From Silverbulletcomics.comBOOM! Studios BIG Ones : John Rogers (joss whedon mention)
By Jonathan Encarnacion
Friday 15 July 2005, by Webmaster
John’s at his LA office, tying up some final ends before he heads over to his house in Ottawa for some R and R. The plan is that in two years, John will pack his bags and move up north permanently. Get Shorty made LA look fun, but that followed the story of a loan shark turned producer; from that point of view, of course the experience is slick. “The thing is,” he reveals, “LA’s like Deadwood. You don’t wanna live here. You want your time here, get your strike, then get the hell out before you end up in Mr. Wu’s pigpen.”
John is a screenwriter. And LA hasn’t eaten away at his passions and left him disgruntled; he’s been well rewarded and regarded for his efforts during his time here. Thing is, “a big part of being a writer in LA is conning people out of 80 million dollars.” Again, unlike Chilli Palmer, John did not come to Hollywood a loan shark. Much as he’s capable of selling an idea, what bugs him is that “In Hollywood, you have to convince the guy in the suit with no sense of humor that your story’s cool. It’s a hurdle you have to get over in order to get your story to the audience.”
He takes something from a page he’s earmarked in the book of Hollywood clichés, injecting the line with a personal tones that make you reflect on it, sincerely. “There’re two words in ‘show business’, and the second one isn’t ‘friends’. These are all corporations, and that’s their job; they have stockholders. And I don’t begrudge them - for every bad situation I’ve been in, I can argue two good ones - it’s just more of the system itself. Especially with genre guys, it’s a little tricky.”
In Hollywood, John has become one of the go-to guys when it comes to making genre malleable for the big screen. “Because I’m a geek,” he states, without pride or shame. (See Reginald Hudlin, who revealed the secret that Hollywood’s full of geeks who learned to become cool.) “The influence of being relatively successful has allowed me to indulge my fanboy instincts.” He’s received Matt Wagner’s approval for his adaptation of Mage; Greg Rucka’s for Queen & Country. Shame that those film projects are currently in development hell: the only taste of John’s work we’ve seen on the big screen so far is Catwoman, which left a bad taste in the mouth, getting people really concerned when they found his name attached to Transformers.
“Catwoman... nnneeeeaaaarrruuggghhhh..... gyyyyyaaaaaaagggghhhh....,” over the phone he’s writhing in his seat; he’d melt into a steaming puddle of acid if he could. “I left the project about a year before they shot it,” for reasons filed under that broad, thick folder marked ‘creative differences.’ “Aaand everything on screen was essentially creative difference. And god bless ‘em - nobody tries to make a movie that’s not -” he’s searching - “loved, but I actually have no idea why my name’s on it. It’s not even remotely related to my draft.”
Something more true to his writing that you may have seen: Global Frequency, the unaired pilot. Fan of Ellis’ original or not, John’s script made for a well-received venture.
He’s good at his job; Hollywood knows this. And if all goes well, the general public will have no doubt by the time John brings his screenwriting era to a close. Streamlining his workload so that he can better enjoy the craft, soon we’ll see him making a mark in comics in a big way. His first foray will be an installment in Boom! Studios’ Zombie Tales anthology. Shortly after that book’s release, we’ll find out about the secret project he’s got cooking with Keith Giffen over at DC. John Rogers is coming to comics, and certainly, with all the experience and insights he brings, it’s gonna be in a big way.
“Just for Laughs was my big break.” Yes, this is still John Rogers. And yes, Just for Laughs is a comedy festival in Montreal. Previous to working as a screenwriter, John was a stand-up comic. “- that’s where I got my sitcom.” Yeah, a sitcom: one never seen because it never got sold.
Just for Laughs
“I got in stand up to be a writer and just wound up doing standup. I did Just for Laughs, I did Melbourne, I worked all over Canada, all over the US, Australia - I was a working headliner. I did it for 12 years.”
He got into it while pursuing a physics degree at the University of McGill. Uh huh. John was studying physics but flirting with writing. “I wanted to write dialogue, and I wanted to write comedy, and there was stand-up course being taught at this club, the Comedy Nest.
“So what happened was I wound up doing stand-up as a hobby in university, it got bigger and bigger, and in my last year at McGill, I got invited to perform at comedy festivals. I was actually in Melbourne Australia my entire final semester.”
He finished his degree, finding himself with two radically different options coming out. “I faced, ‘Do I want to go on, continue with my graduate degree - and live in a mine shaft with guys who look like me, chasing neutrinos, or travel the country being paid in booze and waitresses? When you’re 21 years old, there’s hardly a choice there.”
