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Home > CR Interviews

A Short Interview With Ed Brubaker
posted August 27, 2006
 

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I've known the the writer Ed Brubaker for about a dozen years, first as a cornerstone of the Seattle comix scene of the mid-1990s I'd bump into at parties and eventually as a smart, funny, far-away voice over the phone and through e-mail that happens to be an emerging star in American mainstream comics. After years of assiduous attention to his craft exhibited in making a variety of well-regarded genre comics, he's currently enjoying one of those "Hey, look at that" runs that happens every so often with a comics creator at a Marvel or a DC, as you watch them bounce from successful project (Captain America) to successful project (Daredevil). His latest project is a straight-up crime comic with Sean Phillips called Criminal. It may be the best thing he's ever done.

Brubaker has been a whirling dervish of activity in terms of promoting this new series to retailers and readers alike through seemingly every press avenue available to him. I was happy to be among those on his long list, and appreciate his hard work on and attention to the following.

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TOM SPURGEON: Other than the heist picture, I'm largely unfamiliar with the type of stories that will be a part of Criminal. Can you give me a guided tour of the landscape of your influences?

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ED BRUBAKER: In a way, the stories of Criminal are the end result of all my influences, I think. Combined with what I hope is my own voice, and the themes that I tend to explore. But I was just reading through the first issue yesterday, and it really feels like a natural evolution of my interests and influences. There's comics influences like Love and Rockets, in the way the characters all live in a fictional city and all know each other, with this past that's always hinted at, and there's Sinner, which has been stuck in my head for almost 20 years now. But there's also stuff like Get Carter and Point Blank, and Harry in Your Pocket, these great late '60s early '70s crime films. There's a bit of the feel of the Blaxploitation era, to the city, even, the way Sean [Phillips] draws it.

The kinds of stories we'll be putting all these characters through, though, run the gamut from the heist caper, to the revenge story, to the man on the run story, and even beyond that to the sort of meta-noir innocent man caught in a web of crime story. Criminal is really a vehicle for me to write any kind of crime story that attracts me at that moment. But in this weird way, even though I'm working very hard on the plots, to make them shocking and tense, I feel like the plots are almost secondary to the characters we've been creating, and the world, and even the mood. That's the thing I always liked best about Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, or David Goodis, was the mood created by their writing. The way the world felt, even when it's just in your head as you read and imagine it. So, I've been really thinking about that throughout this whole process, trying to nail that mood. It's something that's almost more akin to music, than to comics, most of the time. But that's what I see when I look at [Sinner illustrator Jose] Munoz's art, I see a mood. I see emotion. I'm striving for that.

What really spurred me, what got me off my ass to actually do this book finally, though, was something very recent -- Shane Black's movie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Shane Black was a huge Hollywood screenwriter, who was a good writer, but whose movies generally stunk a bit. So he quit writing for other directors, and made his own crime movie, and it blew me away. It's funny, it's modern, and it's classic, all at once. I saw this movie, and I just went, I have got to do Criminal. I have to open these old notebooks and dig into these stories and really do it. If not now, when? Right?

SPURGEON: A lot of crime authors create their worlds through attention to detail. What kind of research have you done for the book?

BRUBAKER: It's been more world-building through the characters and locations, and the tone of the work than through research. I did do a fair amount of research about the art of picking pockets, but since it's a comic, most of that isn't that important, I realized once I saw it drawn. Still images of people lifting wallets don't have the same impact as moving ones do. Right now I'm researching Delta Force for the second story arc, but it's not really changing anything.

I tend to use research backwards, though. I figure out what I want to do, then research it, and if the research doesn't match what I want to do, then I jettison the research and just write my fiction. I read some interview with James Ellroy once where he was asked how much research he did, and he said "As little as I can get away with." Which made me laugh, because his stuff is so densely researched, it seems, but I kind of feel the same way. I'm constantly reading about stuff and talking to cops around my neighborhood, and watching documentaries, but I never think of it as research, it's just adding up in my head, and becoming part of my fiction.

