Greg Rucka’s ALPHA, the first thriller in a new series from Rucka in over ten years, is in stores now! The celebration continues with Part II of Rucka’s conversation with fellow comics writer extraordinaire Brian Michael Bendis.
Missed Part I? Read it here.
BMB: Well, we talked about this a little last week, but it happened to me this morning, so I laughed, that thing where someone accuses you of a stereotype of some sort because the character doesn’t exactly represent their life. Someone this morning was very angry at me for Luke Cage’s wardrobe being a T-shirt and jeans, and how stereotypical it is, and can you please shave his goatee? and that’s not what African-American men look like. There’s a look for all African-American men? I have to have that conversation now? Not all people look exactly alike or have the same taste and this character does not represent all things to all people, and yes, it does not look like you, nor was that my attempt to find you and duplicate you into this comic. You want to respect it at the same time—no, move on. I’ve got to get going.
GR: I don’t understand that kind of self-limiting, to solely read oneself into a work in order to empathize and identify with the characters. Empathy shouldn’t be contingent on their wardrobe.
BMB: I know that 99% of the audience doesn’t do this. But it’s so loud, and directed at you, you can’t stop and think, wait, did I do something subconsciously? No. Stop. That’s not true. Leave me alone.
So I am very excited about the book, and it really comes from your excitement from it. When I see my friends or co-workers, you can see that they feel really good about this one. When the creator can push past their self-loathing, and get excited, it’s really exciting to me because I know how hard that is. So that’s very, very cool. After this, what are your goals in comics particularly? I’m curious. I feel like you’re cooking up to something again.
GR: There’s two comic projects we’re still trying to get going. I’ve got an idea that I’ve been carrying around for almost two years now. The first two scripts are written on this thing, it’s just the question of getting the publishing side worked out and what those deals are going to be and finding the right publisher for it.
GR: Yes, it is a creator-owned piece. And the other one—I know I talked about this before—Rick [Burchett, artist of Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether – www.ineffableaether.com] and I still want to do American Soldier. We still want to do this historical record of the history of the country as told through this one family’s military service from generation to generation. We’ve got the preliminary stuff done for the first one. But again, we have to find the right publisher. I think the way Rick and I have been looking at American Soldier, that’s not something you can take to Marvel nor DC or Dark Horse and make it work because this is a huge freaking graphic novel. There’s going to be a lot of time and lot of money put into it, and there’s got to be an advance on it. There’s got to be some upfront money on it if only to cover Rick’s side of the work, and finding a book publisher that understands how graphic novels are done, and this is a large project and is going to require some outlay at the start. That’s its own problem, and then you go to first publisher and they say how much do you need, and you say we need $30K to start. Most will say have a nice day.
GR: We’re going to figure out a way to do it eventually. There’s Lady Sabre, the Webcomic, I quite like what we’re doing there. We’re at a point now where it’s really going to start taking off, at least in terms of story. One of the nice things about doing a Webcomic is you can pace how you like. And you and I both, we both get accused for telling that “decompressed storytelling” bullshit. I’m not going to rush a story. I’m not going to do it. I’m going to pace it the way that I think it needs to be paced, and trust that it will pay off where it should pay off and when it should pay off and if people don’t like it, they’re not obligated to read it.
BRB: Yeah, exactly.
GR: And this isn’t some programmed work that I’m writing in five acts—I don’t need a hook for every commercial. Sabre is finally approaching a point now where all of our pieces are on the board and locked in, and we’re going to be off to the races in the next month or so as far as that goes. And at that point we’re going to figure out how we’re trading and selling it, and that’s—
BRB: How do you monetize it?
GR: I have no idea. It’s totally unfamiliar territory to me, and honestly, as a writer, I’ve always been sort of dangerously uninformed about the business side of things. I understand contracting and I understand the sales. But I don’t tend to follow it and I don’t tend to track it on my own work, certainly, and, in this instance, we’re all sort of figuring this out as we go. How are we going to do this? What’s it going to look like? How are we going to fund the trade? How are we going to sell the trade? Do we go to a publisher and say, hey, would you like to publish this trade? Or do we sell it on a website first, sell it by hand at shows? There’s a piece of me that wants to do that, just wants to let it be what it is. I don’t want to try to turn it into something else, if that makes sense. Right now it’s our indie-Webcomic-pulp-serial-let’s-have-some-fun-with-it thing, and I don’t want to try to make it into something that it’s not. It should be a form of entertainment and pretty and joyful and fun. And in the main it’s free. If people would turn around and give us some money for ancillary things, that would be great. We launched in July of last year. I’m hoping by July of this year we’ll be able to offer things that people will buy that we’ll be able to return to the investment that we put into it. But nobody’s looking to get rich off this.