Performing in front of an audience would continually test his effectiveness in eliciting reactions from people. “You won’t know how a joke works until you actually put your ass on the line to see how a joke works,” he explains; “until you start to really, inherently, understand timing and if you don’t get it right people hate you. There’s something very visceral about facing 200 strangers in the dark and invoking in them an emotional response every fifteen seconds. I recommend to anyone who wants to try it to at least try it. You might find a hobby you like, or you might find a new skill set. There’s much more science to it than many people have any idea.”
Doing stand-up was John’s ‘in’ to Hollywood; again, his first stint was starring in his own sitcom “for about a second and a half. It didn’t get picked up.” When production closed, John observed something that brought him back to writing. “I’m back auditioning, while the guys that wrote the show that I was on, they have careers. How the hell’d that happen?”
Bill Cosby & Doug E. Doug Read what John Rogers has to say about Doug E. Doug’s performance on The Coscy Show here.
John completed a series of ‘spec’ scripts: samples of his writing less intended for sale and use, more so as part of a writer’s portfolio. Through casual happenstance, “I got hired on a whim by a show runner on Cosby (the second series), and it turned out to be a good thing; because it was a very chaotic show, they needed people who could do the funny very fast.”
When it came to rewriting the script based on Bill Cosby’s repeated injecting of improv, he was more than up to the task. “That was part of the thrill of the show - never quite knowing what you’ll end up with on Thursday night. We essentially wrote two seasons a year - we wrote the season that we would throw out then we wrote the season that, during the week after the table read, was actually what we’d shoot. And then we’d finally write the scripts probably after the Wednesday blocking when Bill figured out what he wanted to do with each plot.”
The setup was a demanding one for the scribing talent; the writer’s room experienced high turnover rates. But another thing John brought to the table was a previous life as a comic, something that Bill Cosby appreciated. “When you’re in stand up, you’re kinda ‘in the club’. He knew that I’d been one of the guys who’d gone out and done what he’d done. It just makes you part of the brotherhood.” That shared understanding made it a little easier for John to navigate through all the ideas and concept changes over the course of his time on the show.
As a reward for his ability to survive and adapt, John moved up the show’s writer’s chain. “I stuck around a lot longer, and learned how to write under stress, under a deadline, and I ended up moving from staff writer to producer in three years. I got my own development deal during that third year, and at the same time I started writing features.”
Catching attention from a feature-length spec script, John quickly got into the features game with American Outlaws. The film, with a number of decent names such as Timothy Dalton and Ali Larter, as well as soon-to-be-big-bucks-box-office-draw Colin Farrell, met with only modest success. “I wanted to try something cool like one of those 1960 westerns like I watched with my dad, and it was what it was. We had a great cast, and it didn’t go quite as well as everyone hoped.”
The landmark of the movie, however, was that it was both John Rogers’ first assignment and first produced movie, a rarity in Hollywood. “Which was cool because your first movie never gets made. And so when my first movie got made, the CAA (Creative Artists Agency) brought me in to do the dog and pony show. The script itself got me a ton of work.”
Note that John’s passionate interest in comics stems from his passion in genre. As a writer his interest is derived more from the type of storytelling involved rather than the medium. “I was a sci-fi fan, I was a fantasy fan, I was never a comics fan; it was just that comics was another aspect of my general geek life.”
Perhaps this is what makes him perfect for adapting comics stories: his perspective is similar to the sensibility that some hope will evolve the perception of comics as another popular medium rather than a cult ‘other’. “I’ve had enough hardcore storytelling training in TV shows and feature writing that when they need guys for comics, I can come into a studio room and go, ‘Okay, this is why this is cool.’ It’s not that I figured this out over the weekend because my assistant bought them; I’ve been reading this [comic] for three years. This is what works, this is what doesn’t work.”
And he defends the integrity of the source material vehemently, which would occasionally lead to butting heads. John has always held that “there’s something about the work that got the fan base that made it initially valuable.”
For example, “On Global Frequency, we had big fights with people when we’d go, ‘You know, this is something you gotta do, this one section of the show for the fans.’ And they’d go, ‘Well we’re not doing it for the fans; you’re doing it for a bigger audience.’ But you piss the fans off, you don’t have anybody. They seemed singularly clueless to that occasionally. A lot of times they were great, but a lot of times it seemed like the Hollywood attitude was: ‘The very people who drive this entire genre industry are the dirty, filthy little stinks that we don’t wanna deal with. Fuck you.’”
