Pipeline: Pipeline2, Issue #61

Fri, August 11th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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WIZARD WORLD 2000 - PART TWO

[Welcome to Wizard World!]In Tuesday's edition (Pipeline Commentary and Review #166), I talked about the overall feel of Wizard World 2000, held last weekend in Chicago. I also reviewed the upcoming WITCHBLADE television movie, and teased for a look at the panels held at the show.

That can only mean that today's column is a look at the panels, Wizard School classes, and Q&A's I had the chance to sit in on over the weekend. I shall endeavor to do so now.

(Oh, one last thing: There was also a special PCR EXTRA on Wednesday, which took a look at the WHITEOUT: MELT trade paperback and the latest issue of DORK TOWERS. Both of those books officially hit comic shops that day, but I was lucky enough to find copies at the con to read ahead of time.)

FRIDAY

[Chuck Dixon and Augie]
Chuck Dixon and Augie
The first program I went to was Chuck Dixon's "Ten Commandments of Comic Writing." A handout circulated, which contained the ten commandments you can also find at Dixon's web site, dixonverse.com. The introduction to the commandments sums it up the best: "These are the rules I follow. They won't win you an Eisner Award or get you an interview in COMICS JOURNAL but they will help you write quality, mainstream comics that keep readers coming back for more."

Over the course of the panel, Dixon illustrated the commandments with some examples from his own work and from movies. The thing that surprised me was how laid back, and almost shy, Dixon was. Maybe it's because he writes terrifically action-oriented stories with brash, gun-toting, deadly characters that I pictured him as being a bit more outgoing, if not over-the-top. He taught the class wearing khakis, a button-down shirt, and a baseball cap. His voice was steady, his manner was reserved, and his attitude was humble, yet always sure of himself. He didn't wither under the sometimes-intense scrutiny of some of the students' questioning. (OK, it wasn't really that intense, but there were some people who couldn't grasp some of the concepts and challenged Dixon on them. He explained them very matter-of-factly.)

Dixon spent a lot of time discussing comics marketing - or the lack thereof - as one of the problems with the medium. He pointed out that it'll probably take a movie studio like Miramax buying up a comic company, or starting one of their own, to get somebody to finally do a comprehensive marketing survey of the comics industry. One has never been done. For movie companies, spending two or three million dollars to launch a line of ten comics is worth the investment if they get only one successful movie out of it.

"If carrots were marketed like comics," Dixon said, "a couple of years from now, people would be saying, 'Remember carrots?'"

The topic of using current slang in comics writing came up. How do you balance the need for a teenaged character, like Robin, to sound fresh while not automatically dating the book? Dixon pointed out that making up your own slang can sometimes work. On the other times, sometimes he'd just leave a space blank for a slang term, and then tell the editor to find the youngest guy in the office and ask him what the newest slang term was that he could use in there. Then, at least, he'd have the chance that it wouldn't fall out of favor by the time it saw print.

Dixon quoted Larry Hama in regards to making up your own slang: "If the readers don't know it, they'll assume it's cool." That also worked on all the cardboard backings for the G.I. Joe toys that Hama wrote for.

Dixon talked about the Larry King interview of Stan Lee. When King referred to the type of mindset needed to write comics as "childish," Dixon said that had he been in Lee's place he "would've been over the table." Yup, that would make a great Dixon-penned comic! I think that's a double-page splash right there.

The most remarkable point made in his presentation? He's ahead of deadline on each series he's currently writing by at least 6 months. For example: NIGHTWING #48 just came out this week. He's currently writing the script for issue #59. Dixon pointed out that everything starts with him, the writer. If the writer hands in a script late, the letterer may not make his mortgage payment that month. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but it's true. The comic doesn't stand a chance of coming out on time if it's delayed from the start. You can't assume that the artists, letterers, or colorists are going to be able to make up your time. Heck, in many ways, the writer has the quickest job of all. But Dixon couldn't stress strongly enough how important it is to be able to write on deadline. If you can do that, the editors will seek you out.

"The McLauchlin Group" was held in the largest room of them all, seating close to a 1000 people, although this one wasn't in danger of that. (The only ones that probably were in danger, were the Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Kevin Smith panels.) Hosted by Wizard's own Jim McLauchlin, the panel starred Brian Pulido, Erik Larsen, Mark Waid, and Jeph Loeb in a roundtable discussion of various issues of the day. Topics ranged from Ultimate Marvel to CrossGen to people who say "Wassup?" just way too much. It's a fun and freewheeling panel, and something I'd even like to see expanded past the constraints of a one-hour time period. McLauchlin runs it just as John McLaughlin runs his political show, which has been on the air for 19 years now. He brings up an issue, the group discusses it, and then he gives the "answer." Jim McLauchlin is remarkably good at this. He has a voice made for radio, actually, and doesn't stammer over his words. If I didn't know any better, I'd say he has some background in theater or radio or something.

