On the final day of Comic-Con International, Dark Horse Comics brought together several creators to discuss their new projects, the process of collaborating and more at the “Dark Horse Builds Character: Tomorrow’s Comics Today” panel.
The panel included Dark Horse Editor in Chief Scott Allie, Matt Kindt (“Mind MGMT”), Cameron Stewart (“Batgirl”), David Mack (“Kabuki,” “Dream Logic”) Jeff Lemire (“Justice League United,” “Sweet Tooth”) and author Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club,” “Choke”).
As Dark Horse announced new comics by all of these creators right before Comic-Con began, Allie asked each of them to give an overview of their project.
Kindt kicked things off by talking about “PastAways,” his “straight up science fiction” series with artist Scott Kolins. It’s about a group of astronauts from 10,000 years in the future who travel back to the present. A big hole in the fabric of reality lets weird, time-shifted things like dinosaurs and giant robots into the present, which they have to deal with. That shouldn’t be a problem because the laws of time travel in the book say they can’t die and are basically immortal. “Then one dies, and they freak out,” Kindt said.
With his DC Comics exclusivity at an end, Lemire was on hand to talk about “Black Hammer,” his new series with artist Dean Ormston. Calling it his “love letter to superheroes,” Lemire said the book is about a group of characters who were “wiped out of continuity” and woke up in a small farming community.
“We pick up with them 10 years later, with this oddball group of characters that have assimilated themselves into this small town life,” Lemire said. “Then there’s still the ongoing mystery of why they’re there and how they get back.” Each of the characters is from a different era of comics, and their histories will be revealed in flashbacks to their old adventures.
Lemire initially pitched the idea to Dark Horse as a graphic novel he planned to draw himself, circa 2007-2008, but his work at Vertigo pushed it to the side. Ormston came aboard as the artist and has reimagined Lemire’s old sketches of the characters “into something much cooler,” according to the writer. “I’m pretty critical of my own stuff, but I gotta say, I’ve written the first couple of scripts, and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Palahniuk, Stewart and Mack are all working together on “Fight Club 2,” a 10-issue sequel to the novel of the same name that was turned into a feature film in 1999. Palahniuk said the comic will focus on the child of The Narrator (played by Edward Norton in the film) and Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) as Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) comes back into their lives. The comic will serve as both a prequel and a sequel to the original story.
“The book ended with the protagonist more or less in a mental hospital, and this kind of ominous idea that what he had started, that what he was part of starting, was going to eventually re-envelope him,” Palahniuk said. “And there wasn’t very much about his parents in the first book — there were a couple references, and so I thought, ‘Why couldn’t the sequel be kind of a prequel and a sequel, and alternate with the idea that Tyler Durden is not something that visited simply his generation, but is sort of a meme, sort of an idea… a platonic ideal that has visited generation after generation basically destroying families, kind of focusing down to one person that Tyler could eventually occupy and take over the world with.”
That person, Palahniuk said, will be the nine-year-old child of The Narrator and Marla, who have been married for the last decade.
“Marla and The Narrator have not had great sex in 10 years,” Palahniuk said. “And Marla is desperate to get laid the way she got laid by Tyler, even if it means titrating her husband’s medication so that late at night she can coax Tyler out of suppression even if it means doing this to the extent that Tyler is more and more in the world, and eventually destroys their home and their family, and drags them into chaos in search of their son, who Tyler has taken off with.”
“I’ve read the whole thing, and I still get a huge kick out of hearing him describe it,” Stewart said. Stewart is drawing the series, while Mack will provide covers.
Next, Allie said Dark Horse is bringing Mack’s “Dream Logic” back into print this December. Originally published under Marvel’s Icon banner, the new hardcover will collect the entire series and featuring several new autobiographical stories, a gallery of artwork, sketches, commentary and more. Mack also has a new “Kabuki” story in the next issue of “Dark Horse Presents.”
Allie then started volleying questions at the panel, starting with one on collaboration. Noting that all the creators on the panel were known for “doing the whole job” themselves on many of their previous projects, he asked why they chose to collaborate on these projects.
