Welcome to CBR’s live coverage of Marvel Comics’ TV Writers of Marvel panel at Comic-Con International. Check back here every few minutes for updates direct from the discussion in San diego with panelists including Aron Coleite (Heroes, Ultimate X-Men), Joe Pokaski (Heroes, Secret Invasion: Inhumans, Ultimate Fantastic Four), Marc Guggenheim (Eli Stone, Young X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man), Daniel Knauf (Carnivale, The Eternals, Iron Man: Director of SHIELD) Kevin Grevioux (New Warriors, Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel, Underworld) Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa (Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four, Big Love, The Stand) and Marvel’s Assistant Manager of Sales Communications Jim McCann.
“We at Marvel have been so incredibly lucky to work with this panel of gentlemen,” McCann said before asking the panelists how to break-in to creative professions.
Knauf: “If you got any fully automatic weapons, that comes in handy in the breaking-in thing. There’s two ways of breaking in. One way is to network like hell. The other one is to just work on your craft until somebody notices. Those are the far extremes of both ways. They way you will break in is probably somewhere in the middle. Eventually you’re going to reach a point where people sit up and take notice. I think it’s good to build your craft up before you go selling yourself. It’s scary to go to sleep every night thinking you’re not that good. If you want to be a writer you don’t talk about writing, you write. Then you do some more. The main thing is getting that craft honed”
Guggenheim: “I broke into comics twice. The first time, I wrote two issues of Aquaman for DC Comics. Those two issues so set the world on fire that absolutely nothing happened to me. Through completely different means, I managed to make a contact at Marvel. Axel Alonso bought a Punisher story from me and from that I got to do the Wolverine tie-in to Civil War.” From there, the rest is history.
Pokaski: “I was naive enough to think if you were an assistant in television you would be promoted if you work hard. I got to work with Tim Kring and I worked my butt off for three years and when the opportunity came he let me write a Crossing Jordan spec” and went to Heroes from there. During the writers’ strike, Jeph Loeb helped Pokaski get work at Marvel.
Coleite: “You have to keep writing and writing and writing. I wrote a lot of terrible specs and comics that I hope none of you read. It helps to know Jeph Loeb because he can certainly open a door. When he said are you interested in writing a comic at Marvel? I never thought in my wildest dreams I would get to write the X-Men. It’s been for me about being prepared for the opportunities that come. Once those doors open, you want them to stay open for you.”
Aquirre-Sacasa: “My background is in playwrighting. Marvel had someone whose job it was to recruit writers from other disciplines. I’d written one play about the Archie comic book characters growing up. I came in and started pitching on a bunch of different series. A pitch is supposed to be one page. My first pitch was 18 pages for Hawkeye.” The Big Love producers saw a similarity in Sacasa’s Fantastic Four stories and their own alternative family in Big Love.
Greviouz: “Based on my success with Underworld, I wanted to try comic books again. I created my own comic books, got them published through another company, and then through God’s grace I met CB Cebulski and one thing led to another and I’m writing New Warriors. It’s been a dream come true. Now I have my own miniseries, an original character. Adam the Blue Marvel. That’s pretty cool.”
McCann then turned it over for questions from fans.
How do you multitask? Knauf: “Lots of methamphetamine. After the strike I had a lot of projects that were set up consecutively that all became concurrent. I was in the weeds for a while. You kiss your wife and family goodbye. YOu’re just buried, that’s what it boils down to. You go to work and you’re stuck there for 18 hours a day and you’re stuck there until the work’s done.”
McCann asked the panel to dispel the rumors that they got a “free pass” to Marvel because of their TV work. Coleite said he still has his Marvel rejection letters to disprove that perception.
McCann asked if the writers discovered the pressure of writing quickly so artists could draw and eat. Guggenheim said it was similar to deadline pressures in television because a whole line of people don’t get to do their jobs until the script is finished.
Is writing for television, film and comics different technically? Grevioux: “Movies, TV shows are not comics. There is a difference left-brain right-brain thing happening. You have to end everything with a cliffhanger. Your editors are basically your producers. The transition worked for me quite similarly because I was a big fan of comic books. I’ve been reading them since I was 12. I thought it’d be a natural progression and it was. I just didn’t think it would take this long.”
How important is an English degree to writing? Pokaski: “I was a political science major, I don’t think it’s important at all.” Grevioux was a micro-biology major. Guggenheim was a lawyer. Knauf said bad grammar leaves a bad impression and that education is important, especially when everybody making decisions in hiring is always teetering on the edge of “No.”
