The Writing Place: Sean McKeever discusses 'The Waiting Place' and More

Mon, February 4th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Sean McKeever]
Sean McKeever
If you haven't heard of Sean McKeever and you aren't familiar with his acclaimed slice-of-life series called "The Waiting Place," then it is time to pick up his work before you get left behind. The young scribe is steadily gaining more attention from critics and fans, with some work at industry giant Marvel Comics on the way and he seems poised to break through into the "mainstream" comic book consciousness. McKeever recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with CBR about his career, the end of "The Waiting Place" and his own thoughts on the comic industry.

"Comics have almost always been a big part of my life," says McKeever, relating the story of how he got into the comic book industry. "I learned to read at an early age thanks to the Spider-Man comics my mom bought for me. As a teenager, I opened a fairly full-service comic-book shop in my parents' 'True Value.' It wasn't even a conscious decision to do it, really, as much as it was an instinctual decision. The town I lived in only had a little book store with a smallish comics rack, and practically living in my parents' store since I was a kid had instilled in me this sort of retail sense, plus I had this passion for the medium that I wanted to share."

"I've also always been an entertainer. For my sixth birthday I dressed up as Peter Criss from Kiss and did this little lip-synch concert for the kids that came to my party! In third grade, I'd write, direct, cast and perform in these small plays for class, just like a little Max Fischer from 'Rushmore'. When I hit high school, I performed in a lot of plays and even won a couple gold medals at the state level for some dramatic monologues. The acting, for me, was always the 'big thing,' but writing was a close second, even if I didn't always realize it. I bought my first book on screenwriting at 13 or 14 and I wrote some horrible screenplays (that, fortunately, I threw away years ago). Around the same time, I actually sent in a pitch to Marvel for a six-page Spider-Man story! I didn't know how to send a pitch, so I laid out the pages on poster board, placed the captions (the whole story was told without word balloons) and then wrote notes in the margins or in the panels as to what the action was supposed to be. A couple months later, I had my first rejection notice!"

"I finally discovered that maybe writing was the way to go in college. I was majoring in theatre at UW-Whitewater and it wasn't all I'd hoped it would be. I was really angling to get into film acting, but I'd taken all the acting courses the program had to offer and felt it really had done nothing to prepare me. I panicked about what to do and tried taking a bunch of different business and science classes to try and find a new major. My final semester, I got really depressed and almost never went to class. I became a shut-in, spending almost all my time in my dorm room, working on a screenplay for screenwriting class, even though I wasn't going. Eventually, I decided that I had to drop out before I got kicked out. I handed in my final project for the screenwriting course and went home in low spirits. I later found out that I'd failed every course, except screenwriting. I got a B, I think."

"So that was a signal to me that maybe I should try to be a freelance writer. And since I'd been trying actively to get into comics writing from time to time, I decided I'd become a comic-book writer."

"In my quest to become a writer of comics, I found myself on the CompuServe Comics/Animation Forum, where I met a lot of other aspiring writers and a few existing pros, including Kurt Busiek, Warren Ellis and Paul Jenkins. This was around 1993-94, pre-Jenkins 'Hellblazer,' pre-'Transmetropolitan.' Paul was one of the guys kind enough to take a look at my work, and he felt I had potential, so he helped me out by mentoring me some and by introducing me to Joe Pruett, then-editor at Caliber Comics. Joe gave me my first couple gigs in Caliber's 'Negative Burn' anthology...and that's the medium-length version of how I broke into comics."

While many people can attest to having a love for comic books and even superheroes themselves, McKeever has a distinct passion for the comic book medium itself, the same passion that is evident in all of his writing. "The thing about comics is that there's this bond between the reader and the material that I believe does not exist in any other medium. The pacing and the pictures and the dialogue are such a powerful cross-section of books and film that it becomes something more than any other medium--something I feel other media can't even touch. As a writer, comics are especially great to work in. As opposed to film, which is the other medium I'd really like to work in, there are so few

filters to get what's in your mind into the minds of the audience. I get to communicate to an artist, and together the artist and I are the 'actors'. If I'm communicating properly to the artist, and the artist is faithful to the spirit and intent of that communication, it's a beautiful thing."

