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Writer and supervising producer on the TV series “Lost,” Javier Grillo-Marxuach, has a hit show, Hawaii and beautiful people. What else could he want? His own comic, for one. Grillo-Marxuach launches The Middle Man (Viper Comics) in July, a sci-fi tale of a secret government agent and his 20-something female sidekick. Grillo-Marxuach talked with Comic Foundry about The Middleman and revealed what that monster on “Lost” really is. Just kidding.
Why write comics? What does the medium offer that the screen doesn’t?
I’ve been writing television professionally for 10 years, and I love it to death. But when you work on other people’s shows you are never truly writing your own vision and voice, but rather adapting your voice to someone else’s format. The Middle Man is a quirky, weird piece that would not necessarily find full expression in a broadcast medium — nor would I be able to afford a huge tentacled-ass monster, well, at least not a convincing one — on a TV budget. So after all these years, I figured it’d be fun to do something that truly encompassed a more “Javi-centric” world view.
How is writing The Middle Man different than writing an episode of “Lost”?
Apples and oranges. “Lost” is a 14-character ensemble drama that tends to be very serious and is driven by the voices and concerns of its creators. It is very much Damon [Lindelof] and J.J. [Abrams]’s show. My work there is to apply my own creativity to best execute their shared vision. With The Middle Man it’s just me and a very tight relationship between two characters, The Middle Man and Wendy, and some very unreal situations that have a comedic edge … Also I’m the ultimate arbiter of what gets on the page — I don’t have to answer to a network or a studio, so I can take larger leaps of fancy. (Which means that without the consult of a writing staff, I also have higher to fall from if the material doesn’t land!)
In a more interactive medium such as television, a project can rely on an actor’s ability to communicate emotion. How do you make up for that in a static medium such as comics?
I have the good fortune to have for a partner a very talented artist who brings a huge amount to the table. He does the job of the actors and the director — and what we try to do is to create something that isn’t static at all. When I write dialogue, I work very hard to imbue it with a rhythm and movement all of its own. And when Les [McClaine] does his breakdowns and layouts for the piece, that is our main concern, to give it a sense of life and motion. Done well, comics are not a static medium at all, but one where the fusion of words, pictures and design come together to create propulsion through the page.
You’re active in the Writers Guild of America. Any advice you give young screenwriters applicable to aspiring comic writers?
The great thing about comics is that, unlike films and TV, all you really need is a vision. An hour of “Lost” costs seven figures to produce and employs a crew of over a hundred people for several months — you can’t do it on your own. A comic book is 32 pages, a cover, two staples and your own unique vision; especially considering the options for self-publishing, Web publishing and indie press out there, I would imagine that the advice I give all screenwriters would be even more fulfilling for people doing comics: write, write and write some more.
With comic books it goes further: Can’t get an editor to look at it? Self-publish, put it on the Web — in short, cultivate your own unique vision until the big boys have no choice but to employ you.
You do a lot of sci-fi and fantasy writing. Is there a certain hook or secret for success in the genre?
The best episode of “Boomtown” is no different from the best episode of “Jake 2.0″: Character. Unlike that great Blues Traveler song, it’s not the hook that brings you back, it’s your attachment to the characters. If you can get the audience to love the characters, it’s not the mysteries or the monsters that are going to keep them coming back for more, it’s going to be their desire to spend time with people they have come to love and admire. It’s great to have a sci-fi idea that no one has had before, but without great characters to anchor it, what you wind up with is a jaded audience that stares at the screen and says, “OK, I’ve seen 5 million stormtroopers duking it out with 5 million Wookiees — what else do you have?”
What’s your take on racial diversity in comics? Is it lacking?
I grew up in Puerto Rico … but to me Batman was Batman and Superman was Superman. I never thought of them as “those great Caucasian supermen.” I also watched a crapload of Santo movies and I liked him and Blue Demon as much as any DC or Marvel characters. Here’s the thing — I’d love to do a comic book with a Latino character, but that has to be a function of character and of a story I am dying to tell at the moment, not of political necessity. I don’t think I am going to write a good story if I say, “By writing a character of a certain ethnicity I am going to make a STATEMENT” or, “Hey, let’s market this character to Latinos!” If I came to you and said, “I want to do Blade but here’s the twist: He’s WHITE!” you’d probably look at me and say, “Yeah, but what’s the story?” And that’s why I think that a lot of books marketed as “diverse” really don’t hit their mark. Do readers want role models that they can relate to on the level of race and culture? You bet. Do they want cool-ass superheroes in awesome stories? Even more.
