When Words Collide

Tue, September 8th, 2009 at 11:58am PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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SPEAKEST THOU, O WRITER

These Guys Don't Write Comics

A year or two ago -- yes, time is speeding up, and everything is blurring together, just as Grant Morrison and Alan Moore keep reminding us (or maybe we're just all getting old) -- I was talking to a literary agent about a few book ideas, and she really thought I should do something for the mass market on "How to Write a Graphic Novel." She had no doubt that such a thing could sell, and it didn't seem to bother her that I had never, in fact, written a graphic novel.

"You could come at it from the teacher's point of view," she said. "You could explain the process, pulling the best bits of advice from graphic novelists. You would interview them, discovering their process, and you'd include what they had to say about each component -- broken down by chapter."

I was interested in such a project, but I didn't see how I could fit that kind of research into my schedule at the time.

She added, "you certainly wouldn't publish the interviews in Q&A form. Nobody likes to read Q&As."

We talked about other projects for a while, other possibilities, but what stuck with me most was that last sentence I quoted above. Nobody likes to read Q&As? Really? Can that possibly be true?

Because I don't like to read anything but Q&As. At least when it comes to interviews.

Sure, I don't mind the occasional feature about an artist or writer or celebrity or crazy person where the journalist gives some kind of context for the pull quotes of their subject. If it's well written -- if its Jonathan Ames shadowing the Beastie Boys for a week, or something like that -- then I'm all for it.

But 99% of the time, I'd prefer a straight Question and Answer transcription, with the boring, useless bits cut out. (Seriously, next time I read an online Q&A that includes, "How's everything going today?" "Good, how are you?" or "Thanks for taking time to speak with us," I will punch my computer in the face. It deserves it.)

Fancy Interviews You Might Like

And when I read profiles or features on someone I'm interested in, and it's not published in the Q&A form, I tend to skip all the stuff that's not in quotation marks. Does anyone else do that? I suspect at least some of you do.

So, yeah, nobody likes to read a Q&A, except all of us. (Unless you don't, in which case there's nothing I can do for you.)

We can't be the only ones who like that format, because "The Paris Review" has been around a long time, and they do Q&As that out Q and out A just about anyone in the literary journal business. And since we're moving on from the ranting part of this week's column to the part where I recommend specific books, I might as well mention that the three volumes of "The Paris Review Interviews" that have recently been published (with yet another scheduled for release next month) feature some pretty amazing interviews with writers from throughout the decade.

I know this is a column on a comic book website, but if you're interested in writing at all, then you owe it to yourself to check out what's inside those "Paris Review" volumes. You get the likes of Truman Capote, T. S. Eliot, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Martin Amis, Toni Morrison, and William Faulkner speaking about the craft of writing and the process of being a writer. It's fascinating stuff.

But, yes, this a column devoted to comic books, on a comic book website, so let's get to that!

Obviously, CBR has an extensive collection of Q&As, most of which dealing with the hot new series coming out from your favorite publisher, but some of them allow writers and artists to give a bit more about themselves, and provide a chance for reflection about past work. But, honestly, the internet in general tends to spend a whole lot of time on thoughtful reflection, so it's no surprise that CBR tends to favor interviews that are more "of the moment." I have one of those very interviews scheduled to run next week, as a matter of fact.

This Movie Is DEFINITELY Not Mentioned In "Eisner/Miller"

And of course, there are many places to find retrospectives and thoughtful Q&A interviews with comics types, so what I've decided to do this week -- now that my blathering about Q&A popularity and pimping of "The Paris Review" is out of the way -- is to highlight some of my favorite book collections of comic book-related interviews. Q&A volumes that I find myself referring to again and again, just because I'm always fascinated to hear a writer speak about his or her work in the industry. And though I love many a comic book artist, and though I'm always excited to get a new issue of "Comic Book Artist" (no matter how long it takes to appear) or a new volume of the "Modern Masters" series, this week I'm focusing (mostly) on interviews with writers. Writers who have something to say about their careers or their approach to the medium.

"Eisner/Miller" the Q&A between comic book great Will Eisner and younger comic book great Frank Miller is certainly an interesting take on the medium. It's quite telling about the relationship between these two guys, and their conversation underscores some fundamental differences in the way they approach comics, while still providing plenty of common ground. I'm not sure anyone without an interest in one or both of these creators would find anything worth reading in this book, but if you're a comic book reader and you have no interest in either Eisner or Miller, you probably haven't been paying attention. They are kind of important. More important than this book might reveal, perhaps, but seeing how they speak about the comic book page -- about comic book storytelling -- is certainly worthwhile.