The biggest laugh came from the musical question, "Would you write the next Batman movie -- ::dramatic pause:: -- if Joel Schumacher directed it?" (If you're wondering, Erik Larsen says he doesn't write movies. The rest said they would. You've got to give it a shot. And McLauchlin agreed.)

With a sequel to THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS coming up, the panel was asked about sequel-it is, and if it only ends up detracting from the original property. All of the creators agreed here, as well, that it doesn't. Projects should be based on individual merits, and a bad sequel shouldn't negate a good start. Does SUPERMAN: THE QUEST FOR PEACE turn SUPERMAN into a bad movie? Of course not.

Alan Moore has always said he wouldn't do a sequel to WATCHMEN under any circumstances. Erik Larsen's reaction to that? "But he's psychotic…"

Things got sillier and sillier as the panel continued. This wasn't helped by Mark Waid's lack of sleep. When his flight out of New York got cancelled, he rented a car, pulled an all-nighter, and drove out to Chicago. (See next Friday's column for my account of flying in that horribly rain-soaked weekend.) Said Waid at one point, "I agree with Jeph [Loeb]; What does Jeph know?"

Loeb, talking about the X-MEN movie: "I was never a huge X-MEN fan, especially when I was writing it." I think Mark Waid got the biggest laugh out of that line than anyone else in the room. It's a sentiment I imagine he shares.

Said Loeb of Erik Larsen's new take on THE SAVAGE DRAGON, "Instead of ripping off Marvel characters, he brings them in."

Said Erik Larsen of CrossGen's studio approach, which he thought was a bad idea: "What if they start reproducing?!?"

And Loeb's take on internet fandom? "The internet doesn't kill people. People kill people."

The night ended at the convention center with the Wizard Fan Awards. It was an amusing and no-holds-barred awards ceremony. Picture this as a rowdy Eisners. The Eisners are a much more dignified event, filled with wonderful talk about our common love of a great art form. The Wizard Fan Awards are a raucous display of people having fun with comics, from both the fan side as well as the professional side. Nelson and Jimmy Palmiotti hosted the event with microphones clipped onto their formal black evening wear. They hosted video clips from a Wizard Make-Your-Own-Video contest, and introduced each award. (The winning video showed an out-of-work Hulk looking for a new job, giving everything from strip-dancing to grocery-bagging a try. Very funny stuff.)

The awards themselves were each given out by different creators, who all had their own fun with the them. Jeph Loeb (him again?) read the nominations for Favorite TV/Movie Project in a stuffy British accent. Ron Marz openly said he was rooting for Chris "DESPERATE TIMES" Eliopoulos in the Favorite Letterer category because "his wife is hot." (Thereafter, everyone went up to proclaim his or her significant other to be the hottest. When Amanda Conner flipped up her dress to show the crowd her panties with a message of love for Jimmy emblazoned on them, I think some audience members may have settled on Jimmy Palmiotti winning that contest…) Joe Kelly was chosen to give away the award for Favorite Supporting Character, and preceded the nominations with, "Just as every good character needs a good supporting cast, you can't have a good athlete without a good athletic supporter."

Like I said, this is the fun awards ceremony, where nobody holds back and everything is done in good fun. Some might complain that the maturity level was rather low, but if we can't poke fun of ourselves, what good are we? Besides, this is Wizard's Fan Awards. What else did you expect?!?

[Augie and Dr. Doom]
Augie turns his back on Dr. Doom.
Dr. Doom was there, in full costume, to give away the award for Favorite Villain. When Magneto won - quite upsetting to Doom, I assure you - Tyler Mane (X-MEN's "Sabretooth") got up to accept the award and threaten Doom.

Kevin Smith easily had the best punch lines of the evening. Sadly, none of them are reprintable in this column. I try to keep things PG-13, and these lines were strictly R, albeit hilarious to the point of evoking tears. Ask me in person someday about them, and I'll tell you.

For a full list of the winners, you can look at Wizard's web site.

SATURDAY

At 1 p.m., Jeph Loeb arrived at Wizard School to speak on "Writing Mystery and Suspense in Super-hero Comics." The hour-long Q&A spoke more towards writing in general, but it was still entertaining and informative.

