NYCC: Comics Writers on Comics Writing

At last weekend's New York Comic Con, Peter Sanderson (co-writer of "The Marvel Chronicles") led a panel on the art of writing for comic books with an impressive array of talent from several eras of the industry. Chris Claremont was originally scheduled for the panel, but had to pull out at the last minute. It was hard to complain, though, once Sanderson introduced Claremont's replacements: the legendary Walter and Louise Simonson. Joining them in this jovial and informative session was Colleen Doran ("A Distant Soil"), Christos N. Gage ("Wildcats"), Jimmy Palmiotti ("Jonah Hex"), and Tom DeFalco ("The Amazing Spider-Girl").

Sanderson, who revealed he will be co-curating a special MoCCA exhibit starting March 5 spotlighting the art of "Watchmen," started off the panel by asking what each writer was currently working on. Colleen Doran discussed her new graphic novel with Eisner nominee Derek McCulloch, "Gone To Amerikay" and "Stealth Tribes" with Warren Ellis, which she said is "literally 20 pages from the end." They've been working on it for six years now. Along with her always ongoing work on her own book, "A Distant Soil," Doran is also working with Peter David on an illustrated novel called "Mascot," in which a young boy finds out his favorite comic book sidekick is getting killed off and tries to convince the cartoonist responsible not to do it.

Jimmy Palmiotti is continuing his work on "Jonah Hex" with Justin Gray, an ongoing "Power Girl" with Amanda Conner in May, "The Last Resort" with Grey for IDW -- about a zombie invasion in a vacation resort -- and he's translating the "Torpedo" series of hardcover graphic novels by Jordi Bernet, also for IDW, and "Back To Brooklyn" with Garth Ennis for Image.

Tom DeFalco is writing Spider-Girl comics for "Amazing Spider-Man Family" and Marvel Digital content. Also, for the 70th Anniversary of Marvel, he'll be writing a story for the "Marvel Mystery Special" featuring all the classic "original" Marvel characters like Namor, The Human Torch and Toro.

Christos N. Gage is continuing his work on "Wildcats" and "Avengers: The Initiative" monthly, and an "X-Men/Spider-Man" miniseries.

Louise Simonson is currently writing (with Walter) "World Of Warcraft" for Wildstorm and "Warcraft" with TOKYOPOP, and a "Marvel Age: Thor" story for Marvel.

Walter Simsonson is "pretending to write 'World Of Warcraft' but my wife does all the heavy lifting," and writing and drawing an extensive new 96-page graphic novel for DC. It involves six characters and six styles for each one: Golden Gladiator, The Viking Prince, Captain Fear, Bat Lash, Two-Face (with a Batman cameo, of course), and Manhunter 2070 (in a manga style).

The next question to the panel was about each writer's first story and their biggest challenge. Jimmy Palmiotti's first gig was writing "Ash" with Joe Quesada. As he related, Howard Chaykin's ultimately rejected intro to their first collection read: "Jimmy and Joe are great guys, but this book sucks." James Robinson ultimately wrote the final intro to the book, which Palmiotti assured the audience said basically the same thing, but with more words.

Gage's first work in comics was a "Deadshot" story, and coming from a television background, it taught him there was a big difference between TV and the language of comics. A character can't do two things in one panel, for starters.

Tom DeFalco started writing comics with "Archie," producing one-page gags and that eventually led to work on five-page stories. There, he learned the skill of padding out five pages with material. When that led to his first gig at DC, a 64-page story, the fear set in, and he was "terrified."

Louise Simonson started on "Power Pack," a book she still feels was "really pretty good." Walter Simonson started writing the original "Battlestar Galactica" comics, where his experience working with Archie Goodwin greatly influenced his work. From there, Goodwin got him a job writing the "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" adaptation. "Like Weezie," he laughed, "my old stuff was better."

Colleen Doran got her start self-publishing her ongoing comic "A Distant Soil," which led to a lot of hostility toward editors when she started writing for other companies. She cited Joan Hilty as one of the better editors,who turned her around completely. Working with writers like Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore and J. Michael Straczynski was also greatly influential to Doran's work as a writer. Straczynski also still happily counsels her on her work.

