THE JASON LATOUR INTERVIEW: PART ONE
I first interviewed Jason Latour in 2010, just as his artistic side was hitting the big publishers with a little bit of “Daredevil” and a thick slice of Vertigo Crime, and he teased a little project he was writing called “Loose Ends.”
It’s now 2013, and Latour has gone on to draw stories in “Scalped” and “Captain America” and “Wolverine” and “B.P.R.D.” and that “Loose Ends” project? Well, that’s still not quite finished, even though we’ve seen three-quarters of the series released.
Latour and I will talk about that next week in Part Two of this new interview, but the bigger Latour news is that he will be taking over from Ed Brubaker as writer of the “Winter Soldier” ongoing series beginning in February. As announced last year, Latour will be joined by artist Nic Klein and the new creative team will continue the adventures of the man formerly known as Bucky. It’s not Latour’s first writing work for Marvel; he penned a well-received issue of “Untold Stories of Punisher MAX” and he has a Quentin Quire/Steve Rogers story in the next issue of “A+X.” We’ll talk about that latter story, too.
But first, we discuss how Latour got where he is, and what it’s like to work within the boundaries of mainstream superhero comics. As always, Latour has plenty to say, and the wit and wisdom to say it well. Assuming you’re on board for references to 1980s cartoons and schlocky crime movies, which I totally am.
Tim Callahan: We do one of these in-depth conversations every year or two, but now we have some additional craziness to talk about, like how you’re writing an ongoing series for Marvel. Does that feel weird to you? Is that what you dreamed about when you were drawing all those inky pages for the Vertigo Noir book and mumbling, “Writing sounds good right about now”?
Jason Latour: It’s definitely a touch surreal. I “broke in” as an artist, so it’s understandable that someone who knows me primarily as one might be surprised to see me writing. But I’ve never looked at the jobs as mutually exclusive. I know a lot of artists will tell you that they are first and foremost storytellers, and it’s not uncommon to hear that line from people whose work doesn’t seem to reflect it. But as suspect as it might seem to say, storytelling is what I’ve always enjoyed about comics. Writing for another artist is just one of the lions that form Voltron. Maybe it’s the head, maybe not. I always wondered if the head lion also considered itself the ass?
So you’re comparing yourself to Voltron, Defender of the Universe now? Listen, sir, your first issue of “Winter Soldier” hasn’t even come out yet, so you’d best pretend to be modest for now. Maybe start with calling yourself Mighty Orbot Jr and wait until the third or fourth Eisner win before you even think about Voltron-level status. Volton is for closers.
Now that we’ve taken that ridiculous metaphor too far, let’s get back to talking comics: “Winter Soldier” specifically. It’s not the only thing you’re working on right now — and we’ll get to all the other stuff soon enough — but it’s the big-deal-attention-grabber that plenty of CBR readers are likely to be interested in. So what’s your angle on Bucky Barnes and company? What gets you jazzed up to write a comic about Captain America’s kid sidekick turned cold war assassin turned supersoldier turned whatever he is now?
You realize “Voltron is for Closers” is now the name of my memoirs, right?
But that’s just it — with “Winter Soldier” what I find interesting is, to a large degree, the searching for “whatever he is now.” The superhero and the assassin are kind of the poles, but for me it’s the friction between those things, those ideals, that are his character. It’s interesting to me that what essentially formed him into a superhero is that he was trained from a very early age to be a soldier and a killer. So in a very tangible way, what makes him special is also what makes him tragic. It’s a bit like the old Ronin Samurai who’s sworn to give up the sword The knowledge of the damage he can do, both good and bad, probably weighs on him as much, if not more than what he’s done.
There’s aÂ really great ongoing exploration of human incongruity there.Â How do we keep going when our minds and experiences don’t give us much evidence that life will ever change for the better? In a world that is about constantly adapting and moving forward, why do we seem to clutch the past so tightly?Â
To me all that also mirrors corner of the Marvel Universe it’s set in. There’s this grounded real world element, with all those hard edges and then right around the corner there’s this vivid playground that really represents imagination andÂ creativity. From every angle that’s interesting to me. It takes advantage of every part of comics and storytelling that I enjoy.
