Thursday, March 24, 2011
This week's interview is with Pj Perez...writer, artist, publisher and editor (along with musician, journalist and no doubt, a lot of other cool things too!). PJ is based in Las Vegas, and you can check him out on the web right here:
DC: The earliest memories I have of reading comics are Peanuts, Richie Rich, and some tattered old Brave and Bolds. After that I started to gravitate to DC Digests, which I still think are an amazing way to get cheap reprints out there. Then I started to get a bit more fanboyish and collect specific titles and creator runs. How about you...were you into comics as a kid? Any memories of your earliest issues or titles?
Pj: I've been reading comics for as long as I can remember. The very first actual comic books I distinctively recall reading were two different titles, both featuring Superman: One was a comic DC produced for Radio Shack, featuring the TRS-80 Whiz Kids, I believe. It might have co-starred Wonder Woman, as well. The other was an issue of DC Comics Presents, though I don't remember the specifics. All of this was around 1980 or '81, I'd guess.
Like you, after that I gravitated to specific titles, becoming a HUGE Marvel Zombie at an early age, probably about the time Secret Wars came out. There was this used book store around the corner from my townhouse in Panorama City, Calif. that sold old comic books for 25 or 50 cents each. They just had shelves packed with boxes stuffed full of unbagged, variable condition comics. The store smelled musty, like a good used book store should. I still have the copy of Marvel Tales reprinting a Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin story I bought there.
From there, I moved up to buying pre-packed comics at toy stores, and then drug stores/newsstands, and then full-on comic book stores by the time I hit my pre-teens.
DC: Did you have any interest in humour comics like Mad or Cracked? Did comic strips (dailies in the newspaper or collected editions) make an impact on you?
Pj: Oh, heck yes. I was a Cracked fiend. I liked Mad too, but Cracked felt a bit more contemporary. Plus, it had John Severin doing art, who's one of my all-time favorite artists. My mom used to take me to lunch every week and she'd buy me a new issue of Cracked. For a while, I wanted to pitch story ideas to Cracked, but, well, never did.
As for comic strips, you have no idea. I've loved every form of sequential art, but comic strips actually have a special place for me. Like most kids (or, I guess most kids), I grew up ravaging the Sunday comics section out of my parents' paper, but I would also get the daily paper for two things: the comics page, and the stock reports (don't ask). I bought collections as well, everything from Garfield and Heathcliff to Bloom County and Doonesbury. Heck, I just got the Calvin & Hobbes treasury for some holiday a few years ago.
In my collection of homemade comics from my childhood, I have a bunch of newspaper comic strip-format stuff I made, from funny animals to superheroes. That was the neat thing about newspaper comic pages to me -- you could go from absurdist humor to wrought drama. There was something for everyone. Anyway, I actually developed a strip to pitch to the Philadelphia Inquirer when I was 13 or 14. I don't remember what it was, but I remember working on it and thinking it might be worthy. Not sure if I ever did submit it. A few years later, I had an even crazier idea: Adapting the TV soap opera "Days of our Lives" as an action-oriented comic strip.
Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous
DC: Good point about the multiple genres available in "the funnies". I always thought that it was strange that comic books were looked down on by adults (when I was a kid...I know it's different now) but comic strips in the newspapers were generally well respected. There's not that much of a difference at the core except for the delivery method. I wonder if the various genres in the newspaper is what appealed to adults, as opposed to the superheroes on the spinner rack.
(Not sure if there's a question there Pj, just enjoying the discussion...)
Pj: Well, the comic strips come disguised in an already "adult"-geared medium (the newspaper), so maybe that's the thing. It's just another section you hit between the crossword puzzle and the sports page.
DC: Who were the writers (in any medium) and artists that made/make the biggest impression on you (in your youth and now)?
Pj: Ah, the old "who are your influences" question, eh? I don't really think I can horn in on specific influences, especially when it comes to writing. I mean, I learned how to tell stories by reading comics & books and by watching movies & TV, so technically, ALL of the writers behind all those things made an impression on me.
