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Interview with Brian K. Vaughan
By Tim Leong
POP GOES THE CULTURE GUY
Brian K Vaughan’s No. 1 piece of advice for young writers is to always be writing — advice he follows as well. He’s currently writing monthly installments of Y: The Last Man, Runaways and Ex Machina, a limited run on The Escapist, all the while he’s also juggling screenplays for Y and Ex Machina. And as of this month, his first original graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, debuts. It’s evident that yes, he is always writing, but Comic Foundry was able to pull Vaughan away from his desk to talk about Pride, stardom and the last he got so angry he punched a wall.
Are you the same writer you were when you did Swamp Thing?
No, I mean, no. I hope not. I’d like to think I’m at least a better writer than I was back then. I think I learned a lot. Looking back at my first of Swamp Thing, I am definitely trying to be the retarded cousin of Alan Moore with nine-panel pages and cramming captions on top of word balloons — it was about density. I think I learned to write less and say more. And it’s interesting because people complain that it doesn’t take long enough to read a comic book but it probably takes three times as long to get through one of my Swamp Thing issues than it does than one of my comics. I think the new stuff better is because I’m not hiding. I was just hiding behind the words and now I trust myself enough to let the story speak for itself.
How did you get to that point?
I think it’s just natural progression. They say every writer has 10,000 dead pages in them. I think somewhere right before Y: The Last Man #1 and The Hood coming out I probably literally hit my 10,000th page. There are some writers that are born great writers and they’re almost great right out of the gate. For the rest of us it’s just hard work, so you do see a real change — it’s almost mathematically around that 10,000th page. You will see yourself start to change as a writer. I didn’t have an epiphany or learned some new trick, I worked hard.
Where do you think you’re weakest as a writer?
That’s a tricky question. It’s the interview question where they ask, “What’s your worst quality?” And you say, “Oh, I’m too hard of a worker.” I don’t want to sound like I’m a flawless writer because I’m clearly not. But if I see that I’m doing something too often I try and stop it. I’m aware that if you come to be known as Mr. Cliffhanger or you’re pop culture reference guy, no one wants to be known as that. Pride of Baghdad was partially born out of wanting to do something that was unlike my other work. I’m just not good enough, which is sort of a cop-out answer. I’m never happy with my stuff when it comes out and look forward to improving it. Just generally I need to write more and write better. I wish I could target something. My grammar is okay and I’m a pretty good speller. I wish my dialogue were sharper, I wish my stories were cleaner. I wish a lot of things.
You mention Pride of Baghdad; do you think you really did show people you’re not just the pop culture guy?
I’m aware of the audience, obviously and I read all my reviews, especially the bad ones. But when I say I want to show people, it’s really more about challenging myself. I don’t want to become too reliant on those things. So, no, I didn’t set out to prove something. And all of my books — and this is a writer’s cliché, but it’s true — I just write for myself. I just can’t imagine anyone else is interested in a story about a dude and a jetpack talking about legislative potholes. I just write stuff that interests me and I try and push myself in a way that it’ll be interesting to write.
In writing Pride of Baghdad, it’s not serialized form like your other books. What was the biggest difference for you in going to that format?
It was hard because I’ve been doing it the other way for so long, telling 22-page serialized stories that it just comes naturally to me. I’m at the point now where I don’t even have to do the detailed outline that I did to begin with because it’s almost organic. I know what fits into 22-pages that an artist can tell. Every story dictates the format and this story, focusing on someone’s world being changed overnight and how immediately things collapse around you, it was important that this be told in the kind of story you c an read in one sitting. So, I don’t know it. It was hard in some ways because it was a new form to learn — an original graphic novel, as opposed to a comic. In other words, it was a joy because we had more to do it — we had so much lead-time, Niko Henrichon and I. And you had the luxury of going back if on page 130 there could be something so much stronger if you could go back and change page number two, I can do that in Pride of Baghdad. With Y it’s a pain in the ass if at issue #50 and I suddenly come up with a great idea and you need that old writer’s thing — if you need to put a gun in a drawer, I can’t go back and put that gun in a drawer. Writing a graphic novel, I can. I loved it. I don’t think I could ever exclusively do just that, but I definitely want to do more after having done this one.
You’re writing somewhere between four and five monthly books — how much time does that give you to reflect back on your work?
Mercifully, almost none. Comics writers are like sharks, I think, and you don’t want to dwell too much on the past — it is all about that forward momentum. That’s not to say you’re not willing to go back and look at what your weaknesses are and how you can grow. But by the time a comic comes out and even if only takes me six or seven days to write a script, by the time it comes out I’ve spent six or seven days writing it the first time, then I’ll tweak the dialogue when the art comes in. Then I’ll proof before it gets lettered. Then I’ll check it after it’s been lettered. Then I’ll be so sick of my own writing by the time it comes out. I can even probably still recite issues of Swamp Thing that I wrote six or seven years ago. You just know it so well. You just get drowned in your own work that you don’t spend too much time thinking about what you wrote a while ago because you remember it so well. You’re just so relieved to get to write something new finally.
And with your monthly books you’ve got special stuff coming up like Dr. Strange and you’ve got The Escapist right now. How hard is it to focus on Y, Ex Machina and Runaways?
It’s not hard at all because I always stay enough ahead of schedule that I can always work primarily on one book at a time. I’ll never start writing three pages of Dr. Strange, then switch to Ex Machina. Right now is a Runaways week and while I might have to do balloon placements for another book or write solicitation copy for something else. I only have to write the actual book of just Runaways this week. You just sorta switch your mindset to that book, and it’s nice because they’re all different enough. I’ll start the month with a Y, then I’ll switch to something like Runaways, which is completely different. Then I’ll go to something like Machina, which is equally different. Then I usually have that bonus slot for whatever I feel like working on — if it’s a Dr. Strange miniseries or screenwriting. I try and structure my month so that each week remains pretty holy to one entity.
And talking about Y and Ex Machina, these are books where you already have the endings planned when you first launched the series. Is it harder to stay focused on those middles issues?
More so for Ex Machina than Y because Y really just wasn’t figuring out the beginning and the end but figuring out much of the middle too. We’ve taken the occasional side trips — usually inspired by a brilliant idea that Pia (Guerra, artist) will have. I think an arc like Safeword in Y, which was probably a highpoint for the book, was inspired by a suggestion from Pia. It’s something I’d never thought to tackle, so it’s definitely nice when your co-creator is a genius and can help you out in those middle sections. Ex Machina was more that I knew exactly how it ended and I knew how it began because it’s taking place in real time from this guy’s election at the end of 2001 to the end of 2005, I didn’t know if anything big was going to happen in New York that was going on. I deliberately left more room to interpret actual events. But now that we’re all caught up chronologically I have most of the middle of Ex Machina figured out too. So no, I’m a planner. Very occasionally I’ll write an issue and not know exactly what’s going on next issue. But that’s few and far between. I like to know exactly where I’m going with the freedom to diverge from that road map if I want to. But, no, I’m a planner.
Last year, it really seemed like the world really opened its eyes to you and you became this huge superstar and won all these awards. Why do you think that was?
I guess I’ve been fortunate enough to be working on a lot of good books simultaneously. Between Ex Machina being a new book — new books are always most exciting and I think in that first year there were people that were enthusiastic and had never seen anything like it, hopefully. I think Y had really just hit its stride. Runaways was the little book that could. It looked like it was going to die but had this fun resurrection. It was like this perfect storm of books. I don’t know. I’m grateful for the attention. It’s always weird when something like that hits and you hear a lot of “best new talent” or whatever. I’ve been doing this since I was 19 — almost 10 years. When you get all that attention you enjoy it and it’s flattering to get but I don’t think you dwell on it too much. In those 10 years I’ve seen people come and go when who were the flavor of the month.
How did that change things? Not that it would change you personally and you’d become a big diva or anything…
—I probably have if you ask my friends. They’ll think my bald head is much more swelled.
But how did everything around you change?
I would say that comics became less of a challenge. The 10 years prior, even when I wasn’t working I was pitching something. I’m pitching Adam Strange re-launch to DC, a creator-owned book to Oni. Non-stop trying to get something off the ground as a freelancer. It got to the point where I could say “No” to something, and that’s a huge change for a freelancer — to have the luxury to say “No.” My policy was always, “Hell yeah, you take whatever comes your way.” Whether it was an issue of Wonder Girl or a Ka-Zar Annual, you’re not too good for that and can learn from that experience and make that a kickass issue. But yeah, it’s really great to have the luxury to say “No” and only take the work that you’re most confident in. In that respect it was less challenging.
In another respect, it’s writing Swamp Thing issue #18 was a joy because I knew no one was reading it at all. And not even my editor was reading it at that point, I think. You love to really just experiment because what does it matter? My girlfriend is not going to look at this. It does change when you know the eyes are on your book and maybe it does put a little bit more pressure on you not to give them what they want, but to try and block out that thought and just stay true to writing books for yourself like you used to when truly no one was reading it. That becomes more of a challenge. I’m using the word “challenge” pretty liberally. It could not be an easier job. If you ever hear someone talk about it being a hard job, they’ve never had an actual job before. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Money for nothing and chicks for free.
Does this newfound “fame” come with any expectations?
There are so many great retailers who might be taking a chance on a book because it has your name on it and they might not have before, so I don’t know about the expectations. I have no idea what people expect from me. I just know I have a responsibility to put out a book that people are going to want to read. I feel that burden a little bit but I know that no good comes from trying to give people what they want or second-guess what the market place is missing. I really just try and stay true to my voice and hope for the best.
These retailers — do you ever feel like you’re being marketed instead of your books?
Yeah, and I’m to blame for that, definitely. By starting your own message board, you do make the conscious decision to market your personality. And “personality” should go in quotations because I’m as much of a huckster as Stan Lee ever was. You’re not getting the real person online. I’m there to plug my wares. And I’m not a big fan of that. I do think people should judge the art and not the artist. Writers should let their books speak for themselves and otherwise remain hidden. But at the same time I know there are a lot of people, when I was writing Ultimate X-Men, who may have liked the book but had no idea I wrote something else. Same goes for Runaways, or Ex Machina or Y. Especially with Pride of Baghdad coming out. There are very few people who read all of my books, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to — they’re so different. If you like Runaways, you’ll probably like The Escapist as well. If you like Ex Machina, you’ll like Pride of Baghdad. The whole hucksterism gag of getting out there and marketing yourself is less to get your ego stroked, though I do like that. It’s more of trying to get as many of my babies into as many hands as possible.
With this popularity, you’re always making sure you defer co-credit to the co-creators, you turned down the opportunity to create your own Marvel Universe and it seems like you have a habit of knocking yourself down (like in this interview). Do you ever fear becoming too popular?
My books, at least the monthlies, have a ceiling of about 30,000, which Mark Millar would slit his wrist if he had a book that sold that many copies. I understand where my place is. It’s sort of cult-like in the comics world. I’m grateful that the graphic novels, I think, do much better. I know it’s a marathon, not a sprint for me. I’m not doing big event books and I rarely do something big for Marvel or for DC. I’d like to think that I do books that will keep taking care of me and keep being discovered by new readers as years go on. That popularity is very minor in the grand scheme of things. I think the level I’m at right now is a fine level and I don’t need any more than that. There are enough readers to support the book. The Coen bros. are a huge inspiration. No matter what their movie is, they know they have a responsibility to make the money back for their investors, but that’s it. It doesn’t have to be the No. 1 movie of the weekend; it doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. You just need enough to keep going and keep making more. And I have that and that’s all I need.
What goals do you have for yourself?
I’d really like to write for some other mediums. Like I said, in some ways getting comics work isn’t a challenge and part of me feeds on that. I like getting rejected and having something to push against. I don’t want to surround myself with Yes men that just tell me every idea I throw down on a cocktail napkin is worthy of an original graphic novel. Living in Los Angeles and pursuing film work has given me that healthy rejection that I’ve been looking for. I do want to push myself in other mediums. I want to write a novel one day. I want to write more theatre. I want to always be writing. I’ve always said that I hope I’ll be a comic book writer who happens to write other things, rather than a screenwriter who happens to dabble in comics. I realize comics is what brought me to the dance and it’s my first and greatest love. I just want to keep making more new things. Once Dr. Strange wraps that’s probably going to be it, at least for a little while. Never say never, but I do want to take a break from work for hire stuff. Not because I don’t love superheroes that belong to the company — I do. I just don’t think I’m as good at them. I guess that goes back to my weakness. That would probably be my biggest weakness, writing other people’s characters. I’m just not as good at it. I’m not as good at finding myself in them as guys like Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis are. I’m much better suited for stuff of my own creation. My goal is to keep creating new things that hopefully people will be interested in.
“Always to be writing.” Is that advice you’d give to someone looking to break into the medium?
It’s the only advice. I wish there was one book you could read or one exercise you could do that’d make you a better writer. But unless you’re one of those rare creatures who’s just a genius right out of the gate, you’re going to have to work really hard. It’s training for sports, it’s analogous to anything. If you want to lose weight, there’s no magic diet you can go on. You have to eat less and do other stuff more. Writing is the same way. If you want to get better, live an interesting life. Read everything you can get your hands on. You have to write every day, seven days a week. When you have nothing to say you have to write. Eventually you’ll just get good. I think if you’re the kind of person who can write seven days a week, you’re a writer. If you’d rather play video games in your spare time, you’re something else. People will know in their hearts if they’re a writer or not. It’s sort of a calling. It’s a weird, creepy addiction, I think.
Pride of Baghdad comes out on Sept. 13. Now, it’s a couple days after 9/11, obviously. Is that meant marketing-wise to capitalize on patriotism through buying power?
No! That’s a horrifying thought. I honestly had not even considered that. We’d been working on it for three years and it’s been done for a while. I really wanted DC to put it out over the summer. I think it’s just because they really wanted to give it a shot in bookstores, as well as in comic bookstores. And believe it or not, this is the beginning of the book-buying season. The holiday season, I guess, and when booksellers do most of their buying. It had nothing to do, consciously, with Sept. 11 and everything to do with giving it a fighting chance with as big of a mainstream audience as possible.
In talking with you now and reading previous interviews, you seem like a pretty calm and grounded guy. When’s’ the last time you got really mad?
I’m laughing because if you ask my wife about me being calm and grounded…I’m moody and petulant. I really get depressed more than I get angry. I’ll get angry about creative decisions, if I feel I’m being pushed in a direction that’s bad for the story — I will get angry. And that hasn’t happened in a long time in comics, but some of the other stuff I’m delving into that happens. I think I might’ve punched a door recently, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a crybaby outburst like that. It’s’ usually I wake up and I’m in an accessible mood or I’m just in a black, foul, I-hate-life mood. But rarely angry.
Going back to how you give generous praise to your co-creators, how do you approach your relationships with artists?
First off, it’s nice of you to say. I only ever read interviews where I’ve forgotten to mention how much I’ve owed to my artists and feel like a douche. Each relationship is different. My relationship with Adrian (Alphona, Runaways artist) is a lot different than with Pia and my relationship with Tony (Harris, Ex Machina artist). It’s different for each person. It’s as involved as they want to be. Hopefully that’s very involved, not just because I’m generous but also because I’m lazy and I can use all the help I can get. It’s weird. I’ll spend six days on a script, on average. And that might mean I wrote a page in 45 minutes, let’s say. That’s not the average I’m just throwing that out there. But Pia or Tony, they’re going to have to spend 12 hours looking out what I crapped out in 45 minutes. I guarantee you that any human being is going to come up with a better idea than what I had, especially a talented, professional, career comic book artist. You’d have to be an idiot to not welcome the participation of those artists. I usually, with each of them, talk with them before an arc and ask if there’s something they’re dying to draw or something they hated that I did on the previous arc. Then we usually send me spinning in a specific direction. Like in Ex Machina there will be a small bit player that Tony has drawn so well that I’ve decided to integrate them into the cast. Or Pia will make an off-the-cuff suggestion about a great arch nemesis for an escape artist would be Mistress of Bondage. All of my artists — my artists, as if I keep them locked away in a pen — my partners on the books. It’s not me being generous to say they’re as much part of the book, if not more so, than I am.
Was it like that from the beginning, or was there an ego moment? Because I can’t imagine that’d be the first thought for most writers.
It is definitely something I learned. I think when I came in I was Mr. Thumbnails and here’s how I envision the page being and you work to bring my vision to life. I did have to get that spanked out of me. It is such a dumb way to think. You just see if you give the artist freedom, you give them everything they need to do the page. If they have no ideas they have something to fall back on. But once you give them that freedom to interpret that page any way they want to, the work is so much better. If you just want control of every single word, you should write novels. This is a collaborative art. Even if you’re writing the most Alan Moore script — Alan Moore is much a collaborator as the rest of us. You have to learn to work well with others. If you’re not good at it, you’ll ever have it beaten out of you or you’ll be beaten out of the industry.
How did you have it beaten out of you?
It’s like everything — it’s gradual. It’s not like I had one book where I worked with one guy who’s like, “Look, you’re being an idiot.” I think you just learn it slowly. At the beginning I tried to picture each page in my head and I’d be disappointed if it didn’t look the way I said. And then just gradually you realize that yeah, it doesn’t look like what’s in your head because you’re a fucking horrible artist and you have no idea what you’re doing, and these artists are going to give you something so much better. It’s just this slow realization. And I’m dumb so I think I learned this slower than other writers. Just gradually you learn the powers of collaboration and just how much better it is to pick up the phone before any artist starts a job and just ask simple questions like, “What do you hate to draw? What are you best at?” You don’t always listen to them because sometimes they don’t even know yet and you might’ve noticed something in their previous work. But just opening those lines of dialogue, it’s crucial.
