Home > CR Interviews
An Interview With Ed Brubaker (2004)
posted September 2, 2006
In the midst of preparing for publication last week's Ed Brubaker interview that focused on his brand new comic series Criminal
, it dawned on me that I had on a hard drive somewhere another, longer interview with the popular writer that originally ran in the Comics Journal
about two years ago.
My thinking in putting it up today is that not only would it make a fine companion piece to the shorter interview, as Brubaker talks about a lot of the same issues from a decidedly different perspective, but it would be a fine piece to roll out on a holiday weekend as opposed to something brand new and perhaps publicity dependent that might suffer more than something classic from any slight dip in traffic caused by people being at the beach or the park.
I kind of fell into doing this interview. TCJ
Editor Gary Groth stalled on his Brubaker talk after covering the early days, and turned this over to me to complete five years later. Gary's contribution ran in front of this one as it was printed in the Journal
and is owned by Gary and the Journal
, so it is not republished here. One thing I remember about doing the interview was that Ed sent me a large package of books covering the breadth of his post-Lowlife
career; I read and then idiotically returned them, so for art on this piece you'll have to do with covers. I enjoyed talking to Ed very much, and I was pleased with the way the following turned out. I still am. -- Tom Spurgeon (Labor Day Weekend, 2006)
Original Introduction: The Ed Brubaker Interview (2004)
I always knew Ed Brubaker more as a writer rather than artist, a cartoonist who it was rumored kept a writing journal instead of a sketchbook during the years we both lived in Seattle. Smart and personable, Ed seemed a natural to get work from companies like Vertigo and Dark Horse when they began looking for alternative comic book talents to write their stories and launch offbeat features. Given how emblematic his mid-'90s series Lowlife
and the related books At the Seams
were for a certain kind of comic book by a cartoonist of a certain age, it's easy to forget that Brubaker was doing accomplished collaborative work from the start of his career. His An Accidental Death
with the talented Eric Shanower was one of the more solid straight-ahead short stories of the 1990s, weaving details from the lives of its military children creators with the broad, life-changing splash that a dead body makes on all who come into contact with one.
Brubaker touched all the expected bases at Vertigo -- icon re-jiggering (Prez: Smells Like Teen President
), Neil Gaiman spin-off (The Deadboy Detectives
) and high-concept Next Big Thing (The Deadenders
) -- before breaking out in a title with much of his own voice intact, Scene of the Crime
. With Michael Lark providing rock-solid, moody, yet unobtrusive art, Brubaker gave readers a straightforward mystery mini-series with characters clear enough and dear enough to launch a franchise. At the same time, he managed to build on many of the same issues of regret and moving forward that fueled his best autobiographical work. (With cartoonist Jason Lutes Brubaker also created The Fall
, an even tighter and more evocative exploration of favored issues and literary approaches.) Brubaker parlayed the obvious quality of his mystery work into a stint doing Batman
, which led to the minor miracle that was his revamp of Catwoman
into a readable crime book with an appealing lead. From there he co-created Gotham Central
, a police procedural where overtones of the incomprehensible nature of modern violence wears capes, cowls and clown make-up.
A brief sojourn into Jim Lee's WildStorm superhero universe in the formally playful Point Blank
mini-series led to Sleeper
, essentially a deep-cover mobster drama like Donnie Brasco
or Ken Wahl's Wiseguy
television show, with the added complication of superpowers. Now in its second "season" as a cult favorite, Sleeper
is the funniest, smartest goosing of the superhero comic in perhaps a decade. Brubaker brings a novelistic density to much of his mainstream work, favoring art in multiple tiers and skillful first-person narratives. When he changes things up with a specific formal touch, say the flashbacks sprinkled throughout Sleeper
or the shifts in character viewpoint that frequently livened things up in Catwoman
, the flourishes are seamlessly worked into a book's overall mood. Brubaker's comics feel different than everyone else's without ever calling attention to that fact.
At roughly the time this interview sees print, Brubaker will be taking over writing chores on The Authority
and Marvel's Captain America
, two higher-profile, more straightforward superhero assignments that may move the 38-year-old into the first rank of mainstream comic book writers. He is also finishing a mystery novel and mulling over work in the videogame and film industries. Ed Brubaker sounds happy and grateful but fully aware how much hard work was necessary to make the unlikely shift from alternative comics supporting player to mainstream comics lead. He tells entire stories with the ease some people work through a single sentence, and is twice that friendly in person. -- Tom Spurgeon
Five Years Later
TOM SPURGEON: Every time I talk to you, you seem to be working so hard. Do you ever get away? I know writers will sometimes suddenly realize they haven't had a vacation in eight years.
Yeah. We've been living here three years, and other than days we go to town to deposit checks and do some shopping, I haven't really been away from the house for any real length of time that wasn't some kind of family emergency or business trip. It was 110 degrees here one day and this plumber who was doing some work for us said he and his wife were going to go to the river right after he finished fixing our sink, and he invited us to go with them because I said we'd never been to the river. I realized it was the first day in five years where I'd just sat around and done nothing. Without feeling guilty at least. I have a lot of days where I don't get anything done, but they're not on purpose. [laughter] There are days when you plan to get something done but you get distracted too early and you never end up getting anything done and you feel like shit.
SPURGEON: How do you work?
When I worked as a cartoonist I'd try to work in the morning before I could get distracted or I'd try to work at night when no one's going to call. But my schedule now... until a couple months ago it was pretty much I would get up and be working by like nine or ten and work through until two or three in the afternoon, and then if I had more to do I'd work ten to midnight, too. But the last couple of months I've been working sporadically, like I'll be taking notes for something for a few days and sitting around and wasting time and reading books and stuff, and then I'll hammer through some scripts really fast after I've got the outlines worked out. I don't prefer to work that way, but I've been having to travel a lot the last couple of months and it's been hard to get into a rhythm.
SPURGEON: So you tend to work from notes to outline to script?
Yeah... it really depends on the project. If it's something I'm totally creating myself, and not something like Batman
... with books like that, you kind of have this idea of where you want to go and you try to map out a few storylines and you kind of spitball it as you go, it seems like.
I don't mean it in a bad way, but it's episodic fiction. So if you've got a basic thing you're building towards, you don't need to take that many notes, you can work out each issue one at a time. I usually just write a page of notes of everything that needs to happen in a storyline, and then a more detailed page for each issue of it, like a page by page list. Sometimes, depending on the comic, that list is all notes about what the characters are thinking as opposed to what they're doing. Once I have that worked out, I go straight to writing a script.
SPURGEON: Now forgive my ignorance, but is there some kind of feedback process with editorial?
It depends on the book and the editor, but generally once an editor has an idea where you're going with a storyline. With Shelly Roeberg, she would want a pretty detailed idea of what was going into each issue. She would give you feedback. It really depends on the editor. With a lot of the stuff I'm working on now, with Catwoman
I've been working on it so long, I think I've told my editor things that are going to happen so long ago he probably forgot. A lot of times he'll be working on the solicitation and he'll be like, "So what happens on that issue?" We've been working on the book for so long that we've started to take each other for granted on that. Usually I'll get notes from him after I turn in a script if he thinks a scene isn't clear enough, or something, but generally other than talking to him over the phone about where I'm going with the stuff there's not a lot of feedback ahead of time.
Most of the editors kind of hire me to do my thing, and once we've talked through what direction I'm going to go occasionally I'll have to type up some notes about what the project is going to be, but generally I can get away with some light detail stuff about what I'm going to do and they just kind of trust I'm going to do it.
SPURGEON: Do you prefer that freedom, or would you like more feedback?
It's weird. You never really want feedback, but sometimes feedback is good, anyway. It really depends on the editor. Mike Carlin took a project I wrote and gave me feedback on the outline, and a couple of those notes sparked me to think in a different direction about a couple of scenes, so that was really helpful, actually. So it really depends.
For comics, once I've got an idea what I'm going to do now, especially some of the mainstream stuff, it's nice to work in an industry where pretty much you write something and it's the way it gets printed. I don't know anybody who works in TV or film where the final product comes out anything like they want it to.
SPURGEON: That's every medium other than comics, I think.
Some independent filmmakers, I guess, but I bet a lot of them compromise for budget. But with comics the only compromise is do you want to make a good living, and if so you're probably going to have to write some stuff that's not exactly the kind of work you'd write if you could write whatever the hell you wanted.
SPURGEON: How much work do you do? Say in a month.
I usually write about three scripts a month. The last year it's been about three scripts and every couple of months I'll have a month where I write four or five because I have to. I should write three or four every month to keep on schedule with everything.
SPURGEON: How full are your scripts?
I write scripts for other people a little bit more detailed than what I wrote for myself. Not that detailed. If it's a script for a 22-page comic, I rarely run over the 22. Maybe 25. Sometimes. I see scripts from other writers and some of them will turn in scripts that are 48 or 50 pages long. And then you read it and you wonder how the artist can possibly handle -- you look at those Alan Moore scripts, and it's like, "How can an artist get that?" I don't put in nearly that kind of detail. I just tell them what they need to know. [Spurgeon laughs] I'm not trying to criticize Alan Moore, but coming from the point of view of someone who was an artist first I just try to write the scripts and leave the fun part for the artist. I don't want to tell them what the grid looks like, or what all the camera angles are. The more you can leave for them the more fun they're going to have with it and the more they're going to get into it.
Image Isn't Everything
SPURGEON: Am I to take it you worked script first as a cartoonist as well?
Yeah. I never did sketchbook cartoons or just made stuff up as I went along. I always had a script. Which is kind of weird, because I always considered myself one of those guys who only wrote because I needed something to draw. When I was a teenager I started writing my own comics because no one else was going to.
SPURGEON: And now you make a living writing comics for other people to draw. How does that feel?
It's a little strange sometimes, to be working in mainstream comics, because I stopped reading mainstream comics in the late '80s and started reading them again in like the late '90s because DC started sending me a lot of them, and friends that I have were starting to work at Marvel and DC and I'd follow that stuff. I don't know if I'm completely immersed in it the way some fans are, but I'm actually pretty familiar with a lot of what's going on in mainstream comics now, and I wasn't at all in 1998.
SPURGEON: If you had to pick a time period to miss...
Yeah, exactly! '88 to '98 sounds like a pretty good time. I remember when I was living with Tom Hart and he brought home a stack of Rob Liefeld Image Comics -- I'm pretty sure it was just a bunch of Youngbloods
, it was the year that Image came out and was like super huge. I was working at a gas station in Seattle, I think. And I remember all these little kids coming into the gas station with comics and they were all Image comics. And I was like, "Oh, I do comics." They were all, "Really? What do you do?" I was like, "I don't know. What do you like?" "Youngblood
." "Well, I'm Rob Liefeld." They're like, "No, you're not! Your name's Ed!" [laughter]
It was totally funny, because I know three years later none of those kids were reading comics, and they had multiple copies of everything they were buying. They were baseball card collector kids. The kind of kids that ruined comics, basically. [laughs]
SPURGEON: They were good to Rob, though.
Yeah. [laughs] He made out like a bandit. I remember Tom brought a lot of those home and we were looking them like anthropologists or something. I hadn't been reading mainstream comics for at least five years. Just looking at these Image comics, these Youngblood
s, and trying to make sense of them... [laughs] "How can they go from a splash page to another splash page without an establishing shot?" [laughter]
I missed that stage where comics evolved into that. I stopped reading mainstream comics in that dark time after Watchmen
where everyone was trying to be super grim and gritty and all comics had nine panels a page. But then all that Image stuff happened where everything was a double-page spread and a splash page. I don't know how you can get the storytelling in that way.
SPURGEON: Storytelling? [laughter]
That's what people are paying for, right?
It was one of those moments where you realize that the comics industry is completely depressing. It's funny that here I am ten or 12 years after that working in mainstream comics and mainstream comics is just about as small as alternative comics was in 1992. Almost everybody I know who works in mainstream comics has a book they're doing that they're just doing because they really want to do it and everybody that reads the book loves it but the book doesn't make any money, most retailers don't order it. And that's just what alternative comics was like. [laughs] You'd wish you could get Marvel and DC off their shelves a little bit more so there was room for other books and now it's like that at the major publishers, too.
SPURGEON: You're currently making a transition into some work that might sell more in comic shops. Are there careerist motivations behind that?
Well... yeah. You want to be successful when you're doing anything, right? But the thing I have a problem with is that I don't feel like I've built up a big enough base of support among the retailers and fans to really carry just totally new stuff yet. Like I said, the mainstream market is really tough to crack right now for anything that's not Superman and Batman and Spider-Man. So eventually you look at that stuff and you think, "Well, all my friends are doing Wolverine and Spider-Man and X-Men, is that what's making their other stuff sell?"
SPURGEON: Do you mean you want the effects of branding?
I don't know if it gets new fans to your work if you do a big book like that. I'm about to do a book at Marvel [Captain America
]. I'm going to be doing The Authority
at Wildstorm, and both of those were conscious decisions on my part of like, "Well, I actually like these books, or the potential of these books, and I see something here I can do that's fun." But I'd also like to do more high-profile stuff so there's a bigger base of retailers who are familiar with my name. I think the fans will come to the books when they hear about them. With Sleeper
the trade paperbacks sell really well and a lot of that is from the buzz that the book was really good.
The fans will find you out. Warren Ellis' stuff does really well, and a lot of that is just word of mouth from fans for like five years. Still his trade paperbacks would move really well and a lot of it would be from bookstores. He would do decently in comic book stores, but he wasn't getting new comic book stores. We speculate that there are only a few hundred comic book stores in the country that actually order anything outside the top 20 or 30 books. So you really have to do something special to get the attention of anybody outside those few hundred retailers. Those other retailers, a lot of them don't put anything on the shelves, their customers have to subscribe to books. So the bulk of the direct market has become a glorified subscription service.
