[Each Monday I’m reprinting one of my old Making Good interviews on writing (although this one is actually going up on a Wednesday). This week’s originally ran 01/01/07 and 01/02/07 on the Scryptic Studios site. The first part of the 2-part interview was conducted by my friend Elton Pruitt in his Running Up That Hill column, then the second part (conducted by myself) ran in my own column the next day. Looking back, this interview is a Making Good highlight for me–SCALPED is probably my favorite book on stands, and I got a chance to put up this interview the week the first issue came out.]
Can you tell us some about when you first decided you wanted to take a stab at writing comic books, and the steps you took to get started in that direction?
Well, considering I was a comic fan since childhood and that I also knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer, you’d think it’d be a no-brainer that I’d pursue a career writing comics. But I never really did. I think just because I had no idea how to go about it. I grew up in a small town in Alabama, and as far as I knew, there was nobody in my neck of the woods who wrote or drew comics for a living. I assumed you had to live in New York and have a brother-in-law who was an editor to get a job writing for one of the big companies. So I just pursued every other kind of writing I could. In college, I started out majoring in journalism, then switched to English after I realized how much I hated journalism. I wrote plays, a screenplay, a couple of novels and tons of poetry. The overwhelming majority of it was totally dreadful, but still, I was always writing. I was always trying something different. And I think that definitely helped me in the long run. Eventually, I sold a few short stories and then got a job writing movie reviews. It wasn’t until I won the Marvel Comics Talent Search contest in 2002 that I ever imagined I had a shot at writing comics for a living.
Can you talk a little about your convention experience in those days, and are there any tips or suggestions you could share with the Scryptic Studios audience on getting the most out of a convention?
My convention experience was like that of most any other fan. I went to the Wizard World Chicago Con most every year to get books signed and go to panels. I’m a quiet guy, so I never even worked up the nerve to try and chat up editors. It’s so hard when you’re trying to break in as a writer. Artists can just whip out their portfolio, but no editor wants you coming up to them on the con floor, pitching stories. I think the best thing you can hope for is just to network a little and get some people to know your name, so when you email them ideas you’re not just some faceless entity.
I recently wrote a column here titled “Are You Serious?” The basic gist of it was, are you (the aspiring writers we hope to reach here) serious about wanting to write, or do you just think it would be cool to be a writer. When did you realize that you were serious about writing – that it was not enough for it to just be a hobby or a “maybe someday” kind of thing – but that it was something you had to do?
I realized one important distinction when I was in college and attended a local writer’s conference. I went to all these different panels where writers talked about their craft, but it seemed to me that the vast majority of the people attending were only interested in learning about how to get published. They all seemed convinced that their novel was the next great thing, and they just wanted to know how to get an agent and get it in print. I didn’t know much at the time, but I did know enough to realize that I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to warrant being published. I was only interested in becoming a better writer. I just figured that once I got to the point where I was actually good enough that people would pay money to read what I wrote, then the whole publishing end of things would somehow take care of itself.
In 2002, you won a Marvel Comics Talent Search and got to write a Wolverine story that saw print in the pages of his monthly title. What was that experience like?
It was incredibly exciting. For the contest, you had to write a short outline for an eight page Wolverine story. My first impulse was to do a fight scene or something set in a bar. But then I figured I’d go for something more offbeat and set my story on a dirt road in the middle of the woods, like the Flannery O’Connor short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I dropped my outline in a big box at Wizard World Chicago that summer and months later, I had a message on my phone from an editor at Marvel. Turns out I was about the only person whose story wasn’t a fight scene or something set in a bar. The whole experience was a huge thrill. I got to write “SNIKT” in a script, and then they sent me a check with Spider-Man on it.
Once it became apparent that the Wolverine story was most likely not going to lead to bigger and better things with the House of Ideas, how did you handle that, and what was your next step?
There were four winners in that contest, two writers and two artists, and none of us ever really did anything else for Marvel, so that was disappointing. I pitched lots of stuff to Marvel at the time. One of the first things I pitched was the same idea that would eventually become THE OTHER SIDE. I pitched it to Marvel as a relaunch of THE ‘NAM. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get anything else going with Marvel, but still, the whole experience encouraged me to keep plugging away. Sure, I only had eight published pages to my name, but still, for the first time ever, I felt like I could actually make a go of it as a comic book writer. I felt like I was finally good enough.
We talked a little on MySpace once about how you got Will Dennis, who’s probably best known today as editor of Y: The Last Man, to let you pitch him on The Other Side. For the benefit of our readers, can you talk a little bit about that experience – both why you picked Will, and how you first approached him?
