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CR Sunday Interview: Mark Sable
posted October 9, 2011
I was pitched an interview with the writer Mark Sable
by one of his publishers. I usually don't respond to those kinds of pitches, but I knew I had heard the name before, and went to look him up. Sable was the writer behind one series and one graphic novel with which I was familiar. The series was the high-concept, independent superhero work Grounded
. As it turns out, that was his first published comics work. The graphic novel was an odd but memorable book about eating disorders in sororities, Hazed
. I then recalled that Sable is the creator half of a series of conversations
with Abhay Khosla
that have been running, as he mentions in our chat below, over at The Savage Critics
. I've enjoyed those quite a bit, and have been impressed with how Sable has held his own with the very skilled writer/talker Khosla.
A picture started to form. Mark Sable is one of those constantly-employed writers that splits his time between his own projects, comics series and stand-alones for various smaller publishers and start-ups, and occasional but not always reliable work at the big two companies, mainly but not limited to one-shots and fill-ins. I think that's a fascinating place for a writer to be in their career: getting a lot of work but maybe not the exact kind of work that might come eventually come to you, with hundreds of comics readers that are wannabe writers wanting to take your place, all without the kind of high-profile gig that stamps you in the mind of the majority of the medium's fans. I read from two ongoing/forthcoming projects from Sable in specific preparation for this talk: Graveyard Of Empires
from Image, and Decoy
. I found compelling much of what Mark Sable had to say about his work and orienting himself towards writing in general, and I thank him for the time in doing the piece and taking a peek at the transcript before publication. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I was looking at your resume, and the thing that jumps out is that you have three degrees. You studied English, you studied Drama, and you have a law degree.
SPURGEON: Not only is that a very broad education, but that's significant exposure to three very different kinds of writing. Has that been a boon to you at all in your career -- having all of those writing experiences?
I'd like to think it has. It's hard to see a direct correlation sometimes. I'm not finding myself saying, when I'm writing dialogue, "If I wrote this as a brief, it'd be a lot more interesting." [Spurgeon laughs]
What they say about law school is that it teaches you a different way of looking at things and thinking. Sometimes I look at it and I'm like, "Wow, I spent way too much time in school. I'd be better off having life experience." Not that I stopped having a life when I was in school.
When I was in law school, and I know that this sounds ridiculous, but there was this mid-20s crisis based on thinking I was going to make it as a writer at 25. It didn't happen. No one was more shocked and appalled than me. So I did what a lot of people do: go to law school. That seems like a safe way to a career. I thought I could still do my writing. I learned the business side of entertainment. But I didn't get much writing done. What I learned most in law school is that I was so unhappy that the idea of not writing in some form in my life would be miserable for me.
I'm trying to think of some of the other ways it helped. The dramatic writing stuff, again, when I went to grad school, I think I was one of the few people right out of college. I now understand why schools want people to have a little bit of life experience, to be out in the world and work. I looked at it very much coming into it as "How this can help me?" I cared more about the screenwriting stuff and how it could help my career, how it could get me an agent, how I could break in. And I think, looking back, maybe it helped a little bit and maybe it didn't. I think the stuff that helped was just studying Shakespeare, studying Chekhov, reading Aristotle's poetics: that stuff. I don't think structure is necessarily my strong suit, and because it's not I've worked really hard at it. Being exposed to those things in a significant way really helped me.
I think you know Abhay Khosla?
He's a critic and good friend of mine. We do a column on The Savage Critics
called Creator vs. Critic, this back-and-forth thing. I'm always giving him a hard time about critical theory, which I do think has its uses. But it's a very different way of approaching things than a writer would. Thinking critically is important for writers, but too much critical theory and you start to question what the point of creating anything is.
It seemed like a lot of the criticism, whether it was Marxist or feminist or Freudian or whatever, whether I agreed with the politics behind it or not, it felt more like the critics or the grad students or whatever were trying to impose what they believed on the material rather than do an actual close reading. There seemed to me a game of, "Well, I can prove Shakespeare is homophobic. I'm not homophobic, so therefore I'm better than him." Well, no, you're not. Shakespeare created great if flawed work. Pointing out the flaws doesn't make you better than him.
It's not that critics are less valuable than artists, it's just that in the academy it seemed like a petty, personal competition with (mostly dead) writers. As an aspiring writer, it's crucial to know what great artists did wrong. But it's also important to recognize what they did right.
If you're a creative person in an embryonic stage, this drive to devalue the author can be damaging. If you're constantly told why an author you admire is worthless, why brother trying to follow in their footsteps?
It's been pointed out that I tend to let my characters speak for themselves and don't have a strong authorial presence. I sometimes wonder if that's a reaction to my time in school... if I don't want to give critics a target.
Still, being exposed to critical theory despite my allergy to it was one of the benefits of any kind of liberal arts. If I were creating my own course, I would focus too much on things that were in my interest area, or that I thought would help me. I 'm not sure I would have read modernist literature on my own. I'm not sure that shows up in my work, but... [laughter] I think it was all very valuable.
That's a very long-winded way of saying I'd like to think it all helped, certainly if for no other reason than I need to believe it helped because of all the time I spent in school. It's not something I'm usually conscious of when I'm writing. Sometimes afterwards looking back I can see it.
SPURGEON: I take it from what I've read you're a lifelong comics reader or at least a long-time comics reader?
Yeah, lifelong. I think like everyone else there's a short break in high school. I'd like to say it was to chase girls [laughs] but I think it was the fear of being a social outcast building up stronger than in other years. The story I tell sometimes is that I was bar mitzvahed and literally the theme of my bar mitzvah was Marvel Comics.
SPURGEON: Oh, that's cool.
There was a caricaturist there, and I gave out shirts with a picture of me -- this seems incredibly narcissistic looking back -- there's a picture of me on this shirt, a caricatured version of me in Iron Man's Silver Centurion armor
. With the helmet off. And me wearing -- I no longer wear glasses, I wear contacts -- me wearing these really thick, socially damning glasses [laughter] and saying, "I had a MARVEL" -- Marvel in all caps -- "MARVELous time at Mark's bar mitzvah."
I look back at that now with both horror and fondness now.
SPURGEON: I think the majority of people reading this just had to suppress the desire to have one of those shirts. That sounds fantastic.
I'll have to capture the image and try to sell them without Marvel suing me.
SPURGEON: As a comics reader, did you latch onto writers? Were you aware of writers the way fans usually become aware of creators at some point? If so, which writers stood out to you at that younger age, or even as you got older?
At the younger age, it was not many. And it was not their fault. Larry Hama
oddly enough stood out, because of that silent issue of GI Joe
. I was young, so that blew my mind. I remember the first creator I ever met was Bob Layton
, who had been writing X-Factor
, I believe. It was during X-Factor's early run. I was so excited to have him sign X-Factor
at some local convention in Long Island, and he looked at it and he was very nice, and he said, "Oh, my X-Factor
stuff. I thought you'd want me to sign Iron Man
. "Demon In A Bottle" or something."
