Saturday, April 2, 2011

One Page At A Time Interview...Royal McGraw

This week's interview is with Royal McGraw, writer of feature films, television, graphic novels, and video games. Royal is best known for his work on the DC Comics’ flagship title Detective Comics (Batman) and the Batman: Battle for the Cowl tie-in, Commissioner Gordon #1.

For more information about Royal, please check out his website right here.

Before we begin, just a quick note...this will be the last installment of ONE PAGE AT A TIME for a while. I'll likely pick it up again in the summer or fall. But for now...on with the show!

DC: Did you start reading comics as a kid or was your introduction to the medium later on? Were there any influential creators or stories (comics, prose, movies, etc.) that made an impression on your young brain?

RM: Absolutely. I'm a longtime comics reader. I'm sure he was unhappy about this, but my introduction to comics came via my grandfather and his Christmas present to me, The Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics.

It's a grand collection. Among other issues, it contained Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Pogo Possum #3, and several wonderful EC Comics war, crime, and humor excerpts.

From there, I moved on to DC and Marvel and Impact! comics. The Impact! titles, especially The Comet and Black Hood, were especially influential, because of both the high quality of the writing and the aggressive pricing strategy that let me (a kid with not much money) buy them.

DC: So, when did you know you wanted to be a creator, and what were the first steps you took to set you on the path?

RM: Like most professional writers I've met, the answer is pretty simple. I've been writing (and also drawing, but badly) for as long as I could hold a pen and work a keyboard.

I wrote and illustrated dozens of stories in elementary and middle school, and I drew well over a thousand comic strips. Some were printed in my school paper, but most are lost to time.

File under crazy but true: I bought my car in high school with money I got from winning essay contests. It wasn't a great car, but still... The power of writing came through for me then, and it continues to do so.

DC: Is there a typical process that you use to create a script for comics? Or is it different each time, depending on the story?

RM: Everything starts with a pitch. I tend to be pretty detailed – I'll admit, sometimes too detailed – so once I have a gig, I know roughly what I'm going to do.

After I land a gig, I'll thumbnail out images and panels to hammer out the visual flow. These thumbnails are an important part of my process, but I usually keep them to myself.

Artists know their own craft better than I do. I'd rather not poison their process with my shoddy attempts at illustration. With rare exceptions, pages have always come back better than I'd hoped.

After I have the basic visual structure, I'll write the dialogue, looking for a strong, verbal hook to open and close. When I have that, I'll go back to my thumbnails. Finally, I'll type it all up and revise, revise, revise.

DC: You've written some of the most iconic characters in all of fiction. What was it like writing Batman and various members of his family?

RM: It was great. I've always loved Batman’s universe, especially the rogues, and I would've killed for a chance to write him. Fortunately, I didn't have to. Unlike Gabriel Byrne in Cool World, I don't think a stretch in prison would help my work come to life.

I'll also note that Batman was my big break. I'd won a number of writing awards before then, gotten an agent, gotten some heat, that sort of thing, but working on Detective Comics was my first real gig.

As such, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to my own expectations. Did I succeed? Did I fail? Readers can judge for themselves.

I will say that writing for Batman was the single greatest piece of writing instruction I've ever received. You can be a good band in your hometown, but a year on tour makes you professional caliber in any town.

DC: I'm curious about the nuances of working with a big company like DC. Is there more red tape involved in getting a story accepted? Are there various levels of Editorial that have to approve your concepts?

RM: Smaller companies have less total bureaucracy, sure, but that doesn't mean they are any more or less easy to deal with. Or any faster. It all comes down to the people, who you know and how you know them.

There are two things you have to remember when dealing with a comics company. First, the editors take pitches from lots of people, not just you. Be polite and cut to the chase. Second, they have bigger names than you writing for them. If you and somebody big are pitching similar projects, yours will not be the one they select. It's okay. Nothing personal. Just business.

Writing is an endurance sport. It takes endurance to get things written, and it takes endurance to wait for your shot.

DC: When you write for a big company, are you involved in all stages of the process? Do you have input when the pencils come in? Do you get to see the inks and the colors? Do you have a chance to take a look at the letters and make any changes?

RM: I look at letters on the inked pages to make sure everything I'd written translated. At this point, I can amend a line that doesn't work, or I can add an explainer caption to clarify a wonky panel.

When I do independent comics, I letter the pages myself, partly because it's a fun change of pace to turn off my word brain for a while and do graphic design, and partly, because I consider lettering to be the final stage of comics writing.

DC: Any tips on pitching to editors that you've picked up while working at DC?

RM: You should know an editor's property better than he or she does. Comic companies are a big black box. You simply can't know what they are planning to do six months from now, but they do. Your best weapon is to stay in the know and provide some sense of history or marketplace in your conversations.

You should also try to give them something they can sell. If you're a big name or your personal narrative is compelling in some way, it could just be you being placed on the title. Grant Morrison, for instance, needs no introduction. If he's on a book, it'll move copies. If you're not Grant, you need to provide something genius, something they feel they need to publish.

