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WRITER VS. ARTIST: Jeff Parker & Tom Fowler

by  in Comic News Comment
WRITER VS. ARTIST: Jeff Parker & Tom Fowler

“Mysterius The Unfathomable” #1 on sale in January

By Jeff Parker

Hi, folks. Jeff Parker here. CBR is kindly testing out this new feature wherein I directly engage a potentially hostile artist in the wild and attempt to coax him or her into sharing with our fellow process junkies valuable secrets of hammering out a readable comic book.

For our first time out, I’m talking with cartoonist Tom Fowler, whose work can be seen often in some small upstart magazine called “MAD” or some such. Tom and I recently created a new series being published by Wildstorm called “Mysterius The Unfathomable,” so we’re going to focus on how one starts with nothing and gets to a fully realized cast and world.

I think.

Let’s begin.

Story continues below

Jeff Parker: Tom, I can’t be bothered to find my initial descriptions of how I thought our main character would look. Really, did you even read them or did you immediately start forming him in your head regardless?

Tom Fowler: I believe they read, “Geoffrey Rush.”

I think he was formed out of a number of things, though, going back to the (literally) last-minute pitch in to me (having just been rejected –nicely– for a project with you at Marvel one minute before the pitch for “Mysterius” came in from Wildstorm), and the coincidence that Mysterius was, at least, partially inspired by Dirk Gently, the main character of the book I was reading at the time (“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” by Douglas Adams— get over to Amazon kids!). To some degree in the face of that, I started to draw him very like I’d pictured Dirk in my head. Which is to say, “Geoffrey Rush.”

Whether one vision of one character informed the other or vice versa, I can’t remember now, but as I was reading the book and working on the pitch image, the character started getting very solidly entrenched in my head. I liked the idea of, in many ways, an “ugly” man (American TV ugly/British handsome), with his ruined body dressing in five-thousand dollar suits and thinking he looks like a million bucks. At the beginning, I think you were also pretty eager to load him up with affectations, which we very quickly removed.

JP: Clearly your memory is faulty, as I don’t remember trying to load him up or pimp him out, as it were. I will admit to throwing a monkey wrench in when I was briefly captivated by David Warner as he looked in “Time After Time.” Which led us briefly into something more Austin Powersy, so I apologized profusely and we moved on with you fleshing out more attitudes.

TF: You mentioned the words “Alan Moore rings” more than once. The cane was yours, too (but who’s counting). I think the god-awful Dr. Orpheus-looking Dracula trophy was mine (but I’m also prepared to believe it was another terrible choice of yours). Eventually, I settled on the white, silk scarf as an (I hope) elegant and understated homage to Mysterius’ other parent, Doctor Who. The less said about the David Warner phase the better. I was so close to his final design when that one came up… out of nowhere! (Stop watching AMC in the afternoons, you bastard!) Luckily, the result looked so much like Ringo Starr we backed off that particular path.

JP: Okay, maybe I did say “Alan Moore rings.” Let the record show that Tom Was Right that a silk scarf and expensively-drawn suit would be enough to tag our main man effectively.

JP: So we got back on track, especially with this one that has the big troll Kevin, who does not appear in this first storyline, but since you took it upon yourself to put him in there, he eventually will.

TF: I do this. Like the very early “Hellmouths” sketch above, once I get comfortable with an idea, I start to run with story/character ideas that I think would fit. It’s like making a wish list. Some come with entire back stories and stick — like Kevin, who was really just created to fill a hole in the composition but, over the course of the drawing, became a 200-year-old punk rock troll who hung with Keith Moon, toured with The Stooges, and worked the doors at CBGB’s, etc. Some get politely put aside (cough*Ponce de Leon*cough), at least until I can lobby for them again when you’re weaker. Which wound up happening with the character we’re currently referring to as “Marsoupolanski” (until we can find a better, less legally actionable name). Some I pull back because they work better with stuff that I’m working on my own. There was also a lot of talk of leprechaun evisceration in those early days, that i sincerely hope lives on in some future story.

JP: Readers may note your Fowler timestamps that show we were haggling over this an entire year ago, so we certainly put the time into it.

Now to back up and tackle the equally important Delfi. Again, I have no recollection of what I said originally except that she was kind of a nerdy-hipster black girl in her early 20s. And you first offered up this very conservative-looking young lady…

TF: Oh, there were a few steps before that one. Here’s the first, which I think predates the description… either that or just ignored it:

JP: Whoa, I forgot about that round! Yeah, that version of her was way too capable-looking. I mean, the character is very capable in many respects, but that Delfi looks like she can kick ass, which ours can’t. And, she’s not able to drive. Which of course, Mysterius can’t either.

TF: It’s really just Martha Jones with short hair. You wanted short and skinny, I tend towards plumper. So we split the difference at the waist. And in very short order we went from the more conservative Delfi up above to this, slightly punkier one:

TF: The hair would eventually get wilder and I fed her a few sandwiches, but we more or less had it by this point. You also insisted on the hat, which I fought at first, but it’s become really handy acting tool as well as a fun Indiana Jones homage.

JP: Yay, something I suggested worked! Yes, I predict we’ll be seeing that hat and jacket turn up on some girls at shows next year. So at last, somewhere at the beginning of the year, we had our big two locked in.

JP: Really, if any creators can get to this stage faster, then rock on, other creators. We were pretty concerned with winning readers over from the get-go and not having to ‘find’ our cast as we went along.