What do you think your fanbase is like?
I don’t know. You can never judge just the Internet, because it’s such a small percentage. The first year that Y came out I had a lot of guys coming up to me saying, “Thank you so much, this is the first book I’ve been able to share with my girlfriend or wife.” And that’s pretty cool, but it’s not nearly as cool as the last couple of years to have women come up to you and say, “Thanks so much, this is the first book I’ve been able to share with my boyfriend or husband.” That, I’m grateful for. Recognize though that that’s not always the case with every book that I do. I don’t think it’s 50/50, I wish it were and more that resembles life. I’m grateful, though, there’s a little more diversity in creator-owned books. And I think that’s not entire because I’m so awesome — although God knows I am awesome — I think it’s more that readers who are new to the medium are looking for two things. One is they want something good and two, they want something that’s accessible. They’d probably like X-Men if they didn’t have to have 40 years of continuity to understand what’s going on. I’m grateful for how many new readers my fanbase is made up of. I think that’s again credit to my artists. Pia and I talked about the beginning of Y, as much as I love a book like Promethea we weren’t going to do challenging layouts like that. We were going to do something so that the excitement was going on inside the panels. But if you only ever read the Sunday comics, you’d be able to follow Y. I think it’s trying to make books that are accessible and can be read by new readers. That doesn’t mean they’re not challenging or have no them to them, it just means you’ve never read a comic before it’s something we can put in your hands. You might not like it but you’ll be able to follow it.
Well, that’s interesting because you’re very tailored to generate new audiences, but compared to the rest of the industry your books aren’t bestsellers on newsstand.
Our books definitely do much better in graphic novel form than they do in issues. Y, the first trade is well over 100,000 and might even be in the 200,000s copies, and that’s in English. We have Spanish editions, our books sell to Norway, they sell to France. These book appeal to a truly mainstream audience. It takes a little longer to get to them but, I’m sure Ex Machina, Runaways and Y will all be, if they haven’t already, be read by many more people who ever read Ultimate X-Men when I was writing that.
And to close it up, what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned since entering the industry?
An important one was when I was reading an Eddie Campbell graphic novel — it’s one of the Alec books. There’s a quote in there that I’m going to butcher horribly, but just to paraphrase: When you’re a young artist you spend a lot of time looking at the people who are already successful and you sort of hate them. And you spend a lot of time thinking about how much better you are than they are and how undeserving they are to be in that spot. I was definitely a bitter professional who thought the same thing. But in that book Eddie really encourages you to look at those people and be grateful for them and say, “If they made it, it’s only a matter of time before I make it.” It seems like a simple and obvious thing, but I have to say, that was right before the time Y and The Hood. It was such a change in outlook where you stop being bitter and you realize that art is not a competition, that there’s more than enough room for all of us. You give praise to the people who don’t write stories like you. You want there to be as much diversity as possible. Even though I am a depressed curmudgeon, definitely think of taking that positive outlook on being grateful to being a part of this industry. It really makes you a better person.
If I could piggyback something that Alan Moore talks about. It’s much more to be a good human being than it is to be a good writer, which I agree with completely. I’m not a great writer but I’m still probably a better writer than human being. The times I’ve pushed myself to be a better person has made me a better artist.Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Men In Tights — Homosexuality in Comics
By Marcie Young
MEN IN TIGHTS
A teenage boy sits on a cozy couch in the sun-drenched living room of his family’s suburban home. His father leans forward and fidgets in his seat across the room, while his brother slumps into the couch, his arms crossed in anger. His mother exhales deeply before speaking. “So, when you did you first know you were a…,” she stutters as her words trail off. She’s unable to unable to finish the thought. She doesn’t even want to say the word.
“A mutant,” the boy’s friend interjects, finishing her sentence.
The father responds to the trio of friends surrounding his son, “You have to understand, we thought Bobby was going to a school for the gifted.”
“Bobby is gifted,” a female friend says, coming to Bobby’s defense.
His father continues, “We know that. We just didn’t realize…”
But Bobby’s mother interrupts, “We still love you Bobby. It’s just…this mutant problem is a little…”
Before she can finish, the eldest of Bobby’s friends snaps, “What mutant problem?”
She looks at the man’s shaggy facial hair and intimidating eyes. “Complicated,” she finishes forcefully.
“Well, you should see what Bobby can do,” his female friend suggests.
Bobby reaches for his mother’s steaming cup of tea, places one finger on the hot ceramic and turns the boiling liquid into a solid block of caffeinated ice. Shock crosses her face and her mouth falls open in awe.
Bobby’s brother uncrosses his arms, and without a word, leaps from the couch and bounds up the stairs. Bobby frowns at his brother’s visible hostility.
“This is all my fault,” his mother laments. Her son is different — an outcast who will certainly be persecuted by society. Bobby is a mutant.
To many gay comic book fans, this scene from the 2003 blockbuster hit, “X-Men 2,” represents more than just a human mutant telling his family he can freeze things. Bobby Drake, or Iceman, is admitting to his parents that he’s different and that he’s been harboring a secret too long.
This is the day Bobby Drake came out.
In the comic book world, where the typical adult male fan is often stereotyped as a socially awkward, heterosexual geek, a thriving community of gay fans may seem a bit uncommon. A visit to the Gay League Web site, a forum dedicated to homosexuality in comics, proves otherwise. More than 1,000 mostly male fans have signed-on as members to discuss gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues in the industry.
Many gay fans and professionals say Marvel’s X-Men symbolize homosexuality and boast numerous gay-friendly metaphors that are woven into the colorful panels. Andy Mangels, former editor of Gay Comics and former writer for Marvel and DC Comics, says the X-Men, as mutants, are forced to mask their true identities to avoid persecution. Mangels, 39, says he knew he was gay since childhood and identified with the mutant outcasts struggling to fit in. “Growing up reading comic books, there were people just like me who were hiding something about themselves from everyone around them, even those they loved,” Mangels says. “It’s that element of ‘I’m hiding something that’s really wonderful, but it sets me apart from what everybody thinks is normal.”
However, the X-Men aren’t the only comic book superheroes gay fans identify with, Mangels says. The colorful medium also allows gay men to admire campy female heroines, appreciate healthy male relationships and gawk at taut, muscular bodies enveloped in tight Lycra costumes.
A yellow cab stops in front of the Jacob Javits Center, where the New York Comic Con — a tradeshow featuring superhero legends, comic book artists and devoted fans — is taking place. Inside the vehicle, Batman pulls thick, black gloves off his arms and searches for a twenty dollar bill. He finds the money folded over the credit cards he had hidden in a pouch tucked behind his bat-encrusted utility belt and hands it to the taxi driver.
“Thank you,” Batman mutters in a deep voice as he opens the passenger door. The rubber suit — with faux muscles lining his chest, abdominals, legs and arms — literally covers his 6-foot-5 frame from head to toe. Only his square jaw peeks out from beneath the black, rubber cowl covering his head and neck. The pale skin around his eyes has been lathered with a thick, black make-up and seems to blend with the dark mask.
The secret identity of the man in the batsuit isn’t Bruce Wayne of fictional Gotham City, but native New Yorker and local Gay League member, Ray DeForest.
DeForest has been reading comics since he was 5 years old and has always admired the ethical and iconic superheroes. During childhood vacations to the New Jersey shore DeForest would imagine Aquaman, his favorite superhero, frolicking under the salty waves and trying to save the Seven Seas from harm.
As a swimmer, DeForest identified with Aquaman but also admired the rippling muscles that covered the fictional character’s frame. Even before DeForest consciously admitted his sexuality to himself, he would look at Aquaman’s strapping body with approval. “I just thought he was hot. A blond, buff, single guy living underwater,” DeForest laughs of his adolescent attraction. “He was just hot and sexy. I thought they all were [attractive], but I really thought he was.”
Superheroes also helped DeForest, now 47, accept his own burgeoning sexuality during his teen years. “Watching male superheroes with other male superheroes having such a close-knit bond was something you hoped to have in your life,” he says of the beefy and extremely masculine men he saw in his Superman and Justice League of America comics.
Although comic books have introduced gay metaphors and have often provided an outlet for budding sexuality, openly gay superheroes appeared only in underground and independent comics until the 1990s. Gay Comics, which Mangles edited from 1991 to 1998, addressed homosexuality but generally didn’t reach mainstream comic fans. A slew of other superheroes hinted at homosexuality, but none openly admitted to being gay until March 1992 when Marvel “outed” Northstar, one of its Canadian characters.
In Alpha Flight No. 106, Northstar battles the angry Major Mapleleaf, whose gay son died of AIDS. Frustrated that his son’s death went unnoticed by the public, Mapleleaf sets out to destroy Northstar’s newly-adopted, HIV-positive infant daughter. As the duo tumbles from rooftops, slinging hard punches, Northstar reprimands his opponent. “Do not presume to lecture me on the hardships homosexuals must bear. No one knows them better than I,” the brawny Northstar booms as he swings a giant fist. “For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business — I AM GAY.” |
Mangels says this particular plot, although an important first step, was a likely gimmick to get a gay superhero into mainstream comics. “The Alpha Flight story was a major stepping point in the same way that ‘Philadelphia’ was a major stepping point for film,” he says. Mangels also notes that the first mainstream gay superheroes, including Northstar, were typically written by straight men for straight men. “People who were gay and reading it were going, ‘Ugh,’” he explains. “But it’s going to mean something to [straight] comic readers, and it’s going to have an effect. From that perspective, I really have to say hurrah to [the writers]. I don’t regret those stories one iota for what they were trying to accomplish.”
Gay superheroes, although still a minority, now appear more regularly in the colorful panels of mainstream comic books. Wildstorm’s Apollo and Midnighter not only fight for justice but are married and have adopted a daughter, and DC’s Green Lantern hired a gay intern, who was brutally attacked by angry homophobes in 2002. Now, the Gay League Web site lists nearly 60 openly gay male characters in mainstream comics.
Across the crowded conventional hall, 41-year-old Tom Savini digs through a box labeled “DC 50s thru 70s,” hoping to find a comic featuring a brief appearance by Zatanna, a magical superheroine who often teams up with members of the Justice League of America. “I’m going to geek out for a second,” he says reaching into his pocket. He pulls a 3-by-5-inch index card from his wallet and glances at the comic book shopping list he prepared especially for this convention. Savini turns back to the box and within seconds produces a faded Detective Comics booklet. A 12-cent bubble floats in the upper corner, announcing the original selling price, and a teasing headline scrawled across the cover declares, “Batman’s Life Hanging by a Thread!”
“I’m not a big Batman fan,” Savini says, carefully unwrapping the clear cellophane enveloping the 1966 comic book, “but Zatanna makes an appearance.” Savini gingerly flips through the fragile pages until he spots a drawing of the female magician. He smiles, delighted he has found one of the comics on his list, and slips it back into the plastic protector. Savini is on a mission to find each comic book that features an appearance of the Legion’s many superheroes. When he gets home, he’ll add the inky booklet to the collection of 40,000 comics he’s been assembling since childhood.
Savini, another Gay League member, started reading comics when he was seven years old and quickly fell in love with DC’s Justice League of America and Marvel’s Fantastic Four, among other superhero titles. Twenty-two years before he came out, eight-year-old Savini would look at the muscular bodies of Superman and Invisible Kid and think there was something fascinating about the strong abdominals and pectorals. “It was just, ‘Mmmm. There’s something interesting there,” he says.
Later, when he was in his teens, Savini would admire the anatomy of these perfect men in tights and appreciate the sexiness of the artwork. “It was more like looking at spandex or looking at nude bodies just colored,” he says. “The [costumes] were form-fitting and [the superheroes were] drawn to be visually enticing.” But Savini wasn’t ready to admit his sexuality to himself or to his family and depended on the safe environment comic books created. The cartoon images were hardly pornographic but were still erotic, and the closeness of the characters contributed to his fantasies.
His favorite male characters, including the youthfully handsome Invisible Kid, often appeared shirtless, and Savini enjoyed gazing at their semi-nude bodies. “It both was emotionally safer and socially safer to look at something like that,” Savini says. “If you’re a teenager and not even facing the thought that you might be gay, going in and buying a Playgirl magazine [is] saying pretty strongly, ‘I’m putting some effort into looking at the naked male body.’” Depending on the colorful booklets was just another way Savini says he denied his sexuality, but at the time, it helped him deal with these new erotic feelings. “You can trick yourself or fool yourself…and perpetuate denial by saying ‘I’m just reading a comic book,’” he says. “That’s easier for the psyche to process, but it’s still denial.”
While Savini admires Invisible Kid and DeForest looks to Aquaman, some gay fans gawk at a female superhero for inspiration. To them, Wonder Woman isn’t just the Princess of Peace, but the Queen of Camp.
Diana, the 6-foot-tall Amazon princess, embodies everything that many gay men look for in a female superhero. Phil Jimenez, a DC creator who wrote and drew Wonder Woman from 2000 until 2003, says her commitment to love and peace combined with her beauty and strength makes her an iconic camp figure. The flamboyant star-spangled panties and corset, golden crown and indestructible silver bracelets only add to her appeal.
Of course, most gay fans are looking to the image Lynda Carter immortalized in the 1970s television series “Wonder Woman” rather than the character in the pulpy comic books, says Jimenez, an openly gay creator. “Most of my gay friends who dig Wonder Woman dig her…because of their memories from the TV show,” he says. “There’s a certain fun and fabulousness [about her]. I hate using that word, but it’s really true, and I think gay men are really into that.”
Although the television show launched more than 30 years after Diana’s debut in All Star Comics No. 8, Jimenez says the beautiful, wise, physically strong and independent superheroine portrayed by Carter is strikingly similar to the original Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston in the early 1940s. “It was so on target, and you just don’t get that in comic adaptations anymore,” Jimenez says of the program. “They so nailed her and the spirit of the character in every sense.”
Candis Cayne, a transgendered performer in New York City, didn’t read comics growing up but has been perfecting the Wonder Woman spin since she was three years old. The glamorous Amazon, or “glamazon,” Cayne saw on TV immediately became her favorite childhood superhero. Now, Cayne stands just shy of 5-feet-11-inches but towers well over 6-feet in heels. “As an adult, I identify with her because, ya know, I’m kind of Wonder Womany,” she says. “I am larger-than-life and glamazon myself.”
On Saturday nights at the Viceroy bar in Chelsea, Cayne ends her hour-long cabaret act to the “Wonder Woman” theme song. As the music blares throughout the narrow bar, Cayne mimics the spin Carter made famous in 1976. Gay men clap jubilantly and sing along. “In your satin tights, fighting for your rights and the old red, white and bluuuueeee,” they shout as Cayne runs out of the bar and into the middle of Eighth Avenue, where she continues to revolve with her arms straight out.
“People actually ask for it,” she laughs. “It’s really just me running down the street, but there’s something about me doing it…that people really [love].”
A thick circle of comic fans surround DeForest on the convention hall floor, drawn to the intricate Batman costume. Most admirers request to take a photo or touch the rubber cape. Others just gawk. “God. He looks just like Batman,” one man says to wife. His eyes linger on the black rubber chest, and he lowers his voice, “Damn. It even has batnipples!”
The batsuit, fashioned after George Clooney’s superhero uniform in the movie “Batman & Robin,” took DeForest a full year and about $2,500 to create. With help from a friend who worked on the 1997 flick, DeForest built the suit to mimic every muscle, every curve and every indent on the original rubber and Lycra outfit — right down to the nipples that protrude from the caped crusader’s chest. His partner made a Robin costume from the same film for an equivalent cost. When the couple dressed-up as Batman and Robin for Halloween in 2005, they made nearly $10,000 winning costume contests all over Manhattan. DeForest and his partner also plan on throwing a superhero-themed wedding when they get married.
Although their rendition of Batman and Robin is full of homosexual tones, the comic world has debated the sexual orientation of the original characters since Fredric Wertham launched his attack on comic books in the 1950s. In his book, Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham accused Batman and Robin of being lovers and instigated a U.S. Congressional investigation into the connection between juvenile delinquency and comics. Then, in the 1960s, Batman and Robin were revived in a campy TV series. Their suspiciously close relationship combined with flamboyant costumes launched a frenzy of speculation about their sexualities. Savini, however, doubts the comic version of Batman even thinks about sex. “I can’t believe I’m thinking about this,” he says with a smile. “[Batman] is more like a monk. It just wouldn’t happen that he would have sex with anyone…If he is gay, he’s extremely repressed.”
Still, DeForest predicted that gay men would respond in awe to his statuesque form enveloped in black rubber and Lycra. “I expected gay guys to go, ‘Wow, wow, wow,” he says. Some men smile and check out the rippling abdominals and section below the bat-encrusted belt buckle, but it’s the female fans that surprised DeForest the most.
“Women are pigs,” he chuckles. “They grab my ass. They grab my [crotch].” During Halloween weekend, one woman howled in laughter as she reached under the batcape and dug her fingers into the rubber covering DeForest’s bottom. “She said, ‘That will make you smile,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Uh, no, but it will make me sick.’”