Every month when Sleeper
was coming out last year, I got e-mails from fans whose retailers forgot to order them a copy and they couldn't find it anywhere. All I ever heard about was people looking for the book who couldn't find it. That's the predicament of the market, it's so much like alternative comics in the early '90s, where you'd hear of these stores that would sell hundreds of copies of Love and Rockets
and you wanted to get into that store. Back then there was about 10,000 stores and now there's only 2500.
SPURGEON: Do you attempt any kind of outreach to retailers?
I really went out on Sleeper
because I saw the first couple of issues and I saw how poorly it had done. I got a color copy of the first issue and a black and white copy of the second issue the exact same day. And I hadn't seen anything for the book. Some tragedy had happened in my editor's family, I didn't get a black and white proof for the first issue. I had to trust them that they were going to get everything right. So I got the first two in one day, and they got everything right, thankfully, and I sat and read both of them and I was like, "Oh, shit."
You never know for sure if you've done something good until you see it printed, and I had written the script six months earlier so I was far away from the stuff. When I sat down and actually read it, I was like, "Aw shit, we did something pretty cool here." So I went out and tried to do a lot of promotion, and contact retailers. I was sending out free autographed copies to retailers. Just trying to get above the radar. That's the tragedy -- if you're not on their radar, they just don't order your stuff. And no amount of awards or nominations are going to sell copies of your book if a fan can't go into a store and see it on the shelf.
SPURGEON: Do other writers feel the same way? The only person who comes to mind when I think of direct retailer outreach is Dave Sim.
There have been other writers. Warren Ellis has a pool of retailers he sends promotional material to. Brian Vaughan, the guy who does Y the Last Man
, sent out a lot of free stuff to retailers. I think for his new book he went to a retailers web site or message board and told them any of them who wanted a free PDF to e-mail him and he would e-mail them back. That saved him a lot on postage.
I hate to criticize the comic stores, because there are a lot of great ones -- places like Big Planet, Comic Relief, and the Isotope, many others I'm leaving out -- but the direct market has really gotten to the point where it's just a life support system for the industry. It limits its own growth by the structure it has set up. A store that's just scraping by can't afford new work. They have to look at the bottom line. If you're a bookstore and you're starting out, you get a line of credit at your distributor and you can stock your store. And everything you're stocking is returnable as long as you don't damage it. So I know there's been some struggle for a lot of bookstores and stuff, but we work in an industry that's completely set up so that retailers have to speculate on how many copies of something they're gong to sell beforehand. It's totally a gamble. So after twenty years of getting their ass handed to them, it's no real surprise they're completely gun shy about trying anything new or anything that looks like it's not a completely guaranteed sale.
SPURGEON: Something Warren Ellis used as a critique at about the time your DC career really started going is that the mainstream companies are insufficiently author-centric. Do you think your books are being promoted rather than you?
It depends on the book. If you're working on Batman
, they're promoting Batman
. Until it was Jim Lee, they didn't give a shit who was doing Batman
. I took Batman
over after a guy who was probably the most hated writer of Batman
for a decade or something and sales stayed exactly the same even though I was getting rave reviews. So they don't really give a shit on stuff like that. [laughs] I think it's up to the creator to build a big enough body of work that the barrel rolling starts to happen and then when they do an ad for your book they mention other things you've worked on and they start pushing you as a talent more. They have such a corporate structure about the way they put it together.
Just like everybody I knew who was doing a book through Fantagraphics in the early '90s complained that nothing other than Hate
or Love and Rockets
ever got pushed, at DC anybody who is not doing Batman
is probably wondering why their book isn't getting advertised more. It makes a lot of sense to the marketing department for them to be able to say, "We ran full-page ads of Batman
in everything for an entire year and Batman
was our biggest selling comic." Well, yeah, but why are you advertising a book that sells 200,000 copies in a book that sells 15,000? Why not do it the other way around? But that's how advertising revenue is spent in almost all industries. They advertise the stuff that's already making them money because it's easier to sell 10 percent more of one thing than 90 percent more of something else.
SPURGEON: Now as far as I can tell, there were two more major projects you drew as well as wrote.
I'm not sure how major they were.
SPURGEON: I'm talking about
At the Seams and
BRUBAKER: At the Seams
was three short stories I did for Dark Horse Presents
originally. They were linked thematically.
SPURGEON: Did that reflect some sort of reading you were doing?
Yeah. It was a certain amount of just wanting to break away from doing straight autobiographical comics. And then reading a lot of people who would do experimental short stories. I wanted to do something that was more straight fiction. The first story was inspired by meeting Dylan Horrocks at San Diego one year. He had done a story for that Black Eye anthology Sputnik
that was called "The Black Sun." It was this magic realism story, and I liked the feel of it. I was talking to him about it, he said, "I really want to get a bunch of other cartoonists to do stories that take place in a world with a black sun." I immediately came up with the idea for that story where a guy lives with his girlfriend and his best friend lives next door, and the sun turns black and she starts fucking his best friend and breaks up with him for the best friend and he decides to stay in the apartment because there's cheap rent.
It was taken from nothing really. Things like that have happened to people I know where they live in a house with their girlfriend and the girlfriend starts fucking their housemate and the guy stays in the house and the girlfriend just switches roommates, essentially. I always thought that was a real messed-up situation but I know people who would do it. I know two people who have gone through stuff like that. It seemed like a universal theme to try and string three different stories around.
SPURGEON: I don't know if it's your dissatisfaction with autobiography shining through, but these are really emotionally charged stories. They're more immediate than anecdotal.
I think I told Gary way back when that I've never been a fan of the anecdote. It's great at a party, and if you're a really fast artist, then doing stuff like that may be more satisfying. For me it would take six to eight months to draw an issue of a comic and then I'd be completely unsatisfied with the work most of the time. [laughs] So the story better be worth investing some emotion into, worth investing the time. That was something I thought about a lot more back then, wanting to do stuff that because it would take so long to do it -- I would start stories and not finish because I couldn't invest myself in them enough.
SPURGEON: When I've read you talking about your work, you seem to talk about what you thought going in, but not so much where you ended up going out. [Brubaker laughs] Were you happy with the later autobiographical stuff? Dissatisfied? Because pretty soon you stopped.
Yeah. I don't know what happened honestly. I think I was happy with it. That last issue of Lowlife
was the best one. But I knew when I finished it that I was done with autobiography for a while. I was just tired of writing about myself. I was getting more into different kinds of fiction, and starting to write more for other artists, so it was kind of a natural slide. It was just time to stop the autobio.
Then I had this year where I started to get more writing work and wasn't able to focus on drawing at all, and I had this terrible personal stuff going on at the same time. So I went on this break where I traveled around the country on the train and visited people. When I settled back down I had a bunch writing deadlines, and just started writing and suddenly I was making a good living as a writer.
I think I was always a frustrated cartoonist, in that I was never good enough for my own standards. And I started to enjoy writing about stuff outside of myself. Started to actually look at it as a craft, and think of myself more as a writer and less as an artist. But I still think very visually, and when I write comics I still see the pictures in my head most of the time, the panel compositions.
SPURGEON: Am I safe saying you started moving in a different direction than most of your Seattle and Bay Area peers?
You could say that. I was the guy who did a comic or two a year, maybe a comic a year, and was always working terrible part-time jobs and barely scraping by. Putting out comics that sold like four or five thousand copies. And then a few years later I'm writing Batman
SPURGEON: Was there a change in philosophy that came with your move into the mainstream comics realm?
Not really. Even when I was working on Lowlife
I did Accidental Death
with Eric Shanower. I always had ideas for stuff I wanted to write that I could never draw myself. I tried to draw a crime story one time, and I got a couple of pages into a crime story and it just looked stupid. It was like a hardcore, relevant issue of Archie
When I was growing up I was always drawing superhero comics. Then when I was 14 I got into Jim Starlin, so I'd draw some sort of weird, Jim Starlin knock-off. It wasn't until I got into American Splendor
and Love and Rockets
and things like that that I even realized you could write stores based on your own life. Having that sort of revelation, it's probably just as bad as when you're 15 and you discover punk rock. Being 17 and discovering Harvey Pekar. [laughs] You know? You're at this stage where your entire life is nothing but navel gazing and whining about how awful the world is, and you discover that you can actually do this on paper. [laughter] You can look back on the awful mistakes you've made and chronicle them.
It's kind of funny. My wife hasn't actually even read Lowlife
. I don't think she has any interest in reading it. We've been together for so long now I'm not sure I'd let her read it if she wanted to. [laughter] I don't really feel like I'm that person anymore who all those things happened to. I don't think I felt like I was that person even when I was doing the comic. That's the weird thing about writing about yourself. One of my favorite writers is David Sedaris, and when you hear him interviewed, you realize how much of his writing is his fiction. Or a twisting of things. He probably feels disturbed when he meets people who feel they know him from reading his stories.
SPURGEON: So something like
The Fall felt different? More comfortable?
I don't know if I'd say more comfortable, just different, and more fun to write, maybe. I can pinpoint the shift where I had the desire to write fiction more. When I was working on Castro Street, I worked at this used bookstore. We were open really late at night on Fridays and Saturdays because it's the Castro. We were just a used bookstore; we weren't necessarily a gay bookstore. But we stayed open super-late, because the street was open late. So on Friday from seven o'clock to midnight or one you'd have the whole store to yourself. Other than the occasional drunk customer, the place was pretty much dead. So I'd just sit there and read books. I didn't want to be so captivated in something that it would bother me to put it down, so I started reading shitty mysteries. I started reading Sue Grafton, it was sitting on the counter next to me because people were always bringing in shit like that to sell.
SPURGEON: She's the one with the letters, right?
G is for Grafton. [laughter]
So I started reading those because I figured I wouldn't be bothered if someone came in to buy a book or ask me a question, I'd just put it down. I was never a huge fan of reading mysteries. I liked mystery movies, but I never read mysteries because it felt like a waste of time in some weird way. Then Steve Weissman came in to visit me one day and he sees me reading E is for Emory-board
or whatever and he walks over to the used bookshelf and grabs me a bunch of Ross Macdonald. And nothing's ever been the same since then. I started reading the Lew Archer series and I became completely enthralled with reading his stuff. He was basically writing his own autobiography as if his life was a giant crime story. Something about that... I probably had the same sort of feeling that Camus had when he read The Postman Always Rings Twice
, when he realized he could say everything he wanted to say with a plot, too. [laughs] Or something like that. It really helped me to read that stuff, because after that I started thinking mysteries as a form may be kind of weird and very structured, but you can do anything within that structure. It's like the six-panel comic book grid. You can do anything within those six panels. I think I started liking that stuff, and thinking I could actually do that stuff more and more.
But you know what? I was never one of those people who automatically dismissed genre stuff. I dismissed mysteries because it seemed stupid to read stuff with a solution at the end. Like a crossword puzzle. [Spurgeon laughs] Until I actually read some good ones, like Hammet and Chandler, you realize that people can actually do anything within those boundaries. I always read Philip K. Dick and other than Shanower I was the only person that I know working in alternative comics who was a huge fan of Nausicaa
. I never dismissed something because it was a genre.
The thing is, when you think of writing something for someone else to draw, it immediately becomes just a little bit less personal, but it's still your work, and you have to try to make it the best it can be. I think that's a mistake that a lot of people I know from alternative comics have made trying to work for mainstream comics, looking at it as not their "real" work.
When I wrote Accidental Death
for Eric Shanower, I knew it wasn't something I would draw, but I knew it drew on things from both our lives, and if it was good enough it could be just as good as something each of us did by ourselves. I tried to make it feel real to me while I was writing it, even though it was a crime story and it was total fiction, a lot of the family relationships and the way the characters react to each other and the situations are taken directly from my life and the lives of people I saw growing up on military bases. So I tried to accurately portray that.
Accidental Death is also very much a book about guilt.
SPURGEON: Which is not something that's present in your earlier work, at least not as potently.
Well, that one story in Lowlife
where the guy is ripping off the guy he works for? That story is about guilt.
SPURGEON: Even if you touched on it before it seemed like the majority of feelings your characters experienced had changed from bewilderment or confusion to regret. Like somewhere along the line you were writing from a more distanced perspective.
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I don't know if you look at the way a lot of authors are, but it seems like when you're in your 20s even if you don't want to you write more about yourself and the limited experiences you've had. As you get older, in your late 30s and into your 40s, you start to broaden the kinds of things you're interested in writing about. Everything you're writing about, and each character you write is some facet of yourself anyway. Maybe people who write Superman
feel like they're explaining some facet of themselves, too.
SPURGEON: It's more than possible.
It's probable. [laughter]
SPURGEON: Were there growing pains moving into collaborative relationships? Was that ever hard for you?
It was really easy, actually, probably too easy, which is probably why I haven't gone back to cartooning at all. [laughs] It's so much easier to write a script and then three or four weeks later have a bunch of pages arrive that were drawn by someone else. [laughter] Especially if they're artists like Sean Phillips or Michael Lark. That can be really creatively fulfilling.
And, back in San Diego we used to have this Tuesday night art group with Brent Anderson and a bunch of different guys who lived there. Joe Chiodo. All these guys who worked in mainstream comics lived there and they would let anyone serious about comics come. In my early twenties my roommate Mike and I used to go sometimes, and they would do life drawing and teach stuff about comics. We were going as alternative cartoonists and they were cool with it, even though they were more about the mainstream. A lot of them would like some of the stories I'd show them, and some of them would ask me to write stories for them. So I was always pretty comfortable writing stories for other people.