SPURGEON: In terms of what you're bringing to the project, what difference is it making in the writing of the books that you're doing it right now rather than when you were making those notes?

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BRUBAKER: Well, I hope I'm a better and more efficient writer now, since I'm four or five years older, and have been writing three to five comics a month that whole time. But I think the longer you sit on a story idea, the better, really.

Ross Macdonald, who's about my favorite mystery writer, used to fill notebooks with plot outlines and character notes, and then set them aside for years at a time. I think he said the longest time between starting a notebook and starting the manuscript based on it was like 13 years, and that was one of his best books. He said once you start a story, even in a notebook, the pieces keep bouncing around in your head, and the characters keep developing and changing, even though you're not consciously thinking about them. And I really believe that to be true, now that I'm working on Criminal. I have a hard time describing what the book is, but in my head, the characters and the world are so fully-formed that I think it's because I'm just too close to it. But when I start to write their narration and dialog, they just come right to life for me, because they've been in my head all these years.

SPURGEON: Can I take it that you're allowing the themes to develop out of plot and narrative rather than seeking to explore something explicit right out the gate?

BRUBAKER: Yeah, I think you never completely know what your themes are as you write. You have some ideas you want to explore, and some characters you want to use to do that, but it's only afterwards that you see what you're talking about, at least sometimes. Like, it wasn't until our Comics Journal interview, when you pointed out to me how much of my writing was about these artificial families that people create around themselves, to make up for the fucked up ones they were born into, that I ever realized I did that all the time.

But with Criminal, one of the things that is clear to me, is why the three main characters are there -- they all have a very specific history together, that we'll eventually learn, and they all became who they are now because of the way they respond to a tragedy that happened when they were teenagers. This one event shaped who they became, whether they realize it or not, and so that's something I know is back there, being explored a little with each story. It's even hinted at in the back-up stories.

SPURGEON: In Sleeper, you dealt in some ways with making moral choices in a very constrictive setting: one protagonist, underlying heroic aims, exaggerated threat to both the mission and the lead. This seems a lot more wide open. Will Criminal perform the same kind of moral explorations or, given the array of choices you now have, is that not something that you think you'll get into as heavily? If it is, how is the moral landscape different?

BRUBAKER: It's kind of the inverse, really. Sleeper was about a good guy pretending to be a bad guy, and wondering if it mattered or made a difference. If the person inside was more important than the actions he did undercover. A very Mother Night kind of dilemma. But in Criminal, it's about people who live outside the law, who are technically bad guys, but who are not all that bad. Who have a moral code ingrained in them that makes them somehow less scumbaggy than the people they know.

SPURGEON: How much of Criminal will be about subverting established genres, or the expectations of the readers? It seems a key to how you've shaped your first story has been the choices you've made for Leo, such as his desire for self-preservation.

BRUBAKER: Exactly. I've felt for a long time that most of the criminals we see in movies, and even in comics when there are crime comics, are really over the top with all the violence, and this sort of careless disregard for the idea of consequences. It's like the characters know their story ends soon, so they don't worry about going to prison or killing people. It's cool when Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark) does it with the Parker novels, but people forget that Parker got his face changed after the first book. He's not just this killing machine with no thought of consequences. So, when looking at that, for the first Criminal story, I wanted to try to twist that around, and have a criminal who is the opposite. Who's very careful, who walks away from fights, who doesn't care if people think he's a pussy. Because he's a survivor, he's a professional, and he never wants to go to jail. If you were a real professional criminal, part of your job is being smart enough not to get caught, I figure, and having spent a few days in jail in my youth, I know no one really wants to be there.

So yeah, that was part of where Leo came from, this desire to do a different kind of lead character. But his story, while subverting some of the noir conventions, still goes right to one of the main themes of good noir, which is the darkness and violence that exists inside us, and what we really fear. And that's kind of what I want to do with the book, to twist the cliches of the genre in different and more interesting directions (more interesting to me, I mean) and use that to come at it from a different angle.