I don't think it was much later, past Dark Knight
, which were high school, I don't think it was really until Neil Gaiman
where I was like, "Okay, comic book writers
. I guess I was aware of Chris Claremont
. I think before that it was all a swirl. I was never clear as a kid. "Stan Lee
is involved how?" His name was always there, and he was saying "Excelsior!" on the cartoon.
It's funny, though, because I think awareness of authors came in other media first. Maybe that says something about comics and how writers were treated back then. I became much more aware of novelists -- not even great novelists, but like Tom Clancy
-level novelists. John Grisham
. And then filmmakers like Coppola or Tarantino or Scorsese. Those were the early ones for me. It is strange that that
awareness came first. But like I said, maybe it's not because of the way comics works. I'm trying to remember when they started putting names on the front of comics. I want to say it feels like a '90s thing. I wasn't aware of it before that.
SPURGEON: I'm kind of unclear how you made the shift into writing comics. I assume from some of the material I've read that you'd written at least one screenplay, that you'd pursued writing in other fields before you did comics. I'm interested in the mechanism of how that shift happened, but also if there was someone or something that made you want to make that move into professional comics writing.
There's a couple of things that pop to mind. I think what happened was, even just making the leap to doing any
kind of writing was a scary thing for me. I'd always written. I wrote a quote-unquote novel when I was in the 5th grade. That's what I would do with my spare time. But in terms of thinking of it as a career, I never gave it any serious consideration until the final semester of my senior year in high school.
I was one of those intense students. Over-achiever isn't the right word because it implies more achievement than there actually was. [laughter] I was very driven, overly driven. I got into undergrad early acceptance, and then basically after that it was very hard for me to screw up getting into college. So I had that second semester of my senior year. Most people with that senior year essentially off would do something fun. For me fun was Seinfeld
. I was obsessed with Seinfeld
. That was the first thing I wrote: I wrote this spec script for Seinfeld
. In the '90s, no kid was doing that -- maybe in LA, everyone was. [Spurgeon laughs] But in Long Island, nobody was doing that.
It was a strange time. Amy Fisher
went to my high school. She was a year ahead of me. So there were cameras outside. It was an early version of that media circus atmosphere that is now pretty common around any kind of scandal. Back then it was a much bigger deal to see your friends interviewed on A Current Affair
. [laughter] Bill O'Reilly: we had no reason to fear anything from him then. Who knew?
Jerry Seinfeld's sister lived across from the high school. I'd been ill -- not terminal in any way, but seriously. I kind of used that. I wrote this spec and I put it in her mailbox and I wrote this note that I'd been sick in the hospital, and that I had missed some school. It was pretty manipulative, looking back. [laughter] "Can you please pass this along to your brother?" To her credit, she did send it to whomever. I got a nice rejection letter, which for a really long time I savored.
I picked an undergrad school that was not -- and I think it was good decision, too -- that was not a school that had a film degree at all. So I found myself in a position of wanting to be a writer, but now I'm in a place where if I wanted to find those opportunities I had to make them myself. Forget comics writing; there wasn't even a screenwriting class offered. I took playwriting and fiction writing, and I wrote through osmosis. I'd ape Bret Easton Ellis
and my short stories were all these dark, debaucherous tales told in the first person, present tense. Not that I knew from debauchery yet, but that's where my ambitions lay.
Around the same time, I wound up becoming friendly with Mark Powers, who was an editor at Marvel. He would later on help me find Paul [Azaceta]
to draw Grounded
. But then, this was just '90s X-Men
. I would get little pitches in somehow. I had a Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends
pitch, the first time Spidey, Iceman and Firestar teamed up in the 616 Marvel U. They fought -- wait for it -- Infectia, from X-Factor
. There was a real disconnect between what I wanted to write for other media and what I though I could sell to a comics publisher.
I remember not only having to fight my parents but friends and professors, everybody, the idea of making a living from writing, which seemed like just a bad idea to everybody. In retrospect, they may not have been wrong. [laughter] But then the idea of writing comics seemed crazy. When I was pitching these things to Marvel, it didn't seem as ambitious or appealing as my other attempts at writing.
Not that Marvel didn't seem like an appealing place to work. As an experiment they gave me the plot and the art for a Chris Claremont X-Men
issue and asked me to write a script. I didn't know what to do with it. I would do this weird, meta, funny stuff. All they wanted was Rogue to say, "Let's get 'em, sugah" or whatever. [Spurgeon laughs] But I was so desperate to stand out that I tried to make it theater of the absurd.
So I put comics aside for a while. This takes me around to 2001. I'd mostly written screenplays that were based on those same short stories and plays I was writing in college. Blueprints for these dark, personal, independent films. I was living in New York. I got very lucky: I got an agent when I was in grad school. Of course that went right to my head. I thought I was going to be the next Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Kevin Smith -- one of those guys that was doing these independent but still somewhat mainstream stuff and getting these movies made, movies that were blowing my mind at the time. The thing that I failed to connect which is so obvious in retrospect is that those guys weren't just writing films, they were directing them. I just assumed I could write them and then I could make a big spec sale, and someone else would pay me money to do the hard work and bring my personal vision to life. Then I thought I would direct at some point.
But I had no ability to direct, or at least no real understanding of what that kind of undertaking involved. What wound up happening is I kept compiling these niche scripts that were never going to get made unless I directed them, and I'm in New York where one percent of the film industry was, and I wondered why I wasn't having any success.
I wrote a script, going back to the Amy Fisher thing, called Searching For Amy Fisher
instead of Searching For Bobby Fischer
. It was this sort of semi-autobiographical script. It wasn't even semi-, because I included myself as a character. [laughter] It's funny, narcissism is becoming more a theme than I thought.
To make a long story somewhat less long, my agent at the time sat me down and was like, "Look, you need to write something that's more high concept." She was like, "It can still be character driven" in the way that agents need to qualify. "You need to either do that or make these movies yourself in which case I can't help you with that because it's not my area." She asked me to sit down and come up with five ideas. It sounds silly, but I'd never done this before. I barely even outlined; I went directly to script. I was really insulted by that idea, actually. I thought, "If I can sum up my idea in a paragraph, I'd just write specs. Why would I write a screenplay?"
There was arrogance in that, clearly... but part of my process at the time was... I needed to get 120 pages into a story to figure out what it's about. Hopefully, I've streamlined things a bit since then.
Most of the ideas I showed my agent were not commercially viable. They were almost spiteful towards the idea of an audience.
I'll give you some examples. There was a crime story about a Mafioso with ulcerative colitis who is araid to show the La Cosa Nostra that he has this vulnerability. He blows a heist when it goes on too long and he shits his pants. [Spurgeon laughs] Then he has to kill anyone who knows he's got bowel issues -- basically The Sopranos
, but with shit instead of psychiatry.