I decided to pitch THE OTHER SIDE to Will Dennis at Vertigo because he had been the editor on the Garth Ennis WAR STORIES books. I just emailed him out of the blue and told him in general what the book was about and also told him a little about myself and my interest in the Vietnam War. He basically replied, “Sounds interesting, but no thanks. War books don’t sell.”
Once Will gave you some version of “thanks, but no thanks,” what then? It must have taken some cojones to re-approach him at that point.
I was surprised to even get a response, so I emailed him again and pointed out how I thought THE OTHER SIDE was different from previous Vietnam War books and how it could be marketed to Vertigo readers. I already had the first issue script written at that point, so I asked him if he’d be willing to look it over. Will said I could send it to him, but he still didn’t think he could use it. This was March 2004. I was still pitching the book to every other company I could get in touch with and getting nothing but rejections. Nobody wanted to do a war book. I would send Will an email about once a month, just to remind him of the project. It was June 2004 when he emailed me and told me he would love to do the book at Vertigo.
What did you actually wind up sending him: I assume the full script to the first issue at least, but did you include other material like a pitch/plot synopsis?
Yeah, I sent him the first issue and then later a synopsis of the rest of the series. At that point, I’d never seen a professional pitch before, so I had no idea what I was doing really. Now I know that most pitches are about one page in length, so it was incredibly kind of Will to humor me and read my entire 40 page script.
What did you take away from this experience that might be helpful to Scryptic readers down the road when they are ready to pitch their dream project?
As Karen Berger later put it, I was persistent but polite through the whole process. It also helps to be extremely patient. Pestering an editor with email after email will only do you more harm than good.
Aside from Elton: Back when I was first trying to get the ball rolling with my own writing, one of the things I most wish I had, but didn’t, was an actual comic book script that I could compare to the final published comic. Since that time, I have seen a few script-to-page studies here and there and have always found them to be educational and enlightening.
Jason was kind enough to offer for Scryptic Studios readers the script to pages 2-5 of THE OTHER SIDE #1 (and the accompanying images of the finished pages). Following the script, he has included a few comments on these pages, as well. Big thanks to you, Jason, for providing this invaluable educational tool for our readers!
Jason Aaron: I think the best thing about this opening is that it manages to lay out the setting, the time period, the two main characters and the obvious conflict, all in one fell swoop. Other than the supernatural element that surfaces later, you have the whole book right there in the first five pages. I also like the symmetry of the two sets of pages. You have the open-mouth expression of the dead American soldier in panel 2.1 and a similar expression on a dead Viet Cong in panel 4.1. You have the grunts dragging a dead body in panel 2.2 and a tiger dragging a dead body in panel 4.2. And you have a close-up of one main character’s hands in 2.4 and of the other main character’s hands in 4.4.
What’s in the water up there in Kansas City to account for so many talented comic creators? I can’t even keep up anymore, but off the top of my head, you’ve got B. Clay Moore (Hawaiian Dick and Expatriate), Tony Moore (Walking Dead, Exterminators, Fear Agent), Matt Fraction (Casanova), Ed Lavallee and Grant Bond (Revere), and of course you. And I’m probably leaving out at least a couple of guys from that list!
This area is also home to artist Jeremy Haun, inker and writer Ande Parks, writer Jai Nitz, upcoming writer Seth Peck, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Steven Sanders, as well as comic vets like Bruce Jones and Richard Corben. I had no idea there were so many comic book creators around town when I moved here six years ago. It’s an incredible resource to have, and I’d love to work with some of these guys in the future.
Thank you, Jason!
What’s the first comic book you bought?
In the summer of 1979, I picked up two of those 68 page dollar books that DC was publishing: Adventure Comics #464 has a very cool Jim Aparo Deadman cover and World’s Finest #258 has a Neal Adams cover that has Batman transformed into a giant bat and choking the shit out of Superman.
What were some of your early writing influences, and what are some of your current ones?
My earliest influences were Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first book I ever read on my own) and William Golding (Lord of the Flies is still one of my favorite books). In college, I got big into a couple of other Williams: William Blake and William Faulkner. Current influences include Cormac McCarthy, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, David Simon, Grant Morrison and Paul Schrader.
How did pitching Scalped differ from The Other Side?
With Scalped, I wasn’t emailing an editor out of the blue. And I also had a better idea of how to put together a professional looking pitch. I still suck at it though. I’m not at all comfortable writing one-page pitches.
What’s the best part about having a book (books, as of today) of your own in stores? Is it like you expected?
The best part is that people are reading (and hopefully enjoying) my work. The second best part is that editors are now calling me, asking me to pitch to them, instead of me having to chase after them.
For creators who are like you and have their first or second project already out there, being published, what advice can you share about promoting their work and getting it into the hands of readers?
