Talking Comics with Tim: Jeff Parker & Steve Lieber

Getting to talk to Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber about their upcoming  Underground project, I discovered one shocking revelation: Lieber is immensely funnier than Parker. I learned a great deal more than that in our email interview. Before starting the interview, here are the book's vitals: "UNDERGROUND is a five-issue color series beginning in September from IMAGE COMICS. Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Steve Lieber, and colored by Ron Chan, the story follows Park Ranger Wesley Fischer as she tries to save Stillwater Cave-- and then has to save herself." My thanks to Parker and Lieber for the interview.

Tim O'Shea: At what point did you pitch this to Image, had an issue already been drawn or was it still in proposal mode?

Jeff Parker: We showed the complete black and white art for the first issue to Eric Stephenson this year at Emerald City Comicon.

Steve Lieber: They said yes and we were off and running.

O'Shea: How much did the two of you enjoy the flexibility of revision, given that you work in the same studio?

Lieber: It's a very natural collaboration. Everything's done in the same room -- script, line art, letters, and color. I love the sense of freedom that comes from being able to tweak things at any step.

Parker: And I love changing what Steve thought was right. On a whim!

Lieber: Obviously.

O'Shea: Speaking of revision, can both of you point to a character or story element that drastically changed thanks to the rapport you were able to enjoy as studiomates?

Lieber: Nothing drastic I can think of, but we're working from a very tight outline Parker wrote several years ago.

Parker: Steve fleshed out some of the supporting characters more, and it helps make the whole environment more convincing. Really, since we talk out each part several times, almost everyone got some nuance they may not have had originally.

O'Shea: Not all caving scenarios are cramped per se, but a good number of them are--when the characters are literally tight for space, layout wise and dialogue-wise how challenging is that for the artist and writer?

Lieber: Shameful confession time: it can be a lot of fun crowding a panel. And with Photoshop, it's no problem to move things around -- push a balloon over a bit, expand a figure, shrink a sound effect -- to get exactly the compositions the story needs.

Parker: I often doodle out what I'm going for, which I just don't do that much with most artists. But since Steve is in the next room I can do that, act a panel out, hold maquettes in the right positions, everything that gets the action and feel across. Similarly, he'll come back and suggest more appropriate action or dialogue or point out something I didn't consider. It puts an energy on the page that's hard to get collaborating from a distance.

O'Shea: This is a five-issue miniseries, as opposed to four or six. Was it economics or the story's parameters that drove the decision for that number? And was it a number you two arrived upon or was it suggested by Image?

Lieber: I think it was just the way the story broke down best. Parker's the man to answer that one in greater detail.

Parker: When I outlined it, five seemed right for the structure. Sure, I may get to a part that really takes hold more than I expected and we suddenly bump it up to six issues, but usually I stay close to my original plan. Eric Stephenson at Image seemed up for almost anything we came to him with -- they are all about working with what we give them and letting us take the space and time to tell the story we want.

They didn't even ask for any Walking Dead zombies to come shambling through at any point.

O'Shea: Jeff, how refreshing is it to swim in the creator-owned waters again?

Parker: You know, it doesn't pay any better than it did a few years ago, but it is some darn beautiful water. The freedom to take things where we want is nearly intoxicating. I can pace Underground in a way I might not with Agents of Atlas or now Thunderbolts. I can stay with a scene at least as long as Steve feels like drawing it. In issue one, we do a pretty thorough set up of all the players, the town they're in, where our protagonists Wes and Seth work as Rangers, where in a work for hire book, I would have felt compelled to say, show someone get shot by page eight. But the kind of story we're doing should feel close to your actual life, so you can appreciate how one minute things are normal and then a couple of bad choices later, everything is dire.

Ultimately we're going for making you the reader feel like you're down in that cave system, not that you're watching two action heroes going through the paces.

O'Shea: Steve, seeing the experience Jeff is enjoying in the corporate-owned character world, do you ever get an interest in dabbling in either the Marvel or DC world or are you partial to creator-owned projects?

Lieber: I like switching from one to the other. Marvel & DC comics can be incredibly fun to work on. Civil War: Frontline with Paul Jenkins, Gotham Central with Greg Rucka-- these were great experiences. I'd hate to give up the thrill of telling one little piece of the big collaborative story of those fascinating shared universes. But there's a deep, deep satisfaction that comes with creating your own characters and your own world. You get to make something funny and scary and exciting and real that nobody else possibly could, because it's personal. It came from you.

Parker: Actually it came from me.

Lieber: Okay, my work is personal because it came from Parker.

Parker: No, Steve's right, that's exactly how I feel about it too.

Lieber: Underground is all about the irrevocable consequences of a few bad decisions. You can do a lot of things in a shared superhero universe, but irrevocable consequences? No such thing. For that, you've got to tell your own story.

Parker: In issue one, Wes tries to tell the people of Marion how one wrong move in a cave can destroy a delicate crystal formation that took fifteen-thousand years to develop. She's right, but their community's fragile, too, and if they don't take action to save it, it's gonna fall apart. There are moments like that in every life, where the wrong choice can send things spiraling out of control, changing things forever. You can't tell that story in a world where Superman can spin the earth backward, in clear defiance of Marlon Brando's sternest warnings.

