A Random Thought on Writers in Comics

I was reading the Joshua Hale Fialkov interview (he's a great writer, by the way) yesterday, and was struck when he said this:  

"Everyone has a path, everyone has a road -- for some people that road is a lot shorter than other people. I have moments where I realize I've been doing this for 10 years. When "I, Vampire" was announced, there was a chorus of, "Who the fuck is that guy?" I'm like, "Seriously? 10 years. Tons of awards. Book published by Random House, biggest publisher in the world. Seriously? Anybody?" And then you realize that well, no, I have 3000 fans. I have those 3000 people who read everything I do and now you're given this opportunity with the relaunch and with this book to reach twenty or thirty times that audiences and it's fucking great."


...and the thought that struck me was this: I don't believe there's ever once been a writer in comics who has become a "name writer" who didn't become that way until after doing a regular, ongoing monthly series. Not minis and GNs -- monthly on goings. Let's define "name writer" as "sells a book solely on the strength of their name to a significant (5-10kish, maybe?) audience"

(I think that may also be true for screenwriters as well -- I'm thinking Sorkin, Whedon, Abrams... though Maybe M. Night puts a lie to that?)

Clearly it isn't true for writer/artists -- but I think it is right for writers, which is why a lot of people never "break out", because they never find that ongoing idea they can make their own for 5-ish years.



Strangeways, Here We Come: Part 2 of A Talk With Matt Maxwell

Yesterday, in Part One of 'Jeff Lester Talks Too Much,' I occasionally let Strangeways writer Matt Maxwell get a word in edgewise, and talk about his book Strangeways: Murder Moon, the current serialization of the second book, Strangeways: The Thirsty, on Blog@Newsarama, and writing for comics.

Today, in Part Two, Matt talks about writing for comics, rewriting, self-editing, bad comics that are awesome, and awesome comics that are awesome. Like Part One, I talk too much, and the article should be cut into more than two parts. But I wanted to make sure this all went up before the weekend and not lose the momentum.

Behind the jump: Part Two.

JL: So, Strangeways. Where is it going, generally? The first one is werewolves. The second is supposed to be a turn on vampires? MM: The second is a turn on vampires. I know what the third one is, I won’t tell you yet.

JL: I think that’s fair enough.

MM: Actually, I’m working on the page beats for that. That’s a slow process, though. That’s the most time-consuming part of this. Once you’ve done the page beats, the script pages go fast.

JL: How do you work that out?

MM: I bang my head against the desk until something comes out. Unfortunately—well, not unfortunately; it’s good that I’m busy—but I’ve been spending a lot of time doing lettering for the second story, getting the files ready to go up on the blog, and then I need to start doing marketing stuff before the book even comes out, and it’s still not even officially scheduled! I’m hoping for late next spring, or early next summer, and I’ve got to do a lot of legwork before that in terms of getting books to retailers and that sort of thing.

JL: Do you think that’s going to be easier this time around than the first time? Because you’ve got the product out and they’ve seen it? MM: You know, I don’t know. In terms of people knowing what they get, I would hope that having everything out on Blog@ would certainly make that easier. When I was doing the book when it was going to go out of Speakeasy, I did ashcans and I sent them out to Jeff Mason’s indy-friendly comics store list. Which I assume bumped orders, because the book was solicited, and I’m assuming it was actually ordered even though it never shipped, which I still regret to this day.

JL: I think it would be a very interesting different path if that had happened for you. For better or for worse.

MM: Yeah. It would’ve been late, then. Unfortunately, the fourth issue would’ve been quite late, so maybe it’s better. And I thought I was doing having effectively two issues done before they were started being solicited.

JL: So what would you think be the sweet spot for that, seventy-five percent?

MM: I don’t know. The guys I work with in terms of art are generally consistent but I think there was some extenuating circumstances on that fourth chapter of the original Strangeways book.

But no, I need to spend some more time writing very shortly. And yes, there is a place for everything to be going, but I think the first few stories are going to be more probably action-focused. I’m hoping that a lot of character stuff came through. Depending on who you talked to, it did or didn’t.

JL: I thought the character stuff came through in the first book. I didn’t get as strong a resolution in the story upfront. In fact, what I thought was interesting was reading the back up story in the trade was great but it was vexing in that you saw the motivation for the antagonist, and I remember thinking that second part worked very, very well, but it was almost like you ended up bifurcating the narrative. MM: Yeah. In some ways, that was an unintended side-effect of a, some would say, crazy plan of giving you more of the ‘bad guy’ side of the story. Like Lee Marvin said when asked by an interviewer, ‘How do you feel having played bad guys your whole entire career?’ He said, ‘I’ve never played a bad guy once. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve played strong characters who knew what they wanted, and did what they needed to get what they wanted, but none of them were ever bad.’ And I wanted to show that even the bad guy’s got his reasons for doing what he’s doing, other than just being a complete jerk, just because he’s a monster—in Rale’s case, literally.

