Tuesday, April 29, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #7: Rob Venditti

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Rob Venditti is “the third man” at Top Shelf and his first comic series THE SURROGATES, created with artist Brett Weldele, was recently collected by Top Shelf into one volume.  Despite his very busy schedule, Mr. Venditti was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions for Independent Propaganda.  I want to thank him for his generosity and hope you all enjoy what follows.

INDEPENDENT PROPAGANDA: What is it that prompted you to want to write for comics and has this been an aspiration of yours for some time now, or is it more recent?

ROBERT VENDITTI:  I started out wanting to write prose fiction, so that’s where most of my background and schooling is.  It wasn’t until I read my first comic book in 2000 (a back issue of KURT BUSIEK’S ASTRO CITY) that I decided to change gears and write for comics.  This was around the time that the America’s Best Comics line was starting up at Wildstorm, as well as the short-lived Gorilla Comics imprint at Image, so there were a lot of quality books for a newbie like me to get his feet wet with.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that comics were capable of much more in the way of storytelling than I’d previously thought, and I instantly fell in love with the medium and its possibilities.   

IP: What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to become a published writer?

RV:  Both family and education have played critical roles in their own way.  First, it was my family that instilled in me the joy of reading, and they’ve always encouraged me to write, as long as it was fun and it was what I wanted to do.  Education was very important as well, though.  I majored in English and Creative Writing, and by doing so I was able to surround myself with like-minded people, which inspired me to produce and share my work with others.  Also, the deadline nature of college courses—being given an assignment and a time at which it must be turned in—taught me how to balance writing with other interests so that I finished what needed to get done.

IP: Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics.  What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your writing?

RV:  I still have a day job!  For the past five years I’ve worked for small press publisher Top Shelf Productions.  I started out packing boxes for orders that came in through their website, but over the years my duties have expanded to include editorial, promotions, marketing . . . whatever needs doing.  It’s been the best possible scenario for me, because as I was writing THE SURROGATES I was learning—from the inside—how the comics and graphic novel industry works.  Whereas my family and education background helped me develop the creative aspects of being a writer, working for Top Shelf has helped me understand the more business-oriented side of things.  To reach any measure of success, I believe it’s important to have a firm grasp on both.   

IP: When they are first trying to break into comics, many writers have difficulty finding artists able to realize their story samples.  What can they do to overcome this?

RV:  If you’re looking to get published, first see if the publisher will be willing to set you up with an artist.  They have the contacts and the backing to get an artist interested, and this will also give them the opportunity to pick who they want for the project.  I was lucky in that Top Shelf knew Brett Weldele and was able to bring him onboard.  Without their help, I would’ve had to scour the Artist’s Alley at conventions looking for someone willing to work on a 5-issue miniseries with a first-time writer, which can be a tough find. 

IP: What do you think is the biggest pitfall aspiring writers fall into when looking for their first job?

RV:  They start out too grandiose.  If you’ve never been published before, then the odds that a publisher is going to want to sign on for your epic, decades-spanning ongoing series are slim.  Even worse, when you’re just starting out your skills most likely aren’t developed to the point that you can tackle that kind of story, so even if your idea is a winner your execution may destroy it.  Start with something more manageable—a miniseries, a fill-in issue, even an eight-page short story—and let your skills grow with the length and breadth of your ideas.  

IP: What do you feel aspiring writers can do in order to better their chances of becoming published?

RV:  Get involved.  So many people think that if they create it, people will come.  I’ve found that the opposite it true—people aren’t going to notice that you created something unless you bring it to them, be they publishers, fans, or what have you.  I started working in the mail room at Top Shelf precisely because I knew I wanted to write comics, and, while packing boxes wasn’t a dream job, I hoped it would get my foot in the door.  Turns out I was right.  If I’d been the sort to say, “I’m not going to pack boxes.  I’m an artist!” then my art would probably still be sitting in a filing cabinet at home.

IP: What creators, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring writers read and study? 

RV:  I believe it’s important for writers to read everything they can get their hands on, if for no other reason than the fact that oftentimes reading is where inspiration comes from.  This was certainly the case with THE SURROGATES, the idea for which came to me after I read a book for one of my grad school classes.  I do think it can be dangerous, though, to read or study particular authors or genres that are similar to your story because you may fall into the trap of imitating rather than creating.  Read different things.  Expand your influences.  You may be surprised at how those experiences will enrich your writing.    

IP: For you, what is the advantage of publishing through Top Shelf rather than Marvel and DC?

RV:  The biggest advantage was the freedom to tell the story on its own terms.  Each issue of the miniseries contained twenty-four pages of comics, as well as four pages of backup features like news articles and brochures.  The backup features really helped flesh out the world and lend an element of believability that the story would’ve lacked had they not been included.  We even ran a series of mock advertisements on the back covers for Virtual Self, the fictional company that manufactures surrogates.  Had the book been published by Marvel or DC, each issue would’ve contained twenty-two pages of comics (twenty-four at best), and everything else would’ve been sold to real advertisers.  Top Shelf was 100% supportive, and for that I can’t thank them enough.

IP: Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels - both collections and original works - and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry?  Why, or why not?

RV:  I believe it’s been very good for the industry, simply because more books are getting into more readers’ hands.  An increase in distribution can’t be a bad thing.  I also think the inroads that comics have made into bookstores and other mainstream venues have given the medium a long-deserved dose of respectability—comics is recognized more and more as an art form that can communicate complex ideas to a diverse audience, which, of course, is something that creators have known for quite some time.

IP: What are some things you would like to see change with the current distribution system?

RV:  I don’t know if this has to do with distribution per se, but I’d like to see comics shops and bookstores carrying a wider variety of titles, a selection more representative of what’s being published these days.  I understand the need to stock deep on Marvel, DC, and manga, but books like LOUIS RIEL, WIMBLEDON GREEN, and OWLY shouldn’t be left out of the mix.  

IP: THE SURROGATES was your first comic series and I thought it was very well done.  What was the genesis for this story and did it change much from your initial proposal?

RV:  I read a book called THE CYBERGYPSIES by Indra Sinha for one of my grad school classes.  Written in the late-90s, it’s a true story about people addicted to the Internet and cyberspace.  Something about the characters—people who were willing to jeopardize everything, even their careers and families, to maintain their online personas—stuck with me.  I began thinking about what it would be like if, instead of being confined to cyberspace, people could send their virtual selves out into the real world.  Then they could work, date, get the groceries, and do everything else without ever having to drop the fa├žade.  What would that world be like?  I combined this central idea with a detective element—I’ve always been a fan of cop dramas like Law & Order and NYPD Blue—and everything went forward from there. 
I’d already written the first issue and plotted the entire series before showing anything to Chris Staros at Top Shelf—I tend to think things through before discussing my ideas with anyone—so the story didn’t really change much from the initial proposal.

IP: What did you find to be the biggest challenge in writing THE SURROGATES?

RV:  Learning to adapt my style to fit the unique characteristics of the comics medium.  Writing panel descriptions, using page breaks effectively, conforming to a serialized structure . . . these are things that don’t usually apply in prose writing, so adjusting to all of them took some time.  I did my best to read up on the process, but anyone who’s gone looking can tell you that there aren’t many books about writing comics out there.  At some point I had to just dive in.  That was a little scary.

