From Gotham to Antarctica and Back: Greg Rucka Interview

Mon, April 17th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Michael Thomas, Contributing Writer

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Greg Rucka is an anomaly within the comics business. While most comic book writers work from the comic medium into other entertainment ventures (into novels and Hollywood), Rucka worked his way opposite and sideways. He is the comic book writer who refuses to fit to stereotype.

He is an accomplished and talented novelist who has made a name for himself in comics. The Eisner-nominated and critically acclaimed Whiteout series (and its sequel, Whiteout: Melt) have caused many a wave in comic book shops and poised to be a major motion picture in the near future.

He was given Batman writing assignments from Batman guru Denny O'Neill a little over a year ago to shore up the end game of No Man's Land, as well as the hefty job of writing the novel adaptation of that story (synchronicity for sure). High praise and confidence from the master of Batman storytelling, indeed.

Rucka is continuing that momentum with his bare bones interpretation of Batman in Detective Comics, his much-anticipated Black Widow mini-series with co-conspirator Devin Grayson (Titans and Relative Heroes) and the upcoming Huntress mini-series. Rucka has shown that whatever cards he has up his comic book sleeves are worth paying to see. Ante up now.

Rucka is not about to let his literary origins atrophy. Since 1996, he has produced four novels centered around the world of bodyguard Atticus Kodiak and associates (3 in paperback, 1 in hardback) and a fifth one -- tentatively titled Critical Space -- in the works. He has taken on such diverse and controversial subjects in the socially-unconscious detective genre as abortion, big tobacco and heroin addiction. There's no indication he'll soften with his subject material.

From the interview that follows, you will see why writing is still the force that makes great comics, why Batman is truly universal and why you'll never see Atticus Kodiak on the comic book shelves.

Michael David Thomas: Batman has decades of baggage attached to him, besides being stacked with enormous writers and artists that have done their particular slant on him (Frank Miller, Denny O'Neill, Marshall Rogers, Jim Aparo, Jim Starlin, Mark Bright). First off, when one of the books were handed to you, what kind of pressure was there to write this character? Second, what is your particular take on Batman that is different from others in the past?

[Batman]

Greg Rucka: The pressure didn't actually come with the gift of Detective-it was there the moment I walked into Denny's office while they were gearing up for No Man's Land. And of course, it's tremendous-not so much because of the names who have worked on the titles before, but simply because of the enormity of the character; Batman is known world-wide. Becoming a part of that-albeit a small part-that was truly daunting.

As for my take on the character... well, I honestly don't know if I'm doing anything new or different. What interests me is in finding the moments of humanity, the moments of emotional honesty, in Gotham. The interaction between characters, what motivates them, and why they're doing what they're doing-those are the stories I want to tell. I try to remember Batman's humanity at all times, and I try to write him with that always in mind.

MDT: Denny O'Neil has probably written some of the definitive Batman stories of the 70s. Now he's the head honcho of the Batman books. How helpful has he been in your transition to the Batman books and Detective in particular? What kind of wisdom have you been able to glean from him?

GR: Devin [Grayson] and I refer to Denny as 'The Master.' Which I suppose answers your question just like that. He is a luminary, and he knows more about comics, about writing, than I probably ever will. He's been consistently positive and encouraging, and best of all, he's made himself available whenever I've hit a wall. The best thing he's given me, though, is permission to take risks, to try new things with the stories-that's kept the writing exciting, and it's something I'm grateful to him for.

MDT: During an interview with another comic book writer, he revealed that his frustration with comic book companies in general and editors more specifically, is that he wasn't able to plot beyond a year because of constraints unrelated to his book. How far ahead have you plotted for Detective Comics? Are you finding that you work better in plotting for short-term or long-term? Which begs the next question, what's in store for Detective in the next year?

GR: I've written through September of this year, and I have stories in mind through January of 2001 at this point, including a long-term story that I'd love to thread through the last part of 2000 and all of 2001, just keeping it in the background until the time is right to move it to center stage.

As for Detective further down the line, well... Poison Ivy, Robinson Park, and Agent Orange all spring to mind.

MDT: Novels are self-contained for the most part, as have been your Whiteout series. Has the open-ended nature of Batman and Detective Comics made for a rough transition? Why or why not?

GR: No, because they're truly not open-ended at all. Each issue is a discreet chapter of a story, and each story has a limited number of parts. The joy in working on an ongoing title is that the events of each previous story can seed and grow to influence the narrative further along the line. And I love that part, I eat that up.

