REFLECTIONS #240: Mark Waid

Oh my God y’all! REFLECTIONS has gone BOOM!

Fear not, dear readers, the column will not suffer radiation poisoning as a side effect, because this isn’t any normal explosion. For the next month, REFLECTIONS will be devoted to putting a spotlight on BOOM! Studios, still a relatively new comic publisher which has already produced several memorable booms like “The Stardust Kid,” “Potter’s Field” and “Fall of Cthulhu,” and more recently making noise with the simultaneous release of “North Wind” both in retail stores and for free on line.

What better way to start BOOM! MONTH! than with an interview Editor-in-Chief, Mark Waid? Entering the industry as an editor and of course famous for his hugely successful writing tenure on DC’s “The Flash” and “Kingdom Come” and recently announced as one of Marvel’s team of “Amazing Spider-Man” writers, the multi-talented Waid’s got the lowdown on all BOOM!’s big upcoming releases, what potential comics writers and artists should know when submitting to the publisher, and who he has his money on as the next comics superstar.

You’ve been BOOM! EiC for eight months now. Has it slowed down at all?

No. It’s even more hectic. The whole goal is to have two brand new properties every month in four-issue miniseries form, which means twenty-four new projects a year. So that is a lot of stuff! And that is on top of the licensed stuff that we are doing.

It’s a morning, noon and night job, but very rewarding.

You began your career as an editor at DC Comics. At what point did you realize you wanted to make the change back from primarily writing to primarily editing?

About a year ago. As much as I love writing superhero comics and as much as I probably will be writing superhero comics in some capacity for the rest of my career, doing anything for that long, you tend to run out of things to say sporadically and need to recharge your batteries.

I know I’m a good teacher. And you can’t have done comics writing for twenty years without amassing a lot of knowledge about story craft that, at least in my case, you want to pass on to future generations. BOOM! was the company that offered me the chance to do that -- somewhere I could go and articulate to younger writers everything I know about crafting a comic book.

What are some of the biggest lessons you think you can teach upcoming comic book writers?

Lesson One: Keep. It. Brief. If I get another script in where there are eight or nine panels on every page….

There are several fundamentals to every story, whether a comic book story or not: one of the primary ones is that it should have a conflict and a resolution (physical or emotional), and half the scripts that come across my desk are weird mood pieces or very unclear muddy ramblings about nothing in particular. “A guy sees Cthulhu and loses his mind” is not a story.

If you’re doing a six-or-eight page story for me, you have thirty or forty pictures to tell that story. You need to pick the right ones, and the ones that work. Don’t overload with information. Half the scripts I get in also do just that. Let’s say the story takes place in a church. Don’t begin with a first panel showing a long shot of a Victorian town, with the subsequent panels zooming in on the church. You have six pages, for God’s sake. Don’t waste one of them on a tracking shot. That’s great if this is television or you have nothing but time to set the stage, but if the story takes place in a church, just show me the church! A short story is like a good joke. If I ask you to tell me a joke, what are the first words that come into your mind?

Guy walks into a bar…

Exactly. Immediately, I know who the story is about, where the story takes place, and something about your protagonist’s goals. “A guy walks into a bar.” Not “A shadowy figure walks down a fog-filled street. The figure is an unshaven man. He sees a door in an alleyway. He stumbles towards it. He pushes the door open. Gradually, he enters. He turns around and sees that he is in a bar.” You have six pages.

What do you think is the first book published under your tenure that has really accomplished the goals you set for yourself?

There were a lot of things being published when I got there that were very good, but the one that feels like what you asked about is “Salem” #0. I felt like I was not simply inheriting an artist and a project; I found the right artist for the gig, I hired the colorist, and while all credit for the finished product goes to the creative people, I was allowed to shape it into something. I had more input on the beginning of the process, which I didn’t with a few of the projects that were already in-progress when I first sat at the desk.

In terms of clarifying the overall mission statement of publishing, “High Rollers” is hitting a goal. That’s a four-issue series that is basically “The Sopranos” by way of inner city Los Angeles. Or “Scream Queen,” a horror/comedy. These are more reflective of my tastes..

As you said, you are concentrating on new and fresh talent, but are you also incorporating seasoned pros into your dossier as well?