DeForest roams the convention hall floor, which is crammed to capacity with thousands of fans. Some people shout out to him, “Hi, Batman!” Others whisper as he weaves through the crowd. As DeForest poses for a photo with a chubby kid wearing a bright yellow Batman tee-shirt, a short man with a protruding gut whispers to his friend, “The whole nipple thing is so gay.”
If he only knew.Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Infinite Crisis Critical Analysis
By Chris Tamarri
The sixth issue of Infinite Crisis ends with an oddly resonant image. The hero lies dying in the rubble, his costume tattered save for the iconic emblem he wears on his chest. The woman he loves kneels over him. His colleagues frame the scene, unaccustomed to not being able to save the day. The hero dies having defeated the bad guy at the cost of his own life. Here, the hero is Superboy Conner Kent, his antagonist a Superboy from another world, the inconceivable threat he’s prevented the reconstitution of Earth at the hands of an extradimensional — still another other — Lex Luthor. Twelve years ago, the hero was Superman, his antagonist the mindless monster Doomsday, the avoided danger simple and absolute destruction. It’s curious that Infinite Crisis should reference the “Doomsday” storyline in such a way at this point in its narrative arc, totemic as it is of everything that we’re told is wrong with these characters and a generation’s worth of their history. “Doomsday” and its influence was what Infinite Crisis was supposed to repair, not something it revered.
“The last time you really inspired anyone,” Batman famously tells the long-resurrected Superman, “was when you were dead.” The reason that line was such a lightning rod was two-fold. On the character level, it was a(nother) levee-break in the relationship between the two heroes, something that has inexplicably excited fandom since the mold version in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. But the subtext was more compelling; less an indictment of Superman by Batman, it was more a comment on years’ worth of editorial direction and the confused consumers that supported it by writer Geoff Johns. The implication was that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the other characters who color their world had, under the pen of various poorly and inappropriately motivated scribes, lost their way. Infinite Crisis, therefore, was a map, an exciting premise if an arguably unnecessary one. Now that the story’s over, now that we’ve had some time to digest and let things settle, what are we to make of the fact that it’s led almost exactly back where we were?
Like Crisis on Infinite Earths and the nearly forgotten interstitial Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis is a patch job. In those two prior series, though, the focus was practical, the primary interest in retroactively reconciling the often contradictory histories of characters like Hawkman, Donna Troy, the Justice Society and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Infinite Crisis concerns itself more with ideology. “This is what the world does to legends,” laments the first issue’s omniscient narrator, later revealed as the Earth-2 Superman. “It corrupts themÉ or it destroys them.” Later, recounting the story of the original Crisis and thereafter for Power Girl (and for less historically minded readers), he says, “This new Earth was anything but better. A darkness seemed to spread. Warping the heroes’ lives. Some died. Others lost their way. We watched for years, hoping everyone would find inspiration again. But as we continued to look onÉ things got worse.” These musings are accompanied by a kaleidoscope of flashpoint images from the DC Universe’s post-Crisis history: Bane breaking Batman’s back, from the “Knightfall” storyline; a power-mad and genocidal Hal Jordan, from “Emerald Twilight”; Sue Dibny’s funeral, from Identity Crisis; Maxwell Lord’s murder of Blue Beetle and Wonder Woman’s murder of Maxwell Lord, from the Countdown special and the subsequent “Sacrifice” storyline, respectively.
But in this context the first image in this montage, of Batman holding Jason Todd’s dead body from the “Death in the Family” storyline, is probably the most evocative. The association of this scene with the idea of “things getting worse” is as close as Johns gets to a direct condemnation of the reader; remember that the story is well-known both for its conclusion and the fact that it was decided, via hotline, by its readers. As much as anyone, they (we!) were responsible for the death of Jason Todd and the ensuing attitudes the decision promoted. It’s almost as though we’re invited to atone for our sins through our conception of the central choice in Infinite Crisis.
Assuming for the moment that these characters have gotten away from themselves, that their editorial directions — or, diagetically, their decisions — since Crisis on Infinite Earths have been misguided at best, what’s the best way to make reparations? Is it necessary to begin again with a tabula rasa, as the Earth-2 Superman wants to do with a reinstatement of his world? Or is it enough just to recognize that mistakes were made and endeavor to avoid them in the future, as status quo-minded readers — not to mention the heroes who don’t want life as they know it to end — might be inclined toward? By aligning themselves with one eventuality or another, both of which are at various points in the series presented as valid to the point of inevitability, by championing a return to a more objective sense of right-and-wrong (and its exaction), the reader can make reparations for consumptive indiscretions that allowed such sensibilities to become muddied. What’s unclear throughout, and even to an extent after, is which is the preferable conclusion. Associated with the maniacal solipsism of that Earth-3 Lex Luthor, the plan to reinstitute Earth-2, and thereafter the multiverse of pre-Crisis DC, is connotatively repellent. But one gets the sense that the idea, absent the motives of its fictional executors (or the real-life demands of publishing) is fundamentally preferable.
For his part, Johns slyly tries to have his cake and eat it, leaving us at the story’s end with the establishment of “New Earth,” one that remembers its history since the original Crisis except, of course, for those insufficiently inspirational bits. In Identity Crisis, the series that instigated the DC Universe’s overarching narrative for the couple years leading up to Infinite Crisis, the central moral question is whether “mind-wiping” — that is, the magic-fueled theft of information from the memory, or a repositioning of particular character traits for prominence — is an acceptable means of ensuring general well-being. Despite hints, Identity writer Brad Meltzer refuses to offer a definite opinion on the issue, leaving the reader to his own conclusions. As it turns out, “mind-wiping” is an apt metaphor for what Johns does to his fictional Earth and its inhabitants by the end of Infinite Crisis, thus suggesting the final word on the morality of the act, as least as a general editorial policy. It’s an odd dichotomy that in order to set up a context where situational ends-justifying-the-means maintenance of justice becomes acquiescent to absolute and instinctive moralism, Johns has to resort to the same underhanded utilitarianism that’s emblematic of these characters’ ethical decline.
The most disappointing conclusion is that Infinite Crisis, in employing some of the same techniques that it decries, is hypocritical, even opportunistic. The series contains numerous moments of breathtaking brutality of the sort that seem to exemplify the “grim ‘n’ gritty” ’90s during which so many of these problematic stories were published. Of course, decrying superhero comics for their violence comes perilously close to forest-and-trees territory, but it’s not simply that Infinite Crisis is violent, not just that it’s a story driven by good guys talking to bad guys, with fists. It’s the nature of this physical aggression, and more specifically its permanence, that makes it worth consideration. Bruises heal; decapitations don’t.
As early as the seventh page of the first issue, we’re forced to confront the matter, when a wayward OMAC unit, operating on some “scorched Earth” directive initiated by the death of Maxwell Lord, incinerates the villain known as the Ratcatcher. Everything about the way this moment is presented seems to indicate that it’s nothing worth worrying about. The Ratcatcher is hardly a marquee player, no one that the average reader will miss. He’s not even in 2004’s DC Comics Encyclopedia (as some indication of measure, on the page where he would have appeared are the Golden Age Sandman nemesis Ramulus and Colonel Rajak, a Bialyan dictator from Joe Casey’s run on Adventures of Superman). He first appears on the page in the fourth panel, and dies on the sixth, in the bottom left-hand corner of the right-hand page. (Even the placement of his death is diminishing, intentionally or not.) Turn the page, you see a double-page spread of Nightwing, poised on a BlŸdhaven rooftop, the sky filled with what must be hundreds of OMAC units. Turn the page again, there’s another two-pager, this time depicting the events in lead-in miniseries Rann/Thanagar War. By the time conventional storytelling patterns return on page 45, you’ve completely forgotten about the Ratcatcher, despite his incredibly violent death, despite the fact that the sanctity of life is one of the primary themes of Infinite Crisis.
This is hardly the sole example of extreme violence in the series, and disarmingly, much of it is committed by our heroes. “[The Earth-3 Lex Luthor has] shown me so many thing the people you work with have done,” Earth-2 Superman tells Power Girl in the second issue. “To their adversaries. And to each other. They alter minds. They kill.” Infinite Crisis bears out his assessment. In the third issue, Aquaman impales Black Manta. In the sixth, Black Adam — a hero in name, if a flawed one in nature, who had recently fought by the side of the JSA — pokes out Psycho Pirate’s eyes, like a Bizarro Three Stooges bit, and keeps pushing till the Pirate’s head turns to jelly. In that same issue, the Spectre, summoned for aid by a cabal of magically inclined heroes, takes issue with the presence of one among them, exploding Star Sapphire for her “hatred of men [which] has resulted in the torturous deaths of hundreds.” Despite the gravity of both Sapphire’s sins, though, and the Spectre’s abrupt judgment thereof, the moment’s played for black humor, as punctuated by a pithy one-liner from Sebastian Faust.
Then there’s the problem of the Earth-Prime Superboy, certainly the most egregious perpetrator of physical cruelty in the series. He finally snaps in the fourth issue, going on a bender that leaves the Titans literally in pieces. Pantha is decapitated, Baby Wildebeest has a hole punched in him, Red Star is frozen solid, Risk is dismembered and Bushido is halved before Superboy is dragged off-panel by a cavalcade of Flashes (including, in a nostalgia-baiting nod to the original Crisis, Barry Allen). All of this occurs in the span of a few pages, a breathtaking display of callousness on the character’s part, if not his writer’s. When he returns a couple issues later, it’s at the cost of Connor Kent’s life.
In the series finale, he wanders desensitized through a warzone, casually bypassing more physical atrocity — including Bane snapping Judomaster on his knee, another callback to that preferably forgotten era — and causing more of his own. “I still can’t tell the heroes from the villains,” he laments as he twists the neck of one unidentified character while tossing heat vision over his shoulder to explode another. His final solution is to head for Oa, once and maybe again the center of the universe, to reenact the Big Bang, better to risk chaos from an uncontrolled beginning than to let this be the end. He’s stopped, temporarily, by a host of Green Lanterns, many of whom die off-panel, identified only by numbers, and is ultimately apprehended by the two Supermans — “our” version, the post-Crisis resident of, at this point, New Earth, and the one from Earth-2 — who fight him to the ground on Mogo, the living planet Green Lantern. (It gets sillier the more you have to namedrop, doesn’t it?)
That final battle of the Supermen is a blur of red and yellow and blue that gradually gets redder as it progresses, to the point where context-maintaining dialogue is the only way to tell which hero — or “hero” — is which. It’s the series’ most chilling moment, its most distressing, and oddly enough, its most ideologically instructive (albeit not intentionally so). Instinctively, comic book readers have been trained to recognize Superman as the ultimate good guy, his motives inarguably pure, his actions almost incorruptible. Earlier in the series, when the post-Crisis Superman finally confronts the Earth-2 Superman for the future of Earth(s), it’s a challenging moment for the readers, inevitably confused about where their loyalties might lie (both men are clearly motivated by selflessness and social responsibility, even if we’re meant to think of the Earth-2’s version as misguided in action). Mercifully, it’s a brief indiscretion, the two quickly moving from adversaries to allies against the traitorous Lex Luthor.
But this culminating scene, Superman and Superman vs. Superboy, isn’t as forgiving. It’s clear the Superboy has murder on the mind, that unless he’s stopped he’ll have broken the lives of two Supermen. As for the good guys, it seems likely that in order to contain their quarry they’ll have to resort to ultimate sanctions themselves, a supposition supported by the scene’s raw violence. Although the deus ex machina arrival of the Green Lantern Corps prevents that mortal consideration from becoming more than academic, we’re still left with the ideological problem presented throughout the fight. We’re forced to consider a premise that gives rise to some disorienting symbolism: Superman both dead (again) and a murderer (again). This character, irrespective of his variances, is supposed to be the template, the keystone. But his philosophy is shaken almost irreparably, in this scene and in numerous preceding moments, especially puzzling given the mandate of Infinite Crisis to repair and restore.
Incidentally, there’s the added issue here of what might be called, for lack of a narrower term, metafiction. This version of Superboy, remember, came from Earth-Prime, the same variant universe that contained every reader of DC Comics past and present. Within the conceit of the Multiverse, this version of Superboy could have literally been your neighbor or mine. Thus, it’s possible to make a particularly strong connection between the character’s attitudes and Johns’ perception of our own. Superboy is motivated at a most basic level by the restoration of that which was to him most familiar. He wants the world to be as believes it should be, as he remembers it once was. It’s probably unnecessary to point out that that’s a criticism easily applied to the average reader of superhero comics, a constituency well known for its adherence to history and continuity. What’s especially problematic is the character’s portrayal and selfish, childish, petulant, ignorant of the cost of achieving what he wants and completely disinterested in learning as much. It may be too much to assume that this was an active insult on the part of the writer of his audience, but even discounting the idea of knowing execution from Johns, the sentiment remains. In a different manner, the idea of culpability on the readers’ part for the characters’ misdirection is suggested. Again, Infinite Crisis suggests that we didn’t know what we asked for, nor what would come once we got it.
Infinite Crisis begins its sentimental through-line with Superman, but it continues more evocatively in the other two members of what’s been called the “trinity,” Batman and Wonder Woman. As the latter is the most philosophically malleable of the three, it’s understandable that hers is the most complete character arc within the miniseries proper. When the first issue begins, the reader sees the fallout of the events of the “Sacrifice” storyline, in which the Amazon snapped the neck of Maxwell Lord in order to prevent Superman, under Lord’s mentally controlled sway, from killing Batman. The central question posed by the story was whether or not the killing was justified; though Wonder Woman was irrefutably responsible for Lord’s death, “Sacrifice” asks whether it was murder, or an understandable, if regrettable, version of preventative justice.
Unfortunately, that subtle consideration is abandoned between that storyline (written by DCU co-architect Greg Rucka) and Infinite Crisis. The first scene of the series features Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman standing in the ruins of the JLA’s ruined Watchtower headquarters, arguing over the validity of Wonder Woman’s decision. The scene of Wonder Woman’s sanction had been recorded by Lord’s artificially intelligent ally Brother Eye and broadcast across the world, engendered a general sense of distrust for Diana specifically and her colleagues implicitly. “They’re scared of us,” Superman tells Wonder Woman. “They’re scared of us because of you. ÉDon’t you understand? They all watched you. They all watched you murder a man.” Superman’s verbiage seems to leave no doubt as to his assessment of Diana’s actions, and subsequent events imply Johns’ concurrence with the attitude.
Shortly, the three find themselves under attack by the opportunistic villain Mongul, who, following a perfunctory slugfest, is subdued. “He’s down,” Superman tells an anxious Batman. “Good,” says Wonder Woman, leaping onto panel with her sword raised above her head, aimed at Mongul’s. It seems clear that if not for the quick intercession of Superman, Mongul would have been dead at Wonder Woman’s hand. On a superficial level, this is an extension of Diana’s attitude in “Sacrifice.” Both Maxwell Lord and Mongul were threats to these heroes and the people they protect, and Wonder Woman’s mortal dispatch of each would — or theoretically did — constitute an act of protection, or the warrior’s version thereof. But Maxwell Lord’s threat was portrayed as immediate; if Wonder Woman hadn’t killed the villain, Batman would have died at Superman’s unwitting hands within a matter of seconds. In Infinite Crisis, however, Mongul was no immediate threat; the villain was contained before Wonder Woman moved to strike. And while there’s a strong argument that Mongul would have eventually returned to compromise the safety of his adversaries, there is here no sense that that is immediately imminent. It’s possible that other, more humane, preventions could have been taken.
There are a couple explanations for Wonder Woman’s behavioral inconsistency, neither of them very encouraging. The simplest explanation is that these two scenes were written by two different writers, each with their own sense of Diana’s character. Although this could be disappointing, especially given the attention to editorial coherence that was paid in the stories leading from Identity Crisis and to Infinite Crisis, this is perhaps understandable, attributable to simple human error. The more puzzling explanation is that Wonder Woman’s portrayal in Infinite Crisis is a considered evolution from Geoff Johns, her response to Mongul borne out of the same mindset as her response to Maxwell Lord. Again, the reader is presented with a sensibility defined by a realistic lack of absolutism, something that Infinite Crisis was meant to extinguish. The touchstone of the post-Infinite Crisis DC Universe, at least as suggested by the series itself, was a clear demarcation of “good” and “evil” — or more specifically, given the constraints of the genre, good guys and bad guys — a renunciation of utilitarian moralism as concessionary, imperfect. But in Infinite Crisis, Wonder Woman is portrayed as a good guy who does bad things for good reason, too close to a moral for the series’ comfort.
Eventually, Wonder Woman realizes this herself, and in the final issue demonstrates her epiphany in a fittingly dramatic fashion. After having finally unveiled the duplicity of the Earth-3 Lex Luthor, Batman confronts the villain, beating him into submission before aiming a handgun lost by the villain Deathstroke at Luthor’s head (an incredibly evocative moment for Batman that requires, and will have, its own consideration). Before Batman can fire, though, he’s interrupted by Wonder Woman. The heroine unsheathes her sword — the same, presumably, that she’d swung at Mongul’s head seven issues prior — and breaks the blade in two. “It’s not worth it,” she tells Batman, indicating a philosophical break and inviting the reader to share in her revelation. The problem is that the reader is given little by which to track the development of this attitude. Considering that Wonder Woman is one of the symbolic pillars of the series, at that her terminal sentiment is in many ways the story’s moral, the abruptness of her subscription is troubling.
