Writer Jay Faerber joined CBR TV to discuss his career in the comics industry, from his early days writing “Titans” for DC Comics to his current creator-owned focus. Faerber goes into his time at DC and how it led him to turning full-bore towards creator-owned series like “Noble Causes,” “Dynamo 5” and his current crime title, “Near Death.” Ferber is candid about his preference for working on comic properties he has an ownership stake in, a situation that allows him to explore whatever genre or storytelling style he wants to.
Faerber also discusses his experience working in television as a writer on the Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring “Ringer” and how working as part of a group has actually carried through to the way he approaches his comics writing, specifically his collaboration with “Near Death” artist Simone Gulgliemini, his “small” part in Brian K. Vaughan’s return to comics with “Saga” and his plans for the future, in comics and otherwise.
CBR TV: Welcome to CBR TV, I’m Jonah Weiland in our Hollywood studio. Sitting to my left and — I should have asked you how you say your last name first — but no, we’re going to use this. I’m going to guess.
Jay Faerber: Okay, go for it.
Jay Faerber. [Pronounces it “Fer-bur”]
I was going back in time to our interview —
To New York.
Yes, I did ask you before that.
It’s a common questions.
I guess most people call you Faeber [Pronounces it “Fay-bur”]
“Fay-bur,” “Fair-bur” — they add letters, they subtract letters.
Did they call you the “Fables Kid” as a kid or anything?
No, I had different nicknames but that one never —
What’s a good nickname?
[Pauses, then laughs]
I love the scars of childhood.
Yeah, no, no, no. Ah, “Furburger” was one of them. That was probably the most creative, or the most obvious depending on how you look at it.
That would not have occurred to me. I got like every “Whale” and “Fish” joke there is, and then when kids found out that “Jonah” meant bad luck, when I was ten or eleven it was like, “You’re cursed” and like, “Yeah, sorry, sorry.”
And so I became the weird kid — no, I wasn’t the weird kid. Anyway, enough about childhood traumas, Jay Faerber is here. We were just doing a big shoot today and we thought, we haven’t had you for a while, you’re an L.A. guy and more to the point, you actually are critical to a conversation that’s happening in comics right now, but you’re not part of the conversation, which is very strange, which is creator-owned comics. I don’t know how much you’ve been following of the conversation online, but there’s been a huge push for — I’d say six months if not longer — of support creator-owned comics, it’s the only way to go as creators — but you’re a guy who’s been doing creator-owned comics for longer than I think most people give you credit for.
Over ten years now, yeah.
Yeah and I’m really curious about that. Look, creator-owned comics, it’s hard to make money. You’ve had other gigs on the side. You’re one of the writers on the TV show “Ringer” right now, you’ve done video games. But it looks like you made an active choice to be a creator-owned comic professional early on in your career.
I mean, yeah, it was — I was working on “Titans” in — God, I’m trying to think of what year this was — over ten years ago.
It was ’99 or 2000.
Yeah, it was around then. The book wasn’t working. Anybody who was reading around that time could tell that. I was also launching “Noble Causes” at the time, that was my first creator-owned book. At the time, I was very curious to see what happened if I did a book where I had complete creative freedom. How would it go over? Would people respond to it, would they not, what would that experience be like? So I launched “Noble Causes.” At the same time, “Titans” was becoming more and more difficult creatively, with my interactions with the editor, sales were tanking. It was one of those things where I left the book but given another issue or two I probably would have been canned, frankly. At that point, I didn’t close the door entirely on work-for-hire stuff. I still got a fill in here, an arc here, I did some work with “Vampirella” for Harris, but ultimately it became a choice of do I keep chasing work-for-hire gigs that more often than not I’m not really happy with or do I just get a day job again and write Image Comics and if one of them takes off and I can make a living out of it, great. But I got a day job. I went into real estate and it was a tough transition because initially, it felt kind of like I was defeated, having to give up my full-time comic book job to do this, but in pretty short order it was liberating. I could turn off my brain and do the day job stuff and only write stuff I was really passionate about. That’s where “Noble Causes” and “Dynamo 5” came from and now “Near Death” and I’m at the point now where I have no interest in writing something that isn’t mine, that I didn’t create.
Let’s go back to that moment where you weren’t doing “Titans” any more, selling real estate. Was there ever a moment where you thought maybe I should just give up writing entirely?
No, I never thought that. There were brief moments where I’d think I just need a break, but it really kept me going. Just the creative energy of doing these books and having them come out — not always the way I wanted them. That’s the thing about doing creator-owned comics is it for better or worse, it’s what you wanted, what you and the artist wanted. I can’t — if an issue didn’t go over well or a story wasn’t well received, I can’t say, “Oh, well, the editor told me to do that.” It’s always on me and that’s good. There’s no net, there’s nobody to pass the buck to, so it made me a stronger writer. I don’t think I ever really considered not writing comics.