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SPURGEON: The first Criminal cover is very reminiscent of lurid, painted crime pulp paperbacks. Are there more specific influences at work there? How important to the book are things like cover design, the look of the characters, even the way the book is "shot" in terms of shadows and close-ups and the like, and how cognizent of you are referencing older material to achieve some of these effects?

BRUBAKER: It's very conscious, especially in the art. For one thing, that's some of the things that Sean does best, darkness and shadows, smoky barrooms. And for the interiors, he's been going for an almost European style, taking my script and adding more panels to almost every page, to really get into the characters and their expressions, and to also box them in, I think. The cover for the first issue is me forcing Sean to go for a Robert McGinnis look, though, with all those loose lines and rendering. On the next few covers, he tries to maintain the same mood and feel, but it looks more like his style, I think, and I actually like them better than the first one, in some ways. But I really wanted us, right out of the gate, to leap off the shelves as something that looked different from the average comic cover. And Sean came up with the idea of making each one a wraparound, which I think is brilliant, because it gives him more space to show off. I wanted the entire design to look like an old crime novel, right down to the logos and dead space, but Sean shot that down, rightly. He said he didn't mind if there was a bit of a retro vibe to the way the packaging was, but he didn't want to just ape old designs. That's why we've got such a leaping out at you logo, and our names are there in bold.

SPURGEON: You're using a very rigid three-tier structure, with a lot of variation in each tier. So many comics get a lot of power out of full-page or two-thirds page panels -- why did you make the choice you did?

BRUBAKER: To try to fit in as much story as possible into each issue. It's a more European idea, probably, but I think it works well for a story like this. Sean decided to stick with the three tiered structure, though, which is different from the free-flowing layouts he used previously, and I think that tight structure actually makes his work jump out more. And that grid structure is so adaptive to what you want to do, while at the same time being easy for anyone to understand, even the comics neophyte.

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SPURGEON: How much of how the sequences are designed is you and how much is Sean? Like on page 14, there's this startling panel transition where you break a single picture shared with the first panel. What were you trying to do there?

BRUBAKER: That was actually all Sean. I think my script described that panel as sort of panning over to the rain hitting the window behind him, because I thought that image and the narrative would work well together, but when I got that page and saw how he'd done that, just dividing a single image to give that beat, I just thought, brilliant. This is why I work with Sean so much, because his storytelling is so subtle and evocative. Plus, on almost every page, he adds a panel or two, dividing one moment into two, and it's giving us this very noir claustrophobic vibe, which is perfect.

SPURGEON: How did you come up with your bar setting? The bar is such a classic noir place; were you drawing on anything specific in making yours?

BRUBAKER: Well, I knew there needed to be a location that would be in every story, no matter whose story it was, so a bar seemed really obvious. Then, I started mulling it over, and I thought, definitely a bar that's below street level, like this one that Steve Weissman and I used to hang out at in San Francisco, the Cafe Du Nord. And then I came up with the name, the Undertown, but with the N on the sign burned out, so it's the Undertow, which is a pretty blatant metaphor. Metaphors are usually stupid anyway, so why not be blatant with them, I figure. The other thing I was drawing from for the Undertow, though, was my memories of Munoz and [Carlos] Sampayo's Joe's Bar book, which now, going back and rereading it, is totally different than I remember, but I always loved the feel of that, and wanted to include something like it. It really goes a long way to helping create the right mood for the world, to have the Undertow in there, and Gnarly behind the bar, reading the funnies.

SPURGEON: The black and white's beautiful, especially considering the art's to be colored. How involved are you with color? Can you describe what it's like to make this kind of material work in color?

BRUBAKER: Well, I hooked up Sean with Val [Staples], and I give a few notes, here and there, but it's really all Sean and Val on that end. Val is a guy who I worked with on an X-Men project, and liked his stuff, and felt he was really versatile, so I asked him if he'd be interested, and told him we'd be wanting more simple, muted colors, nothing too rendered, like you see a lot of these days. Then he and Sean used the trailer to sort of figure out the color scheme and tone for the series. It's important to us that the color still maintain the noir mood, even in the daylight scenes, and Val understands that, and is always willing to do what he can to make Sean happy with his work. It's been a very pleasant experience, because we're all on the same page, and Val is a complete pro. He's even packaging the book for press because he used to be a publisher and knows how to make sure everything prints right.

