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CR Holiday Interview #2 -- Scott Snyder
posted December 19, 2012
 

imageScott Snyder is the breakout writing star of DC Comics' Fall 2011 New 52 initiative. His work on Batman won readers over in an old-fashioned way that's almost completely absent from the mainstream comics world of the last quarter-century: given dozens of choices for comics behind which to throw their enthusiasm, DC's fans chose Snyder's work with Greg Capullo on Batman. For all the opportunities now coming his way, including the writing gig on a Superman-related effort with artist Jim Lee sure to be a sales highlight for 2013, Snyder is a relative babe in the woods in terms of the number of comics he's penned and the amount of time between when he started toiling in the monthly comics field and experiencing the surge of attention he's now received. Among his other key titles are the American Vampire series and one of the other New 52 efforts, the Swamp Thing relaunch. He'll soon depart the latter.

I think Snyder's skills are best seen in the well-received Batman work. As we discuss below -- and as critic J. Caleb Mozzocco and I will hopefully mull over in a future installment of this series -- I see Snyder's greatest strength as a skill for extremely deliberate pacing married to an offbeat sense of psychological insight into these characters. I think the former solves the problem of perceived value in that every one of Snyder's comics feels like something important is happening. I think the latter keeps that the material just fresh enough for another walk through these characters' primary stories. I enjoyed our brief discussion, transcribed below, and I hope to continue it in 2013. I have a lot of additional questions. I wish Scott all the best with the opportunities beginning to come his way. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I'm very excited to talk to you because I don't know that I've ever talked to someone in your exact position: where you're the guy in comics that's kind of coming on gangbusters, and people are really responding to your work. I wonder, do you have the chance to step back and appreciate that people are responding so positively? Is it fun?

SCOTT SNYDER: Yeah. It doesn't get old. It's definitely been a bit overwhelming, though, honestly. The work is on these characters you grew up loving. My kid goes around wearing a Batman t-shirt, and you go to the store and you see guys with Superman stuff on. So for me, you try and block a lot of that out, because it gets intimidating and paralyzing. When I first got the job to write Batman, my wife will tell you I was so terrified that the night before I really got to start writing I was like, "Maybe I should just call in sick all year." [Spurgeon laughs] Because the characters mean so much to you throughout your life that it can be crippling. So I try to block out a lot of the response.

I definitely go on Twitter and stuff like that right around the launch of each issue and try to promote it. And I get a glimpse of what people are saying, but you have to sort of put on horse blinders a bit, or it becomes pretty paralyzing, because you get overwhelmed by how much the fans love the characters themselves outside of the stories. It can be really hard to do your own versions and your own story and take it to a place where you can push the characters when you see how globally important they are to people.

SPURGEON: Is there any concern about people wanting to get to you as well? I have to imagine there are at least some professional opportunities that arise, and that more people want you to do things. How do you manage that sort of professional development side when you have a surge of interest like this?

SNYDER: [laughs] Poorly, I think, right now. My friends tease me -- I talk to guys that are sort of the generation above me that I'm friendly with, which is an honor, like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, and guys like that. And they're sort of like, "Who's your agent?" And I say, "I don't have one." I had a literary agent when I was in the book world I'm close with, but in terms of branching out of comics or doing something like that, as sort of naive and silly as it sounds, I'm not really looking for it right now. I really love doing this. I have a good bunch of stories I really want to do, both on Batman and on Superman and with American Vampire. My writing schedule is sort of so full for the next couple of years, I've kept my head down and stayed really involved with this. They're all making fun of me, so maybe in a year I'll talk to you again and I'll be more savvy about it, but right now I'm sort of overjoyed to be doing what I'm doing.

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SPURGEON: You're very early on in terms of the years you've been doing this and the number of comics that you've done. I wonder if there's still a significant learning curve, if there are still things you find yourself kind of scrambling to know. Are you confident in your skill set? Or are there still things you feel like, "I'd like to figure that out." Is there still an educational process for you?

SNYDER: Oh, 100 percent. Believe me, my friends tease me that I've become the least well-rounded person in the world. [Spurgeon laughs] I let my subscription to The New Yorker lapse by mistake. I let my subscription to the Times lapse. I read comics all the time. I've always loved comics and always read them religiously, but the reason I've been reading them so religiously lately is because there are so many good writers out there right now at DC and Marvel and I absolutely feel I have a lot to learn.