Now when it comes to art, this is a little more specific. I spent years trying to ape John Byrne, John Romita, Jr., David Mazzucchelli, John Buscema, Frank Miller and Jack Kirby. Especially the first two in that list. Especially, in my younger years, Byrne. It took me a while to come around to Kirby, but he's probably overtaken anyone else in terms of setting the bar for visual comic storytelling. No news there, right?
DC: How did your love of comics feed into your desire to tell stories? Do you think your appreciation of the medium helped to light your creative spark?
Pj: Hmm. I honestly don't remember a time when I wasn't telling stories. I had a really active imagination as a kid. My artistic talents were encouraged at a very early age (recovering hippie parents), and I've been able to read since I was a toddler, so I've been communicating through words or pictures since before I can recall.
I guess comics honed that, in one direction. It merged my love for writing and drawing, and from ages 9 to about 15, I created HUNDREDS of homemade comics (including those comic strips I mentioned earlier), starting off with rough, one-page ditties featuring my favorite Marvel characters, and eventually turning into an entire line of comics averaging about 12 pages. A month. No kidding, I was writing and drawing probably eight to 10 monthly titles of that length by the time I hit high school, all intertwined in one "universe" of stories.
But I also loved journalism (though surely I didn't know the term at the time), and started multiple homegrown publications throughout my youth, starting with a photocopied, hand-distributed school newspaper in junior high, all the way through self-publishing a 'zine in my late teens. I guess I got bit early by all of my creative interests!
DC: I'd like to talk about process, a topic that I'm really interested in...When I was first starting out, I would always be looking for that winning formula that would allow me to come up with a perfect script. I soon realized it doesn't exist and every writer does things differently, and every story is arrived at via a different process.
Having said all that...is there a "typical" way that you come up with a completed script? And how does the process change for you when you're working on a story that you're going to draw yourself versus one that's for another artist?
Pj: As you figured, there is no "typical" process. It all depends on the venue, the creator situation, etc.
For example, with The Utopian, which was a webcomic I did as a one-man show, I started with a loose plot featuring tent-pole moments that needed to be reached, but in the process of filling in the paths to those moments, things would change and shift around the arc of the story. I rarely wrote full scripts, instead outlining general emotions and actions in thumbnail sketches, and then writing full dialog after the artwork was finished (Marvel method, I guess).
That's usually the way I'll work when it's just me. General plot, thumbnail layouts, art and then script. Or at least layouts and then script and finally, art.
When I'm writing for other artists, I basically use the same method -- I'm a very visual person and have trouble pacing a story without drawing it out. So I'll write an overall plot synopsis, again, noting the tent-pole moments of the story. Then I'll do thumbnails to break the story down into pages and panels. Then I'll write the script from that, basing the descriptions of the panels on my breakdowns. That's what the artist gets, plus any character designs and thumbnails as needed. Usually, after the art actually gets done, the dialog might change a bit, of course.
DC: What's your elevator pitch for The Utopian?
Pj: Elevator pitch, eh? "Kick-Ass meets V for Vendetta."
Actually, that's not it, but that's what a comic shop owner recently called it. I do have a standard line that I use at appearances, something to the effect of "It's the story of a disillusioned teenager trying to change the system but finding himself changed instead -- dramatically."
Problem is, that doesn't say much specifically about the Utopian, and because of the nature of its unexpected twists and turns, it's hard to say more without giving it all away.
DC: Continuing with The Utopian...can you describe your process for arriving at the character and the story? Now...that naturally feeds into another discussion about the core of this story...is the focus on the character or the plot? In your mind, is there a big distinction between those two things?