IP: Did you have any writing experience before this project or was this ultimately your first published work?

RV:  Except for one short story I published in a literary magazine, the only writing experience I had was from the creative writing classes I’d taken in college.  Just because the experience wasn’t professional, however, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t beneficial.  Those six years of collegiate English courses helped me get a firm grasp on the basics—story structure, character development, and so on.     

IP: Did Brett Weldele have much input into the series or did he come in after it was written?

RV:  The entire script for the series was finished before Brett joined the project, but that’s not to suggest that he didn’t have any input.  He may not have worked on the plot or dialogue, but the visuals were all his.  It’s his distinctive style that makes THE SURROGATES look the way it does on the page, and that amounts to a whole lot of input.    

IP: With any new writer there are bound to be growing pains, ones that can be eased by a good editor.  Were there any parts of THE SURROGATES that needed to be rewritten as a result of this inexperience, and if so what was the reasoning behind these changes?

RV:  Working with Chris Staros was a rewarding experience for me.  Because I was on the staff at Top Shelf I saw Chris all the time, so we’d discuss THE SURROGATES at the office or while traveling to conventions.  He was a great sounding board, letting me bounce ideas off him and responding with detailed questions to make sure I’d covered all of the bases.  So, in that sense, I guess most of the editing and rewriting was done verbally.  When it came time to put everything down on paper, the story stayed pretty much as it was. 

IP: And finally, do you have any more projects on the horizon, and can you talk about them at all?

RV:  I’ve just finished the first draft of a new five-issue, sci-fi miniseries, this one more of a near-future serial killer story.  I’m not ready to go into too much detail about it, but I hope to have a final draft finished by the end of the year.  Once it’s finished, I’ll hunt for a publisher, find an artist, and start the whole process all over again!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #6 - Neil Kleid

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Neil Kleid was awarded a Xeric grant in 2003 for his self-published comic Ninety Candles.  His recent graphic novel, Brownsville, was published by NBM in hardcover earlier this year and recently hit shelves in an affordable softcover edition.  With artist Jake Allen, Kleid told a complex tale of what it must have been like to be involved with the Jewish mafia in 1920s New York.  Full of conflicted characters trying to get by the best they know how and the pull of family – by blood or not – this is an important work pushing the boundaries of what can be done on the comic page through into this twenty-first century. 

Neil was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions for Independent Propaganda via email.  What he had to say follows, and it’s interesting to note that he’s not that far removed from the fanboy still residing in all of us, despite now sitting across the table from us.  I hope you all enjoy.

Can you tell us briefly how you broke into comics?

Hard work, persistence, hard work, knowing the right people, hard work, a modicum of talent, hard work and oh, hard work.

I'm one of those weird cats who broke in the long way - working up from the ground floor.  I wasn't "discovered" or had a breakthrough project that ended up getting editors to lay jobs at my feet... I got in by creating my own opportunities.

Back in '01 I set up a forum discussion between Mike Carlin, Joe Quesada and Axel Alonso covering the topic of comics and adapting comics to other media here in NYC.  This helped me on two fronts: a) it got my name and face in front of these editors, allowing me the opportunity to talk to them about pitching projects and b) one of the places I went to hand out flyers for the forum was a BIZARRO COMICS signing involving tons of indy/alt creators like Dean Haspiel, Jessica Abel, Kyle Baker and more.  Talking with these cartoonists - and eventually becoming friendly with them- made me realize that there were other ways to get into comics than through the mainstream publishers.

Over the next few years I slowly worked my way up the ladder...making minicomics, working on short anthology stories.  Eventually my hard work paid off - I won the Xeric Grant in '03 for NINETY CANDLES and parlayed that into work for some alternative and graphic novel publishers - BROWNSVILLE for NBM and URSA MINORS!  for Slave Labor Graphics.  Nowadays I just keep moving forward - this year I wrote a short X-MEN UNLIMITED story and am currently developing projects for two companies while getting involved with book publishers.
What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to be successful in the comic industry?

Work ethic?  Treating everyone the way I want to be treated?  I don’t know... traits ingrained into me by my family, sure, but man... it's all just common sense.

I definitely think being taught to rely on myself rather than others was a huge thing to learn early on.  Make my own way.

Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics.  What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your writing?

While I've been writing comics, I've had a variety of graphic design jobs, jockeyed a counter at Bloomingdales and been at my current art director position for almost four years now.  Each job gives you a sense of perspective as to where you are and where you’re going.  My writing tends to be influenced more about the subjects I'm interested in writing about.  If it's an autobio story then it’ll be about whatever slice of my life I'm writing about...and if it's a specific job then so be it.

When they are first trying to break into comics, many writers have difficulty finding artists able to realize their story samples.  What can they do to overcome this?

Keep looking.  There are thousands of places to find an artist - the web, a comic store, local cartoonist jams, and conventions.  If you're determined enough and realize that you might not get the perfect fit for each story, then you'll find an artist.  I'm lucky - I've found artists on the web or through friends that I've clicked with but it takes time... and as a writer, you need to be patient - whether it’s working with an editor or finding/working with an artist, it's all about realizing that you’re creating collaborations... and that takes time, nurturing and patience.

What is the most important thing for aspiring writers to remember when pitching a series to a publisher?

Editors have fifty people pitching them a day if not more.  Don't waste their time - short, sweet, to the point.
And wear pants.

On the flip side, what cardinal sin should these same writers stay away from when preparing their proposals?

The pants thing?
Same thing - really know your pitch and get the whole thing across - beginning, middle and end - as efficiently as you can.

What creators, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring writers read and study?   

Comics wise, there's nothing wrong with exploring the ways guys like Eisner, Wally Wood and Jack Kirby laid a page out but I wouldn't necessarily "study" them.  Same thing with writing - sure, I dig the way Alan Moore writes a comic or graphic novel and the like and I'm definitely influenced by certain writers and artists... but I believe storytellers need to discover their own way of telling their stories.

Look - immersing yourself in a genre or a period that your book takes place in is key.  If you're writing about a train heist in the Old West, go read a bunch of books about trains or robbery.  Rent THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY.  Read authors who placed their stories in that time, that place and that life.  Study your story - but study AROUND your story.  The genre.  The time.  The place.  The slang.

The story itself should be crafted in your voice - not Alan Moore's.

That being said, I'm pretty influenced by everyone from Eisner to Warren Ellis to Mickey Spillane to Evan Dorkin to John Landis to Scorsese to James Ellroy.

Marvel and DC seem to be pushing sales through a series of crossover "events" and relaunches meant to feed off that hive mentality of needing the next new thing.  Admittedly, they have to answer to shareholders, but what could they be doing differently in order to promote sales?

Um... hiring me?

I don’t known, man.  I think their sales are doing just fine.  If you're asking what I think Marvel/DC could be doing as far as TRYING NEW THINGS then I think there's always mining stories from good, solid creators who don't have one foot in Hollywood and are focused on their comics.  Creators excited about the medium, toiling in the salt mines putting out critically acclaimed books like ELK'S RUN and FINDER and RUNNERS and NYC MECH.  Or even guys with a fanbase like Tom (TRUE STORY, SWEAR TO GOD) Beland... Marvel had him write some SPIDERMAN stories and his fanbase followed.  That always helps a little, right?