SPURGEON: Did you have a good relationship with Dark Horse? You did a couple of early projects with them.
I did stuff for Dark Horse Presents
. I don't think I ever did anything else outside of that. That was mostly Bob Schreck. The first thing was that was where An Accidental Death
was printed. That was sold through Eric Shanower's agent. That was the first work that I ever got a paycheck by the page. I wrote that whole thing in two weeks or three weeks, so I was jumping for joy. [laughter] Someone was not only going to pay us to do this thing, but they were going to print it, and it was going to be drawn by Eric. That was so cool.
That was the first thing. That came out, and somehow got nominated for two or three Eisner awards. I remember giving copies of it to Gary, because Dark Horse didn't want to collect it for some reason even though they were selling foreign rights to it. They decided it was too low key. So we got Fantagraphics to collect it. And that was kind of cool: to do something that was getting extra life like that
SPURGEON: Now that was really, really early.
That was like '91 or so. I think that came out in '92. I had just moved to Seattle when those issues came out.
SPURGEON: So when you decided to move in that direction, you wanted to get more work writing for artists, you had this nice experience to relate to.
Yeah, sure, but it all just kind of happened, to a large degree. I did Accidental Death
, and I think there was some sort of invitation from Bob. There was a hint that Bob was going to get to take over as editor at Dark Horse, of Dark Horse Presents
. So he was kind of letting a lot of us know that when that happened he would be opening the door to a lot of new people, and really trying to foster new talent and do different kinds of things with it. So that was kind of out there, and certainly Accidental Death
made that happen.
Then Eric was being approached by Lou Stathis, who was a really great guy, an editor at Vertigo who died just a few years after we did a book for him. Lou really wanted Eric to do more work for him. So Eric said, "How about if I did a one-shot for you if my friend Ed gets to write it." And Lou Stathis was like, "Well, can this guy write?" And Eric was like, "Well, he's up for the Eisner for Best Writer right now, so hopefully." So I got to meet with Lou at San Diego after not winning the Eisner. [Spurgeon laughs] But I got to meet with him, and I was completely disinterested in mainstream comics, I was completely disinterested in Vertigo. They were going to let me write a comic and pay me for it. But I remember Lou almost having to twist my arm at the time. [laughs]
I pitched a thing that I thought was almost making fun of Vertigo, which was the Prez: Smells Like Teen President
one-shot. I was under the mistaken impression at the time that Vertigo comics were aimed at teenagers and not like college students and older. I knew nothing about what they were doing. So I was just like, "I'm going to write a young adult comic." And we actually got to do it. It seemed really kind of strange. Lou really liked me and liked working with me, and he was after me for a year or more after that. He would call me up when they wanted a proposal for something. I was doing the casting call. "We're doing a new Phantom Stranger. Give us a proposal." And you would be one of five or ten people doing that. After you do a couple of those, and you put a couple of weeks into trying to come up with ideas for some character you really don't care about, you get worn out on that pretty fast. [laughs] I think I did three or four different pitches for things that never ended up happening. And then I just kind of dried up on it. I started doing more art and just working a part time job. I didn't feel I had time to pursue the writing, because nothing was happening with it and I still felt a little bit conflicted about doing something like that in a way, though I was pretty tired of being broke all time.
SPURGEON: Did Vertigo get that
Prez was a joke?
The thing we ended up doing didn't turn out to be as much of a joke -- the name was a joke. I remember the first day Vertigo came out and Nirvana was huge at the time, I remember thinking, "I could do a book for Vertigo. It would be like 'Prez: Smells Like Teen President.'" The book actually came out just like three or four months after Kurt Cobain killed himself. I remember trying to get them at the last minute to change the name. And Lou's like "No, that's a cool name." And I was like, "Oh man, I am so screwed." [laughter]
Prez became a little more serious for you in the writing of it.
I was trying to say real things with it. I was trying to write a kind of young adult coming of age story about how fucked up America feels when you're a teenager. It wasn't autobiography, it was just fiction. There were elements of it that you could see as sort of mocking certain aspects of what I perceived Vertigo to be. Which in the long run wasn't actually what they turned out to be at all.
All credit to Vertigo. Vertigo's done some really cool things for comics. I mean, just the fact that they don't do superheroes at all. [laughs] They do horror, they do crime, they do romance. They're actually trying to be a sort of arty genre publisher. One of the few things I'll ever out and out agree with Kim Thompson on is he said something about how what comics needs is more straight fiction. Comics needs more guys like Tom Clancy. Because the biggest writers in the world, all the really highbrow kinds of writers couldn't keep a bookstore in business. No comic book store could stay in business selling just alternative comics. That's what I think of when I think of what the comics industry needs most. It needs more diverse material. It can't be 10 percent alternative comics and 90 percent superheroes.
SPURGEON: As someone who has worked for them on a variety of projects, do you get the impression that Vertigo struggles with the notion that they should be trying to be a genre publisher on the one hand and yet they're trying to replicate hits and manage properties?
That's a problem with every form of popular entertainment, though. It's certainly not exclusive to Vertigo. Book publishers -- look at all those Tom Clancy books that aren't written by Tom Clancy. And each one of them probably sells slightly less than the one before. Vertigo is obviously not a perfect place. I think -- I don't know -- it definitely seems like they're having more of a bounce with what they're willing to do and what they're trying to do right now. They're trying to create a lot more new properties as opposed to just trying to spin off of Neil Gaiman's success ten years later.
SPURGEON: There's a point where that becomes very sad, and less about the greatness of the original project.
Yeah, I think so. Sandman
was one of DC's most successful comics, right? And it was definitely one of their most successful trade paperback franchises. But I was at a Wondercon in Oakland a while back. Right when they were going to be bringing back The Books of Magic
and Dylan Horrocks was going to write it. So it was like four years ago.
SPURGEON: Right, sure.
They were putting out the first mini-series where he was at some magic school, and in one part of it he was going to go to Gemworld. And Heidi MacDonald was giving this speech. It was a pretty full audience; it must have been like a hundred people. We started talking about the Books of Magic
, and people were kind of confused what the new thing was going to be. She mentioned Gemworld, and I said, "You remember Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld
." People started nodding. I asked, "How many people here read Amethyst
?" And almost every single person in the audience raised their hand. And then I said, "How many people here read Sandman
?" And about half the audience raised their hand. And I'm like, "Okay, that's our problem." Every single person in the audience had read Amethyst
, but only half read Sandman
. So we're down to the people who are still buying comics and going to conventions being the people who were buying the really obscure books from the '80s, the ones that were canceled for low sales. [laughs] That's what we're down to.
SPURGEON: How much control did you have on partners when you worked there?
Well, it depends. Mostly they let me be in on selecting an artist, or they send me a lot of samples from different artists. I haven't in a long time had anybody signed to work with me that I didn't say, "Okay." But obviously that's something that matters more to me than it might to other people, so I really push for that. I don't have it in my contract that they have to give me artist approval. But I don't accept a project until I know who the artist is going to be at this point in my career. There's not enough time in the day for me to work on everything I'm supposed to be working on. If I'm going to do it, it sure as hell isn't going be drawn by someone who's totally incompetent.
Having suffered through a run of a comic that was drawn by an artist who didn't follow my scripts and couldn't even draw a lot of stuff I put in the script, that was like, "Okay, now I want to kill myself." Because you have to lie to yourself to a certain degree while you're doing this stuff and be really precious about it. That's the trick of work-for-hire. You have to fool yourself that what you're doing is actually going to have some sort of lasting impact. You have to trick yourself into thinking that while you're writing it, at least. That these are your characters for now.
SPURGEON: Because people will sense your lack of authenticity otherwise?
Well, yeah. And it won't be any fun for you. You won't be able to get anything fulfilling out of it. You won't do good work, and then you're ripping off the people who are paying money to be entertained. The only way to entertain them is to really invest yourself in what you're doing. If you know going in you don't own this shit, you can still be super-precious about all the characters that you write. I'm super precious about Slam Bradley and Holly and even Catwoman
to some degree.
That's part of the problem with a lot of the people I know from alternative comics who have gone over and tried to work for the man. They don't bring enough of themselves to the table.
I read an interview with -- to beat around the bush some more -- with John Sayles where he made the demarcation between the movies he writes, that he's hired to write for someone else to direct and the movies that he writes for himself to direct. He said, "The stuff that I write for myself to direct, I don't care if I ever get paid. And when I'm writing a sci-fi movie for James Cameron, I try to make sure it's the most kick-ass sci-fi movie that James Cameron is going to get a script for. I try to write as good a thing as I would write for myself, but I make sure the final person I'm trying to please is the guy who's paying me to write the thing." You can have a certain pride in the craft of it.
When I'm writing a lot of this stuff, especially the work for hire stuff, I think of myself as a pulp writer. Because there were a lot of great pulp writers, and comics grew out of the pulps.
SPURGEON: What was your entry point back into Vertigo?
Dead Boy Detectives?
I did a thing for Axel in Gangland
, which was that crime anthology. Eric Shanower and I did a six or eight-page story for that. Then Shelly Roeberg started calling. Out of the blue. She had been Lou's girlfriend, and she had really liked Prez
and Lou had said nice things about me. During the year after Lou died, she was trying to make some connections with people who had worked for him. She kept calling me and kept telling me I needed to pitch things of her, that she was really interested in working with me. I love Shelly, but she was calling me so much I was like, "This woman must be crazy." I'd done like one comic for DC, nobody over there cares about me, why is she acting like I'm going to be some big writer for them. That's never going to happen.
I remember we would talk about different ideas, and nothing would happen. One day I think she was visiting Seattle. She was having me out to lunch, and I was trying to let her know that there was nothing I could come up with that was going to be the kind of thing they'd want to do. I didn't have any horror ideas, and I didn't want to write fantasy... I was giving her this spiel about how I was this arty alternative comics guy and there was nothing I could do Vertigo would want. And she said, "What kind of comic would you want to do that you don't think we'd let you do?" I told her, "I want to write a mystery. Not some kind of gory horror crime thing, but a straight mystery comic about a private eye who investigates a crime." She's like, "Okay, give me a proposal." So I went home and wrote the proposal for Scene of the Crime
I gave myself one day to do it. I would spend like three weeks on proposals back in the old days. And it's a real shame if nothing happens. So I'm like, "I'm giving myself one day." I wrote an outline, and then two or three one-page synopses for mystery ideas. I faxed it to her the day she got back to DC and thought, "Well, that's the end of that." I never thought they would approve it. But by Friday, Karen Berger had approved it and we were looking for an artist. And I was like, "Oh shit, now I have to write this."
That kind of changed everything to some degree. Scene of the Crime
is pure fiction, but there is a lot of myself in it, actually. The mystery that happens, the teenage girls that are raped in the cult, those are based on girls I knew around the time I was in high school. A lot of that stuff really happened.
SPURGEON: And the lead has a rough past he's not particularly proud of.
Yeah. That shame of the past is one of my constant themes.
And with writing Scene
, I found that first-person narrative in detective fiction feels almost exactly like first-person narrative in autobiography. First person narrative is like second nature to me. So when I started getting into mystery fiction, if you had the right writer, you really felt like someone was telling you something. Even though there was this entire plot around it, you really felt like you were getting a glimpse into the head of whoever's writing this thing. You definitely feel like you get Chandler's view of the world when you read his work.
SPURGEON: There's a severe mistrust of family in your fiction that's not so prevalent in your autobiographical work.
I never wrote about family in Lowlife
SPURGEON: Are family issues something you were working through at the time?
I don't know about "working through." I don't have a really good relationship with some of my family. I always considered writing stuff about my family in Lowlife
, but nothing ever happened. I think if I ever do draw any more comics they'll be true family kinds of stories. But I don't know if that will ever happen or not. It's easier to write about people when you change their names and they never see the comics.
SPURGEON: The thing I find odd is that
Scene of the Crime is dedicated to your father, but the work is this ruthless examination of the pitfalls of the family and the antagonist is a father and total creep.
Oh. [laughs] There's no connection to my dad. I have a really good relationship with my dad. There's nothing about my family in Scene of the Crime
SPURGEON: But does it accurately reflect your general feelings about family?
I think there's a certain theme of bad families or families that don't know how to communicate with each other in a lot of my work, and parents betraying children, or abusing them. Eric Shanower pointed out that almost everything that I wrote that I didn't draw had something to do with families that couldn't function. Families that were saddled with big secrets they couldn't talk about. I don't know. That's probably something that comes out when writing about stuff that isn't me, although everything's about the writer. It's easier when you're writing something that's straight fiction to mine things that are a little too painful to write about straight up, personal.
SPURGEON: There are also a lot of substitute families in your work. In
Scene of the Crime the lead has these older relatives who look after him. Certainly there are elements of friendships as family in things like
Deadenders and in your current books.
Sure. In Sleeper
Miss Misery and Genocide are Holden's family, sort of. Your friends are your family, really. They're the people you choose to spend time with. I think Megan Kelso is the only person I know who actually enjoys spending time with her own family. [laughs] My family interactions are always something like everybody's getting drunk and you can't wait to get home and the minute you're gone your mom is calling up, "I can't wait for the next family gathering." Oh really?
SPURGEON: That might be something about your work that's particularly affecting for comic book readers. It's reflected a lot in the way the industry's set up that there's this desire for belonging and acceptance. Your comics family.
It might have something to do with, you know, nerds. [laughter]
It's a Mystery
SPURGEON: You wrote in one of those Vertigo guest editorials when
Scene of the Crime came out that you wanted to do a mystery specifically for comics. You said there were no mysteries for comics. Now that you've done a few, can you determine a reason why they weren't being done?