If that doesn't frighten you, another one of my "commercial" ideas is one I still may want to do something with. It's based on an urban legend around the time 9/11 -- and this is literally within a month of the event that I'm pitching this, and I'm pitching it over breakfast not more than a couple of miles from Ground Zero. Anyway, a woman whose husband works in the towers sees them going down on TV, and she's desperately trying to call him. To warn him at first, then to see if he's okay, then ultimately to say a teary goodbye to him. But she can't get through. Finally, she reaches him, and he's nonchalant. Everything's fine, what's she so agitated about? He's having an affair with a secretary and he's out for the day. He's still with her at the hotel; they haven't turned on the TV yet. This was a story people swore to me up and down was true.
My extrapolation on that was that it would be interesting if, while she'd been trying to track him down, she had been getting all this sympathy as a presumptive 9/11 widow. And she realizes that if the truth were to come out, it would be mortifyingly embarrassing. So she tells him to stay dead, and when he doesn't want to, when he has this It's A Wonderful Life
moment of seeing everyone memorialize him, she hires a hitman to make sure he does. That was the title of it: Stay Dead
. [Spurgeon laughs] This is what I was pitching as a commercial idea. If it's in bad taste now, it was certainly in bad taste a month after 9/11 in Manhattan.
But there was one idea I just threw it in that was, if not a surefire hit, not hostile. It's completely incongruous with everything else I pitched, and everything that had come before it, and it changed my life. It was called Powerless
, and it was the screenplay of what essentially became Grounded
. The idea of a kid that gets sent to a high school for superheroes where everybody has powers except him.
That was the most commercial of those ideas, so my agent said go ahead and write it. You have to understand, Spider-Man
had either just come out or was about to come out. There was maybe X-Men
and that was it. When you're talking about a super-hero property not owned by the big two, it really wasn't and for the most part still isn't a commercial thing. She gave me some notes on it. She had just as little idea what to do with it as my dark, twisted, personal projects.
I went to law school right after. It sat for a while. I don't remember the exact moment I had the idea to turn it into a comic. There was probably some commercial aspect to the adaptation. During this period I was working for an entertainment law firm, and I would see a lot of the deals. The law firm I worked for, Circle of Confusion was a client. I saw Walking Dead
's and Powers
' initial deals. So I thought, "Oh, this could work." That was the start of the explosion of writer/creators coming into comics, too. Bendis starting out. Warren Ellis, [Robert] Kirkman, all those guys. This became possible. I think it was also that I had written five screenplays at this point, and about as many teleplays, that were just sitting on my hard drive and nothing was happening with them. So the idea of if nothing else having something published I could hold in my hand seemed like a great idea.
I asked Mark Powers for an up and coming artist, someone who would be essentially willing to work for just back end. And I got so incredibly lucky. I think my entire career hinged on finding Paul Azaceta for that. The other person that helped me out a great deal was Ivan Brandon
, a writer who has that Men Of War
book out now but he's more known for his creator-owned stuff like Viking
and NYC Mech
. He had been a friend. Like Abhay Khosla I met him through the Bendis Board. It turned out to be a good networking thing, even though that was never the intention on that. Ivan was editor on that book.
There were so many mistakes -- they're still there, I'm sure, if I looked back -- but Ivan helped me avoid so many first-time comics writer mistakes. Very quickly, the thing that I discovered was that yes, it was nice to have something come out and have readers respond to it. I was hoping that it would get me film and TV work, which it did, but I was surprised to find it got me more comics work. Since then I've found the comics work much more enjoyable than any other medium I've worked on a process level, and that's why I'm still at it. So I may not have gotten into comics for the right reasons, but I'd like to think I've stayed for the right ones.
SPURGEON: You've talked a bit about how much of a learning curve for you, whereas before you started doing it, you just sort of assumed you could do comics scripting. Was there a learning curve for you in turning out a script of professional quality?
There was definitely a huge learning curve. Paul maybe covered up some of that. One of the first things that jumps to mind is length. I way underestimated if you were just adapting a screenplay how many issues that would take, particularly with the pace of comics now. Decompression is something I try to fight against, just because I prefer comics with a little more meat to them.
The other thing is that in screenwriting you're very much trained to defer to this potential director that may or may not bring your project to life, and really to ignore the actors. You're taught to never indicate something like a facial expression, to go really light on the description because you're stepping into their territory. In comics, and especially in work for hire where you very rarely have a say in who the artist is, and you may not even know until they start drawing, and it's up to the editor how much contact you have with them, you have to do a lot more work in that area.
There was this scene I remember giving Paul in Grounded
which was way underwritten as a result of that training. The main character, this powerless kid who's obsessed with being a superhero dresses like a Flash analog. He's waiting at this station for this train to pass so he can outrun it. He tries to; he fails. Paul played with the angles, and made what would have been a completely flat scene had it gone how I had actually written it and made it both visually and emotionally compelling.
At the same time, I'd overwrite the hell out of the dialogue, to the point where you could barely see Paul's art. Ivan and his wife, letterer Kristyn Ferretti, they saved the book from being a bunch of overlapping word balloons.
I've hopefully gotten better in both of these areas.
I'm sure there are a ton of other things, but those were the most readily apparent. It's not about trying to impose my vision on an artist; it's about giving the artists something to work with. They can ignore it, or they can talk to me and we can come up with something that's better.
Decoy is one of the comics you sent me. There are thriller elements to it, which makes me think that pacing is important. How much information are you providing the artist in terms of pacing issues: say, the number of panels per page, or the panel shapes and sizes. Do you provide more information now than you used to as far as storytelling rhythms go?
Yes and no. The one thing I've always done, and I'll always continue to do it unless mandated otherwise, is indicate the number of panels. That's not to say an artist can't say to me, "I want an extra panel" or "I don't need as many panels." But if I don't do that, I'll over- or underestimate what I can fit on a page.
The other thing I'm very careful about is with double-page spreads; I try not to have panels that run horizontally across two pages. It's very hard to pull off, and if I don't tell an artist, sometimes they'll do it. I don't think it's even the artist's fault. There's a sequence in Graveyard Of Empires
that Paul and I sat down and worked out, it was meant to work that way.
I'm not that specific with the shape of the panels. That's something for the artist to decide. I'm not at the point where I feel comfortable having a strong opinion on the matter. I give panel size, and I try to indicate the pacing to some degree: "Okay, this panel should be larger." Also, someone like Andy McDonald, although it's the first time I've worked with him, I've known him a long time personally. I've followed his work. I feel like there's a level of trust with him where it's always like, "Okay here's the script. If you find a better way to do it..." That's a situation where there's enough creative participation and collaboration that we can go back and forth on a particular thing. Should this be a splash? Should it not?
