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    Interview with Ed Brubaker

    by Laura Hudson

    CRIMINAL INTENT
    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?
    Write every day. I don’t always follow that, but it’s the only thing I’ve learned that matters.

    Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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