BMB: I’m curious of the business model of it myself, you know. Is there any way to make it worth your while on every level? I think of it like the Facebook movie—we don’t know what it is yet, we just know it’s cool. You don’t have to start selling it out in any way, and that’s some of the stuff that Warren [Ellis] does. There’s seemingly no intent to do anything but just do it, and that’s that. That’s completely doable as well, so. I’m always flattered and at the same time horrified when someone asks a question about a long defunct project that never saw the light of day. But you know which one you were going to do, that I was all excited about, that just sort of flittered away.
GR: Everest. I still want to do it. I saw Morse when he did Tr!ckster at San Diego last year, and he and I talked, and he said he was still game for it. The problem is of course I started that project a decade ago, and now everything is different, so I’d have to go back and do a whole new pile of research. And it’s one thing for Scott saying he wants to do it and it’s another thing for me to actually confirm that he wants to I would like to do it still. But one of the others things I’ve discovered as I get older—and you don’t seem to have this problem because you’re so freaking prolific—I find I work slower and slower the older I get. I used to be able to just burn through things, and I believe they had merit, I believe they were good. But maybe it’s simply a change in life. Maybe it’s because I have two kids and they’re older, and there’s all these other things going on. But I find that my writing now—the whole process—is much slower than it used to be. And for research-intensive stuff, like Everest, I want that research to be right, or as right as I can get it without actually having to summit the mountain myself, ‘cause I ain’t doing that, it just ain’t gonna happen. I might one day get to base camp, but I don’t see going higher.
Time, more than anything else, has become the biggest impediment to work. You know, Lieber’s got an issue and a half drawn of the third Whiteout, and the reason that’s as far as he’s got is because that’s all I’ve written. It’s not his fault. I left him hanging in the middle of an issue, too, which is pretty rotten of me, frankly.
BMB: Why do you think that? Because that one seems a little more organically—you know the character.
GR: It is. And honestly, I think there’s a piece of me that is a little avoidant of it, too. I suppose it’s probably a little more honest than it needs to be. But Whiteout is in so many ways the “first thing” and people still come to me and say I love this book, and I say that’s great—but you know there’s been fifteen years of work in between that, right? Whiteout: Night is the last one, it is the end, and there is an element of I really want to make sure it ends right.
BMB: And, you know what, you don’t want it to end.
GR: That’s right. I’m not sure I want to say goodbye. I’m not sure I want to say goodbye, yet. So, there’s a piece of me sort of keeping that in my hip pocket. Maybe that’s comics’ golden parachute; if all else fails, we’ll do the last Whiteout.
BMB: And, as far as prolificness and all that goes . . . I was talking to Olivia, my daughter the drummer, and we were watching YouTube videos of Buddy Rich, and she was blown away, and we were talking about two kinds of musicians: the ones that make it look so easy that they look like they’ve never practiced, like they just picked it up immediately and there wasn’t thousands and thousands of hours that went into this, and then there’s the other musician who grabs their guitar and looks like they’re going to kill themselves at the end of the solo. And both of them are equal, and they don’t even know they’re doing it. It’s subconscious—you’re either like oh, look how hard I’m working, or, make your effort going on in your room invisible to the experience, like you don’t want anything that you’re doing to impede the interest.
GR: I don’t even want to write anything where you go, Oh, look at his process—look how hard he wrote.
BMB: I have this problem with editors who think this stuff shoots out of my butt like a magic script machine, and have no idea how hard it is on this end. But I don’t want them to know how hard it is. It’s not their job to know how hard it is.
GR: No, that’s the private stuff. And frankly, nobody wants to hear about it anyway, ideally. They want the work. But there’s no magic button.
BRB: It’s more of my smiling and waving that’s not showing what’s going on behind the curtain. In fact, I keep putting myself in situations that are new situations that I can explore something about, my writing, whether who it’s with or how I’m working with them.
GR: That’s great for me to hear, because that’s a conclusion I came to a while back. One of the things I’m looking to do is scare myself. After a while, I think complacency is very dangerous for a writer.
BRB: It’s very easy for guys like us to go, I could just . . . and probably you want to. I could write Ultimate Spider-Man until I’m dead, but you know what, I’m at the spot where I can write Ultimate Spider-Man until I’m dead. For whatever reason, I am thrilled that Ultimate Spider-Man is not Peter Parker anymore.
