CCI: Comics Visionaries

Hoping to prove the key word of 2008's Comic-Con International in San Diego is definitely "Comic," Entertainment Weekly's Comics Visionaries panel saw a murderers' row of sequential art's most talented writers and artists talk shop in front of a standing-room-only audience.

Hosted by EW's Nisha Gopalan, the panel began with brief introductions of each of its participants as they sat Last Supper-style onstage: Jim Lee ("All Star Batman & Robin," "Wildcats"), John Cassaday ("Astonishing X-Men," "Planetary"), Matt Fraction ("Uncanny X-Men," "Casanova"), Mike Mignola ("Hellboy," "B.P.R.D."), Robert Kirkman ("The Walking Dead," "Invincible"), Colleen Doran ("Comic Book Tattoo," "A Distant Soil"), and Grant Morrison ("Final Crisis," "Batman"). The audience gave Kirkman a particularly loud ovation, prompting a bemused response from the newly crowned Image Comics partner.

Gopalan kicked off the question and answer session by asking the participants what their expectations were for the Con in terms of networking. "Stay alive?" joked Morrison, saying that between hanging out and seeing snippets of panels, only five minutes of networking were really possible.

The next question, whether increased attention from Hollywood was changing the content of comics, met with a nearly unanimous "no" from the panel. After Kirkman pointed out that comics' content was why Hollywood was paying attention in the first place, Morrison expressed dismay at the increasing number of comics seemingly created as glorified movie pitches. "I think we should do comic books that are much more like comic books," he said to resounding applause.

Mignola said one of the pluses of Hollywood money is that the potential for a movie deal has led to the publication of comics that stood little chance of earning back their investment in comics form alone, and that the freedom of comics compared to movies give creators the chance to do the "real version" of their ideas, independent of the Hollywood process. Mignola pointed out that comics can do things movies can't, like break the three-act structure of most screenplays and the "360-degree rule" of cinematography.

Jim Lee added that on shows like "Lost," with its emphasis on comics-style continuity, "We're changing Hollywood's content." Perhaps sensing a bit of anti-Hollywood hostility in the applause that followed, Morrison sarcastically grumbled "Death to Hollywood!" to audience laughter.

Gopalan next asked the panel about digital comics, which Matt Fraction referred to as "just another option." "As long as there's print, there will be comics," he added, due to comics' nature as "a cheap, easy, nasty, swarthy little medium." Cassaday said that he, like many people, need to be able to hold a comic to fully enjoy it, adding that he even prints out his scripts rather than read them on his computer. Morrison agreed, because "you can't take your computer in the bath." When Kirkman disagreed, the pair went back and forth until it became apparent that while Kirkman was talking about bringing a laptop into the bathroom, Morrison meant bringing into "the actual water, Kirkman!"

"We sure sound like visionaries, don't we?" Mignola jokingly asked the audience, to which Cassaday added that the group of so-called visionaries couldn't even find its way from the green room to the panel hall.

The state of superheroes was the next topic - is the genre healthy, or is it too repetitious and postmodern? "I think superheroes are more relevant now than ever," Morrison responded, arguing that in a time of war, superheroes were one of Western civilization's "desperate attempts to imagine a future for ourselves... a future vision of what we might become."

Jim Lee, however, said he's unhappy with the emphasis on continuity. "I just want to read a good story. If we're really thinking about producing stories that can stand the test of time, you can't be so focused on continuity." For example, he said that in the spirit of his favorite comic growing up, Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," he enjoys seeing different creator's versions of Batman - some with Robin, some with Damian, some solo - but that frequently "you can't do them because of continuity." Part of "Dark Knight's" appeal was that "it didn't seem so tied to regular comics."

Cassaday cited Miller's "Year One" as another example, saying "It shouldn't have to take a Frank Miller to have that kind of leverage to tell a story that way. Fraction pointed out that even these continuity-free comics end up being "misused" when the publishers being putting out stories that "lead up to them," becoming just another strand of continuity. Lee expressed his desire to see characters with complicated backstories like Aquaman and Hawkman started from scratch.

What's the difference between the indies and the majors? "Copyright and trademark," Colleen Doran deadpanned from behind sunglasses. Doran recounted how she started making comics as a teenager, took them to a publisher, and had them published as is, saying there's no way DC or Marvel would ever do that and citing "Bone" and "Cerebus" as examples of hit comics the majors would never touch.

Mignola said the big publishers also have "a different idea of creator-owned" than true indies. Fraction compared his approach to his background in animation and design, where he'd take commercial projects to "trick them into bankrolling" projects closer to his heart. "That's my paradigm. 'X-Men' pays the bills'" so that he's financially secure enough to pursue creator-owned projects. "You just described my entire career," Doran laughed.

Mignola said he thought he'd be back to doing Batman comics weeks after his first "Hellboy" miniseries ended, but he had to try it. But he warned indie creators not just do a version of a mainstream superhero, treating indie comics as a way to jump to a commercial title. "Make sure it's true independent, so if it's successful, you're stuck doing your dream job."