The next question was about what non-comic book writers influenced each of them. Walter Simonson cited Robert B. Parker as an influence on the Two-Face segment of his DC graphic novel. He also noted that working on that portion in the first person has been a change from his usual tact of using thought balloons, which is a more old fashioned style.

Christos Gage was heavily influenced by Robert Nathan, who wrote with him on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Nathan taught him to be flexible when "reality comes in," and something outside his influence changes what you can and can't do in a story. Gage said that in TV, it might be losing a location, but in comics, this could be something legal to deal with.

Tom DeFalco cited Edgar Rice Burroughs as a big influence, not necessarily in writing style, but the way he could plot a story with five or six stories going on simultaneously, build to a climax in one and then cut to another.

Jimmy Palmiotti is currently reading a lot of Elmore Leonard for his Western work, and Jerry A. Rodriguez, a New York crime writer. He grew up with Stephen King books, but like a lot of writers, he can read them until he can see "their style, their tricks," too easily.

Colleen Doran enjoys prose with "beautiful language," like Tanith Lee, and writers like Thomas Ligotti and Thomas Harris. Ligotti, in particular, inspires her with his clarity, precision, and economy.

Sanderson then asked each writer about trends in comics and how they feel things have changed over the course of their careers. Christos Gage started off, claiming his spot as the newest writer at the table, having only started working on comics in 2004. He started with the Marvel style, whereby you plot first, then the artist draws the comic, and then the writer fills in the dialogue afterward. This taught him a great deal of flexibility, as the artwork would often inspire a better line or even a different speaker depending expressions and composition of the panel.

Jimmy Palmiotti always writes in a different style for different artists. For Amanda Conner, he knows he can write less, but for other writers he adds more detail -- like for Paul Gulacy, who he knows likes working with more panels on the page. Palmiotti also noted an interesting concern, writing for foreign artists. He always has to write much simpler scripts in these instances, because he knows they're going to be translated. He recounted a story about a misunderstanding with an artist about what a "pug" dog looked like. First he received a page featuring a poodle, and after that was cleared up, the pug was supposed to be looking down a slide but was depicted at the bottom of the slide looking up.

Louise Simonson said that Walter only ever wanted "action" and "choreography" in the scripts she wrote for him. Bret Blevins, who she worked on "New Mutants" with, was always more of a "character" guy. He focused on expressions, and always wanted to know what characters were thinking and feeling.

Gage then told a story that Don McGregor, of "Creepy" and "Eerie" comics, once told him. In McGregor's story, a black detective was working with a white woman. McGregor wrote in the script, "And this is the clincher." The artist misunderstood and drew the two kissing, which led, inadvertently, to the first interracial kiss in American comics history.

Following on that, Walt Simonson told a story about John Buscema drawing an "Avengers" story for him, about a female character who was using her wiles to get information from a group of shady characters. At the end of the sequence, she's picking up a book from their hideout. Buscema noted in the margin of the original pages that this was "the code book." Simonson was perplexed as he didn't remember ever writing anything about a code book in the script. He finally found a note in the script to Buscema that since this was a "code book" as in "The Comics Code Authority," they had to keep a lot of things implied. Simonson eventually just made the book her "black book" of contacts.

After that entertaining tangent, Sanderson asked what each writer looks for in a collaborator. Palmiotti likes someone who can "take orders." DeFalco looks for someone with "lots of ideas." Walt Simonson always prefers someone who can tell a good story, but in the comics medium. Louise agreed that story was always the most "important thing." Walter added that the process of collaboration should always be "additive," that the product is better than what it could have been had they been working alone. Gage, who writes screenplays with his wife, enjoys working with someone who has complimentary skills. She, for example, excels at quieter character work while he sees himself as more a "bombastic" writer. Louise Simonson assured him that she and Walter were "the same." Doran explained that she can get hostile with a bad writer. At this point her career, she has no patience for what she describes as "ephemeral work," which is how she described a recent unnamed project she walked off of. Doran said she has a farm, she can grow her own food, and as such doesn't really need comics work to survive, and can therefore be choosy about the work she accepts.