Pj: Well, the Utopian had its/his birth with the less-gracious name of "P-Man." "P-Man" was one of a batch of those homemade comics I mentioned earlier. It was not the first or last to feature a character who was basically my avatar. I think I created it when I was 14 or 15, and I was hyper-aware of having to make changes in my own life. I was -- and I know this will come as a TOTAL shock -- kind of a nerd for most of my life through freshman year of high school. I was your standard, non-athletic, unpopular comic book geek (I suppose now comic geeks are much cooler). People knew me only because I was also a smart-ass (which earned me "best sense of humor" in my 6th grade yearbook) and I could draw stuff. But between my freshman and sophomore years, my family moved (back) to Las Vegas from the suburban quiet of Eastern Pennsylvania, and I took that as an opportunity to reinvent myself. Bleached my hair. Got contact lenses. Bought a new wardrobe. Changed my name. (You didn't think "PJ" was my birth name, right?)
"P-Man" was my way of dealing with being a nobody -- in the story, the fictional PJ Perez is also a relative nobody, but when he dons his hat and coat, people take notice. So much so that the football star tries (unsuccessfully) to emulate him. Even at that tender age, I was aware that my "uncool" was not just a personal feeling, but a symptom of a larger institutional inequality -- the same caste system that seems to exist in every level of school I've ever attended.
At some point in that story, much like in the middle of the Utopian saga, fictional me undergoes this intense near-death experience and comes out the other side armed with weird mystical powers. But that was for real in the context of the story, and actually played into this magical mythology I had built from an earlier PJ-avatar character, and ... we're getting off topic here.
Somewhere down the line, maybe a year or two later, from a very different perspective in my life (having been tainted by sex, drugs, cars, girls, violence, etc.), I reworked the story about to where it is today -- a teenager so frustrated by the system and the bullshit around him, he decides to use his own anonymity to do something about it, to attempt to force a "Utopian" world. And ... here we are, 18 years later.
One more thing: Where it concerns the Utopian, the character IS the plot. Almost the entire story is told from James' perspective, and that's because we're just along for the ride inside his mind and life. Everything is colored through his perception. One of my readers wrote to me to presume that James is the "unreliable narrator," and that even stuff in the story that seemed to happen "for real" didn't.
DC: Can you give an example of a particularly difficult scene that you had to write? ... One that was keeping you up at night? And what strategies did you use to break through?
Pj: I can tell you that I struggled with how to get from point A to point B with The Utopian. I knew what happened to a certain dramatic point, and I knew how I wanted it to end, but I had no idea how to connect the two. It certainly didn't keep me up at night, but for weeks I kept scribbling down ideas for scenes, but still no reasonable plot conclusion. As usual, the solution came to me while in the bathroom.
I don't want to gross out anyone, but most of my "ah-ha!" moments when it comes to storytelling happen in the john. Or brushing my teeth. You know, quiet time. ;)
DC: You're publishing, editing, and contributing to an anthology, Omega Comics Presents. Personally, I'm a big fan of anthologies. I love to get a variety of voices and art styles in one package. However, every time I read any articles about them, they all seem to make the point that they're a hard sell in the marketplace. What's your take on anthologies, from each one of your perspectives (publisher, editor and creator)?
Pj: It's funny: when comic books first started being published, they were all anthologies. It wasn't until particular characters became very popular that they would star in "feature-length" stories.
But I get why anthologies are a hard sell. For the most part, especially in the indie market, they're a hodge-podge of untested, unfamiliar material. This brings up a point I think is important: to me, there are two kinds of comic book readers. One is a fan of the medium, and it's capacity for storytelling beyond books or movies. They will take a chance on new things, because they love good stories being told.
The other type of reader is the fanboy. I don't mean to be patronizing, but these are the people who buy every issue tied into Blackest Night because they're conditioned to, the people who bitch on forums and refuse to read anything else other than the core titles featuring their favorite characters. Unfortunately, these people are the rule, not the exception -- though I think that is changing as, to be honest, that generation of fanboys ages and makes room for a new type of reader. Who knows what they'll be like?
