Mercenary Mind: Issue #1

Mon, May 1st, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Justin Gray, Columnist

The Mercenary Mind title comes from the fact that as a comic book writer who is not under exclusive contract, I work for both sides of the two major companies and the occasional small press publishers. I am a mercenary of fiction taking jobs from bitter rivals as they compete for universal supremacy. Pretty cool ain't it? I'm lucky to have this job and many of you will agree for reasons of your own.

As a mercenary I have a certain obligation to whore, I mean promote myself to you, the lifeblood of comic books, the fans of this great medium. Without you there is no me. Thus concludes my ass kissery.

For those of you reading this and wondering exactly who I am, the name is Justin Gray, not Grey or Green as one reporter stated online after covering the last DCU panel in Los Angeles. I've been writing comics for the last five years. I often collaborate with a name you do know, Jimmy Palmiotti. Jimmy and I have been friends for nearly a decade, which is a testament to his character because I am a social mutant.

I'll admit I'm not a guy who enjoys the spotlight as illustrated by this funny, but true story. Jimmy and I recently attended Wizard World Los Angeles and during a signing at the DC booth a gentleman came up with copies of "Hawkman." Jimmy signed and slid the books over to me. The gentleman looked puzzled and slightly annoyed before he indignantly blurted out, "Who are you?" He didn't seem happy about me defacing his copies of Hawkman. I chuckled as Jimmy explained that we collaborated on the writing. The man took a closer look at the cover credits, looked at me and then Jimmy and said, "How come his name is first?"

Some writers might be offended by that exchange, but I found it funny. I don't have the same people skills that Jimmy does. I'm introverted and in this business it is a hindrance. I also don't have the extensive list of credits and awards that Jimmy has and justly deserves. I don't spend much time worrying about my star status or the lack of it and neither does Jimmy, but we're both extremely passionate about getting our books into your hands.

Okay, back to the whole mercenary gig. These "creator" columns are thinly veiled marketing devices designed to entice you into buying what we're selling. I'm not going to bullshit you and pretend otherwise. I want you reading "Jonah Hex," "Daughters of the Dragon," "Freedom Fighters," "Crisis Aftermath: The Battle for Bludhaven," "Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four" and anything else that is announced with my name on it. After the "Hawkman" signing story, you can see it isn't because I'm hungry for the spotlight.

Seeing as how this is the first column, I'll make it a double sized fun pack by inviting a friend and fellow writer to talk business. I plan to do several interviews with people in this column just to keep you interested.

This week we have Christos Gage who has scripted, along with his lovely wife, episodes of television shows such as "Law and Order: SVU" and "Numb3rs." His comic book work…well I'll let him fill you in on that.

Chris, lets hear the credits countdown.

In chronological order: "Deadshot" #1-5 from DC; "Spider-Man Unlimited" #12; my creator-owned indie miniseries "Paradox" from Arcana Studios; and "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight" #201-203 (on shelves now!). There's more to come this fall…wish I could say more, but I can't!

Fair enough. From a creative standpoint scripting for television or film doesn't allow you the same sort of visual control that comics do. Often a director, cinematographer and dozens of other people build what we see on the screen after you've sold your script to them. I realize they are different mediums, but does that control make one easier or more satisfying than the other?

It makes comics more satisfying in many ways, for the very reasons you mention. Now don't get me wrong, a great team of people - like the well-oiled machine of talent that is the "Law & Order: SVU" cast and crew - can realize a script brilliantly. But simply due to the realities involved - budget, the number of days you have to shoot, the weather, etc. - it's almost never going to be the "movie in your head." In comics, there are just a handful of people bringing your script to life instead of hundreds, and there are fewer logistics involved. Especially if you've worked with your collaborators before, it'll be a lot closer to what you envisioned, and that's a great feeling. Of course, there's something magic about a great actor delivering the lines, or a great director's visuals, but it's the same with a great comic book artist. Neither medium is easier or harder for me; it's all writing, and I give all my writing the clichd 110%.

Lets talk process. For me sometimes it helps if I set the characters in motion by writing dialogue first and then going back in to break it up into panels. With action I tend to write that out and add dialogue later. What's your process like?

I'm pretty orderly. I generally write the action, then the dialogue, then the next panel's action and so on. But sometimes, if I have a specific dialogue exchange in mind, I'll write it all out just to get it down, then figure out how it breaks up into panels. Same with a fight sequence, but in reverse. Whatever works at the time.

