Writers dabble in comics

March 06, 2006|By DAVID HILTBRAND | DAVID HILTBRAND,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

By almost any measure - exposure, esteem, money - writing for comic books is a big step down for authors who are enjoying success in TV, films or fiction.

But try telling that to the big-name scribes - including horror-meister Stephen King, Joss Whedon (creator of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and writer/director Reggie Hudlin (House Party), now head of entertainment at BET - who are taking the plunge into the pulpy world of muscle-bound superheroes. They all think they've died and gone to heaven.

Thriller writer Brad Meltzer (The Tenth Justice) remembers being recruited by Bob Shrek, the editor of the Green Arrow series.

"He waited around until the very end of a book signing and asked, `Do you want to write the Green Arrow?'" Meltzer recalls. "I said, `Don't say that unless you're serious.' I've been waiting my whole life for someone to say those words."

For many authors, comic books possess an evergreen coolness that far surpasses their lowbrow standing in the culture. It's a happy association that often extends back to childhood.

"Growing up in Philly, I went down to Fat Jack's on Samson Street every week to buy comics," says Mat Johnson, 35, the award-winning novelist (Hunting in Harlem) who is writing the Papa Midnite voodoo series for Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics.

"From the time I could read, I've been devouring these things," says Meltzer, 35. "I had a $5 allowance growing up in Brooklyn and I spent the whole thing every week at the Nostrand Avenue Comics shop."

As a consequence, getting to dabble in the colorful realm of comics is like fantasy camp for many writers.

Of course, it benefits the publishers as well. "We get compelling storytelling and a fresh outlook on over 40 years of character continuity," says Ruwan Jayatilleke, director of development at Marvel in New York. "And obviously we're going for a crossover audience. Increasingly we're seeing these [comic] books collected into graphic novels."

"When you have stories from well-known creative types like Joss Whedon or [sci-fi author] Orson Scott Card or Reggie Hudlin," he continues, "there's more of a mainstream audience going to Barnes & Noble or Amazon or even discovering their local comic book shop."

The traditional comic book, which typically sells for $2.99, makes up the other part of sales. A hot title may sell 100,000 to 200,000 copies.

Writing for a comic book takes some adjustment, especially for novelists.

"It's a very visual medium," notes Charlie Huston, 38, author of the vampire/detective mashup Already Dead. He's now working on Moon Knight, a comic about a brooding, cowled superhero.

"You have to learn to reduce the text and plot, and let the pictures carry the story as much as possible. My prose style is pretty spare to begin with, but it's shocking when you see it on the page how even a few words can begin to crowd a panel and diminish the action."

"You have to learn to shut up," concurs Meltzer. "When I write a novel, if I want to say someone is nervous, I have a definite number of words I can use. But in a comic book you're painting with a brand-new palette of words and pictures.

"Now I might say: `In panel one, extreme close-up on Superman. I just want to see his brow,'" he explains. "`Panel two: I want to see a bead of sweat. Panel three: A close-up on his worried face.' I haven't used a single word yet. You have to rely on the artist to lift part of the weight for you."

Even writers who are used to working in visual forms such as TV and film have to drastically pare down their prose.

"I keep finding myself with way too much story to confine in 22 pages," the standard comic length, says Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of ABC's Lost, who is writing Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk.

"I'm forced to cut and compress and tell the story in a snapshotty fashion. The way you convey emotion with a picture versus the way an actor will perform it is a very different style of writing. I'm still trying to find the rhythm."

And writing a comic book in the digital era, it turns out, is a surprisingly solitary pursuit.

"I assumed that the collaboration between the writer and artist would be fairly intimate, a lot of back and forth," says Huston. "But it's not like the old days when they were all together in New York, working out of the famed Marvel bullpen."

"The truth is, because of where the technology is now, the artists are really spread out," Huston continues. He has never met David Finch, the Canadian artist with whom he is collaborating on Moon Knight.

When acclaimed Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina (Deception) was recruited to write the occult comic Hellblazer, the basis for Keanu Reeves' movie Constantine, she wanted to set her seven-part story arc in Glasgow, Scotland. The problem was that her artist, Leonardo Manco, resides in Argentina.

So Mina broke out her video camera to provide Manco with some authentic local flavor. "I made a DVD of the area with lots of reference points to all these places I was going to mention," she says.

"I was quite heavily pregnant and climbing all over these building sites. The guys were sneaking me in at lunchtime because I told them it was for DC Comics."

None of these name writers are motivated to work in comic books for the payday.

"You basically get $90 to $150 a page," says Douglas Rushkoff, a prolific media critic and novelist (Exit Strategy) who is writing the biblically themed comic Testament. That's next to nothing compared with the wages of Hollywood.

But the work has other compensations. "I have one friend who is obsessed with comics," says Mina. "I used his name in Hellblazer. I think he wants to marry me now."

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