Are comics scripts written a specific way like film or television? The panel said comics writing formats are “all over the map.” It can be super-detailed or minimal. “It’s an extremely liberating format,” Guggenheim said, explaining that he uses Word to include graphics in his scripts to make references for the artist. McCann compared the comics script is like a conversation between the writer and artist, with the artist’s response appearing in the form of the finished pages.
Have you ever had an artist change your intent? Knauf: “I think if that happened you’d probably call them.”
McCann: “There is a buffer zone, which is the editor. Most artists are very respectful of the writer and most writers are very respectful of the artist.”
Guggenheim: “I can’t think of an example in my career where I’ve had an interest completely misinterpret my meaning, but when I get the lettering back I will adjust the dialogue to better match up with a facial expression. You do that in television as well. The actor will deliver a line in a different way that you envisioned and you will have an actor re-record a line. It’s little stuff. Not major surgery.”
McCann asked if the panel had ever written anything that came back totally changed in a positive way. Knauf: “I look forward to that. My relationship with an artist is the same as that with a producer or director. I’ll generally put the action down very quickly and I’ve been very fortunate.”
Pokaski: “Every person involved elevates the material. If your’e doing it right, you get something back that’s better than you imagined.”
Any hopes of more Carnivale in comics or TV? Knauf: “I actually just sold a series to HBO but it’s not Carnivale. The third season was supposed to take place four years after the second season. Who knows, we may pick it up and do it. As far as graphic novels, Marvel really wanted to do something but HBO was very [uninterested] in it. Nobody’s trying to do a Sopranos comic. I’ve been looking into recovering the rights to Carnivale to see if I can license it myself.”
What’s it like writing The Stand comic?
Aguirre-Sacasa: “When Marvel approached me, they said it would be a little different, Stephen King would have to approve some things. Normally the idea ofd doing an adaptation of something wouldn’t excite me, but the Stand was a huge influence on me. I did the sample treatments, an artist drew it. That was over a year ago. After the strike was ending, Marvel called and said King loves it. Go ahead and start adapting it. Then I went back to read the book and discovered it was 1500 pages. I could have sworn when I was a kid I read it over the weekend.”
Regarding Mike Perkins, the writer said he’s doing the work of his career.
What makes for a really gripping story? Grevioux: “The conflict. Rising action, rising conflict. A certain amount of drama.”
McCann: “Putting Wolverine in it.”
Pokaski: “Character. Always understanding why someone is what they’re doing.”
Knauf: “Clarifying what’s at stake for the character, investing the reader in that. If you’re not invested in the stakes or the stakes seem phony, you’re not going to be interested in whether he wins the fight or not.”
In response to a fan’s question about pitching, the panel advised aspiring writers to get published with an independent first, or hook up with an artist to draw a spec comic book, because reviewing scripts is very difficult in a portfolio setting.
Regarding the writers’ strike, Guggenheim shared that his favorite episodes of Eli Stone were shot during the strike, while he was on the picket line. “The problem is me!” he laughed.
Heroes shut down production completely during the strike. They anticipated the strike. “We changed everything. We had scripts for episodes 11-13. We shot a different ending to episode 11 the day before the strike. In the original version, the virus was dropped and would be a major plotline for subsequent episodes.”
Knauf said working in comics offers a writer more creative freedom than other mediums. “There’s also something really cool about holding something in your hand with pages,” he said.
Guggeneim: “Creatively, comics are a night and day difference. There are far less cooks in the kitchen, creatively. Even on the Spider-Man books where there’s a whole writing staff and army of editors, but I find my notes really make the issue better. I can’t say that about every note I’ve got in Hollywood. And if I don’t agree with the note, I feel comfortable saying I feel like sticking to my guns. It’s one of the benefits of working in a medium you’ve loved since childhood.”
McCann shared that at a Spider-Man writers’ retreat, Guggenheim covered a whole window with notecards mapping out every beat of a Spider-Man storyline.
A fan asked about diversity in comics, observing the lack of black women in genre fiction, mentioning Storm specifically. McCann: “Unfortunately in publishing we don’t have anything to do with the X-Men movies. But in the comics, Storm is about to star in X-Men: Worlds Divided, a four-issue miniseries. She kicks a lot of ass in there.”
Is it difficult working with a character like Iron Man who appears in several books? Knauf: “He was sort of the bad guy in Civil War. We decided early to just play our own game. We didn’t take our cues from Civil War. We decided the person buying the Iron Man comic book doesn’t want to see Iron Man played a total tool. Marvel was very cool about that.”
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