They used to be done, back in the '50s. Johnny Craig is one of my favorites of all time. He wrote crime and mystery stories. There were occasional mysteries in Crime SuspenStories
Mysteries aren't even done that often in mystery novels. Often mysteries don't have any actual mystery in them. They're more like a suspense story. It's really hard to do a mystery that maintains the suspense of the mystery, so I think people want to give away who did it way too early. They don't want to construct something the reader has to think about. I like that puzzle aspect. A lot of writers have fallen in love with that kind of structure. The puzzle part of it is a cool exercise.
SPURGEON: Exercise for the writer or the reader?
The writer. For the reader, if you read a hundred mysteries, any mystery you pick up you're going to be able to spot every clue. But for a writer, I think it's a fun way to go about writing a story. And I like stories about the aftermath of the crime, not the committing of it. In a real mystery, you never see the murder when it happens, you see people's theory of what happened. Plus there's something very personal about the first person narrative, even in a mystery. And I think when you start doing stuff like that, bits and pieces of yourself start to fall into it without you thinking about it.
Eric Shanower also pointed out that all the victims in my stuff were young women.
It's all the girls who wouldn't go out with me in high school!
SPURGEON: We should get Eric to write a piece to accompany the interview.
I was going to try and put together a collection of all the crime and mystery stuff I've written for other people to draw and just call it "Dead Girls." But Jason [Lutes] wouldn't have it. [laughter]
SPURGEON: There was a couple of other projects that you did that had literary antecedents --
Dead Boy Detectives worked out of children's literature, and
Deadenders owed a bit to modern science fiction like Stephen Frayn.
Like a science fiction version of an Archie
SPURGEON: So what is it about mystery that clicked for you where these others didn't? Because certainly it's not the only genre you're reading.
Well, I want to be a versatile writer. I would love to write romance comics if anybody would let me. I think writing stuff like that is totally a blast.
SPURGEON: Maybe they're afraid you'll kill somebody. [laughter]
The girls could all commit suicide at the end out of love; the boys could all drive their cars off a bridge. [laughs] I think it's the way mysteries are structured that appeals to me.
And I think you can't always decide. Philip K. Dick claims he always wanted to write straight fiction, or if he couldn't write straight fiction, fantasy. [laughs] I read some interview with him where apparently that was his real love.
SPURGEON: That's too weird to consider.
It's funny because his straight fiction is nothing compared to the sci-fi. The sci-fi is where he really came alive. Valis
is one of the craziest autobiographical books you'll ever read. And that's one of my favorite books. [laughs]
So I feel like mysteries kind of chose me, basically, in the same way comics did. I never really chose to be in love with comics. Comics got given to me, and I couldn't think of doing anything besides that. It's like being stricken with a virus. [Spurgeon laughs] It's an illness. You just can't give it up.
Which is cool, though, when you think about it. Especially for me, since I get to write comics for other people to draw and somebody pays me. [laughs] It so beats working jobs.
SPURGEON: Working is for suckers.
That's what I always say. Real work is definitely for suckers. But in all seriousness, there's something else I love about the mystery genre, in that you can address serious subjects in kind of lighthearted ways. You can say things in a mystery about something that you couldn't say if you were writing straight fiction about it. People would be up in arms.
Early in my mystery reading phase, I was reading a series about this lawyer, but the lawyer was a gay Mexican. So it was already addressing something that is totally different than what you're usually going to read about. You don't generally read a lot of stuff about Gay Latinos. That's pretty hardcore.
One of the other things that was in one of his books that sort of opened my eyes about mysteries was an incredibly corrupt Mexican politician. And he addressed the fact that minorities are incredibly forgiving of their public faces, like OJ and Marion Barry... these guys will have these tremendous falls and still maintain their public image to some degree because these communities are just finally getting into the system; they're trying to get a piece of it to work in their favor for a change. And so when the people that get in there fuck up, they want to be forgiving, because who knows how long it is before they get another black mayor or Mexican congressman? They'll be much more forgiving than the white community would be over the same kind of thing. And I thought that was a fascinating subtext to put across in a mystery.
The Good Stuff
SPURGEON: When we talked last time, you said you know what's going on in mainstream comics. So what is good?
I like Planetary
a lot. Have you read that ever? That's one of my favorite mainstream things. I don't know, good is so hard to qualify.
SPURGEON: So what do you enjoy?
I like a fair amount of stuff that Vertigo is doing right now. Human Target
is really good. I think that's Peter Milligan's best stuff in a long time, actually. He did a book for them last year that was about a rock star that changed bodies with a young street musician called Vertigo Pop: London
. That was really good. Plus it was drawn by Philip Bond, who's great. I enjoy a lot of stuff, really, mostly stuff by my friends. I think 100 Bullets
is great, though it definitely reads better in book form. Most of Bendis and Rucka's stuff I dig. That book that Judd Winick's doing right now, Caper
, is really good right now. He just had John Severin draw an arc of it.
Yeah. The Lucifer
book is usually pretty good. This new issue I got in my box the other day is drawn by P. Craig Russell, so that's a great thing. There's a lot of good stuff coming out from the mainstream right now, really. More than there ever has been, I think. There's still a lot of shit, too, but you get that with all things, movies, comics, novels.
SPURGEON: Yeah, of course: the crap quotient.
One of the first mainstream comics I read and really dug after not reading them for ten years or so was Marvels
. The first issue of that is perfect, and I hate painted comics, mostly. It's all from the point of view of people on the ground watching two gods destroy their city. [laughs] I remember when the Hernandez Brothers did their Comics Journal
interview. Gary brought up Watchmen
at one point, that Alan Moore was the best mainstream writer in comics and Watchmen
was the example he was using. I think Gilbert said he had heard so much about this is the way the world would be if there really were superheroes in it. He picked up the book and started reading it, and he was like, "Wait, this is about the superheroes, this isn't about the real people." The way the world would really be if there were superheroes, would be people fleeing constantly from the destruction. [laughter] I picked up Marvels
and read that, and I thought that's exactly what they've done. They've taken it to that level.
SPURGEON: Yeah, but don't they kind of present it as a good thing instead of a horrifying thing?
No. The guy who does the narrative sees that moment where the Human Torch is flying through the sky towards this a tidal wave that the Sub-Mariner's letting loose on the city. He saw that moment as the time when they were ants, utterly dwarfed by these other people. It made him feel insignificant. I liked that, because it was different. It was the first take that I'd seen that was new since Watchmen
You go back and read those old comics from the 1940s and you get that feel to some degree. Bill Everett was really good. He gave Sub-Mariner
an otherworldly feel to it. It didn't feel like a superhero comic; it was more like a sci-fi comic or something.
SPURGEON: In pop culture studies, they call works like Everett's "An unpleasant world needs an unpleasant man." You get a lot of that in 1970s television, where all the crime-solvers are gigantic assholes.
If you were the police, you would never have your autopsy done by Quincy. "Don't scoop me on my case, motherfucker; just cut up the thing and tell me the facts."
Back to the Scene
SPURGEON: Why weren't there more
Scene of the Crime books?
Initially we were going to do two mini-series. Do one and then take a couple of months off and then do another one. But when they finally got around to doing a contract on it, they only wanted to do one mini-series and see how it did before they decided on the next one. I think we would have been able to do more if we wanted to, but by the time they got around to giving us the thumbs up, Michael [Lark] was already way into two other projects. There was no point to doing more of it without Michael, so I went on to other work instead. We always wanted to do more; it was just a matter of timing. Once a number of years pass it seems kind of pointless to do another one.
SPURGEON: Does negotiating scheduling conflicts take some getting used to?
Yeah, well, my tendency is to overbook myself, so that's been a little bit of a problem. But it's more frustrating to have an artist dangled in front of you you want to work with and not be able to do it. I usually just say yes and try to figure out how to fit everything in, even if it gives me carpal tunnel. But yeah, that was a drag that first time losing Michael and basically waiting two or three years for him to become available to do Gotham Central
. By the time Gotham Central
came around, Michael was in the middle of his third project after Scene of the Crime
. We waited I think a year to launch the book so that we could have him as the artist.
SPURGEON: You had been doing regular
Batman stuff in the meantime.
Greg [Rucka] and I had both been doing it. He had been doing Detective
, and I was doing Batman
SPURGEON: How did you get
I slept with Bob Schreck. [laughter] I'm just kidding, but Bob will laugh really hard when he gets to that part. I came in in a weird way. I worked with Bob at Dark Horse. Bob was one of my big supporters when I first started to do work as a writer. I had done three or four things with him at Dark Horse. When he went over at DC, I had been working on and off for them. I did Scene of the Crime
at Vertigo; I had Deadenders
about to start there. I met Mike Carlin. They don't have the title at DC, but he was basically the Editor in Chief. I met him at Savannah, when James Sturm's college SCAD flew a bunch of us out to talk to students. He was doing portfolio reviews.
We really hit it off. He had read Scene of the Crime
in-house because he was a fan of Michael's art. So even though the first issue wasn't out yet he was familiar with my stuff. He asked me if I wanted to do anything in the DCU. I said, "I don't know, I don't know if I could really write anything like that." He said, "Well, you can write a really good mystery. You could write a Batman
comic." And I was like, "Huh." [laughs]
It never really occurred to me. I remember one time a friend trying to convince me to write a Batman
comic, and trying to figure out some idea that would be an interesting Batman
comic. "Maybe Batman gets addicted to speed?" [Spurgeon laughs] And my friend said, "They already did a storyline like that." And I was like. "Oh, crap." [laughter]
I pitched Mike something in a cab ride somewhere in Savannah that ended up being an Elseworlds drawn by Sean Phillips, which was our first time working together other than him inking Scene of the Crime
. I wanted to do a noir
; I thought that would be interesting to do with Gotham City. He was like, "Okay, that's great: let's do it."
So I kind of lucked into that job, and around the time I was doing that Bob was suddenly moved over to the Bat office, and was going to be the new editor when Denny retired. So that was kind of convenient, that the guy who was in charge of everything already was working with me on something, and the guy taking over the Bat office was someone who had been a big supporter of mine. I saw Bob at a convention a month later, and he said Carlin had been saying nice things about me. So I said, "Well, hire me to write Batman
." He said, "We'll talk later." I had to do some stuff to get the job, some sample issues and stuff. Then I got the regular gig, and that was mostly fun.
SPURGEON: What was fun about it?
Well, you know, if you ever read a Batman
comic growing up, it's kind of cool to write one. It was the first time I had a job where my family could understand what I did without me having to explain it wasn't porno. You know? [laughter] "What's Ed doing?" "He's writing Batman
." "Oh, that's wonderful!" It's really easy. It's not like, "He's doing these sort of bizarre comic books... but they're for adults. But you can't read them, Grandma." [laughs]
I had a guy come into my office to put a phone line in. He found out I did Batman
, and he did all this extra work for free, set me up with free long distance for a while. There was a little clout to it, which was funny because I didn't expect there to be at all. The first couple of times I told people, I was almost embarrassed to be telling them. "Yeah, I'm writing Batman
." And then I realized that everybody thought it was completely cool. It's also cool to do comics you can give to kids. I'd never done anything you could give to kids up to that point.
SPURGEON: Was the editorial process really different at this point? You're dealing with one of the big properties, now.
Well... I kind of knew going in what the limitations were. I didn't go in there all, "I'm going to fuck Batman up!" [Spurgeon laughs] Like some pathetic character from a Dan Clowes comic, "Now I'm part of the system, and I'm going to fuck it up from the inside!" I had no aspirations to do anything but tell good Batman comics. Like I said, I look at that stuff as being... it's work-for-hire, so anyone signing that thing after all the shit that went down in the '80s over Kirby and his art has to know what they're doing, unless they're an idiot. The best you can hope is to entertain people and maybe create a Batman villain that gets used in a movie and then you'll get a shit-load of money.
SPURGEON: Something I always wanted to ask a mainstream writer... you were on board for at least one of those big crossovers, where the story spills over into all the books in a certain group.
I did two of them, I think. And I'm coming up on a third.
SPURGEON: What's that like?
A nightmare. [laughs] The less said about that stuff the better.
SPURGEON: How do they tell you that stuff is coming? Do you get a memo? Do they slip it in at the end of a phone conversation and hang up?
There was one I was more involved with than the one I am now. The first one we did was a one-month long thing. Greg Rucka and I plotted that out, just the two of us, and then we made the outline and sent it in and everyone else had to follow our outline basically. That was really where we came up with the idea of doing Gotham Central
. We liked working together on this other thing, and plotting it out, so we started talking about doing a book together.
That one was pretty easy, even though it was still kind of a pain because you're working with seven or eight different writers, different artists... I think they're far more of a pain to the editors than they are to the writers. Because the editors have to make sure the writers and the artists get the proper amount of reference. If you end an issue in the middle of a car chase, and the next one has to begin in the middle of the same car chase, they have to make sure the artists don't draw two completely different scenes. Those things seem like they would be a logistical nightmare. From everything I can tell talking to the editors while they're working on them, they seem incredibly stressed out while they're working on that stuff.
We'd do these panels at shows and fans would complain: "Oh, you're going to do another crossover." I'd always say, "If you would all stop ordering more of everything whenever we do one of these things, we'd be happy to stop doing them." The sales boost goes away within three months after the end of the event, but for the event there's always a certain amount of boost, but not as much as there used to be. Back when I wasn't reading mainstream comics, they did that whole event where Bruce Wayne got his back broken and retired. That thing must have gone on for two years, and almost everything in there was a crossover. I know the guys who worked on that thing made serious bank on royalties. [Spurgeon laughs] I know some of them were buying new houses, new cars just on the royalties. That was back in the day when comics really sold, when they did The Death of Superman
and sold millions of copies of it. [laughs] "Oh, shit! We can make money on this stuff."
