Crafting "Pirate" & Sci-Fi Stories with Johanna Stokes

Mon, September 4th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Andrew Wickliffe, Guest Contributor

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TV writers coming to comic books has almost become the new standard in mainstream comic books, but writer Johanna Stokes is the opposite. Last year, Stokes wrote a story for Boom! Studios' first "Zombie Tales" anthology and she's been busy in comics since. Aside from her other short stories in the Boom! "Zombie" follow-ups, she wrote the two-part "Zombie Tales: Death Valley" and is now writing "The Savage Brothers" with co-writer Andrew Cosby.

In addition to stories in the upcoming Boom! titles, "Pirate Tales" and "Ninja Tales," Stokes is writing for the Sci-Fi Channel's summer hit, "Eureka." Stokes's episode airs September 5th. CBR News sat down with Stokes to discuss comics and her burgeoning television career.

"Pirate Tales"
I'm not sure if Boom! started the trend or was just one of the first places doing it -- TV writers in comics--but you're a slightly different case. You've gone from comics to TV after a relatively short period (Mike W. Barr's got an amusing anecdote about some famous DC 1980s writers who wanted nothing more than to write "The Love Boat" and never did). Your first solo episode of "Eureka" airs September 5th, for example. Are you planning on staying in both industries? What does one offer the other does not?

Comic book writing is a great outlet where you and your artist have almost complete creative control. Something you'll never get in TV or film. But I do love writing for TV. I love being able to hear the voices and see the tiny moments shared between characters. That being said, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive and it's nice to move between the two worlds.

Michael Alan Nelson said working with ("Eureka" creator, "Savage Brothers" co-writer) Andrew Cosby has been great. I'm tempted to - flippantly - ask if you disagree, but instead... do you find the collaboration writing experience to be more beneficial?

The first thing you need to know is that Michael is a filthy, filthy liar. The second thing is that Andy is diva-like and impossible to work with.

I'm kidding, of course.

Page from "Pirate Tales"
In truth, when working on a project that's near and dear to me, I like being able to bounce ideas off of other people, but I want to maintain a certain level of control. "Does not play well with others" might appear somewhere on my report card, but I really do enjoy working with Andy. And "Savage Brothers" was particularly easy because it was his vision so I could just step into the world and have fun. Plus I always learn something new when working with Cosby.

Which is more exciting, seeing a comic book script visually realized or a TV script?

I'd have to say TV. Maybe it's because it's all still so new to me, but every minute has been a real thrill. I mean, I love TV. I love it. I loved it before I even moved to L.A., before I was even old enough to realize people actually write the words that actors say and the scripts that directors direct. Sure there is a lot of fluff and mind numbing stuff on every hour of every, day but there's also a lot of quality and heart and powerful ideas coming across the airwaves. And it's just neat to be part of the entire experience.

That being said, there's nothing like walking into a comic book store and seeing something you wrote on a rack. I love imagining these stories and then seeing the artist bring them to life.

Do you find yourself applying comic book writing devices to television scripting? The short pieces, in the Boom! anthologies for instance, have to establish themselves quickly, then speed-up the rising action, usually ending at the climax. While full length comics are different, television is very different. A lot of the establishment is already done (and there are actors who can shoulder more of the burden).

Obviously they're two very different mediums and television writing comes more naturally to me so I probably bring that skill set to writing comics instead of vice versa. One thing I do take from comics is the boundlessness, the "no limitations" attitude. The artist can do anything I can think of and often the bigger the better. After awhile in television you find yourself holding back because you know a five minute CGI shot will cost too much or flooding the set just isn't practical, but I still like to think in the comic book realm where anything is possible.

Page from "Pirate Tales"
In your regular length comics work ("Death Valley," "The Savage Brothers"), I've noticed a lot of efficient character relationship establishment. In "Savage Brothers," for example, the two main characters are fully established in the first ten pages, mostly through a couple conversations and replies. Do you work at it separate from the action of the story or at the same time you're writing the zombie-shoot out, for example?

It's interesting that so many people have talked about the development of the character relationship between the two brothers. Honestly it wasn't anything I consciously thought about. I think if you're doing your job as a writer you don't have to spell out what type of relationship people have - it will come through in their interactions.

I cringe whenever I hear or read two characters call each other "bro" or "sis." I have an older brother and we have never referred to each other like that. It's not, in my experience, how people talk.