In television, you’ve worked on a wide range of different shows. Are there any key components between them that lead to successful storytelling?
I think that the answer is the same as two questions up — make the audience like the characters, put those characters in great stories that are consistent to their genre and they’ll come back whether it’s a $2-plus million production or a 1960s BBC show shot half on film and half on video.
You’ve worked on a lot of dramas. A signature move of the TV drama is an event scene that features no dialogue between characters but works very well from a storytelling standpoint. How does that type of narration play into comics?
I don’t really write The Middle Man any differently than I would a TV script … and Les is quite masterful at giving me those pauses and expressions. He has a pretty daunting job — being my director, cinematographer and playing all the parts, but comics is a visual medium just the same, and I have yet to encounter a device that works for me in TV that we haven’t been able to adapt to the page.
TV allows for easier methods for characterization. How do you provide adequate amounts of characterization in comics without relying on all the “extras” television provides?
You know, characterization is not a function of all the bells and whistles you may or may not have in terms of narrative devices and other artifice — it just is. You’re either writing good characters or you’re not. If you are not, you get a crappy comic just the same as you do a TV show. The same litmus tests apply: Do I care where the story is going? Is the dialogue “landing”? Does the story feel flat? Are the characters actually talking to each other or just swapping exposition? How you answer those questions, and how honest you are in asking them of yourself determines your success in any medium.
A lot of the shows you’ve worked on have big episode endings so that the viewer is sure to tune in to next week. How did you use that approach in The Middle Man?
The Middle Man started life as a TV pilot in a traditional four-act structure, and that structure dictates that every commercial break end with a cliffhanger, or at least a compelling question that will bring the audience back. When Les and I broke down the script for comics, it turned out that an act an issue was pretty much dead on. So every issue ends with a cliffhanger.
What about on a technical level? Is the way you format your scripts different than for the screen?
Nope, and I see no reason to do it any other way. I don’t have a college degree in sequential storytelling like Les, so it seems unnatural for me to tell him how many frames to put in a page and what to put in each frame. We have settled into a nice groove where I make it clear in the scripts — as I do for a TV show — what needs to happen, and he adapts it to the page. It allows us to achieve a synergy; we both work to the highest of our individual capacities.
In The Middle Man, how do you get into the mind of and go about writing a young, 20-something girl?
Other than — secretly, I am a young, 20-something girl? Any time you write a character, you are digging them out of personal experience or empathy anyway. Wendy represents a set of feelings I’ve had and situations I found myself in, but which I can best bring to the fore in a dramatic way by replaying them through the lens of a character who isn’t me. That’s pretty much the way of all writing anyway. We have to be good actors, if not on a stage, at least on the page, and bring our own experiences to bear in a dramatically compelling way. I assure you, no one would want to read The Middle Man if it was about a pudgy Puerto Rican television producer.
Why are you producing The Middle Man in sets of four? Why is that the magic number?
Only because that’s the teleplay structure in which I am used to writing, so I am trying to stay in my comfort zone. It is the best and most efficient way — right now — for me to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end that hits all the notes. It wouldn’t surprise me if, as I get more used to the medium, I don’t start playing with the length of the stories and arcs a little more.
What’s more important - having a story be plot-driven or character-driven?
Plot without character is mere motion. Character without plot is stagnancy. You need the two elements to truly create story. But if I had to choose between the two … I wouldn’t. Because I am a perfectionist, and I want to give the audience a piece of entertainment that fires on all cylinders.
Knowing what you do now, is there anything you would do differently about creating a comic, either in technical, creative or process terms?
Nope. I’m a lucky guy. I found the right artist and the right press right off the bat on my first project, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. I know that it’s a rare thing to find such great collaborators. That’s not to say that The Middle Man is perfect in any way, but within the ongoing process of my striving to become a better storyteller, it has been a great experience, and one I hope becomes the template for all of the other things I do in this field.
—Interview by Tim Leong
The Middle Man debuts from Viper Comics at the San Diego Comicon International in July. For more information, visit www.ViperComics.com