We did another crossover that lasted three or four months, maybe even longer. The Bruce Wayne: Fugitive
thing. We actually had a summit meeting, and spent three or four days mapping out the whole storyline. They flew us out to New York and put us up in a hotel. It was me, Greg, Chuck Dixon, Devin Grayson, and Kelly Puckett... am I leaving anybody out?
SPURGEON: Is there any ego involved when you get a bunch of mainstream comics writers together? I just imagined all of you trying to get the highest seat in the room.
It fell into a natural order it seemed like. It was a lot of fun; we kicked around a lot of ideas. We knew going in what the thing was going to be, so we sat around and bullshitted and went out to expensive lunches and dinners. It was during this week when a blizzard was threatening, so the streets were deserted all the time. They kept saying there would be a blizzard, and then no snow would fall. [laughter] It was weird, because we were in this Time Warner building. We weren't in DC Proper, because they do their big summit meetings outside of the office.
So we were around the corner, in this conference room on the 40th floor or something. Out the window of our conference room was the building that DC used to be in. You could see it halfway down the block on 5th Avenue. 666 Fifth Avenue. I had never seen that building before, certainly not from that high up. I had the same seat all week, and I was just looking out the window at this giant red 666 that's across the top of the building. I was thinking the whole time, "Who the fuck decided to put the number on the building in huge neon red?" It's basically the Satan building. I was sitting there next to Jenette Kahn, and she looked over at me and said, "What are you laughing about?" I was like, "I just think it's funny they put the 666 in neon red." She was like, "Oh, yeah. That's our old building!"
Shake That Tail
SPURGEON: How did you begin your very successful run on
Catwoman? That book was very different before you got it. It was an exemplar of cheesecake comics.
The art on that was really in your face T&A stuff. Which I guess sold really well for a while there. But that was a weird one, too. I had been working on Batman
for about six months or something. One of the editors we were working with on one of those crossovers, not my editor, Matt Idelson who is the editor of Gotham Central
now, he called to ask me about something. He mentioned Catwoman
, and I sort of ran off for a little while about how I had read the recent couple of issues and what I thought they should be doing with that book instead and how I felt the character was really underutilized and that she was really kind of a cool character if you let her be. But it was kind of disgusting the way she was always portrayed as this real sort of fawning, "Oh, I have to make out..." She couldn't have a guest appearance in any comic without kissing the main character. [Spurgeon laughs] In a really kind of grotesque way. And this was stuff written by writers that I think are better than that even, but they couldn't help but play her as this... she just seemed like a basket case to me. She could be really tough and smart and everything, and then she would do this fake shaking her tail kind of shit. I've never known a woman like that, outside of high school. [Spurgeon laughs]
So I was talking to him about it, and I just cut him off when he was about to offer me the job, so he mentioned Catwoman
and I started listing what I would do with the book if it were mine. He said, "Well, do you want to write it then?" I was like, "Uh... can I do anything I want with it?" "Yeah, pretty much." And I asked, "Can we give her a new costume?" "Probably." And I was like, "Can we get a new artist?" "Sure." So I said all right, I'd do it for a year, and that was that. Then I immediately started sending him samples from different artists and going "Can we get this guy?"
SPURGEON: There has been a very distinctive look on the book for most of your run -- Darwyn Cooke, Cameron Stewart, Javier Pulido. Why did you want that kind of artist?
I just wanted somebody who was really, really good. During that time period I saw some black and white pages on-line somewhere of Darwyn's for the book he was doing, Batman: Ego
. I was like, "Oh my God, this guy is like a combination of Toth and Kirby. If I can get this guy, that would be amazing." I mentioned it to Idelson, and he said he'd been working on the project for a long time, he works in animation, too, and he writes his own stuff and may not want to work with another writer, so they never really asked him.
It turns out he was working in a studio with a bunch of other guys, one of which was Cameron Stewart, who was the inker on Deadenders
. I met Cameron at San Diego, and Darwyn was with him, and introduced himself, and I was like, "Hey, do you want to draw Catwoman
?" We ended up talking about it, and he had some time in his schedule to do the first arc, so I begged him to do it with me. He thought it would be cool to do the redesign on the character, which he did a fantastic job on, and his art on the first issue is what prompted DC to look at it and re-launch the book. Matt and Bob were telling everybody that my first issue seemed more like the first issue of a new series than anything, so they decided to cancel the book for six month. I was shocked at the time, and then they wanted us to do a backup in a Detective
during the hiatus, as a teaser. Which was cool, because Darwyn and I both wanted to use Slam Bradley.
SPURGEON: Had Slam Bradley been used since like 1942 or whatever?
They used him a couple of times in the 1980s, in anniversary issues. I remember this anniversary issue of Detective
that had a bunch of characters that had been in Detective back in the day. There was a Slam Bradley story drawn by Jim Aparo. Plus I always liked the name: "Slam Bradley." It appealed to me to do something that was a detective, and I thought it would be cool that since we were going to do something in Detective
, to bring Slam Bradley back and have him be an old-fashioned gumshoe.
SPURGEON: One thing that struck me about your
Catwoman stories is that a very stark use of color as a narrative tool. Do you work with your colorists closely?
Most of the Catwoman
s you read were colored by Matt Hollingsworth, who doesn't even work in comics now, he's at Dreamworks doing something. I think he colored like the first twenty issues. He pays attention to the script, and to what's being said, and really tries to distinguish a mood for the characters through the color. He's a total artist. He changes his style for the art. I look at the colors and give notes if the colorist will send me jpegs, which Matt always did. Which I loved, although he didn't always love my notes. "What about headlights on that car?" Stuff like that. But that color palette and making it part of the mood was all Matt, his being a genius.
Females and Inspirations
Catwoman the first time you've done a female character?
I always wrote girls in my comics.
SPURGEON: But a female lead?
For a continuing comic, yeah. I was more inspired by the stuff Frank Miller had done in Batman: Year One
with the character. So I just took that and some conversations I had with Frank about her character and the Holly character and sort of ran with all that.
SPURGEON: You eventually become proprietary towards those characters.
Definitely. You just do. Even though I didn't create Slam Bradley, I didn't create Holly, I didn't create Selina. I created Holly's girlfriend, I guess, but she's hardly been in the comic. But yeah, I feel like I did a lot with those characters. So you do feel proprietary about it.
SPURGEON: You feel like they're good characters? Or is there something specifically endearing about them?
I started writing the book like I would start writing anything. I knew the background of Selina Kyle. I had to read all the previous Catwoman comics that came before, as much as I could. They sent me a lot of stuff, and I looked through all of it, and got an impression of who she was and what she'd been through.
There was a lot of incredibly conflicting background on her. To some degree, I was able to look just at the stuff I thought made sense, and stick with that, and kind of redefine her and make her my character. With Slam and Holly, no one had used Slam Bradley in 20 years or something. Holly, I didn't even know, she had been killed off ten or twelve years previously. [laughter] Which is why in that Secret Files
I did a story with Eric [Shanower] about that.
SPURGEON: Had Holly's resurrection become an issue? Did people complain?
That's how we found out about it. Fans. Plus there was an editor at DC who said, "You know, they killed her off in such and such issue of Acton Comics
." And I was like, "What?" None of us knew that, apparently.
But like with Sleeper
, I created every single character except for Lynch and Tao, but at the same time I feel like I've probably written as much Lynch and Tao as anybody ever did. And everybody else I completely created. So with Selina and Holly and Slam, even Leslie Tompkins although I don't feel as proprietary about her since she's appeared in a bunch of Batman
stories, but I like my version of her, they were a good cast to do a bunch of crime stories and do stuff that I thought was a lot different than what was going on in mainstream comics at the time, character-driven explorations, as opposed to straight plot-driven action. I remember I was talking to Judd Winick at a comic book convention, the first time I ever really met him. He said, "You know what I really like about Catwoman
? It's the closest thing to an alternative comic that gets published by DC." [laughs] It was during the Javier Pulido run, when it was pretty much a plotless narrative. Okay, here's a bunch of people standing around and talking about their feelings. And a guy having sex with a girl half his age, even though he knows it's a pity fuck.
SPURGEON: There's some really bleak stuff in there; I was very surprised.
I was trying to do a crime noir comic. It's not like Catwoman
's really a superhero. Or even that she's really like a hero. She's somewhere in between a good guy and a bad guy.
SPURGEON: Are you more comfortable with that kind of story?
I think so. I always want to try everything. I would love to write Archie comics, really, but there's no money in that. [laughter] But the crime stuff, the murky grey area, living on the edges of society stuff, that seems to be something that comes naturally to me.
I didn't set out to be a guy who wrote Batman
. I didn't set out to do any of that stuff, it just all kind of happened. Obviously I've put a lot of effort into having it continue to happen. But Scene of the Crime
just happened to work, and a lot of people liked it and I started getting offered a lot of work. So I started to think, "Okay, if I did Catwoman
, what would I do with a book like that. What would be fun to do? What would be different to do than what people are doing now?" You just try to think of that kind of stuff and put yourself in it somehow.
SPURGEON: There's a certain visual approach that connects
Catwoman issue to issue, at least until recently.
A lot of people were saying it looked like the animated art, from the Batman
animated cartoon. Darwyn Cooke worked on the Batman
cartoons in Bruce Timm's studio, on Batman Beyond
and stuff. So he definitely came from that animation background, but I never thought of what he was doing on our book as looking like that. When I would get the pencils, they reminded me more than anything else of early '60s Jack Kirby. The pages were more cartoony than Kirby's stuff, but you look at those early Fantastic Four
s, they're gorgeous to look at, but they're not realistic. The people have a style about the way they're drawn. I looked at it and compared it to that stuff a lot. There's a certain simplicity -- that's a terrible word for it -- but there's a certain simplicity to the layout and an economy to the backgrounds that a lot of fans mistake thinking that that's actually easier to do. It's actually much harder to do comics with less detail than it is with a lot. To pull everything off and make it look right, it's not like Toth just craps that shit out.
SPURGEON: When there's a formally audacious use of the art, how much of that is in your script? There's a scene rather early on in your
Catwoman run where Slam Bradley gets shot in a sting they're running.
Oh yeah, that.
SPURGEON: The scene breaks out of the grid and out of the tiers. It's sort of shocking, because everything before that was pretty tightly controlled.
That was crazy. And that was all the artist, Brad Rader -- he's another Bruce Timm studio guy. That wasn't me. [laughs] My script read chronologically, and he just did this bizarre thing. He was really into Steranko as far as layouts go, and he liked doing layouts where everything felt like it was happening at the same time. He did a couple of scenes like that. There's a chapter in that same trade where Selina is going out onto her street and the kids are playing in the snow and the panels overlapped each other. Then in the next issue, he has a scene where Holly goes to a party and there are a lot of little details... he was really into doing stuff like that, and I thought it worked beautifully.
SPURGEON: There's another scene where Catwoman and Slam Bradley meet with a cop named Farucci in a diner. And that is a very... a very meticulously staged scene. There is a lot of emphasis on her placing her hand on his hands a couple of times. The scene has to vary in the way it looks because otherwise it's boring [Brubaker laughs] or at least I would assume that because it's boring otherwise you change perspective. Now is any of that you?
For that, the script would say "She puts her hand on his hand and looks at him sympathetically." But I don't give a lot of camera direction. I'm not into that school of controlling every aspect of what the guy draws. I used to do little thumbnails or little grid patterns to show the artist how I pictured things. What I found out was that most of the artists, especially the good artists, the most fun they had is in breaking down the story, because they can figure out the layout of how it's going to work, the pacing. When I was a cartoonist doing the breakdowns was the fun. Somehow your brain allows you to just have fun with it and not worry about it because this isn't what gets printed. So you don't need the net. The breakdowns become the net, I guess.
It also depends on the artist I'm working with, but I work with Sean Phillips and Michael Lark, and it would be stupid to tell those guys how to do certain camera angles and shit like that. They would erase it from the script before they printed it out. Cameron Stewart was the same way. For Cameron I would write eight or nine panels on a page, because we were using a four-tier grid. Then I would get 16 to 20 panels on the page. [laughs] So I'm like "Okay, that's fine." I like that when it's an artist I can trust. When it's an artist who is going to make the right decisions and not delete the shit I wrote. I don't mind if they break a panel into two or three, but if they take three panels and make them one then I usually get mad. That fucks with the rhythm of the thing.
Pieces of Yourself
SPURGEON: Is there anything that surprises you when you've read your mainstream work after the fact? Some people believe that when writers are doing mainstream work that because they're not conscious of using it for inner expression that stuff subconsciously works its way into books anyway. [Brubaker laughs]
Are you trying to find the nicest way to say this without insulting me, the mere idea of doing work-for-hire?
SPURGEON: No, I'm wondering about those comics as expression. I thought it was really affecting, for instance, when I read Joe Casey's comics how much he's obviously thinking about the issues of maturity and responsibility, and what it means to be adult. Do you impart those kinds of issues onto your work, do you think?
When you're writing, either your own comics or stuff you don't own and other people draw, you have certain recurring themes that you're writing about. You're always attacking them from one angle or another. Ross MacDonald basically wrote the same book 18 times in a row. I love it every single time, because it's different every single time. But it has the same general themes.