And I think a stressful action sequence is a prime place to really showcase not only who people are, but their level of intimacy and comfort with their companions. Networks and studios fear that audiences won't "get it." But audiences are smarter than they give them credit for. Plus, sometimes it's nice for readers or viewers to be able to bring their own interpretation to a relationship and not have something shoved down their throats. For "Zombie Tales: Oblivion" I wrote a story called "The Bakemono and The Cranes" about two girls in Japan after the zombie apocalypse. In my mind I had an idea of what their relationship was, but I never said it overtly. After it was released people asked if they were lovers, sisters or friends. I wasn't expecting that, but was delighted because people were bringing their own histories and stories to the table.

Some of your comic work has been for the various Boom! Anthologies ("Zombie," "Cthulu" and the upcoming "Pirate" and "Ninja Tales"). Are the shorter pieces a breather from longer work or are they more stressful? How do you approach writing these stories, since the genres are usually totally different?

I love the shorter pieces even though fitting a beginning, middle and end into 8 pages can be difficult. But it's rewarding and certainly a great writing exercise. Plus there's the joy of seeing what the other writers and artists do with their stories. It's like telling Garth Brooks, U2, Nina Simone and Metallica to write a song about heartache. You know you're going to get a completely original and unique sound and song from each of them.

Usually when Ross Richie approaches me about doing a particular "Tales" book, I'll have an idea right away and then it's just a matter of figuring out how the idea becomes a story and how the story breaks down into pages and panels. But while the genres can add flavor and give us a backdrop for the story, they usually aren't what the stories are about. For example, in a lot of my work I hit on the themes of love and loss and loyalty and that's true whether it's "Zombie Tales," "Ninja Tales" or "Cthulu Tales." When Ross gives me a specific genre, it's like he gives me a different pallet of colors with which to paint. I love it.

"Ninja Tales"
I was going to avoid questions about women in mainstream comic books, since you've already written columns on the subject and just from a cursory look, it's obvious the situation isn't a good one and is arguably getting worse (in mainstream comics, anyway). But then I changed my mind. Do you feel, as a female writer in comic books, you have to be an advocate? There are a couple good examples (well, one) of someone who is an advocate, but there's also the women who've simply dropped out from frustration. And, as a follow-up, how does it feel going from comic books to television? I assume the gender politics (given significant female artists in television have been around since 1951) are different.

I think women should support each other whenever possible. I'll pick up a comic just because it's written or drawn by a woman and I ask to be paired with female artists whenever possible.

There have been very few situations in the Hollywood side of things where I felt I wasn't being listened to because I was a woman, but it may have also been that I was a baby writer. You can find Good 'Ol Boy's clubs in any industry, but you can also find people who either want a female perspective or simply want good, quality work and they don't care who it comes from.

Why comic books? Besides your work in the industry, what's your experience with them? Influences, favorite writers, and so on.

Comic books have long been criticized and stigmatized, but the truth is, like any artistic medium, there are good things and bad things. It would be short sighted to refuse to go see movies simply because porn films exist or to not see a show on Broadway because you didn't like your community college's rendition of "The Pirates of Penzance."

So many comics tell these beautiful stories detailing the highs and lows of the human experience and they're made even richer by the pictures that accompany them. I read comics because I get something out of them, whether it's a brief distraction by a world so distant from mine or the complete absorption into a life or story that I find somehow relatable to my own.

My brother got me hooked on "Elfquest" when I was little. I know, I know. Very girlie, but I stand by that series. And then I fell out for a long while until I moved to L.A. and met all these brilliant writers and producers who turned me on to the classics like "Watchmen" and "Swamp Thing" and "Sandman."

Not to harp on in-house talent, but Michael Alan Nelson is one of my favorite up-and- coming writers. The story he's weaving with "Second Wave" just blows my doors off and I love what John Rogers is doing with his run on "The Blue Beetle."

And just to brag on my T.V. guys, as well, "Eureka" is doing great in the ratings and I keep hearing people say they're not science fiction fans, but they're loving this show, which is what it was always intended to be - a sci fi show for people who don't like sci fi. No easy task, but Andy Cosby and Jamie Paglia, the show's creators, really brought it home. I hope my upcoming episode does them proud and I would encourage people to check out the show at least once. I really think there's something for everyone and it's a great way to spend a Tuesday night.

 
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