[Whiteout]MDT: Whiteout has been optioned by Wolfgang Peterson's (In The Line of Fire, the Perfect Storm) production company to make a movie out of it. The interviews you've given about the project have been upbeat and it sounds like you have full trust in their creative decisions for the film. This seems to be in contrast to most comic-book-to-Hollywood translations. What has made you the most comfortable with this company buying the rights?

GR: I met with two of the development people from Radiant before the sale over a long breakfast, and it was one of the most rewarding meals I've ever had in L.A.. It was clear to me that Radiant understood the heart of Whiteout, and that they cared about Carrie and wanted to see her faithfully make it the screen. The changes to the story that they proposed, while I didn't necessarily agree with them, were at least well-considered and logical. I have a lot of faith in Radiant Productions to preserve the spirit of the work, if not its letter.

MDT: Was there ever a thought of you adapting the story yourself into a screenplay? Why or why not?

GR: I figure sooner or later I'll try my hand at screenwriting, but at the time I was in no great hurry to do so-I had deadlines bearing down on me and two separate novels to finish, and it was as much an issue of scheduling as anything else. I suppose if Melt ever gets optioned, I'd like to try the screenplay for that.

MDT: Carrie Stetko is a strong character and her voice is very strong in both series. Pardon the over-simplification, but she seems to be built upon the Claremont model of a female hero, although not as pithy. Is there anyone that she's modeled after? If not, how did the character of Carrie Stetko come to life for you? What is it that you believe draws fan to read about Carrie Stetko?

GR: Carrie is one of those characters that just comes fully-formed, ready for action-kinda like buying a G.I. Joe. Her name comes from a street in Los Angeles and a girl I had a crush on when I was eight, and it's pretty much there that any direct inspiration-at least inspiration I'm aware of-ends. Though now that I think of it, she's kind of like my mother... that's scary, let's not go there.

I first started working with the character about five years ago, when I was living in Eugene, Oregon. A friend of mine who was also living in town is a horror writer-his name is Mike Arnzen, he won the Stoker award for his first novel, Grave Markings-and he and I decided we wanted to work on something together, where each of us would write a chapter and hand it to the other and sort of swap back and forth. And I wrote about Carrie as a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff, and Mike wrote about some mad film-student turned serial killer, and we had a lot of fun just getting more and more outrageous. It was a writing exercise as much as anything else. That's where Carrie got her legs.

When the idea for Whiteout came, then, she kind of sprang forward, saying "Hey! This story is about ME! I should be in Antarctica!" And so I fiddled about and changed some of the character background, and that's how it happened.

As for her appeal, I think it could stem from a number of things-she's a very honest person, and I think that's refreshing; you know she's telling you what she thinks, and she's not going to play games. And she is, in many ways, a difficult person to like-which I think makes her someone that people want to make the effort to understand. And she's very tough, and it's clear she doesn't give a damn what you, me, or anyone else thinks.

MDT: Has there ever been a tinge of jealously that one of your comic book projects got optioned for a movie before one of your novels?

GR: Surprisingly enough, no. Comics are a visual medium, obviously enough, and I think it's easier for people to imagine the transition to the screen. Also, the story of Whiteout is relatively straight-forward, not too dicey. I knew when I wrote my first book that the odds of any of my novels being made into movies or the like were low, if for no other reason than I was picking difficult subject matter. Keeper is about the abortion debate, for instance, and to this day I can't imagine Hollywood being willing to take that subject on in the same way that I did.

MDT: It says on your Web site that you are currently shopping around the Atticus Kodiak novels to Hollywood studios. How's the process going? Any firm leads? Anyone attached (writer, director, etc.)? Who would play Atticus Kodiak in your mind?

GR: If Atticus goes, he'll probably sell as a television series, rather than as a feature film. Right now, though, the whole shebang is on hold-I'm working on the fifth Kodiak novel right now, and that's my main priority; until I've got the manuscript finished, I'm not interested in trying to sell the rights at the moment.

As for casting Atticus, I've no clue. Never thought about it much-I find it almost impossible to 'cast' any of the characters in my novels, perhaps because when I'm writing I see the faces so clearly.

MDT: You've mentioned in past interviews that you have thought about writing a Whiteout novel to accompany what you've done with the two series. Is there anything in the works to adapt Atticus Kodiak and company to a comic book format? What would keep you from doing this?

