2000AD's Mike Molcher sat in with writers Jason Aaron ("Southern Bastards"), Jeff Lemire ("Trillium"), Emma Vieceli ("Breaks") and Jason Latour ("Spider-Gwen") to talk about their view of the comics industry, the reason they write, and what they hope people take from their work.
The panel opened with Vieceli giving the audience an advert for coconut water, holding up a carton for them to revel in. The other panelists asked if she was sponsored by coconut water, which she neither confirmed nor denied. Molcher kicked things off with the theory "writing makes you a bad person -- discuss." Aaron said that he felt he'd be a worse person if he couldn't write, telling the audience that it keeps him from doing any of the things which he puts in his books. "This is my only skill," he said, to which Latour replied, "What -- being horrible?"
Aaron continued on the thought by saying that when he goes to see a film and he sees something horrible happen to a character, he tends to react simply by laughing at it "because it got an emotional response from me." When he wrote "Hellblazer" he included a scene with a man and a dead dog, which Aaron's wife saw and was horrified by. He told her, "I'll get paid for this, too!" When the editor's notes came in, that turned out to be their favorite part of the script!
Lemire agreed, saying that he'd be in a lot of trouble without writing. "I could have gone in a bad direction." Molcher asked if writing provided him with a catharsis, and Lemire nodded. "People think I'm sad because my comics are sad, but this is me getting it out." He said that he sometimes prefers his fictional worlds to the real world, raising an "aw" from the person next to me.
Vieceli noted that she was better known as an artist, but is now getting back into writing. She said that in her first stories, "I used to do horrific things to my characters." But now she's spent time as artist, where you have to really get used to the characters and get to know them, she thinks her old stories are now far too cruel and upsetting. "I've become Jekyll and Hyde!" she joked.
Latour said he recently had a "breakthrough," ralizing that he processes his emotion through art. "I think it makes you a more tortured person," he said of being a writer. He also felt that discord between writing and drawing a comic, mentioning his recent work in "Southern Bastards" in particular. He and Aaron had pre-planned that something bad would happen to one of the characters, and it was fine when they were writing the concept. But when he came to drawing the scene, he felt really upset to be doing this cruel thing to the character.
He never thought, either, that one of his most popular characters would be a female take on Spider-Man, "But, I love that Spider!" Vieceli added that identifying with a character you're writing creates empathy. Referring to her webseries "Breaks," she said, "I'm currently an 18-year-old gay boy." Lemire said that he recently found out that he acts out the characters when he's writing -- when he sits at his table with his family and works on a script, his son will sometimes ask, "What are you doing, Daddy?"
Asked by Molcher if they found that their stories ever developed a life of their own, whether they head off in unexpected directions, Aaron said no, that doesn't happen. "When writers say the story takes control, that's kinda bs" he said. The characters can sometimes change part of a story -- "but you still have to build shit." It's still work. Vieceli, on the other hand, does have a roadmap but frequently steers away from it. Molcher described this as the contrast between a constructivist story and emotional characters -- they pull from each other.
Lemire said that he had to have a foundation for the story. He's very structured, and needs to know what the various stops along the story will be. Once those are planned out, "then you can experiment with it." Molcher asked if Latour ever found himself surprised by stories he's written, when he re-reads them, but Latour said that he simply doesn't re-read his past work. He did mention, however, that in most of his stories he tends to start off with lots of ideas and plans, but then completely loses some of them from the finished piece.
Molcher next asked about the idea of the writer/artist -- as there were three onstage -- and how they manage each side of the comic-making process. Latour said that writing was about a larger story, but a less specific one. For example he could write "this is a shitty room" as a panel description, but the artist "decides the form of the shittiness." There are several ways an artist can depict a crappy living space. The visual part of the story, he said, was about looking precisely at what shape everything should be. It's the difference between "a bat" and "a club" -- both of which form the same purpose, but look different from each other.
Vieceli said many people start off as writer/artists and then branch off towards one over the other. Having been an artist for so long, she found that when she looked back at her old scripts, she could see herself cutting corners. "I'd compromise my stories as I wasn't willing to draw certain things," she said. Having spent more time developing her art, she now finds that her scripts for herself are more ambitious, and push her artwork further.
She then asked Lemire and Latour about how they write for other artists, as they do so currently on books like "Hawkeye" and "Wolverine & The X-Men" respectively. Lemire said that he originally wrote too much in each script. "The more direction I gave, the less freedom they had." Latour had similar experiences, saying he had a project ten years ago with his "Spider-Gwen" collaborator Robbi Rodriguez which never saw completion because Latour kept editing the artwork and asking for more.
Vieceli has a current project in the works at Madefire, and is just starting to experience this herself. Latour said that, now they're back working together on "Spider-Gwen," he's become more confident in letting Rodriguez head off and be himself. "That's what it has to be -- a collaboration."
Molcher then flipped the question for Aaron, asking if he ever found himself, on "Southern Bastards," just wanting Latour to do what the script tells him to. Aaron said he always tries to leave space for the artist in any script. "On 'Southern Bastards,' we are co-creators, and everything is mixed up together. It's a unique collaboration." Latour said that he found it important to let Aaron have the central pass on telling the story, giving him freedom to write the script.
"When writing and drawing a story, is there a danger that you don't have any back and forth with another person?" Molcher asked. "An editor can be that," Lemire replied. When you have a good editor, they become your collaborator. When he first did a major project as writer rather than writer/artist, he found it very challenging as he couldn't change the artwork and storytelling on the fly. Vieceli said that when working on "Breaks" with writer Malin Ryden, there are three parts of her working at once. She draws the series, but also co-writes sections as well as editing Ryden's work, adapting it into comics form.