To be honest, the anthologies I've published have not done well. Diamond hasn't picked them up. They haven't sold well at conventions or really even online sales. That's partially my fault for being too democratic with my editorial process. The stories -- and I think all of them have been quality, otherwise I would have never published them -- have been too different in style, genre, pacing. We're going to try something different this year. Something more like one-shots with backups. More focused, more robust. We'll see.
DC: How did Tales From The Boneyard come together, and was the process of putting it together different from the way you put Omega Comics Presents together? Are there plans for a second volume?
Pj: Tales from the Boneyard was very purpose-driven: To create an anthology by Vegas creators to benefit a Vegas institution (in this case, the Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival). Unlike Omega Comics Presents, a general call for submissions was not put out. I hand-picked the talent featured in the book from the great pool of folks we have here in Sin City. And because all the stories had to be based around the same theme, there was much tighter editorial control.
We had a great response (both financially and critically) to TFTBY, but I'm not sure I'm ready to do another anthology on that order in 2011. Other forthcoming projects are already sucking up my time.
DC: You've got extensive experience in music and journalism in addtion to your work in comics. Perhaps a bit of background is necessary before you get to my actual question, but basically...what I'm wondering is...Do these various forms of creative output all feed into each other for you, or do you keep them compartmentalized?
Pj: Every aspect of my life blends together when it comes to complementary skill sets. As early as my teens playing in bands, my skills as an illustrator came in handy for designing album and flier art. My journalistic skills play into writing web content and press releases. My editorial experience obviously allows me to be very hands-on in many aspects of publishing comics. And all of this stuff actually comes together for making comics themselves. I often liken the indie comic industry to the indie music industry, and with good reason: They're both struggling against a larger (failing) corporate machine, and both trying to stay one step ahead of the changes in media consumption formats and habits.
DC: Is writer's block an issue for you? If so, any strategies or suggestions for how to combat it?
Pj: I don't know if writer's block is as much an issue as schedule block for me. Between constantly changing hats, from editor to publisher to writer to illustrator to webmaster to drummer to housekeeper to boyfriend, the only real block to getting writing done is my own constant need for multitasking.
DC: Do you try to keep a regular schedule for writing? Or do you just fit it in whenever and wherever you can?
Pj: This is actually an issue I've been trying to get a handle on. I'm full of ideas. I come up with new ideas for comics or TV shows or movies or songs every day. But I'm bad at execution, at sitting down and hammering out the nitty-gritty details. What I've been trying to force myself to do is stop taking on so many projects and focusing on just one or two per month (as much as possible). So yes, ongoing I have my band, I have Pop! Goes the Icon business, etc., but this month I'm finishing a screenplay. And next month I'm drawing a comic. And the month after, I'm writing a novel. It rarely works out that way, but if I give it a go, at least I can say I tried.
DC: Do you have any advice for creators who are trying to make a name for themselves and break into comics?
Pj: Let me just say that when I have figured out that particular conundrum, I'll get back to you. :)
DC: Do you have any upcoming projects that you'd like to promote?
Pj: I've been doing a lot of planning and writing, comics-wise, not as much production -- at least nothing the general public will see. I don't know when this will run, but my latest work is the concluding chapter of "Omega," the action-espionage serial that's been running in the anthology I edit, Omega Comics Presents. That drops early in April. Oh, and hey, I think there's a Dino Caruso joint in there too. But seriously, I think this chapter is the best drawn one yet, which is good and bad, because it makes the others look miserable by comparison.
DC: Thank you so much for your time PJ. It was a pleasure chatting with you!
Pj: Thanks Dino!!
As always, thanks to Derrek Lennox and Crystal Fractal Comics for hosting this interview. Check 'em out at: www.crystalfractals.com!
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
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:
QUIT WASTING YOUR TIME ON THE INTERNET READING THIS ARTICLE AND GET BACK TO CREATIN'!
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
Sunday, March 13, 2011
I'll be at the Wizard show in Toronto next weekend with a good supply of Crystal Fractal books (and other projects I've worked on) on the table. I'll be sitting with my good friend and 2-time collaborator Paul Quinn.