I read stuff like... well, like Geoff Johns' Aquaman. Geoff and I have become good friends over the last couple of years. Which is something I feel great about, I came up reading him and admiring him tremendously. But the way he approaches story and the way I approach story are really different, even though we meet in the same place and our priorities are the same about character and making sure the story really means something. But in terms of the priorities as we're writing, sometimes we come at it a little differently. There are things he does in a story that I am in awe of all of the time, in terms of the plotting, in terms of the moments he's able to create, in terms of the pacing. I read those issues and think, "I've got to become better at this." I want to be able to achieve the same effect he does at times.

Then there are other writers like Jason Aaron or Jeff Lemire, who have completely different skill sets when it comes to plotting these really big, ambitious arcs with the slow burn, emotionally. I read that, this longform storytelling not in terms of the plot but in terms of these simmering emotions, and I'm like, "I wish I were better at this." So I have certain elements in my skill set I'm very confident about, and proud of, but in terms of thinking I'm there, where I want to be, I think the moment you think that you start to slip, and I genuinely feel I have a lot to learn in my writing. Hopefully things get better.

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SPURGEON: Now do you have those conversations with you peers, and with those in the previous generation? Do you access them as kind of coaches and advice-givers?

SNYDER: Definitely. I literally was on the phone with Geoff Johns two nights ago and telling him about the next story we're doing in Batman and asking his advice on certain beats in it. Do you think this is something that's too bombastic? Do you think this is something that will sink the first part of the story because it's too dark? If Batman loses in this part, do you think in some way that will set a bad tone for the second part? Stuff like that. And like certain friends I've come up with, like Jeff Lemire for example, I trade everything with. We go back and forth pretty much every day. Then there are guys coming up beneath me. Like James Tynion, who's writing Talon with me, who is a former student of mine, I do the same thing with him. I help him with his stuff, but he also helps me in terms of being a great idea guy and a story repairman in a lot of ways, too. So you have friends that are incredibly important to you as a writer.

For me, it's not that you can't do it completely alone. If you were alone on an island and you had to write a Batman story, it's not like it wouldn't be something you're proud of. For me the real extra layers, the extra richness that come in anything I do, if there is an extra layer, comes from those conversations with friends, or having another set of eyes looking at it. So I'm a really big advocate of if you have friends, not just going to school for writing or anything like that, but having gone to school for writing clinging to people you trust to read your work. If you have a friend that you think gives you good advice, there's nothing more valuable than keeping that free flow of ideas going back and forth. For me, it's a real lifeline.

SPURGEON: Reading a bunch of your work at once, it seems to me that one thing you do really well in terms of your pacing is boil things down to very specific story beats, and then hit them really hard. It's not the old model, or even the thing you were talking about with a long-simmering element. It seems like your comics stress very strong moments, and that as a result you can kind of mark issue to issue in terms of "This happened then this happened then this happened." I think in a way it flatters the way comics work right now. Is that a storytelling goal of yours, to hit those beats really hard, to hit certain moments very hard. Is that something you try to do?

SNYDER: I think there are two priorities for me in each comic. The way that I design the story is to first figure out -- I'm a big planner. A good friend of mine in the prose writing world, if he knows the end of the story he's writing, he can't write it. It's really boring to him. He has to figure it out as he goes. And I'm 180 degrees from that. I need to know everything about the beginning and the end, and what it means, and a couple of major beats along the way. The rest I enjoy figuring out and that's my time to explore.

imageI try and figure out what's most exciting to me about the character I'm working on in their trajectory. We just finished the big Court of Owls story; Batman relied on the family heavily for that. It's interesting for me to think of the idea that whether or not he wants to admit it, he's become used to getting help from them. So I try to think, "Why is that interesting to me? What nerve does that hit?" I think to myself, "I have two sons, my second son is over a year old." When I started thinking of the story he was just born. For me the reason I think it hits a nerve, is because once you have family, or people you're responsible for, as a father or a father figure, you're almost never safe from the world. No matter how closed off you are, no matter how emotionally protective you are, there's no way to protect them or protect yourself from hurting when they're hurt. Once I had that I knew that the Joker's the guy to hear you think that, and be the devil's tongue in your ear and say, "I heard you say that you wish that you didn't have to worry about them anymore." And you say, "No, I didn't say that." "Yes you did, you don't want to admit it. You don't want to admit that you just wish they were dead and you could just go back to playing with me." I knew that that was it, that's what the story is about.