Infinite Crisis really only features two potentially influential moments for the heroine. Early in the series, Wonder Woman suggests that her family, the Amazon women of Paradise Island, leaves her plane of existence to escape further reprisal for her killing of Maxwell Lord at the hands of his OMAC army. Later in the series, she is confronted by her multiversal counterpart, Diana Prince of Earth-2, who tells her “You’ve been a princess, a goddess, an ambassador and a warrior. But the one thing you haven’t been for a very long time is human.” As to what this might mean for the character, Diana Prince enigmatically states that, “Despite all of the flaws within humanity, there are just as many strengths. Remind them of that.” On one hand, these seem to forgive the sins of these characters for their post-Crisis behavior (and their creators, and the readers for supporting it with their wallets). On the other, though, it reintroduces the idea of moral murkiness, that even a character who is meant to be an icon of right (as versus wrong) can be guilty of being misguided and mistaken, even dangerous and destructive. Still, Wonder Woman leaves the series with a greater sense of her role in the world she inhabits, as the reader is meant to better understand the new nature of that world that he inhabits for 22 pages at a time. The question is whether or not that better understanding is actually present, after all that.
The counterpoint to Diana’s evolution is Batman, who, as demonstrated in that aforementioned culminating moment, seems to undergo a devolution as the series progresses. It’s understandable that this character is the least redeveloped of the three, since his philosophy is the most easily defined. He is a victim of violent and random crime, and as such, wants to prevent any more innocent people from being likewise victimized. But it’s in the execution that the character starts to become discontinuous, subject to the vagaries of sensibility superimposed by individual writers. At one end of the spectrum is the grizzled, robotic honed-to-perfection of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, the echo of which can be heard distinctly twenty years later. At the other is the absurdity of the ’60s television show, absent the suspension of disbelief necessary to take the character on his own ridiculous terms (albeit ones no more ridiculous than the genre expects).
One of the few consistent motifs from one interpretation to another, though, one of the most shockingly violated, is that Batman, as a victim of gun violence, hates guns. So clearly, when the character pulls a gun on Luthor at the series’ climax, it’s meant to be a moment that casts into relief the readers’ assumptions about the character. (It could be argued that the indiscretion of standard is an example of misunderstanding on the writer’s part, that he simply doesn’t get it, whatever “it” is, but that argument’s unnecessarily churlish. Whatever an individual reader’s interpretation of Johns’s goals, or his execution, it seems clear that the writer has a legitimate affection for and grasp of these characters. As a writer, Johns is nothing if not historically minded.)
Frankly, it’s difficult to say what this moment, and the immediate development of the character that leads up unto, is meant to suggest about the series’ primary themes. Is the reader meant to assume that Batman, in finally giving in, has crossed the line from justice to vengeance? He does, after all, ask Luthor rhetorically, “What do you deserve,” a curious question suggesting more a punitive impulse than Batman’s ostensibly preventatively minded motivation. Or is the fact that Batman, at Wonder Woman’s suggestion, refuses to be the sole judge of Luthor’s crimes a reinforcement of his fundamental ideas? The fact that either is an equally valid possibility leaves the story — or at least Batman’s role therein — with a disorienting lack of finality.
Taken on its own merits as a seven-issue, self-contained series, a deficit of ideological clarity is Infinite Crisis’s most glaring problem, a noticeable divorce between theory and practice further complicating the issue. Through the Earth-2 Superman, Johns decries the editorial direction of a generation’s worth of stories, issues like sensational violence and moral ambiguity compromising characters that are supposed to be morally exemplary. However, Infinite Crisis applies both of these techniques as narrative and thematic pillars. Is it that Infinite Crisis, as a cap to that sort of editorial inclination, must use these techniques in order to drain them of their iconographic volume, possibly an understandable course of action? Or is it that such tonality identifies confusion on the part of the story’s creators, one somewhere between inattentiveness and hypocrisy? Certainly, such elements aren’t fundamentally necessary to the execution of a superhero story. Or at least they weren’t; Johns, in referencing the history of the genre, demonstrates as much. Perhaps as much as Johns would have it otherwise, this sort of sensationalism more closely mirroring reality is what the readers of superhero comics want right now, and to try and convince them otherwise is a waste of editorial efforts. It’s impossible to say now whether attitudes have shifted, whether the inclinations of the readership, acting as much as possible as an individual entity, intersect with Johns’ own. Until time has passed and a legitimately objective vantage is available, it’ll remain so. For now, Infinite Crisis must remain a benchmark of its time, representing not so much what we thought as the fact that we didn’t really want to think about it.Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Buy The Numbers: ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #100
IN THE CROSSHAIRS: ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #100 (shipping September 2006)
Hola! And welcome back to BUY THE NUMB3RS! I’m Marc Mason, owner and Dark Prince of The Comics Waiting Room. Each month in this space, I take a look at a soon-to-arrive comic and attempt to predict how many copies it will sell. This month’s contestant: Ultimate Spidey hits the century mark!.
That’s right, in seemingly no time at all, the Ultimate line of comics has produced its first book to reach 100 issues. Relying on Brian Bendis’ penchant for writing ahead, and artist Mark Bagley’s stunning speed and professionalism, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN has managed to produce an average of more than twelve issues a year for the past few years. Wonderful, amazing stuff. Hats off to ‘em; the duo is about to move past Stan and Jack’s FANTASTIC FOUR run in terms of issues produced, and in today’s market, that’s no mean feat.
The question is, however, whether or not the book is still accomplishing its mission. The Ultimate line was begun in an effort to make continuity-free takes on classic characters, and takes that might be friendlier to younger readers. Certainly, USM achieved this brilliantly when it began. Much of Bendis and Bags’ first storyline found its way into the first SPIDER-MAN film. But in a very short amount of time a lot of water has vanished beneath the bridge. Even as slow as some of Bendis’ pacing can be, a huge chunk of continuity has built up surrounding the young Spidey and his friends, not to mention the number of trade paperback volumes it would take buying in order to catch up. In short, this is a philosophical struggle: how to keep the book new-reader friendly versus servicing the same 76K readers who faithfully buy every issue that hits the shelves.
Sales for ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #97, published in July 2006 and the latest one for which sales data is available: 76,712. Good, strong number. Nothing to sneeze at, and most creators would kill for that kind of number..
Sales for ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #80, published in July 2005: 76,906. See how steady that is? That’s pretty amazing considering the volatility of the market.
Sales for ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #62, published in July 2004: 98,963. This, however, is where it gets problematic. That’s a HUGE drop between here and July 2005. Huge. Bleeding this many readers in a year is generally cause for panic. Fortunately, the title seemed to hit the brakes and find itself between 2005-06. Still… ouch, ouch, ouch. The creative team’s wallets much have felt like they were mugged.
Sales for NEW AVENGERS #22, written by Bendis, published in July 2006, and the latest one for which sales data is available: 124,617. Monstrous. Most creators in their lifetimes will never have a book that sells this many copies. Sacrifices to gods are usually required.
Sales for NEW AVENGERS #7, written by Bendis and published in July 2005: 158,693. Yet… this sort of sales downswing is generally considered disastrous. Or at the very least, it causes the marketing staff to gain a whole new round of ulcers. Did the book get 34K copies worse between here and 2006? Or was it always a case of people hoping for better and realizing that it wasn’t going to come?
Sales for POWERS #19, written by Bendis, published in July 2006, and the latest one for which sales data is available: 23,156. Perfectly respectable number for a creator-owned book, especially one aimed at the mature reader audience.
Sales for POWERS #12, written by Bendis and published in August 2005 (there was no issue in July 2005): 30,290. The drop between here and 2006 is kinda steep. The book has been fairly consistent in quality since it began, so I’m chalking this up to retailer indifference and more people waiting on the trade paperbacks.
You’ll notice that I left out other books that involved Bagley. There’s a reason for that: beyond throwing a few pages into ALIAS and a couple of other books in the past couple of years, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN has been the only place to find his work. The man has been so dedicated to his craft, and this book, for so long that it’s simply wondrous. But all good things come to an end, and Bags is leaving USM with issue #110. Anyone stepping into his shoes is in for an uphill climb, no question about it. I’ve loved his work as far back as his NEW WARRIORS days, so I tip my cap to him. Mark Bagley is a special talent, and an underappreciated one to boot.
As to ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #100? As an anniversary issue, and a book back in the headlines with Bags’ exit, I think it will get a nice bump with this issue. Call it: 93,000, give or take a few.
FOLLOWING UP: Column four featured my guess at WITCHBLADE #100. My guess for total orders was 35,000.
ICV2 has released final sales numbers for July, and the total pre-orders for the book came to: 33,832. We have a WINNER! That’s right folks, I got one! My first… I’m so proud. So to the legions of chronic wankers who went the extra mile to look smart, I say “thanks… and please wash your hands before we meet.”Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Interview with Ed Brubaker
by Laura Hudson
Ed Brubaker is a wanted man. Not wanted on suspicion of any charges — not these days, anyway — but wanted as a popular, acclaimed writer of comics, from smaller, indie publishers who took a chance on personal tales of wayward youth and criminal urges such as Lowlife and The Fall, to DC Comics, with strong work on Catwoman, Gotham Central and the creator-owned Sleeper, a double agent thriller set in the darkest, grittiest corner the Wildstorm Universe didn’t know it had. Since then, Brubaker has tried his hand at Marvel’s colorful, clay-footed heroes and villains, with runs on Captain America, The Uncanny X-Men, and now Ed Brubaker is about to unleash a new creator-owned book with his Sleeper collaborator Sean Phillips. But can a non-superhero crime book like Criminal get arrested in the direct market? And what’s this about Ed being influenced by Archie? Let’s find out.
In season one of Sleeper, one of the characters makes a veiled reference to Calvin and Hobbes, questioning why Bill Watterson didn’t merchandise his characters and cash in on his work. Holden answers that the creator already had all the money he needed, he was doing what he wanted, and that was enough for him. Is that the dream?
I think it might be. That was an actual conversation I had with a customer at a book store I used to work at in San Francisco that always stuck with me. He couldn’t understand why Watterson didn’t cash in bigger than the books and calendars that he let them put out. It’s something I’ve always found curious, how when people become successful, they’re rarely happy staying at a comfortable level. It’s like they get caught up in achieving more, and making more money. I mean, almost everyone is like that when they’re in debt, when you’re paying for your kid’s college, or paying off your house, but it seems to me, once you’ve paid off all debt and you’re still rich, if you’re doing what you want to, you should just kick back and do that. Why this constant need to strive for more success? At the same time, I think ten times more of Peanuts than I do Calvin and Hobbes, and Schulz completely merchandised the hell out of it, so I guess it doesn’t matter that much. I just thought it was an interesting discussion.
Do you have any specific career goals at this point? You have spoken before about the necessity of work-for-hire; do you see your work on books like Uncanny X-Men or Captain America as a stepping stone toward other goals, or are they the goals?
The goal is basically to make a decent living as a professional writer. Work-for-hire writing can be both creatively fulfilling and financially rewarding, whether people want to believe that or not. Even if I could make my living doing only stuff I completely owned, I’d probably still do some work-for-hire books, just for the fun of it, and to use different writing muscles. But the ultimate goal, yeah, is to be able to do creator-owned work that succeeds, which means it sells enough to keep doing it.
Both Deadly Genesis and Uncanny X-Men have seemed like a bit of a stylistic departure for you. Although the subject matter has been far from “light,” the gritty, pulpier tone that characterizes so much of your oeuvre seems curiously absent. Did you make a conscious effort to bring a different voice to your writing on the X-Men?
A bit, yeah. I want it to read like X-Men, not like me. I try to get into the voice of any company-owned book I write, instead of just morphing them into my voice. Generally, there’s some balance found between that, but with team books, it’s all about the characters, and creating these wildly over the top plots, not gritty pulp noir or espionage, so you bring a different part of your writing brain to it. You think it terms of longer term plotlines, and big beats, and then let the characters lead you through these stories. That’s how I do it, at least. Plus, with a book like (Uncanny) X-Men, that has so many characters with so many powers to show off, and so much soap opera in its history, you just can’t write it like you’ve never seen it before. You have to respect what people like about the X-Men, and just try to bring something good to it.
Xavier’s falling out with Cyclops, and the introduction of four new characters rife with fractured parental relationships, the theme of familial loss and betrayal looms large in your work on the X-Men, as it has in much of your other work. Is this theme something that you intentionally invoked, or did it find its way in subconsciously?
I think it gets in there on its own. It’s always been part of the X-Men, I think, though. Mutants are the outcasts, often orphans or runaways, or rejected by their families. But that’s just one of the classic themes of literature, from Oedipus Rex to Hamlet, family problems and tragedy.
First-person narrative crops up a lot in your writing, and seems a particular strength of yours. What attracts you to it?
I don’t know. I guess I got used to it with autobio stuff, and then reading a lot of mysteries, most are written in first person. I just like that it gets you right inside the characters. It’s also interesting because you can use a first person as an unreliable narrator, and use different first person view-points in a story. Jim Thompson wrote a crime novel like that, where each chapter was narrated by a different character, and I always thought that was a great idea.
Do you have any desire to draw again, either for your own projects or those of other writers?
Not really. I was always only happy with my drawing on the last few things I did. It was a real struggle, and I always felt very limited by my style, which was so informed by the Hernandez Brothers and Archie, that I didn’t feel I could draw all the stuff I wanted to write about. Sometimes I toy with the idea of trying to do something more cartoony, something more simple and fun, but I don’t have a burning desire. I always felt more like a writer who drew than the other way around.
How strongly does your background as an artist affect your process as a writer? What usually comes to you first as you write, the visuals or the dialogue? Do you ever sketch out the panels as you’re writing, or just visualize them in your mind?
I write scripts now the same as I did for myself. I tend to make an outline and then go through scene by scene and write the dialogue, then go back and add panel descriptions. I know what’s in the panels as I write the dialogue, but I like to keep the flow going when writing dialogue. And sometimes, because I’m doing all the descriptions at once for a few pages, I’ll come up with a more interesting idea to do visually over the text, like a series of panels instead of static shots. But it’s something I’ve always done. Most of the really hard thinking goes into the outlining stage, if I’m doing it right, and that’s where I try to think of any really great visual moments for the issue. But I think the fact that I grew up drawing comics as I wrote them makes my scripts easier for artists sometimes. I’ve been told my scripts are very easy for them to understand and see what I’m going for, because I don’t overload them with details.
Have you been reading (DC Comics’ current weekly event series) 52? As one of the co-writers of Gotham Central, are you glad to see Renee Montoya enjoying so much mainstream attention?
I read the first four or five, but there wasn’t enough of Montoya in it for me. But it is good to see her and Greg both getting those big gigs. I miss them both.
You once said that if you had the power, you’d cut half of Marvel and DC’s superhero titles and diversify them with other types of books. What would you like to see getting more play on the shelves right now?
Just anything of a different genre that’s actually good. My point with that was that the shelves are so crowded now that even a really great genre comic, like a crime or sci-fi comic, has trouble even making it onto them. And when Marvel or DC try to expand with different genres, they never think about clearing a path for the new work. In the old days, they had the newsstands, and they could only put out a flat number of comics a month, so if they wanted to do a western, they had to cancel something else to make room for it. But I think if half the superhero books (the ones I or my friends don’t write, obviously) suddenly disappeared, and Marvel and DC started putting out different genres than superheroes, they’d have a better shot with retailers, because there’d be room on the shelves. I mean, sure, maybe they’d still flop, but at least the retailers would be more inclined to give them a chance. The way it is now, any new thing is always in addition to everything else, so why would a retailer try something new if he’s already crowded with stuff he can barely afford? So, I’d just like to have more good horror, crime, western, humor, sci-fi… all sorts of pulp genre comics, and not so many superhero genre books. I’m not suggesting getting rid of superheroes, or saying they suck, or that I don’t enjoy writing them, because I clearly do, but I wouldn’t cry if suddenly there were only a hundred a month instead of two hundred. Especially if that was replaced with high-quality genre stuff with more diversity. And that’s not even about being an art snob, I just want some more pulp. Hell, I’m too optimistic, though. If Marvel and DC gave up that much shelf-space all at once, all those stores would just fill up on manga, which is both highly successful, and filled with every genre imaginable.
I’ve heard that you like Maison Ikkoku. Would you ever consider writing a romance or soap opera style comic? I’d pay good money to see that.
Yeah, I would love to write a romance comic. I have the beginnings of a outline for an epic romance comic in one of my notebooks that I might try to sell to a European publisher at some point. And I’d also love to spend a year or two writing Archie someday, as one long continuing story, instead of a bunch of vignettes. I think Jughead may be my all time favorite comic character other than Linus Van Pelt. But I think it’d be really interesting to try to write Archie as if it was a shojo manga, with continuing plotlines.
That’s interesting, because you described your own drawing style earlier as being strongly influenced by Archie. There isn’t any chance you would both write and draw a shojo Archie, is there? It’s more in the manga tradition, after all.
No, my drawing was never good enough for the manga editors, for sure. Those guys are insane about the details. If a character goes off-model in one panel, they cut your head off or something, I think. I did a story in Lowlife that was all the characters in an Archie-style story, drawn in that style, and it was a lot of fun, but I don’t think I’d try it again. I had to have a friend ink it to get that thick brushline, because at the time, I didn’t know how to ink with a brush.
You often deal with the notion of criminal ethics, the different moral code that can exist even among those who violate the law. Is being a villain about violating mainstream standards, or absolute moral fluidity?
