The early Saturday morning panel at San Francisco’s WonderCon started off with an excited bang, as the crowded room cheered for every writer introduced by comic creator and panel moderator James Robinson, who shared the stage with Jimmy Palmiotti ("Power Girl," "Jonah Hex"), Greg Rucka ("Detective Comics"), and Judd Winick ("Justice League: Generation Lost"). Gail Simone ("Secret Six," "Wonder Woman") and Geoff Johns ("Green Lantern," "Blackest Night") were held up elsewhere, and would arrive a few minutes late.
Robinson started things right off by asking, “We all love writing comics, but when you were studying, did you want to be ‘writers’ or ‘comic writers?’
Palmiotti said he went to New York's High School of Art and Design to be an artist, but that his career in comics has been “an odd one.” He went from inking to self-publishing to writing back to inking, etc. He just decided one day he wanted to give writing a shot and put the ink brush away, and it seems to have been working out these last few years.
At this point, Geoff Johns and Gail Simone arrived, and after the clapping died down, Robinson passed the question on to Geoff, who answered, “I love comics, always have. I went to school to either be an artist—I love to draw—or a screen writer.” He ended up working in the film industry, and eventually got a chance to pitch a book to DC Comics. He and Palmiotti also revealed an early pitch idea that Geoff had sent to Marvel years ago, a book called “X-Cons,” described as “’Suicide Squad’ meets X-Villains.”
Rucka shared that he just loves to write. Writing disciplines can be very different, but the desire is always there to tell a story, it’s just a matter of what medium is best to tell the story. He gave an example of "Whiteout" being best told in graphic form, and that it probably wouldn’t have worked as a prose novel.
WInick still considers himself a cartoonist; it’s how he started out with his original comic strip “Frumpy the Clown.” Since he was a kid, he wanted to write comic strips and would write his own versions of “Garfield” and “Doonesbury.” It was only when he felt the desire to write about his friend Pedro, a castmate with Winick on MTV's "The Real World" who succumbed to AIDS shortly after the series ended, in a graphic comic form that he realized he could write a comic book. It was former DC Comics editor Bob Schreck who, after reading “Pedro & Me,” asked Judd if he wanted to write “Green Lantern” which led to ongoing work for the company.
Simone said she has always loved to tell stories, but family convinced her that she could not make any money doing it, so she became a hairdresser as another outlet for her creativity. But the urge to tell stories never went away, and she started goofing off with parodies, then columns, until she eventually ended up as a full-fledged comic book writer.
After a bit of prodding from the panelists, Robinson shared that he went to film school in England, and interned with a publishing company where he was introduced to Neil Gaiman, who inspired Robinson to find an artist and create his own comic.
The discussion continued, as the panelists were asked what the difference is between comics writing and other formats.
Johns said, “Comics is harder than writing for screen. The JSA episode of Smallville was easy.” In comic books, he said, you’re directing, producing, writing, everything. Screen writing, you just write, other people deal with everything else.
For Simone, pacing is a big part of writing comics. You don’t want too many words to slow down the flow of the action and story.
Palmiotti added, “You only have 22 pages to tell the story, and you have to be conscious of the artist.”
“No budget!” Geoff shared, adding, “There was a huge JSA fight in the Smallville episode that was cut by at least 50%.”
Winick remarked that you must always be aware of the length and form as comic books are the only visual medium where the reader is able to control the pace, “Reading comics is an intimate act.”
Rucka joked that, “Nobody talks as much as comic characters.”
Robinson shared that in screenwriting, more people get involved, and their opinions change and affect the script. Comics are more internal, and inclusive.
In response to a question about creator-owned comics versus mainstream, Rucka said, “You write things and Superman says it, is great." He added that mainstream comics hold a legacy that is so much bigger than you; these characters will be around long after you the writer are gone. Creator-owned stuff, you can tell stories you could never tell with Superman or Batman because when you write for a mainstream publisher, you have to serve the characters over your story.
Palmiotti added, “The work I do in mainstream gives me a chance to show readers my own stuff as they may follow me over to my creator-owned work.”
All the writers agreed that when it came to writing an event, it’s the collaboration that’s important and not the crossover. Rucka said, “the better the collaboration, the better the story.” They also all love reading each other’s comics, with Robinson saying, “Pisses me off when comic writers say they don’t read comics. I read every DC book.”
Asked how they fix a story or arc when they realize they might have gone off track, Johns deadpanned, “I write an annual.”
Downloadable and digital comic books and their possible impact on the medium were then explored, with Winick saying, “We’re in the dark ages of a new medium and way of storytelling, we have no idea how it will all turn out.”
Simone added with laughter, “Resistance is futile.” It’s a matter of what they can come up with creatively to make it work.
Rucka doesn’t feel digital comics to be a replacement for the real thing. “I don’t think it’s a replacement until you can effectively recreate turning a page digitally. Print will still be around.”
Palmiotti added, “It’s just another way to get the story out there.”
Johns finished off the question, “I own a comic shop, and I hope we never ever just go digital. It can be both.”
Fans then had time to ask a few questions, and one asked Winick how he approaches writing Jason Todd, a character who will never reach his goal of killing the Joker. Winick said, “Jason doesn’t want to kill the Joker, he wants Bruce to kill him.” The character can’t accept the fact that Bruce Wayne never killed the Joker in retribution. “He has daddy issues.”
A common question at every convention was then asked of the writers, how do they deal with writer’s block.
Simone works on something else for awhile, a distraction to clear her head, and since she writes so many books, there’s always something she can switch over to if she gets stuck.
Robinson quipped, “The landlord banging on the door for rent” gets him over the blockage.
Winick said to always have a beginning, middle, and end in mind. There will be a lot of bad in the beginning, but you work through it and exercise your brain towards writing better.
Rucka's advice was, “Having trouble writing? Sit down and do it! Just do it. Some days it’ll be pages, some times all you have is a sentence, but you have to work at it everyday.”
For Simone, “Set goals and a schedule, and stick to it, it’s too easy to procrastinate.”
The final question of the morning was on who decides the ages for the various characters, as some age and some do not. The creators were all in agreement in that the writers have do not control the ages of characters, DC Comics does.