SPURGEON: Are you talking about the sequence at the end of the first issue of
Graveyard where perspective shifts multiple times and everything gets bigger? I thought that was very effective.
No. I liked that. I think there was something conscious there. The idea of the book was to give an idea of claustrophobia on a combat outpost in Afghanistan. There are combat outposts in real life that are even smaller than they are in the book, but to make it work on the page it needed to be bigger. Hopefully there's a feeling in the series that things are going to expand outward.
What I was talking about is there's a two-page sequence where we wanted to show the day-to-day life of the Marines when they're not in combat. It's been said war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense violence. But mostly it's boredom. Now, in a comic that would be a really terrible, just dramatically a terrible way to approach things, having 31 pages of boredom and one page of combat.
We still wanted to have a kind of day-in-the-life thing. There's a two-page spread in issue #1 I really liked, basically it's two nine panel grids laid out across the page. It sort of breaks my rule of having something going over -- not the gutter -- the dividing line
to see how it reads. It's a way to give characters that don't have speaking roles a bit of, well, character before they're killed. And to show what life is like on this base when there's not combat, which is actually most of the time. We changed the time of day from high noon all the way to sunset. I think the good thing about that piece is that you can read it both horizontally and vertically. That took a lot of back and forth with Paul; that was a lot of hard work on both of our parts. But yeah, that's
what I was referring to.
SPURGEON: Let me ask you another
Graveyard question. Unlike your early screenplays, this is very high concept. I could describe it to someone in a sentence. What comes first for you with a project like that? Zombies have a rich history as potent metaphorical content, something you seem to be mining from the start given the soliders' perspective on the value of life outside of their base. Do you start with the high concept and then you go to theme or message, or do you have more of an interest in how various ideas bump into one another?
Ever since that day I pitched my former agent Grounded
, I think concept has to come first. At least in terms of how I come up with idea. Before, it wasn't like that; it came from character and real people, forming a character around something I saw in somebody. There was a real shift, and it's hard to abandon a model that seems to be giving me work. At the end of the day, though, concept isn't what interests me. Once you come up with that initial idea, that's the thing that tends to stay fixed.
My own criticism of my work is that my execution hasn't always lived up to my concepts. So that's something I'm constantly trying to get right. I feel my first issues have been stronger than how I've finished. So for any medium it's about improving my stories, really making three-act structure work, I don't know. It's been an interesting thing.
One thing that writing three-act screenplay structure doesn't prepare you for is writing mainstream comics. One of the tenets of having a protagonist is that they change in some way. It seems like the nature of comics is that characters don't change. Maybe that's part of why I gravitate towards creator-owned stuff that's more finite. I'm trying to find ways around that in my work-for hire stories. There are storytelling things I'm constantly working on.
My background is so heavily on the writing side, and things even outside writing like studying law. As I've become friends with other professionals it's astonishing to me how many have visual arts backgrounds or can just draw naturally. I've seen writers do sketches at conventions that could pass for those of professional artists. I remember in Seven Soldiers
looking at Grant Morrison's concept art and I was like, "Wow, he could have been an artist if he wanted to." I don't have that background, and although I'm glad I'm here, I didn't expect to be in this place. That's something I'm trying to make up for. Some of that is just reading comics or reading books about comics or reading criticism and analysis. Some of it is literally -- my blog has been taken over by this lately -- I've been taking life-drawing classes. Something as simple as that. I don't have any illusions about taking my books away from artists or anything. I can't imagine how many years that would take. But I want to know when I ask something from cartoonists, how I can serve them better.
SPURGEON: Has adding the zombie element been useful for you in
Graveyard? Have you enjoyed having that tool to play around with in this story?
I do. It's funny. I've been back and forth on it. There's even been points in writing the comic, talking with Paul where I've said, "Hey, let's just ditch the whole zombie thing." You've seen the first issue.
SPURGEON: It comes really late in the issue. I was genuinely surprised when it made that turn.
I'm surprised that people were surprised. Looking back, it doesn't seem surprising. It was one of the things we were really torn about when promoting the book. Should we tell the people about the zombies, or should they be surprised? My feeling was that yes, it was a cool surprise at the end if you don't know. But I'd hate to tell people, "Here's a book on modern warfare" and then all of the sudden: zombies. I pictured people getting angry with me. So I said, "Let's just be honest." If we lose the zombie fans because they expect more than two pages of undead action... my feeling was we were damned if we do, damned if we don't. My expectation was, having mentioned that in the solicitation and everything, I expected there to be an outcry from all these zombie fans [Spurgeon laughs] who were like "Why aren't there more zombies?"
I think it just goes to show you that the comics press and publicity, maybe it's a waste on some level. The almost universal reaction was the reaction you had. And some of it was positive, and some of it was "Oh no, not another zombie book." That's something that drives me personally crazy because I'd love every review of a superhero comic to start out with, "Oh no, not another issue of Teen Titans
." And start from there.
SPURGEON: I've written those reviews.
The people that are starting these reviews, "Oh no, another zombie comics" I feel when I read their other reviews they didn't say, "Oh no, another superhero comic." I think if we could have taken the zombies out just to avoid that, we would have.
A lot of people seem to think that adding zombies was a cynical ploy to get this made as a movie. Which I was always above, and I'm honest about which work started as a screenplay or whatever.
But I don't think the zombies make it more appealing to Hollywood. It's a weird thing. Maybe together they might sort of work, but Hollywood wants to stay from anything war related except for that one "Kill Bin Laden" movie. They know that one has a happy ending. Except for him. [Spurgeon laughs] With zombies it's like, "Walking Dead
, World War Z
: no more zombie projects already." If you've got a new spin on it, maybe. If we could have taken it out, we would have.
I'll tell you the reasoning behind the zombies in Graveyard
. On a plot level, if you wanted to explore the interactions between marines and Taliban, well, the marines rarely see the Taliban. It's not like Call of Duty
; combat takes place at ranges where you can't see the enemy until they're dead. So if you wanted to explore how they might interact, you need an external threat. It was either going to be zombies or it was going to be aliens or the Soviet Union was going to reinvade. I'm not certain which one of those scenarios is the least plausible. [Spurgeon laughs]
Zombies works on a lot of levels thematically. One to me is that when you think of them as foes, you really don't know what they're thinking, and if they have a thought it's probably a singular one: brains. They're relentless and keep coming. In those ways they serve as a metaphor for how we perceive the Taliban: masses of bloodthirsty terrorists with only jihad on their mind.
Something that was really influential on this book, something in counterinsurgency theory -- it's called insurgent math. If you kill one insurgent, you create ten more. You've pissed off his family and his friends and his community. It's not always effective to fight an insurgency by carpet-bombing a village.