[Sean McKeever]
A much younger McKeever.
But while his understanding of the medium is uncanny, McKeever isn't so different from other comic book fans: he's been a fan since he was a child. "As a kid, I was an incurable Spidey geek. I started in the 70s, with stuff written by Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Chris Claremont (on 'Marvel Team-Up') and that whole crew. The first comic-book story that really affected the writer in me was J.M. DeMatties and Mike Zeck's 'Kraven's Last Hunt'. The level of craft on that story was so powerful to me that it changed the way I looked at comics writing. I also really dug 'The Dark Knight Returns' and 'Watchmen' and 'Maus,' all of which I discovered when I started up my comics shop. Peter David's Spider-Man stuff was very inspirational for me. Jim Shooter's Valiant books--the first couple years' worth of Valiant--were quite impressive. I'm sure there's tons of other stuff, but none of it comes to mind right now."

"Since then, I'd have to say I've been influenced by the work of Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis, Kurt Busiek and Garth Ennis. Actually, these guys were all very encouraging when I was getting started, and gave me some great pointers and sometimes even scripts. Outside of those guys, I couldn't say if someone's writing influences or inspires me because it's such an instinctual process, but I really enjoy stuff by Brian Bendis, Dan Curtis Johnson, Grant Morisson, Adrian Tomine, Jason Lutes, David Lapham and Neil Gaiman, among others."

As mentioned before, McKeever has become known for "The Waiting Place," which explores the life of a teenager who moves to small town in the U.S. While some people may be experiencing visions of the television show "Dawson's Creek" as a comic book, one need not worry about McKeever's series spiraling downward into a well of whining and annoying self-pity: "The Waiting Place" has been consistently praised for its even-handed and realistic take on the teenage experience. "I think that anyone who has felt stuck in their life would identify with 'TWP' [McKeever's acronym for 'The Waiting Place'], which deals with teens who are stuck in a worthless, dead-end, tourist-trap town'" explains McKeever regarding his series. "It's not escapist fantasy--and people who like escapist fantasy tend to complain that it's not, as if all comics should be tailored to their personal preferences--but for those who want to enjoy a solid, realistic drama, I honestly feel that 'TWP' is where it's at."

One reason for the authentic feel of "The Waiting Place" is the fact that its inspiration can be derived from McKeever's own life experiences. "I grew up in a town very much like TWP's town of Northern Plains," reveals McKeever. "After living in the Milwaukee suburbs for nearly eight years, being in the middle of nowhere left me feeling very isolated and limited. The title comes from the Dr. Seuss book, 'Oh The Places You'll Go!'-It refers to the rut we all get stuck in at some time in our lives when trying to achieve our goals." Ironically, despite the fact that "The Waiting Place" is so acclaimed because of its authenticity, that is the one area where McKeever feels that he has the hardest time. "The only problem I ever really faced was authenticity, and that rarely ever

became a problem," explains McKeever regarding his attempts to capture the teenage experience within his stories. "Whenever it reared its ugly head, I had high-school teacher Jeff Limke as my consulting editor, who would steer me in the right direction. As consulting editor, Jeff essentially is 'copy editor plus.' The 'plus' part is that he'll discuss the theme with me some, make suggestions or voice concerns about the plot and slap down anything that smacks of fakery. In the end, I have final say, but I follow his suggestions more often than not."

Another enthralling aspect of "The Waiting Place" comes in the form of McKeever's character tackling some real issues like drinking, the nature of friendship and discrimination in a small town. But with all the different issues that teenagers deem important and relevant to their existence, one would imagine that McKeever would have a hard time deciding which topics to explore; in fact, he has a simple solution to the problem of deciding on a focus for his stories. "I suppose the deciding factor to me is whether or not I wish to explore a theme. Any theme I tend to tackle, on some level, has some relevance to my life, and my natural instinct to explore those issues is what tends to drive my writing. Even racism, because on one level that's about alienation and ignorance, which are both issues I've dealt with in my life."

Since "The Waiting Place" focuses so heavily on the high school culture and the people within its sphere of influence, it should come as no surprise that McKeever has some intriguing thoughts regarding modern day high schools. "Obviously, it's much, much tougher to be a high-schooler now than it was in the '80s. The current high-school social climate is disturbingly yet understandably hostile on certain levels, as is the level of political sensitivity and policing. I imagine going to school feels much more like going to day-prison or something nowadays, which is certain to only foster more rebellion from the kids."