Jeph Loeb became my new comics hero that afternoon. His attitude towards comics reminds me of Erik Larsen's and Chuck Dixon's. These are guys who like writing super-hero action comics, make no apologies for it, and are willing to stick to their guns. Erik Larsen is never going to write WATCHMEN. That doesn't bother him. He's more interesting in writing and drawing the Marvel comics of his youth. It's something he's doing now with both THE SAVAGE DRAGON and the upcoming DEFENDERS. Chuck Dixon, as illustrated above, isn't writing comics to be displayed in the Smithsonian. He's there to entertain readers.

Loeb pointed out that the average comic should be read in the time it takes to make a trip to the bathroom. "The average Loeb comic should take as long as a piss," he joked. (At least, I hope he joked. Otherwise, I'm drinking a lot more before going to the bathroom next time.) Personally, I think Dixon's books read quicker, but I did manage to breeze through BATMAN: DARK VICTORY #1-#9 a couple of weekends ago in the span of two days or less. Maybe Loeb has something there. But, he also pointed out, "You can run through the Louvre in an hour." You can do it and enjoy it on your own level. Someone else may want to sit in front of a painting and analyze the brushstrokes more carefully. A third person may want to sit in front of the painting to determine what the artist's true concept was with the picture. None of those three people is wrong. They all enjoyed the paintings for different reasons, and they all got something out of it. Why can't comics be similar?

"I've tried to get into SANDMAN. I don't want to work that hard," he also said. I couldn't agree more, and I've read more than a dozen of those issues. I'm sure Gaiman is a swell guy. Heck, I enjoyed GOOD OMENS very much. SANDMAN just isn't my book.

A couple of other nifty quotes:

"I don't get PREACHER. It's a guy screwing a chicken."

"I get 100 BULLETS. But I wish the Hulk would come in and kick the #!$& out of all those people…."

He also mentioned that he loved WATCHMEN. It works as a mystery and suspense just fine. But he got frustrated with the chapter with the pirate novel interspersed throughout as much as I did.

That kind of honesty is refreshing in this industry. We so often walk on eggshells around here, for fear of upsetting the comics literati. Look at the trouble I get into anytime I point out the flaws (as I see them) in Grant Morrison's work, or when I admit to enjoying a Rob Liefeld comic.

Why should I have to? What's wrong with that?

Mark Waid has a new mantra, and it's one he elucidated at the McLauchlin panel on Friday. I'll just have to paraphrase it here: Just because the comic isn't aimed at you, it doesn't make it bad. There's a comic out there for everyone. ULTIMATE X-MEN isn't bad strictly because it's not the mainline continuity-laden X-Men book. We shouldn't dismiss it out of hand because it's not aimed at the bunch of inbred hillbillies that comics fandom has become. Having more comics is not necessarily a bad thing. More different types of comics is a great thing.

So that is why Jeph Loeb is my new comics writing hero. Oh, he also does a fabulous job in SUPERMAN every month and on those nifty mini-series with Tim Sale. I'm really looking forward to the next issue of BATMAN: DARK VICTORY. I'm curious as to the answer to this mystery.

Anyway, back to writing comics here…

Jeph Loeb ran through three basic points of storytelling:

  • What does the hero want?

  • What is keeping him from achieving that?

  • How can he resolve the problem in a surprising (to the hero) way?

He used the story of "Cinderella" -- describing it as his favorite -- to illustrate his points. The hero is Cinderella. She wants to go to the ball to meet the prince. She can't because she's poor, she can't afford the clothes you need for a ball, and her evil stepmother is stopping her. She resolves the problem with the help of her faery godmother.

But, Loeb said, that's not enough. You need some sort of central underpinning to the story to make it hold up and resonate. In this case, it's Cinderella's search for love. She's not getting love from her stepsisters or wicked stepmother. She's looking for it from the prince, as he too is looking for it.

That's a much too short overview of this. If you can catch Loeb in a similar setup sometime, it is worth going to.

He did admit, though, that Superman is not a great detective. "He spent an awful lot of time with the Parasite," he pointed out, "and didn't realize it wasn't his wife!"

[Larsen]
Erike Larsen's "Creating the Ultimate Fight Scene" panel.
Erik Larsen did a panel called "Creating the Ultimate Fight Scene" just a couple of hours after Loeb's. Yes, he did arrive late, but that was because one of the booths had him overbooked for a signing.

When Larsen did arrive, though, he got straight to it and talked his heart out until the top of the hour arrived, even going past the point when the volunteers told him to shut up.

When he got to the panel, there were no overhead slides left to draw on. So he pulled out a bag of comics he had with him, took the bags off the comics, and used those to draw on to illustrate his points. He drew a sample scene of the Hulk fighting Dragon to make his points. I wish we had the slides to run here. They run from odd to hilarious. It's amazing how quickly he can sketch in a character with a few pen strokes, though.