"People treat projects like auditions for something else they'd rather be doing," echoed Doran.

Gopalan's final question before turning things over to the audience was for the panel's two executives, Wildstorm's Lee and Image's Kirkman: Do they ever dream of leaving the responsibility of running a publisher behind? "You say it like it's an awful thing!" Lee said, explaining that while he sometimes fantasizes about drawing fulltime, he finds his other responsibilities, as well as working in a studio environment, to be invigorating. "Once you've done it it's hard to go back and let it go sitting at a table," he said, adding "I'm still in comics because I get to do these other projects. It takes away time, but it's what interests me."

Kirkman, only a week into his tenure atop Image, joked "I'm still trying to convince myself I don't have an executive position. I just started at it, so far it seems like it's just going be a few extra phone calls." Kirkman said he's compensating by ceasing all his Marvel work and focusing exclusively on creator-owned projects, meaning the corporate job has given him more time to work rather than less. I'm ceasing all of my Marvel work so I'll have more time to focus on my creator-owned stuff. In a couple months I might be like, 'Well, this was a bad idea,'" he jokingly admitted.

The panel then turned to the audience for questions

What did Mignola make of the changes director Guillermo del Toro made to the Hellboy mythos in his movies, particularly the relationship between Hellboy and Liz Sherman? "You make your peace with it. It's a completely different thing," Mignola said. "He wanted me involved, he wanted it to be as close to the comic as he felt like he could do, but I wanted him to feel like he was making his movie." However, movie adaptations have their downside: "You're going to spend the rest of your life explaining that Hellboy doesn't have a girlfriend. What the public will know is the film." Mignola said that if he got hit by a bus tomorrow, the obituaries would show a picture from the movie.

Fraction, however, recited writer Raymond Chandler's famous quote that the movies never "destroyed" any of his books - "they're over there on my bookshelf."

Was the big Batcave "centerfold" in "All Star Batman and Robin" Lee's idea? "That was Frank." Lee said he follows the scripts he gives me, since Miller is himself a master of layouts and art. "Early on he realized I wanted to draw big images," Lee noted, adding that he's working on another one with Gotham City - "the definitive shot."

Because so many comics are being converted into movies, while so many comics writers create impressive scripts for their books, will any of the panelists be trying their hand at screenplays? Morrison: "I pitched Superman last year, but 1,000 people do. They're probably going to go with the Oscar-winner rather than with me." Morrison said there's still a resistance to having superhero writers write superhero movies, oddly enough.

"I'm writing 'Spider-Man 4,'" joked Kirkman, continuing the pair's mock rivalry.

Will Mignola be doing more interiors? "Two days ago I finished penciling the first comic I did in years," said the artist to applause, which broke out again when he said "The more I work with Hollywood, the more I want to stay in my studio by myself and write comics." Mignola promised we'd be seeing more comics from him.

Can Cassaday draw every X-Men comic ever? "Probably not," deadpanned the artist.

What makes the panelists want to tell stories? Almost in unison, all the panelists turned to look at Morrison, who, flustered, simply yelled "Nothing!" But he quickly explained, "We're just driven to talk about stuff. There's all sorts of interesting things going on in the world to talk about." Doran blamed "obsessive compulsive disorder," saying she can't remember a time she wasn't writing or drawing and can't imagine doing anything else. She added that she'd once had to sell hot dogs while volunteering for the USO and discovered she couldn't hack it. "They'd better have me doing comics, because I can't sell hot dogs!"

Kirkman's explanations were family related: "I'm doing it so I can buy diapers," and "I do it so my wife doesn't think I'm a failure, because I'm really not good at anything else." Mignola said, "I never set out to be a writer, I never imagined I'd be a writer." These days, he doubts he could write a book he didn't own. Cassaday recalled seeing "Star Wars" as a kid and being inspired to draw his own version - "I wanted to tell the story my way" - though he felt there was no one definitive moment where something in his head clicked and he decided to become a storyteller.

Fraction said, "I've never had an idea that comics couldn't do," while movies and even animation have much more stringent limitations. Cassaday chimed in to agree, joking that "My version of 'Star Wars' was much better." "I believe that," Fraction fired back. Mignola pointed out, "No one in an office will say 'You can't do that, it's too expensive'" in comics.

Finally, Lee offered a pragmatic reason for his career choice: "If I got thrown in prison I could become the big guys' art bitch. I could trade that for favors." As the crowd cracked up, Lee insisted "I'm being completely serious here!"

Will we be seeing Hellboy reunite with the B.P.R.D.? Mignola's answer was hesitant and ambiguous: "Nnnnnnnnot anytime soon. I don't see it happening, really, sort of." As the audience murmured, Mignola added by way of explanation, "There's some weird shit coming up."