I'd like to think there's nuance with what we're doing. The idea of a zombie, where if you're in an environment where the dead are coming back to life and you kill somebody they're going to come back as a zombie and then turn ten of your friends into zombies. That for me takes it from a mash-up that was somewhat interesting and could have made for a fun book to something that's more interesting for me to explore.
It's what got Paul involved. Paul and I worked on Grounded
in 2005. He did the covers for Unthinkable
, which I did for Boom! and we did a What If...
? Spider-Man issue together. Beyond that, despite him being one of my closest friends, and there's not an artist I want to work with more, by nature of how he blew up as an artist we hadn't been able to work together. We talked about doing everything from sequels to Grounded
to adapting one of my independent screenplays from back in the day, this story about a Jewish grandfather having an affair with the young African-American nurse who killed his wife. But the idea of zombies as metaphors for insurgent math was the thing that caught his fancy.
This actually started, when I think about it, with HP Lovecraft. Graveyard
was going to take place in Iraq. I'd been a fan of Lovecraft, and I'm fascinated with the Middle East and war and espionage and all of those things. The Necronomicon in Lovecraft: I became obsessed with this idea that it was written by an Arab in Damascus I forget how long ago, 1000 AD or something. I had this idea originally that it was going to take place in Iraq and the Necronomicon was used like in the Evil Dead
movies to reanimate zombies. I liked that the Necronomicon was this shared cultural thing that you could pass on from property to property, because it was public domain legally you could do that.
When I first came up with the idea, it was soon after the invasion and Baghdad was being looted. I was like, "What if there was a museum of heretical antiquities and that was being raided and they stole the Necronomicon and the marines were trying to get it back and the insurgents were using it to raise zombies?" I wound up using a variation of that for a Cthulu Tales
story I did for Boom!; it used some of those elements.
What happened is that the war in Iraq, for lack of a better term, started cooling off and Afghanistan started heating up. Paul and I wanted to move away from supernatural elements. We haven't really revealed how the zombies come into being yet. It is something that's sort of layered in, and it's a pseudo-science thing. That helped with the tone a bit. Look, anytime you have zombies you have a bit of ridiculousness. [Spurgeon laughs]
Whenever you work at Image, you're your own editor unless you hire one. Paul and I have both worked as each other's editor. Doing Image projects, what being an editor usually means is that I have to call the artist and the letterer and ask where everything is. On this, Paul has more than carried his weight. I'm pushing him as an artist, but he's pushing me as a writer -- in a host of ways, but one of them being on tone and wanting to make things as believable as possible. We both did research -- I probably did more because I have more time than him. In the first issue, there was that scene where a bomb is surgically implanted inside a suicide bomber. Paul was extremely resistant, and I was on the verge of cutting it, but I was like, "No, I'm pretty sure this could really happen." And he was like, "No, there's no way it can happen."
I finally looked it up and I was able to find that while there hadn't been an instance exactly of an explosive that size, that they'd started to do things like that. That's one of the biggest fears the TSA has right now. Even with those really invasive scanning devices, you don't even have to surgically implant an explosive; you could just swallow it. He holds every panel to that level of "could-it-really-happen" scrutiny.
It doesn't mean we didn't get things wrong. Neither Paul nor I served in the Marines. But we're trying to keep the tone believable if not every actual detail. I think somewhere along the line both of us learned that whenever you're doing anything involving a fantasy element, you generally want to keep it to one element. If you have the characters act in a way that's not believable, you'll push the audience's suspension of disbelief too far.
SPURGEON: It seems to me you're at the point in your career where you don't have those recurring mainstream gigs that define the rest of your schedule. How do you manage a career where a writer is where you are? What projects you take on and what do you take a pass on? How much attention to you pay to projects in terms of getting you from one place to another career-wise, or do you just take things as they interest you and work as much as possible?
There's a little bit of both there. Ideally, I'd like to have stability of the sort that as a freelancer I don't completely have -- at least in terms of my writing. I teach writing as well, primarily screenwriting and TV writing, and that's really rewarding in and of itself. Having a source of income outside of comics is helpful just to live, but it also lets me have a little bit of say. There are some things I can say no to. Not everyone can, and it's easy on the outside to wonder how a creator could say yes to a project that seems so obviously wrong for them.
I don't want to complain. I've been extremely fortunate. But comics don't pay a lot. How many comics creators get healthcare? I'd certainly love more regular gigs from the Big Two, but that being said I want them to be the right gigs. Not that I'm not hungry, but I think I felt desperate in the beginning and a little dazzled. They approached me to do Teen Titans
stuff right after Grounded
, and I was so flattered that I didn't wonder if that was the right fit for me.
Another issue about doing work for the Big Two is that no matter what it's going to be read by more people than read my creator-owned stuff. I don't know what the percentage is, but I think I've done much more creator-owned work than Big Two work. But those work-for-hire books that I've done can stand out a lot more in casual readers' minds. When I was doing Teen Titans
, just little arcs, the Cyborg
story, I felt like I was getting maybe typecast a bit as the teen guy. I have no problems writing books like that. I wouldn't have written Grounded
if I felt I had nothing to say in that genre. But I don't want to get limited to it.
When I look at people's careers I admire the most, they're people who are able to do some version of both. Brian K. Vaughan is someone I have a lot of respect for. There's an example of someone who's been extremely choosy about his work. It's hard to think of anything he's done that's not exceptional in some way. I know that when he started out he was doing some Marvel and DC stuff that are back-issue bin kind of stuff. He was fortunate enough to do work that would eclipse that. But who knows if he'd be able to be as choosy if he were not getting all that work from Hollywood?
There are a number of different scenarios I could see myself being happy doing. I could be very happy just doing comics, even after all those years of wanting to do film. I'm not above compromising. If Marvel or DC wanted to sign me to an exclusive, I'd be very happy to do that. They let you carve out exceptions for creator-owned work, so that would be fine. If I could do creator-owned and work on a television show -- it doesn't have to be Lost
-- that would also be fine. Or to have something like Kirkman's career, where he really is making a living off of independent stuff. But the list of those people? It's like Kirkman and...
SPURGEON: ... Kirkman.
[Mike] Mignola as well. He's an artist, and he's created an industry around himself. I feel like so much of the Big Two stuff is outside of my control. I can pitch them things and develop relationships but they've got to at some point decide that I'm hot or someone there has to spark to something. The one thing I do have control over are the projects I create.
I am truly fortunate to have an outlet like Image Comics. They're publishing my material; they're very supportive. I don't mean to single them out, but I've done most of my creator-owned work for them. I say that because there is this weird thing where Image has become a steppingstone for a lot of people into Marvel and DC. There's nothing wrong with that if that's where they want to go. But that's not why Image was founded, and I'm very aware that Graveyard
could be the last book Image publishes from me. As long as they have that venue, I want to be doing work that I'm proud of there.
SPURGEON: Something like this
Decoy book. How does that fit in to your desire to do a certain kind of work? What's the appeal of the project in that sense?