You can get some curveballs in comics. Sometimes things pop up that you have to include in your comics. Sometimes things get shortened because of schedules. To me the most important thing is knowing the thing that it's about. You can put characters in they need you to put in, you can change things, as long as you have that north star.

So with each comic -- sorry this is such a rambling answer -- the priority for the comic is to make sure that every issue pushes that emotional arc forward, that thing that it's about. So every issue of Batman with the Joker is about pushing Batman closer and closer to admitting that as long as the family exists he will never be safe. And having to admit that there's a part of himself that has mixed feelings about that. It's the toughest thing to admit. It doesn't mean you want your family dead. It doesn't mean you wish you never had them. They're the greatest joy of your life, when you're a father in real life. It does mean for Batman admitting something he doesn't want to and pushing him closer. So I make sure that every issue has a big moment like that, and that it's the most important thing in every issue. It means something. Each issue has a beat that ratchets that conflict up.

And then the second part, like you're saying, is every issue I really want to have significant plot moments that push the story closer to the kind of final conflict between Bruce and Joker on this particular issue. This particular issue -- not the issue of a comic, but whether or not he wants the family around. Those are the twin priorities with it. For me the plot, the moments, the big moments, as fun as they are, all come out of the emotional stuff. The plot moment's only good if it ratchets that up, but I try to keep my eye on that, too, so it's not just all Bruce being pushed emotionally, but that there are big movement, the wheels turn in the story in a way that pushes the plot forward.

I hope that makes sense.

The last thing I'll say is that I try to go back and make sure that there's at least one fun moment of Batman either technology or badassery. [Spurgeon laughs] One thing I feel you can lose sight of when you're doing stories that are personal, or are dark, is the joy of watching Batman kick ass in some regard. So I try to have something like, "Look at that device he whipped out." Or "Look at how he just kicked that guy through a wall." Just something that is like "It's fun to read Batman." Because it's fun to write Batman.

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SPURGEON: You were talking about American Vampire in an interview, and you mentioned how you could place your characters in different time periods where there were things going on with those characters, and that this change provided insight into what your psychological keys might be. People and situations change over time. It struck me that when you're talking about these commercial properties like Batman, they don't really develop over time, not in that same way. Are you worried that there's a limited canvas with these major properties, that they might not take an endless series of psychological insights being they are what they are?

SNYDER: Well, it depends if you mean for me personally as a writer, or if you mean culturally. Because culturally, Batman's already been around for 70-plus years, Superman's been around the same. So I'm not worried --

SPURGEON: But what about you personally? If it has to interest you, can you always come up with new material? Do you wonder if it will always stay as interesting to you as it is right now.

SNYDER: Yeah, I 100 percent do. I had this conversation the other day, literally, with Lemire. I was like right now I have stories in mind for Batman that take me through another almost two years of writing Batman. But the last thing I would ever want to do is stay on the character if I didn't have a story as exciting to me as the Joker story is, or the one coming up afterward. The one coming out afterward I can't talk about openly, but it's another big, nine-issue, epic story. So in that way, if I don't have one of those lined up, or I can't think of one that means as much to me personally as these, I will happily walk away from the character. In a moment. That's one thing I swear to everybody. Batman means too much to me -- and Superman and Swamp Thing, too -- to stay on the character once I don't have a story that's important to me personally. I do worry about it. But luckily right now I have plenty on my plate.

SPURGEON: Here's a place where you and I might not connect. What is the personal significance that something like Batman has for you? You talk about the cultural significance of it, and there's certainly a psychological trigger these characters afford in terms of letting you access things that are important to your life. But the character itself, how is it important to you? Are characters like that just a means to a narrative end?

