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As a writer for the hit show
The O.C., Allan Heinberg got to live vicariously through fan boy character Seth Cohen. Now it’s his turn, as fans and creators alike are living through Allan while he creates the newest hit book for Marvel - Young Avengers. Allan took time out of his California and Marvel Universes to talk with Comic Foundry about how he drafted the ultimate love letter to The Avengers.
How did get this Young Avengers gig?
I spent the last two years working on a show called The O.C., and I was fortunate in that the show’s creator, Josh Schwartz, allowed me to share my lifelong comic book/superhero obsession with one of our lead characters. So, I suddenly found myself in the enviable position of being able to write about comics I was reading and loving and about creators I admired on national television.
When this came to Wizard Magazine’s attention, Matt Senreich, an editor there, called and asked me to do an interview about Seth Cohen’s comic book collection. So, in that article I geeked out about the comics I was loving and explained why I named a character “Mr. Bendis.”
So when C.B. Cebulski, an editor at Marvel, read the article, he asked if I’d be interested in writing something for Marvel. At that point, I couldn’t. I knew I didn’t have time to do any outside writing, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to sit down with C.B., Dan Buckley and Joe Quesada. And, since there is no saying “no” to Joe Quesada, suddenly I was writing a book for Marvel. I had no idea what the book would be, but a month later, Joe and Brian Bendis pitched me Avengers Disassembled and — because I’d spent a lot of time writing teen characters on shows like Party of Five, Sex and the City, The O.C. and Gilmore Girls — they wondered if I might want to write a book about a group of young Avengers that could spin organically out of Disassembled.
They didn’t have a specific pitch, but Joe and Brian thought if I was interested in the area, I should think about it. So, I did. But I confess I had enormous reservations about doing a book called Young Avengers. For so many reasons. Not least of which was that it might easily be perceived as a Teen Titans rip-off. Geoff Johns, the writer of Titans, is one of my best friends in the world, and I didn’t want to alienate him. Nor did I want to alienate the audience with a book that didn’t have an essential reason to exist. As a fan I know I’d be suspicious of a book called Young Avengers, so I spent a great deal of time trying to come up with an idea that was new and surprising, but respectful of Avengers history at the same time.
Eventually I came up with a pitch that Brian, Joe and I got excited about, and the guys at Marvel have been unbelievably supportive ever since. It’s been a dream gig because I got to invent the book’s core group of characters, and then fully integrate them into the Marvel Universe.
How did they react when you told them you wanted to create new characters?
Actually they were the ones who suggested it. When Joe initially said “Young Avengers,” I was confused. Bucky’s been dead for years, Toro’s dead and Stan Lee had reportedly always hated kid sidekicks. When I pointed this out, Joe told me I could have my pick of any teen heroes in the Marvel Universe – the New Warriors, New Mutants – but to me their stories had already been told. So, in the end, Joe said, “Create your own.”
How did you decide which of the younger versions you wanted to use?
I wanted to go iconic. And you can’t get more iconic than Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk.
How do you develop so many strong characters while also trying to cultivate an audience?
The only way I knew to get readers to care about these new characters was to have the Avengers themselves care about them. Or, if not care about them, then at least want to know who these kids are.
So in YA No. 1, readers spend the first half of the book with characters they already know and love: J. Jonah Jameson, Jessica Jones, Cap and Iron Man. All of whom are comparing notes and asking the same question: “Who the #%@& are the Young Avengers?” So, after setting up the mystery of the Young Avengers with characters that readers are already invested in, I felt safe bringing the kids onstage and putting them through their paces.
In terms of developing the characters, I knew I was going to have the four icons on the cover, so I worked backwards from there in terms of who these kids might be and how to structure their team dynamics: how many boys, how many girls, how many Caucasians, how many non-Caucasians, that kind of thing. Then I tried to explore their different backgrounds in an attempt to forge a group dynamic where everybody brings a unique and essential point of view to the mix.
Lastly, I put all the characters through what I call “The Naked Man Test.” “The Naked Man Test” is: “If you lock a character in a room with a naked man, do you know without having to think about it too long, how they’re going to react?” If so, you probably have a pretty sharply drawn character on your hands. If not, keep working on it. For example, all four main characters on Sex and the City are going to have very different, very specific reactions to that naked dude because they’re great characters.
For me, though, the most important aspect of developing a new character is figuring out, “What does s/he want?” Long-term, what’s their super-objective? Because that’s what’s going to drive them through the course of the story you’re telling. And that, more than anything else, is going to define that character.
How much do you rely on the art to provide characterization?
I am blessed with one of the most talented artists in comics today. Jim Cheung, the co-creator of this book, designed all the characters and we work very closely together on every aspect of the storytelling.
Generally the way we work is, I write up a two-page outline each issue, which is broken down in terms of each page’s story points. I’ll send it to Jim and to Marvel, incorporate everybody’s thoughts, then start writing a full script. Then once Jim finishes his pencils I’ll re-write the script, sometimes fairly extensively. Jim’s art is so good he’ll make a lot of my writing unnecessary. Nothing makes me happier than cutting a huge chunk of dialogue because Jim’s conveyed it all through his pencils.