Well, here you are ten years later. I’m curious, I always see when people are new to creative fields, people always ask, “What’s your inspiration? How do you get your ideas for stories? What kind of suggestions can you give me for my career?” and the one thing you hear over and over again is “Get outside your comfort zone.” But now, you’ve been doing creator-owned comics for ten years. It would be pretty easy to get into a comfort zone. Would you say you’ve gotten comfortable doing these creator-owned comics?
I try to keep pushing myself. Yes, it’s always creator-owned, so I always have complete creative freedom, which I think is great, but I push myself in terms of genre or in terms of storytelling style or subject matter. “Near Death” is very different than the superhero books I’ve done and it’s also different than a lot of comics these days in that almost every issue is a totally self-contained story. That’s something I did and a format I put in place to challenge myself. I think it’s very easy for a writer — and a comfort zone I did get into writing superhero comics — is to just — no story really ends. You get to that last couple pages of the issue and rather than truly ending the story, you just kind of kick the can down the street to the next issue. “Well, I’ll leave this plot dangling a little bit and come back to it later and I’ll just start something new” and it just keeps rolling and snowballing. With “Near Death,” I wanted to actually just have a sense of closure at the end of most issues. As a creator, that kept me interested and kept me exercising different muscles that I normally wouldn’t.
Are you saying that in some ways your feelings on the way superhero stories have been told is not something for you now at this stage in your career as a writer?
No, I’m not so much — I was getting tired of it as a writer. With “Dynamo 5,” we did the first year or so of that book, there were a lot of self-contained stories for that reason. With “Near Death,” I wanted to get back to that. It’s just more writing rather than reading. I’m not saying all comics should go more to done-in-one format or anything, it’s just that I felt like scratching that itch creatively.
As a creative person and with this creator-owned comics thing going on, you’ve been doing creator-owned comics for ten years now, do you begrudge any creators for doing work for hire or do you wish more top creators were doing primarily creator-owned books and taking those risks?
I do wish more creators would do creator-owned books, especially guys who are at the top of their game in visibility and sales success. I mean, I’ve been after Brian Vaughan to do a book at Image for almost as long as I’ve been doing books at Image. He finally is and “Saga” is huge. It’s more successful than he thought it would be, than Image thought it would be. I think more guys who are the A-list talent in terms of visibility and sales and stuff, you know, I’d love to see them do that. A lot of them are, obviously. Mark Millar has his own Millarworld, Brubaker’s doing more and more creator-owned stuff, so it’s great. I don’t begrudge anybody for doing work-for-hire stuff. I mean, I did work for hire because I wanted to write the characters that I had this affinity for as a reader and I think most creators get into comics — that’s an aspect to it. By all means, have at it. I just think that working creator-owned — it doesn’t have to be an either/or. For me, I just got that part out of my system and I’m much happier doing my own thing. I think other people should take a closer look at doing creator-owned comics, but I don’t judge or begrudge guys who don’t.
You brought up Brian K. Vaughan, that was something I wanted to bring up. How much of an influence were you on him getting that book at Image?
Maybe a small influence. I knew that Eric Stephenson and Robert Kirkman were both hammering him pretty frequently as well. They were the ones who were actually in a position to approve the book and everything, but Brian has heard me talk over the years about “Oh yeah, I want to do this this issue and I do it. I turn it in and they publish it.” I’ve never gotten any notes from Image saying, “You can’t do that this issue and you should rethink that.” If I ever ask for their opinion, they’ll give it to me, but it’s true creative freedom and Brian saw that and he was very enticed by it. He sent me a text a month or so ago when they were putting “Saga” #2 to the printer and he said, “I just told Drew, one of the Image design guys, to put an ad for ‘Near Death’ in the back of ‘Saga.'” I love Image. You can just say that. Boom. You have control of where the ads fall, if you want ads at all. You have control over which ads you put in there, that kind of stuff. I think just seeing me work at Image for so long and he got to know Eric and Robert and everything, yeah, I think he finally saw the light [Laughs] and wanted to give it a shot.
I want to talk a little bit about your growth as a writer over the last — I want you to focus on the last two years because in the last two years, you got yourself your first television writing job on “Ringer,” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. You dramatically shifted the tone of writing that you’re doing — you went from bright, action-heavy, soap opera heavy comic books like “Noble Causes” to these self-contained stories — a crime series — in “Near Death.” Talk about what you feel may have been your growth or what your journey as a writer has been like over the last few years because I’ve got to imagine who you are today as a writer is very different from the guy who was living in Seattle two years ago as a writer.