I think it’s about living by a different code or believing yourself outside the system of rules and laws that are around us, really. The romantic part about being a criminal, at least. The reality is probably a lot more paranoid and ugly. But in fiction, the kind of criminal we all love is that good guy who just hates the system, which keeps the little guy down, and who makes his own rules. It’s about them doing something wrong for the right reasons, I think, why people love a good crook.
How do you think your approach to writing differs from your peers in the industry?
I don’t know. I don’t really know how anyone else approaches it. I just look at the characters, ones I’ve created, or ones I’ve been given the chance to write, and try to think of good stories to put them through, and stories that make sense for who they are, and the world they live in. And primarily, I try to think of stories that these characters want me to tell, or that really thinking and getting inside them makes me want to tell.
Are “bad guys” inherently more interesting for you to write? Do you identify with them more strongly than the “good guys”?
I’m not sure. I think they may be more interesting, because they give you a chance to go places you only even think of when you’re in your darkest places. Anything you’d ever think of, robbing a bank, killing your neighbor, are all things you can act out with the right characters.
What separates the heroes from the villains, in your mind? Do you know where the line lies between them, or are you looking for it too?
A true hero and a true villain are easy to tell apart, but what I’m interested in are the ones who blur the line. Or showing how even the best of heroes, like Captain America, has been through hell and that’s affected him more than most realize. I like tragic, fucked-up characters, and that’s probably why I’ve done so much better at Marvel, because that’s the world Stan Lee (along with many others) built.
What is it about broken heroes that interests you as a writer? Do you want to heal them, or take them apart, or just watch them?
I just think they’re more human. We all make mistakes and do things we regret later, and broken heroes are people who are haunted by those things, basically. I’ve got several things in my own past that give me nightmares sometimes, and so I identify with that, I think.
You’ve described some of the characters in Criminal as “noble criminals.” What separates the noble, redeemable anti-heroes from the scum and the lost causes? Do they just need to believe in something–anything?
I think it’s their ingrained humanism, probably. They don’t look at horror and violence and think ‘who cares?’ It’s like the Wild Bunch, the movie by Peckinpah, where yeah, they’re bad guys, but they die saving a village from people worse than them. I don’t know if that makes them redeemable, but it makes them more interesting to write about. Like, the star of the second arc in Criminal, one of the first scenes he’s got in the book is preventing some scumbag from assaulting a waitress at a bar. He’s got his own reasons for going after this guy, but that’s the tipping point.
In Sleeper, so much of the book focuses on issues of identity, on where you cross the line between good and evil and when the things you do become who you are. Should we expect the characters in Criminal to deal with the same kind of internal conflict that haunted Holden, or do they simply accept what they do?
They’re not struggling with who they are, because all of them are second or third generation criminals, raised in the life. Even the crooked cop in the series isn’t really struggling, because he’s a good cop most of the time, but he looks the other way and takes payoffs at the same time, and that’s just how it is.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since entering the comics industry?Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Write every day. I don’t always follow that, but it’s the only thing I’ve learned that matters.
Aubrey Sitterson: One Year Later
By Justin Jordan
One of the things that separates comics from, say, television is that most of the people watching television don’t seem to harbor a burning desire to work in television.
In the world of comics, on the other hand, it almost everybody who passes by a comic shop wants to work in the field. The big guys, and even the little guys, are swamped with people trying to break in as writers or artists, showing their work to any who’ll listen, and quite often those that won’t.
Comparatively few people want to break into the glamorous world of editing, despite the wealth and fame editing brings.
Editors are often just regarded as potential landing zones for submissions or the people behind the letter columns, and despite the increased presence of editors online through blogs and forums, editing is still one of the least understood aspects of producing comics.
We talked to Aubrey Sitterson, an assistant editor at Marvel Comics polishing off his first year, about what he does, how he ended up in purgatory..er, editing, and the sweet southern syrup of Robert Kirkman’s voice.
What did you study in college?
Initially, I arrived in New York ready to be a studious Philosophy major, concentrating in the continental philosophers. Pretty quickly, I realized that, while I enjoyed philosophy in small doses, it really wasn’t something that I wanted to immerse myself in, so my focus changed directions slightly and I ended up majoring in Language and Mind, which was like a Frankenstein’s Monster of philosophy of language, psycholinguistics and syntax studies. All of which means that I’m keenly aware of how much I say doesn’t make any sense.
So have you always been interested in comics?
Actually, (and this is where all lifelong comics fans will start hating me) not in the least. Growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, comic books were pretty accessible. That, together with my cousins’ interest in comics and my own love for the X-Men animated show, meant that I was pretty familiar with, if nothing else, the aesthetic of mainstream comics, especially Marvel. It wasn’t until later that I actually began to take a strong interest in the art form and industry as a whole.
Were you intending to work in comics?
I originally planned to go to grad school after graduation to continue studies in Philosophy or Linguistics or something. After a couple years in college though, I was near ready to be done already and knew that I wouldn’t be able to stand 2 or 3 more years of classes after graduation — not to mention the prospect of finding a career somewhere in academia.
Sophomore year, though, in the midst of a very trite, hackneyed, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, because I’m so deep and misunderstood,” a very patient friend gifted me with Watchmen, which was my gateway drug into the world of comics.
After reading Watchmen a couple times in a row, it was a quick hop, skip and a jump to a whole new obsession. Cerebus, Lone Wolf and Cub, Preacher, Ennis’ Punisher, Strangers in Paradise, Understanding Comics, Lee/Buscema Silver Surfer, Ronin — over the next couple of years I worked really hard to give myself a crash course in comics, and during that period I realized it was something that I could, and more importantly, wanted to do.
The idea of simultaneous communication by way of words and pictures was something that fascinated me from an academic standpoint, and as a young guy enthralled with genre fiction, comics seemed like a natural fit. So, I started to take steps to find a place for myself within the industry.
So how’d you get the job at Marvel?
As a junior in college, dredging the Internet for information on how to break into comics as a writer (something I had no idea about and was totally unprepared for), I stumbled upon an old posting on the Marvel Web site about internships.
So, I sent in my resume and cover letter and started brushing up on Marvel’s current line, so as not to make a total fool of myself in my interview. After a couple weeks, however, I still hadn’t heard anything from the e-mail address the Web site directed me to, so I started making daily calls to the very patient Mary Sprowls at Marvel, who eventually set me up with an interview in Tom Brevoort’s office.
I was very nervous, made more so by the fact that I was totally overdressed for the interview (no one in editorial wore a tie), but somehow, was able to stumble my way into an internship in the Marvel Heroes office, which at the time consisted of Brevoort, Andy Schmidt and Nicole Wiley (now Nicole Boose).
After a couple semesters of interning, when folks at Marvel realized I wasn’t just going to go away, they brought me on part-time as an editorial assistant, until I finished up school. Then, as I was graduating, I was fortunate enough for a position to open up, and I was able to start work only a week after getting my diploma, as one of Tom’s assistants.
What does an assistant editor actually do?
When people ask me this, my typical answer is, “Making sure the things come in on time and that they don’t suck when they get here.” Everything else we do is in service of one of those two things, or finding a balance between them.
I, along with Molly Lazer, assist on all of Tom’s many books, as well as having a couple books that we edit on our own with Tom’s supervision. Currently, I’m editing Marvel Team-Up, which I’ve run into the ground as of issue 25 and Tom has been kind enough to hand off to me The Irredeemable Ant-Man and Blade as of issue 3 of those titles.
So, how does the Marvel hierarchy of editors work?
Easiest way to do this is to start at the top and work our way down.
First up is Joe Quesada, Editor in Chief, undisputed champion. Underneath Joe are the various senior editors, who each control their own office and lines of books, and occasionally do battle for editorial office supremacy.
Two of those seniors are Executive Editors, which means that they have more of a hand in guiding the Marvel Comics line as a whole. Next come the full editors, who, while still reporting to an Executive Editor, have a fair amount of autonomy in running their own books, usually between four and six separate titles.
Associate editors are next down, and work slightly more closely with their senior or Executive editor, working on three to five of their own titles, as well as assisting on their boss’.
Finally, at the bottom of the totem poll are the assistant editors. We do a lot of the day-to-day scheduling and communications on our boss’ books, as well as editing up to two or three of our own books, and getting 20 lashes for every late one. Whew! I think that makes sense.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Since all of the creative duties on a book (writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering) are done out-of-house, a big part of my day is making sure that component pieces always get to the next guy/gal in the chain. That means e-mailing scripts, posting tiffs on our FTP site, and getting lettered files to our in-house production team.
Along the way, we always check to make sure things are good and right, which entails script conferences and notes, checking storytelling in pencils, clarity in inks, proper reference in colors and readability in letters, among other things.
Squeezed in with all that, we have internal meetings, make plans for upcoming books and events, argue about whether Spider-Man should be married or not, and make sure that our freelancers get paid for the work they’ve done.
Also, after lunch everyday, I like to call and flirt with Robert Kirkman a little bit — that Kentucky accent just drives me wild.
One of the best parts of the job is that everyday is a complete mixed bag, in terms of duties and activities. It keeps the work fresh and interesting, and it’s impossible to get bored with so much to do in a day.
Is working in comics what you expected it to be like?
I was lucky in that I spent long enough interning at Marvel that I had a pretty clear, somewhat accurate idea of what the work would be like. That being said, nothing could prepare me for the sheer volume of work that gets moved through our office — we’re doing something like 25 monthly books at the moment.
At times, it’s like being a traffic director in Manhattan, in that I’m sure it must look like absolute madness from the outside.
What’s the best part about your job?
The fact that everyday I get to come in and learn ridiculous amounts about a medium that I’m absolutely in love with. I’ve picked up tons of knowledge just from working so intimately with every aspect of comic book production.
While I still couldn’t produce a competent comic book package to plate on my own, I’m learning what it takes to get it done, and even what it takes to get it done well. On top of that, I get to work at a place full of people who are just as infatuated with comics as I am — not a lot of claims adjuster fanmen get to say that.
On the same track, what’s the worst part?
Seeing a finished product that should have been better. Whether it’s the result of miscommunication amongst the creative team, an honest mistake, or my just not catching something I should have, it makes me sick to my stomach to see even a minor flaw in a comic book that I could have possibly fixed.
Most of it is stuff that probably only three people notice, but nonetheless, a printed publication is such a permanent thing that I always feel absolutely terrible when I find something I should have taken care of when it was on my desk.
What’s it like to be an editor at a con?
Cons are great things for everyone involved with the industry, be they professionals, fans or people dressed like Stormtroopers, because it’s such a great opportunity to be around people who share your fanatical interests.
For an editor though, it’s especially great since it’s an opportunity to meet professionals and show them that, despite hounding them with deadlines year-round, you’re actually not a bad guy.
At my first con as an editor, I was a little worried about being hounded by people on the floor, but I didn’t have that problem at all. First off, people in general tend to be significantly nicer and more respectful than the national average. On top of that, I had overestimated my own importance — who the hell cares about me when they can get something signed by John Romita Jr.? Really, my con-experience isn’t that different from any fan’s — I even dig around for half-price trades and back-issues like a crazy person.
Has being on the inside changed how you read and enjoy comics?
Without a doubt, being an editor has caused me to look at comics in an entirely new way. This has been a great thing though, in that I’m now better at both recognizing what I love about specific books, as well as being more prepared to speak about what’s great in a particular comic. I’ve heard people talk about how the magic can disappear once you see the man behind the curtain, but for me, it’s much more akin to learning the best way to appreciate a fine wine or a great cigar.
And finally, any advice for people trying to break into the industry?
The absolute best advice I can give is deceptively simple, so much so that most people ignore it: Do something. If you want to make comics, then make comics — that’s all there is to it. Our industry is lucky in that self-publishing doesn’t carry any of the stigma that it does in the prose fiction world. The best way to get noticed is to do something great.
After that, it’s just a matter of getting it under the right person’s nose or allowing your product to find an audience. Too many people say they want to break into comics, but still do nothing beyond talking about the great things they’d do if they were allowed to write their long-planned 12-issue Scarlet Spider maxi-series. In the name of Ben Reilly, just go out and do something — it’s a lot easier for me to hire you if you’ve ALREADY shown me that you can make good comics.Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
10 Questions with A. David Lewis
By Tim Leong
CHAMBER OF SECRETS
A. David Lewis has his fingers crossed. His last book, The Lone and Level Sands, won the Howard E. Day memorial prize and garnered three Harvey Award nominations. The writer is hoping for similar success with his next project, Empty Chamber, when it hits stands this September. Lewis talked with CF about the book and his secret plan to be the only doctor in comics.
1. The Lone and Level Sands received crazy amounts of praise and awards. How did that feel?
It felt great, of course. I would like to say that I don’t care about praise or accolades, that it’s all about the art to me, but I’d be lying. I care a great deal about the story, about the art, and about the “act of creation,” yeah, but getting response to the work is sensational as well. Positive reaction, especially, only makes it better!
2. Empty Chamber and The Lone and Level Sands are both published through the Caption Box imprint you started. What’s been the toughest thing about starting and a publishing division and keeping it afloat?
I’d say that both perseverance and publicity are the two most difficult elements. That is, staying in the public eye while pushing forward a project that is largely your own responsibility can be demanding. It may sound nice, to be on your own timetable, but really, for an imprint or creator to be taken seriously in any way, there’s some level of visibility and dependability that’s still required.
3. What has been your personal marketing strategy for your books?
Oh, I can’t claim to have had too savvy of a master plan. As I said, remaining visible is important, even if it’s not for one’s own work, so taking an active interest in other projects through message boards, conventions, and blogs is always smart. Also, maintaining a database of retailers and alerting them to new products (and providing them with previews) is excellent. Lastly, it’s best to sow the field early, releasing early sketches and vignettes from a book long in advance of selling or soliciting it.
4. You founded Ever-Ending Battle, a research study focused on the relationship between superhero comic books and mortality. What do you hope to learn from it? What have you discovered so far?
I discovered that there are a lot of people thinking the same thing: What’s the deal with death and superheroes? Moreover — and a little disconcertingly — I’ve also found that a lot of people take resurrection and the afterlife as pretty normal in storytelling. It’s kind of extraordinary, if you ask me, yet remarkably pervasive in the superhero genre. So, I founded Ever-Ending Battle to begin amassing data on the phenomenon. Both Infinite Crisis and, to a lesser degree, House of M began to address the issue of superhero over-resurrection, but it continues to be a bizarre convention of the cape-and-mask set. So, I hope to continue adding to it in 2007 with my time at Boston University.
5. Sands obviously has a strong religious connection. Considering there aren’t too many religion-based comics out there, were you worried from a sales/marketing point of view?
I wouldn’t say we were worried, but Marv (Perry Mann, artist) and I knew it’d be a tough sell. If anything, we hoped that there would be a nice crossover effect – that religious youth groups, educators, historical fiction buffs and graphic novel readers would all be intrigued by the book. Archaia Studios Press certainly was, and they’ve made a good deal of headway into all of those markets.
6. Speaking of, why don’t you think there aren’t more religious-themed books out there?
Again, they could get pigeonholed, limiting their sales to a more secular base. But, you know, while I’m a farily secular guy myself, overall, I’m actually surprised by the surge of religious comics entering the mainstream lately. There’s Testament at Vertigo, Chosen by Mark Millar, a great Samson: Judge of Israel graphic novel, Marked by Steve Ross, Megillat Esther by J.T. Waldman, and so on. I mean, not all of it is for me, per se, but there’s at least variety out there. Frankly, I think Kingdom Come demonstrates a really nice religious influence without being heavy-handed. So, it’s definitely out there, but whether it will appeal to mainstream readers really depends on the delivery.
7. Your titles aren’t exactly coming out at record pace. What is your prep/production process like?
Ha! You noticed, eh?
Really, I only move on concepts that really interest me; I’m not impulsive in choosing a project to develop. It has to not only speak to me but also have a reason for being told as well as some sort of market viability. If that all manages to line up, then I have the three-pronged process of researching the story, creating a narrative outline and contacting various artists with whom to potentially work. Fortunately, this process has been accelerating over the years, allowing for there to be less and less interim time between publications. And, ultimately, I may be able to step out of the “producer” role entirely and just focus on the writing — in fact, I’m thinking that this shift might be coming sooner than later.
8. Is your schooling just a plan to be one of the only comics writers that can be credited as “Dr.”? How is your post-graduate work helping you as a writer/creator?
Wouldn’t that be funny, if I was going for the PhD just so I could create a great supervillain name: Dr. Comic-Geek!
No, in all seriousness, I’ve always enjoyed balancing my creative life with my academic life. That is, I knew a while back that, as an adult, I hoped to write and teach — I just never knew which would pay the rent. For that matter, I never really keep them that far apart. Whether it’s the Ever-Endingly Battle project or research for The Lone and Level Sands, there’s a definite overlap. What I learn in school is definitely enriching for my writing, whether it lays the foundation for a story idea or simply exposes me to other literature. Conversely, the arena of the graphic novel is becoming increasingly interesting to the scholarly community, especially when it can be tied coherently to something like the traditions of literary theory or narratology.
If anything, I’m surprised there aren’t more folks walking this dual tightrope of creative and academic output. Scott McCloud is obviously a forerunner, and certainly people like Danny Fingeroth have made the transition. I think more creators, mainstream and indie alike, should get involved with organizations like the National Association of Comic Art Educators (ww w.nacae.org), the Comic Arts Conference held annually at the San Diego Comic-Con, or the International Journal of Comic Art (ijoca.com). Rather than choose a side, I’d welcome people to come walk the line with me.
