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NYCC: Morrison, Vaughan & Hickman on the Craft of Writing

by  in Comic News Comment
NYCC: Morrison, Vaughan & Hickman on the Craft of Writing

Three of the greatest writers in comic books joined forces Saturday during New York Comic Con 2012. What topic could bring these unique voices together? Writing. That was the conceit behind the Writers’ Room panel featuring Brian K. Vaughan, Jonathan Hickman and Grant Morrison, moderated by iFanboy’s Ron Richards. Unlike many of the NYCC panels, this one was not designed to hype panelists’ current and upcoming works — which, for the record, are “Saga,” “Avengers” and “Multiversity,” respectively, to name only a few — but instead to discuss the similarities and differences between their particular writing styles.

Richards kicked things off by asking the panelists if writing was their calling from an early age. “Writing is always what I wanted to do,” Vaughan told the crowd. “I never wanted to be just a comic book writer, but comics is where I’m happiest.”

“I wanted to be an artist,” Hickman admitted. “I tried very, very hard to be a pro comic artist, but failed because I wasn’t very good.” He went on to say that making his own comics as both writer and artist led to a shorthand that still helps him to this day.

“I started as a reader when I was 5 years-old,” Morrison said. “The other things I wanted to be were a cowboy and an astronaut.”

Along the same lines, the next question involved actually mastering the form of comics script writing.

Vaughan happened to attend NYU when Marvel editors taught a class there. “It was the right place at the right time,” he said. The editors would actually hand them scripts to look at. He also noted that a Neil Gaiman script published in the back of an issue of “Sandman” was the first time he’d actually seen a comic script. Vaughan also cautioned aspiring writers not to get too caught up in the format of a script, saying, “Don’t get set in one style, speak to your artist.”

Like Hickman, Morrison also started out writing and drawing his own stories, so he learned as he went, contributing short stories to various anthologies. His editors helped him learn the importance of storytelling elements like the three act structure.

“I actually didn’t write a script until the fourth comic series I did,” Hickman noted, saying he reverse engineered the format from looking at comics and being an artist.

Seeing as how all three panelists are known for their long-form comic storytelling skills, Richards’ next question covered how much of the plot each writer figures out at the beginning when they launch a new series.

“I’ve learned that the writer is like the pilot of an airplane,” Vaughan explained. “You don’t want a nervous pilot. So I either plot it all out exactly or lie.”

“I plan most of my stuff out,” Hickman said. “The first thing I did without having the whole thing beat out was ‘Manhattan Projects.’ That’s the first time I’ve written week to week. I didn’t think I could tell a good story that way, but it’s been really liberating.”

Morrison goes yet a different route. “I make it up as I go along,” he said. “We plan things, of course we plan things. I’ll know what I want in the last issue, but by the second I’ll toss it out.” He added that there are five completely different, unused scripts for the “JLA: Earth-2” graphic novel he did with artist Frank Quitely back in 2000, each with different stories and villains. “I know it’s right when it sounds right,” he added.

The talk then shifted to working with artists and the collaborative process, specifically how much give and take they all have with their various artistic partners.

“Fiona [Staples] is the first artist who told me, ‘Don’t tell me anything’ with each issue,” Vaughan said of his “Saga” artist.

“I like to be surprised as well,” Morrison said. “I tend not to even talk to my artists, except Frank Quitely because he lives nearby and I can just shout.” Morrison went on to say that he will just send the artists the script, get the art back and make any necessary changes, but likes to see the finished product all together.

“It’s really different between the creator-owned stuff and the corporate stuff,” Hickman added. “It’s like two different jobs at this point. One is better than the other.”

Vaughan said he’s never asked an artist to redraw an entire page for a relatively simple and interesting reason: “It’s something that took a whole day for them [to draw] that only took me an hour to write.” Vaughan admitted to really liking the collaborative process, which is a unique part of what makes comics, comics.

“Our artists get away with a lot,” Morrison said with a laugh and agreement from his fellow panelists.

The trio were then asked about script style and where they come down in the spectrum between Mark Millar’s sparse descriptions and Alan Moore’s multi-page descriptions of a single panel.

“I’ve tried to do that and I can only get to two pages,” Morrison joked about Moore taking three pages to describe one panel. “He can describe a room with a chair in it and it’s six pages.”