Yeah, it is different. I think the most difference was just working on “Ringer” with this great team of writers and I think I’m a better writer because of them both when I write for television and when I write for comics. I’ve always been a big fan of crime-action stuff, so writing that subject matter was never a big stretch for me the way I saw it. I knew I was perceived as this superhero guy but I knew that I had just as big of an interest in crime story. I was comfortable writing it, I had no real hesitation on that front, but in terms of having written for a season in the writer’s room with this very diverse group of people with different backgrounds and different strengths and different levels of experience and everything and being forced to have your ideas challenged, which is one thing you don’t get doing creator-owned work. Yes, your collaborators, your artist, your colorist, letterer, whoever — some writers may collaborate with them a lot on the story. I don’t very much. I tend to write a full script and send it off and it gets drawn. I’ll ask Simone, the “Near Death” artist, a lot, “Is there anything you want to draw this issue? Have you ever wanted to draw a speedboat chase or –” just any kind of subject matter. I’m happy to craft a story with that in mind. Sometimes he does, sometimes he’s just, “No, show me what you got.” Getting into that comfort zone of “Whatever I write, goes,” and then getting on “Ringer” where I’m in the room and if I pitch an idea and someone’s like, “Well why? Why would that work” or “Tell me more about that,” you have to justify it and back it up and prove your idea and really stand behind it and then be flexible to people saying, “Well that may not work, but what if we took your idea and did this to it, how about that? What if we did that?” and people gather around that and you can’t get too territorial about “Well, my idea was this and you changed it!”
You’re part of a team.
Exactly! And the room I worked in, I was pretty fortunate — it was a pretty level playing field in terms of — nobody really pulled rank too often. I mean, obviously, the creators of the show, we wrote to their vision and they were the ultimate deciders of what we used and what we didn’t. But it wasn’t, “You’re just a staff writer. Pipe down, let’s hear from the more experienced people.” It was kind of “Everybody pitch your ideas and let’s make it work.” So now when I write comics there are times when I’ll have an idea or I’ll have a scene and I’ll think about it longer and more and go into more depth about it, thinking I can hear those other “Ringer” writers in my head just pushing me to make it better and explore it more.
You heard it here first, he has voices in his head. [Laughs]
Yeah, that’s a news flash. Writing by committee in my head.
I would imagine being in that room, because I’ve been in writer’s rooms before just as an observer, and there’s fighting, there’s collaborating, there’s happiness, there’s joking — there’s so many emotions in that room. One thing I noticed very quickly is that nobody takes it personally, but it’s got to make you a stronger writer and it’s got to grow a thicker skin for you as well.
Yeah, totally. We were — again, I was so fortunate because I’ve heard stories of other rooms where it is, it can be kind of brutal and you need a very thick skin. Our room was always, we all get along really well. There was never really much fighting, if any. It was all — we worked together pretty well.
Let’s finish up by talking about you and the future of comics and stuff like that. You’ve got “Near Death,” it’s still going on here. Seven issues, right?
Yeah, seven just came out a week or so ago.
First, that one just seems right for adaptation so I’ve got to ask the question — TV, film interest? Is there any?
There’s been a little bit. I mean, “Near Death” is something that if it makes its way to television, it’s probably something that I want to write myself, so we’re not going to take it out until I’m in a position to develop it myself rather than pass it on to somebody else to develop and write. So, we’re not doing anything with it right away, but there’s been some interest here and there.
And what about other comics for you in the future? Because right now — you were the guy who had “Dynamo 5” going, you had multiple “Noble Causes” things going on. You’re pretty quiet in comics right now.
I’m pretty quiet in comics but there’s this thing called “Ringer” that takes up a large portion of my day. I have a new miniseries coming out from Image, we’re not sure exactly — in the fall sometime, September/October, maybe November. Somewhere in there. It’s a four part crime series that — it’s crime like “Near Death,” but very different in terms of its structure and the feel of it. It’s more like a crime novel. It’s not meant to go further. It’s not one of these miniseries where, “Oh if it’s a success, we’ll do more.” It is what it is. It’s a very finite story with an amazing new artist and we’ll be talking about that at another date.
Keep up the creator-owned comics and if you had anything to say to somebody who wants to break into comics today and they’re looking at Marvel or DC, would you steer them in the way of “Just do your own comics” or would you say “Just keep working on that writing?” What would be the advice you’d give?
I would say just do something of your own because with the Internet and digital comics becoming more and more popular, you can do your own stuff almost for free in terms of you don’t have to pay to have it published traditionally in paper format, you can do a digital comic which is just as valid as a traditional printed comics. I honestly don’t know how you would break into Marvel and DC these days. Everything is very — and that’s not a criticism, it’s just that everything is so tightly coordinated. When I broke in, I was pitching inventory stories and fill-in issues and stuff like that. They don’t really seem to do that as much these days because it’s so tightly controlled from an editorial standpoint just in terms of scheduling and everything that I really don’t know how genuinely new talent — people who weren’t already writing novels or TV — I don’t know what the avenues are for them to break in as a writer. I would absolutely recommend that they do something of their own. Create something new, a lot of the guys who are rising up in the ranks at Marvel and DC right now obviously started out doing creator-owned comics. Nick Spencer, Cullen Bunn, these guys who are still doing creator-owned stuff while they juggle their work-for-hire stuff.
That’s right, and of course the big names at Marvel and DC are guys who started making their name in creator-owned comics. Jason Aaron with “Scalped” is the great example of that, so do your creator-owned comics, kids. Jay, it’s a pleasure, thanks for coming in, man. A fellow Los Angelina. Jay Faerber, I’m Jonah Weiland, this is CBR TV.