GR: It's always seemed to me a bad idea to try and pull Atticus from the novels into comics -- I think a comics adaptation of any of the books would most likely fail, and I'm pretty set against writing Atticus as a comic character simply for the sake of doing it. Unlike Whiteout, where I've always been able to see the characters in both mediums, with the Atticus novels, I just have never truly conceived of them as anything else. It's part of the reason why I'm willing to see Atticus be produced in Hollywood, but I'm not aggressively pursuing it; the books are what they are, and they are what I wanted them to be-novels. In the case of Whiteout, I knew while working on the comic series that I wanted to try it as a novel-that a novel would allow me to play with the story more, elaborate on it, find more of the nuance.

MDT: The characters that you've come to write (in both mediums) are walking wounded in one way or another. Also, they tend to be on the outs with authority figures in general. What is it about these types of characters that draw you to them? Do you see yourself in any of them and why or why not?

GR: There are pieces of me in just about every character I write, different aspects of my own personality, and the personalities of my friends and foes. It's not so much that I want to write about rebels; rather I like writing about outsiders, what it means to be away from the group and the center, and how, once a person is standing to a side, they make that position work to their benefit. It's at once isolating and liberating, and I think it allows for a wonderful canvas where the characters can be explored.

Sounds kind of silly, I suppose.

MDT: With the number of writers who have taken their swipe at Daredevil, have you thought of throwing your name in for Marvel's red-clad detective?

GR: No.

MDT: What was the first book you remember reading? First comic book? When did you know that you wanted to write for a living or to at least get published?

GR: First book... I honestly can't recall... probably a Dr. Seuss, most likely Fox in Socks. First comic I really remember reading was The Incredible Hulk Magazine #21, the one where the Hulk fights-get this-a Nuclear Power Plant.

And I realized I wanted to write for a living late one spring evening in my dorm room my junior year in college, when I was staring at the blank screen and it suddenly hit me that I'd been doing this sort of thing for about twelve years at that point, and no matter what else was interesting me at any given moment, I kept coming back to the Blank Sheet of Paper.

And that's when I realized I was a lost cause, that there was no way out. Writing, as I've said elsewhere, isn't a profession as much as an illness. Either you have to do it or you don't, at least for me. I have to do it.

MDT: What's a typical day like for you as a full-time writer?

GR: Wake-up, shower, think about what I need to write today. Drink large amount of coffee. Read email. Respond to a couple. Ignore many others. Take laptop and motorcycle (if weather is good) or car (if weather not so good) across town to a cafe where I can work in the back. Sit at a table and drink even more coffee and write for three to seven hours, depending on the day, the deadline, the inspiration, and the desperation. Head home. Transfer laptop copy to desktop, print, proof-read. Play with my son. Play with my wife. Eat dinner. Make edits to work on desktop, transfer copy back to laptop. Watch television or read. Sleep, do it again the next day.

MDT: Do you see the writing of a comic book different than writing a novel? Why or why not?

GR: Absolutely. They're totally different things. A comic book is a collaborative, visual work. A novel is prose alone. Since I can't draw, any comic I work on is, by its nature, a work of partnership-ideally a partnership of equals. With a novel, it's all mine, to do with as I please.

MDT: What kind of influences do you credit to your writing (any medium, any genre)?

GR: Books books books books books. Too much PBS as a kid-BBC dramas, in particular, and comedies like Dave Allen At Large. My parents, who both read to me before I was old enough to understand a damn word they were saying, and who didn't stop until I was reading on my own-and who let me keep the flashlight so I could keep reading after the lights went out. Professor Frank Bergon, at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, who kicked my ass and told me to write the truth. Coffee. Cigarettes. Chandler, Hemingway, Hammet, Crane, Ozick, Himes, O'Brien, Oates, Stout-Guinness and Rex. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Once Upon A Time in the West, The Empire Strikes Back, The Usual Suspects, His Girl Friday, almost every James Bond movie, The Sandbaggers, the Sharpe's series by Bernard Cornwell. Joe Jackson, Warren Zevon, The Police, Dire Straits, Benny Green, Stan Getz, L7, Seven Year Bitch, James Horner, Lou Reed, Stan Ridgeway, David Simon, John LeCarre, Arthur Conan Doyle, Scott Nybakken, Jennifer Van Meter, role playing games (pen & paper variety)....

Small sample.