I learned a long time ago to stop making a real separation in my head between the work-for-hire stuff -- unless it's something that I'm basically ordered to write where I have no feeling for the character and it's non-stop plot. That stuff is boring to write and you can't put yourself into it. But if it's something where you've created the whole storyline, there's always going to be big pieces of yourself in there. I'm exploring the same themes in my Batman
comics and my Catwoman
comics that I was probably exploring in Lowlife
: family relationships, personal relationships, people not being able to escape their past... That's the stuff that interests me, and that's the stuff I write about. I don't make such a big differentiation in my head anymore between the stuff that I write for a paycheck and the stuff I write because I want to. There are ideas I have that I don't think I could get paid by DC to write, so I sit on those sometimes, but the nice thing about what I've been doing for the last couple of years is I get to write about stuff that I find interesting and somebody pays me.
SPURGEON: You talked about being surprised when you read your first mysteries with an adult eye that there was stuff in there you found affecting and you were interested in. Is there stuff that maybe you've tried to work into superhero book, maybe
Catwoman, where you're just like, "This isn't working."
No, not really. It's an old saw, but the characters kind of write themselves. You figure out what you want them to do, and they don't always follow suit. As far as Selina and Holly, they have things in their background that are very similar that have happened to me in my background. There's a whole issue of Catwoman
that's told from the point of view from Holly, the sidekick, where she's seeing the world through junkie vision. Which was totally me listening to my neighbor in Seattle who was in narcotics anonymous and listening to her rant about how she keeps seeing the world in junkie vision. It's all stuff like that. I don't think I was ever surprised, because I knew that if I was going to write any stuff like this, if I was going to write a mainstream comic, I was going to have to make it interesting to myself.
Honestly, I think it kind of comes down to not thinking there's anything wrong with pulp fiction. And realizing the genre doesn't have to stop you from doing something good.
SPURGEON: When you say that you can talk about all of these issues when you're doing a mystery, or that you can work through these issues in Catwoman and Gotham Central, does that pulp element add anything to what you're doing?
I think it does, actually.
SPURGEON: What does it add? The way you framed it earlier is that you were surprised that you could do anything you want with those elements, but at the same time those elements have to have an influence.
That came from first discovery, reading this stuff as an adult, some of which I'd read when I was younger. I remember reading Raymond Chandler when I was younger and not getting it because it was too dense. I think there's something cathartic about some of the elements of the genres. I think there's something comforting about... the same thing about working with a net. Like we talked about yesterday that Philip K. Dick wanted to write just straight fiction, but you read his straight fiction and it's like he couldn't loosen up. The best stuff he wrote was the crazy stuff. I wrote autobiography, and I felt like I did that pretty well, and I think I've found something in the framework of writing the genre fiction that's sort of comforting in the same way writing autobio was. It goes more to the craft, and it gives you a net to work with.
SPURGEON: How does that work on the reader, then?
God knows. [laughs] Episodic fiction has been around for so long. Readers just love it for some reason.
SPURGEON: I have to imagine there's a difference reading a story where the author talks directly about family and one where they're saying it through
SPURGEON: And I don't mean that in an insulting way, just that there has to be a difference. Maybe those elements ground that material?
Maybe what I'm trying to do is make Catwoman
a book where you can do stuff like that, too. It could be a failing of mine that I sometimes forget what these comics are supposed to be and do with them what I want to do with them. [laughs] I'm certain there are hardcore Catwoman
fanboys that wish I'd never taken over the book.
SPURGEON: They want the tail back.
They want the tail, and they want her shaking it all the time and they want the supporting cast to go away and for her to stop fucking Slam Bradley on his desk.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Those poor fanboys.
I think part of it is that episodic fiction is just huge. That's why every company in Hollywood wants to not just buy something, but to start a franchise. Everyone wants sequels, they want to see what happens to these characters next. If you can do something within that episodic comic book thing that goes even a little bit beyond just entertaining people, that's great. I don't think entertaining people is anything small, really. It's certainly something not very many people can actually do.
But I don't feel like I'm trying to make bold artistic statements with any of the work I've ever done. It's been about creating characters, exploring ideas and themes, and trying to entertain. Lowlife was me exploring my past and trying to entertain people. I actually felt like a lot of those pathetic and sad stories were really funny, given the distance of hindsight. [laughs] But to me, writing is about asking questions somehow, not about having answers. You're exploring things through characters, and you can ask just as many questions with something like Buffy
as you can anywhere else. It's all up to the writer.
Personally, I like episodic fiction as a reader, or a viewer on TV. If a writer is good, and I like the characters, I've had a couple of different mystery series where I've read ten or twelve books. And I love Maison Ikkoku
, that's one of my favorite manga, which is just a complete soap opera. I read the entire thing in about three months. That doesn't say anything beyond people are crazy and they love each other. I guess that's a theme. [laughter]
Just Add Bats
SPURGEON: Let me ask you about
Gotham Central. What I was struck by when I read
Gotham Central is that it starts out very much a procedural, Ed McBain-style...
SPURGEON: ... and then Batman shows up. I kind of know how procedurals work, and I have a sense of the range of effect that you can get out of them. But how does Batman influence a procedural?
SPURGEON: I don't mean that as obnoxious as it must sound.
It doesn't sound obnoxious, but I just keep forgetting you're so removed from the mainstream comics world. It was such a victory to get them to let us do that book. [laughs] We've done 20 issues of a book Batman barely appears in, which is a huge achievement, but whenever I see anyone from alternative comics talking about the book, they ask, "Why isn't it just about the cops?" It's because they wouldn't let us do it if it was just about the cops. [laughs] They would have been canceled the book at issue #5 and no one would have read it.
But there is a reason why it's Gotham Central
and not just New York Central
. We probably if we had really pushed could have gotten them to do a cop book. But it's the same thing that made Marvels
interesting to me: to see it from the point of view of the little guys. If we just did the book without Batman, it would be Homicide
or whatever. Our unique take on that is not going to be that much more unique than NYPD Blue
, sadly, because neither of us is going to spend a year working with a homicide squad to get the details right because we don't have a year to do that.
We came up with the idea when we were working on a project together and we were each doing the police scenes for it. I was like, "I'm having more fun doing these cops." And it was really funny to write cops walking through a crime scene where the Joker was. I loved seeing it from that real-world angle. Commissioner Gordon was always part of Batman
; from the very first appearance of Batman there was a Commissioner Gordon. So when you look at it that way, there have always been cops. There's got to be a division of the police force that handles all the major crimes, and anything freak-related would be a major crime. And so you start thinking about that, and you start thinking about, "How would those cops feel about somebody like Batman?" Every time they can't close a case they turn on the Bat Signal. That has to be completely demoralizing. They have to hate the fact that their commissioner has given them a time limit to catch the guy before he turns on the Bat Signal and brings in the big guns.
So we started talking about that and how much fun it would be to write those characters. The thing that's boring about Batman as a reader, and it's the thing that's boring about Superman before you even pick up the book -- he's fucking Superman. That's totally boring. He's invulnerable. The only thing that can hurt him is a fragment from the planet he came from. Which makes a whole hell of a lot of sense.
I always liked Jimmy Olsen
and Lois Lane
comics. I never liked Superman
SPURGEON: Another reason you may like
Jimmy Olsen and
Lois Lane comics is because those are the greatest comics ever made.
They might be, actually. They're so fucking hysterical. Still when I go to comic conventions I just look for cheapo back-issues of those. I get all the DC Books, and I'm like "I want the hardback Jimmy Olsen
collection. Fuck all this Superman
shit. I don't need the JSA
from the '40s." I don't even want the original Doom Patrol
. I want Jimmy Olsen
. [laughs] Even the Supergirl
comics were more interesting.
Batman can become an incredibly boring character because you're seeing an entire world through Batman's point of view. And once you've gotten a handle on what that point of view, it's kind of monotonous. It's like, "I'm Batman. My parents got killed. Every night I go out and stop crime. And I hate crime. And oh God, this will never end." [laughs] I like writing the character; I enjoy writing Batman. But Batman is not scary. The whole point of Batman is he's this guy who scares criminals. But when three or four comics a month come out from the point of the view of the scary guy? He ceases to be scary. If done right, Batman is still totally fun to read. But when you're overexposed to that, Batman ceases to be scary, and the villains cease to be scary, because there's no threat of loss of life. Batman is never going to get killed by these guys, and he's not going to allow them to kill the ballroom of people they're holding hostage. Because Batman, by the rulebook you're given when you're writing it, has to be infallible. He has to stop people from dying. He has to stop the villains. He can't get frozen solid and broken into pieces and have Robin become the next Batman.
But you can have a Gotham City cop frozen and broken into pieces in front of his partner, and suddenly Mr. Freeze is scary again. Mr. Freeze wasn't scary in Batman
comics ever. Even though he'd be terrifying. He could walk in and freeze everybody in your house, and that would be it, you'd all be dead. That's pretty fucking scary. [laughter] Part of the inspiration for doing Gotham Central
for me was that first issue of Marvels
. That ground eye view to the gods that are wreaking havoc on your world. How awful would it be to be a cop and be caught in the crossfire between the Joker and Batman? That would fucking suck. If Gotham City was a real place and the Joker was walking down the street, people would be turning and fleeing the other way. They wouldn't think it was some weird guy. It wouldn't be like Haight Street: "Some loser dressed up like a clown today."
I think that's what Batman and those characters add. It makes it more than a standard police procedural. It's about these characters that are the last good cops in that city working in an environment that none of them can quite fathom. It gives us a way to look at Gotham City through a different point of view after so many years of looking at it the same way. Eighteen years or whenever they did Batman: Year One
. When people tell me that it's a really good comic but why is Batman in it? They're not really understanding the comic, then. Part of the point is that it's Gotham City.
SPURGEON: I find it odd that the introduction to the first trade --
SPURGEON: -- went on and on about how it wasn't Gotham City.
That was one of those weird things. Lawrence Block is definitely one of my favorite mystery writers. His Matt Scudder series is one of the inspirations for what I wanted to do with Catwoman
. So I was so excited when they told us he was doing the intro. Then I saw the intro and I was like, "He didn't even mention our book. Like once. Did he realize the intro was supposed to talk about the book to some degree." [Spurgeon laughs] Then I read a bunch of old books with intros, and it was very common for the guy writing the introduction to write a couple of pages that sort of thematically connect to the book without mentioning the book or praising the book. In the last 20 years introductions are basically an extended quote. A blurb. So I'm totally conflicted: part of me wanted me to get him to do a rewrite, and part of me was like "It's Lawrence Block, so fuck it." He's a Mystery Guild Grandmaster, so he can do whatever he wants.
SPURGEON: Do you like the whole deal of being a working professional? Doing conventions, going on panels, doing interviews with on-line news sources...
It's like anything. You get a certain amount of pleasure hanging out with people who work in the same field as you, because they understand what you do. I have a lot of friends within the comics industry. It's the same thing in alternative comics. You go to these conventions, and there are people you only see once or twice a year at most, at like APE [Alternative Press Expo] or SPX [Small Press Expo].
I don't go to a lot of comics conventions. I do two a year, maybe three if it's a big year. I have some friends who will do ten in a year. I didn't even know there were ten. I don't know. I generally have fun when I go to them, but I usually dread going to them beforehand for some reason.
SPURGEON: Is it different now, going when you have books that people are reading, that are up for awards?
Yeah. I used to be really terrible at conventions. DC would fly me out to the convention, I'd show up at the booth for my signing time or whatever, and if there weren't people waiting to talk to me right away I'd wander over to some other part of the booth and start talking to somebody, some artist or writer I like. Then people wouldn't know where I was, and DC would think I was flaking out, when it was really I couldn't imagine anyone giving a shit I was there. [laughs] So the last couple of years they've been making me sit down for my signing time, and then in a few minutes people start lining up to get my autograph. "You want my autograph?" That just seems completely weird. I've never been an autograph person. I've never wanted anyone's autograph, really, not since I was a kid. I did Wondercon and I must have signed a thousand comics this year. That's not like a thousand people with one comic each; there was one guy with 50 comics.
SPURGEON: That's odd.
I did that to Mike Grell when I was a kid, so I didn't feel too bad about it. [laughs] I mentioned when you asked me about the Eisners this year, that this was the first year where I didn't have shock. I was like, "Oh, that's nice." I was glad, I was pleasantly surprised, but I wasn't appalled to be on the list. Last year I was like, "Oh, come on." [Spurgeon laughs] Like I have any chance of winning that. Now, I still don't imagine I'll win any of the stuff I'm up for, but I wasn't shocked to be nominated. "Okay, I've been nominated for this stuff. My peers like what I do."
But I definitely felt sometime in the last year, year and a half -- maybe it's just that I have enough work in print in trade paperbacks -- but I've started to feel like I'm getting to the point where I go to conventions and there are actually fans there who want to meet me and have me sign comics and talk to me about Sleeper
or something like that.
SPURGEON: They want to have their moment with you.
Yeah, especially the Catwoman
fans. [Spurgeon laughs] Nothing is like these incredibly hot Catwoman
fans who want to dress up in the Catwoman
costume, the one that Darwyn designed for our book. Having some really hot 20-year-old girl show up in a leather outfit that I helped design is pretty hysterical. [laughter]
SPURGEON: I take it this never happened in the
No, nobody in alternative comics -- they're all too uptight for that shit.
SPURGEON: The WildStorm books you've done --
Point Blank and currently
Sleeper... Is there something unique about working with the WildStorm imprint?
I love working at WildStorm. If I had a choice of only working at one company, I'd be totally happy there. WildStorm is much more laidback about a lot of stuff I find really irritating about the way the companies are run.
SPURGEON: Such as?
Just some of the scheduling stuff, and the details -- getting corrections made and looking at proofs. You can really run into some backwards stuff with the larger publishing schedules. What WildStorm seems to care the most about is the package coming out the way they intended it to look. They really care about the final product. They would love to have stuff that sells, too, but they're concerned with getting really cool comics and making sure all the details are right. I feel like I'm intimately involved with every step of it at WildStorm. They're really a great place to work.