Sanderson then asked what advantages comics have over other mediums. Doran immediately said, "a lower paycheck." Gage said that compared to his work in TV, "people are nicer" in comics. Walter Simonson enjoys being able to tell the stories he wants, saying, "No one screws with me."

Gage added, "What you write is always what ends up on the page." He told a story about Brian Michael Bendis working on the "Spider-Man" cartoon, and his frustration that only 40% of what he was writing would end up in the finished product. Gage was assured that this was a pretty good percentage, all things considered.

DeFalco found that in other mediums, he would get notes on everything but the story. He would be asked if the fonts used on a back cover were okay, but rarely asked about the story itself. He found that "text was unimportant." Palmiotti was always frustrated that, in other media, his work was always judged by a committee of people who rarely agree and frequently "stab each other in the back." He also said you never knew what you're going to get in other mediums. "You could write about cats and end up with giraffes." He also noted that in comics, when you get to a certain point in your career (citing Walter Simonson), you "can do anything." Doran agreed that she was at that point in her career as well.

Sanderson then opened it up to questions from the audience. When asked about potential pitfalls new writers should watch out for, there was plenty of advice from the panel. Palmiotti warned against dating your dialogue by watching too much MTV. Gage said not to imitate other writers. DeFalco suggested to always say your dialogue out loud. Walt Simonson talked briefly about Archie Goodwin's skill at layering exposition into dialogue without the reader ever really noticing. Palmiotti said it was important to have characters speak in different voices, and advised that it helps to think of four or five voices you know from your own experience when you write. Walt Simonson agreed, citing Rod Serling as someone who writes in one voice in every character, but could pull it off. Unfortunately, he warned, "We can't all be Rod Serling."

The group was then asked how the dissolution of the Comics Code affected their writing. The panel almost universally agreed that standards still exist in different books for different companies. DeFalco said, decisively, "The job is boss. You always know what's appropriate. You don't have sex in 'Spider-Girl.'" Gage said that certain limitations at DC made it impossible for Green Arrow to drink alcohol, but that a project by the publisher Avatar saw George Bush assassinated on the first page. Walt Simonson noted that standards change from year to year. In the 1970s, he could have Manhunter say "Damn," but two years later, no one would have allowed it. He cited Carl Barks as one of his favorite writers, and thus always preferred material suitable for all audiences.

A fan asked Walt Simonson about any future "Starjammers" projects and he answered, "I hope so." He figures every 14 years is a pretty good average of release. There are no offers for a film version, though.

Another fan asked about how being an artist can affect writing. Walt Simonson said it was what got him his job, and Palmiotti, an inker by trade, agreed. While he had to eventually stop inking to focus on writing, it was those jobs that got him the opportunities and the leverage, by being a clutch performer for many editors. He said he worked hard though, and had 47 unpublished scripts under his belt. He also found it hard to be good friends with both Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada and DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio, which meant neither of the biggest folks at either company could ever be too helpful, lest they be accused of favoritism.

The panel then all agreed that whether it was their art or their writing, their work was almost always met with their own distaste at first. But then revisiting it always made them see their work in a better light later. Doran shared an interesting detail about her work with Warren Ellis on "Stealth Tribes" -- he wrote the book completely out of order. Over the course of six years, she's drawn the beginning, the end and now an out-of-sequence middle. Maintaining a six-year old style, she said, was difficult. "This is why I'm bleeding from the eyeball."

Palmiotti gave hope to artists by describing a visit to Darwyn Cooke's studio. He saw no less than 18 versions of a spread from "The New Frontier." They all looked fantastic to him, but Cooke said he was still not quite there. Doran agreed that she could thumbnail a single page for days on end. Palmiotti then described her as "The Stanley Kubrick of comics." Walt Simonson and Gage agreed that there was little time for rewriting comics, and Palmiotti added he could never remember the work he wrote "four months" after finishing it. DeFalco noted he never looked at published work, and preferred to focus on the current work. He gave the advice he received from John Buscema, "Hey, you screwed up this page. Forget about it. Move on and screw up the next page."

And with that, the panel was concluded.

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