Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead.
Scott Snyder attained critical and popular acclaim quickly, transitioning from fiction writing to headlining Batman and Superman comics within a brief but prolific span. In that time, he also launched a number of successful creator-owned works from the recently returned “American Vampire” to the immersive, submersible “The Wake.” That meteoric rise arrived with its share of doubt and anxiety from the writer, though Snyder parlayed that paranoia into the dark imaginings that have become a staple to his storytelling.
CBR News reached out to the writer to discuss some of his favorite stories and voices, including the recently concluded season of HBO’s “True Detective,” and how some very personal storytelling can often hit close to home.
[SPOILER WARNING: This discussion contains spoilers for the most recent seasons on “True Detective” and “Breaking Bad.”]
CBR News: I’ve been curious to hear your reaction to HBO’s “True Detective,” ever since Rust and Marty took that first ride across the lunar landscape of Louisiana. “Scott must be rubbing his palms together over this one.”
Scott Snyder: Super into it. It was my favorite show on TV this year.
What was the immediate attraction for you? I’m assuming it was immediate.
What I loved about the show, honestly, was how immediately it announced its priorities, and just how unconventional those priorities were on their own. My favorite writing does that, in prose especially. Stories that very quickly let the reader know that they’re not necessarily fulfill conventional expectations when it comes to plot or character. They’re going to follow a different sense of ambition. Writers like Denis Johnson that really made me want to write back in the ’90s, when I was getting into fiction as opposed to comics. I wasn’t really sure how to get into comics and it didn’t occur to me that you could be a writer without being a writer/artist. I was aware of comic writers, but so many of my favorite people like Frank Miller and Mike Mignola did both.
It’s funny; when I spoke to Mike Mignola recently, he expressed a similar feeling coming from the other direction. It took him a while to realize he had the aptitude to be a writer and develop his own creator-owned series, branching out from his work as an artist for hire.
Yeah, it just seemed very alien to me. So intangible. But anyway, the writing I always loved in terms of prose was that kind of writing. Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, and on the satirical side, George Saunders. Lorrie Moore. Aimee Bender.
I’ll always be grateful to Aimee Bender for introducing me to magic realism. Traditionally I think it’s [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, but for me it was “An Invisible Sign of My Own.” Inverts your whole perspective, for the novel and for everything after, in a way.
Right. Those people wrote in such a way where the stories — they did have a strong sense of character and plot in their own way, but they were clearly about the writer’s philosophy and vision of what fiction was meant to deliver. So with “True Detective” — what I loved — was that from the word go, it had this sense of portent and doom. Clearly it was about these very clashing philosophies on the human condition, but also this vision of the South. It was going to blend all of these generic elements too, from noir and horror, Lovecraft and Chalmers, that traditionally aren’t put together. I adored that sense of ambition.
Did you ever have the suspicion that it might’ve veered directly into the supernatural, rather than skirting right up to the edge like it did?
I did. I actually wanted it to go into the supernatural, maybe not explicitly, but to at least hint at the possibility.
Nic Pizzolatto, the show-runner, said he was tempted to.
Well. I think there are ways of doing it more ambiguously that would’ve been effective. That’s what bugged me about the ending. The whole thing was still my favorite show, exactly as it was written. I’m trying to think of a similar show where there were certain things that disappointed me, like “The Sopranos.” I really enjoyed the end of that series, though there were things leading up to that that I wasn’t 100 percent on. It’s still a favorite, and I’m incredibly happy to watch again. It’s the same for “True Detective.” I wanted it to veer into the supernatural because I thought it was leading into this Lovecraftian, Poe-like philosophy, this American gothic notion that if you see beyond the physical world and that empirical veil, what you’ll see is bound to drive you crazy. That there’s something unknowable and beyond our understanding. It wasn’t so much that I wanted supernatural for the sake of supernatural, but that the show set those expectations up very early. I wanted those to play out, not because I wanted to see ghosts or anything spooky, but because it would make the show that much more horrifying. It was clearly about Marty in denial of his own nature, with his myopic view of the world and his place in it set out in front of him.
Right under his nose, the detective’s curse.
And Rust harboring this bleak feeling that there’s this dark vortex at work, behind everything. That there’s nothing good beyond these violent, frightening elements. Ultimately what I was hoping for was a confirmation of those beliefs, but also a character reversal. So, kind of what happened, but a little bit different.
I agree that Marty’s arc seems to culminate with more loose ends, but I was very satisfied with Rust’s journey. If only because I saw a kindred spirit waxing philosophical in the car that first hour, someone who’s bought into the lies we tell ourselves in deep depression, and how convinced we are that we know the truth. “This guy is hurting, and one potential journey might be clawing his way out of that funk.”
Right, I totally agree with that. The nerve that it hit for me with that bleak outlook — as someone who’s similarly dealt with bouts of anxiety and depression; I’ve been on medication for it since I was a kid — that’s what I love about the show in a lot of ways. That it went to those places.
There’s commentary out there assuming we’re supposed to buy into Rust’s world view and how that’s terrible because he’s so full of shit. I disagree with that reading. He has insight and is supposed to sound eloquent, but I don’t think the writer intended him to be a model for how to be. If other people are feeling comfortable in this pit, they’re wrong. They’re fooling themselves. That’s the lie depression tells the depressed.
Yeah, you feel like you’re seeing things the way they are and no one else is. That deep cynicism sounds learned and pragmatic, but it can be just as much a delusion as blind optimism. I think that’s the metaphor they were playing with, using this blurred line between the physical and immaterial world as a way of looking at how we cope with real-world evil and anxiety for what we ourselves might be capable of doing. I just think what the show was supporting — here’s what I thought was going to happen. This is what I was hoping while watching it.
