By almost any measure – exposure, esteem, money – writing for comic books is a big step down for authors who are enjoying success in TV, films or fiction.
But try telling that to the big-name scribes – including horror-meister Steven
King, Joss Whedon (creator of TV’s "Buffy the Vampire Slayer")
and writer/director Reggie (House Party) Hudlin, now head of entertainment at
BET – who are taking the plunge into the pulpy world of muscle-bound superheroes.
They all think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
Thriller writer Brad Meltzer (The Tenth Justice) remembers being recruited by
Bob Shrek, the editor of the Green Arrow series.
"He waited around until the very end of a book signing and asked, ‘Do
you want to write The Green Arrow?’" Meltzer recalls. "I said,
‘Don’t say that unless you’re serious.’ I’ve been waiting
my whole life for someone to say those words."
For many authors, comic books possess an evergreen coolness that far surpasses
their lowbrow standing in the culture. It’s a happy association that often
extends back to childhood.
"Growing up in Philly, I went down to Fat Jack’s on Samson Street every
week to buy comics," says Mat Johnson, 35, the award-winning novelist (Hunting
in Harlem) who is writing the Papa Midnite voodoo series for Vertigo, an imprint
of DC Comics.
"From the time I could read, I’ve been devouring these things,"
says Meltzer, who is 35. "I had a $5 allowance growing up in Brooklyn and
I spent the whole thing every week at the Nostrand Avenue Comics shop."
As a consequence, getting to dabble in the colorful realm of comics is like fantasy
camp for many writers.
Of course, it benefits the publishers as well. "We get compelling storytelling
and a fresh outlook on over 40 years of character continuity," says Ruwan
Jayatilleke, director of development at Marvel, in New York. "And obviously
we’re going for a crossover audience. Increasingly we’re seeing these
[comic] books collected into graphic novels."
"When you have stories from well-known creative types like Joss Whedon or
[sci-fi author] Orson Scott Card, or Reggie Hudlin, there’s more of a mainstream
audience going to Barnes & Noble or Amazon or even discovering their local
comic book shop," he says.
Approximately half of the comic book industry’s $500 million in sales last
year came from graphic novels and paperback anthologies – illustrated books
such as Meltzer’s Identity Crisis, which wound a murder mystery around some
of DC Comics’ most cherished characters, crusaders like Superman, Batman,
the Flash and Green Lantern.
The traditional comic book, which now typically sells for $2.99, makes up the
other part of sales. A hot title may sell 100,000 to 200,000 copies.
Writing for a comic book takes some adjustment, especially for novelists. "It’s
a very visual medium," notes Charlie Huston, 38, author of the vampire/detective
mashup Already Dead. He’s now working on Moon Knight, a comic about a brooding,
"You have to learn to reduce the text and plot, and let the pictures carry
the story as much as possible. My prose style is pretty spare to begin with, but
it’s shocking when you see it on the page how even a few words can begin
to crowd a panel and diminish the action."
"You have to learn to shut up," concurs Meltzer. "When I write
a novel, if I want to say someone is nervous, I have a definite number of words
I can use. But in a comic book you’re painting with a brand-new palette of
words and pictures."
"Now I might say: ‘In panel one, extreme close-up on Superman. I just
want to see his brow,’" he explains. "`Panel two: I want to see
a bead of sweat. Panel three: A close-up on his worried face.’ I haven’t
used a single word yet. You have to rely on the artist to lift part of the weight
Even writers who are used to working in visual forms such as TV and film have
to drastically pare down their prose.
"I keep finding myself with way too much story to confine in 22 pages,"
the standard comic length, says Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of ABC’s "Lost,"
who is writing Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk.
"I’m forced to cut and compress and tell the story in a snapshotty fashion.
The way you convey emotion with a picture versus the way an actor will perform
it is a very different style of writing. I’m still trying to find the rhythm."
For the writers, other comic-book conventions also take some getting used to –
for instance, the industry-wide paranoia about intellectual property.
"You go through a whole procedure before you can even pitch an idea,"
says Huston. "They would only talk to me very generally about stories and
characters until I had signed a release that said Marvel is developing many story
ideas in many arenas and even if a story later emerges that is very much like
mine, it might have existed before and I will not under any circumstances sue
And writing a comic book in the digital era, it turns out, is a surprisingly solitary
pursuit. "I assumed that the collaboration between the writer and artist
would be fairly intimate, a lot of back and forth," says Huston. "But
it’s not like the old days when they were all together in New York, working
out of the famed Marvel bullpen."
"The truth is, because of where the technology is now, the artists are really
spread out," Huston continues. He has never met David Finch, the Canadian
artist with whom he is collaborating on Moon Knight.
When acclaimed Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina (Deception) was recruited to
write the occult comic Hellblazer, the basis for Keanu Reeves’ movie Constantine,
she wanted to set her seven-part story arc in Glasgow. The problem was that her
artist, Leonardo Manco, resides in Argentina.
So Mina broke out her video camera to provide Manco with some authentic local
flavor. "I made a DVD of the area with lots of reference points to all these
places I was going to mention," she says. "I was quite heavily pregnant
and climbing all over these building sites. The guys were sneaking me in at lunchtime
because I told them it was for DC Comics."
Fan reaction to the celebrity scribes has been generally positive. "You have
skeptical people because they’re from TV or movies. And then you have people
who follow their TV shows," says Jamar McLaurin, 32, who works at Out of
Time Comics in Philadelphia.
"Usually, everyone comes around in the end. The transition to comics seems
to be pretty good. Guys like that are responsible for three of our hottest titles.
The Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine is huge right now. (Hudlin’s) Black Panther
is flying off the shelves, and anything Joss Whedon does – his latest is
Astonishing X-Men – sells."
None of these name writers are motivated to work in comic books for the payday.
"You basically get $90 to $150 a page," says Douglas Rushkoff, prolific
media critic and novelist (Exit Strategy) who is writing the biblically themed
comic Testament. That’s next to nothing compared with the wages of Hollywood.
"They understand the realities of working in this medium," says Marvel’s
Jayatilleke. "It isn’t something that reaches 40 million people per
week. There aren’t huge ad dollars being pumped in. It comes out of a desire
to recapture some of the things they loved as a child."
But the work has other compensations. "I have one friend who is obsessed
with comics," says Mina. "I used his name in Hellblazer. I think he
wants to marry me now."
© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Film: Special Features [Comic Books]
Hollywood Honchos Take a Turn at: Comic Books
By David Hiltbrand
Article posted on 3/6/2006
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