At high noon on Saturday, the doors closed on Room 407b at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo as Mark Waid and Matt Fraction sat down in front of an appreciative audience to discuss their shared profession and passion — writing comics. With two fan favorite writers placed on panel without the restrained topic of an upcoming event forcing pat answers of, “I can’t say anything else,” “Wait and see,” or the eternal favorite, “Keep reading,” the room was appropriately filled with fans of both writers.
The panel was moderated by Nathan Wilson, who started off with the first question: “How did you start your process?”
Waid, who began his career as an editor at DC Comics, noted that serving in that capacity was informative and shaped his writing learning process, teaching him, “Everything, everything, everything.” Waid cited this experience as both good and bad, but narrowed his description of his experience specifically to his work as an editor on the “Secret Origins.” Fraction was awed by this, considering the level of talent and the industry icons that contributed to that series.
Fraction’s origins as a writer, on the other hand, came from a completely different source when he was initially inspired by a Neil Gaiman script that was included in the slipcase of a “Sandman” collection.
Fraction realized just how much work went into writing a comic with that revelation. He also discovered that there is an amazing amount of work that doesn’t ever quite make it to the readers, nor should it. “Your script is for your editor and your artist,” Fraction said. “At best, three people are going to see it.” The third person in the equation would be if the book’s colorist referenced the script as well.
This led the pair to discuss how to start the process of writing. Waid said the best way to write is to actually write. Sit down and put the hands to the keyboard, get the ideas out of your head. Do not ask about particulars, like what paper stock do you write on, which fonts and such. That’s stalling. Do the writing.
Fraction offered up a lesson he gave himself that got things going for him as a writer. He sat down and reverse-engineered the Miller Mazzucchelli “Batman: Year One” script. This proved invaluable and surprised Waid as a genuinely inspired practice lesson.
Going back to Fraction’s description of scripts and their intended or actual audience, Waid offered up an anecdote that Dave Gibbons would receive “Watchmen” scripts from Alan Moore and would then get out two highlighters. Moore tended to write a great deal into his scripts, so Gibbons would highlight in blue the characters in each panel and in yellow what they were doing.
The duo hammered the script message home once more, agreeing the writer should not try to impress an outside audience. Instead, focus on communicating with the editor and your artist.
Offering a glimpse into his process, Waid explained that he tries to balance his writing as page per page for the script to story. Wilson asked if that limits Waid at all, and Waid said it didn’t. It makes his writing more immediate.
Pointing back to his professional beginnings, Fraction explained that Joe Casey had advised the young writer to end each page with a hook, a cliffhanger, a reason to turn the page. Fraction has found that by employing this practice, he is achieving success with his current screenplay work, joking that he’s receiving messages that the screenplays are really readable.
Fraction, who has yet to write in the traditional Marvel style — where the writer provides a brief script outlining action, passes it along to the artist and then scripts over the resulting artwork — said that last night he got into a debate with Quesada and Bendis about it. Fraction finds the concept of writing this way terrifying.
Waid discussed his experience working in the Marvel method, citing one instance where the artist didn’t give him enough to work with. Frustrated by the seemingly daunting task of giving voice to the characters in a layout he didn’t really like, Waid vowed to sit in the chair and finish the book in one sitting as he believed if he walked away from the issue, he would have never come back.
Next, the duo was asked about their individual writing techniques. Fraction said that with two children, he has to write when he can. He gets his ideas, knows where he’s going and fills the spaces inbetween as time allows.
Waid said that he only has two speeds, “Can’t start and can’t stop.” Once he gets going, he quickly hits his rhythm and wants to continue non-stop.
referring to Waid’s jump from editorial to writing to eventually returning to editorial, Fraction asked Waid, “What is up with that?”
Waid explained he enjoys the editing process, saying, “You get to have all the ideas and don’t have to do the writing.” By his very nature, Waid believes himself to be a problem-solver and enjoys aspect of sitting in the editor’s chair.
The conversation then spun over to writing and rewriting. Waid said he doesn’t rewrite — he goes first draft. If you could do time-lapse photography of his writing process it would be fifteen minutes of Waid staring at the screen then filling a page with words, fifteen more minutes of staring at the screen, and another page of work.
In that manner, Waid gives himself a challenge with each assignment. “He drove his car off a cliff, how does he get out?” Humberto Ramos asked Waid while the duo were working on “Impulse.”
Waid replied, “I don’t know, I’ve got thirty days to figure it out.” Waid finds that working on a deadline and focusing on problem-solving takes his creativity to higher levels.
The two writers next discussed their method of laying out their stories. Waid said his stories, due to his process, tend to be more organic and less structured. If you asked him three months ago where “Irredeemable and “Incorruptible” were going, he would have told you something completely different from where they are now.
Fraction has gotten to a point where he can write a book a week, or three to four books a month. He says that getting to that stage is like training for a triathlon. You work your way up, start with one, then eventually expand to two or three books. You’ll eventually find yourself doing four books a month or in some cases, eight books a month. The room chuckled at that one, and Waid added, “That’s a nice problem to have, as my grandfather would say.”