MDT: How much time do you devote to a comic book script versus one of your novels?

GR: They're not analogous, simply because the size of the two is so vastly different. A comics script for 22 pages is rarely over 5,000 words. My average novel is normally 90,000 words, and they're getting longer--the NML novel was 130,000+. Because of the length of the novels, the prep time for them is by necessity longer.

If things are going really well, and I have the story in my head, I can write a TEC script in two days, sometimes less. If I'm loaded on caffeine, nicotine, and adrenaline, I can write a 130,000 word novel in five to six weeks. It all comes down to the specific work, and when it's due, and how much time I can devote to the task.

MDT: What's the process you go through from the conception of a story (comic book or novel) to the implementation of it?

GR: Normally, I'll get an idea and let it fester, trying to ignore it until I have to start seriously considering the writing. At that point I'll either talk it out with my wife or a friend or an editor, and depending on what they say, I'll start writing or I'll go back to the drawing board and work with the details some more. Depending on the story, I'll end up doing differing amounts of research, and that always leads to revision, since the more details I discover, the more the story tends to change as a result. When I'm finally ready to write, I try to just power through the first draft, just to get it out on paper. Then I rewrite and revise, and, hopefully, send it off from there.

MDT: Many comic book creators started out in this business and then have leapt into other careers (screenwriting, movie producing, consulting, novel writing). Some have seen this as a jump into a "legitimate" career. You started out as a novelist, with some very good reviews of your novels before your venture into comic book writing. Has your venture into comic book writing hurt your literary career at all?

GR: Not that I'm aware of, though I'm sure there are plenty of people who are now looking a little further down their noses to see me and my work. But the fact is, those people already were looking down their noses at me. I write for a living, that's what I do-I'm a writer, I tell stories. The medium that I choose to tell them in doesn't alter that. If other people have a problem with my choice of medium, that's their loss. It's not something I can worry about.

MDT: Do people perceive you differently in literary circles now that you write comic books also?

GR: Again, not that I know of, though it's important to remember that in "literary" circles, the kind of novels I write are looked upon in much the same way comics are. Mystery is genre, and to many of the literati, genre is a dirty word. It doesn't matter that some of the greatest novels ever written have been mysteries-the genre label carries with it a stigma, and there's little that can be done to shake it. In the end, each work has to be evaluated on its own merits and flaws, has to stand alone...labeling it, prejudging it, just guarantees that the viewing is biased.

MDT: You are collaborating with Devin Grayson on the next Black Widow mini-series from Marvel Knights. What kind of experience have you had in working with another writer on a series? Confining? Gets the creative juices flowing better? Any thoughts?

GR: Each collaboration is different, and I'm certain it's different for each person involved. I've got a good relationship with Devin -- we're friends, and we respect and like one another's' work -- and that makes writing with her nothing by fun, honestly. We feed off one another, and we monitor one another, and we inspire one another... which I suppose is the ideal result of any collaborative effort.

MDT: You've worked with DC, Oni and now Marvel. Any other company that you're interested with doing work with? Any characters from the bigger companies that you would like to have a crack at?

GR: No. I like what I got, and I'm not on the hunt for anything else right now. I'll take the opportunities as they come... but I've been remarkably lucky in the past two years, to come from nowhere and now to work with characters like Batman and The Question and Black Widow, to work with people like Denny O'Neil and Jamie Rich and Rick Burchett. I'm just going to keep my eyes open and see what else comes my way.

MDT: Any pearls of wisdom for aspiring writers out there?

GR: Read read read read read read. You cannot possibly write if you do not know what good writing is, and the only way to discover that is to find it yourself.

MDT: What other projects do you have in the works for the near future that you can talk about?

GR: There's a Batman/Wonder Woman hardcover that's in the works at DC, and Rick Burchett and I have been discussing what project we want to do next, after the Huntress mini-series is completed. One of my best friends in the world is a screenwriter in LA, and he and I are planning a four issue series for Oni.

And there's some other stuff, but I'm not allowed to talk about it, yet.

MDT: What book is on your nightstand to next to your bed? Last good book you read before that?

GR: Right now I'm reading The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev. Last book before that was The Skull Mantra by Elliot Pattison.

MDT: Mac or IBM? Boxers or briefs? One-eyed or peg legged? Head or gut? Sorry, the guys at the local comic book shop said I should add some random questions just to keep it from being so damn serious.

GR: Both. Both. One-eyed. Head shot.

 
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