The list of people who aren’t exclusive is so small, Robert. To be brutally honest, we are still an upstart company and there is a limit to how much money we can afford to pay out to freelancers. I can only call in favors owed so many times. A lot of guys who are doing work for us, like Eduardo Barreto, are going to make a lot less than they could working for Marvel or DC, and some guys can’t afford that. Or they can, but not right now. So everything is a juggling act.

But there is a giant double-handful of guys I would love to have work at BOOM!, and hopefully will once we pick up more steam. That said, we’re definitely building this company on the backs of newcomers. But a lot of good projects are coming in the doors, and we are tapping into a lot of overseas talent, and a lot of guys who are willing to take money that won’t get them rich, because they know the production values are good and that a BOOM! book will get their names out there. We are not some tiny publisher no one will hear from again.

And, for whatever it’s worth, what we can’t pay in big bucks, I try to make up for in mentoring. If you’re working for me, I give you full and unfettered access to everything I know about craft and everything I’ve learned. It’s up to you to decide if that has value. Newcomers also get the work experience, and that may also help balance it out that they’re not being compensated in gold nuggets.

Let’s move on to “Potter’s Field.” Are you doing a sequel anytime soon?

Love to, but the trick is finding time in Paul Azaceta’s schedule to do it. He’s busy now with “B.P.R.D.” He’s a phenomenal artist and is very in-demand, which is a great time, and when I talk to him at the New York convention we will hopefully map out some time to do the sequel.

Can anyone send pitches to BOOM! unsolicited?

Yeah. If you’re willing to ferret out our mailing address and send a submission and a [self-addressed, stamped envelope], at least for now, we’ll take a look. It may take until the end of the decade to get to it, and I know that I’m cutting my own throat by saying this, but a good idea is a good idea.

That said, everyone has to realize that for every Zombie Western pitch they have, we’ve already seen six other Zombie Western pitches, or whatever. More and more, I’ve been having to send pitches back saying “This is a good story, but we have others like it already in play.” There will come a point where we’ll have to start having to have people sign releases and other forms before we can even look at material, but for now, until the lawyers yell at me, I’m willing to read anything. Eventually.

But I’m a very tough customer, just so you know. So you better have some inkling on how to write comics.

Of your current crop of talent, who do you feel is going to be the next big star?

Without slighting anyone else, “Scream Queen” artist Nate Watson is hitting on all cylinders. And Wilfredo Torres, who is drawing the “Salem” miniseries for us, is going to be huge.

His work is very Phil Hester-esque.

Yes, but there is a softer edge to the lines that gives it more humanity and his storytelling is really good. I predict he’s our next breakout star.

But that is not in any way a condemnation of any of the other people working for us. In three years they will all be working for Marvel and DC or wherever they want, and that’s okay. I have no problem with Boom! being a “farm team” in that respect. That’s part of the job: to leave an editorial legacy.

You’ve spoken very highly of the “Salem” miniseries. What made the project “click” for you as an editor (and comic reader) and why should readers be foaming at the mouth over it?

It’s a nice combination of high concept and character. The idea that there was someone out there in the Salem witchtrials era who was actually fighting the good fight against the real evils is a great notion. And more importantly, it’s written using characters of depth.

And no discussion of BOOM!’s roster is complete without mentioning the “Cthulhu Tales” and “Zombie Tales” anthlogies. Now, I’m assuming everyone knows what a zombie is, but maybe you could clarify “Cthulhu.”

Ah, Cthulhu. The great god of chaos from beyond. The manifestation of all mankind’s worst fears and paranoias. The symbol of all the darkness that is hidden in the world around us, lying, waiting. Sleep tight, kids!

“Cthulhu Tales” is our horror anthology dealing not just with the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, but with all the terrors it symbolizes.

And what can readers look forward to in the respective anthologies?

Comics horror superstar Steve Niles was great about stepping aboard for the first issue of “Zombie Tales” and the first two issues of “Cthulhu Tales” to show us how it’s done. Joe R. Lansdale and Eduardo Baretto are doing a three-parter that stretches across the first three issues of “Zombie Tales.” William Messner-Loebs, who is an incredibly knowledgeable student of Lovecraft, makes his return to regular comics with “Cthulhu Tales” #3, which in turn spins out into something regular for Bill here.