9. Mortal Coils and Sands were both graphic novels while Chamber is serialized. How did your writing approach (pacing) change?
Well, Mortal Coils wasn’t originally a graphic novel. The first bit of it was serialized, but then I collected it with additional material for the trade paperback (later followed by the FCBD edition of further new material). Still, formatting the stories as stand-alone yet interconnected anthology stories definitely required a different pacing than either Empty Chamber or Lone and Level Sands.
For Empty Chamber, I suppose I saw it more as a movie. I’ve said before, this is eaily my most mainstream project to date: an action-espionage adventure, fully of explosions, quips, and shoot ‘em ups. It’s not my standard arena…but, then again, I’m okay with the idea that I don’t actually have one easy genre.
Essentially, I wrote my outline, as I normally do, and then matched it to an act structure. There were roughly four distinct acts combined with a Prologue and Epilogue. I knew I could either deliver it as a standalone graphic novel or break it cleanly in half, which is what I ultimately decided to do. When Jason Copland officially became part of the project, I showed him a page-by-page outline (keeping it to, say, only one sentence per page), which we agreed worked best to keep things active and exciting.
10. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since entering the comics industry?Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Except my friend David Petersen with Mouse Guard. He’s the exception that proves the rule.
A Journey To Alan Moore’s Lost Girls
By Patrick Rollens and Mike Carey
LOST GIRLS, FOUND CLASSICS
Sixteen years ago, the world was a very different place. The Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse. A musician named Kurt Cobain was poised to fundamentally change the world’s music scene. Margaret Thatcher’s ouster from the position of prime minister heralded the end of an era in the UK.
In the comics industry, more crucial events were occurring. Marvel and DC, two flagship publishers, struggled with an ever-decreasing readership. Talented writers and artists, among them Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, perceived flaws in the major publishers’ policy regarding royalties and creative control; this dissension would come to a head with the birth of Image Comics in 1992. Across the industry, increasing attention was being paid to more mature readers. In 1993, DC Comics consolidated several imprints into a single line of mature-readers titles, and Vertigo was born. It would prove to be a critical success and act as a springboard for a slew of up-and-coming writers and artists.
It was in this atmosphere of change and awareness that Alan Moore began thinking about Lost Girls. In interviews, Moore has described Lost Girls, published this month by Top Shelf, as his attempt to reclaim simple pornography as an art form. To a casual observer, artist Melinda Gebbie’s artwork combines with Moore’s script to produce little more than well-illustrated smut, and it’s almost certainly this aspect of Lost Girls that will earn the book negative press following its July debut at Comic-Con International. However, there is decidedly more at work in this three-volume slipcase than simply sexual decadence.
In Lost Girls, a trio of women (one young and spunky, one old and cantankerous, one middle-aged and trapped in a frigid marriage) meet by chance in an Austrian hotel in 1913. As their stories unfold, it’s made clear to the reader that the three are re-imaginings of characters from classic children’s literature: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. Under Moore’s pen, the three prominent characters offer hints at their backgrounds through flashbacks and dreams, which they relate to each other over the course of the book.
Finding old, oft-ignored characters, dusting them off and breathing new life into them is something of a hallmark for Alan Moore. His early work on Swamp Thing was an example of this: when he took over the book in 1983 with issue 20, he completely reimagined the character from the ground up — and saved the book from cancellation.
Even Moore’s seminal creation, Watchmen, was an example of this sort of storytelling. In his initial pitch to DC, Moore proposed using a motley collection of obscure characters acquired by DC from Charlton Comics in 1983. When DC opted to retain the Charlton superheroes for later use, Moore instead developed the familiar Watchmen cast — Rorschach, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan and others — directly from the Charlton Comics paradigms.
But what’s the appeal with this sort of storytelling? Why investigate what Dorothy and Alice might chat about over midday tea in Austria?
Joining Comic Foundry to analyze the “story behind the porn” is Mike Carey, a frighteningly prolific writer with books out from Marvel, DC and a number of small press publishers. Carey was gracious enough to lend CF his expertise as both a storyteller and a comic creator.
Carey: “I think what you get with this kind of revisionism is a very complex pleasure. You want people — some people, anyway — to see your story through the lens of the original.”
With this being the case, Lost Girls holds up. Alice’s flashbacks include more than one instance involving a looking glass. Wendy’s childhood memories are replete with visits from an elf-like Peter and his sister, the spritely Maribell (Tinkerbell). Dorothy, reclining in the hotel’s steam room, recounts how a tornado deposited her in a strange land known as Oz. Every step of the way, Moore invokes readers’ interest in classic literature to keep them turning pages in Lost Girls.
Carey: “You know how little kids like to hear the same story over and over, and they don’t want you to deviate from the scripts by a word or a pause? Well that’s the pleasure of repetition, of the familiar, and it’s obviously very powerful and deep. But sophisticated adults want seasoning on that pleasure: they want the familiar refracted, prismatically, through the surprising and the novel. That’s why re-imaginings, reinterpretations, are so powerful and wonderful. They keep you within your comfort zone but at the same time take you on bizarre and thrilling journeys - a potent mix.”
Carey’s experience with this sort of storytelling is expansive; his upcoming story arc on Ultimate Fantastic Four will include reboots of several popular Marvel characters.
There’s a fine line, of course, between re-imagining a dusty, forgotten character and butchering a cherished fan favorite. A closer look at Moore’s oeuvre, however shows a willingness to invoke this sense of wonder in his storytelling. The obvious entry is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (with its expansive host of characters from Victorian-era fiction), but the offerings don’t stop there. Lesser-known stories by Moore, including his random bits from the DC universe, offer revisions and new ideas for characters like Vigilante, Green Arrow, the Joker and Superman. Even Moore’s take on Captain Britain couldn’t come to fruition until he essentially killed off the title character and resurrected him anew.
Carey: “There’s the pleasure of having your guesses confirmed and the pleasure of being misled and taken by surprise: they both operate here.”
And what of the 16-year gap between the initial concept and the final slipcase edition by Top Shelf? True, the first six chapters of Lost Girls were published a while ago in the Taboo anthology magazine. In the time since Moore first started conceptualizing the characters of Dorothy, Alice and Wendy, a lot has happened in the industry. Image Comics rose to fame and fueled a speculative market in the 1990s. Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy, then bounced back and became a multimedia powerhouse. DC’s Vertigo line proved time and time again that mature readers enjoy comics as well. In short, everything has changed and very little has stayed the same since Moore first put pen to paper for Lost Girls.
Two other Alan Moore books also saw similarly long development period: V for Vendetta and Marvelman (later Miracleman). In the case of the former, the changing of the guard in Britain’s government made England a bit sunnier than Moore had first imagined it. In the latter, Miracleman ended decidedly differently than it had began. Carey attributes this to Moore’s changing thoughts on superheroes.
Carey: “Miracleman didn’t work out quite as well, and I think that was because Moore’s feelings about superhero stories had changed in the interim. The final confrontation with Johnny Bates had this strange quality to it — as though in fact we’d missed the action and were seeing it in an imperfect reconstruction. For me it created a lacuna at the very heart of the story, where you really needed a more powerful and immediate resolution. Or perhaps what I mean is that the resolution has to be in the same key in which the story started out, and this was in a different, intentionally minor key. So the danger with these long gaps is that you’ll get — for want of a better word — parallax. The writer’s own perspective will have changed in between start and ending, and that can create clashes and odd shifts of perspective within the story.”
To be sure, the world’s perception of pornography has changed in the last 16 years. When Moore started writing Lost Girls, porn was more or less limited to dirty movies and magazines. Now, through the dubious magic of the internet, it’s at everyone’s fingertips. Moore wrote Lost Girls as a reaction to the downfall of true erotica in the world. It could be argued that the past 16 years have seen a further collapse of the medium — or a rebirth.
But the story and characters of Lost Girls remains quintessentially Moore’s, and it is aspect of the book’s creation that makes it less a culture shock and more a familiar homecoming.Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Holy Lesbians, Batman!
By Laura Hudson
THE CHANGING FACE OF HOMOSEXUALITY
“This abrupt and wholesale revision of my history—a history which, I might add, had already been revised once in the preceding months—left me stupefied.” So says Alison Bechdel in the autographical Fun Home, a “family tragicomic” that serves as both an epitaph for her complicated, closeted father, and a memoir tracing the thread of her sexual identity from her earliest memories to the realization that she was gay—an event that only narrowly preceded her father’s suicide.
These twin upheavals, inextricably linked but utterly opposite, not only changed her life, but rewrote its history as she understood it. The moment of her realization was not physical, but verbal. Her sexual self-discovery occurred not through any physical encounter or carnal attraction, but rather in the library, as she explored the novels of Kate Millett and Colette.
In one of the books she reads, a woman is asked how long she has been a lesbian. “I never understood what that means,” the woman replies, “because as far as I’m concerned, I was born that way.” Like most people who experience great revelations of self, Bechdel did not actually become someone different, she merely realized who she was all along.
In his preface to the Gotham Central trade Half a Life, where policewoman Renee Montoya is outed as a lesbian, writer Greg Rucka discusses the accusation leveled by some fans that he “made” Montoya gay. “As far as I’m concerned, we did no such thing,” Rucka said. “She was always gay. We were simply the first story to say so.”
Originally a character in Batman: The Animated Series, and later New Batman Adventures, Renee Montoya was many things before she a lesbian: a cop, a Latina, a survivor and a tough, beautiful lady. Her sexual orientation, like many aspects of her personality, grew out of her character, not the other way other around.
The fan accusation that Rucka references was, in essence, that he was “retconning,” or retroactively altering history to suit his purposes. But Rucka says that he knew as early as the 1999 Batman Chronicles story “Two Down” that Montoya would eventually come out as a lesbian, and that he wrote her with that in mind until her outing in 2003.
Those who thought that Montoya had been retconned felt betrayed by what seemed a sudden revision of her character. But did Rucka really change her, or did he simply help us to know her better? The revelation that she was a lesbian caused Montoya’s conservative Dominican parents to disown her, but brought her closer to her lover, Daria. If after her outing we found that we no longer liked her character, or that we loved her more, then at least we too came by it honestly.
It is not an easy thing to know ourselves. And it is harder still sometimes, to know the ones we love. Not simply because they keep themselves from us, or we from them, but because the truth is an elusive substance. Those who seek it often find it eludes them, and those who hide from it are often doomed to find it.
Montoya buried the truth until it was foisted upon her, but Bechdel was brave enough to dig it up in the wake of her father’s death, after learning not only that he was gay, but that he had slept with teenaged boys, including his male students. But the “revision” of her family history was not really a revision of history, but of perception. It was not that her father changed, or that her family changed, it was that she had never truly known them as they were.
Death, particularly sudden, tragic death, tends to leave life in fragments and littered with questions. Fun Home is more than anything an internal detective story, the tale of how Bechdel’s life unraveled the moment her father stepped in front of a Sunbeam truck, and her need to solve the mystery of why in order to weave it back together. With what she calls her “compulsive propensity to autobiography,” Bechdel scours her old diaries and the labyrinth of childhood memory to fit the pieces of herself, her past, and her father together into a cohesive truth.
One of the larger themes of Fun Home is that she and her father were not simply opposites, they were inversions of each other, and like any polar opposites, defined each other just as much as they defied each other. While Bechdel sought personal truth, her father spent most of his life hiding from it, concealing it beneath various facades. She saw the same impulse at work in his obsession with historical restoration, in the “meticulous period interior that were expressly designed to conceal,” as well as his passion for fiction, particularly The Great Gatsby.
Bechdel compares her father several times to Gatsby, both men more concerned with the superficial than the genuine, both men who remade themselves into something both more and less than they were. “Like Gatsby,” said Bechdel, “my father fueled this transformation with the colossal vitality of his illusion… Such a suspension of the imaginary in the real was, after all, my father’s stock in trade.” And if Montoya’s revelations bear some similarity to those of Bechdel, then it is hard to contemplate her father’s disingenuous approach to identity without considering Batwoman.
OUT OF THE SILVER AGE CLOSET
In the event that you’ve been living under a rock, let me be the first to tell you: Batwoman is coming back… as a lesbian. And not just any lesbian, but a hot femme socialite lesbian who wears a costume complete with high heels and (I am not making this up) bright red lipstick. Oh, and it just so happens that she used to be involved with Renee Montoya.
The new, refurbished Batwoman, a.k.a. Kate Kane, bears very little resemblance to her Silver Age self, or Kathy Kane, as she was originally called. Although the DC event Crisis on Infinite Earths technically voided the original Batwoman from DC continuity, the irony of her recent “retcon” is too absurd to escape mention.
The original Batwoman appeared not long after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a 1954 book by a psychologist named Frederic Wertham, which accused comics books of manifold social deviance, including sublimated sexual messages and themes meant to corrupt America’s youth. Batman and Robin were clearly gay lovers, said Wertham, and their father-son cohabitation was actually “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”
Wertham argued further that, “In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, successful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine.” The nationwide outcry that followed Seduction lead to the formation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory body intended to sanitize comics of violent and deviant content, and caused sweeping changes in the way comic books were written.
Not long afterward, Batwoman burst onto the scene. Instead of a utility belt, she sported a Bat Purse, which contained weapons resembling feminine accessories like lipstick and charm bracelets. Despite proving herself an capable superheroine, Batwoman’s effectiveness seemed a source of chagrin to Batman, rather than an asset.
After discovering her true identity, Batman ultimately forced her into retirement by tracing her to her secret hideout and lecturing her about her potential vulnerability to supervillains, lest they too ever find her out. Ever the lady, she acquiesced without making much of fuss: “I—I never thought of that! I guess you’re right! I-I’ll quit my career as Batwoman!”
Bechdel’s less traditionally feminine behaviors also met with disapproval and correction from the main man in her life, but her tomboy tendencies were not just poorly received by her father, they were often in direct response to the lack of masculinity she perceived in him. He, in turn, tried to push Bechdel towards the more womanly ideals of beauty he idolized and envied. “While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine through me,” she said.
The original Batwoman was very much a compensation for Batman’s perceived or least suspected unmanliness. Batwoman’s femininity not only defined her, it defined Batman; her sex was her raison d’etre, her entire reason for being. She was a response to the question that dared not be asked, but demanded to be answered. The modern Batwoman is in many ways an inversion of her former self with a very different answer to that question, but one wonders if her reason for being might not be all that different.
PUTTING ON LIPSTICK
Fans are excited about Batwoman—very excited. Not excited in the way they might be for a long-delayed issue of The Ultimates, or a signing by their favorite author, but excited in the way 16-year-old boys are for a movie where their favorite actress takes off her top. The reality is that the comic book audience is overwhelmingly male, and that any industry will reflect and serve the needs—and desires—of its consumers. In some ways, comic books cannot help but skew themselves towards the predilections of a predominately male audience.
Just ask Judd Winick, the writer of Green Lantern who scripted an arc where Kyle Rayner’s assistant, Terry, was critically injured in a gay-bashing. Many fans reacted negatively to a storyline focusing primarily on gay issues. In a New York Times interview, Winick described the negative reactions of many fans as fairly predictable in their intolerance: “You always have the same 15 arguments come up. I could’ve read the letters before we got them.”
He compared the controversy over Terry to his experiences writing Exiles, which included a lesbian character named Sunfire. “[The fan response] has been heaven,” said Winick. “It feeds into the fact that she’s a lesbian. People don’t have a problem with it. I think there’s a double standard.”
Comics are, in a sense, about suspending your disbelief. They are about the fantastic, about men and women and events so astonishing that they strain any notion of credulity. And yet these characters, these worlds mean so much to so many because they manage to work the magic of any great form of art that seeks to mean something real: they make us believe.
In the end, I’m willing to believe that Superman is an invincible flying alien that can shoot heat beams out of his eyes because I was first made to believe in him as a person who loves, struggles, agonizes, and yes, occasionally bleeds. If superheroes are not made small as well as large, if they are not made people, their battles are no more meaningful than action figures being smashed together by a five-year-old. They become little more than myths, unrelatable figures that exist only on the most archetypal and abstract level. Or worse, in the case of women: they become fantasies in the worst sense, objects of desire that exist only to titillate.
In the same preface to Half a Life, Greg Rucka says that, “For any story to be successful, it must reflect the truths of our own world, the things we all share—love and loss and pain and fear and even the smaller things, the frustration of losing our car keys, the joy at finding a forgotten twenty in a coat pocket.” The stories only mean something because of that balance—the larger, fantastical notions are grounded in the smaller realities of life.
Perhaps this is why it felt disconcerting when Montoya’s once average-sized breasts swelled to the size of water balloons on the cover of 52 #4. Or in 52 #2, when Montoya was shown lying in bed with a super-sexy woman for several pages, both of them entangled while clad in lacy lingerie. (FYI guys: women don’t actually sleep in that kind of lingerie in any venue outside of your fantasies, or possibly media that is enacting your fantasies.) The introduction of a lesbian Batwoman in the same book might rightly be cause for more than slight trepidation.