For those of you who suddenly feel compelled to pick up "The Waiting Place," there is good and bad news. The good news is that the second volume concludes in early February, meaning that there isn't much you need to buy to be on top of the "TWP" mythos. The bad news is that there probably won't be any more of the series to read, possibly forever. "There are no plans for any more of 'TWP.' I'm not going to say 'never again,' but it's highly unlikely that I'll return to it. There is already a TPB that collects 1997's volume 1 (ISBN 0-943151-36-8; STAR13127), and volume 2 will be collected in two TPBs. The first of these will be released in May, and plans are for the second to come out in late '02." McKeever has planned most of the series from the beginning, giving it a better sense of pacing and flow when "The Waiting Place" is read in one sitting, so it wasn't too hard to decide which plots to develop. "There were bits and pieces of 'TWP' planned out from the beginning. Most of volume 1 was already bouncing around my noggin, but much of volume 2 was built after volume 1 was finished and as I went along with it."

Looking back at those the two volumes of comics that comprise "The Waiting Place," McKeever doesn't really regret anything that he has done with the characters or plot. "I'm happy overall with the direction the series took. At one time, I was adapting the series for television (which never panned out), and I did make some drastic changes in some places, but I would never want to turn back the clock and re-do the comic-book series. It feels pointless."

One misconception among fans is that acclaim automatically equals sales and for those who believe that myth, McKeever is brutally honest about the truth of the matter. "'TWP' barely breaks even," admits the scribe. "We had a double-digit percentage spike when the first TPB [trade-paperback, the industry term for bound collections of comics] was released, but it quickly returned to its original numbers. Aside from the TPB, which presold at about 70% of the regular series' numbers (many books' TPBs sell at 35% and under), sales have been pretty disappointing. The small number of people who do buy 'TWP,' however, tend to make up for it with their passion for the series. During 'TWP''s run, I used to work full time as the mail guy for a major corporation, and then I worked as a full-time web designer for a couple firms. Now I try to make ends meet between freelance writing and freelance web design. I also put in some counter time at The Laughing Ogre [a comic store]." All this keeps McKeever's perspective on life and his writing quite grounded, as he doesn't let the acclaim go to his head. "I don't feel pressured at all. As much as I like the praise, it really has no effect on my writing. It's nice to know that my 'message in a bottle' has been received and properly decoded, but I'm not writing for critics--I'm writing for me."

Lest one think that McKeever is the sole talent behind "The Waiting Place," he is quick to applaud the work of artist Mike Norton, whose pencilling talents bring the scribe's tales to life. "Mike is a total delight to work with. Understand that I am so proud of what

he's accomplished with TWP--and he drew the series while holding down a full-time job! I can't wait to see what he can do now that he's a full-time freelancer. What Mike brings to the table is an uncanny ability to capture just the right emotion and atmosphere in his character renderings. He's the perfect compliment for a character-driven book, and yet he's also versatile enough to pull off wild fantasy (as readers will find out soon enough)."

"He also has this totally impressive design sense that he brings to 'TWP.' He's my design guy on the book, and he also puts together the TPB designs. I mean, here's a guy who draws, letters and designs the entire book, puts it on a CD and ships it off to the publisher. He's really been an asset, and I can't wait to work with him again."

[The Incredible Hulk #31]As was previously mentioned, McKeever will be doing work for Marvel Comics in the upcoming future, but this won't be the first time he tackled some of their characters. "Well, I first did a fill-in issue on the 'Incredible Hulk #26' with Paul Jenkins. He had been so busy that he was running a little behind on the title, and it turns out the series' then-editor, Tom Brevoort, was one of 'TWP''s few readers. Paul suggested having me write an issue, and Tom suggested Paul and I co-write it. So we did. That issue went pretty well, and it soon became apparent to Paul that he wanted to move on, so he suggested to Tom that I take Jenkins' story notes for an arc that would deal with Bruce Banner's [Hulk's alter-ego] Lou Gherig's Disease and write it. Those two pages of notes became 'Spiral Staircase," Paul's final story arc for the series as written by me."