When it comes to the initial draw, though, John is certain that the original fans “are the reason that you have $60 million opening weekends.” Contemplating on the general moviegoer, “‘Hellboy intrigues me.’ - NO! You should look at the fan base and say ‘You will be my $30 million opening.’ Everybody else who thinks it’s cool will show up, but that’s what makes sure it has legs and makes sure it stays in the theatres an extra day or two.”
He sites an example of adaptive success done right. “I think Sam Raimi did the best possible job of both making his base happy and then expanding it out. But better damn make sure you don’t alienate that base.”
Mage was the first comic-related project he was assigned. This was where he first met Ross Richie, then producer for the movie, now EIC for Boom! Studios. With the concept originally created by Matt Wagner, John knew exactly who it was his work had to answer to. And as cool as they are, it isn’t the producers.
“The first phone call I wait for is the creator’s phone call. I wrote Mage, I turn it in, and I got the phone call from Ross and Andy: ‘Oh this is fantastic; we got a call from the studio, we absolutely love it.’ I was still waiting. ‘Cause if Matt Wagner didn’t like it, I was destroyed. It was the end of my career.”
When Wagner finally called, “He really loved it; it wasn’t perfect, there were additional characters - it had to be changed on film to an extent.”
As well-received as it was, however, at the time the estimated budget for the movie just didn’t make the venture viable. “Remember this is pre-comic movies boom - this is pre-Spider-Man here. The Batman franchises have died,” he says with a condemning authority, “and so it went to Disney, and Disney saw essentially a 55 million dollar” - splice in general reaction - “COMIC BOOK MOVIE??? Are you INSANE????
“It just came one or two years too early. Now it’s sitting in the vault somewhere.”
His work on Mage, however, gave him recognition to be in the running for Queen and Country. Executive and genre guru Emma Watts at FOX was overseeing the development. “On Queen & Country, I didn’t want to do it at first, ‘cause I was afraid of screwing it up. I didn’t want to be the guy that ruined Queen & Country; I would later be perfectly happy being the guy who wrote Catwoman.” He’s joking.
“Emma Watts, she was like ‘Do Queen & Country, you’re my geek guy, come on.’ “‘No, I’m not gonna do it, I’m not gonna do it.’”
John eventually sent over an email proposing a similar project; again, because he didn’t want to be the one that screwed up Queen & Country. “And finally I sent her an email saying, ‘Look, I’m not gonna do it, but there’s this show that’s called Sandbaggers, this British show. Which is just great. It’s about spies in the 1970s and it’s totally intelligent. You should look at it for the tone of Queen & Country.’
“And she emails me back: ‘Rucka says that’s what the book’s based on. Will you JUST HAUL YOUR GEEK ASS OVER HERE AND WRITE THE SCRIPT?’”
“So I was like, ‘Oh, I’m done now, I have to do it.’”
Queen & Country
John signed on as the first screenwriter attached to the piece spending two years on the film. As a bonus, it was cool to be able to talk to Rucka. As for this project’s fate, “The company that initially optioned it with FOX has since dissolved, but FOX still carries the overlying rights. I think they just exercised their option again, actually. And I think they got a guy who came in after me after I left.
“And you know, that’s the thing that most people have no idea of in Hollywood: the number of times you’re the only guy on = nonexistent.”
For instance, Catwoman. Welcome the rant. “I was so not the first person on this. That was 10 years in development. I actually just wrote about this on my website, but the weird thing is that the guy who wrote Batman Returns and created the Catwoman character for film, Dan Waters, I actually went to college with. And he was actually on the floor of my dorm - he was this weird dude that created a screenwriting major for McGill when there was none. He basically conned the English department into letting him create a major. He was a senior, I was a freshman, we became friends, we took off, he was a cool guy, I totally forget about him. Then I come to Hollywood x amount of years later, writing features, and then find out that Dan was the guy who wrote the first draft of this thing that I wind up on a lot of names and ten years later, which was very funky.”
Rogers’ talks the whole time with a Tarantino-esque sporadicness, injected full with facts and anecdotes. There’s genius in the detailed explanations he compiles. He delivers, however, with more of a projective oomph. The oomph advantage must come from his time as a stand up.
“And he left saying that the movie was impossible - I wish I’d have known; I would’ve listened to him.”
As they say, you’re only known for the last thing you’ve done. When it came time to work on Transformers, John was met with a lot of criticism.
