Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One Page At A Time Interview...Skipper Martin

This week's interview is with Skipper Martin, writer and creator of Bizarre New World.

DC: Have you been a lifelong comic book fan, or is it something you came to later on?

SM: The very first comic I remember reading was a "Back To The Future" book. I hated it. Despised it is more like it. I wasn't aware or cared about the cartoon show it was based on, I wanted a continuation of the movies! That was my first taste into the unique world of comics. I hated that particular comic, but was in love with the idea I could get something in that little book I couldn't get anywhere else. When Superman died I got my first taste of a compelling story I really COULDN'T get anywhere else! I was a teenager at the time, but there was something really magical about this medium that most people I knew weren't reading. It felt almost like a private club you shared with others who 'got it.' I began to read a bit more while the whole Superman dying and returning thing played out, there was good stuff too be found for sure. Soon I was hooked on the "Knightfall" saga over in the Batman books, and my interest was really starting to take hold. I enjoyed the books, but deep down never took them as seriously as novels or movies - my idea of what 'real' stories were.

One day I was in the store I frequented and asked the owner for something really great to try out, not your usual superhero tights and capes stuff. He handed me "Grendel: War Child." Now this was tapping a vein! That book destroyed my concept of comic books. It was intense, original, engrossing, and one of the coolest things I'd ever laid eyes on. Now I was hungry to try more of THIS kind of jazz! In another store I asked a friend of mine Craig Stone what was worth looking at and he handed me the Garth Ennis penned "Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits." That of course led to "Preacher." One of the single best stories written in any medium.

I look back on all the comics I've read, and those early favorites still stand on top of the heap. Another book I can't say enough about is David Lapham's "Stray Bullets." That book was a jaw dropper. Powerful storytelling in a stripped down package. He also drew one of my favorite single issue books of all time - "Plasm #0". I know that book gets a lot of flack, but that first issue is one of my very favorite reads to this day. I love originality. Anyone can tell f*@king vampire, zombie, dude in a cape tale. Sometimes it feels like everyone has! That book was something totally unique. That's what I'm always on the lookout for.

DC: I totally agree with you about Preacher. That book has made a huge impact on me, and to this day, I continue to regard it as a milestone in comics and storytelling. That's actually a pretty nice segue there for my next question, which is...have you always been interested in writing and telling stories? And how has your "day job" (which is a tremendously cool one!) affected you as a writer/storyteller?

I don't think I consciously ever saw myself as a writer, even when I started doing it. My storytelling is ultimately the byproduct of watching too many television shows, movies, and a healthy dose of book reading. I noticed probably in my teens that when I told anecdotes I naturally built in beats. I wouldn't just regurgitate the bullet points, but build to highs and lows instinctually. When the time came to try to write something, it felt very natural to put myself behind someone else's eyeballs and see what they saw, feel what they felt, and imagine how I / they would react to something. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I would just keep finding obstacles, and creative ways to deal with those obstacles. I consider writing that first issue of Bizarre New World one of my very first attempts at storytelling. It was daunting as hell, but I believed so passionately in my ideas that I just refused to doubt I wasn't qualified to even attempt it.

As for your second question about my "day job," for those who don't know I'm a colorist at Universal Studios. That means I color television shows and feature films. I don't 'color' in the sense of a comic book colorist, meaning I don't take a black and white image and make color where there isn't any. I take the color that was captured in the camera and enhance or manipulate what's already there. All shows and movies get 'color correction,' and that's the part of the process I'm involved in. Sadly, I have to admit I don't believe it's really affected me in the slightest in regards to storytelling. I find what I do for a living mostly mechanical. Yes, it can be creative to a certain extent, but as much as I enjoy my work, and feel very fortunate to be doing it, I think the only real answer to your question that applies is that it made me seriously want another outlet to truly explore my creative side. The only other influence it may have is how I perceive color and evaluate it. I bring a different sensibility to how I want things to look in a very general sense. It doesn't make my opinion 'right' or 'more correct,' just a different and possibly unique point of view. Or more likely I'm totally full of cow patties and fooling myself. Take your pick.