Beyond that, capitalizing more on their movie releases.  How come Toys R Us doesn't have a rack of X-MEN comics next to its X-MEN: THE LAST STAND section?  When I go to Loew's Lincoln Square to check out SUPERMAN RETURNS why isn't there something in there - anything - that drives me to the comic book store after to check out Kal-El's continuing adventures?  The whole world is flocking to see comic book movies... why not figure out a solid way to get them to flock into shops afterwards?

This apparent need to utilize gimmicks in order to artificially inflate sales in the short-term almost begs the question, what is missing from mainstream comics today that has caused this sales drop-off?  In your opinion, what do you feel is lacking in today's mainstream comics?

I'm not sure what you mean by gimmicks.  Like foil stamping covers or crossovers with other titles/events?  Because a) I don’t see much of the former these days (except your occasional variant cover) and b) events and crossovers are actually smart for a company like DC - it gets the fans to buy all the titles (and they will) and it draws attention to books that might not be performing so well because they will.  Events done right, like CIVIL WAR, garner "real world" attention and drive sales.  Sure, it might suck because it takes attention from a guy like me but that’s not Marvel's business now, is it?

What do I feel is missing in today's mainstream comics?  Surprise.

Remember back in the day when no one knew who the Hobgoblin was?  Marvel fans went for 50 or so issues without knowing who the guy was and there was widespread (and remember that this was pre-message boards) discussion throughout the industry as to his identity.  You can't do that these days... in fact, when Marvel revealed Spider-Man's identity to the world last month I was actually surprised.  It was something I did not see coming and was genuinely happy that they got me.  The thing is, will it last?  Mainstream fans are jaded what with the ease that "events" like this get fixed down the road.  Superman's dead.  Superman's alive.  Batman's broken.  Batman's whole.  Green Lantern's a bad guy.  Green Lantern's the Spectre.  Green Lantern's a good guy.

Who cares?  In a few months, Marvel will figure out a way to make Spidey's ID a secret again, right?

So what's missing from mainstream storytelling?  Surprise... and the balls to stick to its guns.

Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels – both collections and original works – and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry?  Why, or why not?

Good.  These days Graphic Novel=Novel and not Graphic Novel=Comic.  My non-comic book reading friends are more apt to buy something in Barnes and Nobles than Midtown Comics if it catches their eye, and if it comes in a nice dust jacket so much the better.

It's all about spreading the word, right?  Don't get me wrong - I love the retailer community and will bend over backwards for good shops like Comic Relief, Green Brain, Isotope, Rocketship, Hanley's, Atomic and Midtown until the day the Earth cools (and beyond), but I can only reach so many readers through the specialty shops.  I can't tell you how many folks have emailed me after finding a copy of BROWNSVILLE at their local library or Borders.  And these are people who would NEVER step foot into a comic shop if their lives depended on it.  Walk into a B&N and stand in the Manga aisle for a bit and eventually five or six kids will come along, park their asses on the floor and read.  Bookstores don't always equal sales but to me they equal the POSSIBILITY of sales via wider distribution.

So yeah.  I dig the bookstores.

From your position as an independent creator, what are some things you would like to see change with the current distribution system?

Find a way to get rid of Diamond's "You Have to Make This Much" rule and figure out a way to break the monopoly.

I have a cartoon book coming out from a niche Judaic publisher in 07-08 and they use a specific distributor for bookstores, etc.  I don't know if I'm going to be able to get a lot of retailers who are Diamond-minded to take on a new niche distributor BEYOND Cold Cut, Last Gasp, etc.  Hopefully my guy will be able to partner somehow with Diamond but who knows?

Part of the writing process is the developmental stage – either hard research as with Brownsville or the development of characters, locales, plotlines, etc. as with a wholly original story.  On average what percentage is given over to the developmental process?

Depends on the project.  I try to do as much research as I can when it comes to stories based on historical facts, for sure, but if I'm also writing about something contemporary based in a world or locale I know little about, the research/development process could equal or eclipse my historical developmental process.

I would say I devote almost as much time studying my story as I do creating it.  I spent roughly 9-10 months researching BROWNSVILLE and only about 6 months writing it.

Along those same lines, during this development process do you ever feel like you are not getting enough actual writing done and how do you reconcile yourself to that?  

Well, I tend to have more than one project going on at any given time, so odds are that while I'm reading books/articles and watching films to research one project I'm usually writing a script or plot for one I've already done the grunt work on.

I'm a big believer in having concurrent projects so that if Project X tires me or if I need to walk away from it for a bit, I can jump ship and tinker with Project Y.

How did your book Brownsville end up with NBM?

Believe it or not, because of Larry Young.

Larry had just sent me a copy of 'True Facts,' his guide to Making Comics and one story that struck me was of a creative team that walked into a con with pre-sealed, pre-designated envelopes with the words 'Top Secret' on them
I walked into SPX 2003 with seven pre-sealed, pre-designated manila envelopes containing a pocket folder with two pitches, my business card, samples of past work and what I refer to as 'The Brownsville Sampler' - information about the book, the pitch, sample pages and contact information.  The only things on the front of the envelope were the name of the publisher and a small label that read 'Limited Distribution.’  On Friday, I walked up to each of the targeted publishers, handed them the packet, explained who I was and told them which table they could find me at.  I thanked them for listening and walked away.
Later that day, a friend informed me that Terry Nantier, NBM's publisher, had been leafing through the sampler.  One week after SPX, I followed up with him and he said he wanted to talk terms.  One month later, Jake and I had signed contracts.

     What do you believe was the most important thing in helping you secure this agreement with NBM, arguably one of the more critically acclaimed comic publishers?

Good sample art and a unique story to tell.

What was the biggest challenge in the writing process for Brownsville and how did it compare to other things you have written?

BROWNSVILLE was arguably the largest project I'd attempted to date, weighing in at 196 pages of script.  Until then I'd mostly focused on shorter pieces - anthology stories, 22 page issues and the like.  So actually sitting down and getting through it was an accomplishment in itself... every day I parked my ass for an hour or two and did not answer my phone while disseminating my research, analyzing my story and getting it all down on the page.  It took discipline - something the six year old boy living in my head had a lot of trouble with.  But Discipline + Talent = Comics, right?

I know the Brownsville softcover is coming out soon, what other projects do you have on the horizon that people should be on the lookout for?  

This is true - the BROWNSVILLE softcover hits shops in August along with the second issue of URSA MINORS!, the four issue comedic-popculture-pisstake series I'm co-creating with Paul Cote and artist Fernando (TALES OF THE TMNT) Pinto for the fine people at Slave Labor Graphics.  It's the touching tale of three men - Tom, Rich and Harry AKA Bears One, Two and Three - and their robotic bear suits.  There's action, comedy, ninjas and comic books and it's packed with more "homages" than a page of Liefeld artwork.

The first issue hit comic shops in June and Issue #2 takes our boys to the Far East where I get to make jokes about Nintendo, Voltron, Godzilla and pit our heroes against a clan of ninja delicatessen owners!  Also, issue #2 features a back up story that fans of Slave Labor comics cannot pass up... "My Grandmother, the Goth!”  It hits finer stores this August and can still be pre-ordered in bulk using the Diamond Item Number (JUN062818) so you can buy a copy for all the cool and attractive folk in your family.

