The most frequently asked question we get from visitors to CBR is something along the lines of, "I'm a budding comic writer and/or artist and I want to break into the comics industry. How do I go about doing that?" It's a simple question that doesn't exactly have a simple answer. Many of our columnists have addressed that very question over the years and the consensus has generally been to try your hand in the world of independent comics-- write your original story, find yourself a hungry artist, then either self-publish your work or partner up with a small press publisher. Essentially, do it yourself because breaking in at DC or Marvel with no track record in the industry is one of the harder things to do.
Of course, there are exceptions to that rule as is the case with Russell Lissau. For long time CBR News readers, that name may ring a bell. He's contributed a number of times to CBR News with feature articles and our annual coverage of the Wizard World Chicago convention. By day Lissau spends his time working for the Chicago Daily Herald doing typical daily journalism type stuff like covering county government, but now he has another position he can add to his resume - comic book writer. This June sees the release of his first ever comics story in the pages of "Batman Allies Secret Files 2005" with artist Brad Walker from DC Comics. We spoke with Lissau about his story, on breaking into comics and how he landed his first comics gig with one of the "big two."
Lissau's first comics piece is a 19-page lead story in the Secret Files book. "What a way to break into comics," an excited Lissau told CBR News. "I was absolutely thrilled to play with these characters and this mythology. In a real pinch-me-I'm dreaming sense, I'm still waiting for my friends who work in the biz to e-mail or call me and say, 'You know what? We were all just kidding. It's a big joke. You stink. Go back to the newspaper business.'
"My story picks up in the aftermath of the gang war and Black Mask's rise to power in Gotham. Many of Batman's allies have left town; a few others are dead. Most importantly, the police are no longer allies in his war on crime. To me, that may have been the biggest hit for Batman, because he's worked as a solo caped hero plenty of times through the years. But he's always had the GCPD on his side, even after Jim Gordon retired. Not anymore. Thanks to the bedlam of 'War Games,' the police have dismantled the Bat-signal and the Dark Knight is persona non grata with the cops."
With the changes that have occurred in Gotham, Batman finds himself with few allies still within the city. With Robin, Nightwing and the other heroes who are so closely associated with Batman now out of the city, the one ally Batman can always count on will make an appearance, his trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth. Outside of Alfred, Batman finds himself without many friends to turn to.
"Batman also is without Oracle for the first time in a long time, and I really wanted to stress that," explained Lissau. "I've always loved the Dark Knight Detective side of Batman, the crime-solver as opposed to the crime-fighter. And without Oracle's assistance, Batman really has to learn how to solve crimes again, alone. One of my favorite scenes has Batman doing some really old-fashioned detective work. That was the point I started with as I sat down to write the story: 'If Batman is virtually alone, how would he do his job?'
"The fact that Batman is isolated from the Gotham police - thanks to Commissioner Akins' 'shoot on sight' order during the gang war ordeal - also plays a big role. You can definitely expect to see Gotham's Finest in action."
Lissau's editor is Matt Idelson, who Lissau said gave him a lot of creative freedom with his story. "[Matt] set some ground rules, made some terrific suggestions and helped me when I needed it - but he handed me the ball and let me run," said Lissau. "It was a great challenge, and I'm glad DC was confident in my abilities to meet that challenge. Nachie Castro, my other editor, also has been fantastic to work with. I bounced a bunch of ideas off him, and he gave me some great advice as I was working on the piece."
Normally DC doesn't accept unsolicited pitches, but Jeph Loeb-- a regular interview subject for Lissau-- vouched for him, which got Idelson listening ("Russell introduced himself to me via e-mail after Jeph Loeb recommended he drop me a line, and my life hasn't been the same since," joked Idelson.). The first story Lissau pitched had nothing to do with this project, but based on the strength of his submission Idelson was happy to listen further. Idelson said what most impressed him about Lissau's first Batman pitch was that he took a moment from the hero's life that's been seen many times before but took a fresh, original spin. "It was more than a retelling-- it was a reflection on the character's past that changed and affected him in the present," Idelson told CBR News. "He also structured his story in a really challenging way, which impressed me given he hadn't written comics before.
"Based on the strength of his writing, I knew when the opportunity came along where I had something to offer him, that he'd be able to pull it off."