I'm not going to be able to give you much of what Larsen taught at the panel. It's all visual, and tough to describe in words. But it covered the use of lettering in a fight, the difference between team fights and one-on-one fights, panel layouts, the usage of psychic powers in a fight, pacing concerns, and much more.

I'm not sure if Larsen is the perfect candidate for professorship at the Wizard School. He's been doing this stuff for so long, it comes as a second nature to him. He doesn't seem to be the type to study every panel of every comic looking for greater truths or meanings. Someone like Steve Rude or Scott McCloud might be nice to have teach such a class in the future.

One other thing would have helped this class: a wireless microphone. I had to strain to listen to Larsen speak from the back of the room, but since he was drawing on an overhead projector the entire time, it wasn't really practical to have him holding a microphone the whole time.

The final panel of the day dealt with character development and was hosted by the comedy team of Joe Casey and Joe Kelly.

Each spoke at length to start, discussing in general terms how they develop their characters and how they researched to learn about the characters they write today. Kelly even used the overhead projector to illustrate the "character wheel." He puts the character's good traits on one side, and the opposing traits on the other side. Using Spider-Man as the example, he put "wild" and "fun" on the left side and "stable" and "guilt" on the other side. The trick, he said, was to devise a supporting cast that complemented all of these features and brought them out. Mary Jane - in her original form - was akin to Peter Parker's wild and fun side, whereas Gwen Stacy appealed to the more wholesome side. She was the policeman's father. The good girl. JJJ would be on the bad side, while Robbie Robertson would fall on the other side. Aunt May fell towards the guilty feelings, but Flash Thompson played towards the wild and fun.

In a perfect circle, of course, all of these interactions would complement each other, too. There would be sub-divisions amongst these sub-divisions, and characters along the outside of the wheel would have complex relationships in this way, too. There's also a circle to be made for a team book. Using X-Men as an example, you'd put Wolverine on one side and Cyclops on the other. Jean Grey would fall somewhere in the middle. The believers in Xavier's dream would align with Cyclops, and those who took a more practical view of the world and of his dream might be with Wolvie.

Both writers conveyed that it was important that each character who walked on panel had to have a life. Even if the trick is only so small as to name the person in the script to be "Officer Smith" instead of "Cop #2," it would help the writer to remember that everyone is a character all their own. Sometimes, you can show this simply with a funny accent, or by having a character with a limp.

Slightly more major characters must also always have a story arc, otherwise they show no signs of life, and offer up nothing to the comic as a whole. It's your job as the writer to know the characters you're writing first. If you don't, it'll show in the work.

Kelly offered up a simple solution to a questioner who asked how you, as a writer, could tell if a character was flat. Kelly proposed writing the plot to your story out, and replacing your character's name with "Superman." Does the story change at all? No? Then your character is flat. A line of different characters placed in the same spot in the story will affect the rest of the story in a different way, dependant on their personal characteristics.

Of course, with two wisecrackers like this up in front of a room, no double entendre was allowed to go by without comment. In explaining the character wheel, Kelly said, "These two characters are going to pull at Peter in different ways." Casey would have done a spit take if he had a drink in his hand; I'm sure of it. Kelly took a second to compose himself and came back with, "Wait 'til I get to Harry Osborn."

"Pulling at Peter" became a running gag for the rest of the panel.

And what better or simpler way to describe the overall mood of Wizard World 2000 than with that one sentence? It neatly summarizes the attitude of the convention. (Chuck Dixon spent some time explaining that you should introduce your characters as quickly as possible. Sketch them in with just a line or two if you can. Something like the previous paragraph I think works towards that, on one level.)

SUNDAY

The only panel I went to on Sunday was the Marvel Knights panel. Since some news was broken at that panel, you can find complete and comprehensive coverage of it from any of the web-based comics news services. Not much more I can add to it.

But I can tell you that even through a microphone, Garth Ennis can sometimes be difficult to understand. He sounds like he's constantly mumbling, and engages in enough upspeak to rival the inhabitants of BIG BROTHER 2000.

LO, THERE SHALL BE AN ENDING!

OK, I'm shutting up now. And I'm doing so realizing there's still more to discuss, despite writing more than 3800 words here. Next Friday will finish off the Wizard World 2000 coverage if it kills me. There are all sorts of oddball notes yet to cover, a picture or three left in my arsenal, some more travel horror stories, and name-dropping like you wouldn't believe! So whatever I've promised this coverage to have that it hasn't yet, you'll have to wait until next Friday for. If you have any questions or reminders about the con for me to mention next week, send me an e-mail soon!

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