DC: When you wrote that first issue of Bizarre New World, did you have a plan in mind for an eventual finished product? For example, did you know for sure that you wanted it to be a comic? Were you planning on pitching it to a variety of companies? Or was it more of a personal project?

SM: I hatched the idea in 1999. For 5 years I sweated it out not knowing if I could tell such a large canvas tale. I really didn't know what I COULD do with it. Even if I wrote the greatest screenplay, could it ever actually get produced? I thought it could make a great comic, but I didn't know if that was really the path for it. I sought out some advice from a friend of mine named Blair Marnell who worked on a comic news column called "All The Rage." He thought it would make a great comic and led me to an old chum of mine - artist Tone Rodriguez. Tone thought I was a dreamer who wouldn't actually take his advice, but gave me advice he did. He suggested first getting my story together. I was hoping to find someone to collaborate with, but he thought I should really try to do it on my own. I chickened out and asked a friend to help me kick around ideas - music video director Lex Halaby. Lex didn't give me my story, but cleverly steered me towards finding it myself. Then luck struck and the whole tale popped into my head. I banged it out in a couple of weeks and by late October 2005 I had a basic outline for the entire core series that has changed very little to this day. I showed it to Tone, well…told it to him verbally while he was sketching is what really happened. What he was sketching was a loose interpretation of my main character Paul based on what I said he kind of looked like, a sort of alternate version of me. Now I had a real mental image to hang on to and really hit the ground running. I followed more of his advice he thought I'd ignore and found artist Christopher Provencher on Digital Webbing. Tone introduced me to Wes Dzioba who was at the time coloring his book U.T.F. - Undead Task Force, and presto I had an art team in place. No publisher, no clue, no problem, just start pushing the snowball down the hill and see what she turns in to. So I wrote issue one knowing it was in fact a comic with 22 page beats I needed to hit with cliffhangers and so on. I had no clue on how to pitch it to companies, so I had no plan there. When the art starting coming together so well I decided to use Image Comics submission guidelines for my pitch package. Tone and Will Wilson put me in front of Ape Entertainment, and the rest is history, In retrospect, it was very foolish of me to not shop the book around. Even if Ape was the perfect place for the book, I should've shopped it to see what all my options really were. The book turned out to be much stronger than I ever imagined,

It will always be a very personal project for me, and not because of the cameos or inspirations from my life. Bizarre New World is the ultimate expression of something that is totally and completely my own idea. It could be loved or hated, praised or ignored, but in the end it's a tale I wanted to see told that I hadn't seen before. I was willing to empty my bank account because I believed (and still do) that I was telling a unique tale worth telling. Time will tell if others agree with me, but come hook or crook I'm finishing what I started. And that in itself will be all the vindication I need.

DC: So, what was (and is) your process for scripting? Do you do thumbnails, write full script, plots, etc? And how has your process evolved since you first started out?

Oh man, my scripts are pathetic! Hackery from the desk of Klaus Von Hackenstein! Seeing what other comic writers do with their scripts makes me ill even thinking about it. My opinion on comic scripting is a bit, well, terrible, but it works for me. I tried doing it the 'right' way, I really did. Chris was the first artist I wrote a script for, and I tried the whole panel / page breakdown thing, and he kindly asked me "Do you really need to do that? I'd rather break it down myself." I was ridiculously relieved, and more importantly it answered a burning question that really bothers me to this day. How could a writer, ANY writer be arrogant enough to tell an artist how to tell a visual story? Arrogant is a very strong word, and I understand that if a writer feels they know exactly what works best on a page, so be it. But if a writer's strength is really that strong visually, then why aren't they artists? Other writers blush at how I feel about this, but seriously, don't tell me you can't draw a stick figure for beans, but somehow know better than a trained artist how something should be done visually. It makes no sense to me. Now if you're working with a green artist, fair enough, but if you're working with someone you trust, it feels like pure arrogance to tell that person how to draw something. Am I being a jerk with my answer? Probably. If an artist wants my input, I'm happy to give it, but by allowing the artist to figure out the visual beats, it forces the artistically minded (and trained) person on the team to deal with getting the tale across the best way possible. The credit is given to the penciler, as it damn well should be. My book does not say "Pencils by Christopher Provencher (with direction and layout suggestions by Skipper Martin." He gets the credit for the visuals, I get credit for creating the characters, story, plot, dialog, whatever. I believe the only real reason a person should be writing a script that way is if you don't know who the artist is going to be. If your writing a script blindly, than it's perfectly understandable you'd want to be as clear as possible about your intentions. I've heard the reasoning some writers have for heavily detailed scripts is exactly this. Who knows, you could get a terrible artist totally misinterpret your tale. I get that, I really do. But if you're actually working with someone on a project, I'll always elect to keep my scripts simple with plenty of areas for the artist to inject their own interpretation of what is the very best way to make that story leap off the page and lick the reader's face like a deranged puppy hopped up on a six pack of Red Bull.

