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Brubaker Speaks

Hey there folks. I didn’t even get a chance to hype this last week (mostly because I didn’t think that it’d come off so quickly) but this week’s Full Bleed (#2 by my reckoning) features an interview with one of the better writers in contemporary comics. Right now Ed Brubaker is not only writing three and a half books a month: Catwoman, Detective Comics, Sleeper and alternating arcs on Gotham Central, but manages to set a standard for quality writing on a schedule that would crush lesser beings.

As I ranted last week, I’d little interest in the current run on Catwoman until I was browbeaten into reading it (Thanks, Grim) and was subsequently blown away by the depth of character and the story (as well as the artwork, but that’s another subject.) It would be fair to characterize me as a fan of Mr. Brubaker’s work at this point, and hope that after reading this interview, more folks look into his work. The way things stand in the industry right now, quality doesn’t necessarily sell itself any longer.

Mr. Brubaker’s work is quality. You should check it out, particularly if you value superior writing, mature themes and solid characters over simple theatrics.
I’ve talked enough. Let’s hear what Mr. Brubaker has to say.


MM: How did you come to start writing Catwoman? What attracted you to the character?

EB: I got offered the book by Matt Idelson, and I thought about it for a minute and then said, Can we redo her costume? And can I do whatever I want? He said yes to both, and so I committed to a year, and then as time went on, I liked it so I decided to do 50 or so instead of 12.

 

Let’s hope that DC goes to at least 50 with the book. How familiar were you with the character when you were offered the job? Was there any previous interest on your part for the character?

Well, I grew up reading Batman comics, so I was pretty familiar with at least a few versions of Catwoman. But until I was offered the job, I never really sat around wishing I could write Catwoman. I’m not one of those writers with a list of characters I want to work on. I just go with the jobs and see what I can bring to the table, what these characters bring out in my writing. With work-for-hire jobs, it seems to work best not getting your hopes up for various characters you want to write, because you never know if you’ll get that job or not.

 

Did you decide on the various art teams for that book, or were they set up without your involvement?

I’m usually involved to some degree. I virtually begged Darwyn Cooke to do the first arc, because I had seen black and whites of his EGO book, which I thought was brilliant. After Darwyn’s run, it was all about trying to find people who could carry on in the same basic direction for the art and the storytelling.

 

Based on your praise of his work (hadn’t heard of him before), I picked up Batman: EGO. His storytelling basically made the dialogue unnecessary. Why isn’t this guy a superstar?

I think he will be soon, probably. Especially with that 50s-era JLA thing he’s got coming out next year. There are really only a handful of people working in the field with his ability to drag you across the page.

 

How much direction are you giving the artists on Catwoman? Are you breaking the pages down into specific panel arrangements/layouts, or is that up to the artist?

I usually break the panels down on each page, but for action sequences, if I trust an artist, I just write the action and let them break it down. Most of the artists I’ve worked with on Catwoman are such strong storytellers though, that I trusted them to break the pages up differently if they had a good idea they wanted to try. For Javier Pulido, I wrote the whole story like a screenplay, because he wanted to do all the breaking down of the panels himself, and I love his work, so I said OK.

 

So, Javier Pulido did all the layout on “No Easy Way Down?” That’s some great work. How did he come to your attention? Actually, I’d ask the same question about Cameron Stewart as well. (Glad to see him coming back for another round, by the way.)

I’ve liked Javier’s stuff since the first time I saw it, which was I think a short story that Azzarello wrote, (which coincidentally, was supposed to be drawn by Darwyn Cooke originally). Since then I’ve just followed his career and always been impressed with his work. Cameron, I met through my editor Shelly Bond, because he was the inker on Deadenders for a year or so. He had been a sort of protégé of Darwyn’s for a while, too, which is why he ended up working on Catwoman, as well.

 

How does your experience as an artist inform your scriptwriting?

The more experience I have with an artist, the more I trust them to understand what I’m going for, I guess. I’ll start to leave out camera direction and background details, because I know they aren’t going to slack off on them just because it isn’t in the script. The more you trust an artist to get it right, the easier it is to write the script.

 

How do you respond to critics (or loudmouths) who say that the art on Catwoman is “too cartoony” and not “realistic” enough?