McKeever maintains that while he enjoys writing superheroes or other "mainstream" comics, he isn't going to stop working on independent/creator owned series of his own. "I want to do both (and thanks for the quotes for 'mainstream'). I'd like a crack at Spider-Man someday. Other than that, my desires shift from time to time. In the end, I really just want to tell stories about interesting characters, so if I see something in a corporate-owned character I'd like to explore, then I'll try to get my hands on it." So is it possible that we'll see McKeever's name plastered on the front of a high-profile superhero comic book? "Absolutely, as long as I'm able to bring my character-centric sensibilities to the work, and as long as editors actually let me write a fight scene every once in a while...!"

Marvel Comics has been making the headlines recently for being an exciting and creatively liberating place to work, but McKeever says that Slave Labor Graphics, publisher of "The Waiting Place," is also an excellent place to work. "The guys at SLG try hard to promote and push their titles in many different ways, and they're met with a lot of resistance from retailers because their books aren't in color, or they're not superheroes or because they're not Marvel or DC. That they've lasted this long is a testament to the stubbornness and passion of publisher Dan Vado, who is a very intelligent guy."

"Creatively, the SLG guys totally get out of the way. At Marvel, the editors are naturally more hands-on, but I don't mind it at all. I'm constantly surprised by the amount of latitude they give me, and I'm never put off when they make suggestions or request changes. That's the nature of work-for-hire, and it doesn't bother me in the least--or at least it won't bother me until someone tries to force me in a direction that betrays a story's theme or my personal standards. Marvel's editorial has been good about discussing issues rather than making demands, and they've really challenged me and helped me grow as a writer."

"It's been refined dramatically, but I don't know that the essence of my writing has changed all that much. Maybe the process that gets me there has become more structured over the years, and I'm always thinking of and implementing new storytelling techniques, but if you read 'TWP #1' and then read, say, 'Incredible Hulk #32,' I think you'll see strong similarities."

While McKeever's career marches on, he isn't quite sure that there is any true "dream project" that he'd like to complete. "I don't know that I have one of those, or if I do, I don't know what it is. It used to be writing a Spider-Man comic--which I'd still like to do-but with 3 solid Spidey titles running right now, I'd much rather enjoy reading them than sweat over creating them. Someday, though, I would really like to bury myself in Peter Parker's [Spiderman's alter ego] brain and pour out a very personal, atmosphere-drenched story or ten. Another thing I'm itching to do now is to revisit the disturbing sort of works I produced in high school. I wrote a lot of horror stuff back then, but my comics output really hasn't touched upon that 'dark side' yet."

McKeever's work experience isn't limited to writing comic books and as such, it gives him a unique perspective when approaching comic book writing. "I think that my experience as an actor helps me in terms of dialogue and in setting the proper atmosphere. The web design and remixing stuff that I do on my site work well as diversions when I need something to distract my conscious mind. My experience in retail, though not traditionally considered 'creative', is very helpful as a 'marketing plug-in' to my creative writing process." Besides work experience, there are other factors that influence his writing. "I'm heavily influenced by music. What I do nowadays is I build a playlist on my computer specifically tailored to the story I'm writing. I also try to read nonfiction books and educational books--even stuff like Algebra--in order to get my mind running and maybe find some new angles to dive into a story."

[The Waiting Place]Whether McKeever intended it or not, "The Waiting Place" has come at a time when many fans seem to be disenchanted with the superhero genre and seek comic books that tackle different subjects, such as the crime drama of "100 Bullets" or the war stories in "Red Star." "I'm all for the diversification of genres, and I believe that there's room for everything," says McKeever regarding whether or not he believes that the superhero genre has run its course. "I would like to see non-superhero books gain more prominence in the Industry than they currently have as it can only make the marketplace healthier. I also like to see people stretching the boundaries of the superhero conventions because it is creatively exciting and it makes non-superhero books easier for the comics-reading masses to swallow, but I'd also like to see some back-to-basics superhero stuff in the market. Not so much for me to read (I don't think I'd be into it, honestly) but for diversification's sake. I'm all for comics of all stripes, so I don't think there's necessarily any need to 'improve' a genre or sub-genre, except to continue to diversify within it, always having work that pushes the envelope side-by-side with traditional works and everything in between."