SNYDER: No. They have personal importance to me in different ways. Because they're such different characters they mean different things to me. Batman himself means a particular set of important things to me. I think in some ways as someone that struggles with dark times, psychologically at different points in my life, the idea that Batman is someone that has this incredibly complicated blend of self-destructive, obsessive mythology and ultimate heroism is endlessly inspiring and interesting. He clearly is someone who is one of the greatest if not the greatest self-sacrificing heroes ever. And yet at the same time there's something really pathological about the way he behaves. That sort of rich, complicated gray area is something that hits a nerve personally with me. That's someone that doesn't have powers and stands next to these god-like figures and through this incredible drive and determination is the one they look to for answers sometimes. But at what cost?

imageSo he's always been someone for me, and this is something that comes up honestly in a big way in the next story we're dealing with, as someone who walks a fine line between obsession and mission, altruistic mission. There's no separating them without destroying the character. That's part of what's so wonderful about him, those things are intertwined, always, and that's why villains like the Joker are so potent and his rogues gallery is so potent is that they're all extensions of something he's psychologically afraid of in himself but won't admit. The crazy duality of his life in Two Face, or the fall into insanity if he fell into his cave and never was Bruce Wayne, the Joker, that fear that he's not good enough because part of him is human and fallible, in the Riddler, that he can't always be smart enough, he can't always know everything. In those ways, those villains have an incredibly resonant element to them, each one separately in an individuated way, because Bruce is flawed in a most heroic and interesting way of all of these characters. When you're growing up you like him for different reasons. He's cool, he has amazing cars and incredible gadgets and if only this girls knew I was a superhero... but I think when I try to explore for myself now writing him why he's interesting to me now, it's that. He's endlessly fascinating for the blend of pathology and heroism that makes him who he is. I think it makes him intimidating as well as a character.

I hope that makes sense.

Superman as a kid you live because of the powers and he's the strongest and he's the best. When I write him as an adult, you have to figure out what you've always loved about him to write the character. Me personally, not everybody, but I have to figure it out. I have to figure out what matters to me about them right now. It's an extension of this core thing. Each Batman story I have done is about this heroism versus pathology core that makes me interested in him. With the Court Of Owls, are you so obsessed with the notion that you know the city that you can't see the forest for the trees? What's going to happen when the city lets you know you don't know it at all?

With Superman for me it's really this notion of restraint. He's a superhero that in some ways can't do what he's capable of doing without becoming the villain. Meaning Superman could reshape the world however he wanted. He could take down countries. He could sculpt the political landscape however he wanted. But he looks to us to do that and serves a different mission. It's tremendously painful for him as well. As proud and as inspired as he is, I think the heroism comes from that restraint and how much he admires the human race. That's kind of at the core of the story we're doing with Superman. So for me I try to figure out what's at the core of the hero that's interesting to me. That doesn't mean that they're interesting to other people. That might not be the core of Batman for Frank Miller or Alan Moore. But you have to figure out where your interests are. Or I feel they're empty stories. That's not to say anyone needs to follow my example as far as how to proceed. That's just how I proceed. If I don't figure those things out and build a story out of that core material I don't feel it resonating for me, and I can't do it.

SPURGEON: I want to ask you about your educational background, which is fascinating to me.

SNYDER: Sure.

imageSPURGEON: You have an undergraduate's degree in writing and a master's in same, which isn't really common in comics. A lot of the British writers in particular either didn't continue with school or dropped out at some point. Comics is dealing with the prejudices towards being educated in art right now as comics programs proliferate. More and more people are heading into prose writing programs with the thought of doing comics as well. I assume your education had value to you, and provides the core of your skills. You still teach. I wonder if you could talk about what your education as a writer has meant for you. I think it's something people still have a problem understanding. Why didn't you just start writing, Scott?

SNYDER: For me, there are two sides to it. There's why it was really important to me in the classes as a student, and then why it's really important for me to keep with it as a teacher even though I'm completely an idiot for doing it, time-wise. I just signed up to do it again next semester at Sarah Lawrence, teach a comics-writing class in their graduate program. I don't know why. I mean I know why.

SPURGEON: Why?

SNYDER: As a student, I think first, the reason it was so important to me is that I wanted to be around other people that were excited about the same things that I was. I wanted to be around people that were inspired by writing and by stories the way I was with Stephen King and all these stories I found as a kid in high school. That wanted to talk about these things, and explore them. I didn't know where to find that until I started taking classes. As soon as I got to college, one of the reasons I picked Brown was that it had a creative writing major, and it was close to the Rhode Island School Of Design. I had this fantasy I would go there and take art classes and do a comic where I was writing it and drawing it. I wasn't bad, honestly, as an artist. I had a portfolio. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't think I was good enough. I was disappointed because the schedule there made it hard to take classes at both at the same time. There was a trimester program and a semester program.