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SPURGEON: Whose idea was it to work in establishing shots? They're lovely in and of themselves, but what is it you're trying to accomplish with those -- are they narrative breaks, or do they add to a certain kind of storytelling rhythm?

BRUBAKER: It's both. I always use establishing shots a lot in my stuff, but yeah, it changes the tone and the rhythm of your narrative, gives you that brief beat before the next scene. That's just something I've carried over from film, really. And with Criminal, especially since there's so much tension and tight shots on people, I wanted Sean to have these moments to just open up and show these panoramic shots of the city and the trains, just get across the grime and decay. It's something he's so good at, and that way I can let my narrative wander a bit as we show these wider shots.

SPURGEON: How do you use voice-overs without over-using them?

BRUBAKER: God, I don't know. I think it's more instinctive, probably. If you're worried you've used them too much, you probably have. There's a line in an old Steve Martin movie, the one about LA people, where some woman says her theory of dressing up to go out was all about closing your eyes in front of the mirror, and then when you open them, whatever piece of clothing you notice first, you get rid of. It's kind of like that with narration sometimes. If it jumps out at you, it might be best to jettison it. As a rule, I try not to use too much narrative in scenes with dialog, but I go more by instinct with it, really, just trying to remember to let the pictures narrate the story, too, because Sean does that so well, that he should have room to do it.

SPURGEON: Now that you're somewhat along in writing these books, can you pinpoint the relevance the idea of being a criminal has right now, as opposed to the post-war era, or the 1970s Donald Goines period? Can you contrast what makes your book different for having been written now than books working roughly the same areas might have said in the past?

BRUBAKER: I think that it's a different world in so many ways really changes it. Even though it's not a main topic of the story, in the first arc, while pulling the heist, our gang uses the war on terror to help create a diversion. And I think that little part, reminding readers of the reality around them, adds something. But I also think that this world we're living in right now, with the war in Iraq feeling a lot like Vietnam, the government wire-tapping us and looking at our library records, the internet being used for identity theft, and this sort of creeping fear and paranoia that more and more people have, this "Big Brother is watching and manipulating" feeling that's so much in the air, helps create an atmosphere that's very conductive for crime fiction.

I mean, when the system is this screwed up, on all ends, who doesn't want to read about people who live outside of it, or who fight it, or who just hate it as much as them? It kind of feels like the 70s and 80s again, really, but just with a lot better technology. So, I think that's helped me get to what I wanted to create, that early '70s era crime film look and feel, because you see it now in the cities. The urban sprawl turning to decay, people suffering, war on TV. You put on Marvin Gaye in the background, and it doesn't sound out of place, you know? I just read that this year already set the record year for murders in the US since the mid-80s or something like that. This is a good era to set crime fiction in.

SPURGEON: You just mentioned improved technology. A follow-up to the research question: do you specifically worry about keeping the work smart by nailing down possibilities like the kind of equipment that would be used? I know it's awful when you're in a movie and something vital to the plot would be solved by, say, a cell phone call and conveniently no one has one. Is it scary to step away from fantasy a bit where these kind of story points can be solved literally by making something up?

BRUBAKER: Yeah, I can remember my wife and I just rolling our eyes at the last half of 24 this year because Jack Bauer keeps calling all these important people on his cell phone and not playing this hugely important recording for any of them, or even just recording it into his voice mail. Technology has made crime fiction and suspense very difficult. So, yeah, I am definitely thinking about it as I work. But I'm not going to let it ruin my fun.

SPURGEON: Is it harder in comics than in other forms to escape the dominant paradigms? When American readers encountered Judge Dredd, for instance, it's said that many of them had a hard time accepting him as anything other than a straight-up hero, 100 percent right in his decisions and always admirable. Is there a danger to the story you're trying to tell in people seeing your characters as noble anti-heroes or some other commmon-to-comics construction? Are comics readers ready for what you're going to be saying with your work?