The editor that brought me in there is Scott Dunbier, who is a really good friend of mine now. He's the senior editor of the whole line. Jim Lee, who is one of the biggest artists in comics, is the president of WildStorm and he's the main reason Sleeper
is still happening. Jim's gone on record many times as saying Sleeper
is his favorite comic. He fought to have it brought back even though DC really didn't make any money on Sleeper
the first time out. He really pushed them to put out a trade paperback, and then the first one sold out in two months. They were like, "Oh, okay. Maybe people will
buy this as a trade." It's great to work with people who really dig what you're doing and really have faith in you and don't just look at the bottom line instantly. A lot of the comic book industry is about looking at the bottom line way too soon. It doesn't run enough like a real publishing industry where you can sometimes publish for years in the red. Or is it the black? I can't remember.
SPURGEON: Red is the bad one.
BRUBAKER: The Stranger
[a Seattle weekly paper] was running for a good five years in the red, and now they make a profit. That's how real publishing is. When you publish a book you are always publishing in the red. Unless it's Harry Potter
, you're not making a profit for a year. [laughs] The Peanuts
books that Fantagraphics are putting out, they're not making money on those the day they come out. They have to wait to get paid. In the direct market, everybody looks at the bottom line before the comic comes out. Which is a fucking tragedy.
It's Not Comics...
SPURGEON: Am I right about
Point Blank to suggest that you're drawing from more cinematic source material than you might have in the past? We've talked a lot about books, but not so much about movies.
That's probably the artist more than anything. Well, with Point Blank
, the structure of it, the way we told the story with all the jump cuts -- trying to make a comic that was sort of difficult to read to some degree, that you actually have to pay attention to it -- that was inspired in part by the movie Point Blank
, which is were we got the name, obviously.
I've always referred to Sleeper
as an HBO show on paper. I don't think it really feels like an HBO show, because they don't have anything that has an internal monologue. But the internal monologue is a way to have a 22-page comic take a long time to read. So I think there might be some amount of inspiration from stuff like that. The Sopranos
or The Wire
or stuff like that. But really the biggest inspiration from Sleeper
is reading a bunch of John Le Carre stuff and seeing Donnie Brasco
and thinking, "It would be kind of cool to do something about someone who was undercover but in a world where there were superpowers." [laughs] It was an offhand comment: "Imagine if Donnie Brasco was a superhero. How ridiculous would that be?" Then once I started developing it, really delving into it, and looking at what superhero comics really are. I don't want to use the word, "deconstruct," but maybe that's an appropriate word.
SPURGEON: You concentrate a lot on ethical constructions in
Sleeper; is that the kind of thing you're talking about?
I was thinking about the superpowers, each character's superpowers -- it's so blatant it's almost a joke -- but they're metaphors for who they are. The little deconstructionist things where they sit and tell their origins in the third person. There's some more of that in the last few issues of the first twelve.
The moral dilemma and that kind of thing, that was one of the big sparks for the story, too: the Kurt Vonnegut book Mother Night
. When I read that I always thought that would be a really interesting thing to do something about, a person who pretended to be something they weren't and started to lose the distinction. When I started working on this book, I was thinking, "You can't sell a comic book by saying, 'It's sort of a superhero version of this obscure Kurt Vonnegut book no one remembers.'" [Spurgeon laughs]
SPURGEON: There was a movie, though, wasn't there?
Yeah, but it starred Nick Nolte
. [laughter] It was actually a good movie, it had a good director who managed to keep Nolte reined in a bit... but I was really trying to play up the superhero espionage John Le Carre angle of it. I love that stuff, that sort of murky loyalty and whether the agency is really doing anything good or not, and these agents that are sent out to do these things and they have no idea what the point of their mission is. I like stuff like that.
SPURGEON: There's no career metaphor we can go for here, is there?
Working undercover as a mainstream comic book writer, waiting for my phone call out from Gary Groth? [laughter] There's no metaphor there.
SPURGEON: Where are you in
Sleeper, then? You're in all of your characters, what do you relate to in this one?
I've done a lot of shit in my life I'm not proud of, basically. Almost everything that's written about in Lowlife
is stuff I'm pretty much ashamed of.
SPURGEON: Loyalty issues aren't something that's come up before in your work, even the autiobio stuff, which is remarkable because of the big role they play in most young people's lives.
Most of my friends tell me I'm an incredibly loyal person, so who knows? But you don't always know what you're writing about. Thank God. Because it would be incredibly boring.
SPURGEON: I think you'd feel like crap and cry a lot, too.
That's probably true. [laughter] There's some part of me in all of those characters. But I've never been a Black Ops murderer. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Still, it seems like there's a different tone to the ethical questions being addressed in these later works, Ed. You can see the surrogate family notion rotated back in the story, and some regret regarding the past. Yet there are also some identity politics going on in there -- the dilemma of "Is this a line we cross, or is this the way we are?" Is it fair to say the various issues in
Sleeper come from intellectual experiences rather than personal ones?
I hate to use the word intellectual, but yeah, probably. When you get out of your twenties, and stop focusing only on yourself and start listening to the people around you, you can't help but view the world certain ways.
Certainly the amount of reading I've done on history and our government have influenced my ways of looking at the world. Seeing people doing horrible things for supposedly good reasons. You see documentaries about soldiers going to Panama and burning down the whole city, you wonder how that would affect a person. I started to think that would be an interesting thing to explore.
You have to extrapolate from your own experience, and I've done stuff that I knew at the time was really bad but I just couldn't stop myself from doing. When you do something like that, where you commit a crime you can actually go to prison for but at the end of the day you somehow think you're a good person -- how does that work? I think that's one of the things I come back to with all of my writing, is people being ashamed of things they've done and the people they used to be. Are you still the person you used to be or are you the person you are now, or are you just a collection of your actions?
That's the question that Tao asks Holden at the end of Sleeper
's first run. He points out the difference between Tao and other people is that Tao doesn't differentiate between the things he does and the things he thinks. Whereas most people are two people inside themselves. There's the person that they think they are, and the person that they really are. The person they think they are is the one that feels guilty every time the other side takes control, basically. It's like "you're not the person who goes out binge drinking and hits on girls, you're the person inside you that's ashamed of that." [laughs] I'm just making stuff up; I've never done that. [both laugh] I'm just making fun of people who would.
I think that's a real thing about people. I think people put up a front to some degree, and maybe don't even know why a lot of them, except maybe they're terrified to let people see who they really are. It's just using the espionage world to look at that and to sort of look at the genre of the superhero at the same time. That's really what Sleeper
is about more than anything -- looking at people who do the wrong things, because they're much more interesting than the people who do the right thing. [laughs]
Sleeper is also the last word in your body of literature about crappy jobs. [Brubaker laughs]
That's true. It is a really shitty job. I hadn't even thought about that.
SPURGEON: Vocational issues run through a lot of your work. It might be obvious to point out that you've had some jobs that you didn't like.
I'm probably the worst employee of all time. Maybe not of all time, but I was terrible... I was one of those guys who the minute the employer acted like you should be giving more than showing up for your hours and punching the clock, the minute they started to act like you should give more of a shit about it, I was looking for the door. It was always like "I'm just doing this until the comics thing takes off." I was always a really shitty employee, and because of that, I don't think I ever made more than seven dollars an hour at a job. [laughs] But I never had to work at The Comics Journal
SPURGEON: That sounds pretty good for the
Journal, seven dollars an hour. [Brubaker laughs]
I think I only ever had two jobs I enjoyed until becoming a full-time writer. One was a used bookstore where I got to sit around and read books. [pause] I can't remember the other one. [laughs]
A Good Place to Work
SPURGEON: Speaking of vocational issues, you've worked for a wide variety of publishers, so I'm interested in your perspective on industry ethics. Have you ever been ripped off?
My first thing I ever did was for Blackthorne. I did a comic for them and got ripped off. But I've always been treated pretty fairly by everybody since then. Even in mainstream comics. The worst thing that's ever happened to me is not getting a check on time. I've never been fucked over at all.
SPURGEON: Some people have told me that mainstream comics is on the whole a pretty good place to work.
If it were a bad place to work, I wouldn't be working there. The only thing wrong with working in mainstream comics is that the whole comics industry is so small right now that launching anything new or anything that's not superheroes becomes harder and harder and harder. The market is so tight. That's my biggest complaint. Everybody I know wants to create their own properties and have them be successful. I want to do books that I have more of an ownership investment in. I don't just want to do stuff that's owned by Marvel and DC or anyone else.
It's just that distribution is the biggest problem. If comics distribution in general were better, Marvel and DC would be able to launch new properties. The average comic book retailers -- who are not people who'd even read the Comics Journal
-- those are the guys who won't order anything outside of the top 20-25 comics. And if you have a market like that, how are you supposed to launch any new books? That's the biggest problem with the market, and you wish the publishers would address that more, because they all signed those fucking exclusives with a distributor and sales have on the whole been going down ever since. They try to tell you that the last three years sales have gone up, but if you really look at it, sales have gone up on stuff that's in the top 10, maybe the top 20, but on the mid-level stuff sales have actually gone down. It's a squeeze.
SPURGEON: It seems like we're on the cusp of a new era of "hot books" and double covers. Is that frustrating for a writer whose concern is the content of what he writes?
I don't think the industry is run the way, well, the way I would run the industry. [laughter] It doesn't make sense that it's 90 percent one genre. Bookstore comic book sections are not like that at all. They've got manga, with who knows how many genres.
I just get frustrated with the lack of diversity. In the early '50s, when superhero comics weren't selling, the publishers stopped doing them. They stuck with the ones that were selling and stopped publishing the others. I mean, EC had no superhero comics and they were the biggest publisher in the industry. But back then, most of the people running the publishers were just businessmen, not comics fans by any means, other than maybe Bill Gaines, so they tried everything to see what people would buy. But starting in the '70s, the decision makers were people who grew up reading superhero comics in the '60s and wanted to do superhero comics.
If I were in charge of Marvel or DC, I'd cut half their lines and try different genres. That's the problem when they do try new genres or new projects that aren't superheroes: they're not cutting anything to make space for it. They're putting something out in addition to
, and the retailers are always going to play it safe and go with the stuff they know they can sell instead of the crime comic they may not even have room for on the shelf. They can't return it if it doesn't sell; they get stuck with it. That's why the industry is so stunted in its experimentation, because the retailers all bear the brunt of the burden.
I think the direct market was a good thing to help revive the industry to some degree. But they shouldn't have gotten out of the newsstand business as much as they have. What I'm frustrated by are the same things that frustrated me as an alternative cartoonist. The entire direct market is too geared towards superheroes, and even within superheroes it's geared towards the stuff everyone's already heard of. When was the last time a superhero was launched that didn't fail? Can you think of a single character that was created even in the '70s that is still being published?
SPURGEON: Stingray? Nova? Brother Voodoo?
Exactly. No new character created then has been continually published the way Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman have. You can kill a book and bring it back. Warlock has probably been published five or six different times. Captain Marvel has had a bunch of versions. But they're not popular enough to sustain continued publication. And why is that? Who is the customer? Ever since the early '80s, the customer is the retailer.
I don't know what you have to do. For all the talk of the Eisner Awards and the Harvey Awards and all this stuff, we're the only industry where awards don't affect the work at all. If a movie gets nominated for best picture, generally people go see it. If it came out earlier, they will release it again that month and theaters will actually screen it. If a TV show gets nominated for an Emmy for best series, generally its viewership goes up. Even Homicide
when it got nominated for Emmys it would get another lease on life.
SPURGEON: But that was after the Emmys kind of rehabilitated themselves in the '80s. Don't you think the comics awards are so generally awful and reward shit on such a regular basis that they have no legitimacy? That they're still kind of in their Lindsey Wagner phase?
But still, if you're a retailer who runs a mystery bookstore, when they announce the Edgar nominatons, you make a little section of "These are the books up for the Edgar." When the Eisners come out, no comic book store I know of sets up a "These are the books up for the Eisner" section. It's just bizarre. How come the Edgars matter to a mystery store but the Eisners don't matter to comic book stores?
Work For Hire
SPURGEON: If you don't have any moral objections to the way the companies you work with are run now, is the fact that they're built on some dubious past treatment of artists ever a worry? As a former punk rocker, hardcore alternative comics guy, are you sensitive to that?
I was never like John Porcellino or Aaron Cometbus in my never-going-to-sell-out-to-the-man attitude about that stuff. I would have done Lowlife
for Sony. [laughter] I don't really care. The people that are running the companies now are not the same people who fucked over Jack Kirby and Jerry Siegel. They're not the same people, and on the whole they're nice people. They are what they are. You have to go into it with open eyes.
They've rectified a lot of that stuff. If you create a new character in a Batman
comic, and they end up using it in a Batman
cartoon or a Batman
movie, you get compensated for it. You get credit for new things that you create for them. You don't own it outright, they own it, but they give you participation since you've created it.
SPURGEON: Do you think they've done enough by the original creators? Even now DC is still trying to reach agreements with the people who came up with the original properties or with potential interest in them.
Yeah, well, we're coming out this of history where the whole industry was work for hire and everybody signed away all their rights through the '40s, '50s and '60s where everybody got exploited.
It's still not open enough, as far as I'm concerned. Like, why is comics publishing so different than book publishing? If I publish a novel, and get an advance for it from Time Warner, Time Warner doesn't automatically own all the rights to sell it as a movie. Most authors retain foreign sales and multi-media rights, or at least it's not automatic. It still seems a little bit backwards that even the creator-owned stuff you can do at Vertigo you get a share of it more than anything. You don't get control of it, in general, unless you're someone like Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis who can negotiate a more powerful deal through a lawyer. If you're some guy walking in off the street who sells a project to Vertigo, WB has first refusal and last refusal on it.