It’s just a slight variation. In terms of character arcs, I was hoping Marty would see the horrifying thing. For example, he goes into the room with the killer, the Yellow King or Childress, whoever that might be in this variation, and he gets hit with something. Maybe the room has this drug or vapor that confuses what’s real or what’s not. Ultimately what he sees shatters his understanding of the physical world. He sees someone who claims to be 300 years old, someone who couldn’t possibly be alive. That the Yellow King is all-powerful, an eater of time, all of this stuff that’s really scary. Marty is the one who has to wake up and admit to Rust that the world is that horrible, that Rust’s been right. Then Rust would have the same epiphany he experienced on the show as written, so by reversing to either extreme, they come to some middle ground. As it was, Rust is the one who experiences that dark vision in the cave, experiencing that full character arc, whereas Marty doesn’t go through nearly so much. Except to say he’s redeemed through his actions, making peace with Rust and his family.
That’s a good point. Marty sees things that disturb him in that finale, but it’s all material world stuff, and colored by — it’s things like the dolls and those piles of shoes and children’s clothes, which we already know gnaw at him where he lives.
Yeah, Childress is the other thing. Not because I mind that character or that actor, it’s just that — much in the same way I was hoping the show would veer into the supernatural, I also hoped they’d do something more ambitious with the revelation of the Yellow King. That felt somewhat reductive to me to go back to the idea of a crazy, backwoods redneck who sleeps with his sister, and that Carcosa is just this system of tunnels full of dead bodies behind his house.
It’s conventional and familiar.
I was more interested in this idea of the town’s elite being part of this power structure going back, hoping perhaps that they’d witnessed something truly supernatural in the practice of this occult ritual. That Childress was just the latest vessel.
I think it can be that. I think that’s there if you want, though it’s not explicit about it.
As presented though, he’s just reduced to a common psycho. And once you see those dolls, man? I hate those fucking dolls. The go-to move of a serial killer who plays with dolls with no eyes. Why do they always play with dolls? I hate that move. That visual. So those are the two disappointments for me, that the character arcs twisted out of the direction they seemed to be heading to something more pat, and that Childress fell short of representing the kind of horror the show had the potential to deliver. I still give it pick of the week and four stars or whatever overall, even if it didn’t stick the landing quite like “Breaking Bad,” which has now surpassed “The Wire” as my favorite show of all time.
It’s more consistent in any case. There are seasons of “The Wire” that are stronger, but you can’t say that for every season. It’s that old cliche though, make no mistake; a bad episode of “The Wire” is typically more compelling than a great episode of just about anything else. “Breaking Bad” is likely the most consistently strong serialized story I can think of.
I totally agree. I tell my students, “You have to go watch some shows. TV writing is so good right now.” As a comic writer it’s fascinating to look at how priorities differ from show to show, and you can enjoy them equally. The reason I liked “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” so much is that they hit that sweet spot of exactly the writing I enjoy and try to shoot for in my own work. “True Detective” also did that, but in a way where I’m feeling very ambitious and want to try something outside of what I generally do in superhero comics. That makes me want to write “Wytches” and more of my indie stuff. Where you can flex your muscles and priorities in your story that might grate against certain expectations but are true to who you are. I try to do that as much as possible in “Batman” or “Superman: Unchained” — I’m very proud of that — but the struggle, the challenge you have to meet is to make these iconic characters and settings personal to you and to put as much of yourself and your demons in there as possible. I think anyone who knows me or what I’m going though at the time can see those things. For the final arc of “Zero Year” in “Batman” it is very much about dealing with anxiety and depression and you don’t know how to fix the thing that’s wrong with you, feeling at odds with yourself. As crazy as that sounds, seeing Gotham all post-apocalyptic like “The Last of Us,” the Riddler on a giant screen, you don’t have to look very hard to see that. The inverse is true of the creator-owned work. You have to make it accessible, make it universal, because it so deeply follows the constellation of your own interests. Writing like “True Detective” makes me want to do more of that. It’s inspiring to see a show wearing its priorities on its sleeve in such a personal and singular vision.
It’s such a rarity too. One writer and one director. Sorkin comes close to that, but even then it still falls short of being so personal as what Pizzolatto and Fukunaga did with those eight episodes. Which, in retrospect, is closer to what you can do with your creator-owned stuff, or even the tight team you have on “Batman.” Collaboration’s beautiful too, just thinking of what that “Breaking Bad” writers’ room accomplished.
They hit that other sweet spot. Always incredibly character-driven and smart. Subversive a lot of the time, with its over-arching mission to make this guy worse and worse, but also just in its structure. No show cold-opened and closed better than that show. It constantly kept me on my toes. It had such breadth, emotionally. I just adored it. It ended basically the way I hoped it would. I only wish they’d had another hour. All the beats were there, but I wish each could’ve gone a little farther. We were in Ireland for the con at the time, in Dublin. I was so maniacal about not hearing what happened. My actual stipulation to my friend John Hendrix, who runs the con, was that he get me that finale the day or two after it’d aired. He had to find a way for me and my wife to see “Breaking Bad” before it could be spoiled for me. And he did.
That was like your declaration for no green M&M’s in the trailer.
[Laughs] That was my rider, my crazy rider.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Scott Snyder’s upcoming projects, and follow him on Twitter at @SSnyder1835.