Next year Jake and I will have a short story in POSTCARDS, an anthology by ELK'S RUN editor Jason Rodriguez, and in the meantime we're working on our next book, DEAD RONIN (samurais in early 1900's San Francisco).  Scott(SCANDALOUS, NORTHWEST PASSAGE) Chantler and I will begin work on THE BIG KAHN for NBM Publishing this Fall as I continue drawing MIGDAL DAVID, my next cartoon book about developmental disability in an Orthodox Jewish community, to be released in '07 from niche Judaic publisher, Seraphic Press.  Sample pages can be seen at:

Other than that?  I'm developing projects with two major publishing houses and in talks with a few people.  You'll see more and more from me in the coming years.

And finally, what topic that wasn't covered would you like to speak to?

Besides "everyone buy my stuff"?

What was with all the talking car porn in the eighties?  Seems like everywhere you turned, you stubbed yer toe on some TV show that had a car or truck or boat or scooter or whatever that could talk.
The most obvious was KNIGHT RIDER starring Germany's top porn star, David Hasselhoff.  I don't remember much about it, but I do recall they refueled in a big black tractor trailer.  Oh, wait... maybe that was SPYHUNTER?  That was a great video game.  With the smokescreens?  And the oil slicks?  And no fucking talking cars.
Man, I'm gonna go play SPYHUNTER right NOW.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Writing - breaking story (an illustrated precis)

Had an idea for a comic story - it was really an image of a man in a contemporary setting running from a dinosaur - that I've been working on, in between other writing, for a couple years now.  I shared, and received great critiques, on a number of iterations of a first-issue script at Andy Schmidt's Comics Experience online workshop.  This was invaluable.  And the last revision of that script received the following from Chuck Dixon, who had read and commented on the previous script:

This is a first issue that has all the components needed for a first issue but does not FEEL like a first issue. Quite a feat that.
Good stuff.

Yeah, I felt pretty damn good about that.

Dixon's full comments have spurred me to pursue this idea fully.  I am in the middle of working out the rest of the opening storyline and hope to find an artist with whom I can produce a proper submission packet.  So, the other night, I sparked up my laptop in order to break the second issue's story.  And it went something like this:

And then a bit like this:

Things became a bit more frustrating, and felt a bit like this:

And then, after banging my head against the outline of this second issue for over an hour, it was a bit more like this:

So, it was time for this:

Which was a good thing, because when I woke up in the morning, I unlocked the "keystone" that was pushing back at me the evening before, and the rest of the outline fell, pretty much, into place.  
[unlike an earlier story I was working through a couple weeks back, this key fell into place after I awoke in the morning, rather than at 3:00am, which was nice] 

I need to do some slight tweaking to the outline, and then, later this week, I'll begin scripting.  Looking forward to writing these characters again.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #5 - Kieron Gillen

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Kieron Gillen is the creator, along with artist Jamie McKelvie, of the new mini-series from Image Comics, Phonogram: Rue Britannia.  His first comic series, it promises something new and entertaining for those hunting for something other than your typical comic fare.  As Gillen describes it:

“Music is Magic.
You know this already.  You’ve known this from the first time a record sent a divine shiver down your spine or when a band changed the way you dressed forever.  How does something that’s just noises arranged in sequence do that?  No-one knows.  It’s just… magic.
Everyone knows that.  It’s just that some realise that it’s more than metaphor.”

I thought it would be interesting to probe the mind of someone new to “the game,” and Kieron was gracious enough to answer my questions via email.  What follows is the crazed intensity that is Kieron Gillen.  Enjoy.

PHONOGRAM is your first published comic work.  What was the genesis of the series?

Everyone asks me this, and I really should get around to working out a decent, crowd-entertaining lie as the truth’s a little unsatisfying.

The problem with Phonogram is that it wasn’t based on a moment of divine intervention. It just sort of… grew. In the prosaic terms, I first started thinking about doing a comic on music and magic around the time I collected my first HIT strips into a photo-copied mini, as I wanted a bigger project which was a bit (well… a lot) more ambitious. But in terms of the actual IDEA, I can see traces of Phonogram going all the way back to when I started writing about music as a punky-zinekid.

There’s a bit in Jon Savage’s seminal book on Punk, England’s Dreaming, where he describes sitting in a work toilet cubicle during his lunch-hour and frenetically putting together his fanzine with glue, razorblades and determination, just to get the “A-bombs in my head” out. I read that and it was like… well, being given permission. How I was feeling was natural, with precedents and more than any knowledge or cool or anything else I really didn’t have, it meant I was justified writing whatever I damn well wanted.

And if you want Phonogram’s exact moment of genesis, that’s as good as you’re going to get.

How did you end up working with Jamie McKelvie on the series?

Talking about lies, McKelvie is currently trying to talk me into just making up an increasingly ludicrous one to answer this question. I suspect eventually I’ll submit. Doubt everything I say from now on. Automythology may be occurring.

Bristol Comic-Con. I’m selling the aforementioned HIT mini and a rockabilly punk guy wanders over to show his portfolio. It contains pages from what eventually is going to be his own first book as a writer/artist at Image, Suburban Glamour. And I just tell him that I’ve got a comic I think he’d be perfect for.

And lo! He was.

In short, I was very lucky.

When starting out, most creators have a day job.  What sorts of jobs have you had and have they provided anything for you with regards to your writing?

Well, I spent ten months dissecting human brains in a lab in Denver once. That’s got to be useful. I’m not even joking.

In terms of real work… well, my vocation’s avoiding real work. My Dad and most of his brothers are in the building trade, so I spent far too many holidays helping out the brickies in an ineffectual teenage manner. It was a great character building experience, primarily by giving me the determination to avoid doing anything like that ever again. Ever.
When I graduated, despite a complete lack of qualifications, I managed to blag my way into a writing career as a journalist (games journalism, primarily). Spent most of my twenties doing that. It taught me far too much about writing, from being able to work to deadlines to the ability to entertain even when it’s the last damn thing you want to be doing. Also: inside work, no heavy lifting.

How do you balance family, work, and comics, and how much time are you able to give over to working on pitches, scripts, etc.?

The important thing a budding comic writer must do is to murder their friends and family. They will only distract you with their pitiful “love”. You don’t need such distracting trifles. Your only true love must be six-panel grids. They will never leave you or hurt you.

(Not like that eight-panel grid, the cheap dirty slut)

Really, it’s hard. I’ve got both a mind that’s obsessive and distractible in equal proportions, with a tendency to forget people exist when they walk out of the room. Hell, even if they’re in the room if it’s a long conversation and there’s something interesting happening outside the window.

Mostly, I treat the comic writing as a second, part-time job. I do all my freelance journalism during the day and early evening, take a break to try and avoid my girlfriend dumping me for someone better, and then go work some hours on comic stuff after she’s gone to bed.

Have you always wanted to be a comics writer or is this a fairly recent pursuit?  And, why comics?

Relatively recent. Coming from Stafford, where there isn’t anything as glamorous as a comic shop, meant my childhood experience of the form was based around whatever surrounded me (Marvel UK, Transformers, 2000 AD, etc). I was always interested in comics, as stuff like Watchmen and Marshall Law got near constant nods in the other magazines I was reading at the time, but I didn’t have a chance to really engage with it. When I was 21 I finally read Watchmen, which led me to becoming a casual comics reader: the equivalent of the music fan who’ll buy the two albums which Q recommend at Christmas, and sod all for the rest of the year.