DC: When working with a character like Batman, for example, do you find that you come up with stories by beginning with the character, or by focusing on potential plot ideas? Or is there even a difference in those two things?

RM: For me, there is no difference between plot and character. If you have a plot or character arc that actually works – not one that you think works, but one that actually works – the other will work, too.

That said, I usually start from a narrative hook, a big idea designed to draw a reader in, and then I work out the cool, end-of-issue twist. From there, I fill out the middle with riffs on theme.

DC: Do you have any thoughts on the difference between writing shorter versus longer stories?

RM: Personally, I've never felt there was much difference between doing a shorter story and a longer story. Both require you to put together a beginning, a middle, and an end, and wrap it all up with some sort of dramatic synthesis.

The exception comes in super-short works – those tend to function more like individual scenes. Scenes still have all the elements I listed above, but you don't have to worry about any grander continuity. However, you still need to hit hard, and it can be tricky to throw a punch in a confined space.

DC: Does research play a big role in your writing? What form does research usually take for you?

RM: It depends on the project. There's an old adage about writing what you know. When I'm doing that, I don't need to do much research, and I feel pretty free to have fun.

When I don't know something, or I don't have a take that riffs on what I do know, that's when research comes in. It's never as free, but it can be cool – especially if you can latch onto a big idea.

That said, some writers are funny, some nail action or drama... I'd list research as my ace in the hole. Both of my parents were college professors, and somehow because of them, I'm really good at cramming and synthesizing data and then turning it into something dramatic.

DC: Do you have a set schedule for writing? Or is it more of a day-by-day thing?

RM: For the last year, I've been working for Electronic Arts as a game writer. This has kept my schedule pretty locked to the standard 9 to 6 plus whatever else I'm doing on the side. I do miss seeing movies at noon on a weekday, though.

That said, if I was writing on my own, I'd be keeping similar hours or (more likely) much worse.

DC: How do you deal with writer's block?

RM: It never really comes up, or at least, not in an unmanageable way. I've generally got a few projects in the works, and one of them will always need attention.

If I do hit an impasse on something due immediately – which generally doesn't occur –I'll write other scenes around the trouble spot. Then later, I'll think about the issue while at the gym or in the shower.

DC: Do you have any advice for creators, specifically writers in this case, who'd like to break into comics?

RM: It's a long, hard road, and the rewards are few – at least, at first. The most important thing is that you feel compelled to do the work. If so, you are 90% of the way there. Why? Because you'll be writing anyway, no matter what anyone says. Sooner or later, somebody will say yes to you.

Think about it this way: if you hate the idea of spending one third of your life typing, one third of your life fishing for more opportunities to type, and one third trying to sleep while knowing you have more typing to do, writing is not for you. Quite literally, anything else will make you happier.

Also, I've met a bunch of really talented writers and artists that couldn't handle the stress of an arts career. It's no sin: at some point, you need to find a life that works for you.

DC: You've written for many different media (screenplays, video games, comic books, TV, etc.). Do you have a favorite?

RM: There are some differences in execution and attack, but no, I don't love one final media over the other. My media is words on paper, and through that, I hope to inspire cool work in others.

That said, I do have a preference for serialized entertainment because I love being able to riff on whatever topic inspires me today.

DC: Are certain types of stories...or certain types of characters...or certain types of suited to one medium over another? For example, when you're brainstorming, do you ever come up with ideas that you know will work best in comics rather than film?

RM: No. I don't think core ideas are tethered to any medium. However, there are storytelling methods that favor a particular final media.

For instance, when I'm writing a comic, I try to tell a story on two fronts, using both captions and scenework to harmonious (or ironic) advantage. I wouldn't do this in other media because I don't have captions to work with.

DC: Have you ever had a scene (in any medium) that was a problem for you to crack? One that kept you up at night? What process did you use to go about breaking through?

RM: My toughest scenes are always scenes of exposition. You're not really a writer until you've written a scene where somebody explains something boring and expositive thirty times, trying to get it to be exciting and non-expositive.

There's an impossible balance that has to be struck in a scene like that – be informative and also be entertaining – and it never ceases to challenge. I've done it right before, and I'll do it right again, but it's hard work every time.

DC: Do you have any upcoming projects (again, in any medium) that you'd like to promote?

RM: Sure, I've taken over as "showrunner" on Cause of Death for Electronics Arts. Cause of Death is an interactive detective thriller, and it is available in the iPhone App store in both paid (ad free) and free (ad supported) versions. I can promise that the next few volumes will go to some interesting places.

I've also got a few other projects in the works, some getting off the ground, others about to drop, but I'm not at liberty to discuss any of them until we get closer to final release.

DC: Thanks so much for your time Royal. Your insights into writing and the industry are much appreciated.

RM: Thanks for having me! I hope I helped.

A big "thank you" to Derrek Lennox and Crystal Fractal Comics, who hosted these interviews for me. Check out their website right here:

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