“The thing about the Transformers fan base is that precisely - size wise and intensity - just below Star Wars just above Star Trek. They’re huge. And reeeally intense. And their first response was ‘Oh, sweet god, not him.’”
The leader of the Autobots gives John Rogers his blessing.
John took the initiative of going on Don Murphy’s message boards - the largest Transformers community online - to acknowledge the fans’ concerns, answering to the disaster that was the previous project his name was on, and assuring them that he was respectful of the source material. He wanted to make it clear that his place was simply to “bring this on the screen; my job’s not to pee on it to make it all mine.”
Settling the fan’s concerns is just as important to John as the approval of the original creators themselves. The initiative got fans warmer to the idea of John writing the first draft; by the time he completed his stint on the project, the disapproval died down. “The thing with the fans,” he exclaims, “is just be a little fuckin’ respectful to them! Just go ‘Yes, I understand, you devoted a lot of time and energy into this; your opinion is not valueless, and we’ll do our best to make you happy.’ These are the people who’re gonna buy the tickets.”
He recently proved to the genre-seeking public exactly what he was capable of when the Global Frequency pilot spread via file-sharing channels. (John didn’t upload the pilot; it seems to be a leaked screener.) Within the first 5 hours of its release, GF creator Warren Ellis received 300 emails regarding the pilot; John’s blog gained an extra 10,000 hits that week. Comments sent to both of them were almost entirely favorable. A cost-free download and 44 minutes time was all it took to get a ridiculous amount of people talking.
Cover to Global Frequency #2 Cover to Global Frequency #6
“When the WB took it and moved it for television development, I just showed up the next day. They kinda knew me ‘cause they offered me a gig on Smallville. I literally knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, I’m here for Global Frequency.’ ‘... well, we just signed the deal ...’ ‘All right, here’s the first season.’ And I just laid out the development - literally, I had a package with me - ‘Here’s the first development cycle; here’s how the first box set looks; here’s how the artwork looks; here’s how it’s socially relevant; this is how we change it for television; this is how the book is,’ and these people haven’t even read the book yet. And it was the fact that I was a genuine fan that got me in there.”
Fans are thankful that someone influencing the helm is on the same page as they are. As a story-centric concept, there were some inevitable alterations that had to be made to make it digestible for a television audience. “TV audiences are different from comic audiences in that they attach themselves to characters and not story. And if you look at any show you love, you quote lines. And ‘Who’s your favorite Buffy character?’ ‘Who’s your favorite ‘this’ character?’ And I was an X-Files freak, I mean, Name your top 10 episodes off the top of your head.”
Handled with less respective finesse, alterations would have a high potential in destroying the initial premise of GF. “For Global Frequency, I emailed Warren and I said ‘I have to change stuff, but you’re the North Star; the second you say you’re not happy, we fix it.’ He read the drafts before the studio did, and I think that’s a part of what made Global come out pretty well.”
The most significant change for television was the introduction of two new characters, Sean Ronin and Kate Finch, ‘field agent’ regulars that would be in every episode, a significant departure from Ellis’ initial concept of having new characters star in each new story. “One of the first things was ‘Why wasn’t it just Miranda and Aleph?’ Well Amy (Aleph) never leaves the centre, which is visually tough. And you gotta know what’s going on in your POV character’s head, and you can never know what Miranda is up to: that demystifies the character.”
As John has revealed in his blog, Miranda was going to be one creepy overseer. “The whole point of the first two years is - and you’ll notice Sean saying this at the end of the episode: ‘I don’t trust you.’ And for the first season, she gives him no reason to. She does unpleasant thing after unpleasant thing, and the arc of the second season was a very specific ‘Should we even be trusting her?’ ‘Cause she’s an awful human being.”
Hence the characters played by Josh Hopkins and Jenni Baird. “It was sort of changed in that respect in order to make it more relatable. It was a half-step between the book and making a regular cast for the TV audience.”
John wasn’t intending on completely abandoning the high concept that was in Global Frequency’s employ. That’s what gave the initial comic its distinction; similarly, it’s what would give the show it’s distinction as well. “Creating a regular cast was important, but that the same time, we weren’t gonna violate the premise of the show. We were going to rotate people through. Much like we had one person on the pilot,” a gymnast, “there would be 3 or 4 people recurring on the show with Josh and Jenny carrying the bulk of each season arc, combined with whatever heinous thing Miranda was up to every year.”