I generally don’t. But really, anyone who makes that complaint usually follows it with a list of “realistic” artists, which will include Jim Lee, Jim Balent, and a few other artists, who while they may be great at what they do are hardly realists. Alex Ross is realistic. Most comics art isn’t.
And I honestly think that Krigstein and Johnny Craig and Harvey Kurtzman (EC artists from the 50s) are much better cartoonists than just about anyone working today, and they were all about the storytelling. That’s what comics is, storytelling. If you were to show most supposed “realistic” comic art to an average person, they would find it about as realistic as the art in Dragonball Z. Show them Catwoman and they get it. It’s comics.

That said, I have no real objection to trying different art styles in the book as long as the artist is good and a good storyteller. I’m not married to the sort of “animated” style we’ve been using the past two years. I just happen to like it and think it’s a very accessible style.

 

Do you plan your scripts for Detective or Sleeper in a different manner than you do for Catwoman? Detective certainly reads differently, as does Gotham Central. The use of 8-panel pages gives a very different feel, more like a teleplay. Is that intentional, or just something that came out of it naturally?

I never really thought about it. Each book sort of just makes itself want to be told differently, if that makes any sense.

 

Internal narrative seems to be on the decline in comics (particularly in the mainstream). Yet you use it as a critical tool. Would you like to comment on that?

I use it when it feels necessary, really, that’s all. I’ve also used 3rd person narration here and there, and will again. I think with the whole explosion of WIDESCREEN style comics, a lot of people seemed to forget that comics are also words, not just pictures of things blowing up. And a lot of what I try to do in my work is give people as much for their money as I can, so I want the comic to take a while to read. Also, with the limited amount of pages in the average comic, adding an internal narrative (which is really just thought balloons with more style) gives an extra layer of depth to what you can do. You can have Batman fighting someone for three pages, and a whole narrative about something else, essentially telling two stories at one time, if you want to. But you know how I look at it? I’m a writer, so why should I be afraid of communicating with the words, as well as the pictures?

 

Do you have an opinion as to why interior narrative/thought balloons/narrative captions are frowned upon? Is it a matter of them being simply seen as out of style? Editorial fiat?

I guess I sort of answered that above. I think a lot of writers, some of them fine writers, too, are basically writing scenes that would look good in a movie, and forgetting that comics are their own medium with their own rich language. Films have music and editing to emphasize scenes, comics don’t. So narrative is another way to emphasize things. I think also, in the past, narrative was used to explain things a lot, and it ended up being very expository, which may be why people started to steer clear of it. The problem is, a lot of dialog is now expository instead, and that’s really not any better. When I read a comic and most of the dialog is explaining the plot, I just shake my head. People don’t talk like that. They tend to talk about everything but the plot. I try to use narrative to explain what needs to be explained, but still leave a lot of questions for the reader to interpret. I try to use narrative as just another voice in the book.

 

Alan Moore is a master of using interior narrative to tell two different stories at the same time. Are there other writers whose work has inspired your scripting? How about favorite writers in general (aside from those mentioned at the freshly-re-minted http://www.edbrubaker.com ?)

I don’t know, I hope my writing isn’t consciously influenced by anyone else. Alan Moore was groundbreaking in comics to me when I discovered him (at 15) because I’d never seen anyone use narrative in a mainstream comic to do anything but tell you what the picture was supposed to be. It was all really over-written in the 70s and 80s, with rare exceptions like Len Wein’s Swamp Thing. Miller also wrote great narratives, as did Eisner in The Spirit, in the post war stuff. His were more 3rd person stuff, but it was different than what you’d usually get.

 

Catwoman in particular, though to some degree, Sleeper, are far more compressed in terms of storytelling than many of their contemporaries. Do you think that this might be some of the cause for resistance in the marketplace? This ties into the question below.

No, I think the resistance in the market is just symptomatic of larger problems in the industry, which is how comics are marketed and sold. I’ve only heard from two or three people who couldn’t easily grasp the stories in both those books. I think most comics readers are smarter than we give them credit for. With Sleeper, it just started out selling so low that there’s almost no way to recover from that, no matter how good the press is, because unless a bunch of retailers who never ordered the book to begin with start ordering it, you’re sort of stuck. I get emails every week from people looking for Sleeper and not finding it. So that’s just a case of a book and an audience being kept apart by the backwards way comics are sold in the Direct Market, which is a market that sadly lends itself more to contraction of business rather than expansion.