Based on the strength of that first pitch, Idelson gave Lissau a Batman assignment. He asked Lissau to establish where Batman is today and to explore what the crime-fighting life is like in Gotham post-"War Games," yet the specifics of the story were Lissau's to determine. "The first draft of the piece took about two weeks to write and self-edit. I'm a crazy self-editor, which carries over from my career as a journalist," said Lissau. "Every comma has got to be in the right place and every page or panel has to be numbered properly. Sloppiness, bad grammar and bad spelling are signs of a bad writer, regardless of how good your idea may be. During his writing seminar at Wizard World Chicago last summer, Brian Michael Bendis said he was the same way about self-editing, so I feel I'm in good company."
Lissau's been a professional journalist since the early '90s and a comic fan for much longer than that. "Despite my love of the medium, I never considered writing comics until about three years ago," explained Lissau. "I had an epiphany at work, a little flash of a fictional idea based on an experience I had while doing my reporting job, and I thought it might make an interesting Superman comics story. At that point I had never seen a comic-book script before, so I did some research and e-mailed friends who work in the business, people whom I had gotten to know as a reporter and then became friends with. Devin Grayson and Jeph Loeb were particularly helpful early on, sending me copies of their own published scripts, answering questions about continuity, educating me about writing style and explaining how the business side of comics works."
Lissau said he tried to get the scripts for books he already owned and read so he could compare the scripts to the final version. "It was neat to discover how various writers use different scripting techniques, and how their stories really vary in terms of direction to an artist and layout description. I'd really recommend that to any aspiring writer."
In addition, Lissau picked up two books on comics writing that he recommends to aspiring writers: "The Writer's Guide to the Business of Comics" by Lurene Haines and "The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics" by Dennis O'Neil.
"Eventually I wrote up a proposal and a full 22-page script," continued Lissau. "It took months! And since the superhero star of this particular story was Superman, Jeph was kind enough to refer me to the editors he worked with at the Superman office, Eddie Berganza and Tom Palmer."
Unfortunately for Lissau, he finished his Superman story around the same time DC announced the new creative teams for the Superman titles, including Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee. As a result, there simply wasn't a place for Lissau's Superman story to be published, but his editor's at DC encourage him to start thinking about other DC characters. His attention turned to Batman. "I spent months thinking up possible stories, developing pitches, and bouncing tons of ideas and questions off Jeph Loeb," said Lissau. "He was the most fantastic resource. Eventually I wound up writing several full scripts and, at Jeph's urging, submitted them to Matt Idelson in the Bat office. Matt saw something in them he liked, and that led to the 'Secret Files" assignment."
But what was it that Idelson saw in Lissau's proposal the interested him? And what is it he likes to see in work from a new writer? "I look for exactly what Russell presented me: story ideas that don't attempt to drastically change the character (such as giving him a sex change or something), that come from the heart, the essence of the character (rather than just some plot-driven stuff)," explained Idelson. " He gave me a solid story idea with a beginning, middle, and end, which was more than just Batman beating up the Joker."
With a handful of comic scripts under his belt and his first comics work about to see publication, Lissau admits that as he's becoming more comfortable with the medium he'd like to continue writing comics. "I'm not one of those guys who says, 'I've wanted to write comics my whole life, and that's what I'm going to do one day.' I'm a journalist, and I have been since I was a teenager. I never even considered writing comics until I had that one idea a few years ago. But that led to others, and now I'm totally enamored with the idea of writing comics. It's kind of silly that I never thought of this before. I never even considered it! Not once, even as I was writing interview after interview with countless comics pros.
"I'd especially like to do more Batman comics, if Matt, Nachie and the rest of the Bat-office will let me. I'm a terrific admirer of what Devin did in her 'Gotham Knights' run, painting this fantastic psychological profile of Batman and his supporting cast, and I'd like to explore and expand on that myself. Matt already has a few other scripts from me on his desk. All I need is the word and I'll get cracking on more!"
As we closed out the interview, Lissau wanted to take a moment to thank some of the people who've encouraged him along the way. "There are a lot of people I really should thank here, with Jeph Loeb right at the top," said Lissau. "He's been an incredible pal and teacher, going above and beyond what I ever expected or hoped. Same goes for Devin Grayson, who was one of my first comic industry interviewees back when she was starting on Gotham Knights. She became not only a regular interview subject, but a terrific friend through the years and was invaluable in this process. In fact, I freely admit copping my script style from her stories. Jim Lee, who I had interviewed when he was guest of honor at Wizard World a few years back, gave me some great constructive criticism on that original Superman script, and that impacted the later stories I wrote, including the 'Secret Files' piece."
"Batman Allies Secret Files 2005" hits comic shops June 29th.