SPURGEON: Well, doesn't that suck, Ed?
That stuff is a little retarded. The reason that it is is because I'm willing to bet anybody who makes a living as a full time comic book writer generally makes more than the average novelist. If you're some guy who writes one novel a year, and you're moderately successful, you might make $50,000 a year. But if you're willing to work your ass off and write four comic books a month and you can get the work, you can make a lot more than that.
SPURGEON: So let me refocus the question. It struck me that you're currently working on
The Authority and
The Authority seems to be the beneficiary of those later kinds of deals, whereas Captain America is one of the original sued-over characters.
Yeah. Him and Superman.
SPURGEON: Does it ever hit you that Warren is probably happy
The Authority is continuing but the Kirby family may still be upset about issues concerning
Captain America? Or that one deal was simply better than the other?
Look, I have a healthy respect for Kirby and everything he did, but I don't see why I should feel any worse than somebody working on Mickey Mouse does about Ub Iwerks. At least Kirby got credited. I mean, if Jack Kirby were alive and told me he didn't want me to write Captain America
, that might be one thing. But the fact is someone is going to do Captain America
, so why not me and why not have it be good?
That's such a nebulous question. When you're working on properties that were created by other people, you can't really worry about the deal that the people who created the character made.
SPURGEON: Why can't you?
Well, for one thing, because you may not always have the luxury to. You may have a mortgage to pay. And it's like I said before about the mainstream market, too. The direct market mainly supports characters that've been around since the '40s and the '60s. And if you work on them, it's a good chance their creator got screwed somehow.
SPURGEON: Are there any properties out there that you wouldn't work on?
I wouldn't write Elektra
I wouldn't write Elektra
because I'm sort of friends with Frank Miller. He never said, "Don't write Elektra
." But I know the guy, and I wouldn't do that. If somebody called me up and offered me a book a friend of mine is writing and he didn't know he was about to be fired…? No, I wouldn't do that, and I'd call my friend and give him a heads up. It's the current ethics that you deal with. What you're actually involved in.
But if all these guys from the '40s got their properties back, I'd say "Good for them." I wouldn't stand in their way and moan, "Oh, no. Now I won't get to write Captain America
I mean, you might as well ask why everyone doesn't decline to receive Eisner Awards because the Eisner/Iger studio exploited its workers in 1939. I don't see that stopping Kim from picking up Chris Ware's awards every year. And it certainly wouldn't stop me.
SPURGEON: You think of yourself as a writer now, I take it, as opposed to a cartoonist?
I think of myself as a professional writer, although I make most of my living through comics right now. But I've written screenplays, and I'm working on a novel. I'll probably do some TV. I'm negotiating to write a videogame.
SPURGEON: Was there a point at which you stopped thinking of yourself as a cartoonist and started thinking of yourself as a writer?
I think maybe mid-2000 or so I noticed I was enjoying myself more as a writer than I ever had as a cartoonist. I've talked to a lot of other people who are cartoonists who go through this. Some people really enjoy drawing, like Crumb. Jim Woodring probably enjoys drawing and designing stuff. From Chris Ware's sketchbook it looks like he enjoys drawing. But most people I know in comics work really hard and only get the enjoyment out of the drawing when it's done.
I always enjoyed the writing. I think I always felt more comfortable with that stuff than I did with the drawing. I was always so unsatisfied with my art. I had this moment where I said, "I'm going to focus on the writing for a few years now and see how it goes." I was together with my wife, and we were thinking about getting married and buying a house. I thought, "As a cartoonist if I work my ass off I can make maybe 10 grand in a year. Whereas if I'm a writer and work my ass off I can make ten times that if I'm lucky and good at it." So I'd focus on this for a few years and see how it goes. Also by early 2001, I had published a number of things like Scene of the Crime
, some Batman stuff, and I had been contacted by agents and started to get interest in Hollywood and I got a literary agent who was really after me to start writing crime novels. The doors started opening. So I figured maybe I could try to write a screenplay, and maybe sell that, or write a mystery novel and see how that goes.
SPURGEON: One book we sort of skipped over, which is kind of a transitional work for you, is the book you did with Jason Lutes,
I wrote that for Jason. Bob Schreck was going to start a new magazine at Dark Horse and it was going to be in that. By the time we ended up getting everything together, Bob was working at DC and Jamie Rich was editing Dark Horse Presents
. So we ended up in Dark Horse Presents
instead. I'd written Accidental Death
for Eric and I wanted to write something else crime-oriented. Jason and I started kicking around the idea of doing something. He wanted to do a genre thing, basically, but he didn't want to write it. He wanted to collaborate with someone so he could just concentrate on the storytelling and the art.
SPURGEON: In terms of your development as a writer, there's a lot in the writing in
The Fall that I don't think would have been possible with many artists other than Jason [Lutes]. It certainly wasn't something you could have done yourself. It's really soaked in metaphor...
It is? [laughter]
SPURGEON: It is.
Jason's really good at breaking scenes down, too.
SPURGEON: How important was it for your development as a writer that you worked with such good artists, particularly early on?
I did work with really good people, but I also worked with people who respected me as a cartoonist and a storyteller. I got the best of them because of that. With Jason, I didn't even write a script the way I would for anybody else. I think I might not have even broken it down into pages. I may have just given him a bunch of descriptions and dialogue. "Make it a comic."
SPURGEON: You seem to be pretty adamant about giving your collaborators a lot of space and letting them do the things they do well and that they enjoy. Is that a lesson you learned with Eric and Jason?
I think it's a lesson I'm still learning. It's only in the last year, year and a half that I've really realized that you have to give these people something fun to draw. You can't just have these people standing around and talking or going to a diner. Not every artist in the world wants to draw that. [laughs]
There's a lot of guys in comics that would love to draw Flash Gordon
, but they're drawing Batman
instead. They still want to draw lots of cool stuff. That's one of those things I might have added back into the interview, that not only are a lot of people working in mainstream comics having families to support, but a lot of them aren't doing alternative comics because they want to draw stuff that's more fun. They don't want to draw people walking around in Mexico, or Hawaii or whatever. [Spurgeon laughs]
SPURGEON: Are you ever defensive about the notion that comes out of alternative comics that the best comics always come from those working entirely out of their talent?
Writing and drawing their own things? Eh. Not really. I subscribe to that to some degree. I think if you have a really good collaborator, then things can become bigger than the sum of their parts. [Harvey] Kurtzman didn't draw every comic he wrote, and everyone loves those.
In general, I think the most pure cartooning is the stuff written and drawn by the same person. But that doesn't mean that because some guy writes and draws his own comic that they're going to be good. I've certainly written and drawn some comics that I don't think are good. [laughter]
I think Sean [Phillips] and I do our best work together. I look at stuff he draws for other people and I can tell he's not as into it as the stuff I write for him. You can look at it and go, "He likes the stuff I write for him better and gets into it more." You can get into a real good rhythm with a collaborator that way. But my favorite cartoonists are Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Gilbert Hernandez, guys who write and draw their own stuff. My favorite manga is Nausicaa
, where Miyazaki refused assistants and did everything himself, which is why it took ten years instead of ten months. I'm definitely more interested as a reader in stuff that people write and draw themselves.
SPURGEON: Is there anything you thought you were going to be asked and weren't, since this is the
Comics Journal, after all?
I actually thought there might be some point in the interview where I could argue a little about the fact that the Journal
is so utterly dismissive of mainstream comics. Not liking the comics for what they are is one thing, but implying that the people who work in them are not as good as the people who used to work in mainstream comics in the '50s... There's always this idea that the ECs were this pinnacle. That the ECs and Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner and Gil Kane and Joe Kubert were all great craftsmen, and it was perfectly okay for them to do work-for-hire stuff. But it's not okay for Michael Lark to be a craftsman and work for the mainstream and do genre material.
SPURGEON: Wouldn't the argument be -- and forgive the pun -- that there are alternatives to doing that kind of work now?
Not if you want to make a good living and raise a child, probably. And you're not a writer, too. If you're just a guy who draws, why would Sean Phillips go draw an autobiographical comic written by some other guy for no money when DC Comics will pay him top rate to draw something else and he's got four kids to feed? I never understood why it was okay for Joe Kubert and Gil Kane to earn a living, but it's not okay for everybody else to earn a living now and still consider themselves a craftsman and still care about their job. I always get the feeling when I've read these things where Gary or all these other people are being so incredibly dismissive of people working in this field, that you may not like episodic comics, you may not like superhero comics, but you have to look at them for what they actually are. You don't review a TV show and complain it's not a movie, you know? And you have to appreciate the fact that there are people in this field that are really good at what they do.
SPURGEON: I personally think the level of craft in mainstream comics is really high right now -- the top 20 percent is as good as it's ever been. The thing I find puzzling is that even though I recognize that, I'm still not all that interested in the work.
And I feel the same way about most mainstream comics. There are TV shows I enjoy a lot, too, but would never want to own. I think mainstream comics are far too expensive for what you get, really. But I think the level of craft is still there, and that's what frustrates me about the way alternative comics look at mainstream comics. They almost refuse to see that there are a lot of talented people still working in the mainstream.
I was the same way. I was completely dismissive of mainstream comics until I started working in them, and then saw the level of craft involved from the writers and the artists. Especially a lot of the artists I work with, they want to work on stuff with more lasting value. Having trade paperbacks come out that people read more than one time, they want to work on stuff like that. But they also have to support their families, and sometimes they honestly just think it's more fun doing the big slick action-packed stuff, just more fun for them to draw.
SPURGEON: Do you think it's a defense mechanism people have that work outside of mainstream comics? If you're not going to invest your personal project with a certain amount of romance, who is? You almost have to say, "I'm a serious artist" and define yourself against others or go crazy.
You have to have faith in what you're working on, I guess, but I don't think by doing that you have to be blind to the realities of the world around you.
Look, I don't expect The Comics Journal
to think that episodic genre fiction is the be-all and end-all of comics, and I don't think it is either. But I don't have a problem with it. It doesn't upset me. And I don't think the people who do it now are somehow not as good as the people who did it in the '50s when there was no other game in town.
SPURGEON: I think one reason the
Journal doesn't run more writing like that is there's a slippery slope between astute writing about craft and my-favorite-stuffed-animal writing.
SPURGEON: You also have that historical development of that whole portion of the industry, where you have this pure market dominance coloring things; the vehemence might be in response to that.
Oh, yeah. It's a reaction against that, sure, and I honestly don't think the Comics Journal
should spend a lot of time with mainstream comics, but I think sometimes I read a review, and if it's not something by Grant Morrison that an entomologist can write a thesis on, then it's dismissed almost out of hand.
I just feel the people who are working in mainstream comics are getting short shrift for their talent, that's all. But at the same time, it's not like they're not getting paid for that privilege. It's hard to feel sorry for somebody who is making a couple hundred thousand a year: "Oh, he didn't get reviewed in the Comics Journal
. How horrible."
SPURGEON: If that's the last thing missing from the plate of achievement, that is a pretty full plate.
I'm sure Warren Ellis is crying all the way to the bank because the Journal
didn't write a review of Global Frequency
SPURGEON: I just imagined Ellis standing at an estate window holding a glass of brandy and staring at the rain: "But what does Christopher Brayshaw think?"
[laughs] Yeah, Christopher Brayshaw. God, what an asshole.
SPURGEON: You've made such a wholesale transformation the last five years, and now you're in another transitional period where you're working on different kinds of comics and maybe in other media. Do you have specific goals?
My goal by next summer is have at least half the stuff I write in comics be stuff I actually own. My goal within a few years from now is to be only writing comics half the time, and writing other stuff the rest of the time, like crime novels or screenplays or whatever comes my way. My goal is just to continue to be a writer, and hopefully do good things. [laughs] Hopefully not suck at it.
SPURGEON: What about right now?
My immediate goal is to try and develop a slightly bigger name by doing this superhero stuff and then use that name to do stuff outside of that. I don't want to be some guy who only writes superhero comics. I want to do less superhero stuff in the future once I'm done with The Authority
and Captain America
. I want to move to different genres, but the industry will have to come to me on that. [laughter]
SPURGEON: Do you know where you want to end up? Or is the idea to just keep working?
I think when you're a teenager you get these ideas of who exactly you're going to be. When I was kid, I thought I'd be a penciller at Marvel. When I was a teenager I thought I'd be writing and drawing and probably self-publishing comics. And when I got to my late 20s... the world just kind of comes to you, eventually. You can make decisions based on what's available to you, but eventually the world creeps into this perfect illusion of what your life is going to be. Five years ago I would never have imagined I'd be living on a farm for three years and writing Batman
At the end of '98 I spent three months traveling around on the train and allowing myself to be open to doing different things and not being so stuck on this idea that I had when I was 14 of who I was going to be. Realizing that there's not anything wrong with trying different things out and going in different directions. I go through periods of time where I'd be really happy to be out of comics entirely. [laughs] But at the end of the day most of the people I know in TV and film, while they like the money they make, they're generally unhappy with what actually comes out with their name on it.
SPURGEON: Are you happy, Ed?
Am I happy? I'm probably happier now than I've ever been in my whole life. But I think my wife gets most of the credit for that.
* This interview with Gary Groth's initial section stuck between my introduction and my part of the interview appeared in The Comics Journal
#263, and can no doubt be purchased through their web site.
* Mr. Brubaker's web site can be found here.
* A newer interview concentrating on the launch of the series Criminal can be found here.