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REFLECTIONS: Talking “52” with Greg Rucka

by  in Comic News Comment
REFLECTIONS: Talking “52” with Greg Rucka

Reflections Number 199

One column away, and when you see 200 you will have a fan orgasm. That’s all I’m going to say right now, but you’ll get a little more of a preview after you finish this week’s interview.

Speaking of this week’s interview, Greg Rucka is in the house, y’all! The bloke has just finished writing “52,” and boy does he have a lot to say about the project. Everything you’ve always wanted to know but were afraid to ask is below, along with Rucka’s real motive for killing Rich Johnston. It’s one of my favorite interviews, so I’m not going to keep blabbing and just let it speak for itself, so get your butts…er…eyes reading!

Robert Taylor: So Greg, how’s life going?

Greg Rucka: Life has gotten remarkably better in the last two weeks.

RT: Could it be because you finished “52?”

GR: That could be because I finished “52.” Well, I should also say that “52” is not done.

I was with the “52” guys this weekend, and we were looking at the stories coming out of WonderCon, where Dan DiDio is saying things like, “They worked so hard for the story that ultimately came out.”

We are all sitting there saying, “It’s not out!”

I was in New York for the show and saw Michael Siglain, who has been editing the book since [Steve] Wacker left and has been doing a tremendous job, and he’s been dealing with the fact that it’s not over until the second week of May.

But in the writing sense, yeah, it’s done. We will be doing minor brushes on things as they come in, and we will be making sure it all fits the arc. But as far as art? Yeah, that’s not done yet.

RT: If everything goes as planned, how will it feel to have completed the bloody thing?

GR: It’s gonna come out. There is not one of us who thinks it won’t.

They are following it with “Countdown,” as everyone now knows. They are doing that in a very different model than “52.” They are doing that for a couple of reasons, and the main one is that you just can’t do this again.

You are not going to get this group again. You are not going to get four writers who compliment each other as well as we did, and will commit to write a yearlong graphic novel. When this thing is done, it’s going to be a legitimate novel with over a thousand pages of comic story, with each page and each element built on what has come before. There is a sense of closure as well; you can tell that there is a beginning, middle and end to the story.

RT: You’ve spoken before about how certain stories began to change as the year went on. Can you talk a little bit about how exactly you decided to change what you changed?

GR: The story evolved. We talked initially about the final issue being 52 pages, and had blocked the amount of storytelling remaining to fit in there, and then the word came down that if you did 52 pages in the final issue the price would go up.

All of us said no. At that point, if we’ve had people following us for 51 weeks before telling them, “You know what? The last issue is going to cost you twice as much,” we would have been playing dirty pool. As a result, the page count changed and how things panned out changed. Story beats had to be dropped and other things were dropped into week 51.

There was a point where we thought we would be able to drive around the DCU a lot more. At the start, there was a panel at San Diego, where a couple of us were sitting on a panel and Mark Waid kept a master list of the characters people wanted to see in “52,” but after awhile we realized we couldn’t put them all in there. Either the story follows the characters, or the story is going to serve the exterior agenda, and just because someone wants to see Deathstroke, if we don’t have a reason for him to be in the series there is no reason to put him in there.

There were other things that we would have liked to go into a bit more but couldn’t because there was conflicting information. There was a big confusion early on because we thought we had Detective Chimp, but apparently he wasn’t available that year.

RT: Wasn’t he off in his little blood village?

GR: Yeah. People need to relax and stop worrying about how much stuff has to be coordinated at any given time.

There was also a period when we started with “52,” and there was a moratorium on others using characters from the book elsewhere. It was pretty clear. Initially we were supposed to be supporting “One Year Later” books in addition to our story. For instance, we would be touching on Oliver Queen’s mayoral election, then we looked at a calendar, and saw that they don’t have elections in that month. So it had to be an emergency election that would take place later which meant the story beat had to be later.

As “52” continued, there was a turn where Dan sat up and said “Holy shit, this thing is selling really well,” and instead of us following other books, he told other books to pick up stuff from us.