How has my scripting evolved since I started? I'm sure all of my artists will agree -not much at all. My 'nom de plume' may (and probably should) be Klaus Von Hackenstein, but you can call me Hack for short.

DC: Despite the fantastic premise, Bizarre New World is actually a very personal story. In the world you created, where Paul (your main character) can fly...was it a challenge to keep the narrative rooted and tell an emotional story that you and your readers can make a genuine connection to?

SM: I think that's the only kind of tale I'm equipped to tell. I've since learned when I've tried writing other material, or been asked to write something outside of my comfort zone, the only way I can make it work is by finding some way to connect to it emotionally. I'm very much my own audience. In fact I think of myself more of an audience member than writer. I literally put on a play in my head and throw up on my stage what I want to see. If I can create a connection emotionally that makes me care about what I see up there, then it becomes something I can relate to, care about, and transcribe for the reader what it is in fact I see on that stage. Only when I care does it ever work for me. It's almost a built in blind spot. If I find myself writing a scene that's boring me to tears, or in some way is incredibly difficult to see in my head, the most common problem is the scene sucks! It's like my bread crumbs leading home are suddenly invisible. Try as I might I just cannot see which way to go. This is usually the alarm bell that tells me I'm writing something I cannot relate to, and therefore the audience won't relate to. If I don't care, how can I expect the audience to care?

The most challenging aspect of writing a tale like this is? Three things spring to mind.

I didn't think I could tell a tale with such a large canvas. My character is really only the first to fly. The entire world soon follows him into the air! My story was always about exploring a flying human world, but it all starts with one normal schlub. How the hell can I tell a story that effects the WORLD when I've never left the USA, and barely ever traveled out of my own home state?!?

Researching all the many aspects of human flight and how the world might deal with it.

Finding just the right balance of information to lack of information. The only way this tale works for me and keeps it real / tangible is to give enough information about the mechanics of human's flying without over selling it and killing the magic of it all. Human flight is absurd and patently ridiculous - so says the writer of the book! I needed to make it something that felt actually possible, but avoided veering off into silly. I think the choice to keep humanity fragile helped this a lot. Flying doesn't make one super-powered, and being just as fragile as we are now forces the characters to deal with the very real consequences of abusing the gift of flight.

I was also scared to death that I couldn't see around my own corners. Was there something that I was doing that was preventing the reader from getting into the tale? Where were MY blind spots? I realized later that flying is something all humans want to do naturally. It's why we so commonly dream of flying, we all want to do it! So since we've all fantasized about it, I'm literally just giving the audience what they already want. Therefore it's incredibly easy for the audience to go along with this simple (if ridiculous) notion because we've all imagined ourselves doing it! I'm the pusher in a crack house! "Hey, anyone want some of what I got?!?"

DC: The Bizarre New World webcomics are an exciting development for your characters and universe. How does writing short stories differ from crafting longer ones? And since you're working with other writers and artists...is it a challenge to suddenly start wearing an "editor's hat" in addition to your usual responsibilities?

SM: I think the answer to the first part of your question (long vs. short) depends on the specifics. In my case I really only wanted to include tales that stood by themselves as complete miniature stories. I may not have perfectly succeeded with that lofty goal, but I did try. Forcing myself and the other writers to make each and every tale have "THE END" as a necessary ingredient doesn't let any of us off the hook. We all have to present characters with a conflict, and somehow resolve that conflict, but in a very limited space. Short fiction is very much its own art. Getting the reader to give a damn in that short a space it trick all by itself. There are a few instances where stories continue elsewhere, but it's rare in my collection. Not having the most experience as a writer myself, I can only say that for me I find the exercise very very fun. I don't have to worry about big lofty complicated structures and sweeping character arcs. I've got to stay tightly focused on getting every nuance in there that matters, and only the ones that matter. There's no time to dilly-dally! I probably enjoy short work more than long. If done correctly, it's very difficult to ever get stale because you're done writing it so quickly. At least that's how it is for me.

