Ed Brubaker ("Fatale," "Criminal") and Greg Rucka ("The Punisher,""Stumptown") sat down for an early afternoon conversation with comic book scholar Dr. Benjamin Saunders ("Do the Gods Wear Capes: Theology, Fantasy, and Superheroes") Saturday at Emerald City Comicon. Brubaker and Rucka discussed the influence of golden-age genre greats, the struggles of writing crime comics in an industry dominated by super heros, and the challenges of breaking free of genre cliches.
Brubaker cited the work of 1950s EC Comics artist Johnny Craig as both an influence and inspiration. "When I got to crime suspense stories it was like a light bulb flashing," he said. "I was a teenage, sort of scum-bag criminal."
Rucka cited "Crime Does Not Pay," written by Charles Biro between 1942 and 1955. "It is an interesting cross between what they were pretending to sell, and what they actually were selling," Rucka said. "Everybody reading it knew what was going on, that titillation factor was huge."
"That was the era of sort of dancing around what you're actually talking about," Brubaker said.
Rucka and Brubaker both came to writing comics through less-traditional paths, Rucka through novel writing, and Brubaker through flat-out resistance.
"I got here by trying not to have a career in comics," Brubaker said. "Shelly Bond was really after me to do something at Vertigo, and I kept pitching ideas that kept getting shot down. I was trying to pitch a Vertigo-like thing, and said, 'Well, none of this stuff is really stuff I really want to do,' and she said, 'What do you want to do that you think we won't do?' I wrote 'Scene of the Crime,' like, that afternoon and it got approved three days later. I was like, 'Oh, crap.'"
From there, Brubaker was brought on board to work on "Batman," which is how he was first introduced to Rucka. Rucka and Brubaker would talk about wanting to write about the Gotham Police without Batman, and from those conversations "Gotham Central" was born.
"There were some big fights to get that book done," Rucka said.
Saunders asked Brubaker and Rucka how they approach the cliches or tropes of the crime genre, whether to break them or utilize them. Rucka replied by discussing his upcoming novel, "Alpha."
"I wanted to take a kind of military, procedural, suspense thriller genre and then really load it with as many cliches as I could, and then try to break them. What I discovered is, it's really really hard to break some of them," Rucka said. "'Alpha' is the first novel I've written where I am not really happy with my female characters."
In staying true to the tropes of the pulp-crime genre, Rucka found the female characters in the work were heavily marginalized, and his efforts to pull them into the forefront proved difficult. "It's a trope-filled genre where women are almost always placed in jeopardy," Rucka continued. "They're never agents of their own story."
Rucka emphasized that an artist or writer has to be able to take responsibility for the work they put out in the world, and stand by the choices that they make. "You have to be cognizant of how those choices can be interpreted," he said. "You can't control the interpretation, ever, but you have to take responsibility."
With his current Image Comics title, "Fatale," Brubaker is attempting to do similar things with the tropes of genre, upending the role of the femme fatale.
"I was talking to another writer about it and she said that she hated that the femme fatale in literature was always just a genre trope or a plot device and not a character, and I thought, 'Well, how can you make a femme fatale the most interesting character in the story then, where she's actually the hero?" Brubaker said. "I was thinking, imagine if, in 'Double Indemnity,' she needed Walter Neff to kill her husband because her husband was gonna do a 'Rosemary's Baby' on her."
Brubaker ended the conversation by bringing it back to the Golden Age of comics, when genre comics were not a small subset of the industry but a large part of the field. After the war, he explained, America simply stopped buying super-hero comics.
"They'd put this stuff out and it wasn't selling and, at the time, you didn't have comic fans working at these companies," Brubaker said. "There weren't comic fans, because no one had grown up with comics except for newspaper strips, and so what you have is a giant group of business men who suddenly were like, 'Wait, we're not making money anymore, what're we doing?' and they just started throwing shit at the wall to see what stuck -- and horror stuck, and crime stuck, and romance stuck."
Brubaker sees the current market as ready for a similar diversification of genre, with the sales of Marvel and DC super hero titles stagnating or falling.
"I wish that they would try something different just to see if it sticks," Brubaker said.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more coverage of Emerald City Comicon.