There was no media blitz to announce Montoya’s sexuality to the world, and it was never glamorous—life after her outing seemed to be nothing but a gauntlet of mockery, humiliation, and loss. It’s hard, now, to hold up everything we’ve heard and seen about the new Batwoman next to the Renee Montoya of Half a Life and not fear that she will pale in comparison, if not actually cheapen Montoya retroactively. There were no lipstick lesbians in Gotham Central. But then, Gotham Central got canceled.
THE MAIN THRUST
DC Executive Editor Dan Didio claims that “this isn’t about a lesbian superhero. It’s about a superhero, who also happens to be gay,” and more amusingly that “her sexuality is not the main thrust of the character.” All giggles aside, it would be nice to believe that the motivation behind the new Batwoman did not orbit entirely around the sun of her gayness, that it was more an enriching afterthought during the creation of her character, and not its genesis.
If DC really wanted to convince us that Batwoman’s sexuality was ancillary to her character, they could have tried, say, not making a incredibly big deal out of it, as they have done rather successfully. Hulkling and Wiccan from The Young Avengers recently managed to come out to their families and teammates without any particular fanfare, and also without making it feel like a Very Special Issue about Homosexuality. Overall, it was handled in the organic, matter-of-fact way that DC would like to pretend that they are handling Batwoman, allowing the characters to simply be gay, instead of Gay with a capital G.
But maybe it doesn’t matter—it could be argued that whatever else Batwoman is, she is a gay character playing a major role in one of the most popular comic books on the shelves. Whether that’s a step in the right direction will depend largely on the type of character she becomes. Perhaps her glamorous, provocative character will challenge lesbian stereotypes, or perhaps it will pruriently indulge them. It’s probably too soon to say for sure.
There maybe even be every reason to hope; one of the 52 scribes is, after all, Greg Rucka, the man who made Montoya what she is. Maybe they’re going to surprise us and knock this one out of the park. Maybe they’re going to make us all believe.
Here’s hoping that they do, because the notion of watching Renee Montoya reenact some inauthentic affair with a hollow lesbian bauble is more than offensive, it is destructive; it negates the integrity of a character who has already paid a rather high price for her integrity, a character who deserves a great deal more. It would be better to pretend that 52 had never happened, that Montoya were still drinking herself to death in her apartment, because that’s still easier to deal with than something that reads like a lie.
On more than occasion, Bechdel mentions her father’s “preference of fiction to reality,” both in his professional life as an English teacher, and his personal life as a self-hating homosexual. She describes a scene in her father’s beloved Great Gatsby where a guest at one of Gatsby’s grand parties examines the books in his library, and seems shocked that they are not simple hollow replicas. “What thoroughness, what realism! Knew when to stop, too. Didn’t cut the pages!”
It remains to be seen whether the new Batwoman, like Montoya, will “cut the pages,” and transcend her origins to become someone real to us; whether the creative team behind 52 will have more in common with Bechdel, who found that the rewriting of her life brought it closer to the truth, or her father, who “used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not.”
Bechdel also learned from her father a gradation of honesty between authenticity and lies, a fictional kind of truth that emerged from his consummate artifice. “Perhaps affectation can be so thoroughgoing,” she muses, “so authentic in its details, that it stops being pretense, and for all practical purposes, becomes real.” From the ostentation of the 19th century décor that was his all-consuming passion, to the picture-perfect family life he cultivated alongside his underaged affairs, most of his external life “was a fantasy, but a fully operational one.”
Perhaps most of comics is a fantasy, but a fully operational one. Comic books have always been about fantasy, some might say. And they’d be right: for every kid who wanted to fly, for any person who ever wanted to be bigger or stronger or better than they are, superheroes are all about wish fulfillment. At their best, they’re supposed to be about more than that, too—they’re supposed stand for something, and I don’t think that something is hot lipstick lesbians. But then, I’ve never been the target audience.Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Danny Bilson and Paul DiMeo on the New Flash
By Tim Leong
When The Flash television show was canceled in 1991, creators Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo weren’t done with the title character. Fifteen years later they got their chance, as they were hired to pen the re-launched The Flash: Fastest Man Alive for DC Comics. With the book fresh on the stands, Bilson and DeMeo spoke with Comic Foundry.
CF: What is it about him that draws you back?
Danny: To tell the story of how it happened was that we were actually doing an original book that hasn’t been announced yet for Wildstorm, and last December they called us and said, “How would you guys like to write The Flash?” And the thing that really made it interesting was that they said it was going to be a new # 1 and a re-launch with a new character. Because of our history with the character and the time we spent thinking about him and having fun with it — for me, when they sent us the book of the stuff Geoff Johns had done in the bound issues, and I opened it up and saw that red logo I had an emotional reaction for sure — it’s part of my life. We wanted that show to go on. We had plans for what we wanted to do with it for a second season. I was going to say unfinished symphony, but it’s so pretentious. It really felt like…
Paul: An unfinished pop song.
Danny: Yeah, an unfinished story for us. And that’s not to say that what we’re doing has anything to do with what we would’ve done with Barry Allen on the second season of that show. It absolutely doesn’t.
Danny: But to go back to it 15 years later, it felt like a gift. Why we were chosen in the first place — to us, we weren’t going to do Superman or Batman on TV. And after that we had the Flash. We had written another piece involving the Flash and some other characters in sort of a Watchmen-esque superhero thing that didn’t go in 1989. We grew more attached to him then and then they said, “Do the Flash show.” Living with that for a year and a half it got in our blood. Now, I can’t say that I continued to read the book all those years. But going back and looking at the recent stuff that Geoff Johns has done — I remember coming in the next day after reading some of those and saying, “Wow, these are really good.” It really had a lot of emotion, it was interesting, I thought the work he did was really cool. I thought, “Okay this has been in good hands. Now we can re-launch again. The last thing I’ll say is that Dan DiDio said,” Let’s have this be more about the Flash than the villains.” Even though we loved what Geoff did, we didn’t want to do the same tempo exactly, at least not to start. Our mission for ourselves is to make the Flash a central character in the thing, as opposed to being a host to all this insanity with the rogues. We’ll get back to the rogues, but I can say that in the first arc it’s really about the Flash.
Paul: There w as a lot of catching up we had to do with the character and what’s going on in the series and in the DC Universe in general, because we weren’t as connected to it, as we were when we were doing the show. And also in doing the series, it was our version of the Barry Allen Flash. And for people that read the comics, they know we took some of the aspects of the Wally West character and folded them into the Barry character. So, when we came back to the comics we found that it was important that our take on the character really dovetailed what had been going on in the comics. It was much more important to have the details and mythology right. That took some getting used to make sure — as much as you could — make it consistent with what had come before. It allowed us to feel, though, that we were creating our own progressive movement forward for the character and the mythology, which is a lot of fun.
There’s a certain responsibility and certain legacy you need to uphold. And I think when people get a look in particular to the first few books, they’ll see that it’s very solidly plugged in to that legacy in a very visual way.
CF:To go back to the show for a second, what’s the most important thing you took away from the show?
Paul: Two of the most important things I remember taking away from the show were: 1) How hard it was. And 2) How much you had to dedicate yourself in the work in order to achieve something that had a consistent look and consistent quality to it.
Danny: I think that’s true of any TV show.
Paul: It was more difficult than we thought going in. But what I took away from it was the importance of characters and character relationships, which actually became more important when we did our other show, The Sentinel. I think in doing a show like The Flash — when you enter a show that has a fantastic science fiction element, it’s really important to keep the believability of what you’re doing in the context of what’s happening and I don’t think that anybody in that show doesn’t act like a human being. Even given the extraordinary circumstances in the world that it’s taking place in.
Danny: My takeaway is also my most memorable. A character that really felt like good comic book characters — meaning that they were wild, yet believable. And I can list them, absolutely. What I remember about the show is Captain Cold, Mirror Master, absolutely the Trickster, Nightshade and his nemesis in the first episode, The Ghost. Those characters, and we had Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore, who’d both written a lot of comics. Taking those guys from the comic books and making them live-action, and still have the core values of a comic book character, meaning really imaginative, but took themselves seriously and were believable in their own reality. What we always used to say about the show was, “We’re making the show to feel as real to us in our 30s as we felt when we were 10 reading the books. We never played d own to it. We never did the Batman TV show. We never made them silly. They can be insane, but they had to be dangerous. And if we ever made them silly, it was probably an episode we didn’t like.
Paul: We always had humor in the show but we never had camp. We hate camp and we don’t like to see the material condescended to because we love the material. I can’t say this with complete authority, but it always felt to me, at least when I watched other comic book shows, that there were very few that had a real love and understanding of the genre and never thought, “Well, the only way we can have a Batman TV show is to treat it as a goof.” In a funny way, the original Superman TV show from the ‘50s actually played it really straight. If you go back and look at that show, I don’ t that material was condescended to.
Danny: Actually the one thing about the old Superman show — because we were kids when it was first on — that show is all about counterfeiters and bank robbers. And we were like, “Those aren’t good adversaries for the Flash.” This goes back to what I was saying about the rogues, but the reason why we didn’t have more was because of management resistance to doing costumed villains. We had to do them and prove that they were cool before they would allow it. So if we went to year two, we were going to do more costumed villains.
CF: You just mentioned management restrictions — and I’m sure budget played in there as well. When you’re dealing with the comics, your only limitation is your own imagination. You don’t have to CGI an explosion or anything. Has that freedom been daunting at all?
Danny: Well, the budget was restricted, so freedom was totally restricted by budget. Now talking about drawing and writing comic books, those restrictions are gone and you can get a lot crazier. But I think our tastes and sensibilities, especially with the first six, is a little bit more toward the show. We brought it down a bit in terms of how wild it is. I love, and I told Geoff Johns this, I love when the army of gorillas is parachuting into the prison to free the rogues — I thought it was fantastic. But, to start at No. 1 and to make it about the Flash and make it a human story about this guy, I don’t think we bombarded them with too much insanity. That said, there is some wild stuff that happens in here and where we aren’t restricted is in terms of action. So, our set piece action scenes are as big and as insane as you can imagine, or as we can imagine. But we’re not going completely wacko on the bad guys in the world around him, yet. And I have to say “yet” because people are asking me about the rogues, they’re the best part of the Flash universe, but all I can say is: they’re coming.
Paul: I think also that if the comic is The Flash, you want the best thing about it to be the Flash. The rogues are great and we all love the rogues, but it’s not called The Rogues comic book series. You want to have your hero be the centerpiece of what’s going on. The villains are great and unique and certainly memorable, but we want to use them judiciously. I think when we do bring them back into the series, we are going to do our twist on them.
Danny: Yeah, we are going to be a bit of reinvention. One of the rogues might get capped by somebody who really wants his identity. It’s just going to take some time — it’s like writing a movie as an origin story.
Most people get that Bart is the new Flash, and this is the first time we’ve talked about this at all. We haven’t done any interviews where we’ve talked about this at all. Bart has this physical relationship to the speed force that sets him off from any other Flash before him. It’s actually not a good relationship with the speed force, so to speak. And I think it’s in book four where it gets delineated pretty clearly. But in book # 1 you find out he’s still tapped into the speed force, even though everyone thought for the whole One Year Later thing that the speed force is just gone, from the Infinite Crisis.
So, his relationship to the speed force, his attitude about being the Flash, it’s basically like a guy with a disease, and he doesn’t want anything to do with it and is pretty scared. It’s not just, “Oh, jee, I don’t know if I want to be a hero or not.” It’s very physical. He has physical issues with it and it’s not something someone can just put him in a machine and fix. It’s actually really traumatic and really messes him up. He doesn’t even put the suit on until the end of book two, and that’s out of a specific necessity that you’ll find out in the course of it. So everything about how he becomes Flash is different than how Wally became Flash, or Barry or things like that. And by the end of the first six, he’s still not, “Oh, jee, I’m the Flash.” This relates back to what Paul said. The book’s called The Flash. It’s not the rogues gallery book. We’re doing some stuff that’s kinds dramatic and in the first series, there’s another guy that becomes the hero of Keystone city, and it’s not Bart. And that becomes a story of power and aggression. In us saying generically that we’re not repeating another origin story, I’m telling you specifically that we’re not. This book is darker and edgier than any Flash I remember from before because there’s some traumatic stuff going on for Bart.
CF: What do you guys find harder, writing for TV, video games or comics?
Danny: I’d say movies.
Paul: Movies are pretty tough. They’re all different formats and we can write a Flash comics script in a few days. God knows how many weeks it might take us to write a movie. Television and comic books have a similar quality in that they’re very finite in format. They’re going to be a specific amount of pages, they have to have a certain amount of breaks.
Danny: I say movies because there’s more meddling and there’s more people who think there’s a rulebook on how to write a movie than there are for how to write a TV show or comic book. Games I’m not touching right now but they’re kind of epic, because they’re an absolute collaboration between the fiction writers and the game designers. I believe in the future that the best designers will be writers too. At least with the way the culture is now, to do really good game fiction, the ball has to be passed back and forth between you and the design team. And sometimes Paul and I have been part of the design team. Game fiction can be really wild because there’s a lot of story but it’s told a little differently. I actually taught a course this last semester at USC on writing for games, and it’s really different than all this other stuff because you can communicate stories, ideally, though objectives and rewards. It’s not just linear storytelling.
Movies, I think, are the hardest and most painful because there re too many people who influence it and there are too many people who think there’s a rulebook that says you have to do this, this and this and then this formula makes a movie. People don’t seem to do that with TV, comics and games. I don’t think it’s a good thing and I think it’s why movies are a little too formulaic.
Paul: The other thing with a television show in particular is once the writer/creator starts the engine and creates the pilot and the template and it’s approved, then it’s pretty much up to the writing staff and the executive producers, especially if they’re also writers like we are, to then establish the format of the show. So it’s harder for someone to come in from outside and say, “No, your characters don’t do that,” because we’d just say, “Well, yeah they do.” So, you’re creating permutations every week and continuing stories every week. Or, the same thing really goes for a comic book. Coming into the Flash is like dropping in to a story that’s been going on for 50 or 60 years. If we create a new television show we’re creating the core mythology and it’ up to us to keep it going. I also feel, and I don’t what Danny thinks, but I also feel that the writer is a bit more trusted, creatively, in the world of television.
Danny: Well, that’s true. Film is a director’s medium and TV is a writer’s medium. Anybody will tell you that.
Danny: But to answer your question, movies are hardest.
CF: What was it like banging out the first script of the Flash comic?
Danny: Really, first we banged out the six-book outline. So that was kinda like our movie story. And I’ll tell you what it was like — on the first one we wrote a lot less dialogue than our editor wanted. So, she just hounded us for more dialogue, more dialogue, more explaining, more exposition, and I think that’s going to be a constant wrestling match for us. I’m not sure that visuals can’t tell the story really well too. But, she’s also been really great in terms of teaching the format of comic writing. Sometimes it depends on the day on how I feel about it. I’m going over book two, proofing it right now. I think I’d prefer less overt explaining through dialogue. But honestly, the big thing was that our first book had less dialogue than they wanted so we did more dialogue. In our original book, which we’ve turned in two of, I think absolutely we do more dialogue than we would’ve before we got coached by our editor. Like I said, she’s really taught us on how to write comics, in a certain way. She’s had an influence on us, even though it’s not her book – for the Wildstorm book. Now in fairness, and Paul will say this too, I’m sure, the Flash comes with all this information and history and pseudo-science and all these things that’ve gone before, they do need a lot of explaining and re-explaining. That sorta makes it a little more yakky than our new book is where we’re starting fresh and we’re not having to explain what happened to Barry and to Wally and to Krypto — I’m kidding. I’ll be anxious to see how people react to the book. I feel like they’ll care more about the story, than our little issues of how much explaining there is on a page. More about what’s going on with the legacy.
Paul: By the end of the first two book in particular there was a mandate, let’s call it, from DC to try and cram a lot of information in there like Danny mentioned. The legacy…
Danny: Wait a minute, Paul. I want to correct you. The idea to the history of all the Flashes came from us, not from DC. That absolutely came from us.
Paul: Like I said, it came from us.
Danny: No, it did. In the first meeting, I said, “I think if it’s a #1, what about who never read The Flash comic before, maybe those three people who’re coming to it because they like the TV show and now they want to read and they never read the comic.
Danny: …Or anyone who goes in to a #1. I know as a buyer myself, #1 means a lot. It means I can start at the beginning. It was absolutely our idea to sorta cover the entire history of the Flash in, I think, a pretty cool way. And some of the most awesome art in the first book that is the Flash history stuff. So if you pick up #1 and you’ve never read The Flash before, you will actually get caught up in this 60 years of history. And that includes the Kid Flash and everything. And I have to really give props to Ken Lashley because the work he did on the Flash history stuff in the first two books is really spectacular. It’s amazing stuff.
Paul: That, of course, and we’re working in a format of 22-page stories. To put all that in, plus tell the story that we’re doing without all he legacy, that makes the first couple m ore challenging. Because once we get past that, then by issue three we’re really into the story of Bart and his issue of being the Flash and about where the rest of the story is going to go. And although Jay is still in the story, we’ve kinda put the rest of the Flash legacy into the background and we can concentrate on the new stories. And like Danny mentioned the first six tell a story arc. Then when we hit issue seven we’re going to throw another change-up that people aren’t going to be expecting.
Danny: There’s a big surprise at the end of six and beginning of seven, and there’s carryover stuff that flows through. I’ve heard the complaint that every six it just starts over and they’re just trying to sell trade paperbacks, but ours has stuff at the end of six that goes right into seven. There’s one story in particular that’s a minimum of a 12-issue arc going on in this thing.