As for working with other artists and writers, that's rewarding in a very different way. I finally get to be the audience of my own tale! If BNW was ever on the stands by someone else, I'd be the first to pick it up. It's the kind of tale I enjoy. So now I get to be the audience, and actually help creators shape their tales. I really enjoy watching a tale bloom. Some scripts were incredibly tight needing nothing but a thumbs up from me. Other tales took a bit more work to help the writer find their best story beats and exploit them, but there's definitely something in every tale that resonates for me, otherwise I wouldn't have let it in. Is it a challenge to wear an editor's hat? The crappiest part of the gig is criticizing other artist's work. I'm no fan of criticizing. We as artists and writers spill our blood on the page, and I take no pleasure in telling someone it just isn't working. Fortunately, the talented people I've gotten to work with haven't given me a lot of opportunity to complain. I consider myself very lucky for that.

DC: We touched on the importance of the main character (who also happens to have a job mastering film at a studio)...but what interests me a lot is whether writers (you, in this case) begin their creative process by outlining the plot, or by creating their main characters? Or...is there even a distinction between those two processes? Can one actually occur without the other?

SM: BNW was very much my training wheel exercise. I got very lucky in that I stumbled onto this main character mostly by accident. I definitely plotted first having no idea who the characters might be. I still plot that way, but I no longer keep my head so deep in the sand when I'm plotting. It wasn't until I was writing the sequel to the original BNW mini-series called "Population Explosion" that I learned my first real lesson in character. No matter how great I thought my plot was, or how amazing the backdrop of the entire human race lifting off seemed to be, none of it mattered unless I cared about someone. My main character became the anchor that drives my tale, not just some cardboard one note placeholder that has crazy events driving him to keep my plot going. Again, it comes back to caring about what's happening. Once I found something that made me care, wonder, worry, laugh, it pretty much wrote itself. Now I spend much more time crafting my characters to really fit into the tales I write. Is the process the same in regards to crafting characters and plot? For me it basically is. My general rule of thumb still applies. If I've seen it before, I do my best to keep working at it until I've found something that makes it new and fresh.

As for your question about plot and character needing each other, you can certainly make compelling fiction with plot based tales. Arthur C. Clarke is one of my very favorite writers, but I don't really read him for deep character studies. He blows my mind with the incredible yarns he spins. Other writers like Stephen King can keep a woman handcuffed to a bed for most of a 332 page tale like "Gerald's Game" and still be thoroughly engrossing. There's exceptions to every rule I guess.

DC: Can you think of an example of a particularly hard scene to write or "mentally compose"? Were there any story points that were keeping you awake at night? How did you solve the problem?

SM: Hard to write scenes? Anything I can't relate to can certainly be a challenge, but a specific example of a hard scene that I had a very hard time getting straight was in "Population Explosion." During the chaos of the human race learning it can fly and lifting off, my main character Paul is desperately trying to get to Arizona to save his son. With all the madness in the air, I put Paul on the ground riding his motorcycle as he tries to navigate through it all. It was a real pain to write because I had him dealing with what was on the road in front of him while he was listening to the radio hearing about all the world's calamities. I was trying to show the worldwide insanity at the same time keeping the tale anchored to my main character. It was a hell of a juggle making if flow smoothly without confusion.

How do I break through a problem scene? I think I do the same thing all writers do - panic. I sweat it out and never let it leave my thoughts for days on end. The answer always comes to me in the shower, or while driving, never when I'm actually sitting there working the problem. Writers are nuts! The sad thing is the pain we cause is totally self-inflicted. We drive ourselves to the padded room, sign ourselves in, calmly try out the straight jacket for just the proper fit, and casually walk into the funny room willingly.

DC: You've had the opportunity to translate your story into motion pictures. How did that come about, and what was the process like for you?