What do you think are the hurdles to overcome when introducing all-new characters to the public?

TF: I’ve read that question a couple of times, and thought about answering it a few different ways. I’ve had varying degrees of success with this kind of thing over the years and my experience has run the gamut of introducing characters that no one paid any attention to (caper), to introducing/working on new characters that were going to be crazy megahits (mostly in other media) no matter what I did with them (Jango… which is not to say I had anything to do with the making of him, just the debuting), to coming onto things that someone else had created and trying successfully or unsuccessfully to put some kind of stamp on them (Monroe, Planet of the Apes, Green Arrow).

The first hurdle would be creating something genuinely new. As that’s impossible (because just about everything’s been done), it’s about shaking all the little bits together into something that feels new, and that you can get passionate about, and get other people passionate about, because no one’s ever done it like this before.

I suppose the second would be overcoming whatever public perception people might have of your prior work and saying, “Well, this is something else.” I’m sure you’re jumping that particular hurdle as well.

JP: Yes, since I write a fair amount of all-ages material, I do worry a bit about some parent somewhere tossing down a copy of “Mysterius” to their young’un- “Ah, a wholesome Jeff Parker comic for you, child! Ask if you have any questions…” And then the tears begin.

The main hurdle to me is how resistant comics readers are to new properties these days. You’ll know someone’s reading preferences, and know you have something they’ll love, but the trick is- what do you do to cue them in that this is the thing they’ll click with? Hence we set the premise and introduce the cast very solidly in issue one as you know, and give them a world that isn’t necessarily a comic book world, it feels very close to the world they know.

TF: Right, and trying to build a fully formed universe right out of the gate; as though readers are actually starting with issue #237 of a much larger series. It’s a new beginning within that context, but everything’s been there for years and eventually when we fill in the gaps they can jump forward and backward in Mysterius’ world. Like when I started watching tom baker Doctor Who as a kid knowing that there were already three other Doctors and 15 or so years preceding it.

The third hurdle (and I’m happy to say in the case of Mysterius it’s less a hurdle and more a staple that someone’s driven most of the way into the ground) is communication between collaborators. That’s actually something I harp on quite a bit. Collaborative media should be collaborative. Any time anything I’ve worked on has tanked it’s invariably been because the communication between the creators involved (myself included) broke down in some way, or was never there to begin with. The fact that you and I and [editor] Ben [Abernathy] are all in the loop at all times about everything results in a much more singular vision. We all comment on what each other are doing. We’ll argue a point if need be, and even if it ultimately doesn’t go our way, we know that we’ve conceded to the better path because we all care, because we’re all involved.

It also helps that you’re both an artist and a writer, and you respect that I’m an artist who can write. Which means on the odd occasion where you’ve written something that I can’t figure out or get a grip on visually, you can draw a quick sketch of what you had in mind. Likewise, I can pitch you a line every once and a while, or insert a character, or some other little bit of business if it helps broaden or flush out the story. The fact that we both dig magic, monsters, and naked ladies also helps.

JP: Luckily, we started clicking on the project right off the bat and the series doesn’t take multiple issues to find itself. That’s a luxury you just don’t have in the market these days.

TF: True. There are no eight-page coffee break scenes.

JP: I would never do that to an artist. Without spoiling the story for readers, can you show some of the monster pieces you worked up while brainstorming? And just what do you do to yourself to get creatures that look like that?

TF: I try to imagine what it would look like if you dragged a Fraggle behind a car for a few blocks.

TF: I love drawing monsters. It’s one of my favourite things in the world to do. If I could do nothing but draw monsters all day for a living I would drop everything and do that! Monsters are one of the few things that you can’t draw wrong. Who’s to say that ear’s too big or that nose too spiney?

Most of these guys have already been posted to my blog (under pseudonyms). Most of the monsters in this book do tend toward a fairly specific tack, which I really don’t want to give away any more than you do. I’ll let readers see if they can figure out the unifying trend (because God knows even when we can tell people what it is we can’t). Suffice to say that this is the part of the process that I enjoyed the most and that yielded the most fun ideas; not just for monsters (or these specific monsters), but for other characters, with varying degrees of monsterness like Kevin, or (cough)Ponce(cough). Monsters tend to free up your pen and your brain.

TF: These first two colour pages were some of the very earliest ideas for our “featured” monster types. There are no pencils, just some marker brushes being pushed around the page. They eventually became more refined in the pencil drawings down below. By this point we knew what we needed from them, and other characters who’d been created to fill those rolls got bumped up to other positions in the story…

… like our friend “Marsoupolanski.”

Part of the fun of this too is that some of the monster run off has now created at least the germ of a future story. Which is neat.

JP: It is neat. Going back to your point about having a real dialogue, a fully gung-ho creative team (with an editor what don’t give us no sass) just starts to generate a production that feels bigger in scope. Which I’m loving. Though it’s mainly about two characters, it’s a big book in many ways.

TF: As I said, it’s the fun of creating our own universe from the ground up. In my universe people have big noses, and so on.

JP: You know what else I think helps make us go full blast with Mysterius? The fact that we own it.

TF: Along with this Mr. W-(William?)-storm guy whose name keeps showing up in all the contracts. Aw well, at least he’s a silent partner.

In all seriousness (seriusness?), it’s just nice to be able to pay your mortgage while working on something you love, that’s yours. And I’m ridiculously (ridiculusly?) happy to have this opportunity. I just hope we can do more.