The point is when I got to college and I started taking writing classes, it was so inspiring in that regard. You found people that had grown up feeling the same way, loving comics or loving books or being interested in playwriting. Storytelling. Finding people that were in love with story the same way. Finding writers you could show your stuff to and trust editorially. Having that same camaraderie. To this day two of my closest friends that I show things to are from my college writing workshop.

I felt like I was getting so much better, too. You're in an environment where the other really important part of taking a class if you can -- and not everybody needs to go to school for this at all -- but the benefit of why it was helpful to me is that if you have a deadlline to turn something in every week it trains you not to be so precious about your writing. That's one of the the keys to me of becoming a writer. I tell that to all my students. You can't be afraid of writing something shitty. That's the excuse. You say, "I'm going to wait until I'm inspired." Or "I'm not going to do it today." The talent isn't as uncommon as you might think, in my opinion. I've seen people go from not being that good, honestly, at least what I thought of them in class as a peer, to being phenomenal because of hard work. You can learn how to write as a trade. That doesn't mean everyone has that capacity. But most people have the capacity to write within the skill level necessary to write professionally -- to some degree, if they're willing to put in the time.

The thing I think people don't take seriously with writing a lot of the time is that you have to train -- at least I did -- the way you train for most careers. Where you're writing every day. If you're going to school for medicine, you're in that field every day. That takes sacrifices as you get older. You're not the guy going to your high school reunion with a secure job. You're the guy going there tutoring and waiting tables and working at Starbucks because you're trying to write.

I graduated from college with a degree in it, and I went to grad school for it. It was really for the same thing. It was just that it keeps you on deadline, it trains you to prioritize your day, and it gives you space to do it if you can. For me it was sort of like, "This is your job." You're writing. You're not going to an office. It was about learning to write from 9 to 4. This is my job. I'm not doing that, with this on the side.

As a teacher, the thing that's so important at least for me is the values I learned in that environment as a student and in writing classes is that there are no parameters of what you can write and what you can't. You could go into that class and you can hand in anything you wanted. There was no directive: "You have to write about this." The priority was to write a story you can come in and feel proud of. I had some great teachers that said I could write whatever I wanted as long as I was happy with it. The rule of the class I teach, when I was teaching prose, now that I'm teaching comics, it's the same thing: you can only write the story you want to pick up and read more than any other one right now. It doesn't have to be the smartest, it doesn't have to be the best. It can be anything you want. It has to be something you're passionate about.

When I teach, even at the level where I'm at now in comics, where the stories I'm writing have a lot of pressure on them and they're tied into these iconic characters and you have a lot of people looking at them, when you tell students that and you see how brave they are about coming back with stories that are intensely personal about traumatic events in their lives, and other times incredibly whimsical and experimental, but still brave for being that, you go home and you think, "What an asshole I would be if I didn't follow the same rule, and write the next story for Batman or Superman or my own stuff that's the one I'd like to read even if it's not the smartest or the best." It keeps me young as a writer to be a teacher. And inspired. It keeps you hungry -- at least for me it does. It's also a great place to meet people that maybe one day you'll be able to bring into the industry, if they keep up with it and are serious about it. The guy I"m writing Talon with, James Tynion, he does the back-ups in Batman, he was a student of mine at Sarah Lawrence. He kept sending scripts and kept writing, and when there was an opportunity to bring someone in on the back-up, I thought it'd be a great chance.

For me it's a really important part of my writing background. It keeps me on the straight and narrow to be able to go in and tell the students, "These are the priorities of the class." And to come home and apply those priorities to my own writing.

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* Scott Snyder
* Batman
* Swamp Thing
* American Vampire
* Announcement of Superman Project

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* Batman image from the initial run with the character in the New 52 initiative
* three different scenes from Snyder's Batman comics, or I hope that's what they are; the third is the Batman "family" he refers to -- characters that have been trained by or inspired by Batman that help him out from time to time and kind of operate in his sphere of influence
* a dialogued scene from American Vampire
* Batman: the character
* a panel from his Swamp Thing run
* Batman doesn't want to hear it (below)

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* my thanks to Alex Segura and Pamela Mullin for setting this up

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