JL: It was interesting to me, because it ended up such a strong narrative that it made me think I was—and I may well have been—missing something in the front end of the narrative. MM: Probably not. It ended up being more Rale’s story than Collins, when you take it as a whole. When you’re doing a long narrative arc—and I have a long narrative arc planned out for Collins—but I can’t do too much of that, or pretty soon he stops being the character that ends up being these adventures in these places. So I don’t want to wreck the character just yet.

I plan on wrecking him, but not just yet.

JL: That’s good to know. It was just slippery enough—and I think the idea of when you’re doing a monthly book, it’s pretty easy for the reader to nail down the idea of ‘Oh, this character’s going to be back and there’s more that they’re going through.’ But I definitely put down the book going, ‘Wait, is that…it?’ It’s almost like the entire narrative was wrapped around something I couldn’t see, and I didn’t know if it was there, and knowing that Collins’ arc continues might open that up. MM: Yeah, this was an introductory arc. I can give it away and you can read the last five pages of that story, and that’s the point. And the fact I even have to say that is kind of sad. Because that means I’ve failed. It’s like explaining a joke.

JL: No, no, no…

MM: If you have to explain a joke, then you didn’t tell it right.

JL: But there are some stories where it counts on you going back and re-reading it. And that unfortunately was my big regret is, somewhere in my apartment is the copy of Strangeways that I read and finished, but when I went to go back to it recently, I was inundated with a ton of other crap.

MM: Yeah, I see you’re reading comics again. I see that on the Savage Critics. Or at least that you’re writing about the comics that you read.

JL: Exactly. I really start feeling guilty when our site lies fallow, and it’s also a little bit of a dodge for me. I’ve finished the first draft of a novel, and I really need to do a second draft, and there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be fixed, and I don’t really know how to go about fixing it, and I don’t really know how to go about tackling it. MM: Rewriting is never as much fun as writing.

JL: I think for me it’s just a vast mystery. I can only see the choices I’ve made. I have an infinite amount of ideas, but once I put something down on paper, though, it becomes set, and it becomes really hard for me to change it. I’m really good at looking at other people’s work, but I think the challenge is looking at your own and getting outside what you intend, and being able to see how it’s actually going to come across to new eyes. MM: That’s not easy. But I’ve always been a ‘go with your own instincts,’ rather than overthink things. But I can go both ways. I can overthink anything. Occupational hazard.

JL: I think it’s an advantage. I think you seem well-placed if you can do both. Too many people fall into one or the other. I’m fascinated by watching someone like Bendis work, where I get the sense that he’s also a ‘follow his first instincts’ kind of guy, and it seems to have a lot of difficulty…if it doesn’t work out, he’s kind of like, ‘well, this is what you’re going to get and trust me, it’s great.’

And then there’s other people where you get the sense—I get the sense with Rucka, a little bit with Brubaker—that they come back, they finesse things as they go. Or even perhaps in advance before it starts coming out, they’ve got a pretty good idea where the turns are all going to go and they’re going to make sure that everything is placed right.

MM: Where I pretty much know where you’re going to get to at the end. I’ve got the A, where you’re starting, and I’ve got C, where you’re going to get to. But B? It’s all over the map. And that’s… not always a good thing.

JL: That is hard. You read screenwriting books, and inevitably Act Two is the one that kills the writers. MM: If you’re following the formula, in Act Two you can have the most freedom because all you have to do is: rising action comes to a climax. Okay, well, great. Infinite flexibility is good and bad. If you don’t have discipline, then infinite flexibility is terrible.

JL: It will kill you off.

I did want to recommend for story beats, maybe, if you’re looking for something that may or may not make things easier: I ended up picking up this program Mindmanager, which is a visual mapping…

MM: I’ve been looking for a visual outliner. I can make outlines, I guess, in Excel, but it’s really easier to do them just long-hand. But I try not to do anything longhand, any more.

JL: There’s a free version I haven’t really messed with. The Mindmanager is a little costly because they’re trying to it as a… MM: A big organizational tool?

JL: Yeah. So I dropped the coin on it when I was feeling pretty flush after the Sam & Max stuff, and it’s been great, but the price makes it really hard to recommend. But there’s a free, I think there’s a free online software program—that may or may not work for you. [Ed. note: Mindomo]

But what I found was great was being able to type down all the events of the story, and then I could drag and drop them to each of the pages, which really gave me a flow of how things were supposed to happen.

MM: What I really do is, I’ll just open up a new Word file and then—if I’ve already got the basic plot in my head—and I’ll just start writing this kind of bastard form. It’s not quite prose and it’s not a script, and it’ll end up being a paragraph of what I think will be on a page.

