Jeff Parker, Antony Johnston, Eric Stephenson and Jay Faerber spent an hour of their Emerald City Comicon time to speak with moderator Gregg Schigiel about the challenges specific to being a writer working in comics. After a brief round of introductions, the conversation began with Schigiel posing the question: Once you get an idea, do you talk about it or show drafts to people?
“I don’t,” Parker answered. “Sometimes, if you tell the idea to somebody, the impetus to tell the idea goes away — but if it’s just a germ of an idea, sometimes talking about it can help.”
“I’ll often run the premise by people,” Faerber said, “but after that, the writing is solitary.”
“I like to think I have a finished script,” Parker joked. “But editors and other people treat it as a draft giving me notes and making corrections.”
Johnston shook his head. “I work at home and don’t talk to anybody about anything before it’s done.” Asked if he talked to the artist, he shook his head again, explaining that after the initial creation stages of the project, his role is done. “For the most part, if I’m going to interrogate anyone, I interrogate myself.” Johnston compared his approach to the programming trick known as “rubber duck debugging,” where you force yourself to go over a problem step by step in order to figure out what needs to be fixed.
“In the brainstorming stage, I’ll talk to the artist,” Parker said, explaining that he likes to find out what his collaborators like and don’t like to draw so he can give them something more than what they’ve done before.
Johnston explained that for his two series, “Fuse and “Umbral,” he asked the artists what they wanted to do. “They said, ‘We don’t care, as long as it’s good,'” Johnston said. “So no pressure.”
While each writer on the panel has their own process, there are some similarities between them. Johnston writes his first drafts in longhand before working on the computer, while Stephenson tends to start by compiling notes and building from his premise.
“It’s so much easier to rewrite something than write,” Johnston said, with the entire panel echoing the idea of getting the basic story down before diving into dialogue and specific beats. “I read somewhere that the first draft is you telling the story to yourself,” Faerber shared.
Parker made the important point that every page should build the story. “Even if it seems like nothing happened on that page, something happened on that page. If it’s not advancing things, what’s it there for?”
As far as structure, “I know it’s a dirty word to write for the trade,” Faerber said, “but I do.”
“Everyone should,” Stephenson agreed. “Part of the success of ‘Walking Dead’ and ‘Saga’ is, they do a good job of writing for the trade.” He explained that each issue works on its own but they also build towards something over the course of the storyline, which is something different from the traditional three act structure.
Parker said that he thinks of structure, but not in terms of acts. “I figure out the ending early on, because I have to. I like a really good ending. I’ll write a rough of the ending early, and sure, I’ll veer off along the way and have to change some stuff, but it’ll stay close to what I had planned.” Parker added that recently, he hasn’t been planning the ending in as much detail as he used to because he’s done it for so long.
Schigiel pointed out that “Aquaman” never ends, to which Johnston corrected him with a laugh. “‘Aquaman’ ends every two years!”
Stephenson used Lee-Kirby’s “Fantastic Four” run to make the point that while the comic didn’t end, they told stories which did.
Asked about tone, Parker insisted that “tone is everything.” The biggest influence on the tone of the “Thunderbolts” book he wrote was the series’ artist. “I think a lot of that comes down to the choice of artists, even if that choice is thrust on you,” Johnston added.
Faerber mentioned that he’s drawing a book “Marvel style,” something that Parker has done, but it requires a lot of trust in the artist and their storytelling abilities, though it’s often easy to let the artist choreograph fight scenes, for example.
Johnston made it clear that he has no interest in writing any way but full script. “To me, finding the beats and the pacing and the moments in the gutters and scene cuts, that is part of the writing, to me. That’s my job. I know [the artists] could do it, but I don’t feel like I’ve done my job if I don’t give them what to expect. I tell them, if you think of something better, go for it. And it’s happened and it works, but I always put something down.”
“Alan Moore’s scripts are known for being dense, but he’s very generous as far as what he’s giving the artist,” Stephenson said. “He’s giving you options for what to put in there. He’s saying, these are the choices.”
Schigiel pointed out that the common refrain is to find an artist and make a comic, and that’s how writers can break in. With that in mind, he wondered, what’s the best way to test artists?
“You’ve got to find books they’ve already worked on,” Parker answered. “That weeds out people, because they’ve finished something, so you can figure they’ll probably finish my script. Or, sometimes, you’ll see something and they’re not quite there yet.”
“I’ve taken chances on new guys,” Faerber said. “I’m looking for quality, but also quantity. I want a body of work and something that shows me he’s committed.”
As far as where they work, Johnston does his writing at his desk, but Parker admitted to being a cliche. “I start off in a cafe,” he said. “I work a little bit and I write until I get stuck. Then I get on my bike and ride downtown to Periscope,” he said, referencing the Portland Studio where he’s a member.
One audience member asked how they organize their thoughts and what happens to ideas scribbled on napkins. “My days of writing things on napkins are behind me with the iPhone,” Stephenson said. He does use his computer and notebooks to collect thoughts and ideas, however, depending on where he is when inspiration strikes.
Faerber directed people to antonyjohnston.com where Johnston has written extensively about process and structure. “I think I should try your style,” Faerber admitted, “but I don’t have the time to learn all that.”
Asked whether they will avoid reading similar work when developing on a story, Faerber shared that he has a book he described as a western police story on an alien planet coming out later this year. He took to Twitter to bemoan the fact that there are three other similar sounding books out or coming out. “I tweeted out jokingly that even if we all sat down to write the same thing, they would come out very different.”
“Ideas are cheap,” Johnston said. “It’s about execution.”
Faerber agreed. “No one ever says, ‘But there’s already a superhero book at DC.'”