 

I know the subject is old (and we just talked about it), but what about ‘widescreen comics’? Do you feel they’re a good or bad thing? Or is it all a matter of the kind of story that you want to tell fitting the way of telling it?

They aren’t good or bad. No style is good or bad. Warren Ellis and Mark Millar did really good work in The Authority in the widescreen style, because they told cool stories within that style. I don’t think any one style is the future of comics, though. Good comics are just good, no matter how they’re done, and bad comics are just bad no matter what. Watchmen is probably the best mainstream superhero thing ever, and it’s a nine-panel grid. There are plenty of bad comics using that same grid, though, just as there are plenty of bad ones with 3 to 5 panels a page. My view tends to be that 95 percent of everything is shit, comics, film, novels, TV shows, whatever. That 5 percent that’s good can come in whatever form it wants as far as I’m concerned.

But sometimes there’s like a new wave idea or something, like the whole WIDESCREEN craze, where everyone seems to think that form is more important than content, and that’s just not right. Personally, I grew out of trying to be on the cutting edge of stuff when I was in my early 20s. I mean, there’s nothing more embarrassing than a guy in the latter half of his 30s trying to stay on tip of pop culture. Now I just try to do the best job I can with the work I’m given.

 

True enough about the 90% rule. I just wish that some of the good stuff would float a little higher to the top. Sometimes you have to get your hands pretty dirty to find work of lasting value.

That’s how it usually is in all media. The best stuff doesn’t always catch on and sell. Usually if something is really popular and everyone says it’s great, you can sort of count on it being shit. That’s always been the rule. There are the odd things that break the rule, though, like Harry Potter books. Those are great books. The movies, though, leave a lot to be desired, yet they’re hugely successful anyway. We need to learn to start looking at creative success and not just at commercial success in comics. Since almost everything sells really badly, we might as well focus on making the comics good, instead.

 

Are there artists you’d like to work with from a storytelling aspect? From a professional curiosity aspect? From a “Well, Jim Lee would sure bump the orders on my books” aspect?

On all those levels, yes. I’ve always wanted to work with David Lloyd and Dave Gibbons. I think Lee Weeks is one of the best storytellers working, too. Klaus Janson promised we’d work together sometime. Lee Bermejo is awesome. As far as sales go, sure, I’d love Jim Lee to draw a Catwoman story, but I think Jim is a great storyteller, too. I would never work with a big name guy who’s work I wasn’t fond of just for sales. Those kinds of things usually read as half-hearted as they are. The most important part of collaborative comics is the right connection between writer and artist. That’s when the comics really spark, when those two are on the same page with every aspect. You can have a brilliant artist who’s just not into the same things you are and the comic just won’t have that certain something, even if it looks professional.

 

I’d love to see you do some work with David Lloyd, who was always overlooked it seems. Have you read his Night Raven or The Horrorist? Both are examples of the writer (Jamie Delano) and artist being on the same page and getting a great collaborative effort out of it.

Yeah, I’m familiar with most of his work. I think he’s a genius. If DC was smart, they’d put out an oversized hardback of V for Vendetta in black and white, like it was meant to be seen, and in magazine size, too. It irritates me to no end when I read the TPB of that and have to break the spine everytime I want to read the middle of the book because the lettering goes right into the gutter.

 

Any projects upcoming that we should be aware of?

Nothing new other than all my usual books, Catwoman, Detective, Sleeper and Gotham Central. Isn’t that enough?

Oh wait, Ryan Sook is about to start on Detective, and that’s pretty exciting. Ryan’s one of those guys I was talking about, where we’re just immediately on the same page. That’s really opening me up to new possibilities on Batman.

 

Anyone else you’d like to plug who should be getting more of our attention?

Yeah, read Age of Bronze (http://www.age-of-bronze.com/aob/index.shtml) and Berlin (http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/). Both by good friends of mine, both black and white historical comics, and both brilliant in almost every way. I’m also really looking forward to the new Human Target book from Vertigo, because Milligan is so good right now, and Javier Pulido is the best.

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