Now, that’s not always reasonable. It’s like, ‘oh yeah, that’s really four pages right there, and two of those need to go away. So, yeah. We need to fix that.’ And you just try to break it into page-sized chunks before you even start writing the script. And then I’ll…I say I’ll go back and refine it, but what I usually do is, I end up throwing it away and then redoing it, and it’s usually much closer to what I need for page breaks.

And sometimes that’ll have little bits of dialogue, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes if there’s a line that I think will work really well, then I’ll try and throw it in. But a lot of the dialogue happens much later in the process.

And that just takes discipline, which I don’t always have.

JL: You really have to be able to lock yourself away from everyone and everything, because sooner or later, you’ll get so bored you’ll have to start working on it. I found that’s how it works for me.

MM: Only if you unplug the Internet first.

JL: Which I’ve had to do. Not so much for the comic scripts, because the comic script stuff is so formalistic for me. I mean, I’ve only done a ten page story and an eight page story. MM: And at that point, you’ve got no room to deviate. You better be on what you’re doing, or you’re going to be in trouble.

JL: So I can be really plodding with that—to me, writing a comic script is like creating a crossword and doing it at the same time, in that sort of format. I’d be really curious to jump to a longer script where it seems like there’s so much freedom to breathe. MM: You think that until you start realizing what you have to put in. Again, that’s why Strangeways ended up being so dense is—there’s stuff that I—probably ill-advisedly—added in when I was writing. ‘You know, we could use a little subplot here,’ and those ended up not getting fleshed out enough. Maybe they were interesting and engaging to read, but people walked off thinking, exactly like you did, ‘well, maybe I missed something with the connection between this character and this character here.’ I try not to insult the reader’s intelligence but there are times where I probably don’t give you enough of a roadmap. But that’s something that comes with time.

JL: That’s always the problem. Just getting a skeleton into the format seems miraculous enough, and getting it fleshed out enough to where people really care about the movie. So not only do you have to communicate it, but you have make people care about it. That’s where the challenge really comes in. It’s enough of a challenge just to tell a story in comics, which is something I do find fascinating about the form.

Having written a script, I really see why people screw this up left and right. It’s unbelievably easy!

MM: It’s not very hard at all to mess things up. It just isn’t. Even when you have an editor saying, ‘Hey, dude. You’re messing this up.’

JL: Exactly. Which—you’ve always worked unedited? It’s always just been you keeping track on yourself.

MM: Yeah, and there’ve been people, ‘You know, that’s not really a good idea, Matt.’


I still talk to them.

But I don’t know too many comic book editors, and frankly I’m not in the position with the second one—the second one is going out as-is. It’s not in a point where I could fix anything. I’ll try and fix the dialogue, but the art I’m getting is what I get.

So if you’re going to do editing like that, you really need to do it at the script stage before any art gets worked on at all. And that’s not always possible.

JL: And then there’s the problem… I think the part that just would be sort of brutal would be, you write the script, the art comes back, something gets missed or misintended, and then you’re in the position of—I assume—not having limitless funds, you can’t turn around and go, ‘hey, by the way…’ MM: If I have the guys make a change, it’s because the change really needs to happen. If it’s ‘Oh, it’d be a little better if we did this?’ No. You better pick these battles. I’m paying these guys but I can’t pay them a lot. But I pay them and I pay them on time, but there’s some things that will have to happen with your story, and if they get something wrong then it’s gotta get fixed. There’ve been very, very few things I’ve even had to call them on, much less…And Luis especially has come back with a number of redrawn panels, months after he’d submitted the original. And the redrawn panel is not a big deal if he’s just tightening things up. That’s fine, I’m glad he showed the initiative to do that. But if he restructured a page, then I might get a little grumpy if I’ve already lettered it.

I don’t know. In some ways, I wish I could do more formal experimentation but I’ so concerned about my ability to tell the actual story that I’m pretty conservative when it comes to trying anything crazy and wild.

JL: I think you just have to hope that later on you will have the freedom and, by that point, you’ll know the basics. MM: It’s the whole thing about learning the rules of grammar before you decide to go break them. You can’t just sit down and do stream of consciousness because Kerouac did it that way, or Joyce did it that way.

And, actually, Kerouac didn’t do it that way in the first place. My understanding is that the typing on the roll of the paper [for On The Road] was actually a myth, that there was an original manuscript and it was regimented by the page just like everybody else’s. Maybe there was a first draft where he just spit it all out.

JL: There’s always a stage where there’s a blank page and you have to sit down and attack it. MM: The script stage is not the blank page for me. The script stage is where I’ve already done most of the work. It’s the page beat that’s the really intimidating blank page. That’s where the work is.

But a chapter of a novel is as long as however long it needs to be. You just paginate it.

JL: The novel process is freeing like that; you go through problems of too much freedom, depending on how much you want to indulge it. For me, I want to do the second draft so hopefully people can have the enjoyment of the experience that I had while writing the first draft. Because the first draft of the novel, you really do have the freedom to discover the beats of the story while you’re going around. And then if that takes a twist, that’s great.