Here are some details about the show: http://www.wizardworld.com/home-toronto.html
Hope to see you there...
Sunday, March 6, 2011
This week's interview is with Howard Wong...Howard was nominated for a Joe Shuster award for his work on After the Cape (Shadowline/Image Comics). After The Cape received the Image Comics’ Spotlight and Gem of the Month in Previews. It sold out at the distributor level and has been reviewed by Entertainment Weekly.
DC: When I was a kid I read a lot of Peanuts, Superman, Batman, and Richie Rich...tons of fun and a great introduction to the medium. Later on though, I encountered some comics that made a genuine emotional impression on me. I'm thinking specifically of the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans run and Camelot 3000. JLA 200 also knocked my socks off. Are there any creators, titles or specific issues that impressed or inspired you as a young comics reader?
HW: No one I knew read comics, so my earliest introduction was actually through good old Scholastic when I was in grade school. I ordered a Tarzan over sized graphic novel (if memory serves me). It told his origin story. I still have it somewhere in my parents' basement. The art and story really connected with me.
After that, it was the corner store and spinner racks. I knew about Richie Rich and Archie, but they didn't connect with me. Instead, it took a few years more when I rode my bike with friends and did our weekly pilgrimage to ye ol' corner shop. This was my first introduction to the Marvel and DC Comics, such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, X-Men. I still didn't really read them at that point. More like flip though them as fast as we could before the shop owner gave us the evil eye. My money went to Slurpees and chips back then.
It wasn't until Image Comics came around when I was in high school (yes, I'm a late bloomer) that I started collecting and never looked back.
DC: What was it about those Image books that appealed to you?
HW: Being that I started late in comics, I was new to the whole concept of it all. Ongoing series, mini series, graphic novels, etc. These were somewhat foreign to me, so through a friend that was a comic book reader because of his dad, I picked up the basics. What I was missing is the true love of why someone would pick up an issue month after month. Image Comics opened this door for me. Being a new company then, it had new characters that were fresh out of the gate. So I picked up WildC.A.T.s first and the rest became a bad habit. I guess it's sort of like soap operas, if you will. You get enthralled with the story and characters to a point that you just wanted to know what happened to them issue after issue. Image Comics also showed me that comics don't need to be about superheroes. Spawn, for example, showed that what other companies would treat as a villain (for the most part) was the (anti)hero, or The Maxx’s dream landscape with a story that had no tights of capes. I also have to say that the production quality with the paper, colour, and printing made an impact as well. Was I caught up with the flashiness? I wouldn't say no, but I didn't go after all those nutty covers -- well, OK…maybe I went after some of them.
DC: Did your interest in collecting and reading comics ignite a creative spark for you? Or had you always been interested in telling stories?
HW: I always had an interest in telling stories. Most people loathed English classes in high school, while some of my electives were creative writing and drama. I always liked telling stories, which lead me to writing stories, skits, newspaper articles, acting, stage directing and co-directing a theatre club to name a few things.
Writing comics did start at high school all thanks to Prisoners of Gravity (I miss that show so much), but it wasn't until I got married that I really dug my teeth into scripting comics. Figuratively speaking, I had a box of ideas that was loaded with unfulfilled stories just waiting for me. So I started with those and kept at it for one reason or another.
Reading comics obviously affected my love for this story telling medium. It showed me what kind of potential you can achieve in 22 pages.
DC: So, in your early days of writing stories (specifically comics, but we can generalize too), did you use any books or resources to help you with formatting or structure? Or did you just "go for it"?
HW: The Internet has a slew of material, but you really need to sort through it to see what works for you. Be it plot style or full script, you may only dig one format over the other or perhaps like both. It’s best to know them both in case you're asked to write in a certain format.
Sample scripts are a good way to see how the written word turns to art. Writers should understand that when you pass your script to an artist, you have to trust them with the art direction. After all, comics are a collaborative effort--well, unless you're the writer and artist of course.
