities, like a brief stint with Bluth-Sullivan studios in Dublin, a job I left for ALL the wrong reasons. I had a close call where I ALMOST got to work on the original Bruce Timm Batman show with a Toronto company called Lightbox. Unfortunately they couldn’t work out a deal with Warner Brothers, and that was pretty much the last nail in the coffin of my hopes for animation. By then computer animation was taking over anyway, and I had no skills in that area whatsoever.
After 15 years in the business I’d never worked on anything I was proud of, or thought was good, or wanted to show to anyone. I focused my creative energies on other forms like comic books, improv and sketch comedy, and let the dream die.
Animation, when it’s good, is still my favorite medium.
Next week: the conclusion...