Hit my mind-twenties and I discovered Ellis, going from The Authority to Planetary to Transmet to the WEF [the Warren Ellis Forum, a precursor to Ellis’s latest foray on the internet – THE ENGINE – found at www.the-engine.net –ed.] in a four week period of discovery. The WEF, for all its faults, was a perfect gateway into comics as a subculture. Even the militancy was a little different, it being a period when there was precious little radicalism in pop-music. About six months after that, when I got back in the early morning from my first Bristol Comic-Con, I wrote my first comic script through a blur of alcohol.

So, basically, five years.

And, why comics?

Because it’s a brilliant underdog medium – I mean, what sort of cunt would want to write a book or a film? They won the culture war, and there’s no glory in fighting on the winning side.

Because – unlike, say, the novel – there’s still room to push at the frontiers. I like new things and trying to do new things. Today, you could write an experimental novel, but you’re never going to write Ulysses. I don’t like the idea of wasting my life trying to squeeze the last few drops from a creatively-drained medium. Comics are alive. It’s the same urge which led me to games journalism: that the intellectual battlefield is relatively undefined, so there’s room to not just be good, but to be new.

It also has an agreeably democratic low entry threshold. They’re just pictures, arranged in sequence. McKelvie could sit down tomorrow and create something not obviously sub-par to the biggest selling comics. Conversely, if I wanted to make a film, I couldn’t compete with Hollywood without gaining the equivalent of a Hollywood budget. Ink. Paper. An Idea. There’s a purity to that which is just beautiful.

Mostly though, because they’re fucking awesome.

Since you first seriously began working toward becoming a published comic writer, how long has it taken you to reach this point and what are some of the hurdles you have needed to overcome?

It’s been four-and-a-bit years from my first script to my first mini-series. And probably worth nothing that while Phonogram is my first “real” comic, I have done a few bits and pieces of work-for-hire and editorial cartoons in magazines (McKelvie and I do the monthly Save Point cartoon in Official Playstation 2 magazine in the UK). They’re not really relevant, but do count as taking my comics-publishing cherry.

“Obstacles to overcome” is a tricky one. Any I can think of are incredibly vague (“Becoming good enough at writing comics”) or just a bit bloody obvious (“Getting artists to work with me as an unknown”), which don’t really match up to the fun operatic melodrama of the question. If I have to wrestle a guy twice my size before writing the panel break downs for issue 2 of Phonogram, that’ll be an obstacle to overcome, and in those terms, I’ve got nowt.

What are some proactive things you have done (an example would be producing mini-comics) that have put you ahead of the rest of the “aspiring creators” pack?

It’s the line everyone says, but it doesn’t stop it being true: Stop aspiring, start creating. So that’s what I did. What makes me a bit sad is the number of people who claim to be aspiring creators who simply aren’t producing any work. I find it amazing that people get stuck on the idea of only wanting to do comics for the major publishers. They don’t really want to do comics at all. That A-bombs in the head quote earlier? If you want to be a comic-writer, that really should apply to you. You should be creating comics, through whatever methods you have available. You shouldn’t be able to stop yourself.

I mean… I can’t draw, but I did a lightly-processed photocomic for a year, which I based entirely around the technical limitations of its production. I’ve done a variety of webcomics. I’ve done mini-comics. I’ve written comics criticism. I’ve co-edited a small-press anthology. I’ve done stuff.

But fundamentally, none of these things were done to get “ahead”. They were done because I needed to do them and they made me feel more alive. And all of them made me a better writer, with a better understanding of the medium.

Life’s too short to sit around waiting for a commissioning editor’s permission.

 Part of the writing process is the development stage, which often includes doing a lot of research.  During this development process do you ever feel like you are not getting enough actual writing done and how do you reconcile yourself to that?

Yes, that is somewhat troublesome. What I’ve found is that heavy drinking can successfully numb that nagging worry.

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a writer trying to break into comics?

Picking up from the “DO STUFF!!!!” gibberish earlier… well do stuff. Or rather, get stuff done. You’ll learn more from a finished page of comics which has been drawn from one of your scripts than twenty scripts which never get done. It’s only when things are on paper that you really begin to see where your problems are.

A close second would to steal Ballard’s old line on writing: “We must be faithful to our obsessions; they will be faithful to us”. Don’t try to censor yourself, thinking that you’ll eventually be able to do work closer to your core, but first you’ll pitch this more commercial trifle. Your strongest work, the work that people will most be interested in as a new creator will be the stuff which couldn’t be written by anyone else but you. Don’t be afraid of anyone, least of all yourself. Ridicule is nothing to be afraid of.

What does the future hold for you in comics after PHONOGRAM?

Death or Glory.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Writing - stop with the muse

Sure.  There will be inspiration.  And it will seem to come from nowhere.  But let’s be realistic – that was just your subconscious mind finally sifting through all the dusty old bits of information stored in your brain to find the connective tissue between two or more disparate items to form something new, or at least new to you. 

This is what people mean by “making your own luck.”  If you have prepared (with regard to writing – been observant, read…a lot, and worked at your craft), have put yourself out there (submitted work, whether to a professional publication or a local writers’ group), and are looking for further opportunities to share your work, then you will have a far better chance of getting lucky (i.e. having your work published), than if you do little to none of the preceding.  Just because you want to be published, does not mean you will be published.  You need to do the work. 

Work.  Yes.  Writing is a job – I saw a quote attributed to Lawrence Kasdan, I believe, where he states that being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life; this is true.  There are myriad people who have an idea, want to write, wish they had the time to do it.  But they don’t.  Instead, they post on submission threads asking for the editor (probably the only “employee” at this small periodical) to contact them when submissions open again – rather than doing the due diligence to seek out avenues for publication – or lamenting the fact that they have no sample pieces to share with an editor seeking contributors to their site, which tells me they probably aren’t making the time (note: not “taking” the time) to actually do any writing, though they would really love to have their name in the table of contents of that anthology or on the home page of that website. 

They’re probably waiting for their muse.

Some of the best advice I’ve found for those who really want to be a published author:
1. Write
2. Read
3. Write & read every day. 
4. Set a daily writing goal.
5. Finish what you write
6. Then revise, because that’s where the real writing happens.

That’s it.  You don’t need to send it off for publication.  Harlan Ellison has said, on a number of occasions (and I paraphrase):  if you write, then you’re a writer, you don’t need me to acknowledge that you’re a writer, just do the work and let it be.  And that’s what I do, to the best of my ability, without sacrificing time with my family.  This means I don’t get to watch as much TV as I might like.  Nor do I see as many films as I want to.  But I do sit and write every day, or I at least aim to.

Last night was one of those nights when I was not feeling it at all.  My daily goal is 1000 words, which translates to roughly an hour of time – sometimes more, rarely less – and there are many days when I think:  Wouldn’t it just be easier not to bother?  I could relax, read a comic, watch an episode of Cheers, or play some wii sports.  Many days.  And last night was one of those.