There's a couple of things. I like espionage. I'd love to do a straight espionage book. It's something I've been trying to pitch, and it's been really hard. Quite frankly, outside of Queen and Country
, which was a black and white for a small publisher, it's a genre that doesn't seem to have a lot of attraction at least as far as editors and publishers are concerned. So just the espionage aspect of it interests me, although the idea drifted pretty far from the hard kind of espionage I'd like to be doing. [Spurgeon laughs]
I'm trying to think of where the idea came from, it's always hard to pinpoint, and I'm sure the Life Model Decoy stuff from Marvel was somewhere in the mix there. I think Casanova
was somewhat of an influence just in my getting excited -- it's my favorite book on the stands right now, period -- about espionage being something you could have fun with without veering off into Austin Powers
territory. The thing that was maybe the clincher for me was I was reading a book called Wired For War
. This is one of those things that if I lack that visual arts background that most creators have, I'd like to think my interests are one of the things I bring to the table. I mostly read non-fiction and things that are outside what most people would consider reading for fun.
This book Wired For War
is about the roboticization -- if that's a word -- of warfare. Just thinking about drones, how that's changed warfare. Just in the war in Iraq, the amount of drones just blew up. Even under Obama. You think of all the moral and ethical implications of what that means. That book opened my mind to that, as well as to what's technologically possible in robotics now and what's expected to be in the near future.
Other than the decoys in that book -- that's a pretty big "other than," it's like "other than the zombies -- but other than the decoys all the robotic stuff in there is pretty realistic. Some scenes have been cut, but there's a walker that one of the characters has, walkers like out of Robocop
, but basically there's a real one out there that's been built. Some of the powers that Decoy has, like the synthetic aperture radar that allows him to see through things, they're real. That book exposed me to a host of things.
I'm going to blank on the name... it was a movie I saw [Transcendent Man
]. It's based on a book by Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near
, and its idea is that technology is increasing. Technological growth is increasing exponentially. Kurzweil believes that between nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and genetics, we're all going to be cyborgs. To an extent we already are, with our smart phones. He thinks within our lifetime we'll see self-aware AI.
There's two sides to this vision. There's the Rise Of The Machines/Terminator scenario. They became self-aware and they don't need us. But there's also this optimistic idea that these beings will allow us to become god-like and immortal. Kurzweil is in the optimist camp, and I'd never really been exposed to that side of things He's a technologist/futurist. He's also an inventor. He invented a reader -- I don't know if he invented the scanner, but you scan it over a page and it reads out loud to the blind. He has a ton of patents. He lost his father, which I did last year. He wants to come to terms with his own mortality, or not come to terms with it. He's on this quest of getting artificial intelligence and robotic, accelerate it.
How does all this relate to Decoy
? The story of Decoy
is this guy wakes up and he realizes he's a robot -- not just any robot, but a Life Model Decoy for a spy. Instead of the spy using the decoy out in the field, so the bad guy thinks he's killed the spy when he really killed the decoy, the spy uses the decoy at home to be the perfect father and perfect husband and the spy goes out and enjoys shooting people. [laughter] He's into gambling and womanizing and all those things. So there are character things that appeal to me there.
Relating this back to robotics, when this decoy is forced to take on the role of the spy, the two organizations that are the threats in the book reflect both sides of this philosophy. There's a neo-Luddite group that fears the Rise of the Machines scenario and wants to send mankind back into the Dark Ages. There's another one that believes AI is a good thing but they happen to be a criminal syndicate. They believe there's a virtual heaven for everybody; they just want to control the gates. Getting to play with those ideas is something that interests me. As you can tell, I can ramble on about it. [Spurgeon laughs]
Ultimately to me the hook into it as a writer when it became something more than conceptual was the idea of what would you if you found out your entire family, all your family relationships were something that was programmed into you. They feel real but they're not, and maybe you can let them go. What do you do? Somebody asked me at one point if I had a robot, what would I do. It would be somewhat similar to what Zekiel Dax, the spy in the book, does. I don't think I'd use it so I could go out whoring.
SPURGEON: You'd never stand in the line at the post office again.
Yeah. Even coming back to comics, one of the hardest things about doing the creator-owned stuff is that there's so much other stuff that goes into it that you don't need to do with working for the Big Two. If I could have a robot stay on top of artists and colorists and editors and try to do PR ...? There's a finite amount of time, and ultimately it has to come from somewhere.
I always wish I could spend more time writing. It's a curse that all writers have. Being a writer is like having homework all the time, and any time you're doing something else it feels like you're not doing your homework. I think it's a good thing in a certain way, it keeps me motivated and it means that this is what I'm supposed to be doing, but it can also be a very unhealthy way of living if you can't enjoy the other moments. I love writing, but writing isn't life.
SPURGEON: Matt Fraction recently did an interview with
Comics Alliance in support of the new
Casanova series where he talked about the frustration of working in independent comics, how tough it can to hold everything together on these projects where the only pay -- if there's any -- is on the back end. He asserted that this can even put a strain on personal relationships. Has that been your experience? Is it tough to work in this area of comics, and can you say in independent comics indefinitely without the gig you talked about to stabilize your comics career?
To a certain extent, it will always be tough. It was tougher in the beginning than it is now. In the beginning I treated it like independent film, and maybe this is where admiring those directors helped. I saved money, and I invested my own money in terms of paying creators. Some of it I got back from those projects directly, and some from work-for-hire assignments that my creator-owned work generated.
Image has been more helpful as my career has progressed. The big challenge is always with the artist. I can multi-task, and divide labor up in terms of time. It's hard for an artist to do a monthly book, let alone do two. That is always difficult, finding artists and asking them to be put in that position. That's probably the main reason I haven't done on ongoing yet. How can I ask that of an artist? You can count on one hand the number of successful independent books. But that have had the same artist? And came out on time? Then you're down to nothing. That part will always be a challenge.
I'm hoping that I'm on a somewhat sustainable model no matter what. But the nature of being a freelancer is you never know. And especially the industry, and the state it's in. I've only been in the industry for five years or so, and it's noticeably shrunk, the outlets have changed. There aren't as many outlets. Image and Kickstart have both been great. Some of the other companies, the deals they offer are unconscionable. I understand if you're a business and you're putting up capital, you want something back. I have no problem with that. Especially if they're paying you, I think that's fair. There are publishers where it's "We'll publish it, but we want you to put up the capital. You pay for the artist, you pay for the coloring." Which can be a significant bill. "And
we'll take 50 percent."