"You're like Fantomex!" joked Aaron. At this point Vieceli had to leave the panel, so said her goodbyes and left Latour with the rest of the coconut water.
Molcher asked about comics journalism, and reviewers in particular, asking about how other people understand the work done by writers and artists as individuals or as collaborators. Latour said that critics are all writers. "They don't know as well what they're talking about, with the art." He felt that criticism was all valid, but that it was telling you don't see more artists offering reviews or critiques. Lemire said that the art is part of the story -- it's a visual medium. He felt that his biggest successes (which he named as "Green Arrow" and "Animal Man") were because of strong collaboration.
Aaron said that you can never know how the writer/artist relationship breaks down. When working with Chris Bachalo, for example (on "Wolverine & The X-Men"), Bachalo never does the artwork the way the script describes it. It's essentially working in Marvel style. Lemire said that his "Green Arrow" collaborator Andrea Sorrentino was the same. "He's an inventive storyteller, and would do it his own way." Because of the way they worked together, Lemire asked that their credits be changed from "writer and artist" to "storytellers."
Latour said he thought writers get more credit as they get to be the "voice" of the story. "They're the fulcrum between artists and editors" and can also be more visible when marketing a book. Lemire pointed out that an artist can only do one project at a time, adding that writers therefore get more leeway when they have "a bad week." If they put out a weaker issue, they likely have another one coming out next week anyway. An artist, however, typically has only that one book they're doing.
Aaron told the audience to never forget that "scripts can take a week, but it takes an artist a month or longer to draw that script." This is why he felt that the rights should always be split when doing creator-owned work.
Latour said that it can take a lot out of you, but you can get caught up and have bursts of real enthusiasm when writing. On the other hand, "the amount of time it takes an artist to push something to completion is just insane." Writers shouldn't ever forget the toll that this can put on the other half of their team.
With that, the floor was opened for questions. The first asked was about the idea of having a co-writer, and how that system works. Lemire, currently co-writing on books like "New 52: Futures End" at DC, said that it's harder, and takes longer to do. With Matt Kindt (on "The Valiant") it's "a blast." Aaron said it depends on whether you're working with someone you know. "It can be a tug of war with someone you don't know so well, and it's hard to come to a middle ground." Lemire agreed, saying that it can be natural and fun to co-write a story. On the other hand, you can also end up "with watered-down versions of each writer."
Following up from this, Molcher asked Aaron about Marvel's writing retreats, which Aaron said "can get contentious" but also prove to be a useful crucible "if your story can survive that room." Lemire asked him for gossip on which writers yell at each other, and Aaron simply said, "They all yell at me."
"And then he starts crying," added Latour.
Asked how they felt when they finish a series or story, and it's then picked up by a subsequent writer, Aaron said he'd been writing Wolverine for six years when he finished, with "Amazing X-Men." Six years, also, was roughly the amount of time Aaron had known his son -- an odd revelation for him. "It was a weird feeling -- for a day" when other people started writing new stories with the character. He did say that it's always great when somebody picks up on an original character or concept that he'd created.
Latour said he's filled some big shoes recently, following Ed Brubaker on "Winter Soldier" and Aaron himself on "Wolverine & The X-Men." He said that the key of it was to try and really make sure he understood what the other person had been doing with the story before he continued on.
Lemire said "'Green Arrow' was, to be polite, total shit" when he came on. For whatever reason, the series just hadn't been working, so he had the luxury of being allowed to burn everything down and build it back up again. But now he's at the other end of that, following up Matt Fraction's writing on "Hawkeye." Latour said it felt like being a pinch-hitter. Lemire exclaimed, "Those are exactly the words Axel used!" He found stepping onto "Hawkeye" very intimidating -- until the moment he just got down to writing it.
He said that he was just glad "there were 15 years between Grant [Morrison]'s run on 'Animal Man' and mine."
The next question opened with an anecdote from Brian K. Vaughan, who once said he'd killed off a character in "Runaways" because he'd become so fond of them that he knew they'd be a burden on the story going forward. Had any of the panel ever had that experience?
Lemire said that he enjoyed torturing his characters. Aaron brought up Broo, from "Wolverine and the X-Men." He created and introduced the character -- then shot him in the head. "I got yelled at a lot" for doing that, he said. It was a tough thing to write, but it was also nice that a character he'd created only a year ago had become so popular. Similarly, he changed some of the endings he'd planned for the characters in "Scalped" because of the attachments he'd developed. "But it still wasn't a bed of roses for them."
The next question asked about time management. Lemire said that he works a 9-5 job from Monday-Friday at his studio, which is mostly spent drawing. He then goes home, has some family time, and scripts in his evenings and weekends. He tends to have a very structured working week. Latour, on the other hand, has had "an extra loopy past few years." He'll sleep when he's tired, and has little awareness of what day it is. "I'd go exercise once a day, just so I knew a day had passed."
Aaron said he had to have a schedule, because he has a wife and kid. He once had to convince his wife, "When I'm staring blankly at a computer, this was still work!" Sometimes you have to let a story simmer before you can get it down and written out. Lemire agreed, saying he needs time "to let things percolate in my head." Latour closed off the question by saying, when he's working on art, he uses that time to settle his thoughts and plans for the writing.