Paul: Also, we’re working really hard to, and we’ve done it, frankly, when that change comes at the end of six and into seven, it’s going to be motivated, and it’s going to be something we consciously decided to do and something we discussed with DC, and they said, “Great.” We wanted to do something that would also open new avenues of storytelling…
Danny: …That haven’t been available to the Flash before. Which kinda hard to believe because he’s done everything from time travel to all that other stuff. So we’ve got some other ideas that will be believable within its own reality. And now we’re talking about book seven and 12.
CF: How does the writing process work between you two?
Danny: Well on this, what we do is we take our outline for the book, because we’ve already outlined all six to start. And we’ll go through it and do a page count allotment to each sequence, just imagining based on the content how many pages it is. We work in the same office next to each other, and we’ll go, “OK, what do you want to do?” And he’ll say, “I want to do that scene and that scene,” and I’ll say, “OK, then I want to do that one, and you write from here to here and I’ll pick up from there.” So we split it up and glue it together and then go over it together and then we ship it out. Then we get notes and then we re-write it together.
Paul: But you know we also go through it and go, “OK, well this really needs a full page and this panel needs to be really big or this needs to be a double page.”
Danny: I know we haven’t leaned on the trick of having a lot of pages with no dialogue. Ken Lashley, the artist, will tell you, it feels like he’s doing two books worth or art with each book. Our stories are pretty dense and I think it’s because of our film-writing stuff. We haven’t learned how to put less story in to make it easier on the artist. I don’t think we’ve quite got that down. For the fans, they’re going to get a really dense book with a lot of panels.
CF: How has being writing partners for so long help you do your job better?
Paul: Well, you certainly deliver a shorthand and an intuition between the two of us. What we’ve actually been doing recently – within the last year, and whether it was with this book or with scripts that we’ve been working on is we used to work on everything together simultaneously. What we found for keeping our head above water and keeping things moving along really quick was dividing up stuff. That worked really well for us and allowed us to work a lot faster than we used to. A lot of that really does have to do with working together for so long. Because we know we can anticipate each other’s pace. And once we put it together and iron it out and polish it, it really is one smooth thing that is the best of both our work.
Danny: I think it’s getting better all the time. We’ve been doing it yeah, a year, a year and a half. Remember we’re sitting five feet apart. I’ll say, “What are you going to do with that?” or, “What are you going to do with this?” And sometimes I won’t say because I don’t wont to argue about to argue about and just put it down on the paper because sometimes it’s easier to sell it if it’s on paper than if I try to sell it to him verbally. So there’s a constant communication going on or else there’s a “leave me alone, let me do this until I get to the end, then you can screw with it.” That seems to be working better all the time. We’re writing a pilot right now so I think we both think it’s great and we’ve never written anything faster. We started it about a week ago and we’re almost done. And usually it took us three weeks in the old format to write a pilot. Maybe I’m overzealous, but I think it’s the best thing we’ve done.
Paul: It’s really helped us by dividing and then combining at the end of the day. It’s allowed us to get through this volume of work. Working on the two comic books that have two overlapping deadlines sometimes, and also get our screenwriting done and get our pilot writing done at the same time.
Danny: I believe we’re going to announce our original at Comic-Con, and that’ll be fun to talk about too because that is pretty cool.
Paul: And we’ve got an awesome artist that I won’t reveal.
CF: You talk about this combination between the two of you, it sounds a lot easier, faster —are there downsides?
Paul: Well, if you write with somebody, you will develop a process that you are comfortable with or not, and the fact that we’ve been doing it together for literally decades now — there is a certain amount of give and take and compromise that you make when you work that closely with someone else. We’ll get to the point where we argue about lines or plot point or something and we figure out a way to do it to make us both happy. You find that you have different strengths. Some writers work better alone and some don’t. I think that for us the combination of what we both do, the end result is better than it would be if it we did it alone.
CF: Like you mentioned before, TV is a writer’s medium, but in comics you have to be incredibly reliant on the artist. Was it scary giving up that much control?
Danny: No, what we did was called our partner and mentor in comics, Howard Chaykin, and we said, “What do we do? And how does this work?” And he said, “The artist, in his mind, is 50 percent responsible for the book.” I found that to be liberating. When we write our scripts, they’re descriptive in what angle it is, who it’s featuring, or how many panels on the page, or if it’s vertical. We don’t get crazy on that because we let Ken use his graphic sense to do the layouts and execute it. It’s’ not scary at all. It’s easier that way and we’re not responsible for everything. And I think that when it comes to the action and the superhero stuff and the dramatic, his stuff is pretty amazing. It’s really bold and has a lot of drama to it and energy and I couldn’t ask for anything more. It also feels very modern and contemporary in a way. 2006 comics, not 1980s comics. There’s something about Ken’s stuff that feels very cutting edge contemporary and I think for the Flash, he creates a lot of energy in the action pieces. At one point, and this was a long time ago, he said, “Hey guys, why don’t you give me a two-pager so I can do a big graphic?” So the end of book two is a big graphic. We just got book two today and of course he kills. When it comes to these big graphic scenes, they’re just fantastic.
Paul: In some ways it’s kinda like when you write a television script and you hand it to the director, and even though you created a blueprint with the dialogue and the story, there is going to be a certain amount of interpretation going on. And if anything, an artist in a comic book is bringing even more to it than a director on a TV show episode. The other thing we had to get used to, or at least I did, was that you can have a five-page scene of people taking as long as the content is interesting. But if you visualize that in four pages of a comic book, with just heads talking to each other without any action involved. It gets pretty slow pretty fast. It’s not going to work. What Ken was really able to do was pack a lot of dialogue into the panels on the page in a way it breaks it up in an interesting way so that it doesn’t get old in a dynamic fashion visually, even though it really is just two or three people talking.
For a lot of your careers you’ve done a lot of science fiction-themed works — do you think you by keeping in the genre you’ve pigeon-holed yourself into this culture?
Danny: We do what we like. I don’t want to do the other stuff. I could never write my daughter’s show, The O. C. I just couldn’t write it in a million years and that’s not a disparaging comment at all. We write what we know. We were talking about this yesterday because the pilot we’re writing right now that I’m excited about is straight up, everything we like. The cool thing about TV now is that it’s moved to this serialized content where that’s acceptable. And that allows for writing a big, epic story that could be a 20-hour story. So taking that and saying, “What’s the TV show we want to see the most in that format?” And suddenly we wrote it in a week and we’re really excited about it. So actually, I don’t really care — they can pigeon-hole us as comic book adapters and adventure writers or fantasy/sci-fi writers, I couldn’t be happier. I’d live in that pigeon hole.
Paul: Well, we like bigger than life. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t love and appreciate a great move like Grapes of Wrath.
Danny: And that happens to be my favorite movie.
Paul: But could we write that? I don’t think I have the skills to write that.
Danny: Oh, come on, Paul. Steinback doesn’t hold a candle to you.
Paul: That type of story. It’d be hard for me because it’s not something that …I like stuff that’s bigger than life. We’ve written adventure stories and action stuff that doesn’t have a science fiction element to it. But even that stuff is bigger than life. It’s thriller and stuff like that. You’re not going to see us creating a doctor show or a lawyer show or a family drama, unless the lawyer is from Jupiter. It’s not going to happen.
CF: What’ the most important thing you’ve learned in your writing careers so far?
Paul: Write what you like.
Danny: Well, I have to say it’s the learning process for me. People relate to the emotional realities of other people. And no matter how wild of a story you write, the more harm you put in it that’s believable, the more they’re going to identify with it. And that has been a learning process. Most people write that naturally but I’d say we’re still in the process of getting better and better at that. That’s been a big learning process and I can’t say how important I think that is.Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
What I’ve Learned: Dick Giordano
DICK GIORDANO, 73, INKER, EDITOR, CREATOR
Interview by Joseph Askins
I don’t live in the past much. I enjoyed it when I lived it but I’m much too busy in the present to dwell on any past glories.
My mission is to render the pencils to the best of my ability and with respect for the pencil artist’s skill and intent. I want every great penciled panel to still be great when the work is finished, and perhaps to use some of my skills to improve the pencils when they’re not all they could be. All this without raising the dust and in a timely fashion.
Neal’s pencils were very clear and quite finished. We might have a discussion about how to handle a particular character, or Neal might cue me in on a particular bit of business that he felt needed to be handled in a certain way, but for the most part, all I needed to know to do my job was on the page.
Many creators try to dazzle with technique, impress with wordsmithing or complex rendering patterns, when, in fact, telling the story at hand in the best way possible is really what the job is about. Learning that we are all in the service of the story is a hard lesson for some.
The guys at Charlton and I set out to have some fun with characters that we created that were not superpowered (with the exception of Captain Atom) and had no previous continuity that would dictate what we could or could not do. We weren’t consciously trying to set ourselves apart from the “Big Two” — we just seeing what we could do if left to our own devices.
Change is healthy for characters and the comics industry as a whole. Life is flux, and if we diligently maintain the status quo, the characters will die or become irrelevant. That said, I would caution that change be accomplished with respect for the past history (without being anal retentive) of a character or place or thing.
I don’t read many comics and none regularly. I do read the scripts and/or the plots for the work I do and that’s pretty much it. I read the trades to stay informed on what goes on in the industry, and I read newspapers and U.S. News & World Report for what goes on in the world.
Learn to draw. Better yet, learn to use computer programs that can do color work. For the most part, inking skills are not highly regarded in today’s marketplace. Computers are king!Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
10 Questions With Lilli Carre
By Tim Leong
INTO THE WOODSMAN
Last month at the MoCCA Art Festival, Lilli Carre’s book, Tales of Woodsman Pete (Top Shelf Comix), grabbed a lot of attention — so much so that Publisher’s Weekly Comics Week called it the biggest debut of the show. Now, after her book is out and the buzz is yet to crest, Carre talked with us in the latest installment of 10 questions.
1. You did the cover for the 2006 Best American Comics. How did that happen and what do you think it means?
Originally, Anne Elizabeth Moore contacted me (I believe she had gotten my Woodsman Pete mini comics at either Quimby’s or Chicago comics) and then I later found out I was to be included in the anthology. Then, perhaps a month later or so, I received a call from Houghton Mifflin, and they asked if I would like to do the cover but that the timeline was fairly narrow. They asked if my cover design could somehow imply a narrative, specifically a comic narrative, and that I should shoot for something whimsical. I thought that a firefly scene would suit whimsy but a firefly in the eye would add a proper amount of coarseness. It was as odd task making the cover for the first book in this new series, especially without specifically knowing who else was to be included in the anthology. Trying to represent the book as a collection and not as something specific to my work was a weirdly big responsibility. In terms of what it means to have done the cover, I guess many more people will be introduced to my work that wouldn’t see it otherwise, and amongst the company of some of my favorite cartoonists who I’ve since found out are to be included in the anthology as well. Then those people will possibly wonder why every character I draw has in inexplicable shadow on their nose.
2. How has animation influenced your work?
I was doing hand-drawn animation before I found my way into making comics. In making hundreds of drawings and going through stacks of paper to make a character live on his own for a couple minutes, I found a style for myself and developed the general look of my characters through that process. The stories in my animations are much more ambiguous than my comic stories, I’d say, sometimes not stories at all. Animation deals with time and sound quite differently in addition to relating to a whole different history than comics, but I do think that concocting self-contained stories from a blank piece of paper with unlimited possibilities makes you draw from a similar place in terms of story writing. Both mediums offer that space to create a whole world for characters to exist in based on the information you draw in. Whether you write in cricket noises in text in a comic or have it playing in the background somewhere in an animation, or a character stares at something for 10 panels versus 20 seconds of screen time, you still need to establish all the subtleties of the environment and story; you get to be responsible for every element within complete open-endedness. I would like to continue to do both comics and hand-drawn/puppet animation, though it’s hard to know how to balance the time spent between the two, both processes being classically laborious. Unfortunately I’ve fallen for both. I think having studied animation history has resulted in some of the cartoon logic and style found in early American cartoons seeping into my comics. In some places the logic is similar; a character’s eyes may grow saucer-size in both, but the punch line is handled differently. I’m interested in the crossover of various types of character-based storytelling with a shared elasticity, and will most likely continue to incorporate both into each other.
3. You self-published two comics in 2004 — how have you grown as an artist and a writer since then?
At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago we had access to a Heidelberg Offset press from the late 1960s, an amazing resource to have access to. I took that Offset Productions class four times in a row and every semester tried to take as full advantage as I could of that machine, resulting in producing new mini comics each semester in runs of 200 to 500 copies. The cool thing about comics, I discovered, is how far they reach without you knowing it — your books can take off running without you. I sold my comics on consignment in Chicago comic book stores, as well as Hideho in Santa Monica and Atomic Books in Baltimore. It helped to get responses from people I didn’t know and have this unseen audience, which I never experienced before with my work. Each time I made a book it was pretty different from the previous one, style-wise and also in terms of subject matter. I think my characters are straying from their original reliance on a cuteness that’s common in comics, and the stories I’m working on now are getting stranger, with rounder characters that seem to have more of a life off-camera, so to speak, rather than appearing to live within the walls of the comic page they appear on. I think the more I work on comics the better I’ll get at articulating the types of characters that I’m interested in creating, and getting my drawing skills up to the point where I can properly depict what I need to. At the moment, however, I’m quite far from mastering the tools and the craft of comics, and spill ink nearly every day, amazingly.
4. How do you think the storytelling in Woodsman Pete is different than most books? What challenges did that create as you were writing it?
It’s tough to make a series of stories with just one talking character. In that way I think it stands apart from some other books. At first, the Woodsman Pete stories were goofy vignettes, and still are, but a whole book of a rather flat character would get really old really fast, I think. I knew that I would have to find someway to make it a little richer, I liked the Pete character a lot and wasn’t sure what to do with him next so that he could exist outside of a one-liner. Perhaps what I liked about him as a character was that I couldn’t decide for myself whether I liked him or found him loathsome, or affectionately loathsome. I was thinking about the malleability of oral history and the subjectivity of personal history and it just started to build upon itself, and introducing Paul Bunyan into the picture opened up the storytelling a lot. It gave something to contrast Pete and to compliment him, though still at the end of the day Pete got to be the only real character in the book. Once I had the two character sets, that of Pete and Philippe and that of Paul and Babe, I was able to really get into the writing again and weave them into each other in a way that brought out some of the themes I originally set out for and allow it to grow out of its original har-har simplicity. Originally in the form of three mini comics, it’s nice for me to see all the vignettes finally stand together as one story.
5. What was your thought process in concepting your typography in titles and lettering throughout the vignettes?
I guess I was going for a more antiquated look for the titles on each page, but honestly it wasn’t too conscious, it’s just a style I’ve gotten into the habit of, I like it aesthetically.
6. Tales of Woodsman Pete is your first major body of work - what’s been the scariest part about your “debut”?
I wouldn’t say that anything’s been scary, really… if anything, it’s been really fantastic having a book get printed and distributed without that labor on my part. I didn’t get to see the book or a proof or anything until it was printed and waiting for me to stand behind at the MoCCA fest, so that was kind of weird, and actually, perhaps that lack of direct control over the product was kind of scary, especially since it has a much higher print run than anything I ever printed myself. Also the fact that this was my debut in terms of my first published book and that it would be the first impression people would get of my work made me pretty nervous. I’m curious about how it will be received now that the audience for it has expanded quite a bit. Much more exciting than scary, certainly.
7. This is your first book under a big publisher - what has this experience been like? What are the pros and cons?
Like stated before, the lack of control over the entire product was both a relief and an anxiety. Otherwise it’s been great so far, Chris (Staros) and Brett (Warnock) at Top Shelf have been really helpful and have been supportive of my work since I first delved into making comics around two years ago. It’s been less than a month since the book surfaced, so I think I’m still very much at the start of learning the whole process of working with a publisher.
8. Tales of Woodsman Pete is a collection of vignettes. Why do you think it’s so popular for indie books to be in vignettes rather than one continuous story?
There’s the history of the one-page comic strip, which at first is what I was trying to adhere to; I think it’s a good framework and I like the pacing and resolution required for a story that ends within a page’s length. I can only really speak for myself, that I started with the formula of the one-page strip for Woodsman Pete, especially because at first a short format suited his flippant disposition and tendency towards punch lines, but the stories got a little longer, they tied themselves together, and soon it became a collection of vignettes. It just evolved that way. For me it was more natural to build a story and a character through many parts rather than constructing the entirety of the story’s trajectory first and then executing it. The overall story grew while I made each piece. I can’t speak at all authoritatively on why I think indie books are often constructed through vignettes, but perhaps it’s a just a common tendency towards letting something stray as you build it, or an affection for a collection of disparate moments rather than a solid point.
9. You’re a cartoonist with your entire career ahead of you – where do you want you and your art to be in 10 years? What specific goals do you have?
I want to be able to keep making stories, and hopefully I will find a way to have that be my main job rather than something that I have to do in my leisure time after work. I don’t think I can decide to not make comics, so being able to have time to devote to making them is something that’s very important for me to figure out. There’s so much that hasn’t really been explored in the medium, it has a weird seat, historically, and seems that recently it’s been getting more attention or at least cocking heads in terms of its placement in culture…I’d like to explore comics as a literary form in the work I’m making now and eventually.
10. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since entering the comics industry?Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
I’ve just now poked my head into the industry, so I have yet to know its inner workings. We’ll see