A lot of people don’t work that way. A lot of people highly recommend if you want to get your book done, outline it and then attack it. And that seems great, but it just locks me up.

MM: Huh. Because the first novel I wrote was something called Blue Highway—which I may be revisiting—but it was originally I did it as a very bad screenplay. I mean, bad, bad, awful screenplay, which I wrote in like two and a half weeks, and then a few months later I started writing it as a novel and went through it pretty quickly—a six month draft process while working a fulltime job.

JL: Wow, that is quick.

MM: Although I was able to write at work, so don’t tell my boss.

JL: I’ll keep it between us.

MM: This isn’t going on the Internet or anything, right?

JL: No, no, no.

MM: Okay.

JL: Like I said, my hope is to type this stuff up, and then…

MM: Well, I haven’t worked there in years.

JL: I don’t think you’ll have worry about your ex-boss googling your name, and going: ‘Matt Maxwell: Thief!’ MM: No, I haven’t worked for that company in some time.

JL: What do you currently do, Matt? Just this, or do you have any other thing?

MM: I’m a dad. That’s far more work than any job.

JL: My understanding is that the pay and benefits are still a little on the lower end, though. MM: Yeah, if you look at it by the hour? Boy.

Much like writing, you’re pretty deep in the hole if you parcel it out by the hour. But when you’re on the duty, it’s tough: I know there are guys like Jason Aaron, and I’m pretty sure he has a job too, in addition to writing. And I don’t know how he does it.

And he writes—I mean, if you aren’t, you should read Scalped.

JL: I gotta give it another go.

MM: It’s really, really good.

JL: I read the first few issues and I was like, ‘there’s no reason I shouldn’t love this, and there’s something that’s just not clicking with me.’ And I don’t know why. Because it’s all good, it’s all strong, it’s very lean, it’s not… MM: It’s not indulgent or flabby.

JL: Yeah, it’s practically the opposite of indulgent, in that regard.

MM: No, it’s very disciplined.

JL: Absolutely. And yet for some reason… So I’m gonna pick up the trade in the hope that the single issues weren’t giving me enough…something? MM: With single issues, I’m pretty cranky and demanding at this point. Unless it’s a done in one, it’s very hard for me to buy a story in serial issues. Even if I really like the story, it’s just a hassle. It’s a bother. I get to the end and I want to read more, and I get frustrated.

JL: I don’t have the problem too much, and I do feel it’s sort of… The problem with single issues is, it’s kind of like watering the lawn. It’s not as pleasant as it used to be, and it is a little bit of a chore. But unfortunately I also feel it’s a necessary chore, because the marketplace won’t survive if you don’t have somebody buying the single issues. And unfortunately, the more that—well, we’ll see where it goes.

On the one hand, what’ll happen you’ll get to a situation where—I almost feel like part of the reason is clogged with a lot of crossover big event junk is that, that’s what the people who’ve stayed in the single buying marketplace are buying. And everything else is treading water and waiting for the trade, and at some point that may or may not have…If you’ve got a publisher who is long-term enough, something like Vertigo looks at a title and thinks, ‘Okay, this title is not what we consider a profit, or used to consider a profit, but we’re going to keep at it because the return on the trades is good.’

MM: Yeah, there are a number of titles like that. Or, at least, that’s the conventional wisdom: I have not looked at the numbers, assuming the numbers are even reliable, to confirm that. And I don’t know about the bookscan numbers for books that are, frankly, that far down the list in terms of overall sales.

But evidently, the publishers are doing the tracking and they’re able to decide.

JL: It seems to work for everyone, but I do worry that as the market changes—particularly because I always feel like I’m the last guy to get the cellphone, if I feel like I’m always the last guy, and I stop buying the single issues, then what happens?

On the other hand, I currently have more stuff than I can review, and almost more stuff than I can read. I’m so far behind on so many titles. I’m dying to sit down and read Daredevil, but I don’t think I’ve read the last ten to twelve issues I’ve bought. And I either have to, or really admit that I should stop buying the singles and throw my money out into the street where I can at least know that I’m directly throwing my money away.

But there’s a lot of stuff. It’s like doing the reviews this last week. It was like, doing one and two, and then I started reading more, and I just didn’t have the time to do all the reviewing.

MM: And really, does most of the stuff merit a review?

JL: There’s plenty of stuff that, just looking at it critically, doesn’t. But there’s also times you feel obligated. Definitely my schedule has changed, so it’s not like I’m going to sit there and review every book that I read. But there are ways in which books that suck can be instructive, and it can be instructive to say why they’re sucking. MM: And books can still suck and still be vastly entertaining.

JL: That’s why I feel bad about my review of Rage of the Red Lanterns. Because to me it’s so inept it’s practically entertaining. And I didn’t really convey in my review that, ‘wow, this is really terrible, but…’ MM: At the same time awesome?