I’m in the middle of a new short prose story, one that’s been percolating for a long time.  But I haven’t done some of the research necessary, which can easily be fixed in the revision stage, and I only have a rough outline of where I’m going.  And my gut knows this – something I am finally starting to understand.  I’m a planner, so not knowing where I’m going is a scary thing, and it can affect how I approach my nightly writing (my gut feelings are often, also, indications that something just isn’t working in a particular story).  I was also feeling a bit fatigued, which didn’t help.  And I seriously considered not sitting down to write last night. 

But, as often happens in these instances, I sparked up the laptop and began writing the next scene, of which I only knew how it opened.  It was a slog, but I managed to get through the scene, and I was surprised by a turn it took toward the end, which is always nice.  I didn’t hit my goal, but I got 750 words down and had landed at a good end point.  So I saved it and put it away. 

And then I let the question of what happens next roll around in my brain while I finished Harlan Ellison’s Mefisto in Onyx.  And I figured it out – discarding ideas at 10:00pm so I could rearrange the newer ones at 4:30 this morning – and I’m feeling much better about where the story is going (should have this first draft completed by the weekend). 

And the lesson here is this:  If I had not gotten past my “woe is me” attitude to sit down and write that next bit, I would still be working over that prior part.  I never would have had an opportunity to think about what came after, at least not until I finally wrote that next part.  And, by that time, maybe the confluence of ideas and exterior realities would have changed in such a way that the final part, as now conceived, would have been impossible to discover.  Now, maybe I could find a better solution, but there is also the very healthy chance that I would find a much poorer one, or none at all. 

Then I could be like those people crying about wanting to write on internet threads, but never getting anything done.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Sinestro Corps War – afterthought (the Kill Order)

One of the big things to come out of the Sinestro Corps War storyline was the fact that, now, Green Lanterns were able to use deadly force, whereas before their rings would not allow such extreme measures.  In fact, this was revealed as the ultimate goal of Sinestro throughout this attack by his new yellow lantern corps – echoes of the motivation behind the archnemesis of the Flash, the other major book for which Geoff Johns was/is known.  Though I am certain there are many GL fans, and DC executives, who would disagree, this is yet another misstep on the part of the creators that only diminishes the Green Lantern mythos, in my mind. 

Following in the modern tradition of attempts to make contemporary superheroes edgier and more relevant by making them more violent, it, surprisingly, makes them more juvenile, now able to act upon their baser instincts and kill rather than seeking a better way.  Sure, Geoff Johns, through John Stewart’s character, tries to legitimize it at the end when Stewart says, “It’s no different from any of the cops who protect our streets.”  That is true, but this assumes a restraint in the bearer of such a deadly weapon, a restraint that can be argued is missing in the storytelling of “mainstream” creators and editors. 

That’s a broad-brush statement, and it could just be my cynicism rearing its ugly head, but I stand by it, regardless.

Mainly, I stand by it because of what was evident in this storyline.  Once the Green Lanterns were afforded the ability to use deadly force, they were all too happy to utilize it.  Yes, they were meeting “an eye for an eye,” but this reduction to the least common denominator is lazy storytelling and saps the Lanterns of their heroic ideal (certainly, one can be a hero and kill, but it is a fine line to tread, demanding nuance and restraint that was lost on this narrative, compounded by the decades of history that follows comic book heroes of this type).  It takes far more effort to have the hero overcome a sadistic “bad guy” such as Sinestro was portrayed in this without being able to just kill, but the result would have been far more satisfying than the slugfest that carried over these many issues. 

Lastly (and I apologize for the rather messy post, but I’m writing “off the cuff,” and trying to follow the many jumps my mind is making while these thoughts fester and boil up there), there was one other point where Johns tried to show that this new ability to use deadly force wasn’t merely a carte blanche edict that would allow for rampant deaths of the Lanterns’ enemies – though, of course, we all know that death in comic books means nothing.  Kilowog, while battling Arkillo (I believe), states that this new kill order is only to be used as a last measure (let’s disregard that the kill order came with no training/counsel/rules).  The big problem here:  Johns is telling and not showing.  This response comes after readers have witnessed pages and pages and pages of dead bodies accompanied by the colored edicts that “Sinestro #__” or “Green Lantern #__” have died and a replacement must be found.  The trail of bodies is vast, and yet, Kilowog would have us believe that the kill order is merely a last resort.  The imagery puts a lie to that statement.  This is compounded when Kilowog and Arkillo have their final battle.  Arkillo lay lifeless on the page (to be fair, the static imagery of the comic page does not allow for the subtlety of film where we would be able to see that a body is not dead more easily than in a comic) and Kilowog is asked of he is dead.  Kilowog says he is not but that his rings won’t harm any more Lanterns.  Now, yes, Kilowog tells readers Arkillo isn’t dead.  But the pile of bodies the audience has witnessed over the previous issues’ worth of story, coupled with the fact that a dead body and unconscious body look the same on the printed page, causes a tension in our brains that makes it difficult to take what Kilowog is saying, at face value.  If we’d seen some restraint, some attempt at overcoming the threat without taking the easy way out, maybe it would be easy to accept Arkillo’s apparent survival.  But, as it is, Geoff Johns  & co. have set up a status quo that makes it far easier to believe he is dead, like so many other Yellow Lanterns, than to take that statement as “fact.” 


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Green Lantern - Sinestro Corps War

First, let me get out in front of this one.  I did not enjoy this story, whatsoever.  The only saving grace was Jerry Ordway’s inks over Jamal Igle’s pencils.  Beautiful.  Other than that, this was a bad comic.  In my opinion.

The caveats: 
-  This story is seven years old (in comic book terms that can be a lifetime), and I was already aware of many of the revelations in this narrative. 
-  There’s a good chance this may have read better in monthly installments.  There’s a magic that can occur with comic narratives, those done well, when the readers has weeks to stew and ponder over what they just read.  Similar, in a way, to serialized television – the format can dictate creative choices that will enhance the experience for the audience. 

Given these above points, it is possible that the proclamations of this storyline’s greatness were not overstated, at the time.  [though, I’m more inclined to believe it was more hyperbole than genuinely good storytelling]  Geoff Johns & co. were certainly shaking up the status quo without treading on the history of the Green Lanterns, and they even managed to weave many facets of that history, and DC history in general, into this new age for the corps. 

I remember how crazy the response to the Anti-Monitor’s return seemed to be on the internet and within the comic-reading community, but within the context of this narrative – standing alone as it does now in collected form – that felt so lackluster.  Yes, it’s the Anti-Monitor, the big bad we remember from the Crisis – THE CRISIS, not the echoes that followed years later – but he feels so insignificant in the way he’s utilized within this story.  He just stands around, for the most part, looking tall.  It never felt, to me, like he was spurring this great cosmic war with the Guardians and their corps. 

But, again, this could be the result of my being spoiled on his return.  Which isn’t an absolution of the creators and the story.  Now this may be unfair, but let’s look at a different example of a comic story that drastically changed the status quo for the main characters – Swamp Thing #21, by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, & John Totleben.  This is where Moore made his stamp on the character, “revealing” that the Swamp Thing wasn’t Alec Holland transformed into a muck monster, but actually the consciousness of Holland that had animated the muck to form a body with which he could relate.  The impetus for the character to this point had been his desire to find a way to change back to a human.  That was thrown out with this second issue of Moore’s run, and the character would never be the same. 