So I’ll do a pretty extensive re-write once I get the art back from him, and then once the lettering comes back, I’ll do another re-write to make sure the art and the text are working together to tell the story in the cleanest possible way.
Even though you’re only a few issues in, can you see a progression in your work?
I think I’m too close to the work to be able to say. I’d never written a comic script before Young Avengers No. 1, and I had no idea how it was done. Joe Quesada coached me through it. And Brian Bendis and Geoff Johns shared their processes with me, as well. So, I tried to incorporate a little bit from everybody else’s processes and am slowly developing my own, I guess.
What’s one solid piece of scripting advice you’ve gotten while working on this?
Less is more. Especially where dialogue is concerned.
But there are no rules. Everybody’s got different storytelling values and everybody’s got a different approach as to how to achieve them.
I tend to write comics the way I write television – going from scene to scene rather than from moment to moment. I’ll start with the scene in dialogue form, then direct it into panels so that each page makes a compelling storytelling unit on its own – ideally with a last panel that makes the reader want to turn that page and find out what happens next.
Between this and The O.C., how do you manage your time?
I’m actually no longer writing The O.C. anymore, though I’m still a consultant on the show. I’ve actually got several other projects in the works right now, though, and am generally working on whatever is due soonest.
How does writing dialogue for television characters affect your writing for a static medium such as comics?
Writing dialogue for comics has been a bit of an adjustment actually. In a static medium like comics, the writer doesn’t have the benefit of an actor’s voice, charm or inflection to rely upon. So as far as comics dialogue goes, the writer has to make certain the words carry the weight of the scene’s (or the panel’s) comic or dramatic intentions all by themselves.
As far as Young Avengers is concerned, I have the good fortune to be working with one of the most talented artists in the business. Jim Cheung is extraordinary. His characters’ emotional lives are just as clear and dynamic as their superheroic ones.
What type of advice would you give for young writers for realistic dialogue?
Listen to the way people really talk to one another. The pauses, the repetitions, the stresses and rhythms. Develop your “ear” for dialogue. I very often end up speaking my dialogue out loud at the computer to see whether or not it feels right in my mouth. It’s weird, but it works.
Then, as you’re writing, make sure your dialogue is always in the service of your story. Try not to over-write or waste words – to write for writing’s sake.
I try to write as little dialogue as possible, to be honest. I think there’s a common misconception about writing in that “good” writing equals more writing. But the opposite is true. There’s always so much more drama in what lurks beneath the surface of a conversation – everything that remains unsaid because it’s too dangerous or too emotional.
And not all comic readers crave realistic dialogue. Personally, I love it. It’s part of the reason I’m so in love with Brian Bendis’ work. Brian has an infallible ear for the way people communicate (or fail to communicate). That said, he doesn’t just transcribe the pauses and the repetitions he’s discovered in everyday speech. He skillfully crafts uses them to craft the dramatic shape of a particular scene or story.
What’s the target audience for Young Avengers?
There is no target audience. It’s an all-ages book for people who love comics. It’s for longtime Avengers fans, for New Avengers fans, and for people who’ve never even heard of the Avengers.
Do you have any advice for writing characters outside your age group?
I try not to write them as “younger” characters. I try to write them simply as characters. I actually don’t think much about the age of the Young Avengers. I try to focus on the circumstances of the daily lives, their backgrounds, their relationships with their parents and authority figures – all the universal, human stuff we all share regardless of age.
Do you feel like you made any rookie mistakes?
I’ve made countless rookie mistakes, but that’s how you learn, right? I’m new at this and am trying my best to become a better writer every day.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from this?
To have respect for — but not be intimidated by — the form itself.
When I started writing YA No. 1, I was paralyzed by self-doubt and had a million questions: What should a script look like? How do you break a scene into panels? How much dialogue goes into a panel? How many panels go on a page?
In fact, I quit YA three times before the first script simply because — after having been a very opinionated fanboy my whole life — I didn’t want to be a bad comics writer.
And it turns out, the mechanics are important, but you can learn that stuff. The key to writing comics is the same as the key to writing any dramatic narrative: it’s all about STORY. And the story is all about the CHARACTERS.
With comics going appearing more in pop culture in The O.C. and success in film, do you see comics going in a certain direction in the future?
I would like to think that comics’ success in other media will bring more people to comics – that people who enjoy The O.C. will be more inclined to pick up a comic and read it. The same with movies like X2 and Spider-Man 2.
And I’m optimistic about the future of comics. There are more extraordinary writers and artists in the field than ever before. And both Marvel and DC seem to realize that success comes from investing in their core characters and in bringing the best talent in the business to bring out the best in those characters.
Allan writes Young Avengers, which is available on the stands now. He’ll also have a stint co-writing JLA with Geoff Johns starting in June.
—Interview by Tim Leong