JL: Yeah, you can’t believe you’re reading it while you’re reading it, and that too is part of the reason we come to comics, not believing that somebody is actually going to put this page. MM: The Fletcher Hanks comics by any objective measurement of art quality are dreadful. But they are compelling, brutal. They demand attention.

JL: They really do.

MM: All that, and they’re batshit insane. They’re absolutely off the rails, even by the standards of the Golden Age comics which were off the rails.

[Art: from top to bottom--Page 6 from Strangeways: The Thirsty, art by Gervasio & Jok; Page 7 of The Thirsty by Gervasio & Jok; Page 8 of The Thirsty by Gervasio & Jok; a page, also by Gervasio & Jok, from an unpublished story which Maxwell hints may be appearing in a Strangeways anthology; a page from the back-up story in The Thirsty, art by Luis Guaragna; the cover to Strangeways: Murder Moon by Steve Lieber; the cover to Roberto Bolano's 2666, released just this week in English; the cover of Scalped #1, and interior art from Rage of the Red Lanterns #1.]


Strangeways, Here We Come: Part 1 of A Talk With Matt Maxwell

I like Matt Maxwell. He strikes me as a good egg. He's a little on the Eeyore-ish side of things--a bit dour, almost glum, without seeming unfriendly--which I also like. And when I finally sat down and read Strangeways: Murder Moon, the OGN that Matt wrote and published, I liked it, too. It wasn't perfect, but I thought not only did it avoid a lot of rookie mistakes, it had a definite tone of voice to it--an understated one, which isn't what one would expect to find in a horror western.

Anyways. About a week-and-a-half ago, on the morning of APE, I sat down with Matt in a dim sum restaurant and tried to interview him about the evolution of Strangeways, his expectations of his serialization of Strangeways: The Thirst on blog@Newsarama.com, and any unforeseen results from that just-started experiment. I say I tried to interview him about those things, but because I'm a newbie interviewer (here's a tip: if you're going to be conducting and recording an interview, don't take the subject to a dim sum restaurant where people are walking by and talking to you every two minutes) and because, as I say, I like Matt Maxwell, I ended up piping up far too often with my own ideas, anecdotes, and opinions.

So what should've been an interview with Matt solely about all of the above, became more of a conversation between the two of us about learning how to write comics, with a dash of the other topics thrown. I picked up the check to make up for it. Hopefully, Matt, when I actually earn my interviewer wings, we'll do it again and I'll do it better. Double-ditto, for the art which Matt contributed: it's lovely unlettered stuff, and I'm such a lame-o, I don't really know how to create a subhead for it so I can caption it properly. I'll learn.

Anyway, if that sounds like your kind of thing, check it out after the jump. It is...not short.

Jeff Lester: What do you think of the reception to the first couple of days of Strangeways: The Thirsty, on Blog@? Matt Maxwell: I don’t read the numbers, so I don’t know exactly what the readership is. I’m assuming that it’s more people seeing it—far more—than would be reading it on my blog which, to be mercenary, was the point. If you’re going to give something away for free with the idea of getting attention out of it, you don’t put in a corner that nobody walks through.

JL: No, and Blog@ does get the coverage, so you’d think—I’ll be kinda curious because most of the webcomic stuff I follow is super-short and not always sequential, so…

MM: Well, that’s the thing. That’s why I kind of hesitate to even call it a webcomic because I didn’t change any of the formatting. You’re getting a page a day: that’s how it works.

JL: Which I know…Girl Genius and—I haven’t actually been following Finder since it went to web so I don’t really know if… I’m sure they’re obviously looking at the traffic, there’s lots of people who can follow a page of comic a day… MM: And keep it together, yeah. Personally, I like waiting for having a backlog of material and then I can go through and read a bunch and see how it flows together. It’s hard for me to…

JL: So you think for people like you—are you going to do any promos, like, ten pages in, or something like that? MM: I’ll probably do that, and certainly when there’s a whole chapter collected, I’ll make a big deal about it: ‘Okay, go read the first chapter. You don’t have to wait for…’ At that schedule, it’s not even a bimonthly comic, it’s almost a quarterly.

JL: And I notice, is it—if I’m following what you wrote correctly—you flipped artists on this one? MM: Yeah, the artist from the main story is doing the ‘back-up story’ and the others from the ‘back-up story’ in Murder Moon are doing the main story here. Part of that was because Luis, who was the main artist for Murder Moon, left the studio in Argentina, moved to Spain, and then Norway after that. I guess he’s following his heart, as it were.

So I lost track of him, but then found him after the announcement for Murder Moon went out, when the book was actually published. He tracked me down, so that worked out well.

But the artists in—you know, the guys at Estudio Haus, Gervasio and Jok—I’d known and worked with them, liked their art, so I didn’t see a problem with [their taking on the main story this time.]