A book I prefer, however, is volume 6 from "The Comics Journal Library" series. "The Comics Journal Library: The Writers" is the only volume of the series printed in normal trade size. The rest are giant, art-heavy, paperback versions of coffee table books. But "The Writers" looks, innocently, like something less significant. It's not. Litigiously speaking, it sparked the most recent round of Harlan Ellison/Gary Groth legal sparring, but that doesn't make it a great book. What makes it a great book is that it reprints some of the most honest comic book interviews you've ever seen. Steve Gerber tells all. Marv Wolfman talks about comic book reality and success in the direct market system. Steve Englehart talks about his life in comics, and how the business looks from the inside. All that, plus Len Wein, and Chris Claremont, and Alan Moore. These are meaty interviews, some of the best that "The Comics Journal" has to offer, particularly when it comes to mainstream comics.

Steve Gerber's Opus

On the other side of the coin is Michael Eury's "Krypton Companion," which offers breadth more than depth but still provides plenty of wonderful Q&As with various Superman Family creators over the years. From Q&As with Denny O'Neil, Cary Bates, and Elliot S! Maggin to a roundtable (which is like a Q + A x 3) involving John Byrne and others, this is the best of the TwoMorrows "Companion" books, though "The Legion of Super-Heroes Companion" and "The Flash Companion" feature wide-ranging, engaging interviews as well.

I've also enjoyed a couple of the Q&A volumes put out by Titan Books. Both "Writers on Comics Scriptwriting" and "Writers on Comics Scriptwriting 2" get into the page-to-print details of what it takes to tell a story visually, at least from the writer's point of view. The first book has detailed interviews with Peter David, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison (along with many others), while volume 2 has Brian Azzarello, Ed Brubaker, Brian Michael Bendis, Geoff Johns, and Bill Willingham (plus others too numerous to mention. Well, I could mention them, but I won't).

The Titan volumes have script samples from the writers as well, and they provide a nice behind-the-scenes look at some of your favorite comics. Or, my favorite at least.

What sparked this whole column about the comic book Q&A, and what reminded me of that discussion with the literary agent and my fondness for the books I mentioned above, is the recent release of "Conversations with ADD: The Comics Interviews of Alan David Doane." Doane, the man behind the not-so-opaque Comic Book Galaxy curtain, has been doing this internet-comics-criticism thing a whole lot longer than I have, and he's certainly not short on opinions, but in his book of Q&As, he lets the creators speak for themselves. He probes, though, and asks some questions that lead to some interesting answers. Also interesting: the book is completely free. It's a downloadable e-book, available straight from his site.

Some of the interviews don't quite seem to fit -- some are too short and too insubstantial to seem to merit inclusion -- but many of the interviews show a side to the creators that we don't often see. Or haven't seen in a long time.

Before Marvel Scooped Them All Up

Doane's interview with Peter Bagge reminded me why I used to treasure my copies of "Hate," and his interview with Howard Chaykin gets right to the point, and does it with brutal efficiency. But it's the stuff like the interview with a just-on-the-rise Brian Michael Bendis and the Ed Brubaker from-a-few-years-back that's especially interesting. These are time capsule interviews, for the most part, capturing moments in the past without nostalgia, but with sincerity. And the Kurt Busiek interview spans his career while focusing the spotlight on his "Avengers" work with George Perez. That interview happens to follow one featuring Charles Burns, just to give you an idea about the diversity of subjects in the book. Doane also gives a bit of perspective to the CrossGen debacle by including a 2000 interview with Ron Marz and then a 2009 follow-up, showing how the tempered enthusiasm of the early CrossGen days contrast with the sad reality of the company's downfall.

My only big problem with "Conversations with ADD" is that I'd rather hold it in my hand than read it on my computer screen. Of course, I suppose I could print it out -- have it bound, even -- but what do I expect for my hard-earned zero dollars and zero cents?

I guess the moral of this week's column is that people do, in fact, like Q&As. It's not just me. Or you. (Though, honestly, we're the only ones who matter.)

Join me next week for a Q&A of my very own, with a special Grant Morrison-centric guest! Because I'm contractually obligated to include something Morrison-related at least once a month!

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, steve gerber, frank miller, will eisner, crossgen

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