How do you balance those philosophical questions and explorations with the practicality that you’re dealing, in “Winter Soldier,” with trying to turn all that stuff into something that’s visceral and action-packed and commercial? When you work as an artist, you can control the tone and make things look cool and expressive and dynamic, but as a writer trying to ensure that happens, what steps do you take in the plotting and scripting to translate the metaphorical subtext and thematic underpinnings of the story into something that can guide an artist toward the complexities you’re striving to express?
And I guess the bigger question there is not only how do you do what you do, as a writer of a commercial superhero comic, but how do you balance the expected commercial needs of such a comic — I mean, things need to happen, you need to provide twists and turns and melodramatic stuff, all within 20 not-too-text-heavy pages — with the desire to go a bit deeper and give some genuinely meaningful character moments and thematic explorations?
Well, in trying to develop my own art I’ve become super analytical about breaking down other artists. That helps when you’re scripting for someone else. It’s a bit like making a game plan for an athlete in the sense that if I know their strengths and tendencies it helps to put them in a better position to succeed. But it doesn’t predict the outcome. It’s too much of a living thing. If it always came out looking like I saw it in my head then I might as well have drawn it. So there’s definitely an art to being adaptive that you have to cultivate. I generally step back from the pages when they come in and think about the choices the artist made, whether I agree with them or not. How I’d feel with that script in my hands. But a lot of it is honestly just that I’ve been lucky to work with the folks who make the amazing arts.
As for balancing art and commerce — I tend to just look at the fact the comic is being sold as a parameter of the medium, just like say there only being 20 pages is. Once I understand the parameters I feel like I can kind of edit and compress my ideas in such a way that what I’ve cut will hopefully fill in the subtle contours of the story. So you’ll feel these phantom limbs even though they’re not there. It’s that old idea some of the story should exist around the corner. 20 pages and a PG-13 rating is the corner. Plus the second the guy has a robot arm, it’s ridiculous to not have him bash someone with it.
So some of the larger story complexities might be implied, but the robot-arm-bashing would be declared?
That sounds about right, and yet, as I think more about it, I’m thinking that what tends to be thought of as decompression in comics is more of a choice about what the writer chooses to include in the text and what’s chosen for “outside the corners.” Take an Avengers comic circa 1968 and compare it to an Avengers comic from 2008, and even if the same number of events “happen,” the former will spend many pages on fight scenes and the latter will spend many pages on characters in conversation. By emphasizing one, they make quick work of the other. And since I’m guessing — and you can correct me if I’m wrong — you probably use some form of the tried-and-true-write-the-numbers-1-through-20-on-a-piece-of-paper-and-list-what-happens approach to plotting, you are constantly faced with the decision of how many pages each story beat receives, and what’s best left implied. When you make those decisions, what kind of barometer do you use for knowing how many pages a conversation scene deserves, or how many pages a fight scene lasts, or when to jump ahead narratively?
These are super-basic storytelling questions, I know, but they seem to me to be at the core of what it is you’re faced with when you’re staring down the page limit and superhero genre conventions.
That seems a sound theory on decompression. It might not be related,Â but I’dÂ add that if you’re a guaranteed, puts-asses-in-seats writer on a fairly bulletproof franchise, you’ve got a lot less impetus to write for the moment or feel like every page is life or death. What does thatÂ mean forÂ the stories? Does it make themÂ better or worse?Â Maybe sometimes theÂ freedom to take your time does improve things.Â
I have no clue what the comics we’ve made areÂ from a compression standpoint. Generally there’s a lot of energy devoted to trying to make them have a strongÂ atmosphere and an entry point.Â Presentation and point of view are insanely important to me, so things get moved around a lot to allow for that and to let the art have a voice in the story. But the outlines areÂ pretty intensive,Â yes. On “Winter Soldier,” I outlined the whole arc with page breakdowns. I haven’t stuck to that religiously though.Â Â There’s a need for thingsÂ to evolve organically, at leastÂ as much as possibleÂ without getting too lost. Disappearing too long to figure it out isn’t an option.Â People are waiting on me.