“If it’s a page describing a page in a comic, it should only be one page,” Vaughan said. “I very rarely have more than 12 balloons per page.” He also added that he tends to stick to five panel pages when writing.

With that, Richards asked if these were more rules or guidelines that he follows, noting that, historically, rules are meant to be broken.

“It’s just how a comic page feels to me now,” Vaughan said.

“I always wind up with five panels as well,” Morrison said. “That’s the most pleasant image for a page.”

“Five has a nice weight to it,” Vaughan said.

“Five works because it gives them that one great panel on the page,” Hickman said. “[The artist] can fudge the other ones a bit. You’ve got to remember, if they draw five amazing panels, they’re all competing for your eye.”

On the subject of balance and rules, Richards next asked about keeping the word balloons down to reasonable numbers while still explaining some pretty weighty topics and concepts.

“You’ve got to kill your ideas,” Morrison said. “You’ll have the most beautiful run of dialog and you’ll have to go back and take it out. A comic page with too many words on it looks like it’s choking to death.”

Vaughan said he spoke to artist David Mazzucchelli about trying to do more with fewer lines as an artist, and the writer likes that idea applied to writing as well. “My first draft is super long and I go back and it’s cutting and cutting and cutting.”

“I can’t resist a long winded monologue,” Hickman said. “The compromise I’m making now is that I’ll do two pages of me being full of shit and then I try to be responsible for the other 18.”

“I never like my writing as much as I like my artist’s art,” Vaughan said by way of explaining that he will cut out dialog in order to better showcase the artwork on his books.

“I think you know if you need it or not,” Hickman added.

Though Morrison, Hickman and Vaughan had been largely on the same page for most of the panel part up to this point, it was the subject of finding and developing a character’s voice that showed the greatest differences between their respective processes.

“Generally I just hear the voices,” Morrison said. “I’m not schizophrenic, I’d like to think. You have the voices in your head. Scott Summers has a specific tone of voice. You capture the ones when they come and then you sometimes have to fake them later.” Morrison went on to say that he knows everything about his character like their favorite movies and what they like to eat while writing them.

“That makes me want to kill myself,” Vaughan said. “I just sit alone in a quiet room like, ‘Where are you? Talk to me!’ It’s not until I see them [as drawn by the artist] that I get them.”

The panelists got back on the same page when it came to the process of writing and how you just get more used to it and refined as you go.

“At this point we just have to write,” Hickman said. “I’m driven entirely by deadlines these days. I owe five Marvel scripts a month and two Image books a month. The good news is that the more I write, as long as I’m responsible, it seems to be going well, it seems to be getting better.”

“It’s like exercise, the more you do it, the better you get at it,” Morrison said adding that you learn tricks to make deadlines. “The only problem when doing a lot of comic books is that you get stuck in the mode of comics. Most of us do a bunch of different things because it keeps your hand in other kinds of writing.”

At one point in his development, Vaughan talked to Neil Gaiman who gave him an interesting piece of advice: get published as soon as you can because nothing will make you want to get better than knowing strangers are reading your shitty writing.

The idea of editors was then broached. All three panelists have experience working for Marvel or DC as well as doing their own books at Image Comics.

“We don’t even know how to deal with feedback,” Morrison said.

“I’ve never cared,” Vaughan admitted. “It’s the writer versus him or herself, I don’t care about feedback.”

Hickman agreed. “No one hates me like me,” he said. “I’m way rougher on myself than anyone else.”

“The joy of Image is that you can do whatever you want,” Vaughan added.

“I edit all my stuff over and over and over again,” Morrison said. “I always see some flaw, but you’ve got to keep moving on.”

“The cliche is that art is never finished, just abandoned,” Vaughan noted, saying that it’s probably good that comic stories need to get abandoned on a monthly basis to hit deadlines.

Things got technical as the writers were asked exactly what they use to write, from pad and paper to Final Draft, the popular screenwriting program.

“I start in a notebook and doodle drawings and page drawings, then Microsoft Word and Final Draft for movie scripts,” Morrison said.

Hickman said he prints up sheets with boxes representing the comic book pages for an issue and writes using that. He then uses Final Draft and sometimes dictation software when deadlines are looming, but admitted, “It’s better to type it, I don’t know why.”