And then, we came over the midpoint hump and in-house, they started getting ready for “Countdown,” and the focus shifted again.

So it was a very strange project in-house, because “52” is obviously the biggest thing DC has had out in awhile. We’ve had times in the past year where the company and editorial ignored us, we’ve had times where they’ve given us our due, and at other times they’ve seemed to actually oppose us. It’s a big company, and I do feel that for a long time no one knew what to make of us or the story.

The people didn’t believe that the book could sell as well as is it did without having Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in every issue, without having a huge explosion cliffhanger. It was kind of mindboggling.

Yesterday, a friend asked me how I was feeling and I told him I was recovering, and he said, “You should be, you guys wrote four years’ worth of books in a year.”

RT: Exactly.

GR: And I don’t think of it like that, even though I know he’s right. The biggest thing about “52” for all of us, and none of us went into it naively, was that none of us knew exactly how hard it was going to be. I think we tried to equate it to other work we had done, and what we discovered is that it is unlike anything and consumes every aspect of your life.

I’m walking through my house as I’m talking to you, and there is “52” stuff everywhere. Underneath this “National Geographic” I have pages from week 51, 50, 47. I have full scripts for 52, full inks for 45. I have rough pencils for 51. I have breakdowns by Keith for 49 and then I’ve got another draft of week 52’s script. And that is just the top of the stack.

There is more.

RT: And I thought my comic box was getting full.

GR: I think we may have killed a couple forests just in production.

RT: Looking back, what was the toughest point of the year? Was it when Wacker left?

GR: Each of us is going to have a different answer for that.

Giffen has said this several times, using the NASCAR analogy, everyone was waiting for the crash while we kept telling people there wasn’t going to be a crash. And he said that the reason there wasn’t going to be a crash was because he had the power and if the scripts aren’t in he was going to lay out whatever the hell he wanted and it was going to be drawn that way. There was that safety net, but we knew that, hell or high water, we were going to make it. The only reason an issue wasn’t on stands on a Wednesday would be because of an act of God or a strike. [laughs]

Emotionally, when Steve left, that was a huge thing for me personally. That was really an awful thing.

I do think that it changed the project. It didn’t kill it, but there were a couple weeks where I felt really wounded. It’s complicated what led to Steve going to Marvel, and there were a lot of factors involved with how it happened and why it happened, but let’s just say I was not happy with DC allowing the situation to come about the way it did.

That said, Siglain stepped into the breach and miraculously we all liked him. Frankly, if I were Mike, I would think I was handed the worst job in comics. To use the war analogy, they took our platoon sergeant away and gave us a new guy. And Siglain rose above and beyond.

RT: Now you guys had about eight major storyarcs juggled throughout the series, and since you have issue “52” written, at least, which one do you feel was the most satisfying for you as a writer.

GR: I can’t separate them that well, because they did become part of the greater whole.

There are really exquisite moments in every one of the storylines.

I thought week 42 turned out a hell of a lot better than we thought it would when we looked at it on paper.

RT: Poor Ralph!

GR: Poor Ralph, but he kind of got where he wanted to go. There is something sublime about the Ralph story. I’m renowned for being very fond of the Montoya/Charlie stuff. Some of the space stuff really surprised me with how much I was affected by it.

There are two stories coursing through the middle of it all, and that was the Booster/Supernova story and the Black Adam story.

I’m leery of talking about the ending, but the Black Adam stuff is very operatic.

RT: I have to admit I was floored at how well you pulled the rug over our eyes with Isis and Osiris. I was sure you guys had created these characters that would work well for years to come in the DCU, and then look what happened. It was like a punch to the gut.

GR: We were told not to kill them. Dan said we couldn’t kill Isis, and the response was “Yes we can.” She was created for this purpose. Her death was supposed to be miserable and sad and to understand tragedy.

The reaction is that it is too violent, but you are reacting less to the art and more to the fact that you didn’t want it to happen. How can you not like Osiris? He’s literally a kid just trying to do the right thing.