Discussing the current market trend of stories being written for collection, Waid said when he was writing “Flash” he wrote as though his stories were not going to remain in print for perpetuity, because at that time, they weren’t. Waid continued, saying there was a point about five years ago, “before Bendis took over the world,” when Waid had more collected editions of comics in print than any other writer. Waid found it paralyzing, releasing that this work was there forever.
Fraction piped in to add, “We’re training an audience to read for trade” by soliciting stories as part one of five, or what have you. Fraction has found himself compelled to no longer indicate the length of his storyarcs as he wants to compel his audience to return for each consecutive issue.
Waid agreed, saying he deliberately took the chapter numbering out of his writing with “The Return of Barry Allen” as he feels that this is the best way to keep things primed and the audience interested.
Wilson asked if the digital world will spark a return to done-in-one stories or at least reduce the writing for trade option. Fraction said the comic industry will never truly leave print if they can produce a book for ten thousand dollars and it produces a billion-dollar movie franchise. “We’re the most effective loss leader in the world.”
Fraction gave an example of what sometimes happens when stories are streamlined to fit allotted space. The first issue of “Fear Itself” had been pared down to the bone and Quesada tagged it with a note for Fraction to say the heroes were missing. Fraction went back, re-read the book and found himself gasping at the missing heroes. Waid says that if he uses more than five pages per scene, the book feels like it is running long.
Pointing to successful fast-paced stories, Waid said Mike Grell’s stuff was so sparsely written, with gorgeous art, but the stories were very good. “A Mike Grell comic you could read so fast you got paper cuts.”
Presented with the question of whether they work differently when writing for digital as opposed to print, Waid admitted, “I’m starting to really roll out digital stuff,” which he will discuss more this summer.
Fraction added, “The announcement is no announcement at this time.” Waid finds writing for digital comics audiences as a pressing challenge, trying to figure out how much is enough reading or too much reading in one session. How many times can you expect a reader to click the advance arrow keys before they become bored?
Wilson next asked the two writers, “Do you write to the artists’ [strengths]?”
Fraction goes back and looks at everything the artist did that he can get his hands on. “I’ve been very enthused by everyone I work with. I become a student of their work.” He admitted to trying to out-write Waid when Fraction had a chance to work with Barry Kitson on “The Order.”
Waid said he generally tries to write to the artists’ strengths and abilities, but finds that there is a shaking out period for the artist. Waid cited the current “Captain America: Man Out of Time” as a classic example. He didn’t write to his artist’s strengths, calling it the equivalent to an “awkward first date.”
Over the course of their careers, both writers have found artists they are comfortable working with, comparing their relationships to that of an old married couple, being able to finish the thoughts of one another and predict the best way to collaborate. Fraction likes working with Salvador Larroca, and Waid believes that he has done more work with Barry Kitson than anyone else.
Returning to the topic of digital comics, Waid said that all the failures in digital comics come from taking what we know in print and trying to apply it to the web. Digital comics is a completely different medium and needs to be treated as such.
Fraction inquired if he could let his nerd out and asked Waid about the different eras he has written in for DC. Having written “Flash” under two different iterations of the DC editorials structure, and having written “Captain America” prior to and following “Heroes Reborn,” Waid said, “It was hellish.” If you leave a book, don’t ever go back. You’ll never satisfy anybody. When he first started “Flash,” no one really cared. He had freedom and flexibility, but when he returned to “Flash,” there was a different set of expectations.
“I found the internet when I wrote “Flash” #99.” All of sudden, Waid realized everyone in the world was trying to second-guess everything he is was trying to do. Waid compared the internet to Superman’s “Zone-o-phone,” where he could look in on the criminals imprisoned in the Phantom Zone and hear them hurl insults and threats at Superman as he looked in.
With ten minutes left in the panel, Fraction and Waid asked for questions, but the audience was more interested in hearing what the duo had to say. Continuing their conversation, Waid asked Fraction who he looked to for inspiration. Fraction pointed to Kurt Busiek and Waid, saying he loved “52” and actually took Steve Wacker to dinner just to talk about the weekly DC Comics event series.
Waid and Fraction added that they appreciate one another’s difference in approach and writing, realizing that neither is doing it better than the other, but each is doing it very well in their own ways.
At this point, questions did begin to come from the audience, the first asking how the writers break out of creative ruts.
Waid said, sometimes when you find yourself stonewalled with a story, it’s really “your subconscious telling you that you’re out of synch.” Go back in your story and find out where you turned right when you should have turned left. Re-read what you’ve written and you’ll find the problem.
When asked about maintaining their confidence as creators, Fraction answered, “The best comic I’ve ever written is the one I’ve just finished and the worst one is the one that just came out.” Wacker told him Wednesday is the worst day for creators as that is when all of your mistakes become permanent.
Waid suggested that you write to please yourself — do not write to please an editor or an audience. Your audience doesn’t know what they want, otherwise they wouldn’t be an audience. That wound up being the last of the advice the duo offered their fans as the panel wrapped to applause from those gathered.