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BRUBAKER: God, I don't know. I sure hope so. I'm lucky enough, I think, in that most of the mainstream stuff I'm known for is about flawed characters who are already on the edge a bit -- even Cap and Daredevil are a bit like that, and my Catwoman stuff was pretty risky, and dealt with a lot of fractured people and the things they went through. But I think the key is that even if your characters do bad things, or make the wrong decisions, as long as you make them decent underneath it all, people will still identify somehow. And the US reading market loves outlaws anyway, they're part of our history. Even guys like Jesse James, who was one of Quantrill's Raiders, so probably not the most sympathetic character in real life, is considered a heroic figure in Western fiction. They're not used to things like Judge Dredd, where you have to understand the British sensibility to get it. Still, I have my doubts that a series about a bunch of criminals will ever be a top seller, but it doesn't really have to be for us to continue doing it. It just needs to sell decently, and I think there's a good enough market here for that.

SPURGEON: Let's talk about marketing. You've really put yourself out there on this series. At what point did you come to the conclusion that you would have to put a lot into marketing and promoting this book, and what factor convinced you that would be so?

BRUBAKER: I knew from the start, really, that I'd have to bust my ass on this book as much as I could, just simply to get word out that it exists, in the face of the wall of noise generated by the Previews catalog every month. I knew I'd have a leg up on most, since Criminal is coming from Marvel, and I'm on some big projects there, but I also knew that I couldn't just sit back and let the catalog and press release be all we do. I mean, I was talking to [Brian] Bendis about this a few months back, and he was telling me he meets readers all the time who say they're his biggest fan, and yet they've never heard of Powers. So, that was sort of the sign that you can never talk about it too much, when you've got a creator-owned book.

SPURGEON: I know that you've been very active with the PDFs, and with interviews. Can you break down how you've approached this marketing task, what things you're trying? Have all of them seem to gone well so far?

BRUBAKER: Right now I'm in the "preordering" phase of the marketing. This started even before the announcement of the book, but since then, has picked up considerably. My job with this phase is to make sure as many readers and DM retailers know about Criminal and have seen the preview, as humanly possible, by the time initial orders are due. I'll keep pushing after that, but this is the current goal. The more readers and retailers that have seen the preview, or read an interview, or listened to a podcast, the better chance of more stores carrying the book on their shelves. That's where I want to be. I don't just want special orders like we got before, and always hearing from readers who can't find it. I want to be on the retailers shelves next to Daredevil, which has been selling like crazy the last six months.

So, I'm doing a ton of interviews and podcasts, learning to exploit myspace, I did a huge direct mail-out to a bunch of retailers with a limited edition ashcan of the preview. And then, on top of that, I've been enlisting as much of my fanbase as I can to email the PDF around, and post it places, and about 50 or 60 of them actually printed out copies to take to their retailers personally, for them to preview on the counter instore. The grassroots have really come out for this one, it seems like. A few people even wrote to me that they printed the whole preview in the college paper, and another guy works at a print shop and made hundreds to give away from his town. People really seem to want to pitch in and be our street team, which is more than awesome, really.

Oh, and I almost forgot, but the entire five-page teaser is in Walking Dead #30, out next week, in full color, and that book is one of the more popular non-superhero books out there right now. [Robert] Kirkman, the guy who does it, just volunteered to run it for us to help out. So, like I said, people are really being awesome about this. I feel like a lot of people want us to succeed here.

So, once we get past the pre-order phase, I'll move onto the release phase, which will be primarily concerned with trying to get articles in various weekly and daily papers around the country, and sending out advance review copies. I'll also continue working the internet during this phase, too, as usual, but print articles are essential to getting the word out once the book is coming out. I've already got a few set up, and starting to put out feelers for more.

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SPURGEON: Why target the retailers in addition to the readers?