RT: And if it wouldn’t have been a monthly book, it wouldn’t have worked as well.

GR: Paradoxically, we were able to spend more time on it and he was able to get more moments.

RT: Since we are on the topic of Black Adam, let’s talk “World War III.” Was that something that you had planned at the beginning or did it come up more near the end?

GR: I would have to go back and look at my notes. We knew the endings to all the stories when we started, and, for the most part, the ending to every story is almost exactly what we set out to do.

I think we always knew where Black Adam was going, but we didn’t know how we were going to execute it in the final issues, but we realized later some of the elements that were going to come together. That certainly confirmed World War III.

Obviously, it’s something DC made a big deal out of without telling us they were going to do this. A lot of stuff was given away, and I think it hurt us and that ticks me off. DiDio’s infamous 52 secret message…why in the world would you do that!?

They way they are doing it, and this says nothing about the quality of work that is being done on them, but that was opportunist.

RT: It’s not going to have the same power, obviously.

GR: The completists are going to pick it up and realize it didn’t turn out any different. I think that is DC looking at stuff Marvel has been doing over the past year and realizing it worked really well.

Marvel doesn’t try to be DC, and DC shouldn’t try to be Marvel.

RT: You mentioned how well the four writers complimented each other – I’m sure you’ve had this asked in every “52” interview, so you should know how to say it pretty well by now…(laughs)

GR: I think I’ve been able to refine it. You want to know what each one of us brought, don’t you?

RT: Exactly.

GR: Let’s start with Grant. He brings the high concept. He brings the idea that none of us can have. He has this capacity to bring in something from left field that we realize is really cool. It doesn’t always work, and he’d be the first to admit it, but he shoots out more good ideas over the course of a week than I do over the course of a year. And no one who has worked with Grant can disagree with that.

But at the same time, Grant throws out his big idea and then moves on to the next big thing and if you don’t get it, you are screwed. We need him to come back and explain it, but he’s already gone!

How about we try something different?

RT: Hey, I’m always up for a little change up if you are.

GR: I’m going to talk about each writer’s strengths, and each writer’s weaknesses.

I think Geoff does superheroes like nobody’s business. He does great action and heroism and excitement and stuff that is really cool, and he does it expertly.

I think sometimes that runs the risk of doing cool for the sake of cool, which might not be a criticism. There was an email exchange at one point, where he said it was okay to do the cool thing because it is cool. I wish I had the presence of mind to respond, because I realized that my reaction should have been, “But if you do that, you have ‘Phantom Menace.'” [laughs] I do think that can be a problem.

Understand, I’m going to get to my own shortcomings, which are legion. These guys are my best friends at this point, and I feel like I can say this. We talk to each other very well.

When I say Geoff sometimes does cool for the sake of cool, he is by no means the biggest sinner in that arena. He, at least, always does it with some sense of logic. Some guys will do cool just because it would be a cool page. There is no reason for it; it would just be a cool image. That is crappy storytelling, and Geoff can never be accused of that.

RT: Obviously if you compliment each other so well, then you have to recognize one another’s weaknesses to better serve the story.

GR: Exactly.

Mark gets labeled as the historian, but people ignore what a phenomenal writer he is. He is probably the hardest working of all of us, just with the time and effort he puts into each page. He has an understanding of how a comic book works and how you can put one perfect detail in a panel, and it will just sing.

When I was asked what my favorite “52” moment was, I chose the one where Clark throws himself out the window to get the interview with Supernova. That is an example of Mark Waid’s brilliance.

There is another moment in issue 52, and it was Mark’s suggestion, and it is dead on perfect. When people see it, they will get a chill and a smile. It’s simply one change that Mark did.

And he can do that with alarming consistency, and he’s that good.

I think that the biggest weakness, and I could be totally wrong, is that sense of history as well. He is so aware of the legacy, that sometimes it throws a roadblock in front of him. He doesn’t get resistant to new ideas, but he wants certain things preserved.