Is "All Star Batman & Robin" a miniseries like "All Star Superman," or an ongoing series? Lee's reply brought down the house: "It's a come-out-once-a-year series." Mignola pointed out that comics already has a term for that: "It's an annual!" "It comes out more frequently than 'Wildcats'!" Lee joked as Morrison laughed. Lee explained that when he signed on the series was going to be six issues, while now it's slated to be 20. "I'll meet you here in five years!"

Are there any up-and-coming creators the panelists admire? Fraction named Jason Aaron, writer of "Scalped." Doran touted Derek McCulloch, author of "Stagger Lee" and her collaborator for "Comic Book Tattoo." Kirkman praised Jonathan Hickman of "The Nightly News" and the Luna Brothers of "Girls." Mignola said that while "I can't remember names and I don't look at as much stuff as I should," there are a lot of talented people taking advantage of all the opportunities that comics' evolution into a broader medium than the one that existed when Mignola was a rookie have made available - back then everyone assumed they'd be doing superheroes, while now there's a whole generation to whom superheroes don't matter at all.

A non-comics reader who discovered "The Walking Dead" and loved it asked what it was like for the writers to permanently kill off characters. "I can always bring those guys back," Kirkman joked before saying he tries not to think about it, since if he did, he probably wouldn't do it. He said character deaths occur to him at the spur of the moment in the middle of writing scripts: "Oh, this guy? He's going to die."

Mignola said it's really difficult, and that in fact it's hard even if you're just changing the character's status quo: "After I turn that corner he's never going to be what he was." Kirkman agreed, particularly about a certain character in "The Walking Dead" who suffered a grievous loss that has made writing him difficult: "I should not have cut that guy's hand off!"

Who do the panelists hold up as the ideal creator? The panel unanimously named Jack Kirby, though Morrison added British artist Brendan McCarthy, prompting Kirkman to say he couldn't understand Morrison's accent.

If Kirkman is no longer working at Marvel, does that mean his previously announced projects are cancelled? No, his "Destroyer" MAX comic, "Killraven" with Rob Liefeld, and "a couple other things that haven't been announced" are all still on their way; after that, "I'm not doing any new work."

One fan asked the panel which of their work is their favorite, but phrased it in a bizarre fashion involving memory loss caused by "an Alzheimer's terrorist attack" that threw the panel for a loop. Kirkman joked "My 'Jubilee' series by far," while Morrison said "I just want to be forgotten. Unmarked grave."

How do the artists who've worked in other media preserve their vision in the transition from comics to film or video games? Mignola said, "I have no idea" since he really leaves the film projects up to others. "If you want do film and TV, learn how to do film and TV." Lee, who was integral to DC's MMORPG, said "Be as imaginative and bold and big in your thoughts as possible. Ask for things they can't do." Cassaday, who has done conceptual art for "Watchmen" as well as directed films, said, "Show your vision and surround yourself who can fill in the gaps you don't have." Fraction pointed out that it's easier to start big and scale down than the other way around. But Mignola warned not to get your heart set on big ideas since they're likely to fall victim to budget concerns and outside meddling.

Why did the panelists start making comics? Mignola: "I like monsters." Doran: "I had a crush on Aquaman." ("I was gonna say that!" Mignola added.) Why Aquaman? "He was wet. I like it slick." Kirkman: "I just liked reading comics." Fraction: "I always loved telling stories. It beats digging ditches." Cassaday said he grew up under circumstances where "I had to make my own fun," and any kid can take a piece of paper and draw on it.

What's the status of the final issue of "Planetary?" Cassaday looked at his watch and asked, "Are we done?" No comment, in other words.

How does Mignola juggle the separate Hellboy universes of comics, movies, and animation? "I don't juggle them," he said, reiterating that he hands the adaptations to del Toro and the other filmmakers and animators. "Comics is the real Hellboy--otherwise Liz wouldn't have gotten pregnant," he said. This brought out gasps from the audience not just for the seeming diss, but for giving away a plot point from "Hellboy II." "Spoiler alert!" yelled Kirkman.

Do the creators look at lateness as a missed opportunity given the increased attention to comics? The answer for Jim Lee was yes. "It's my fault. No one's more disappointed than me when they don't come out on time." Cassaday, though, pointed out that there were delays on "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns," but "When they're done they stand forever. If you want someone like Jim or Frank on a book, you've got to let them do it." Mignola agreed: "I spent 10 years doing monthlies and did a lot of garbage. You can get it fast or you can get it when I can give it to you."

The final audience question came from a doctoral student involved in comics scholarship, who asked how the group felt about the idea of comics departments at universities alongside film, English, comparative literature and so on. "That's great!" said Kirkman, making the obvious point that none of the panelists were likely to object. Fraction joked "I'm against it!" before advising the scholar that comics aren't film or prose literature, but a separate and unique art form, so such departments shouldn't simply transfer criteria for these other media to comics. "You can find English in comics sometimes," Cassaday helpfully pointed out, to close out one of the most engaging panels of the Con.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Community forum.

Highlights Magazine Issues Statement Condemning Trump's Detention Centers

More in Comics