I don't what to say Image isn't about making money, because that would demean the business acumen of the people working there, and they've made this model work. But if they just cared about making money, they wouldn't operate the way they do. I think they're extremely generous to creators. I wish there were more Images. Imagi. [laughter]
SPURGEON: In one of your "creators vs. critics" articles, you and Abhay Khosla had a strong exchange was on creative ambition. Abhay said that the emerging generation of writers didn't seem as creatively ambitious as the generation that came up in the '80s and '90s. You said that you can't always tell what someone's level of ambition is. This is true, except for one person: what about your ambition? What is the ideal creative outcome for you down the road, and how important is that to you?
It's hard to answer that question, because I want to leave myself some flexibility. I say that on a professional, practical level. If I say "All I want to do is creator-owned stuff," or "I want a Vertigo series" -- and those are things I want -- an editor might read that and decide not to contact me for something else.
In the short amount of time I've been doing this and the ten years I've been trying to become a writer -- it's been a little longer than that -- it's completely changed a lot. So I always want to have the room to completely change my mind at any point. I want to always have the ability to tell stories, and that's the most important thing. Hopefully they're meaningful to me and to other people. I don't have the illusion that art really changes people, even though I think it's changed my life. I just don't want to be one of those people that has an agenda.
I have opinions, but I don't want them to be worn on my sleeve. I want my opinions to be appreciated by people with other views. I'm somehow surreptitiously sneaking counter-insurgency theory into the Afghanistan thing, that seems cool to me, and that's as far as I want to go. I don't want Graveyard Of Empires
to be easily pegged as an anti-war book or a pro-war book. Some people may want do that, and that's their right, but it's certainly not my goal. I look at Brian K. Vaughan where's he been able to do Vertigo books and work with Wildstorm when Wildstorm was doing books like Ex Machina
. Brett Lewis who did one of my three favorite books of the last decade, Wintermen
The next step for me is to do something on an ongoing basis. There's more financial reward if you can do an ongoing book, yes. But I want to have the ability to tell a longer story and I want to have the challenge of not having a character change over four to six issues. How do you sustain that? Television seems to be doing that better than comics right now. It still feels like a golden age of TV. I'm watching Breaking Bad
this week and I'm blown away by it.
I know this will get people angry, but the medium almost doesn't matter to me. The story does. Whatever medium I choose, I'm going to try and serve that medium best. Right now it's comics, and I'm trying to make up for any deficiencies in comics that I might have. It's interesting, because even my definition of "personal" might change. "Personal" originally meant to me "autobiographical." I still have some desire to do that, but I've been able to do better work when I've been writing through other characters. There's something very freeing about writing in another character's voice.
At one point early on it seemed like, "Oh, I could do Vertigo-type work. That would be my mainstream. The autobiographical stuff would be my sort-of art movies." And then as I get to understand the business a little bit better [laughs] it's more like no, doing genre stuff is basically art movies in comics at this point.
I know I'm all over the place with that answer. Having the ability to do long-form storytelling that I'm passionate about, but still can reach a long enough audience that it can sustain itself: that's certainly the immediate or intermediate goal. Beyond that, I just want to leave myself open.
SPURGEON: In other interviews you mentioned you have a special sensitivity to 9/11 and issues of terrorism and violence of that sort. Do you think comics has changed because of 9/11? Has comics and comics culture changed because of that event?
It's an interesting question. The answer is yes and no. I think it's the same for the country. The biggest issue I have with 9/11 is that I know there have been negative changes that have had an impact on people around the world, but I still feel it's something that people forget.
Maybe that's a bias of having been in New York when it happened. I remember within a few days in New York... Manhattan is like 12 miles long. I go to visit an ex-girlfriend on the Upper West Side, and it was maybe 24 hours later, and people are out drinking, and the bars are open uptown. If you had come back in a time machine or whatever, you would have no idea from just looking at it that 3000 people had just died downtown. And I was like, "Wow, if that's what's happening in New York, than in the rest of this country this feeling of everyone being nice to each other is going to pass." Maybe I'm not being fair to the people who were out that night. Maybe they needed to drink more than everybody else in retrospect. But it really left an indelible mark.
There were clearly comics that were 9/11 influenced. Obviously you had those tribute books and some really maudlin reactions that really pissed me off in the beginning from superhero-type things. But then you had Ultimates
and Civil War
that were clearly influenced by it. It's interesting, because I just read -- and this is where I'll get into trouble, because I try not to say anything bad about other creators or their work, mostly because who am I to say something? -- that new Truth book just came out from Image. The Big Truth
or The Big Lie
The Big Lie.
I bought it, and I'm mad at myself for buying it, because I knew it was going to get me mad. I applaud Image for publishing it, because who else has the balls to do that? And they're both creators I admire: Rick Veitch
and Gary Erskine
. That said, it was just horrifying to me.
I got some exposure to those Truther people when I did Unthinkable
. The idea of Unthinkable
-- in case the readers don't know what it is, and maybe this means I fall into the horrible 9/11 exploiter category even though I hope I don't -- but the idea of that came from real life, where after 9/11 people were saying "Oh my God, this is something like out of a Jerry Bruckheimer
movie or a Tom Clancy novel." The Department of Homeland Security took that really seriously, and formed a think tank made up of a screenwriters and novelists. Basically the idea was to come up with worst-case terrorist scenario, with the idea if that we come up with them before the terrorists do, then maybe we can do something about it before the terrorists implemented these plans.
My idea is what if a writer joined that think tank and then years later the ideas he came up with started to come true. For me it felt far enough away from it. In that universe I felt that 9/11 happened in the way it happened in this one. I had some things to say about -- whatever, this sounds terrible -- about geopolitics and terrorists. It allowed me to do the kind of espionage book I wanted to do. Looking back -- it's a couple of years now -- I wish I had executed it better.
This is what always pops up in Google, and I hate it, but something happened when I was in the middle of that series. The first issue was out and I have the script for the second issue. I had a very unusual flight path, because I was going to, of all things, a bachelor's party in Amsterdam. I was flying from LA to New York, then to Amsterdam, then to some other European cities, then to Vegas. It was definitely something that should have raised suspicions, and it did. They pulled me aside.
They saw the cover of Unthinkable
#1, which has like jihadists with AK-47s on it. Then they started reading the script. This was shocking to me. Every other word in #1 was "9/11" or "terror." So they detained me. They pulled me off to the side and questioned me about it. It's funny, looking back now, because I was trying to explain to them that a) comics could be about things other than superheroes, that was hard enough, and b) that people actually wrote comics [laughter], that the characters didn't make up the words themselves. That was quite a battle there.
I tweeted about it. That got me some press. There was some interest from Truthers in terms of doing this radio interview. That scared me. Right before I went on the air I started to look up the host and there was some really racist stuff there -- Obama with bones through his nose, and Zionist-occupied government stuff. I felt trapped into doing this interview, and it was really nerve-wracking. The point of all this being is that I'm familiar with the arguments the Truthers make, but they don't hold up to even the smallest amount of scrutiny. You can watch five minutes of Loose Change
and you have enough to pick apart all their arguments.
