When Words Collide

Mon, March 8th, 2010 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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SCOTT SNYDER: WHO IS THIS GUY?

If you haven't yet read any comics by Scott Snyder, you will pretty soon. He's worked on a couple of things that you may have seen over the past year, from one of those 70th Anniversary tribute things from Marvel to the first issue of "Nation X," but it's his upcoming work that's going to garner a whole lot of attention very soon.

I have no idea if any of it will be good - I haven't seen the issues yet, and I don't have any more insider information about those comics than you do - but Snyder's a thoughtful guy with a lot of great ideas. And he knows his stuff, so I'm hoping that his upcoming work is as good as we all want it to be.

Oh, and his upcoming work, in case you don't know: "American Vampire" from Vertigo and "Iron Man Noir." Iron Man will get plenty of attention with the movie coming out, but it's Synder's idea of a pulp adventurer Tony Stark that really interests me, and "American Vampire," is, of course, partly written by Stephen King and has what looks to be some better-than-ever artwork by Rafael Albuquerque.

I wanted to talk to Snyder about his move from literary prose into comics, but I didn't want to make it yet another interview where he just promotes his upcoming work. He'll mention his soon-to-hit-the-stores comics, of course, but we spent most of our time talking about writing, and about teaching writing. And what kinds of formative experiences shaped the young Scott Snyder.

Tim Callahan: Take me through a quick tour of your history with comics. How did your early love for comics lead you down a path that led to writing prose to teaching and back to comics?

Scott Snyder: Well, pretty much all through my childhood, I wanted to be a comic artist. I grew up on a steady diet of comics, too - my dad used to take me to the old Forbidden Planet on 13th and Broadway every week, with the downstairs, before the new one opened nearby. We used to go to the old conventions, before the days of Cons, down at the Penn Plaza hotel? Across the street from Penn Station, where they now shoot the Maury Show.

I still have the McFarlane page I waited on line for on my 12th birthday - issue #319. Anyway, as a kid, I was a die-hard fan of Spidey and the Hulk and the staples, but I was about 10 when "Dark Knight Returns" came out, and "Watchmen," "The Killing Joke" - all the seminal books. "The Cult." "Year One." So I sort of came of age during that time; it felt like comics were growing up faster than I was. They became so layered and dark and probing that they often felt over my head, I think, but in a way that was really inspiring. I practiced drawing all through high school, took classes at SVA; I had all those books like "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way!" and such. I wasn't bad, either.

I always loved writing, too, so I figured I could combine them in some way - my hope was to do creator-drawn things. I fell hard for "Sin City" and "Hellboy" at the time. Then I got to college - I went to school in Providence so I could take some classes at RISD, too, but access to the drawing classes was limited. And at my school, the bent was really toward conceptual art and theory and such. Nothing illustrative, so my drawing sort of withered on the vine and I focused more on the writing side of things. I studied writing all through school, then got an MFA in fiction, wrote a collection of stories called "Voodoo Heart."

I started teaching writing, too, at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence and NYU. And what happened was I got invited by a buddy of mine to contribute a story to an anthology called "Who Can Save Us Now?" a book of stories by contemporary writers that feature new, original super-heroes. And the story I wrote for that book, about a teenager who comes back from the Bikini Atoll tests in the Pacific with strange powers, caught the attention of a couple comic editors. The editors actually came to the reading for the book, where I read, and approached me afterward and asked if I was actually into comics or not. I told them I was - I had some comics in my bag, actually - and one of the editors, the great Jeanine Schaefer of Marvel, offered me the chance to pitch a take on an original Human Torch story they had lined up for the 70th Anniversary line.