Working with Vertigo, you have DC to handle the promotion for you, so I’m still learning about that whole side of the business. Right now, I feel I have a pretty good online presence: a blog, a MySpace page for myself and for The Other Side, and I post on message boards quite a bit. [11/05/08 UPDATE: Jason has now also started Standard Attrition, a communal blog and message board shared with Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, Jock, David Lapham, G. Willow Wilson, and Brian Wood] But what I really need to work on is getting known by retailers, so they’ll be sure to order my books.
Would you say you spend more time creating Scalped and The Other Side, or promoting them?
I spend tons more time creating.
Did you learn any lessons on The Other Side that affected the way you worked on Scalped?
For the most part, I was writing them both at the same time.
Most definitely. I stuck to mostly four and five panel layouts with Cameron and he poured all kinds of amazing detail into those pages, but Guéra seems at his best doing seven, eight or nine panels on a page, so Scalped has become pretty dense. And I think I’ve been really open with both guys in terms of letting them go their own way with something if they want, but Guéra has taken the most advantage of that. With him, sometimes my job is to layout the emotion and the mood, and he’ll break down the action. Then I just come back and layer on the curse words.
Can you describe your creative process on Scalped?
With Scalped, I had the concept from the get-go, but it took us awhile to iron out all the details. I jumped around to different points in the story, trying to decide where to begin, and I combined a couple of characters to get our main guy. At this point, I have seven issues written and the series plotted to around issue #30, when the shit really hits the fan. In those first thirty issues, we’ll meet tribal cops, meth addicts, greedy officials from the BIA, practitioners of Jeet Kune Do, the Dawg Soldierz, the Burn Victims, an FBI agent named after Warren Oates’ father, a two time Soldier of Fortune Combat Knife Champion, a brutal Hmong street gang, a Heyoka who talks to his horse and the sheriff who presides over the largest drunk tank in the United States.
I can usually write an issue in two weeks, but I like to take longer with it when I can, because my best scripts seem to be the ones I get to think, re-think and re-think again.
Where would you like your comic career to be a year from now?
A year from now, I hope to be seeing Scalped #12 on the shelves, that’s my main concern. And if everything else pans out that I currently have in the works for 2007, then I’ll be working in a variety of different genres for an array of different companies.
Where would you like to see your comic career five years from now?
If I still have a career in five years, then I’ll feel like the luckiest son of a bitch on earth. Beyond that, I’d love to be able to maintain a balance between creator-owned work like The Other Side and Scalped, and more mainstream, work-for-hire projects. In other words, I want to be Brian K. Vaughan.
What would you say is the #1 mistake you see aspiring comic creators making?
Probably trying to break into the industry by pitching yet another superhero retread.
What’s the best advice you could give someone looking to break into the industry?
Find that one original idea, the one you were born to write and that you’re dying to read. Obsess about it, dream about it, lose sleep over it, work on it every spare minute of the day. And then don’t listen to anybody else when they tell you it’s shit.
What are you reading right now?
In terms of comic books, I’m loving Casanova, DMZ, The Exterminators, Loveless, Grant Morrison’s Batman, Garth Ennis’ Punisher and anything Ed Brubaker writes.
In terms of book books, I’m reading Without Reservation: The Making of America’s Most Powerful Indian Tribe and Foxwoods: The World’s Largest Casino, which is an absolutely fascinating read.
What advice would you share with other aspiring comic creators about balancing comics with other aspects of their life, like family or friends?
It’s tough. I have a wife and two kids, including my 19-month-old son who I stay home with during the day. It’s hard to maintain a real schedule. I kind of have to work whenever I get the time. It’s 1:55 AM as I type this.
Any final advice on the life or craft of writing in general?
“Just write, motherfucker. Just write.”
That’s what I used to keep written above my computer. I’ll also pass along the words of my late cousin, the novelist Gustav Hasford, who in a letter to the U.S. Customs Office said, “I needed this ton of books and papers so that I might steal my ideas from the widest possible range of sources, the secret of good writing.”
Do you have any current or upcoming projects other than The Other Side or Scalped that you’d like to plug?
Yes, I have several things I’d like to plug, but unfortunately I can’t talk about them yet.
[11/05/08 UPDATE: Since this interview ran, Jason has written Hellblazer, Ripclaw, The Black Panther, Friday The 13th, The Penguin, taken a couple more cracks at Wolverine, and is the current helmsman of Ghost Rider]
Thank you, Jason!
And now, because I forgot to get you anything for Christmas, here’s a 3-page preview of Scalped #1:
[11/05/08 UPDATE: You can now download the entire first issue for free here]
Next week: David Schwartz!