JL: I actually thought the back-up was the stronger of the pieces in the book, in your first book. MM: You’re not the only person to have said that, which isn’t surprising.

JL: Which I sort of attributed, looking closely at it, it seemed very much to me like the art choice s and the storytelling choices seemed a lot stronger. MM: Yeah, that, and the first one was the first actual script I’d done for a comic. So I’d obviously picked up more [for the back-up]. I mean, I packed in too much on all of those pages on Murder Moon. Not quite as badly in the back-up story, but it certainly was there, especially when you compare it to the airiness of most mainstream comics today.

JL: It’s interesting you mention that because I’ve spent a lot of time—I actually sold my first short script to C’thulu Tales. MM: Congratulations.

JL: Thank you. And that was, of course—I packed that with way, way, way too much…Even going by the rule of thumb about word counts per page…

MM: What’s the rule of thumb you used? Because I’ve heard different ones, many of them.

JL: I used the one that Alan Moore talked about that was sort of a modified Weisinger one, where it’s something like thirty-five words per panel based on a six panel grid. So the ceiling is about 210 per page, or something. MM: Yeah, I had heard the Stan Lee rule was no more than forty in a balloon, and that’s probably restrained—even for Stan!

JL: Yeah, when you look at the other stuff, it’s obvious that those things change. MM: You look at those early Marvel superhero texts and they’re so text-heavy compared to…I mean, the Weisinger Superman comics, you had narration but it wasn’t as heavy as Stan’s very purple…

JL: Yeah, very prolix. Well, and it’s kind of interesting because that’s one of the things I find fascinating in storytelling: you go back and look at that stuff—and of course I grew up on the stuff so it’s second nature—but I can definitely see when I go back and look at a bunch of it, it’s really dense, and everyone’s writing like they’re Stan Lee, so there’s a lot of verbal tics. MM: Yeah.

JL: On the other hand, it’s so information-rich. I sometimes think that part of the success of the Marvel melodramas and the soap operas is that you can actually have this stuff progress--at the same time, someone can be fighting and thinking about Aunt May at the same time, so you get a lot with that density.

MM: And it’s all story-driven stuff. It’s not there just to be there, just to fill up a page.

JL: In fact, it’s almost the opposite. It’s got so much going on. And it’s interesting watching someone like Brubaker figure out how to get a similar story density in there when you can’t do that pacing. MM: Yeah, you couldn’t turn in a script like that. You can’t. Even if you’re doing a ‘retro’ book like any of the Marvel Adventures—you read Jeff Parker’s script for many of the Marvel Adventures stuff he does and it’s still light, textually, compared to older Marvel material, but then it also has to reduce down to digest size, so you can’t crowd as much on. The original presentation is a standard 7’ by 10’ comic that—I understand they sell far better in digest than they do in the direct market.

JL: I would assume. I would hope.

MM: Yeah.

JL: So, when you started writing the first book and your first script, what kind of rule of thumb do you use for… MM: [Laughs.] I didn’t. I tried to keep it to seven panels. I tried. I tried really hard to keep to seven panels a page. Because the first thing—the original presentation for Strangeways was going to be a twenty-two page monthly comic before I’d gotten the crazy idea to just go ahead and do the whole thing as a graphic novel. And even then, as a graphic novel, I was still dividing it in 22 page chunks, anyway. JL: Which seems smart. MM: But then the Speakeasy deal came along and I said, ‘Okay, well, now it needs to really work as a single comic.’ I’m not convinced of its success in that regard, but it didn’t need to.

I tried to keep to no more than seven panels a page. I often went to eight. I did have to boil down the dialogue. I’m doing my own lettering—which I highly recommend for anybody who’s writing comics if you have the opportunity to.

In some ways it’s tedious and mechanical, and in lots of ways it’s…I think it might have been Richard Starkings who said that ‘the letterer is the writer’s inker.’ And that’s absolutely true. If you can have a hand in how the words go on the page, then you may be a step ahead of the game, especially if you’re still a rookie like me, and you realize, ‘Oh yeah, that beat shouldn’t have gone there, it should go in the next panel,’ and then you have to jiggle the dialogue that follows on the page.

But I tried to keep things reasonable, and the common criticism, that I really can’t disagree with, is that there was just too much on the page. It was too claustrophobic.

JL: Although again, some of that was—I thought—how much you were packing in, and some of it was… I thought the artists in the back-up team even when handling a lot of density seemed to find some very elegant solutions to it. MM: I found that—and maybe this is just my perception—a lot of, particularly, the South American comics artists grew up reading European comics and not American comics. They may have read them, but that wasn’t their mainstay. And you get a completely different sensibility working out of that. Not that one is better than the other, they’re just different. Particularly now.

