Much of Ed Brubaker’s writing focuses on getting the deep, dark secrets at the heart of his characters and their oft-pulpy plotlines, but he revealed he’s just as skilled at unveiling the fun facts behind his various success stories.
During a promotional stop at the Los Angeles-area bookshop Skylight Books over the holiday weekend, the superstar writer (who recent works include “Velvet,” “Fatale,” “Criminal” and “Captain America”) sat down for a lengthy public appearance and Q&A, keenly moderated by the editor of Badass Digest, Devin Feraci and attended by about 50 fans. The resulting conversation shed fresh, funny light on some of the behind-the-scenes secrets of many of his comic book creations, the highlights of which CBR News shares below.
The secret origin of the inspiration by his spy thriller “Velvet,” with artist Steve Epting has some roots in his personal experiences:
Ed Brubaker: I’ve always been fascinated with the espionage world in general. My dad was in Naval Intelligence, and my uncle was a big mucky-muck at the CIA in the ’60s and ’70s, and so I was always, as a little kid, being around at weird cocktail parties full of spies and military people and things like that… There’s this great episode of “The Sandbaggers” where the guy in charge of the agency has to find a new personal assistant or secretary, and he’s the head of intelligence at MI6. And you realize, watching that episode, that the Girl Friday of that world would have to be one of the most qualified people of all time. So it made me look at the women are treated in movies and books about the espionage world, and how they’re generally kind of overlooked… In the [fictional] espionage world, the women are just sort of used as part of the backdrop, or something to look sexy in a scene, or Moneypenny being flirted with by James Bond, and I thought, “That is such bullshit.” Probably, to be the right hand to the person who’s in charge of the agency, you have to be one of the most qualified, knowledgeable people in the world, and every single thing that the head of the agency looks at, you’d have to look at it first and weed out the shit that doesn’t make sense. So it just seemed like whoever had that job would have to be so much more interesting than how they’re portrayed, normally.
On the idea of casting Diane Lane in the role of Velvet Templeton:
I remember reading an interview with Diane Lane years ago, and she was saying that basically, after she turned 40, every role she was offered was playing someone’s mom. Everything that was an interesting movie was getting sent to 25-year-olds, and I just thought, “How is that possible?” Diane Lane is one of my favorite actresses, she’s super-beautiful and she’s 40 and suddenly there’s a thing? Of course, now I’m over 40 and I’m like, “People in their forties are interesting!”
“Velvet” nearly ended up as TV series on NBC — until homogenous Hollywood industry-think derailed it:
When we initially started working on it, I had a couple blind deals for network pilots with NBC, and I was kind of pitching ideas and nothing was sticking. So I was like, “What are you guys looking for?” “Something kind of ‘Alias’-y.” “Well, I’m working on this comic about a woman who is a secretary who turns out to used to have been a secret agent…” So I told them what “Velvet” was about and they were like, “Ooo, we really like that!” So I took that in as a pitch and I sold it to them. And then they called us back after having bought it and said, “So, we really don’t like that the main character’s 45, and we really don’t like that the secret agent character, the man, is dead. Wouldn’t it be better if she was like 25, and he was training her?” And I was like “Well, that’s not really what “Velvet” is, but I can write that for you guys and you’ll never film it because it’s like every other TV show on [the air]. I think you guys want “Covert Affairs,” which you actually own under another network.” The fact that [Velvet] was in her mid-forties was a thing, and I was hearing this from women who were in their mid-forties that were network executives, and I was like, “Do you not even see that you’re, like, sidelining yourselves?” It was weird to me.
There’s a difference in the way he writes when working with longtime collaborators Steve Epting and Sean Phillips:
I think mentally, for me, when I’m writing for Steve, I think more in terms of choreography, where there’s action scenes in the book. I know exactly how Steve’s going to draw action, so I know exactly how many panels to put on the page, and I can even picture where he’s going to put the camera for it. So I think when I was writing superhero comics and “Captain America” with Steve, whatever part of me was good at that comes out more when I write for Steve than for anybody else.
And then the part of me that just taps into just getting into weird diversions and finding creepy moments and characters really comes out when I write for Sean. The work process is almost exactly the same: I write as many pages as I can get out before they’re done with whatever they’re on and send it to them, and I have the issues outlined and stuff. And Sean is incredibly fast and Steve is incredibly slow, so that’s why our [“Velvet”] issues are six to eight weeks apart, because Steve wants to do everything but the color — and I think he would do the color if the book would come out only once a year. [Laughs]
His stint writing Captain America became an iconic interpretation of the character because, ironically, Brubaker scaled back the flag-waving:
I distilled the things about Captain America that worked for me as a kid, and that I felt were relevant to modern life and the way we tell stories now, and to try to tell a really realistic espionage story that took place in a superhero universe. And I think taking it to that level and understanding this character and trying to portray him not as someone jingoistic — I think taking out that jingoistic element and adding more of a core morality that I always think was there — it was definitely there in the Simon and Kirby days. And the fact that he’s a man out of time gives him almost a moral standing that we don’t have now, in a way… We definitely [want that now] — I would love if we had a real Captain America — that was Chris Evans — and super-hot. [Laughs]
The secret to getting the green light for Bucky’s long-forbidden return was always as simple as rock-bottom sales:
Everyone who’s ever written “Captain America” has wanted to bring Bucky back, and I was the first person who arrived at a time where they were willing to… The whole thing when Bucky died was a ret-con that Stan Lee did because he didn’t like sidekicks, and Jack Kirby went along with it because he thought it was this great way to add tragedy to Captain America, so there was some part of me that as an eight year old kid went, “Wait — if it didn’t happen in a comic, then it didn’t really happen.” I was like, “If I ever get to write a Captain America comic, I’m going to bring back Bucky!”