Lemire said “Black Hammer” was the first creator-owned series he’s worked on that he isn’t drawing himself. “‘Black Hammer,’ to be honest, was something I always wished I could draw myself,” Lemire said, but over the last few years, his time was taken up working on projects like “Sweet Tooth.” “You get to a point where you have more ideas that you want to do than you have time to draw yourself, so you just have to give something up.”
Lemire said “Black Hammer” was something he thought would be interesting to see drawn by another artist, and Ormston he felt was a good choice because like Lemire, his art style isn’t a typical “superhero” style and he’d bring something unique to the project. Lemire also added his artwork would likely be featured in the series, possibly as variant covers and even in some parts of the story.
Stewart, who is taking over as co-writer of “Batgirl” with Brendan Fletcher, was both writer and artist on his webcomic “Sin Titulo.” He joked that collaborating on projects with other people was “faster” than doing everything himself.
“It’s interesting in this particular instance, working with Chuck, I like that it’s all there, it’s all written,” Stewart said about working on “Fight Club 2.” “I have the blueprint for what I’m going to do, but Chuck’s been very open to collaboration. He said at one of our meetings, ‘It’s written, just surprise me.’ And that’s exciting, to take something that’s already formed but then be able to put my own spin on it, my interpretation on how I execute it.”
Stewart, who currently lives in Berlin, moved to the Portland area temporarily so he could work with Palahniuk and the Dark Horse staff on the project. During their collaboration, he accidentally omitted a panel from a page while laying it out. Rather than redraw the page, “We were trying to figure out how the page could be altered to fit the dialogue that Chuck had written, and Chuck was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll just cut down the dialogue.’ And he grabbed the script and took a pen and crossed out half the dialogue… I like the fact that it’s mutable like that, that we can change things around in order to make it the strongest possible thing and not necessarily have to be a slave to what’s on the page,” Stewart said.
Allie asked Palahniuk what the appeal was to doing the sequel as a graphic novel, which meant he’d have to collaborate with artists, versus writing it as a novel. Palahniuk said one of his motivations was getting to be the “idiot” again.
“I wanted to be the student, because I kind of knew how to do what I did, and I could do it day in and day out for the rest of my life,” Palahniuk said. “And that wasn’t going to be a real learning process for me. And so I would like to maybe be subjugated to people who knew this stuff better than I did, so I could learn from their storytelling. So that was very appealing — to be 52 years old and to be back in school. I like that idea.”
He added that he also liked the “wiggle room” that comics give, noting that he was often criticized in the past for writing “two-dimensional, sort of cartoonish characters.”
“But I never wanted the characters to be so real that people didn’t get a kind of message,” Palahniuk said. “I didn’t want people to fall in love with the characters.”
The fact that things wouldn’t be as literal as they are in the movies was appealing, he said. “My cartoony, written characters could be presented in a medium that wouldn’t make them so realistic that they overwhelmed any kind of deeper message,” Palahniuk said.
Kindt, who started in comics doing both the writing and art on his projects, said his reasons were similar to Lemire’s. “To me, it was the one job you could get on Earth where you can write and draw the whole thing,” Kindt said. “But as I got older, I had more ideas than I could get to, and I realized, now that I’m 40, and I’m going to die before I get through the list of my ideas.”
“PastAways,” he said, was one project he really wanted to do, and he didn’t think he could draw it as well as Kolins could.
“I have a style that’s kind of set at this point,” Kindt said. “There’s things I can’t do. I can only bend it only so far, but he’s already there. So it was something he could take over.”
Kindt and his editor went through a long list of possible artists to collaborate with, and Kindt had worked with Kolins on the Robotman story that ran in DC Comics’ “My Greatest Adventure.”
“I knew he could do it, and I knew we got along,” Kindt said. “I’m scared to collaborate, because I’ve been collaborating with myself my whole career. So finding somebody, it’s like a weird relationship — it’s different from any other kind of relationship other than a marriage.”
Allie asked if collaborating with Kolins has changed the book, and Kindt said that he did ask Kolins up front what he liked to draw so he could work those ideas into the story. “So I’m sort of using him as a sounding board… I use his ideas as writing prompts to add a layer of weirdness to the story I already had,” Kindt said.