I mean, I’m still trying to figure out, what’s the date of death of the thought balloon? It’s struggled back a couple times. Because I stopped reading comics in the mid-90s, right around the time Sandman ended. I was still reading Hellboy and a few other irregular series, but I wasn’t going to comic shops every week. And I remember, before that, you still had thought balloons. You came back after that, and it was, you know, it was night and day. You didn’t have much internal narration; if you still did, you would do it as captions rather than thought balloons. And I adopted the same—when I have Collins doing internal monologues, it’s as captions, not as thought balloons.

JL: I think it would be very hard to put in thought balloons as a new writer, as people would just assume that you’re not paying attention to the market. MM: You’re not paying attention, and ‘well, don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

JL: I think Alan Moore, like so much else—he really helped take out the sound effect balloon in Watchmen, and then around the time of Swamp Thing, I think he switched pretty much right off the bat—I think he went to captions, and there’s no thought balloons in his work. And he’s the first one I can think of that kind of started that, and then the rest of the Brits…I don’t know, I don’t follow the 2000 A.D. stuff enough to know, but maybe… MM: Yeah, I didn’t follow them in 2000 A.D., but all the writers who came over in the ‘80s and ‘90s—I’d have to look at Doom Patrol again, I’m trying to remember if interior narration like that, and I don’t think it did very much, I think it did captioning.

JL: I think, again, captioning. Very much so. I think it was sort of a Brit thing that killed that, that everyone adopted very quickly. Although, now that I think about it, I guess Dark Knight—Miller used thought balloons in Daredevil, and might have eschewed them totally in Dark Knight.

MM: Well, I think that was probably a Shooter edict. I was reading the collected Frank Miller Daredevil—which I’d read on the stands when I was a much younger man than I am now—but you don’t notice when you’re reading it month to month that there’s always the page of, ‘Oh, and I’m Matthew Murdock, and a tragic accident turned me into Daredevil and here’s my superpowers.’ And that’s great when you’re introducing people to the monthly serial, but when you read the whole collected chain of the story, it’s like ‘Oh, and here’s that page again. Okay.’ And usually you can see him getting it out of the way as fast as he could and moving on to the rest of it.

JL: Yeah, that was always his way of handling it. Which, I guess, was pretty much as elegant as you could get under the Shooter system. MM: Yeah, he fulfilled his obligations to the editor and now, on with the story.

JL: It’s interesting how people handle recap pages now because they’re in most of the Marvel books and they’re—to me, for the most part—incredibly hard to read. MM: Really? Do they have just a plain recap at the beginning? Because I haven’t read Marvel month-to-month, other than Daredevil and Captain America occasionally.

JL: You know, I’m thinking of Ultimate Spider-Man which has the recap in it. But I’m trying to think if there are other ones… Cable and Deadpool, of course, had a recap page where they did as a full page of comic art, and after that, honestly…I’m a little hard pressed to think of one now. Maybe they’ve dropped that and moved back to, ‘screw it, it’s a page no one cares about anyway. Like, if you really want to know, wikipedia it.’ MM: Yeah. Before, when you’re the lonely thirteen year old geek at the 7-Eleven, and you don’t have friends who read these comics to explain it to you, then you need that page to get you hooked into it.

JL: It’s interesting watching the marketplace consider how ‘open’ the book is or should be in order to actually work. I’m kind of fascinated by people like Morrison, who are ‘You know what? It’s more attractive if it’s almost impenetrable. And it’s this sort of mystery that gives the reader this sense that there’s a huge, sprawling, larger-than-life thing going on, and screw the recaps.’

MM: And to some extent, I can see that being true. When I was introduced to the Marvel cosmology—the legacy cosmology of the ‘70s and the ‘80s—it was like, ‘Oh, okay, there’s much more stuff going on than just what I’m reading in this comic,’ and that got you reading other titles in some cases. But you’re not going to read a bad comic even if you’re interested in a universe.

JL: Which is a rule that I wish comic publishers would learn.


JL: So Strangeways, you started off shooting for a seven panel and sometimes bumping it up to eight… MM: [Sighs] I know have some nine panel pages in there, but nine was the absolute limit. That’s kind of… Is it Fell that’s a sixteen grid? I don’t know how he does it.

JL: The thing that is shocking to me is when it’s done well… I mean, Watchmen is on a nine grid, I think.

MM: Yeah, Watchmen is a nine grid, even though he breaks it out in some places.

JL: Yeah, but you can always see where’s he’s snapping tightly to the grid. And they make it look incredibly easy. Both he and Gibbons make it look incredibly easy. And I know that was my downfall walking into scriptwriting: ‘I’ll try and plot it out as a nine panel thing, it’s easy, it’s got a flow that brings the reader into it,’ and then, of course, you have to write more concisely for each panel… MM: Yes, you do.

JL: And still the artist is like, ‘I can’t fit all this on one page.’