Having the chance to do that - I got so excited, man. It just occurred to me that I could actually write a comic, and I pitched hard for it, but I also included a lot of ideas for other possible stories. In the end, I got the Torch story, and that led to the chance to pitch for "Iron Man Noir," and for Vertigo, and it was in the pitch for Vertigo that I pushed "American Vampire," which I'd had in the back of my mind for a couple years at that point. It's funny because I think that Mark Doyle, my editor at Vertigo, who's just terrific, expected me to pitch something less high-concept, but I'd been dying to do this idea for a while. So I pitched "American Vampire," and luckily, Mark liked it right off.

TC: I went to that old Forbidden Planet once - during my first ever trip to NYC - and I remember getting the first issue of the Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean "Black Orchid" and Kyle Baker's "The Cowboy Wally Show," neither of which my local shop had. I spent the night reading those comics in the hotel room while my little brother watched television and my parents hit the town. Never went to any of the NYC cons in those days, though.

SS: They were pretty lousy, believe me. Just a bunch of dudes with comics in cardboard boxes and a lot of X-rated Manga and VHS copies of Akira or Robotech.

TC: And, like you, I had "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" and assumed I'd one day draw comics. I even penciled the "Marvel Try-Out" pages for the contest that Mark Bagley famously won, though I never submitted mine. Because they were terrible.

Let's focus a bit on your teaching, because I'm fascinated by the teaching of writing - or, how other teachers tackle student writing, since I've been teaching for well over a decade now. Which writers do you assign to your students? Which novels and stories do you find most valuable in teaching different aspects of writing? I tend to stick with classics from Hawthorne and Nabokov and Faulkner and Barthelme, but I have used the Michael Chabon-edited "Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales" to teach a "Genre Fiction" class, and with Jim Shepard, Kelly Link, and Aimee Bender (not to mention your boy Stephen King) inside, it gave us plenty of meat for our meals.

SS: I love teaching, tough as it can be sometimes. In a lot of ways. I feel like it keeps me young as a writer. Right now, I'm teaching this course at NYU that's about the crossover between genre, literary and comic books over the last 20 years. It's a fiction workshop, though, and the golden rule of the class is the students can only write the story that they'd be happiest to open up a book and read. Whether that story is horror, sci-fi, straight ahead or some new combination. I try to pound that into their heads, that I don't want to read it if they don't, that there's nothing they could write that I won't like if they like it. Then I go home and I feel like a hypocrite if I don't write the stories I like most.

For that class, I actually use that "Thrilling Tales" (I love that Jim Shepard story about the Megalodon), but mostly I try to pick things from all over the map. Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, George Saunders and Roald Dahl. Kelly Link, Karen Russel, Steven Millhauser, Raymond Carver. Basically, I give them two stories a week that use a particular fictional element in very different ways. Like this week, we did first person narration, and we looked at one story with a really charismatic, lying narrator ("Mouses" by Thom Jones, about a hunchback who takes to experimenting on mice), and another where the narrator stays back and narrates from a distance (The great Dahl story, "The Man from the South"), and we talk about why the author might have chosen that style for that particular story - what the effect of the narration is in each piece. I should use more classics, but the school has lit. classes that do a way better job than I could, so I try to keep things relatively contemporary. How do you like teaching? Do you get to use comics at all?

TC: I love teaching, too, no matter what age level. I've tried to keep my comics teaching separate from my full-time job of teaching of literature and writing, just because most of my students, being teenagers, tend to complain about anything you do with them (I swear, you could bring in cookies and they would whine, "Cookies? We wanted cake!"), and it would break my heart to have them rip into the comics I love. But I have done smaller-scale workshops with high school students, teaching them the basics of comics, and having them write and draw their own. In a workshop setting, it works well. As a unit of study within a regular literature class, it hasn't quite happened yet. It's just a matter of time until I figure out how to integrate it and make them not whine and complain about it, but I'm holding back a little until I know I can do it right and make it meaningful.