So it bothered me that this Big Lie
book came out and they're propagating this argument that's pretty demonstrably false the same way the birther argument was false. I don't think you have to be liberal to feel that way. I think most thinking people agree about that.
Beyond that, if you look in the back of the book it has the wall of 9/11 with all the names on it. There are names of people I know. That felt horribly exploitative. If you actually read the book, they keep hinting that Steven Spielberg is involved. I'm sure it's not what the creators intended, but somehow all these conspiracies come back to the Jews: that the Jews were warned not to be in the World Trade Center that day. I'm sure that's not what they mean, but just talking about a filmmaker named Steven, that's a signal they may not have intended but that's how I'm reading it. It gets me really mad.
I guess comics has changed to the point where I don't think that book would have been published at the same time as those 9/11 tribute books. Maybe that's a good thing in a certain way, that it's maybe now a little bit less sensitive of a topic. I don't know. I think this stuff just washes over society in general. The book that I thought handled 9/11 the best was Human Target
, a run called something like "The Tattered Man," an arc that had to do with somebody they thought had died in 9/11. I thought it was tasteful and kind of provocative, and that's a hard line to walk.
SPURGEON: Reading your two new books and comparing them to things like Grounded and Hazed and the Boom! book: you talked about your narcissism early on, but what struck me about these new books is how quiet your voice is -- how subsumed your personality is in these books. It's more Victor Fleming than Alfred Hitchcock, if that makes any sense.
SPURGEON: Is that in response to the narcissism we talked about an hour ago?
When you're talking about my narcissism, it sounds much worse than when I'm talking about it. [laughter] To be clear, it's not a response to other creators.
SPURGEON: Even your protagonists seem a bit different now. Very early on they're mostly classic underdogs. I couldn't connect the leads in Graveyard to anyone in Grounded, but I can kind of connect Grounded to your other, earlier characters.
I think it comes from a couple of things. As a screenwriter you're trained not to have that strong voice. It's a fluke that you'll get someone like Charlie Kaufman. You're taught, for better or for worse, that the director is the auteur
and you're supposed to subsume to his vision or the vision of the project. The latter is something I try to do. If I thought my authorial voice would enhance a project, and it was appropriate for it, I'd be happy to put it in. Believe me.
I feel like I don't want it to distract. In other creators' work I do feel it does distract. The place where I think it bothers me the most is when it's didactic and I feel like I'm being lectured to. Nothing will drive me crazier reading other people's comics than that. Not that many people do it, and even a lot of creators that I like do it. I probably end up falling prey to it, too. But I do wonder, and I hadn't thought about it until this point beyond that, that having Grounded
get published was such a transformational even in my life. Until that point, I'd had nothing really published -- maybe a couple of prose things in small literary journals. But that was it. I was mostly in school, not even really supporting myself. Maybe I view myself as a little bit less of an underdog than I did.
I really hadn't thought about, but thinking about Hazed
, I'm proud of that book in certain ways. I was really happy with what Robbie Rodriguez did with it. I like the fact that it's a subject you're not going to see -- sororities and eating disorders -- you're not going to see in any other comic book. But when I look back, the thing that bothers me -- and I don't think I've ever said this before -- I think my attitude towards women when I wrote that, and that's something that started out as a play when I was in grad school. It's even more dated -- it evolved past that -- but it's more dated than its publication date. My attitude towards women has I think, hopefully evolved for the better. I still think the book says some important things. Weirdly, it resonates more with women than men. But if I were to write that book today it would be very different.
The other thing is I always think of: you said Hitchock on one side, I think of Sidney Lumet on the other. His authorial voice was very subdued as well. As a result, he was able to work in a wide variety of genres, and do really good pictures. It's strange in that -- and this is something I discussed with Abhay -- I tend to like creators both in comics and in film that have that strong authorial voice. So maybe it's just the shyness in me that doesn't want to let it out.
I don't think you're the only that has a hard time connecting Hazed
to Graveyard of Empires
. While I'm very appreciative of the fact that I can tell three very different kinds of stories, it hurts me I think in terms of building an audience. I see this at comics convention all the time. They're like, "Oh, you're that guy. I didn't realize the same guy..." I also think it hurts with editors. They'll tend to latch onto that one -- not that editors are a bad breed of people [Spurgeon laughs] but if they get introduced to me by Hazed
, they're going to think that's the only kind of work I can do. And they're not going to consider me for other things.
Of my work for hire books, the thing I'm most proud of is this Two-Face Year One
thing that I did. That took Jeanine Schaefer -- who was a DC editor at the time, she's at Marvel now -- she'd only see me do Teen Titans
stuff, essentially. She moved over to the Bat Office. For her to say, "Okay, this guy wrote Teen Titans
; let's have him write this crime fiction story with only a few super-villain appearances." For her to make that leap as an editor to even give me that chance was such a huge deal. How a book is going to affect my branding as a writer is something I have to weigh a lot, and I don't like to do it, as a creator.
I think the work that I enjoy doing -- I enjoy it all -- but I feel like Graveyard
, those are the books that are mostly the kinds of stories I want to tell. I think Decoy
fits in that realm, too. More so than books like Grounded
or Rift Raiders
, which was a book that I did that was more in that tone. It makes me think while picking projects, "Should I say no to this, because it will put me back in the teen superhero ghetto?" I should say no to a project because it's either good or bad, not because of what the perception is. I feel like I may not have a choice. Again, it's one of these things that what I think is my best work is not necessarily the most-read work. I don't have much control over that than to just say no.
SPURGEON: So what is your best work, Mark? What should we buy?
is being reintroduced in trade, and I hope people pick it up. But t's hard to think of anything I'm more proud of than Graveyard
, Graveyard of Empires
from Image. I'm genuinely proud of it. I'm finishing up the last issue with Paul. I think it's his best as well. I don't feel like I'm being disingenuous with that.
I think Decoy
is very strong as well. The tone is lighter. Story structure is something I've always worked on very hard. In terms of character arcs, I don't think I've nailed it any better than in Decoy
. And Andy MacDonald's art is great. I really feel those books are the best things I've done so far. Lest I sound too in love with my writing, nothing I write meets my expectations for my work. Every time something new comes out I'm overjoyed at the art and I cringe at the writing. I hate going back and re-reading things, and I don't unless I have to. But yeah, Decoy
, in all sincerity I stand by those as the best two things I've written so far.
* Mark Sable
* panel from Graveyard Of Empires
* photo of the writer provided by the writer
* cover to an issue of Grounded
* panel sequence from an issue of Grounded
* part of day-in-life sequence in Graveyard Of Empires
#1 being discussed
* another Graveyard
* one of those Teen Titans
gigs that fell Sable's way after Grounded
* from Decoy
: Sable wouldn't being doing any of this with his LMD, no sir
* from Graveyard
* image from Unthinkable
* from Hazed
* another Decoy