GR: Yet, you changed the game and sent everything up in smoke, clearly for the better, in my opinion. I think a person needs to be able to spectacularly fail if they’re going to succeed. Mediocrity tends to breed mediocrity. ALPHA was a freaking hard novel to write, and it was a hard novel to write because I changed up everything I do when I write a novel. Every single thing that I do when I write a novel—from POVs to characterization—everything I do is different in that book. There were some real difficult weeks in there. But I think for that reason I’m very proud of it. Whether or not it is successful—and I’m the last person to judge that as a work—but I’m proud at the end that at least I finished that journey. I was able to achieve what I set out to achieve. I wrote this book and it was after thirteen, fourteen other novels and two other series—this book is different. But trying to find new writing experiences has not been as easy as I hoped it would be, because the other thing that I discovered—especially in comics—once you are known for X, Y and Z, you are offered X, Y and Z.
BRB: That’s true. But sometimes X, Y and Z can offer you—like I’m writing Ultimate Spider-Man, animated, completely different situation. Completely different bunch of people I’m working with, and the network knows and the studio knows, and I could not be having a better time. There could be something to the fact that I have my cushion, that I could go back and write the comic if this goes badly. I have a cushion that I could write as many of these comics as I could possibly do, right? So I can step out and stick my hand in a buzz saw and see what happens, and then be happy when nothing happens, and it’s a good experience.
GR: I think when I stepped away from DC in a large part—
BRB: That was a big one, yeah.
GR: It was. It cut the safety net enormously, and it took a fairly long time to get back on my feet. We had a whole other discussion there that frankly I’m not sure is appropriate for this interview, and maybe a better one for us to have over drinks.
BRB: Oh, no, I’m dying to hear it.
GR: The difference between those personal-slash-professional relationships that change when you’re no longer dealing with people professionally. I was in exile for two years. I had been a part of a community, and I left that community, and that community does not much care what you’re doing when you leave, and does not pay much honor or pay any attention to you.
BRB: Chaykin said you want to know what it’s like to not be in comics, don’t make one for a week—you’re out. Like you were never there.
GR: Yeah, to a great extent. I think one of the things that surprised me was there’s an artifice—that’s not the right word—there’s a construct, and when you step out of it, it reveals how false exactly that construct is.
BRB: What are you referring to?
GR: There is a great sense that what you do matters enormously when you’re working in comics. Yes, they matter to some people, but in the grand scheme of things? On a smaller level, when you’re inside the apparatus, and you are feeding the apparatus and you are part of the mechanism, you will be rewarded and welcomed for it, you know, you’re proving your worth, and your self-worth, in a way—and the second you are not, nobody has the time for you. At all. And I think that was one of the things that really took me by surprise when I left was, wow, all these people who said they were friends, claimed to be friends, they absolutely weren’t. I mean, I dropped off their radar entirely. I was naive enough to believe they had been my friends, and that did not help. That was a dark place for a really, really long time. I love to collaborate on work. I love it. I love being able to work with other writers on a project. [Mark] Waid and I did this project, the Daredevil, Spider-Man, Punisher, crossover, “The Omega Effect”—we just finished that one up. I love being able to collaborate like that, because I especially believe that someone like me, who can’t draw, that collaboration in comics is what makes comics glorious.
But when I’m writing a novel, even with my collaboration with John Schoenfelder, who was my editor on ALPHA, that’s a more limited collaboration. At the end of the day, I’m doing all that work alone. That’s very isolating. So the support network, being able to communicate with people, having people to interact with in the profession, is pretty crucial. And then they all vanished for me. They were gone. And that to me is one of the huge differences between novel writing and comic writing because the novel writing community continues to exist no matter what, because they understand the pace of the work. You’re not abandoned if the book didn’t come out this week because people know the book came out last May and there should be another one this May and in the interim we will wait and we will stand vigil. But in comics—you don’t have anything this week? See ya! It’s more literal when you say, well, there’s not going to be anything new this week, there’s not going to be anything at all. That is it. I am done with this place and this job. Regardless of my reasons . Like I said, that was a really, really dark place.
ALPHA was written out of this really dramatic change for me. Professionally, I stopped working in the industry in comics, in novels I changed publishers, and it was not a loving farewell, shall we say. And then I was going into a new place, new book, new characters, new style—and frankly even though I have written espionage and the personal security stuff with Atticus, this was a soldier, this was a very different kind of novel. I didn’t want to write a military novel, per se, and I don’t think of ALPHA as a military thriller. I really don’t. For my research purposes, I want to know what weapons and technology and devices people are using. But it is really far less important to me to then show the reader that I know it, if that makes sense. And I get kind of offended honestly when I’m reading books and they spend passages describing, in loving detail, the manufacturer used and the muzzle speed of a HKMP5, say. I don’t need to know that. I just need to know they have some machine guns.