SM: In my case, I think I barely qualify to be asked this question. I was approached at my very first convention (Wizard World Los Angeles) about the possibility of turning my little book into a feature film. Yes, it felt great. Yes, the possibilities exploded in my mind. But really, what happened to me was incredibly common and should be seen for what it was - a rather typical experience that rarely leads to anything substantial. It's a lottery ticket, a long odds lottery ticket, and not nearly the incredible pot o' gold we creators imagine. Unfortunately, the returns for someone like me aren't nearly what any of us might expect. Hollywood mines comics for ideas, the don't necessarily want to pay all that much for them. Oh sure, they're more than happy to take your ideas, hire someone else to 'adapt' them, and pay THAT person six figures for the honor of simply reworking your blood sweat and tears. You on the other hand, the simpleton who came up with all the ideas, characters, situations, motivations, and plot twists? The little person who also did all the test marketing to see if it has commercial viability in the marketplace, and even put up the cash to finance the handy to pass around pitch package (that be what we call in the biz a "comic book")...you know, that person?? Yeah, they really don't give a damn all that much about that guy. So I decided to insert myself into the process by adapting my comic into a screenplay all by my little lonesome. If anyone ever comes knocking to adapt my little book o' ideas, they'll now have to deal with the schlub who already adapted it into a screenplay, as well as registered it with the WGA, thank you very much. Who might that troublesome little prick be? The same prick who created the pitch package.

As for adapting my book into a screenplay, that was a wonderful exercise I think all comic book writers should take a crack at. Screenwriting is very much its own animal, and forcing yourself to think like a screenwriter really helps you understand what Hollywood is looking for, and also helps pinpoint specific weaknesses in your material before they ever even know your name. You won't have to worry about what some slick agent is going to say your "intellectual property" needs to be viable as a screenplay. If you've done your homework on how to write a screenplay, and actually put in the effort to create one, you'll already know! And even if your screenplay stinks up the room, it'll give you a better understanding of how your concept might work in another medium, while teaching you the writer to flex a new set of muscles. It's really win, win. Not to mention you've attached yourself as screenwriter to your own comic. If anyone seriously comes knocking to translate your book, they'll have to deal with you in a very different way. Does it hurt your chances to get your comic book adapted? Possibly. Do I still stick by my advice? Damn right I do.

DC: What's the current status of the adaptations you're working on (only if I'm allowed to ask that)?

SM: My screenplay for Bizarre New World is in the hands of producer Paul J. Alessi who has high hopes for it. The big question is always funding, so it's the usual wait and see. Anything can happen, but if nothing does, I did my very best with it. And I can live with that.

DC: Do you have any advice for writers (or artists, for that matter) who are trying to break into comics and establish a name for themselves?

SM: For writers, nothing beats a damn good story, but I firmly believe originality is the key. Anyone can tell the same old vampire, zombie, cape yarn. You try telling that tale right when you're just starting out and you're competing with every other similar story ever written! Who's going to remember the writer who penned the seven millionth superhero spandex opus? But tell a tale nobody's ever seen before and you've got the best chance to stand out! People pass around the good stuff. Don't follow others, make others chase you! The success will come on its own.

Artists? Not being an artist myself, I can only offer the obvious advice from my own narrow point of view:


Oh wait, that's good advice for the writers too!

DC: Do you have any projects coming up that you'd like to promote?

SM: Right this second I'm hammering away at more "Bizarre New World," but I can now also officially announce I'm heading back to the old west again with my buddy Michael Woods. He was nice enough to let me into volume one of his killer anthology "Outlaw Territory" that came out a couple of years ago with a tale called "The More Things Change." Volume three is in production now and I just turned in my script for it with the catchy little title "The More They Stay Insane."

DC: Skipper, it's been a true pleasure chatting with you about the process of creating comics. Thanks so much for your time!

SM: Been a pleasure over here as well! Many thanks Dino!

For more information about Bizarre New World, and lots of wonderful sample pages and creator bios...please visit: www.bizarrenewworld.com

Big thanks, as always, to Derrek Lennox and Crystal Fractal Comics for hosting this column. Please check them out at: www.crystalfractals.com

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