It’s a tangent, but I do dream of doing a comic that’s got long, Robert Altman-esque segments. Sitting in a bar listening or on a hill looking at the ocean forever. In print comics that’s just impossible, but maybe it works in digital. Though you’ve still got to find the time to draw it.Â
I don’t even know if leisurely, picturesque comics are even really possible in that way, because even if you slow down the pace, you don’t have the kind of control over time that cinema does. In film, you can have a three minute, imagery-filled silent sequence and the audience experiences those three minutes. In comics, a silent, imagery-filled sequence reads super-quickly. It would take an artist like Moebius to make you slow down and savor the pages, no matter how silent. At least, that’s been my experience.
Back to “Winter Soldier” for a second, we should probably pull back from all this fancy-pants craft talk to hear you actually describe your first arc. What’s Bucky Barnes up against in your opening story? What’s at stake?
The big question I want to ask is: what willÂ it take for BuckyÂ to move forward? Is that even possible?Â As we’ve seen, there were a lot of ugly things waiting in the shadows that he should have addressed and now those things have destroyed a significant part of his life. In the aftermath he’s going to find himself left with an overwhelming urge to do whatever itÂ takes to prevent hisÂ sins fromÂ everÂ hurting someone else again. To get out ahead of this thing, and look his past in the eye.Â
But in doing soÂ he’ll come face to face with a new kind of problem, something he never saw coming. This time it’s not a frozen Soviet or a reincarnated Nazi he’s facing. He understands those things. He threw a lot of rocks into the pond in his day and a full blown tidal wave hasÂ grownÂ from the ripplesÂ he caused.Â
So the question he’ll face is: how much of this is my fault? Is this Natasha all over again? How does he break this cycle?
And, just to be clear, he tries to break that cycle by punching people with his robot arm, yes? People who totally deserve it.
Well, it sounds like a pretty strong conceptual premise, but do you take that same kind of approach to some of the shorter things you’re writing. I know you have a Quentin Quire/Captain America story coming up in “A+X,” and with something that’s only half an issue long, do you frame it in your mind with a question that drives the story, or is it, in that case a simple foundation of: what happens when a young brat like Quire and an old legend like Cap team up?
My default operating system is TBS Superstation, so of course “Buddy cops” was my first thought! Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy own me. Which is absurd and quite insane, but less and less I feel the need to justify it.
But I’m not so into pointless kitsch as an exercise. So with all this stuff I’m trying to step back and find a new entry point or an angle on getting back to what’s relevant or relatable about it. I love Captain America for example, but to a lot of people he’s probably broad, cheesy Vegas Neil Diamond. And in that sense it’s like being a music producer who’s looking to re-kindle or find what’s great in an old star and bring that into the present. Even if that’s an exploration of why it’s not. So I try to let it evolve organically and not worry so much about answers as much as interesting questions.
For some reason, the two VHS tapes our family owned — or maybe just the ones we watched the most — were “Superman III” and “48 Hours,” and if that’s not mainlining the TBS Superstation sensibility, I don’t know what is.
Do you really see Captain America as Neil Diamond-esque? I’ve never thought of him that way at all, though I guess the glitter of the chainmail is only one step away from sequins.
If Cap is Neil Diamond, who is Quentin Quire? And how much can you really explore in, what, 10 pages in the “A+X” issue?
Y’know, I first heard The Police’s ‘Roxanne’ by way of Eddie Murphy in a jail cell. Still prefer it.
No, I don’t see Cap as Neil Diamond at all. An older Springsteen maybe. To a kid like Quentin Quire there probably isn’t much difference. He’d only see the stage persona and never realize the guy cut his heart out to make Darkness on the Edge of Town when he was young. You can’t explore a lot in 10 pages, no. But insights might be possible.
Join us next week for Part Two of the interview, where we talk about “Loose Ends,” learning from great comics, and more!
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.