MM: I know I ran into that. I’ll send out the scripts, and I’ve got, say, thirty-forty words of dialogue, and the panel comes back and, ‘Well, that’s a mighty small panel!’ Not to fault the guys doing the art, because they’re doing the best with the script they’ve been given, but there are certain times it’s like, there’s no way this is going to work, and now I have to reconstruct what story value is going to put on the page. Because it’s all about the single page. I mean, yes, you string it altogether in a story but if you can’t manage a page—which I’m not convinced I can yet, but…

JL: I don’t know. I thought that your pages worked. I was pretty impressed that I thought your story rolled at a pretty decent pace. I think as someone gets more experience under their belt, it gets easier to figure out how to change gears, I think. Just getting it into a decent rhythm is hard enough, and then trying to change it up a little bit is a whole different skill.

MM: I just wrote a column about this at Comics Waiting Room: It’s really the page beat that’s everything. I didn’t know anything about page beats before I came back into beginning to write comics and read comics in 2002-2003. And, if you remember, that was the ‘Epic Initiative.’ And they actually had page beats shown—an example of page beats written out in one of the—it might’ve even been the Epic comic, that really dreadful book. And I said, ‘Oh, okay!’ Because it never had really clicked for me before, that it was all about, ‘it’s one page at a time in a sequence.’ At least, that’s in the long form comic storytelling. You have different rules when you’re doing mini-comics, and I mean, you still have to pay attention to the page, but I think you have a lot of flexibility.

JL: But in long-terms stuff, the idea of trying to get a beat on the page and something at the turn. That’s the one where I really found myself going…

MM: That’s the thing. If you’re writing a six issue miniseries effectively, you can say, ‘Well, I’m not really writing six acts.’ But you are writing six acts. Or you’re writing seven acts, and you have half an issue of dénouement, instead of a whole issue, which I guess is better. I’m sure an entire issue of dénouement would be kind of dreadful.

JL: You think it would be, but every once in a while…I think part of the problem about learning to write for the medium, is you always remember the successes better than the failures. So you’re kind of like, ‘Well, yeah. Look at that classic issue of Avengers, where it’s after the big fight, and everything is wrapping up.’ Or again, something like Watchmen MM: You know, the thing with Watchmen—and this happened a lot, and still does—is people don’t love Watchmen because it was a nine panel grid, or because it was grim-and-gritty superheroes doing things that superheroes don’t usually do: people love Watchmen because it’s a great story. The nine panel grid is effectively a surface—I don’t want to say trick, it’s a lot deeper than that, certainly, in terms of setting up the rhythm of the story—but that isn’t why people love it.

JL: Absolutely. On the other hand, I think the brilliance of the nine-panel grid is that they were able to put so much information into each issue that I think if you tried to do Watchmen on a five panel grid, which seems really standard now… MM: You couldn’t do it. All the story turns would be completely wrong.

JL: It would just feel mushy, unless you totally rejiggered…Even rejiggering the stories, I don’t think you would have enough event per issue, and you’d have to end up deeply compressing some of the storylines… MM: Eventually, comics are going to have to get past the issue at a time format. We’re still trying, we’re still struggling with it. But that’s the format that a lot of people are used to reading, it keeps people coming back to the comic stores every week, but it does present a lot of difficulties for storytelling.

JL: Right. MM: Or you’re just wired for it, and you can just crank stuff out.

JL: I’m not sure if that’s really true. Maybe there are, but I think if you look at most of the guys…both Bendis and Brubaker were cartoonists before they turned to writing, and that allows them a huge… MM: And so was Moore.

JL: So was Moore. Morrison apparently did a lot drawing…

MM: I don’t know if he did much sequential stuff, but I mean for instance, he did almost all the design work for Doom Patrol, and probably does for whatever he’s working on.

JL: But Moore was an actual cartoonist, and I think that allows them a lot of confidence when it comes time to break a story down. This is sort of what I was bitching a bit about in a recent column about Grant Morrison and how much responsibility he might bear for ending up with not-so-great artists. He might be overpacking—his Batman stuff looks like it very well could be incredibly overstuffed, and his artist is just overwhelmed. MM: I confess I read up until the Black Glove story, with the J.H. Williams stuff, and J.H. makes every script he touches look maybe even smarter than it actually is.

JL: I thought so in that particular case. I’m really convinced that first Black Glove story was very much the world’s best-looking case of lipstick on a pig.

MM: It was a ‘Ten Little Indians’ Agatha Christie mystery—which is generally a form I’m not fond of at all—with beautiful art.

JL: With absolutely stunning art. [Art: from top to bottom--a page from Strangeways: The Thirsty, art by Gervasio & Jok; a page from Strangeways: Murder Moon by Luis Guaragna; a page from "Lone," the back-up story in Strangeways: Murder Moon by Gervasio & Jok; another page from "Lone" by Gervaiso & Jok; Another page from Murder Moon by Luis Guaragna; and another yet-to-be-published page from The Thirsty by Gervasio & Jok]

Tomorrow: Strangeways, screenplays, good days and bad days.