When I teach fiction writing, I love to use a couple of stories collected in that "Anchor Book of New American Fiction," particularly Wells Tower's "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned," which I know is a favorite of Brian Wood's and has a unique take on the viking legends. Also: "The Sound Gun," by Matthew Derby. That story plays with war story conventions and has emotional power and absurdism rolled into a single package - the kind of stuff I like to read, and so my students and I break it apart to see what makes it tick. Then I spin the students off into their own stories. I've always believed that the best way to learn about fiction - to learn about anything - is to try to make some of it yourself. So writing is a big part of my teaching of literature, even when the curriculum doesn't officially call for "creative writing."

And getting back to comics for a minute, I have this pretty basic "History of Comics" slideshow that I put together a couple of years ago when The Norman Rockwell Museum hired me to train the staff on that topic in preparation for a comics show they were putting together. I've presented that show to all ages since then, and I just ran a workshop a couple of weeks ago with kids from 9-19 and I couldn't believe how much they got into the history of comics. They loved looking at how comics have changed, and how Superman comics used to look and how weird the EC Comics were, and they think it's so strange that Jim Starlin wrote and drew a graphic novel about a superhero dying of cancer. They found it all fascinating, and the slideshow ended up taking much longer than I thought, because they had so many great questions and comments. It was pretty cool.

All, right - let's get back to you. You're an Elvis guy, right? Are you basically Christian Slater in "True Romance"? Does he speak for you and your Elvis love?

SS: I love that movie! I really got into Elvis when I was in my late teens. I was just very shy around girls and intimidated and nervous and at first I just thought it'd be fun to be into something that no one else would ever be into. So I started listening to him, and the weird thing is, in no time, I became a genuine die-hard fan. At first it was just the confidence he had, even as a teen, to be his own guy, to be a rockstar in his mind when he had so little going for him. I drew a lot of confidence from reading about him, and of course, the music is so damn good - from the Sun Sessions up. I think I approached Elvis because it would be anti-cool to like him, but then I quickly realized he was the coolest motherfucker that ever walked the earth. I'm pretty hardcore in my Elvis fandom. My son's middle name is Presley.

TC: The anti-cool becomes the cool. That is the definition of cool, and you just stumbled upon it. Or you stumbled upon it as a teenager, which is when it mattered most. That's great.

So let's pull these threads together then. How does all of this stuff - your early love of comics, your passion for Elvis, and your experience as a writing teacher - how does all that inform the kind of comics you write or the kind of comics you want to write?

SS: Wow, that's a biggie. I guess the reason I'm so excited about American Vampire is that it brings a lot of that stuff together. My favorite books and movies and comics have elements of all those things. Like "Hellboy," for example. It's a page-turner, with monsters and suspense and hard plot. But it's also ruminative, with tortured characters doing a thankless job and there are a lot of quiet, introspective moments and you care deeply about Hellboy and Abe and Liz. But the series plays with history and Americana, too, bringing in all sort so of WWII figures and legends, actual folklore, golden age comic touches like Lobster Johnson, pulp tropes... It's this a complete vision, a fully realized world. Like "Night of the Living Dead" or "The Stand" or George Saunders' stories or "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," or "True Romance."

So for "Iron Man Noir," and definitely for "American Vampire," they're propulsive series, with a lot of action and suspense, but they're also about history, the American character, they play with American iconography a bit - highways and neon and old Hollywood and men's adventure mags.

That's what I do with my prose, and that's definitely what I'm trying to do with "American Vampire" and "Iron Man Noir." And believe me, I'm working hard to get them as close to what I want them to be as possible. I did about 10 drafts of "American Vampire" #1, seven of "American Vampire" #2. It's intimidating, because I've been a life-long fanboy, and I've put in my time when it comes to prose, but I'm still relatively green in comics and the bar is so high. I mean the guys working today are so good across the board. Jason Aaron, Joe Kelly, Jeff Lemire, Matt Fraction, Geoff Johns, Mike Carey, Brubaker, Bendis, Rucka.

It's inspiring (and frightening) company.

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

TAGS:  when words collide, scott snyder, american vampire, iron man noir

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