BRUBAKER: It's really simple, if retailers don't order the book for their shelves, it's going to fail. Retailers are the ones who actually do the ordering, and I need them to want to order Criminal. I honestly think we're giving them a quality book that my fanbase on Daredevil and Cap, and all my previous stuff will dig, but I need to make sure Criminal is on their radar when they're ordering, and that they remember how their DD sales are going up every month, and how my other stuff is selling for them. So, those are the people you have to convince, and I've been doing what I can to get Criminal under their noses all month, which has gone over really well, actually. It's really gratifying when you send a package out to a bunch of retailers and you hear back from them that they loved the stuff, and they're upping their orders because of it. I just wish I could've reached more of them than I did.

SPURGEON: What kind of insitutional support do you receive from Marvel? Do they make marketing information available to you?

BRUBAKER: Completely. Jim McCann and David Gabriel have been essential to all my decisions, and David has been the voice of reason when he needed to be, too, when I wanted to do crazy things that would cost way too much money. And Jim has helped set-up a fair amount of print coverage already. And just getting into their catalog in the first place gets you seen by so many more stores than you normally get with a creator-owned genre book. And across the top of the solicitation its screaming the names of Sean and my hit books from Marvel, just in case. But the bottom line is, retailers simply react better when they hear from me and Sean directly. It's great to publish at Marvel, and great that they're helping push the book, but ultimately, what's going to sell the book is me out there talking to retailers and readers. Marvel's letting me push Criminal in the letters pages of my other books, which is pretty cool, since it's a creator-owned book. You don't always get that kind of cooperation to promote this kind of book in one of the company-owned books, but Marvel aren't so uptight about it, which is great.

SPURGEON: At its core, what is it you're selling to the retailers? New Brubaker/Phillips comic? Crime genre? Excellence? Do you even have the luxury of boiling it down to a single type of pitch?
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BRUBAKER: I wish I were better at coming up with a one sentence pitch, honestly. I think that's why we did the teaser thing, because I knew that I needed to physically show people what we were going to do, instead of just telling them, "It's a heist story, but it's really a character study and an examination of violence in our society, and snoooooreee...." I get my head too far up my ass sometimes when I talk about writing, because I'm much more an instinctive writer than someone who plans out every detail and has a high concept hook-line to shout out.

So yeah, what we're selling is us, basically, doing a book I think is better than anything else either of us has ever done... and doing a crime comic, which was once the dominating genre of the field, briefly. I guess the hook is that America loves a cool outlaw, and that's what this book is about, noble outlaws, and the people they kill.

SPURGEON: Is selling the work in Europe a possibility? I would assume by what little I know of the Icon contracts that you retain those rights.

BRUBAKER: Oh yeah. I haven't signed the contracts yet, but we've secured a deal with one of the largest publishers in France, who is very enthusiastic about the book, and who is going to be our agent for selling the material all over the world, outside the US, Canada, and the UK. I'm pretty excited about that aspect, actually, because I think we'll do really well over there with this kind of material.

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SPURGEON: Now, how do your efforts change when the first few books are released?

BRUBAKER: I don't know yet. Hopefully, if the book sells well enough, I'll be able to just concentrate on the writing and packaging of it, and just keep communicating with readers and retailers, but not on the crazy level it's been. Word of mouth tends to work better than anything, and we've already got lots of that, so I hope it'll only continue once the book is out. Getting the book out regularly, and having good buzz is the best promotion, really. But I've got a plan to make up some shelf-talkers to send to stores on my list, which should continue to grow.

SPURGEON: When will you know if your marketing efforts have been successful? What measuring stick are you going to use?

BRUBAKER: Survival, plain and simple. I am somewhat optimistic about things, but I'm also a realist, and I have a bottom line that we need to hit for me to be able to pay Sean and Val for their work, and if I can hit that, I'll happily write the book for free and just wait to get paid from the trades. Of course, I'd rather we do great with it and I could get paid too, but this is a dream project for me, so it's not about the money. But books like Fell and Walking Dead have proven to me that retailers will support quality independent genre books when they know about them, so I think we can do well if we get to enough retailers.

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Mr. Brubaker's Web Site
A Blog Devoted to All Things Criminal

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Criminal and all imagery are © 2006 Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips -- save for the photo which is Whit Spurgeon's.