Are you an outline kind of guy or do you jump right in and begin working once you've got the basic premise in mind?

I like to have a basic idea of where I'm going, but I also want the freedom to let inspiration strike along the way, as it often does. I usually start with a paragraph or two describing how the issue starts and ends, and roughly what happens in between, but I figure out the mechanics of getting there as I go. The exception would be on "Spider-Man Unlimited," where I was asked to do an outline breaking the story down by page, which was necessary and helpful because the story was so short - half the length of a normal comic. I'm glad I did it there, and would do it again in certain situations, but an outline that detailed is not my usual method of working.

We continue to see a number of film and television writers getting their feet wet in comics. You're obviously part of that movement so I'll ask what is the attraction? It can't be the money. The obvious answer is going to be a love of comics, but what else?

Love of comics is the big one. That's the reason filthy rich, insanely busy guys like Damon Lindelof do this when they could instead be writing pieces for "Vanity Fair" or catching up on what little sleep they get. But there are other attractions as well. One, and you've heard this a lot by now, is the unlimited budget. In comics, if you want to blow up a galaxy, great. You want a giant robot that morphs into a jet fighter to battle an alien armada, go nuts. Whereas in Hollywood, you are constantly running up against "we can't afford that" or "a hurricane destroyed our primary location" or "the prosthetic is making the actor break out in hives."

There is also much less creative interference in comics. Notes are fewer, less intrusive, and come from fewer people. For instance, for "Deadshot" #3 I was informed that Green Arrow couldn't be shown drinking a beer, because DC heroes don't drink (fortunately Deadshot is a villain, so he could booze it up to his heart's content). No problem at all; GA could just be eating chili instead (my wonderful editor Joey Cavalieri even helpfully suggested this fix while giving the note, whereas studio executives usually say vague things like "the character arc is weak…fix it."). In Hollywood, that exact same note would have been more like this: "Green Arrow can't drink, but Deadshot can…and can we make it a Heineken so we can work out a product placement deal? Also, we think we can get Keira Knightley, so could Deadshot be a British woman?"

Mmmm…Keira Knightley. Oh sorry…you were saying?

Just that some notes seem to come out of left field. "Concerning Green Arrow…I know we spent a small fortune on the rights, but we're not crazy about the color green, and archery is old fashioned…could we try something with lacrosse sticks instead? By the way, you're not getting paid for this rewrite, and we need it tomorrow." Bottom line, writers love creative freedom, and there's simply more to be had in comics.

I think that is true to a certain extent, but when you're dealing with corporate properties and especially superheroes with a forty year history, it sometimes goes beyond no drinking and no smoking.

This is true, but my point is that it's all relative. It can be frustrating when you want to try something new with an established comic book character and you get resistance, but guess what, you're not going to get to stray too far afield with Indiana Jones either. In fact, odds are you'll never get the chance to write that character, or Luke Skywalker, or the Six Million Dollar Man. And that brings me back to my original point -- at the end of the day, love of comics is the primary reason screenwriters (or authors, or actors) want to do comics, especially Marvel and DC characters. The chance to write characters you read and loved as a kid…I mean, I got to write Batman! I got to write Spider-Man! These are mythical figures that sparked my first stirrings of creative imagination, and now I'm telling their stories. How cool is that? One of the many annoying, geeky things I do is carry the DC Encyclopedia to cons and harangue DC creators, editors and staff to sign it for me, like a yearbook. (I know…a sense of ironic contempt, preferably coupled with a faux British accent, would get me more work, but that just ain't me. I'm an incurable fanboy and I'm just going to have to live with it.) At San Diego last year, DC's Richard Bruning wrote "Thanks for adding to our universe." That blew me away…I added to the DC Universe! Okay, my "Law & Orders" will probably be rerun in perpetuity, seen by countless millions all over the world, and I'll make a lot more money off them, but dude, this is the DC freakin' universe!! People like us understand what I mean. Everyone else thinks I'm half a lunatic.

I think one thing that is unique about comics is the timelessness of the characters and how you can read about Superman as a child and twenty years later write or draw stories for him. As opposed to being an adult and landing a script on your favorite TV show when you were ten. While I agree sometimes that's a bad thing and you'll see there's an argument made that some writers now are too far in the fanboy mindset, it is still something special about the medium.