As for books, these are the ones that I found most useful and not just as a newcomer either. You always find new things when you go over these books.
Will Eisner's Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative
Will Eisner's Comic's Sequential and Art
Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Scott McCloud's' Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets Comics
Dennis O'Neil's The DC's Guide to Writing Comics
DC: What was your initial approach to writing comics scripts...Did you simply do it for practice, or were you actively trying to self-publish or pitch work to publishers?
HW: I did research online and grabbed books from the library on comic book scripting. I wrote mainly for myself to see if it was something I would like. Before that, I wrote skits and plays while in university. As I talked with people online and found artists that wanted to work with me, I decided to give it go. Not to self-publish or to pitch, but more to see if the process is something I would enjoy. After I met Marco (Rudy) I think it became clear that we had something to show, which is what I did and lucky for us that became our first published work…After the Cape.
DC: I'm very interested in the writing process and how writers approach the job. Do you have a "typical" method for creating a script? Do you outline? Do you thumbnail the whole story?
HW: I generally write out the plot, break it down into smaller chunks and build scenes that drive from one plot point to the next. Sometimes my margins are bursting with things. Then I go and break each scene into pages and then script from there. I usually thumbnail before scripting so I have an idea of how the images will flow, and how scenes will transition. These are done on scrap paper.
DC: I noticed in your credits that you've worked on several shorter anthology stories. What's different about the way you approach a short story versus the way you tackle something longer?
HW: For shorter stories you need to establish characters, the conflict and resolution within a few pages. I rely on common recognized visuals, which allows the reader to understand what's going on and focus on the story I'm telling. It's easier with established characters, but with original ones you just need to find ways in conveying who and what your story is about in a simple digestible manner. Think of commercials and charades.
DC: You've written a four issue mini-series for Crystal Fractal Comics called Redorik. What can you tell us about the project, without venturing off into spoiler country?
HW: I was approached by Derrek Lennox about writing a superhero origin story. After discussing the take he wanted on the characters, everything was in place, and I created a story which added to the vast universe that he mapped out.
It boiled down to answering this question…what kind of superhero would come out of a path that was jaded through a tragedy brought on by greed, sex and desire? Add to that if you were losing your mind to the darkness.
I wanted to explore what happens when you believe that you are doing good, no matter how twisted you become to achieve your goals. So it was almost like writing a villain more than an anti-hero, something that I felt would be challenging with a new hero that was new to the game.
DC: After The Cape Volume 1, is a dark tale of an all-too-human hero who who spirals into "the dark side". What was it about this story and this character that compelled you to write it?
HW: My wife. No, seriously it is. We were talking about why I like superheroes, amongst the other genres of comics I read. She comes from a Manga and Manwha background where people get hurt, die, etc., which isn't typical with mainstream superhero stories. From there I started to build an idea of grounding a superhero to the real world and seeing what challenges he would face from there.
Exploring characters by putting them in all-too-common situations is something that I gravitate towards. When I write these kinds of stories I tend to ask myself many “what if” questions, which turn into other stories at times. Do they all end up being dark tales? No, I wouldn't say that. They end where I feel they would naturally end.
DC: After The Cape Volume 2 continued the story of Ethan Falls, as his plummet continued. What made you want to return to the story and the character? And also, as a writer working on a sequel...is there pressure to try and top what you did previously?
HW: I found it an opportunity to further push the character study of Ethan's crumbling world. Think of it as going back to a place you went for a vacation. You never really have enough time to see or experience it all, so this was my chance to look at and experience other aspects of Ethan's life.
Though the first series sold out at the distribution level and was nominated for a Joe Shuster Award, I didn't feel compelled to top myself for that reason. I strive to write better than the last time I wrote anything, and that goes daily for me. It helps me get back to hammering on a keyboard with a goal. I don't want to end up formulaic with the way I write, so this helps with that.
