MorrisonCon’s “Writers On Writing” panel began with much enthusiasm as moderator and MorrisonCon co-founder Ron Richards introduced Grant Morrison, “Scalped” and “Wolverine & The X-Men’s” Jason Aaron and “Fantastic Four” and “The Manhattan Projects'” Jonathan Hickman to a cheering crowd.
The group immediately launched into a discussion of how far in advance they like to plan their stories. Hickman, known for his meticulous charts and story planning, said he always knows how his stories, like “Fantastic Four,” will end.
“A lot of that’s a crutch because, you know, I’ve only been writing for five years,” Hickman said, adding he felt he needed a “super-structure not to fuck it up.” His Image Comics series “Manhattan Project,” however, is a lot more freeform.
“He’s not lying — we went to the first Marvel retreat at the same time and he came in and pitched like four years of ‘FF’ right there in the room,” Aaron said as the audience laughed.
Crashing the panel, “The Walking Dead” writer Robert Kirkman and “Batwoman” scribe and artist J.H. Williams III joined the panelists on stage to thunderous applause. Williams told the audience that he too planned plots out in advance, though that often meant he couldn’t participate in publisher events or crossovers as he had no room in his schedule.
That brought the conversation to dealing with continuity, Aaron saying that as the Vertigo series “Scalped” was his, he did not have to deal with planning around any other books. “You got to be a lot more flexible,” Aaron said about writing his Marvel titles, on the other hand.
“It’s important to stick to the continuity as much as you can,” Morrison, who helped spearhead DC’s massive “52” event agreed.
However, the Scottish writer also said that things just slip by sometimes. “There’s so much continuity at Marvel, DC as well, there’s always some mess that’s maddening. You write some character who does something great and the fans point out, ‘He’s not a telepath!’ Oh, shit, we just spent three pages where he’s reading people’s minds!” Morrison exclaimed.
Hickman stated that he actually read almost all of “Fantastic Four” before he began writing the series as he felt it needed to get “back to what it was.”
“I’m not doing that with ‘Avengers!'” Hickman added.
Kirkman, however, had harsher words about working for Marvel, specifically when it came to the page-turn reveal — parts of the story that are hidden until that page is turned.
“You have to write for the page-turn, otherwise you’re writing a left hand page of, ‘Is he going to shoot that guy?’ and on the right hand page he’s getting shot,” Kirkman said. “One of the main things I absolutely hated about working at Marvel is that they are just like, ‘Let’s put an ad here.’ They screw that up all the time.”
“And not only do they screw it up in their ads — I’m just going to talk crap about Marvel really quick,” Kirkman continued as the audience applauded, “But they’d do that in trades too!”
“Jonathan, I saw you nodding!” Kirkman said to Hickman as the room laughed.
“I think you can control that stuff,” Hickman responded.
“You can’t!” Kirkman stated as the crowd laughed again. Hickman then agreed that messing up the page-turns with ads could be “frustrating.”
Richards asked Williams about the fact “Batwoman’s” ads tend to all be in the back of the book. Williams told the room that was a surprise to him, as he had no say over where the ads went. However, he thought the placement was simply because almost every issue of “Batwoman” involved complicated double page spreads throughout.
“I think they just said, ‘How do we do this? Screw it, let’s put it in the back,'” Williams said. “One of the issues coming up is all double-pages — let’s see what they do there!”
Morrison told the audience that learning to write page-turn reveals was the most important bit of advice he could pass on to them, with he himself always trying to write cliffhangers into the end of every page. He also outlines the theme of every issue far in advance so specific installments, like the Talia-centric issue of “Batman Incorporated,” was just about her life with no distractions.
Discussing working with artists, Williams dismissed the notion that comics have become 100% a writer-centric medium, saying that he thought the pendulum was swinging back the other way.
“In some ways, it’s been very writer-driven for a long time, but some of it also depends on the audience’s perspective,” Williams explained. “I’m hearing more and more from readers who are really starting to pay more attention to how art functions with story. The more we do panels like this, the more the readership gets educated on how the art impacts the stories narratively and everything else.”
Aaron said he goes back and re-reads his old stuff sometimes, something that Kirkman admitted he could never bring himself to do with “The Walking Dead.”
“They’re not for me, I guess,” Kirkman said as the audience cracked up.
One thing all the writers could agree on is that their best ideas come when they’re away from their computers and doing other things.
“The notes I write in my phone — I think if my phone were to ever be lost and found by a police officer, are like, ‘He smashes his head with a baseball bat,'” Kirkman joked.
A bit of sage advice Morrison shared with the audience to there delight was very simple: “Notes that you write on acid — just say no!”
Asked by an audience member about the panel’s thoughts on digital comics, Morrison replied first. “We’re watching people transfer the old medium into the new medium the way that they did with film a hundred years ago. They didn’t realize the cameras could move, so they set up a proscenium arch and filmed it like a theatre. What I felt is that a lot of people are trying to do that page-turn transfer, the way the panels are, even the balloons — there’s all kinds of new stuff we could do.”
Kirkman, on the other hand, liked the fact that comics are “static images,” and disliked the trend of making digital motion comics because then they become animation.
“When you start adding videos and weird stuff, I feel it’s not comics anymore,” Kirkman argued. “While I do agree there are different things you can do with panels to adapt them into [digital] medium, when you start adding sound and movement, you start losing the essence of what comics are.”
Another audience member wanted to know if working on a book at the mainstream comic book companies increased sales of their independent and creator-owned work.
“I’ll give you the numbers,” Hickman said “The first four projects I did at Image were all very well-received — but they all sold ten thousand copies. I didn’t make money. I went to Marvel and did some stuff and now, very clearly, I’ve got a pretty persistent fifteen to twenty thousand readers that are picking up my indie books. That absolutely is true. That’s the wonderful payback from working at the big two.”
“I think a lot of people have misconstrued my message to be ‘Don’t work at Marvel or DC,'” Kirkman replied. “It’s not true; my message is don’t work at Marvel or DC for too long. I definitely think that working at Marvel and DC builds awareness in yourself as a brand.
“My only issue is when people feel they can’t transition into just doing creator-owned stuff because I feel like that has a ceiling,” Kirkman continued. “Like once you get that bump and once people get to recognize who you are, if you stay them for too long, all you’re doing is allowing Marvel or DC to grind your name down.”
The writers told the next questioner that the publishers typically choose which artists they work with, especially at Marvel and DC. Morrison was able to get Darick Robertson to do “Happy” at Image mainly because he timed it to a hole in Robertson’s schedule, as Morrison had wanted to work with him for years.
The last fan to the floor microphone was an artist who asked for the most difficult or weirdest thing the writers had ever asked an artist to draw. Kirkman cracked the audience up as he admitted that he’d drive his artists crazy as he’d turn in scripts with the words “make this look good” at the end of panel descriptions.
Morrison confessed he once asked Frank Quitely to draw a “Flex Mentallo” panel in which “there’s a bunch of electrons floating around an invisible neutron core,” joking, “All he had to do is drawn an atom!”