Now, in both of these stories, the status quo is shaken up (the introduction of a second lantern corps, the rewriting of GL law to allow deadly force, the reintroduction of the Anti-Monitor vs. a wholly new take on a character and its motivation), and I have read each of these stories after a point where I knew of the “big change(s)” within the mythos.  With Sinestro Corps War, though there are specific plot points toward which Johns, et al. are moving, it mainly feels like they’re just spinning their wheels for the most part, as little really occurs other than a lot of fighting between Green and Yellow Lanterns, over the course of ten-plus chapters.  And even those main plot points feel diminished somehow.
(it could be the fact that, due to the frantic nature of many “mainstream/action” comics today, the characters are never afforded a chance to stop or slow down.  And without those quiet moments of reflection, there is no ebb and flow to the action or the narrative throughline, losing the core of what can make for a good story) 
It’s one long fight scene, basically, through multiple issues of this story, and any character moments or nuance gets lost in the clutter. 

Then there’s Swamp Thing #21.  Moore imbues his story with heart.  It’s a story of horrible sadness – the realization that the thing you wanted so much to return to is now beyond your grasp and was, in fact, never possible.   We have all experienced the desire to get back what we once had, whether an old girlfriend or boyfriend, our childhood innocence, something material or spiritual; it’s something to which we can relate, quite easily.  It is this core that makes this tale so affecting and so effective.  Despite this character being covered in weeds and tubers and muck and moss, readers understand him, feel empathy for him, and are moved by this story, told in a single comic.  No small feat, that. 

It seems like, as is often the case, the lessons gleaned from previous works held up as exemplary are the wrong ones.  It feels, in Sinestro Corps War, like the main point of the story was to move toward these big “reveals.”  Anti-Monitor.  Sinestro Corps.  Green Lanterns being allowed to use deadly force.  These facets seem to be the driving force behind the narrative, and one could argue that the big “reveal” that the Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland but a husk of plant material pretending to be Holland was the main impetus of issue #21 of Swamp Thing.  And though that might be what many people remember, that is not what has made that issue, and that run by Moore and his artistic collaborators, the high water mark to which people return for multiple readings.  Moore did not rely on the twist ending to hold that story together.  He filled it with emotion and humanity and terror – so ably abetted by Bissette and Totleben, without whom I don’t think this story could have worked as well – and hinged his story onto some very true feelings that resonate with readers. 

Swamp Thing #21 has a cool twist at the end, but it stands up as a well-told story because the twist wasn’t the prime motivator for the authors.  Sinestro Corps War has multiple cool twists, one could argue, but once you wash those away, you’re left with a lifeless husk of a narrative, similar to what was left of the Anti-Monitor the last time anyone had seen him prior to this storyline.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #4 - Jacen Burrows

When I first started writing about comics, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Along with spotlights on specific comics, I also interviewed a handful of people working in comics.  This interview was with Jacen Burrows, whose art has delineated stories by Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, and Alan Moore, at Avatar Comics.  I discovered his clean, 'realistic' style on his and Antony Johnston's adaptation of Moore's The Courtyard.  An artist who could be working for Marvel or DC, Burrows has preferred to do more personal work with Avatar where creative control is in the hands of the creators (note the commonality between "creative" and "creator" there), and this is something I appreciate about him.  I hope you enjoy the interview.


Jacen Burrows is the much-lauded artist of many a title from Avatar Press.  Since graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design, he has had the fortune to work with some of the best writers in comics – Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Antony Johnston – on titles that include Scars, Dark Blue, The Courtyard, 303, and the forthcoming Chronicles of Wormwood.  His artwork is articulate, smooth, and as clean as you will find. 

He was gracious enough to answer some questions for Independent Propaganda a couple weeks back and his responses were thoughtful and enlightening.  I hope you all enjoy what follows.

-         Can you tell us briefly how you broke into comics?

It wasn't easy.  I graduated Art School in 1996, right as the bottom fell out of the comic industry.  I tried to work my way up through the independent publishers but they kept going out of business.  There are a few really rare comics out there that I drew for London Night and Caliber, but the art really wasn't strong enough back then to make a jump to any sort of mainstream company.  I also worked in the Role Playing industry for a while but again, those companies went out of business.  Well, TSR was bought out and relaunched but I still lost a lot of money working for them.  Eventually, the writer I worked with at Caliber, Tom Sniegoski, set up a deal at Avatar and brought me in.  I've been there ever since because they consistently offer me books that are impossible to turn down and they pay well and on time. 

-         What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to be successful in the comic industry?

My mom essentially raised me on her own.  She worked her ass off to keep us afloat and really instilled a strong work ethic in me.  I was also an only child and spent a lot of time developing my own imagination.  Working in comics requires a lot of time alone with the drawing board and I know a lot of guys haven't got the discipline to do that.  I have always been good at dealing with that since childhood.

-         Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics.  What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your art?

In college I was prep/line cook which was challenging but a great experience.  You spend 4 or 5 years in a kitchen in Savannah, Georgia and you really start to appreciate drawing for a living.  After I finished college, I spent a couple of years living with family in Dallas which allowed me to pursue an art career as a full time freelancer.  This was that period in which just about every publisher I worked with went under still owing me money.  I think I made maybe $8K a year at that time, working 60 hours a week.  If I hadn't been living at home, I'd never have been able to survive but I didn't have to have a non-art job ever again.

-         What is the most important thing an aspiring artist should do in order to better their chances of finding work?

I know a lot of people talk about networking and getting to know pros as a door into the industry but really, the only thing that matters is your portfolio.  There are maybe a few hundred jobs in this entire industry and tens of thousands of people fighting to get them.  At the end of the day, the jobs go to the person with the best pages and a reputation for meeting deadlines.  If there is one thing that will improve every aspect of your work it is perspective.  Seriously.  Master perspective.  The better you understand the picture plane and how perspective affects each and every object the better you will draw.  Most artists starting out learn tricks to deal with challenging objects.  They'll draw faces, for example, from the same angles and direction over and over but that is a 2-dimensional approach.  When you apply 3-dimensional perspective to everything, you break these bad habits and everything starts to come together.  You'll figure out how to place figures anywhere in the picture plane accurately, your "camera" placement will improve, your environments will become tangible places, and your foreshortening will look more real.  Editors will notice these things.  Don't cut corners and fake it or you'll hit a wall at some point and stop improving.

-         What artists, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring artists study?

It really depends on the areas you are looking to improve.  I think the best stylists are ones that seem to have developed their look unconsciously over a number of years so I tend to study more fundamental things.  Composition, dynamics and solidity of form.  I've spent the last year or so really examining a lot of classic illustration people, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell.  They are hardly unknown but I don't think a lot of modern comic artists really look at these guys much anymore.  I have also really been getting a lot out of studying certain painters with a knack for building amazingly immersing environments in a single image.  People like James Dietz, William Aylward, Howard Pyle, Jean Leon Jerome and the Pre-Raphaelites.

-         Marvel and DC seem to be pushing sales through a series of crossover “events” and relaunches meant to feed off that hive mentality of needing the next new thing.  Admittedly, they have to answer to shareholders, but what could they be doing differently in order to promote sales?

