Sometimes the most intriguing stories are those that take place in a world almost exactly like our own -- almost, but not quite. Image Comics' David Brothers hosted a panel Saturday afternoon talking about its alt-reality series, with "Shutter" creators Joe Keatinge and Leila del Duca, Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn of "Alex + Ada" fame, and Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang for their just-launched series "Paper Girls."
Vaughn began began by describing "Alex + Ada" as "a sci-fi drama romance" about a man and his Android. Next, Keatinge says that "Shutter" takes place "in a world much more fantastic than our own," in which a woman is called to return to adventuring. Vaughan summarized "Paper Girls" as "about four twelve-year-old newspaper girls ... in the 1980s who stumble across the most incredible story of all times.
Brothers joked that, since talking about "Paper Girls" might require spoilers since it was released just this week, Vaughan should "tell us about the '80s" and why it's the right era for the story.
"I really wanted to write about twelve-year-olds, which sounds creepy for a grown-ass man," Vaughan said. "I know nothing about contemporary twelve-year-old kids who do things like Minecraft and crap like that. I had to roll back to the days of Arkanoid."
Luna said he is a "natural romantic," with "Alex + Ada" being a concept he couldn't stop thinking about once Vaughn brought it to him.
Keatinge said "the greatest thing about Kirby comics was [things like] why is that dog drunk? I don't know, cuz it's cool. Why is Captain Marvel walking around with a tiger? Pretty cool." This inspired him to go "full weird" with "Shutter" instead of just "30% weird;" it is currently set on the moon.
del Duca said her promo image -- which became the first cover of "Shutter" -- also helped set the tone and unleash Keatinge's weirdness.
Chiang said he and Vaughan "have been trying to work together for a long time," and "Paper Girls" came along at the right time. "I didn't know if I could even draw twelve year old girls, but I knew I had to draw the book."
On '80s fashion, Chiang said, "It was important the characters looked like they were from the '80s but not costume '80s, like they just went to Party City." His solution was to consult his eighth grade yearbook.
Luna, though, said he was conscious to "not make any choices about fashion" in "Alex + Ada" -- "so the fashion stayed the same." For communication, though, he did take cell phones to the next step by introducing a mental device. "We made it a social cue, though, so that if you see someone sitting alone and they light up, they're actually doing something."
Keatinge said that his work with Sophie Campbell on "Glory" made him very conscious of fashion. del Duca's choices, then, are grounding. "Leila dresses [Kate] very well -- I know her, even though there's a minotaur sitting next to her."
"We're looking through the shutters into her life," del Duca said of the series' title. "It actually has very little to do with photography except that it's the thing Kate really wants to do but never seems to get to."
Brothers said "Cliff and Brian, I just noticed about 15 seconds ago that you've got kids smoking on the cover of your comic -- what's that about?" "Nobody said anything to us about it," Vaughan said, joking that he wanted to "send a message" to folks who might object that "this comic is not for you."
Of the cover's distinctive yellow cover, Chiang said he imagined the logo as magenta and, with the yellow, "it would look like a caution sign" and stand out.
Vaughn said that, when she began "Alex + Ada," "I was in a relationship... then I was out of one. And I reread the first few issues and thought, 'that's me!'"
On writing realistic dialogue, Vaughan said he once worked as a transcriber. "When real people talk, they ramble and can't get to the point -- I don't try to write realistic dialogue, because it's boring." Instead, he said, the goal is to "create the illusion of reality." Reading it aloud is a good way to test.
Luna said his style is both a result of the fact that he does art, colors, and lettering himself, leaving him not much time for extraneous detail, but also a desire "to get straight to the point." He does, though, have floorplans and other tools to be sure he's got important details right. "If there's going to be lamp there, I know exactly where it is."
Keatinge said he always wanted his next thing to be "the furthest thing from 'Shutter.'" "Ringside," then, is an "ensemble drama taking place around the world of professional wrestling" and "like 'Shutter,' there's not a lot of actual wrestling in it." There will be a preview in "Walking Dead" #147.
Asked about working on more than one book at once, Keatinge said "I've got a separate notebook for everything" and divides his schedule by weeks so he's not constantly flipping between projects.
Vaughan agreed. "It's almost easier to work on three books than one book, because you get to exercise different parts of yourself with different collaborators, without putting all the pressure on that one book."
Asked about how long writing takes, the writers had different scales, though Keatinge he aims for finishing a script in a week. Vaughan joked that "artists must hate us hearing how long we spend on this; I know a panel I crank out in an hour is a day and a half of Cliff's life."
Brothers suggested aspiring creators play video games with their collaborators and plot over voice chat. Vaughan joked, "'play more video games' might be the most dangerous advice to writers."
Vaughan said he likes to have the final page in mind when he begins a series, but is not so locked in that he can't change course if the artist comes up with a better idea.
Luna said "we knew what the whole story was from the beginning" on "Alex + Ada," and he and Vaughn talk about the plot before Vaughn scripts. He described himself as taking on the role of an editor, and "sometimes we'd make a change as I'm drawing the last page."
In addition to phone calls, Luna noted that he and Vaughn use Google Drive so they can both write on the script at the same time. Vaughn joked, "sometimes we'll be off the phone and I'll see him typing and I'll think, 'no, don't!'"
Keatinge talked about the "meta" scene from "Shutter" #15, where Kate "starts tripping balls" and gets a better sense of the universe -- extending beyond the universe to Cthulhu-like beings, beyond into the real world of the comic book script, del Duca illustrating it, lettering, Image's approval website, all the way to the store. del Duca described seeing this in the script as "very sentimental."
Asked about the foreign languages in Vaughan's recent books, the writer cited his recent experiences at international conventions "and "being the only American there." "It's about what unites us," he said, adding that "you need to be able to need to read it, but if you do, it's a little bonus."
Luna said he looks for a balance between plot and character. "If all your focus is on character, you lose the story; if all you focus on is the plot, it's going to have no personality," he said.
Vaughan noted that Image does not have editors to restrict their content. "In 'Paper Girls' #1, one of the character uses a hateful, bigoted slur, and Cliff handled it very thoughtfully," he said. "Some people are going to be hurt to read that, but we didn't want to present a sanitized view of the 1980s."
Keatinge cited the "Spawn" run from #8-1, written by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and David Sim, as influential to his own work, not only for the stories which he read over and over -- not always fully understanding -- but for "that last page, where it said 'Spawn, copyright and trademark Todd McFarlane, Cerebus, copyright Dave Sim Forever.' I want to do that."
Luna said that "I stopped reading comics when I was at school for comics [at SCAD]," but was drawn back by the work of Brian Michael Bendis, Garth Ennis, and Brian K. Vaughan.