O'Shea: Which character did you either of you appreciate even more at the end of the project versus your attitudes at the outset?

Parker: We're not at the end yet.

Lieber: "This... Ends...NOW."

Parker: How can something so big move so fast?

Lieber: That does remind me -- I'm actually enjoying Winston Barefoot way more than I anticipated. He's a larger-than-life local entrepreneur who stands to benefit the most if Stillwater Cave becomes a show cave, making the town of Marion a tourist destination. He took on a life of his own. I'd love to do another story with him.

Parker: He's based on several colorful Southern wheeler-dealers I've known; very charming, always tend to come out on top, getting away with overtly crooked stuff, and always sporting the power-belly.

O'Shea: Did any of your other studiomates chime in with constructive feedback in the development of the story (ie There can be no car chases in caves!)?

Lieber: Everyone in the studio feels free to lean over my shoulder and criticize. I pretend to ignore them, or just flat out tell them they're wrong. Sometimes I lose it. "Take your weak shit somewhere else. I'm Steve Fucking Lieber." Feelings get hurt, but I shut that nonsense down. Then when no one's looking, I incorporate their suggestions.

Parker: Steve does shut their banana asses down right fast. Our studiomates tolerate a lot of feedback from us and rarely give it back. This could have something to do with us being egomaniacal prima donnas.

Lieber: Sometimes they're right.

O'Shea: Looking at this post, how much has Twitter boosted your ability to market the project?

Lieber: Hard to say. It feels like we've gotten a ton of attention from Parker's Twitta Skillz.® When I was working my table at Comicon, he was sitting at home in a patio chair drinking mojitos and hosing off his kids. But he'd tweet at his readers to come by Artists Alley and pick up the Underground ashcan, and I'd suddenly get a huge flood of people at my table, all saying "Parker sent me." If those people all ask for the book from their local comic shop, Underground is going be a big, big hit.

Parker: Which makes me question the notion of ever going to shows again, really.

Lieber: At Home- it's the new There!

Parker: I'm glad Steve pushed for putting the whole first issue online free. That's gotten a lot of interest.

O'Shea: Steve, what do you think is Jeff's greatest strength as a writer. Jeff, what are the positives of Steve's artistic skills?

Lieber: I don't think it's any one thing that makes Parker one of the best writers out there. I think what makes him great is his unique combination of a first class imagination, a wicked sense of humor, and an unerring feel for how real people act and talk. Maybe that last part's the key -- no matter how wild Parker's material gets, everything he writes is informed by a life spent paying close attention to the real world and the people in it.

Parker: It helps that instead of writing in my house I do it in a studio full of chatterboxes all day. I tune them out, but I still get a strong and constant sense of what real people say and how they say it.

Lieber: You were supposed to talk about me.

Parker: Oh. Steve's right, I am pretty awesome.

O'Shea: Which of you ended up doing the largest amount of research for the story?

Lieber: I front-loaded a lot of the research before we ever got started, just reading lots and lots about caves. But Parker grew up an easy drive away from where our story takes place, so it's fair to say his research started early in Nixon's first term and carried on in the background for a few decades.

Parker: Steve really had read and viewed tons of material beforehand, and since we talk about whatever we're reading, he shared oh, ALL of it with me as he was ingesting this caving material. So by the time he suggested I come on board, of course I had plenty of story ideas about it. It's really a tricky way to force a collaboration, should you ever find yourself wanting to do that.

O'Shea: The film adaptation of  Whiteout is also being released in September, do you hope to get some runoff attention to Underground, thanks to the movie release buzz?

Lieber: I certainly hope so. San Diego was funny that way. I've done several Whiteout interviews where it was clear the interviewer wasn't even familiar with the comic. I was just a name they'd been given. Now I'm very excited about the movie, but I'm not a filmmaker; I'm a comic book artist. And the comic I'm working on is UNDERGROUND. In the end, my enthusiasm for Wesley and Seth and a dangerous Kentucky cave must've been bewildering to some poor journalist looking for a good one-sentence quote for their piece on the new Kate Beckinsale movie.

That was mainstream entertainment media. Will any of what I said will make it into their Whiteout coverage? Hard to say, but let's face it -- to a lot of them, the only thing interesting about comics is that sometimes they get made into movies. What excites me is the attention we're getting in the comics-savvy media. That's been way, way better than we ever could've hoped: dozens of wonderful reviews from critics, and just about every site out there has asked us for images or an interview. Best of all, I don't get the sense it has anything to do with the movie. All this great Underground coverage is coming from people who actually read comics. They liked what we did on Agents of Atlas and X-Men First Class and Whiteout. Now they're getting behind this one.

Parker: I do think the scene where Carrie Stetko lifts the body and UNDERGROUND is spelled in blood on the snow underneath will help a bit. They better not have cut that part out!

O'Shea: Is there anything you'd like to discuss that we did not cover?

Parker: There is a scene with bats in it that we are very happy about!

Lieber: All the meaningful story stuff aside, I think our readers are gonna be sweating hard and writhing in claustrophobic discomfort. I am very proud of this.

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