BRB: You do the research to make yourself feel better about what you’re writing.
GR: And you do the research for the right detail. Writing is the search for the right detail at the right time.
BRB: I just want to make sure I know what I’m talking about. You know what I mean? I might not put any of it in the book. None of it. But I know I’m right.
GR: And I found as an aside, good research leads to more story because you discover things. Ooo, I didn’t know I could go there. I didn’t know this would work that way. This sort of interaction is possible—I want to use that. I’ve written the opening of Bravo three times based on research as I’ve gotten, and research that I then had to speculate upon. I keep coming across things. Apparently, in the Pentagon, in Special Operations command, there is a specific unit known by the initials BI, which is great for me because B in the military alphabet is “Bravo,” so there’s a novel right there. The thing about this unit, apparently it’s only women, and these are undercover intelligence operatives and interrogators and asset acquisition “experts.” This is a female-only unit, and I can’t find any other information about it. I can’t find out what BI stands for. But the sources I’ve got pretty much have verified this absolutely exists—and for me that’s gold. This is perfect for this book. How this is going to fit in, and how much more research I can get, and at what point do I need to go, you know what, the hell with research, I now need to make it what it needs to be for the story. Those are all writers’ problems. You find the stuff in the research and it feeds the beast beautifully.
BRB: In doing research, I look for that one nugget that says that I’m right to tell this story. Something can be a little tiny thing, and you go, I’m right—I should do this.
GR: That justification that says it is possible. I had this idea and it turns out it wasn’t so crazy, after all.
BRB: The one thing I keep torturing myself with is, you know, John Cleese put this out there in the world, and it kind of haunts me now, is that he said he spent the whole day writing this sketch for Monty Python, and when he was done writing it, he realized that he had just remembered the Goon Show sketch, a sketch from his childhood that he loved, and didn’t realize until he was done writing that he didn’t think of something, he just remembered something.
GR: Yeah, this is not nearly as original as I thought it was.
BRB: I did that particularly with The Avengers—wait, is that a Roy Thomas story? Did I remember that or did I just think of that?
GR: What’s the Fitzgerald quote? There are only two stories: Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk—it’s just how you dress ‘em up.
BRB: That’s OK if you know that’s what you’re doing.
GR: Yeah, but when you’re like, Oh, damn, I saw that movie when I was eight.
BRB: You know that 30 Rock episode where they’re trying to invent that new microwave and they invent the car? That’s what I’m talking about—where you go, I just made a Hyundai—OK, start over.
GR: Well, at least we know what route not to take.
BRB: Well, I’m excited for the new book. I’m excited for the new creator-owned comics. That’s awesome. That’s very cool. It does sound to me like you’re going to end up at a mainstream publisher with that stuff, which is a goal of mine for the future as well. So I would like to put a graphic novel through that machine to see what that’s like.
GR: I would, too, just because I think it would be, if, for no other reason, such a different way to go about it—and that is another challenge.
BRB: Yeah, exactly. I would love to write that way and see what that feels like. Sometimes you get to the end of it and go, Oh, that’s why I don’t do this, OK.
GR: Well, I’ll tell you this much. One of the things I’ve been wanting to do at Mulholland—because I was looking around at their stable of authors and thought why the hell aren’t they doing a graphic novel anthology?—we do an anthology with, say, six short graphic stories, and take, of the six, you take three comics writers and three novelists (crime, thriller, suspense guys who have never done comics) and you show them how to do it. And we call it Mulholland Graphic. Get Connelly, get Lee Child—people who have never touched comics, and put them in. And it wouldn’t be a big-ticket item. You would have to do it black and white. You can do it digitally first, I’m sure that thing would sell. Then you could bring it out in a nice looking hardcover, I think. So yes. I’ll be in touch with you about that one.
Greg Rucka is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen novels, including the Atticus Kodiak and Tara Chace series, and has won multiple Eisner awards for his graphic novels. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children.
Brian Michael Bendis is an American comic book writer and former artist. He has won critical acclaim (including five Eisner Awards) for his self-published, Image Comics and Marvel Comics work, and is one of the most successful writers working in mainstream comics.
Greg Rucka’s ALPHA is now available in bookstores everywhere.