“I hate Final Draft, but I use it,” Vaughan said. “It speeds up the process, but for me speed can be the enemy. Anything that slows me down makes me better.” He went on to say that he likes using a blank document and actually tabbing everything out himself.

A simple but seemingly apt metaphor swept the panelists when they were asked about coping with other creators writing the characters they handled for a while after they leave a book.

“It’s like relationships,” Morrison said. “You’ve just got to deal with it and move on to something else. It really is like going out with someone. You can fall in love with characters like I did with ‘Doom Patrol’ and ‘Animal Man.'” Morrison added that, like an old girlfriend, you can’t keep thinking about them forever.

“I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve been able to finish everything I’ve wanted to do,” Hickman said, meaning he’s never been taken off a book without finishing what he set out to do.

Vaughan was on the same page noting that his books either get wrapped up or canceled, except in one case. “With ‘Runaways,’ I tell each successive writer to not do what I did.” He also remembered some creators having very negative reactions to some of the work he did with characters they used to write.

Hickman went on to say that he doesn’t care what happens after he leaves a book, but when Morrison asked if he still read those books, Hickman said he does not.

“In keeping with the metaphor, you don’t want to go back and see the girl with a new guy,” Vaughan concluded.

As Richards opened the floor to questions, the first audience member asked whether it was important to put autobiographical elements into the stories, aiming the question at Morrison who has inserted himself in several of his books.

“It’s just the way I like to work,” Morrison said. The writer added that you can remember events from your life as well as the feelings and then convey them to the audience. He said it also encourages him to travel any time he sets a story in a different country, which has led to some nice trips.

“‘Y’ was about me being dumped and ‘Ex Machina’ was about 9-11 and ‘Saga’ was about having a baby,” Vaughan revealed before saying that drawing on personal experience is the surest way to make your work feel unique.

Morrison added that you can disguise the personal aspects and create other ones and the reader will be none the wiser.

“I’m way more comfortable doing that than other stuff,” Hickman said regarding the inclusion of personal aspects in his work.

Another audience member asked about difference between a good story and a great story. Morrison jumped in first with a simple response: “Greatness.”

“If we knew, they’d all be great,” Vaughan said. “You never know, it’s ethereal magic.”

“Just basic good characters, people you care about and situations you want to follow,” Morrison continued. “Good ideas and new unique ideas.”

The next fan asked the panelists if they ever feel like they’ve really nailed a story while writing it.

“Yeah, sometimes,” Morrison said.

“I cry,” Hickman injected.

A hopeful writer then approached the mic and asked what he should have to show an editor when trying to pitch a comic.

“The way that you submit to a place like Image is pretty set in stone,” Hickman said. “They want to see five finished pages of the comic. You write five great pages and have a great artist draw it and end with a great hook. The key is finding a great artist and writing a great hook.”

“It’s tough, it’s not like being a dentist, there’s not one way to do it,” Vaughan said. “Breaking into comics, you’ve got to channel 10% into your creativity and 90% into how you’re going to con your way in.” He went on to suggest working a crappy day job, saving up as much money as possible and then paying an artist to work on those pages. “If you want to do it alone, write books,” he added. “Comics is something where you need a partner.”

Another audience member asked the panelists what the most rewarding experience regarding comics has been.

“Bryan’s going to say some money thing,” Hickman joked.

“It probably is money,” Vaughan confirmed. “When you write for free forever, getting paid to write is awesome.”

Vaughan went on to talk about getting checks from Marvel that actually sport an image of Spider-Man, eliciting a story from Hickman.

The “Fantastic Four” writer said he was at work when his very first Marvel check came in. His wife called and told him about it, which got him excited. He then went home to see it and it was gone. He asked his wife what happened and she said she deposited it. He told her she didn’t understand, he wanted to take a picture of it and hang it on his wall. “Go get another one,” she replied.

Returning to the topic at hand, Hickman said, “I love when people come up and ask you to sign their books.”

“Getting the boxes in, cutting them open and seeing all those books you’ve written,” Morrison included.

Morrison then answered the next question which asked what the next batch of comic book writers will be influenced if the previous generation learned from television. “Tweets probably,” he said.