And then there is me. I think what I am probably best at are, for lack of a better phrase, those humanizing beats. In a world of gods, the street level is what I love playing in.

Conversely, you can see where the weakness is. I don’t write big very well. Comics are a medium where you need to write large scale really well.

RT: But I would argue that, in most of your work, the refreshing street-level take on larger-than-life characters is what sets you apart from other writers. Look at “Gotham Central” or everything but the last few issues of “Wonder Woman.”

GR: As with all things, doing it to exclusion is detrimental.

This is really important to add. I’ve read lots and lots of interviews where creators always say how “really really great the people they are working with are!” and they never ever have a word that can be taken to be critical about those they work with.

I love these guys. They are so good. And the best thing about “52” is working with the people I got to work with, and that is honestly once in a lifetime. You get to work with three of the biggest names at the very top of their game. At the same time.

Every single one of those guys is a huge rock star, and just to be counted in their number is an extraordinary privilege. It’s Grant-goddamn-Morrison! Geoff Johns! Mark Waid!

RT: That’s like a fan orgasm right there! [laughs]

GR: So the gall of me saying Geoff can work on something is really phenomenal. [laughs] But they are all amazing and I loved working with these guys.

RT: Was there any talk of you guys still working on “Countdown” or did they know that you would say “Hell no!”

GR: There was no discussion at all.

RT: They didn’t want you to open fire on the DC offices or anything.

GR: I think that was part of it. [laughs] I think part of it was they knew we were a little busy. I also think they knew it would kill us. The mere fact that Keith is willing to do it speaks to his masochistic streak. He goes two years in a row on weekly comics! This guy is either a madman or enjoys being hurt. I think that when they decided to do “Countdown” they knew they needed Keith, everybody else is replaceable.

Getting Paul [Dini] was very smart, but they are doing “Countdown” in a very different way. Just from what I know of it, it’s not the same collaboration at all. It’s not a bad thing either, it’s a different thing. It’s going to read in a very different way.

RT: When you compare “Countdown” and “52,” other than them both being weekly comics, the biggest similarity is probably the time aspect, with both seemingly occurring in “real” time.

GR: My understanding is that “Countdown” is by month, instead of doing it week by week. For example, these four issues take place in the same month, whether it’s over the course of three days in the month or three hours in the month. Or 23 days out of 30, whereas in “52” you saw the week.

RT: How frustrating did it get to pace yourself like that? As a reader, some of the coolest moments were when you played with that, like when the flashback was Day 156 or something like that.

GR: Mark actually ran the numbers to come up with that.

RT: I can believe that.

GR: They triple-checked it. It was much harder in the start, because you can’t cliffhanger in the same way. A bomb can’t go off at the end with the next issue starting with the bomb still going off, unless you time it at 11:59 and 59 seconds. It was Mark who was able to articulate it first. I think I realized it subconsciously, but Mark understands so well what the page can do. He turned to us and said that half the tools in the toolbox have been taken away by this format. The time constraints change the pacing radically.

For the first dozen cliffhangers, that was the real challenge. By the end, for me, it was okay.

RT: In the first two months, it seemed like you were trying to get one event on every day of the week, whereas now more is taking place over the course of one or two days.

GR: Especially as you come to the defining moments of the arc, those conclusions take several days to develop but are resolved in a matter of minutes. That is kind of natural, though.

RT: It still led to one of the coolest moments, for me, of the series, with the countdown on New Year’s Eve.

GR: We knew going in that we had to do that there.

There are a couple other beats like that as well.

RT: Moving on, Montoya has kind of become “your” character, hasn’t she?

GR: I get leery of it, but yeah. I wrote her for quite awhile.

RT: What do you think of her overall character arc from those first issues of “Gotham Central” to her taking over as The Question?

GR: I like the fact that, when all is said and done, you can track a character’s progression. DC is a company of legacies. It’s crucial to any story. The job is to tell the best stories you can for the characters, and all of us have done very well with the characters we were given to take care of. Following the directions we were given, I still think we gave them the best service we could and I think we served them well.