One of the potential problems for potential readers of BOOM!’s line is the difficulty of getting them. Some comic stores aren’t carrying your books, and your Web site is rather difficult to navigate.

We are working on the Web site right now, where you can do a lot more online ordering. You can order certain product through it now, but I admit Web design is not our strong suit. Still, we’re actively in-process. What I’ve learned is that Web designers take even longer than comics pros to do their job.

We -- and when I say “we,” I mean PR guy Chip Mosher and his assistant, Jacqui Bryant -- are also working a lot on outreach to retailers. And that MySpace promotion [by which BOOM! controversially put “Northwind” on MySpace Comics for free while it was for sale in stores] was huge for us, and we are finding that the sales have increased between issues, instead of falling. That never happens! But they did, and the only thing we can point to as a reason is the MySpace promotion.

Everyone at BOOM! gives editorial a ton of support, so I’m working so hard to make sure that what we are doing and the quality of the books merits that support.

What is your trade paperback program like at BOOM!?

Very healthy. It gives new life to all our projects and allows us to bring all our stories to a whole new marketplace. The distribution through Perseus Books gets us into many, many bookstores that cater to a non-comics-shop audience.

Regarding your freelance writing work, what’s coming up in DC’s “Brave and the Bold”?

The first issue after the big star-spanning storyarc is a stand-alone, drawn by Jerry Ordway, with Batman and Jay Garrick. It occurred to me that I had never seen those two characters together, really, and what made it interesting to me as a story is that Batman is a mentor but doesn’t have a mentor. Jay Garrick is a mentor by nature. Stir, serve.

After that we have a two-parter with [artist] Scott Kolins that has Deadman and Green Arrow. The second part is Nightwing and Hawkman.

When last we spoke, you mentioned that fun was becoming a “four-letter word” in comics, and you were nervous for the sales of “Brave and the Bold” losing the traction from the premiere. And now, almost a year later, you have indeed lost half your sales. It’s certainly not that people aren’t enjoying it. Overwhelmingly, critics love your approach, so what do you think happened?

I wish I knew. Anything I say other than “my writing apparently sucked” is going to sound like I’m passing the buck, so I’m not sure what to tell you. Everyone did his best, we’re still selling very healthily within the DC lineup, but industry-wide, the sales gap between event books and event tie-ins and non-tie-in books is widening faster and faster.

There just doesn’t seem to be room in the superhero market right now for nice, enjoyable, “you don’t have to read this today, you can wait until the weekend if you like” comics. That’s true across the line at DC, it seems.

How would you describe your brief return to “The Flash” last year, in which you focused heavily on the Flash’s super-powered children?

Boy, talk about a confluence of bad timing. Again, everyone involved tried his or her best, and I still think bringing the kids onstage was a good idea. But the majority of fans apparently just wanted “The Flash” the way it used to be. I miscalculated. I honestly thought that because I made my bones with that book the first time out by doing things that no one else was doing, I should try that approach again. Bzzzt. Wrong answer.

We were also dealing with the bad fallout of the catastrophic “Flash: The Fastest Plummeting Sales Alive” relaunch.

Indeed, "The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive" debuted at over 100K and had fallen to 30K by the time it was "cancelled" and "The Flash" returned with its original numbering.

And then there was Bart Allen’s insanely pointless and gratuitous death. At this point I just don’t know what else you can do with the book, though I do think if anyone can make it great, it’s [current writer] Tom Peyer. Tom, as Grant Morrison and I keep saying, is the most talented comics writer out there who isn’t a household name. And he should be. Tom will make that book shine. And he’ll do it on the strength of Wally, not on some creatively bankrupt, desperate stunt like bringing Barry Allen back to life or something.

Look, the characters will survive. And like I said at the top of this interview, this seems like a good time for me to shift primarily into teaching mode. BOOM! is the place to do that, and we’ve got some killer projects coming out. Will they sell “Secret Invasion” numbers? No. Will they be about superheroes? No.

But will they be damn good stories? Absolutely.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s Independents Comics forum.

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Tags: boom! studios, the flash, mark waid, reflections, salem: queen of thorns

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