Nelson talks "Pirate Tales," "The Enigma Cipher" & More

Wed, June 21st, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Andrew Wickliffe, Guest Contributor

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While there are a quite a few "Boom!" regulars, Michael Alan Nelson is a little different from the (more comic-experienced) pack. He's written for most of Boom! Studios' "Tales" anthologies and he's currently writing "War of the Worlds: Second Wave" and – with Andrew Cosby – "X-Isle" and "The Enigma Cipher." "War of the Worlds: Second Wave" is his first ongoing series comic writing and it's been getting excellent reviews around the internet. CBR News caught up with Nelson to discuss the wide variety of projects he's currently working on.

You've written a novel (published online at http://dingonovel.blogspot.com/) and have other prose writing experience. Is your work at Boom! your first comic book writing? How'd you get into it?

Yes, my work for Boom! was my first time doing comic book writing. Ross knew that I had been writing prose for some time, so when he started putting together the first "Zombie Tales" book, he approached me and asked to see what I could do with an 8 page comic. So I went off and wrote "Severence." He must have liked it because he used it in the first "Zombie Tales" anthology.

You've written stories for three of Boom!'s Tales anthologies, "Zombie Tales," "Cthulu Tales" and the upcoming "Pirate Tales." While "Zombie" and "Cthulu" are both horror titles, with "Pirate Tales" you're working in an entirely different genre. How did you prepare for writing these stories? I imagine "Zombie" was the easiest since zombies have inundated popular culture, but are you a Lovecraft enthusiast? A pirate fan?

Usually my preparation just consists of a lot of staring out the window. I can't really write anything unless I have that catalyst, that initial idea that gets me started. I'll try to do a lot of mindless activities so I can let my imagination wander until that catalyst for the story eventually (hopefully) falls into my head. Then I'll sit down and write it.

The catalyst doesn't always have to be a complete story or theme, just something that gets me excited about sitting at the keyboard and typing. For "Severence" it was just the idea of someone stabbing a fountain pen into his own neck. That image is what I built the story around. That's the same thing that happened with my "Cthulhu Tales" story "The Beach." I just had this image in my head of all these sea creatures beaching themselves, trying to get out of the water. From there it wasn't too hard to figure out how to use that in a Lovecraftian context.

But that catalyst for my "Pirate Tales" story "The Paper Rose" didn't come about that easily. I had been struggling for weeks to come up with some idea, a story, a character, a situation, just something that would get me going, but my mind was empty. Nothing was there, which was pretty frightening since there is such a wealth of ideas out there to be had when it comes to pirates. I couldn't think of anything. But when I finally got it, it was more than just a catalyst. I had the story, the characters, the setting, everything. It was all there. Surprisingly, it was a romance. Quite the departure from zombies and maddening Old Ones for sure. Don't get me wrong, there's more than enough violence and swashbuckling goodness to satisfy any pirate fan, but still a romance

Were you a comic reader? When you shifted from prose to comic scripting, did you look at any comic writers?

I grew up in the middle of nowhere without any access to a comics shop so I didn't really have access to any comics as a kid. The local library had a couple of graphic novels, "Elfquest" and an adaptation of the first "Alien" movie, but beyond that there weren't any comics to be had. So they were out of sight, out of mind. It wasn't until after college when I really started to read them.

The shift from prose to comics was a bit disorienting at first. And it's always a humbling experience when reading some of the great writers in the medium: Moore, Ellis, Waid, Morrison – the list goes on. They made it all look easy. So I had to sit down and really look at what it was these writers were doing, how they were doing it and what made their work so enjoyable.

While "War of the Worlds: Second Wave" is a solo work for you as a writer, you're working with Andrew Cosby on "X Isle" and "The Enigma Cipher." What's that collaboration like? Does it change your process significantly? Which do you prefer?

With "Second Wave," I'm a bit of a task master. I write my scripts out panel by panel. Though I do try to give Chee (the artist for "Second Wave") room to have fun and draw some interesting images, I'm very strict with what it is that I want to see. Thankfully, Chee knows exactly what it is I'm trying to do with the story and nails it every time.

With "X Isle" and "Enigma Cipher," the process is much different. Andy and I write the initial scripts in Marvel style then dialogue the issue after we get the art. It's definitely group story telling. And the collaboration with Andy has been great. Aside from being a really good guy, he's an amazing storyteller and has more great ideas in a week than most people will have in a lifetime. The guy is an idea machine. It's a hell of a lot of fun and I'm really happy to be involved with these projects.

As a prose writer, you're in charge of everything – you're the one leading the reader through the house to show them what's in the kitchen or whatnot. In comics, the artist has half the responsibility. Have you had any trouble with the idea of the artist? Was it easy to account for that difference?

I was a little nervous with the idea of the artist at first. But I've been really fortunate with artists. They all get what I'm trying to do and are able to take my script and turn into something so much better than what I had envisioned. And that's the key. You have to trust your artist. She may not always give you what you ask for, but she will defintely give you what you need.

Also, I had to learn what not to say in dialogue or captions because it would be taken care of visually. My prose has a tendency to ramble on and you can't really have that in comics since there is only so much space on a page. Finding that economy of phrasing was probably the hardest thing of all for me to get used to.

With its graduate school protagonist, "The Enigma Cipher" sounds – from the description – like an academia-based thriller, sort of the same area as Neil LaBute's "Possession" and, I suppose, "The DaVinci Code." First, is it an academia-based thriller, and second, did you have to do much research into the actual Enigma device or did the modern-day setting free you up?

I guess you could say that it's an academia-based thriller, but there's quite a bit more action than what you would find in the "DaVinci Code." Lots of books, lots of bullets, lots of bad guys. And one of the most exciting things about this project for me is the research. The history of the actual Enigma machines and their use are fascinating.

What's the research for "The Enigma Cipher" been like? I assume your trying to avoid "U-571"-style historical inaccuracies.

Obviously we don't want to stray from history. We'd like to keep things as historically accurate as possible. But anytime you tell a story like this, you have to be willing to take certain liberties. Usually that's done when there is still a bit of mystery surrounding certain historical events. If no one is entirely sure exactly what happened during a certain event, we can get creative when filling in the holes. The trick is to make it interesting while not going overboard and making it all sound ridiculous.

"War of the Worlds" came about after the story became widely known once again following the release of the movie, but its not a sequel to the film, nor is it a sequel to the novel (since its modernized and Americanized). The comic gives a lot of time on the protagonist's pre-invasion life. Where do you concentrate the most when thinking about it – what happens after the "second wave" or what happened before?

I concentrate mostly on what happens after the second wave. What happend before the initial attack is very important, but it's the repurcussions of those events during the second wave that I really want to explore. And I think that's the fun of the book. We're going off in directions and looking at aspects of the original story and other retellings that never really had a chance to explore.

What's your process for writing these multiple titles? Do you give yourself set time periods to work a specific title or just sit down and work on whatever's fresh?

Honestly, it depends on which deadline comes first. But there are times when the ideas for a specific project start coming so quickly that I can't get them on the page fast enough. When that happens, it doesn't matter what's next on the bill. I just have to go where my brain takes me.

Which of your Boom! projects are you the most excited about?

Man, that's tough, but I would have to say right now it's "Second Wave." That's the one that I really look forward to writing. We've barely scratched the surface of what we've got planned for that title. It's going to be a hell of a lot of fun to write.

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