Eschewing the usual panel format, British chat show host and comic book writer Jonathan Ross appeared at Comic-Con International in San Diego with an hour he dubbed “The Writer’s Room.” CBR News was there as Ross used the talk show format to interview “guests” Robert Kirkman, John Layman, and Ed Brubaker.
As Ross took the stage, he jokingly called the convention center’s Hall 6A, “What Hall H wants to be when it grows up.” After quickly explaining the change in plans, he introduced his first guest, Robert Kirkman, as “the hardest working man in comics showbiz.” As the writer sat down, Ross congratulated him on “The Walking Dead” reaching the 100 issue mark — a special accomplishment for an Image title.
“Well, there’s also ‘Spawn,’ ‘Witchblade,'” quipped Kirkman.
Ross wondered how Kirkman managed to keep the comic running for such a substantial amount of time. “I think the key to ‘The Walking Dead’ and tell a story that lasts is having plans,” answered the writer. He recalled that even in the earliest pitch to Image, he had an overview of the prison storyline and even the current arc. He also had the overall theme, that of civilization rebuilding, firmly in place. It gave him a sense of direction. “I lay down road maps so I’m always working toward the next batch of stories,” he added.
“That said, I think plot is pointless,” he said to applause. “It only works in service of the characters. That story is only as important as the character and what the reader feels about the character.”
Curious about how Kirkman keeps it all straight, Ross wondered about his method for planning out the next batch of stories. “In the early days, I had a document on my computer and when I had an idea, I would go in and add to it,” he said. The initial document was a chronological list of things with new elements slotted in between older ideas as he saw fit. He would then refer back to the document when planning the next trade.
“You write toward the trade?” asked Ross.
“I try to make sure there’s a button or theme when you get to the end of an issue, a trade paperback or a hardcover,” answered Kirkman. He eventually stopped going back to the document and just kept the plans in his head. Now he uses his phone to keep it all straight. “You find my phone, you’ll find tons of spoilers,” he joked.
That fluidity is important, particularly when the characters intrude on his plan. Kirkman recalled — possible spoilers ahead — his original plan for the end of volume three. “It was going to end with Lori throwing her ring at [Rick] and saying, ‘we’re divorced’ and it was interesting to think how you deal with an ex-wife [in this situation].” As he wrote, he found the ending wasn’t working. Lori’s reasons for the divorce didn’t make sense. In the end, he wrote to a cliffhanger. “In interviews, I said it would be fun to end on a cliffhanger and that was a fib,” he said.
“Writers lie,” said Ross. He then asked if Kirkman feels any pressure to add more gore to the series. For the writer, the good stuff is the intense conversations or an important character revelation interspersed with a good scene of a zombie getting its head knocked off.
“I am dying to get to a place where there aren’t zombies for long stretches of time because it would be interesting,” he added.
Ross asked Kirkman if he had any advice for someone who might be entering the field, specifically in the arena of self-publishing. The writer began his career with the self-published “Battle Pope”, which both he and Ross called “financially devastating.”
“Nowadays, you can not spend the money on the printing and do it on the net,” Kirkman said. “Selling a product isn’t as important then. My advice would be to produce something. Put it online and try to get people to see it. Once you’ve got a fanbase built, you can submit [work to publishers].”
Ross’s second guests of the evening were the double bill of John Layman and Ed Brubaker. Both writers work for the major publishers, and the conversation quickly turned to their creator-owned works, “Chew” and “Fatale.” Though he enjoys the franchise work, Layman said, “There’s nothing more satisfying than controlling your own universe.”
Ross credited Brubaker with the return of the crime comic. “I came in through the back door, euphemistically,” said the writer. “I did a weird ‘Prez’ thing at Vertigo and they asked me to pitch stuff and I gave them a crime thing and then I was offered a Batman book. I found a way to bring my voice to those characters.”
Ross retorted, “‘Gotham Central’ wasn’t like a Batman book.”
“He’s not scary if you’re hanging out with him all the time. But when he’s only in three panels, he’s terrifying,” Brubaker explained. “I wanted to make something different than the books at the time and it paid very well.”
Along the same lines, Ross observed that “Incognito,” Brubaker’s crime/superhero book, didn’t feel like a superhero title in the traditional sense.
Calling it the flipside of his Wildstorm book, “Sleeper,” in which the hero pretends to be a bad guy, Brubaker recalled, “It was partially inspired by the last scene in ‘Goodfellas’ and it just started building for years. While I was doping ‘Cap’ or ‘Catwoman,’ I was doing something that was my own thing, usually with Sean Phillips. The ‘without limitations’ part has always been the most fun. It’s rare, but it’s becoming less rare in comics.” He also remembered a time when the best ownership deal a creator could get was half-stake with the publisher getting the rest.
Ross turned to Layman and asked about “Chew” cohort and artist Rob Guillory. Layman called their working relationship a “partnership for life.” Thinking back on the earliest days of the title, he remembered, “I had a vision and I knew that I wanted it light and cartoony, but you never know what you’re going to get with a new artist.”
“The hard part is finding a Charlie Adlard,” added Brubaker.
While Layman enjoys owning “Chew,” he pointed out that keeping the book afloat is a business and, sometimes, “You get all these emails and there are days I don’t work, but [ideas] are percolating.” As the future issues molt in Layman’s head, he also keeps an eye on “Chew’s” development at Showtime, where a script and director are currently in place for a television pilot.
Ross asked if both writers know how their current titles end. Brubaker offered a pained “Eeeeehhhh” in response, but mentioned it will run for sixteen or seventeen issues.
“With ‘Chew,'” offered Layman. “It’s sixty issues and I know how it ends.”
During a brief audience Q&A, Brubaker and Layman were asked why writers don’t sell scripts at Comic-Con the way artists sell prints. “How much will you pay?” asked Layman with a laugh.
“Some people do,” added Brubaker. “A comic script really is a blueprint intended for one person — the artist.”
That answer dovetailed into the next question: “What is the best working situation, where you write it first or to collaborate?” Layman said knowing the artist is ideal because you can write to their strengths. “The first three issues of ‘Chew’ were written before I hired Rob,” he said. “With issue four, it changed tonally because we got know each other.”
Wrapping up, Ross asked the writers about their inspirations. Brubaker offered Alan Moore and Johnny Craig, who created crime and suspense stories for EC Comics back in the day.
“My favorite stuff was Alan Moore and then when I became an editor, seeing Warren Ellis scripts showed me what could be done,” said Layman.
“When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with ‘Love & Rockets,'” added Brubaker.
Getting the sign to clear the stage, Ross joked, “I hope you enjoyed the panel. If you didn’t, there’s very little we can do about it now.”