SDCC: Gregg Hurwitz & Howard Chaykin Talk Comics & Crime Fiction

On the first full day of Comic-Con International, writer Gregg Hurwitz was joined by comic book legend Howard Chaykin for an intimate Q&A about his career and work to date. The conversation stretched from technique to inspiration and background to research. Hurwitz opened up about his comics work for the fans in attendance as well as teasing his new novel, "Don't Look Back," which debuts August 19 from St. Martin's Press.

Hurwitz began his career as a novelist in 1999, before switching tracks into film and television, and later into comics. He brought his hard-edged fiction to Marvel's "Vengeance of the Moon Knight," "Punisher MAX" as well as "Batman: The Dark Knight" and "The Penguin: Pain & Prejudice" for DC Comics. Though many fans in attendance know him best from his Big 2 comics work, he has continued to write mystery and thriller novels since breaking into comics.

"Don't Look Back," Hurwitz' 14th novel, spins a tale of intrigue set in Mexico. The story revolves around a woman who witnesses a crime and is forced into danger by circumstances both natural and man-made. To research the book, Hurwitz went to Oaxaca, drank Mezcal, rafted down hazardous rivers and explored jungles.

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The book continues Hurwitz' long-held tradition of Hitchcockian action featuring characters who happen upon incredible circumstances and become drawn into a dangerous world as a result. "One of the things that really occurred to me working on comics, motive is always taken for granted," said Hurwitz. "It's always embodied already in the story." The writer decided to take his Hitchockian interest in motive and apply it to comics.

While comparisons to Hitchcock are apt, for his part, Hurwitz said his influences date back further than the master of suspense. "I have a highly practical masters degree in Shakespearean tragedy," Hurwitz said.

"What do you think Shakespeare would have wanted?" Chaykin asked.

"He would have used anything at his disposal," Hurwitz answered, before elaborating on how he crafts his own stories. "I'd rather see the new version that's throwing out a lot of those tropes and keeping the underlying version."

Having already written several thrillers before he embarking on his career in comics, Hurwitz had the unenviable task of taking over "The Punisher" following Garth Ennis' lengthy and acclaimed run at Marvel. The fact that Hurwitz started as something of an outsider, helped him carve out a space in the industry. "I loved comics, but I came to them late, in 7th or 8th grade," Hurwitz said. "Detachment is a really healthy way to deal with material because these aren't characters, these are plot devices that are available to us."

The hope from editorial was also that Hurwitz would possess a unique perspective on the comics and characters he was writing. "If I'm not bringing something that's new and unique there's no point in me going to the keyboard that morning." The other key to success, he said, is surprising the audience by toying with conventions and turning expectations on their head, "making fun of the aspects that are on the face of them absurd, which is sort of like a headfake that helps you get to the material."

Along those lines, Hurwitz has chosen an unusual focus for much of his comic work. "When I switched to the format of comics, I was really interested in what makes the villain tick," said Hurwitz. "Batman shows up in large part as an arrogant inconvenience to them."

The trick, Hurwitz and Chaykin both agreed, is to try and subvert and update. "We're dealing with material that the audience knows is stagnant, as if Curious George were to go back to Africa and do AIDS research."

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When Hurwitz took a meeting with editors at DC Comics, he threw the staff a curveball, pitching them a take on the Penguin that defied convention. "If you're the Penguin then Batman is the villain." Hurwitz said the title generated the least amount of excitement for any of the titles during the early days of the New 52.

Still, the writer told the story he wanted to tell before moving on to runs on "Wolverine" and "Batman: The Dark Knight." Hurwitz described a "Wolverine" as a moment of last-minute inspiration when, on a call with Marvel editor-in-chief [Axel] Alonso, he came up with a pitch out of thin air. "It's the seven samurai but none of them are samurai," he said of the series.

Hurwitz credits Alonso with helping him refine his comic writing. "The best thing that Axel taught me, it's when to have blank panels," Hurwitz said. "Blank space and silent moments can punctuate the story and bring home the emotional resonance."

Both Chaykin and Hurwitz adamantly defend the merits of captions and thought balloons as a viable method of portraying internal monologue in comics. "For me, one of the things that's impossible, once you move to TV and features, right away you're losing internal narrative," said Hurwitz of novels and comics. Chaykin then defended the visual elegance of the thought balloon and mourned its loss due to the Frank Miller making the caption the favored device to get inside a character's head caption.

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