But honestly, when I got the book, I was asked, “What would you want to do?” and I said, “Well, I have this idea about how to bring back Bucky, where he is like a really cool bad guy who’s actually an adult.” And Joe Quesada said, “Oh, that’s really interesting, because we just this big summit where we were arguing over whether we could bring back Bucky or not, because ‘Captain America’ is not selling.”
I was working on a thing with Gene Colan years later — his last comic that he ever did; he drew Captain America, he co-created the Falcon — and I asked him, “How come you guys never brought Bucky back?” And he said, “Oh, y’know, we were doing this story where Bucky came back and he turned out to be a robot, and I asked Stan, ‘Why don’t we have it be the real Bucky?’ and he said, ‘Aw, sales aren’t low enough yet.'” Stan was always okay with [resurrecting Bucky], because he always left the door open — like when Bucky died, they always put the word “supposedly” in there, so I felt like the door was left open. I got a lot of flak for it at the time, because it was a ret-con, but I also tried really hard to make sure the ret-con worked with the actual con, if that makes sense.
He expects his run on “Iron Fist” with Matt Fraction to provide much of the basis for the character’s upcoming Netflix TV series:
What else could they use? [Laughs] Honestly — is there this great “Iron Fist” run anywhere else? [Laughs] It was funny: When Marvel was like, “How far do you think this will go?” I was like, “I will be so happy if we get one more issue than John Byrne got.” [Laughs] And we did.
His next project with Phillips will tweak their typically noir-drenched subject matter:
The next thing Sean and I are doing doesn’t have a lot of action in it. It’s much more character [driven] — It’s noir, but it’s just different from anything we’ve ever done before. I’m always trying just to follow what’s the right thing for me to do next and not follow the audience, because every time I do end up worrying about the audience, I come up with an idea that I think a lot of people will want to read, but it’s not something I actually want to write. And the times I’ve tried to do that are the biggest regrets of my life, like the entire time I wrote the X-Men. And I read people who love my X-Men, and I put a lot into that, but I feel like that was so much more work for me than just writing, like, Captain America.
Thanks to his hard-boiled crime noir subject matter, he’s cultivated a very unique fan base over the years:
When “Criminal” first started coming out, I think before prisons got wise, I was getting some email from prisoners whose families were sending them our graphic novels in prison, and I was getting really complimentary emails from guys who were like bank heisters and stuff. I was like, “I’m super-flattered, but also terrified. And at the same time, I kind of want to grill you.” But also, I was like “Wow — I kinda want to be in prison libraries.’
He can’t find find any downside to the five-year exclusive deal he and Phillips recently inked with Image Comics:
Sean and I had been together for 15 years, and we were always a little bit shell-shocked and worried, even though our fanbase and readership seems to keep growing with each project and our trade paperbacks keep selling. [Our Wildstorm title] “Sleeper” was such a shoestring kind of thing where we always kept worrying were we gonna get cancelled, and we were always worried about why aren’t the trades selling. Jim Lee had to keep calling us up, saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to let them cancel the book.” So our whole relationship as creators started out worried that no one was going to buy whatever we did. And after 15 years, I realized we are actually one of the most successful teams in comics, and yet some part of us still doesn’t think that because we don’t sell 100,000 copies a month like “Walking Dead” or something, but we sell enough that we make more than we would make doing those same books at Marvel.
Actually, we’re probably one of the longest lasting teams in the industry at this point, that consistently puts out work every year, so I was like, “Why don’t we get a deal where we can just do everything that we want to do and not worry about whether or not the books sell.” Let Image worry about how to sell the books and where to do all that stuff. We have a 15-year track record that they could look at and say, “Oh, okay — this is how you guys’ books sell already, and we’ll try to make that better.” So they just gave us this deal and said, “Don’t worry about anything but the art and the books and writing and creating stuff, and just go wild, go crazy with the format, do whatever you want to do, and we’ll just be the ones trying to make the business side of it work.” It was great for me, because there are people who have their own labels at Image, but they have to put out eight or ten books a month, and we could never do that. We only have like one thing we can do every month. So now I don’t have to worry about any of the bullshit, and I know, for the next five years no one can cancel anything we’re doing, so it’s pretty awesome. And even if we’re losing money, they still have to keep publishing it! [Laughs]