The big two are in some ways, slaves to their own branding.  The more success their properties have outside of comics the harder it becomes to do anything drastic or truly innovative with them inside comics.  Plus, I think their core audience enjoys the familiar consistency and tends to throw tantrums whenever major changes are presented.  They seem to have this unspoken rule about keeping everything under this proverbial umbrella of the corporate brand which hamstrings a lot of the creative process.  Obviously there have to be rules in order to keep their properties strong but I think creative freedom breeds excitement and interest.  Hire the best writers you can afford and let them make it their own with a unique vision, tone and stage without having an editor pop in every few issues to shuffle artists, force crossovers and steer the direction.  Trust your talent, not the costume.  The emphasis should always be on who is doing the book even though I see how that can end up biting the company in the ass when they leave to work for the competition or to start their own thing.

-         This apparent need to utilize gimmicks in order to artificially inflate sales in the short-term almost begs the question, what is missing from mainstream comics today that has caused this sales drop-off?  In your opinion, what do you feel is lacking in today’s mainstream comics?

Are sales dropping off?  Most of the buzz I hear is that the big 2 are having a resurgence, possibly at the cost of the independent market.  Personally, I think that the talent pool working in comics today is better than it has ever been.  If anything is lacking in mainstream comics it seems to be ingenuity.  We have boiled the craft of making comics down to a science.  Even mediocre writers can write interesting dialogue and competent scene shifts these days.  Everyone has done their homework, so to speak, and all of the elements seem to be in place.  But like those forgettable summer blockbusters, there is something missing.  To me it feels like we have mastered the craft and forgotten to add personal expression a lot of the time.  I want to be affected on more than just a superficial level.  That only seems to happen when creators are given the freedom to chase their personal vision.  To use the most overused example, Watchmen doesn't happen by committee.

-         Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels – both collections and original works – and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry?  Why, or why not?

Certainly a good thing.  The more venues the better.  I think the best thing that can happen to comics is for the world at large to see us as books, not periodicals.  Magazines are designed to be cheap, quick reads with everything set up as bullet points and factoids.  You consume and move on.  The information in a book is meant to be digested and considered.  The kinds of comics I want to do are closer to books than magazines and being shelved like books is a step in the right direction.  Bookstore distribution certainly won't herald the new Golden Age, but it makes surviving a little easier.  The backbone of comics will remain the Direct Market, though.  A curious newcomer should be able to walk into a clean, professional, welcoming comic shop, strike up a conversation and end up with a small stack of material that suits their personal interests suggested by intelligent clerks who know their product.  Comic stores like that are the real future.

-         For you, what are the advantages of working with Avatar rather than Marvel and DC?

Costumes really aren't my thing.  I think they can be fun and I expect to play with that side of comics eventually but I really enjoy making movies on paper.  I came along at just the right moment and have been really lucky.  I was just hoping for some steady work initially but once Warren Ellis put me on Dark Blue everything changed.  Now I get to work with only the best of the best writers on their edgiest, most personal works which suits my personal tastes perfectly.  When not doing that, I get to draw horror stuff.  Zombies, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Lovecraft...THESE are my Batman and Spider-man.  I truly love the genre and its fans and I never have to pull my punches.  I'm not a PG artist by nature so being let off the chain to do hard R material is wonderfully fulfilling.

-         You have had the opportunity to work with some of the best writers in comics.  What are some differences in the way these creators approach a story, and what are some of the challenges you face in realizing their visions?

Warren [Ellis] and Garth [Ennis] are actually pretty similar in approach.  They both have a few preferred page flow tactics unique to them but they are both very concise.  I had to earn Warren's trust initially.  The scripts were a bit denser and had more specific panel directions but he loosened up once he saw that I wasn't going to cut corners or stray from his vision.  Now when we work together he gives me a lot of freedom and we really flow well together.  With both of them, the stories are so well formed that they play like movies in my head and I just have to pick the best snap shots to put into the panels.  Same with Antony Johnston.  I think he'll be a superstar in comics in the next 5 years.

-         How much input do you have into the stories you draw, and do you have any aspirations of one day writing your own stories?

As far as plot, none.  These are fully realized stories before they get to me.  The writers already have a vision and my job is to be as faithful to that as possible.  All of the work I do is in service to that vision and the purpose of the story and that is really thrilling to me.  I'll add little expressions and details that I think might push a point a little further than the words or maybe come up with a cool archetypal character design for someone in the shot that I feel adds something but it is all to enhance their vision of the story like a good actor working from a great script.  It should come together in the end. 
I have some story ideas of my own I really want to do down the line if only because there are things I haven't gotten to draw yet that I don't think will ever be in any script I get.  I think you have to be a writer/artist to pull off certain types of stories or scenes.  When you wear both hats in one production your approach to a scene might come from a direction that a straight writer wouldn't attempt.  I want to really play with the boundaries of storytelling one of these days and I think I'd have to write to do it.

-         With your body of comic work to date you are primarily known as a horror artist.  Do you have any need to break away from that label or does it even make a difference?

I think I am horror influenced no matter what I do.  Scars was a crime noir thing but my approach was so dark and grisly that it became horrific.  That was intentional on my part.  I had no intention of hiding the horrific scenes in that story.  I think you can sense more of the character's descent into his own personal hell by seeing exactly what he sees and that was what I think Warren intended.  303 was the same way.  It is a bit more than a war book, but whenever I showed the violence of war I wanted it to be completely visceral and unflinching.  In a way, I see it like I am respecting the reader that way.  I won't censor the imagery and the reader can choose whether to dwell on it or pass over it at a glance.  When you see what a claymore does to a human body it can be horrific.  It is just my own personal aesthetic as well.  I don't think of myself as a horror artist any more than I imagine David Cronenberg sees himself as a horror director

-         I just picked up the Chronicles of Wormwood preview and it looks great.  I understand it’s going to be an ongoing series.  Does Garth have a definite end in mind as he did with Preacher?

No, the book is actually a six issue mini.  I really couldn't keep up the pace on an ongoing.  I try but I am just not a monthly artist right now.  There is definitely an end to the arc.  I know there have been talks of a sequel already but not in the way most people would suspect.  You'll have to read the book to see what I mean.

-         Will this be your only project for the foreseeable future or will you be able to work on other things as they come up?

After this I am doing an original Alan Moore miniseries at Avatar but no details yet.

-         And finally, what would you like to tell us about Chronicles of Wormwood and any other projects you have coming out?

Wormwood is Garth's darkly hilarious take on the Antichrist and by extension, Christianity, organized religion and the world around us.  The Antichrist himself is a charming British guy who really doesn't want to go through with his asshole father's plan to start the apocalypse.  Without giving too much away, we are taken on a road trip to the after life and get to see Heaven, Hell and more with Jesus and a talking rabbit as copilots.  The book is seriously the funniest thing I have read in ages and has an oddly positive spiritual message despite being possibly the most blasphemous comic ever.  Aside from that, I am doing a lot of covers for Avatar these days including Night of the Living Dead, which is a real thrill for me.  This is the first time anyone has gotten the real license and blessing from George A. Romero and John Russo and created a real prequel in continuity with the film.  Night of the Living Dead is not public domain despite popular opinion and being involved with the official book is a huge deal for me.  I'm the biggest zombie fan in the industry and I hope my various zombie covers show that!