Though many companies and creators can often seem more concerned with trends rather than the overall quality of the stories, McKeever isn't needlessly trying to predict the next big trend. "Hell, I don't have a crystal ball, so all I can tell you is that I hope the next big trend will be editors begging me to write for them and accepting my proposals. Oh, you wanted something less egocentric? Um...I think, sadly, we're seeing the rise/return of the speculator and a returning importance placed on the secondary market, and that's only going to grow as long as books are strictly printed to order by Marvel and as long as publishers keep producing limited variant covers. As far as creators impacting the industry, I have no thoughts on the subject, and I think it's more fun that way. I know who I'm rooting for, though (yes, I'm thinking of other people besides me...heh)."

However, McKeever does have some thoughts on the health of the industry and adds, "I have a lot of thoughts on this, having been a retailer and all, but to keep it short, I would say that we're on the verge of a very healthy future, at least in the short-term. Whether it lasts or not is up to the creators, publishers and retailers. Content-wise, we're a go--hell, it's a comics Renaissance--but there are still more uninviting, insular shops out there than we'd like to believe and there is still too much focus on the secondary/speculator market in many stores and with key publishers. If retailers and publishers resist the urge to make the quick buck the doors will open wide and they'll be rewarded."

"There are many incredible comics shops out there, but some of the bad ones are really, really bad and have the power to turn off new customers in droves, so the 'cleaning up' of the retail front is an ongoing concern of mine. Also, Marvel in particular should overprint at least a couple percent on their titles and publishers in general need to move away from the limited/variant/Dynamic Forces edition nonsense. I don't have a problem with collectors or comics having a collectibility aspect, but when publishers manufacture comics as collectibles they are doing the industry a disservice. The third thing that needs to happen is for the genre playing field to level out some. Whether or not one genre or sub-genre is more popular is not the issue--it's whether or not that genre/sub-genre has a stranglehold-level dominance to the detriment of other genres and public perception, and that's what I feel we have going on right now."

After learning so much about McKeever's mindset, one might be wondering which comic books he does read and he is more than happy to share his buying list. "Since I spend a fair amount of time at 'The Laughing Ogre'--a stellar comics shoppe in Columbus, Ohio--I get to read a lot of comics. Some of the stuff I'm really digging right now, though, would be 'Catwoman,' 'Optic Nerve,' 'Ultimate Spider-Man,' 'Daredevil,' 'The Incredible Hulk,' 'Peter Parker: Spider-Man,' 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' 'Blue Monday,' 'Transmetropolitan,' 'The Authority,' 'The Sandwalk Adventures' and 'New X-Men.' I also just read 'Tangled Web #10' by Karre Andrews, which blew me away, and 'Howard The Duck #1'--quite a fun, exciting read. A pretty Marvel-heavy list, but they've really stepped up to the plate recently, and a lot of the Indy books I read come out so infrequently that they don't spring immediately to mind."

Besides reading comics, buying comics and producing comics, McKeever does find time for other hobbies. "I'm a movie geek, so I try to catch a flick with my friends once a week. I work on the code for my Web site and message forum for fun (pretty sad, I know). I'm also an 'independent remixer' which basically means I remix songs either for contests or just for fun. For contests, I get select vocal and instrumental tracks from AcidPlanet.com, but the for-fun stuff is remixed from the original song file. Most of my remixes are up on my site."

So what comics can we expect see Sean McKeever producing this year? "The final issue of 'The Waiting Place' (no. 12, NOV012119) is coming out February 6. It's a double-sized issue that Mike and I are terribly proud of. I also have a collection of 'TWP''s backup sci-fi story, 'Tower,' coming out in April from Sirius (FEB022622). Other than that, I'm working on a mini-series for Marvel right now and I've done some inventory work for them as well that will see print this year. I'm also in pre-approval development on an ongoing series for a major publisher. I've got some pitches in at various places, and I'm dreaming more pitches up as I write this."

When asked if he had a message to send to comic book readers, McKeever answered with this introspective response:

"Since the main reason I'm a writer is to communicate, I feel I'm sending that message already, with every comic I write."

 
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