At New York Comic Con, Heidi MacDonald led a panel of writers as they addressed one of the questions asked most frequently of creative people: Where Do You Get Your Ideas? On hand were "Saga" and "Private Eye" writer Brian K. Vaughan, "Batman" and "Wytches" scribe Scott Snyder, "Gotham Academy" writer and creator of Eisner Award-winning minicomic "The Mire" Becky Cloonan, and novelist, actor and "Shadowplay" writer Amber Benson.
MacDonald began by noting that she holds this panel every few cons because writers tend to get this question a lot. "That's not the question; all the people up here have a million ideas," MacDonald said. "The question is, what do you do once you have that idea?"
Snyder began by discussing his first run on "Detective Comics," writing backups. When Paul Dini, then the main series writer, had a scheduling conflict and had to step aside from the series, "I was invited into the office -- I thought it was to get fired." Once offered the gig, "I thought about it for a minute, and said yeah."
With Batman, Snyder said, the idea is to make it as personal as possible. And with Dick Grayson the Batman at that the time he took over, it was a lot of fun. "Bruce is all, [grimly] 'I'm Batman.' But Dick was, 'Hey, I'm Batman!'"
He continued by saying, "You become your own worst critic pretty quickly, so there's nothing cruel anybody out there can say that will get to you." Snyder also said that it's worth picking and choosing which characters to write -- even if offered a big gig, he might not have the right story for it, or the right "personal connection."
Benson said she always wanted to be a writer. "I wrote a lot of really bad gothic poetry" as a teenager, she said, but acting gave her a new perspective on storytelling, and of course helped her make a name for herself as Tara on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Acting out others' stories, though, "made me a bit jealous," and she was able to resume a writing career with a Willow/Tara story for Dark Horse's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" comics.
On the origins of her "Shadowplay" project with Ben Templesmith, Benson said that the project originates with her friendship with Steve Niles, who had suggested doing a project together. Ultimately that fell through, but IDW's Chris Ryall put her in touch with Templesmith. "I wanted blood and guts and gore, and I got it," she said.
She also spoke about her transmedia project "Ghosts of Albion," co-written with Christopher Golden. It began as a BBC series, then two books for Random House, and now an RPG. "It's not a comic per se, but the animation has that comic feel," she said.
MacDonald then turned to Cloonan, whom she noted is "also known as an artist." Working on "The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys" with Gerard Way and Shaun Simon, Cloonan said the project initially surfaced in 2008, was announced by Dark Horse in 2009 (in Cloonan's version of events, possibly to Way's surprise, since he was still thinking of the book as a year off), but then took considerably more time to complete due to Way's touring with My Chemical Romance as well as other events. What eventually became the comic evolved from the planned third music video from the concept album "Danger Days: True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys," as the video was cancelled because MCR "ran out of money."
The unique series involved several influences, Cloonan said, because "it started as a comic, it became and album, and music videos, and then it finally became a comic."
Vaughan came next speaking on "Saga." MacDonald said the writer had originally described the series as "'Game of Thrones' meets 'Star Wars,'" but Vaughan clarified that "I say that, but I've still never seen 'Game of Thrones.'"
On his process, Vaughan said, "I never start with a concept, I start with what am I really sad about that my friends don't want to listen to? 'Y' was, I'd just been dumped, and I thought, can I fold that into a story with a monkey?"
For "Saga," "My wife and I made babies, which is terrifying," Vaughan said. "But nobody wants to hear about your babies." Though the idea of a story about "parenting -- but with ray guns" sounded "pretty terrible" in Vaughan's head, artist Fiona Staples made it real.
The conflict between warring tribes comes from a world Vaughan idly built in his head as a teenager, but "Saga" brought in a "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" angle, and, the writer reiterated, Staples made it great.
Snyder next spoke about "The Wake," his series with Sean Murphy, whom he said was eager to become "real friends" -- a turn of events Snyder said did in fact happen. Snyder said they also work together well because Murphy did things with his script that "took space I wasn't used to giving," and that Murphy's innovations, sometimes adding plot elements, made the series better.
"We would almost dare each other, like 'I'm going to make a sonic dolphin;' well, 'I'm going to make the sonic dolphin the star of the book," Snyder said. Yet, through to the end, "it makes total sense."
MacDonald noted that, from her career as an editor, "when somebody comes to you with a logline like '"Game of Thrones meets Star Wars,"' it's not always going to be as good as 'Saga'" because so much depends on how the idea is carried to fruition.
Cloonan said she created her short story "Wolves" while waiting for "Killjoys," which kept getting pushed back on the schedule. She had turned down work in preparation for receiving Way's scripts, and, unable to commit to licensed work, she created her own projects instead, including the Eisner Award-winning "The Mire."
Another self-published short, "Demeter" was "based on events that happened," Cloonan said, but she obscures the personal stories within fantasy. "Like 'Wolves' was a werewolves story, the characters aren't even named."
Vaughan described his self-published, digital-only series with Marcos Martin, "The Private Eye" as a future world where "the cloud burst, and everybody's secrets are just out there." MacDonald joked that that sounds impossible, because "the cloud is so secure," alluding to recent, ongoing, catastrophic failures. Vaughan said that he acknowledged "it's a dumb idea," but "if you look at Swamp Thing, that's a dumb idea;" everything depends on execution.
Cloonan said she is most nervous about her self-published projects, "because they are the really personal stuff." She said she almost scrapped "Demeter" before printing it. With "Gotham Academy," which Cloonan described as her most collaborative work, she said she's for the first time able to excitedly read her comp copies.
On the topic of knowing the ending, Snyder said he writes with an end in mind but another writer he knows "can't write if he knows how it ends." "You've just got to respect your own process," he said. Vaughan added that "I always have to know the last page" of the entire series. Cloonan also said she knows the end of the story before writing.
Snyder told an anecdote of speaking with Grant Morrison, who advised him to imagine the end of Batman, even knowing that of course DC is never going to let Batman die, so that it would be as if he were writing the Dark Knight's entire life. "It really helped," Snyder said, noting that he worked some of his imagined bits into a flash-forward.
Asked how to handle ideas a writer might hold closer to his or her heart, the panelists suggested establishing some distance. "Being precious about your ideas is the worst thing you can do, because you're always going to have a better idea," Cloonan said in response to the fan question. "If you're that anxious about an idea, scrap it, move on to something else."
Responding to another question, Vaughan said that all of his world building comes from the characters. "You can say, this is why these people are fighting, and this is what this planet's currency looks like -- and readers don't care. They want to see who's smooching who."
"You build your worlds around smooching?" MacDonald asked.
"That's what X-Men is, isn't it?"