I agree. The fact is, except for "The Simpsons" and soap operas; most shows don't last long enough for people to write characters they followed as a kid. You make a good point that the culture of fan writers, if it's not careful, will become a snake devouring its own tail as the stories become incomprehensible to anyone but an ever-shrinking population of the most dedicated readers. But I think "outside" writers who are used to writing for a more general audience in, let's say, TV or novels are well equipped to bridge the gap, appealing to longtime fans while still keeping the story accessible to more casual readers. I know I try to do that. And I don't mean to suggest that "comics only" writers can't do it -- your "Jonah Hex" is a great example of the way I think it should be done, with sly references to Hex's or Bat Lash's history hidden like Easter eggs inside accessible, done-in-one western tales. At the end of the day, I still think it's better to have people who love the characters too much writing them than people who don't give a damn about them. That's what can happen in Hollywood if you don't watch out - you get ideas like Jack Black as Green Lantern, which the fan community fortunately rose up and squashed before it ever got off the ground. I love Jack Black, but not as Green Lantern. Maybe "a" Green Lantern, but not Hal Jordan, and not the first ever movie Green Lantern. I know, I'm starting to sound like the Comic Book Guy. Worst…interview…ever!

And incidentally, the money in comics isn't much by Hollywood standards, but it's not all that bad. Unlike Kevin Smith, I made sure to fill out my Marvel contract so I could get paid, you know? By the way, Marvel, I'll take Kevin's money if he still doesn't want it.

Here's my music question. Do you require absolute silence or are soundtracks playing when you work?

Silence for filling a blank page, but I'll play music when I'm rewriting or researching. Right now I'm listening to Dusty Springfield, Bobby Darin and DeBarge.

DeBarge???

Gotta love DeBarge, dude.

Okay, back to process, how much art direction did you start out using compared to what you do now that you've got a few books under the belt? I ask because again there is a distinction between screen and comic writing in terms of direction.

I pretty mush use the same amount of direction I always have in comics, which, while spare, is more than you use in film and a lot more than in TV. The only change is that when I started writing comics, I had a bad habit of calling for more actions in a single panel than the artist can draw. It takes some getting used to switching from the constant motion of screenplays to the panel-by-panel action of comics. I think I'm more or less adjusted now.

That's a common thing that happens. You have to visually edit on paper long before the artist sees it or you'll drive them crazy.

Fortunately, I had some patient artists. Steven Cummings would very kindly call me to explain that Deadshot couldn't shoot twenty people and knit a sweater in the same panel, and ask if he could change it. Ron Wagner would just break it up into two panels, probably muttering about "kids today" the whole time.

Yes, Steven is very good at panel construction and while he admitted to me, when we were working on "Legends of the Dark Knight" 204-206, he was initially uncomfortable with drawing action; he seemed to embrace it by the second issue. Granted I was calling for some pretty wild stuff to be drawn.

Steven worries about how he can't do this or that and then he goes and does it brilliantly. In "Deadshot," he was concerned about how hard it was going to be to draw Green Arrow because the mechanics of superhero costumes are difficult for him. In the end he executed a brilliant rendition that looked like Errol Flynn meets Robin Hood!

As far as the amount of direction I use, I generally like to give the artist freedom, so I'll just describe the action - i.e. "Batman kicks Clayface off the roof toward a sharp spire below" - unless I feel it's important that it be depicted a certain way, for instance "we are looking up at Deadshot from the POV of his target, who is lying on the ground." I usually leave the angle and so forth up to the artist. While I much prefer to write full-script, I don't want to micromanage too much if I can avoid it. Artists think visually by their very nature and often come up with better ways of depicting scenes than I would have ever imagined.

Do you gravitate toward certain kinds of characters when you're doing corporate work or do you feel you can approach any character?

I like to think I can approach any character, finding something in them to latch on to. If there's one kind of character I think I'd have trouble with, it would be nearly omnipotent folks like The Spectre and the Silver Surfer…I guess because I'm the opposite of omnipotent.

I know we spoke confidentially about a number of exciting new projects you're working on so rather than spoil a perfectly good pimping opportunity I'm going to ask if you'll come back at a time when we're closer to preordering those books. Sound good?

It's hard out here for a pimp, because I'd like nothing better than to talk about those projects, but I'll obey the first rule of "Fight Club" and keep quiet, and gratefully accept your return invitation.

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