RT: Tease us about the end.

GR: Just because Supernova is unmasked doesn’t mean that he won’t be back.

And it’s never what you think.

RT: Before we get to the lightning round, tell me how you found out you were going to kill Rich Johnston. For those unaware, I speak of the recently-concluded “CSI: Dying in the Gutters” series in which the popular columnist was electrocuted during a comic convention. Seemingly every comic creator was a suspect, but you turned out to be the killer.

GR: They never told me how I was going to do it. They asked me if I wanted to be in it, and if you said no you knew you were taking yourself way too seriously. But I said if I was to be in it, I wanted to be the guy who did it.

They said Quesada wanted to be the guy who did it, but that was so obvious! I said to make the motive that I want Ed Brubaker back, and there is something appropriate about it. (laughs)

I thought it was funny. You look at those books and it was such a morality play!

RT: And it wouldn’t be a bad real “CSI” episode.

GR: I was delighted with it and it turned out so well.

I got an email from Brubaker after the last issue came out and he was just roaring about how brilliant it was.

RT: Okay, lightning round time. What was your first comic book?

GR: My first one that wasn’t an “Archie” was an “Incredible Hulk Magazine” where it was the Incredible Hulk versus a nuclear power plant!

RT: What comics can you never miss?

GR: “Green Lantern.” “JSA.” I really liked the first issue of “Brave and the Bold.” “Daredevil.” Just because I had a personal interest in seeing it do well, and the fact that it was so good, “Perfect Dark.”

RT: I am starting to ask all the exclusive creators how they like the other side of the pond, so how did you like “Civil War?”

GR: I didn’t.

It was a bad ending, and seemed out of character. The buildup for it was fabulous, and goddamn the book was beautiful! But I was really disappointed in that ending.

RT: Favorite comic book of all time?

GR: The O’Neil “Question” run. Morrison’s “Animal Man.” “Daredevil: Born Again.” “JSA.”

RT: If you could only write one comic for the rest of your career, what would it be?

GR: “Queen and Country.” (laughs)

RT: Artist on the book?

GR: Who would you pick?

RT: Tim Sale.

GR: Tim won’t do it. He’s got a thing about too many panels on a page, and that could be a waste of a page.

I’d pick Michael Lark.

RT: Best comic book movie ever made?

GR: It’s a toss up between “Batman Begins” and “The Rocketeer.”

RT: What is your weirdest convention experience.

GR: The time I killed Rich Johnston. It was the weirdest experience. [laughs]

RT: If you were remembered for only one thing in your career, what would you want it to be?

GR: Good writing.

Next Week!

Comic Book Resources, along with:

Marc Andreyko

Tony Bedard

Adam Beechen

Simone Bianchi

Kurt Busiek

Mike Carey

Keith Champagne

Jim Cheung

Frank D’Armata

Peter David

Mike Deodato Jr.

Dale Eaglesham

Christos Gage

Justin Gray

Charlie Huston

Frazer Irving

Paul Jenkins

Dan Jurgens

Andy Kubert

Greg Land

Jeph Loeb

Aaron Lopesti

Ron Marz

Brad Meltzer

Mark Millar

Joshua Ortega

Brandon Peterson

Mike Perkins

Luke Ross

Greg Rucka

Hugh Sterbakov

Mark Waid…

…cordially invite you to the special 200th edition of Robert Taylor’s “Reflections.” We guarantee an All Star…er…Ultimate celebration of the column with fisticuffs, booze, bitch-slaps and so much more. This is going to be big, y’all, so don’t miss out.

Note: Hey guys, it turns out I’ve got my very own Myspace page now, and I’m at 148 friends, and I’m going a little crazy because I need round numbers. So, by all means, if you like the column, follow the link below and friend me, but just send me a message so I know you are you and not Elaine, who has all the best dealz on drugz on the net, and for real. I try to update it with info on “Reflections,” and I’ll start posting sneak previews of upcoming columns beginning next week. http://www.myspace.com/bobtaylorrocks

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