DC: On a surface level, it appears that there's a similarity in the general themes of Redorik and After The Cape. Does that comparison hold once you start to dig deeper?
HW: Ethan became a hero with a strong belief that he could help the city be a better place, but when he had to live in it--that all crumbled away like his life. Redorik is different in several ways…it explores the reasons why he became a hero and how that drove him into darkness and ultimately madness. Redorik is a different take on the superhero origin, which I hope brings a new light to how one can steer away from the traditional formula.
DC: Is "writer's block" an issue for you? If so, how do you deal with it?
HW: It happens like so many other things when you write something, but I figured a way around it for myself. It’s a double edged sword of a solution really. I have a bunch of ideas that I bounce to and from if writer's block pops up. That usually helps me get back to what I was working on.
DC: Do you have any advice for comic book creators, specifically writers, who'd like to break in to the industry?
HW: Use a crowbar and a hammer. If that doesn't work for you...
After you finished writing the story you want to tell, and you’ve found your partners in crime (penciller, inker, colorist and letterer), figure out which path you want to take to get the story published.
Before sending in a pitch, know which publisher puts out books that are similar to your story. Read their submission requirements and do follow them. Make sure you have that done and send it to them by the method they expect, which is usually explained in their submission requirements.
Don't do a blanket-pitch-send-out. Imagine how many pitches a publisher gets daily (which is usually more than you can imagine). Wasting their time in reading something they don't publish won't do you any good.
Submission requirements are usually a list of minimum benchmarks for you to hit. If you want to show more, why not? If you haven't been published by other means (Web, self-publishing, etc), you have to show your professionalism and ability to delivers the goods.
Bottom line, publishing is a business and you should treat it as such. As much as they love publishing good stories, they would like to publish good stories that sell. If you feel that I'm saying to sell out, I'm not. What I'm saying is that you have to show why your story should be published beyond it being a good story.
"It's a good story that appeals to [insert market(s) here]."
It shows that you have put thought not only into making a good story, but also the readers/market that it will appeal to. Some submission guidelines actually ask you this question point blank.
If a publisher digs your idea and wants changes you don't want to compromise for whatever reason, you have the choice of saying “no thank you” and moving on to another, or self-publishing. Bone, Cerberus, Strangers in Paradise…any of those titles ring a bell?
DC: You have a very impressive sketch book. How did you start it? Do you have any favourite sketches among the many you've collected over the years? Any interesting tales to tell about the many talented hands that have worked on that book?
HW: I think I started it back in 2007 or 2008…I was signing at Paradise Comics for FCBD and got the artists that where there to give me a doodle. So the first three sketches were from, Francis Manapul, Nick Postic, Agnes Garbowska. I never ask for a particular sketch unless the artist wants it. I’d rather them draw something they dig. I think it shows with what has been added over the years.
Each has a story, so I like them all to be honest. Though I have to give some Canucking love to Ty Templeton for sketching Commander Rick for me.
DC: Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to let us know about?
HW: I've been working on freelance projects as of late. I wrote a comic and the English film script version of a live action CGI film for Jidou Studios (an award winning animation studio from Hong Kong). While this was happening, Hope: Hero Initiative (a charity anthology benefiting Hero's Initiative from Ronin Studios) was released. I contributed a story titled Song of the Little Blackbird (Hope: The Hero Initiative - Diamond Order Code DEC101038). Currently, I'm working on a project with Three Zero, which is a toy company from Hong Kong that does OEM figures, as well as figures from Ashley Wood's art through 3A. I can't say much about this except that I'm having way too much fun to call it work. I can't wait to finish that up so I can talk about it.
DC: Howard, thank you so much for your time...it's great to get a look behind the curtain to see how writers put their projects together.
HW: No worries. Thanks for taking your time and listening to me drivel on about the script monkey life.
You can follow along with Howard's latest news at the following site: http://howard-wong.blogspot.com/
For more information about Redorik, and other projects from Crystal Fractal Comics...please check here: www.crystalfractals.com