Allie asked Mack about “Kabuki,” which initially Mack had no intention of drawing himself. When he was looking for an artist in 1993, he met Brian Michael Bendis, who was trying to get work as a penciller. Mack inked some of Bendis’ pencils on an H.P Lovecraft story, and then recruited Bendis to be the artist of “Kabuki.”
“I sort of tricked myself into doing it,” Mack said. He drew an eight-page “Kabuki” story himself “just for fun,” which led to him doing another eight-page scene, then another, until he eventually had enough for the first issue. “And that’s how I began doing it,” he said.
“When I first started working for Marvel I started as writer on ‘Daredevil,’ and I felt like I got to write the ideas, and then I was so used to doing every other aspect — the lettering, the overseeing of the printing — I just got to write the idea and send it, then Marvel magically returned a completely finished book where an artist and everybody did all the hard stuff and created a complete book,” Mack said.
Mack added that he liked seeing his ideas through another artist’s eyes. “Then you actually do go back to the script, and you go, ‘I don’t even need half this dialogue,’ because the body language and the facial expressions and the dynamism that they brought to it, that’s kind of the funniest part of writing, is after you’ve done all the hard writing, and someone has done the hard work of making it real on a page, and then you get to go back and pick and choose and finesse — it’s like editing film probably, where all the raw footage is there, and then you get to do all the bells and whistles and tweak it. That’s the coolest part.”
During the Q&A session, one attendee asked Palahniuk what he had learned so far from working in comics.
“I thought the minimalism had a lot of rules,” Palahniuk replied. “It’s just another big set of new rules. I thought that things could actually move within the panel. Putting in the direction that so-and-so crosses the room, picks up the cup, takes a drink, says this, puts the cup down — you know, that’s not just one panel. Everything has to be the beginning of an action or the completion of an action, and that there’s very few gestures that really imply motion. So that rule in and of itself is a huge rule. Also, the rule about making something important happen on the lower outside right-hand page just before the page turn, either a set up to a big reveal or something compelling, but knowing that the reader scans both pages and you really can’t keep secrets, because they see everything at once, and if something too compelling happens it’s gonna pull them away from reading the preceding panels. Just all of those form rules are so new. But I love a challenge, I think I’m much more pissed off and enervated by being told what I can do, by being given a set of rules… that’s why people responded to ‘The first rule of Fight Club is…’ is that people want some rules.”
Another fan asked the panelists why they chose Dark Horse for their projects. Stewart said after winning the Eisner for best webcomic for “Sin Titulo,” several publishers came to him about publishing it. He said the webcomic was an experiment for him, that he was making it up as he went along and was working without a net. He said every publisher except for Dark Horse wanted to know how it ended and wanted to “reserve the right to offer editorial influence on the ending.”
Stewart said that Allie told him that what he had done so far was so good that “even if you fuck it up, it’s still worth publishing.”
Lemire said Dark Horse had a great track record of working with creators he liked, including Kindt, who is a friend of his. Kindt said that with “Mind MGMT,” Dark Horse let him run with his creative vision — “they just let you go and do anything you want and can be done… ‘Mind MGMT’ is a series that couldn’t exist in any other format.” Mack said he had a blast working with Allie on some covers for the Buffy spinoff series “Willow,” which led to the “Kabuki story in “Dark Horse Presents” and the republication of “Dream Logic.”
The final question of the panel was about digital vs. paper publication, and how the creators would prefer people read their work. Mack said he liked the idea of keeping comic shops in business, but that comics are readable in many ways. He noted some people only read comics digitally and would never go into comic store anyway, while some will always go into the store for a print copy. Many younger readers, he noted, are used to reading on a screen versus on paper, and “we have to be mindful of that.”
Stewart said that with the advent of digital, things like a double-page spread don’t have the impact on a screen that they had in print. “That’s kind of a tool that’s been taken out of the box,” Stewart said. “So we have to come up with things that are going to replace that. I think more people will be considering that when they’re actually making comics. And I’m not talking about adding animation and music and all that other shit that’s not comics — just other things that will exploit the format that you’re reading on.”