ECCC: Graham, Warren on Creative Process, Battling Depression

Brandon Graham and Adam Warren discussed what it's like to be two of the most adventurous writers in comics at the Emerald City Comicon Harsh Realms panel. Graham is best known for writing Image's "Prophet" and writing/drawing "Multiple Warheads" and "King City," while Warren currently writes and draws "Empowered," published through Dark Horse, as well as being responsible for "Dirty Pair," "Livewires" and the manga-inspired DC graphic novel "Titans: Scissor, Paper, Stone."

After revealing his cover for "Empowered" vol. 9, Warren explained why he likes to write for other artists. "For me, the main interest was me not actually having to draw it. In theory at least, it's time-saving to be able to pass it off to another artist. Another artist who, hopefully, is a better artist than I am, and many of the artists I've worked with are... I like to have someone else's point of view. A different take on the art."

"I feel like part of me doing writing for other people is part of the scam in how comics work right now," Graham said. "If I sit down and do my own comics, I can put out four issues a year, but if I do my own comics and write for other people, I can do 15 issues a year. When I write for other people, I just do little thumbnails. Like a mini-comic for myself. Then I send it to them and they send me a better version. I can't script.

"I do like three or four passes on 'Prophet,'" Graham continued. "Sometimes I'll do a drunk pass. It doesn't matter if I'm actually drunk -- it just reads like I was drunk. I go through and shake my head and try to improve it each round. Then I send it to my wife and [artist] Simon Roy, who works with me on 'Prophet,' and they write back and go, 'Are you high?'"

Saying that he grew up on Warren's comics -- to which Warren quickly replied, "I'm not that old, by the way!" -- Graham said, "I feel like I pulled off this tremendous scam where I got successful enough in comics that I can hang out with my favorite artists. Which is ridiculous."

"'Livewires' was actually something else I had pitched as a weird time-travel thing involving people from possible futures stranded in the present," Warren said in reposne to afan's question about the Marvel miniseries' origins. "It was a weird take on it called 'Live Free or Die,' because it involved New Hampshire, my home state. Tom Brevoort, my editor at Marvel, had wanted to do an updating of the Mannites -- they're very obscure 'X-Men' characters that Wolverine dealt with -- so I looked at that and said, I'll turn them into robots. They were an existing property, but I called it 'Livewires' because the idea of Mannites, using that name as a title, was horrifying to me. But all my Marvel checks were for Mannites."

"Nothing from that line survived," Warren added. "Except for X-23."

"You mean the female prostitute Wolverine?" Graham joked.

Comparing their work, Graham said, "I always relate 'Prophet' to how you're doing 'Empowered,' where it's me trying to work in a heavily superhero industry and trying to do something that is almost emotionally dealing with superheroes."

In talked about how he loves writing emotional stories, Warren revealed he suffered from severe depression in the '80s. "I was clinically depressed when I was working on the first couple 'Dirty Pairs,' but I was still actually high functioning," he said. "I was actually cranking out pages faster than I do now, inked, while in a severe state of depression. The funny part is, the actual work doesn't show it all. There's whacky, spritely dialogue. I thought it was kind of fun, then I'd go home and drink myself senseless at five in the afternoon. It was pretty grim. But it didn't show in the work."

"I have some severe depression in my life, too," Graham said. "I've talked to a lot of cartoonists, functional cartoonists, which is comedic, but I've talked to a lot of them and it happens to them, too. I wonder if it's from being indoor kids or something. It's something you only deal with in your work after you've dealt with it in your life... It's hard to read a book to the middle and then do a book report on it."

Continuing to open up to the audience, Warren said, "'Empowered' came from a low point in my career, when I couldn't get work and was doing a lot of commissions. The recurring motif, which as far as fetish work is pretty tame compared to the rest of the internet, but I was wondering what was going through the head of the damsel in distress, and it sort of grew from there. But the work would never have existed if not for those commissions."

Answering a question about how they generate so many ideas, Warren explained you just have to be willing to put out as much stuff as possible. "If you're pitching stuff in comics, your rejection rate is going to be astronomical. I think it was 23 rejected pitches until 'Livewires' was accepted. And that's par for the course; I know people with way worse records."

"I don't pitch books at all, anymore," Graham said. "I just do books and say, 'Publish this.' There's something so demeaning about endless rejections that makes you second-guess your work. I've gotten so many letters, 'This would make a fantastic book!' and meanwhile, they're re-launching 'Aquaman.'"

Asked if about his tendency to describe in text boxes exactly what's going on in a panel, in effect describing it twice, Graham confirmed that this is an intentional technique. "The only real way you can slow down a reader is with text, so sometimes, it's a pacing thing. 'Whoa, look at this page a second, here are some words! Word, word, word, word.'"

A woman asked how they're able to write so well about groups they don't belong to, like women and youth. "For the set-up for 'Empowered,' I did a bunch of interviews with young women. Which sounds kind of bad," Warren explained. "You think that's bad -- I had to go into the bookstore and buy a bunch of magazines meant for teenage girls! I don't look fifty at all... That's the thing; I generally use female main characters because they're just more interesting to me. I'm a guy. I know guys. Guy psychology is not that fucking complicated. It's pretty straight forward."

Graham told someone wondering if either panelist has any recurring bad ideas that, in order "to do any kind of work with any kind of regular schedule, you have to be very forgiving of yourself."

Warren agreed, stating that "perfectionism was a huge obstacle."

"I used to live with James Stokoe, who does 'Orc Stain,' and he just lives to embarrass me," Graham continued. "He would often do four pages in a day. He doesn't do layouts or write. One time, I found layouts by him, and he chased me around the apartment saying, 'You didn't see those! You didn't see those!' It was like finding out you're rooming with a serial killer."

Graham said he loves writing about post-apocalyptic environments. "It's something I love about science-fiction," he said. "You can talk about your own experiences and deal with it in a way that feels even more authentic than if you actually drew your own life."

Graham then revealed "I don't have a cell phone. I love being to escape people contacting me. My friends hate me for this."

Finally, both creators discussed what books they drew inspiration from, with Graham saying, "When I started out on 'Prophet,' I read 'The Feast Unknown,' this old Phillip Jose Farmer book which is basically him trying to explore superhero sexuality with placeholder Doc Savage and placeholder Tarzan. They're basically getting erections when they kill people. Chapter 20 is only a description of the main character's penis. 'It was like a python coming out of a nest of brown red leaves.' -- I would read that to try to capture the pulpiness of it, but now I just read good books."

"I was heavily influenced by the cyberpunk era of science fiction and some of the guys since," Warren said. "I would get kinda annoyed when I did 'Iron Man: Hypervelocity' and people said, 'I can't get through all the technobabble.' People were complaining about it being too technological and I said, 'If you read books without pictures more often.' What I was writing was junior varsity science fiction, to be honest."

"I didn't start reading novels until I was in my late '20s and I was like, 'Oh wow, the writing in these is a lot better than comic books,'" Graham exclaimed. "It didn't occur to me."

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