“Everything’s misspelled,” Hickman added with a laugh.

“The way people communicate now, the way they reduce ideas to very short sentences,” Morrison continued. “It will get more compressed.”

“People can handle jumps in story now,” Hickman added.

“People are watching more TV so we don’t have to have explanations for scene changes,” Morrison said. “You can cut faster.”

“Now that I have kids, my kids hate anything I like or think is cool,” Vaughan said by way of pointing out that whatever the next influence is, it will probably be something the assembled panelists barely know about.

After fielding a few questions about potential collaborations and how to structure short stories — they’re the same as any story, just shorter, the panelists all agreed — the topic turned back to collaborators and dealing with potential conflicts.

“You’re not allowed to be a diva when you’re collaborating,” Morrison said. “You’ve got to learn to give and take.”

“Ego suppression is really important, but it’s easy to achieve when you realize they’re working a lot harder than you are,” Hickman said. “As long as you keep that in perspective, you should be able to overcome that.”

“A lot of us know that we’re nothing without the artists,” Vaughan said. “If they have changed it, don’t look at is an insult, but an opportunity.”

Things turned practical when another audience member asked about how the writers deal with bolding words in their balloons.

“I really like doing the bolding words,” Morrison said. “I always do it on the words with emphasis.” He added that he uses the technique for newly introduced names, places and characters.”

“I’ve stopped pretty much,” Vaughan said, noting that he cut down on it after Garth Ennis asked about his penchant for bolding words. “I was used to it in comics, but they don’t do that in novels. You guys do a good job of doing that yourself. It’s tough, I’m still figuring it out.”

“I try not to do too much of that because I’m conscious of the same thing, but sometimes a guy’s gotta fucking yell,” Hickman added.

The dreaded idea of writer’s block came up next, with the questioner asking how Vaughan, Hickman and Morrison deal with it. Their answers might surprise some.

“I don’t get writer’s block,” Morrison said. “When you’re working to deadline you can’t afford to get it.” Hickman asked if Morrison even believed in the idea of writer’s block and he said no. Vaughan agreed.

“I’ve always thought writer’s block was code for ‘video games,'” Vaughan joked. “It’s a job, sit down and write something. Just do it.

“I’ve never had it, so I’m mystified when people talk about it,” Hickman agreed. “There are times when things aren’t coming easily.” Hickman continued by saying when he gets stuck, he’ll go do something else and usually the answer will come. Morrison and Vaughan agreed.

After returning to the topic of sharing personal experiences through comics, which each writer agreed you can’t do too much of, the subject of digital comics came was raised, specifically in regard to how they write scripts now.

“With that stuff, I’m in the camp that that stuff isn’t really representative of comics,” Morrison said regarding some of the panel-to-panel movements used by several digital comic reading apps. “It’s the arrangement [of the panels] and how they relate to one another as a whole. We’re trying to transfer a medium into a new medium but those things can be replaced.”

“I love comiXology, but I haven’t changed the way I write,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan, who worked on the TV show “Lost,” was then asked about the transition into TV writing. “It’s super hard because you’re going from being the master to the low stakes speech writer. I wasn’t great at it, but it was fun,” he said. “The biggest thing I took back is that I like comic books a lot more than television.”

The next question was asked seriously but not necessarily answered that way by two thirds of the panel. After Morrison explained that “The Filth” and “Sea Guy” were the comics he was most proud of, Hickman explained that “The Filth” was the book that got him back into comics, finishing by saying it was the book he was most proud of. Vaughan agreed.

The final question concerned finding the correct balance between doing the job you have and working on the script that might get you into comics. All three very busy, very successful writers had similar advice.

Vaughan said he had a job working in a psychiatric hospital for awhile and said, “Say yes to everything and there will come a time when you can say no to everything. Say yes to every opportunity to write.”

“Absolutely, just take on any job,” Morison said. “It’s not about balance, you just sit up all night and get it done.”

“I was doing advertising and had saved up a bunch of money so as soon as I got my first gig I quit my job. ,” Hickman explained. “You get to the new world and you burn your ships. I was either going to make it or not.” Hickman explained that he went all in and wound up breaking into the industry around 35, but he did it and the general consensus is that you can do it too.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on upcoming projects from Morrison, Vaughan and Hickman.

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