As the show moves along, Global Frequency specialists would make repeat appearances. “We would rotate different extras. One of the great things about the premise is that if somebody hits, you can just add him more often. And if they don’t, we can kill ‘im. And another great thing about the show was with a constantly rotating cast: if you needed to kill someone, you could. There’d be suspense, and you’d never actually know - no promises to anyone that they were getting out of the first season alive except Miranda.”
This concept gave incentive to bring out the best in actors playing guest-starring roles. “The idea that if you knocked it out of the park, you’d get a recurring role was big. People really, really went out of their way knowing that maybe a good performance here is not like Law and Order; it’d be if I was ‘physics girl’, I would be ‘physics girl’ two episodes from now.
“The people that you’d see in the first episode that look like you’re just meeting them once in the pilot, they show up again. There was, for the first season, a very tightly-planned little arc. Especially great to do with 13 episodes; that makes everything feel very organic.
“We had a great little plan where the conspiracy freak on the pilot has a mad crush on Aleph. And so every time he’d show himself on screen, it would be incredibly awkward. And it’s just one of those little things we had - you’ll never see this guy, he’ll never even be able to get her, but it’s one of those great things where you fly a guy in once every third episode.
“The guy who played Sergeiev was so good. I know how I want my arc to be, but I know I’m gonna use him twice more. ‘Cause that scene with him and Michelle - that scene in the cell - is just great. You can just taste the antipathy. He represents something iconic, she represents something iconic: that works. You never would’ve done that on purpose; that’s just one of the things that you find during a show.”
John gives credit where credit is due: the idea of rotating cast members isn’t unique to the series. “I’ll be blunt: if I ever get an Emmy, I’m walking over to Joss Whedon and putting it on his desk. If any man got fucking robbed, it was him. He created an entire way of doing television, the way he introduced characters and rotated them up and they became bigger parts of the show, that’s exactly what we were gonna do with Global.
“We talked to Josh and Jenny and they were cool with this: ‘We might not do you for 3 or 4.’ It might be interesting to follow another expert sometime, and do completely different opening credits with all these other fantastic people having adventures.
“There were a lot of formats that the show lent itself to in a lot of very innovative ways. And along with the very moral center of the show it made for a very special experience - I think that’s why the crew and cast responded to it so strongly, and I think that’s why the people who have seen it responded to it embarrassingly well.
“They sense that there was a moral centre to the show, that we weren’t just doing action-adventure hour. There was something about it.”
Global Frequency’s unaired pilot harbored hype fueled by curiosity. Once accessible, reaction to the finished product has proven the quality of the work; both fans and the simply curious alike raved about the pilot, sustaining the hype and giving cause to clamor for more. Funny that the illegal means of file sharing Hollywood tries so desperately to subdue is what is confirming fan interest in seeing this project as a regular series.
John has a very logical opinion on the markedly dirty process that brought Global Frequency to public view. It doesn’t frighten him. “I am a guy who makes a living off copyright. Literally, my house is paid for by copyright. And I will tell you right now I have no problem with somebody out there grabbing stuff that I’ve made and showing it to their friends as long as when the legal version comes out, they buy it. That’s all I ask. And if you love that stuff so much that you’re gonna build your own little fan base around it, yippie frickin’ skippy.
“People are saying, ‘We’ve had broadband for x amount of time; we have TiVo, which is essentially a broadband delivery system for TV, and things aren’t evolving.’ Things aren’t evolving because you’re asking people to evolve themselves out of a job. ‘I make x million dollars running a studio - I should do this why? I’m now obsolete!’”
With the cost of distributing the film to theatres, relatively speaking a ticket stub isn’t what generates the big bucks anymore. Essentially, the numbers representing the dollars a film generates in the box office, charted in the back third of Entertainment Weekly, can be considered another form of hype-inducing advertising. “Here’s the dirty little secret in Hollywood,” John reveals. “Box office means crap. Box office is meaningless. DVD sales are what’s driving this entire city. And it ain’t the casual buyer buying the DVD sets and the Superbits and the special edition versions.”
John sites an argument made by professor Mark Pesce about hyper distribution (read it yourself here). “There’s no reason to own a DVD, ‘cause you can download anything illegally that you want. The only reason you’d want to buy a DVD is ‘cause it marks you a member of a community. You are the type of person who buys this type of thing. As a physical artifact, it has value to you.”
As John has been saying all along, the type of people who go out to buy the DVD “are the fans. What’s driving the DVD industry, what’s keeping this city alive, are the hardcore fans. And you don’t have to grovel to them; you just have to make the best movie possible.
“I think we’re never gonna have to worry about the download-only model completely taking over as long as you can always give ‘value-added’ to what you’re doing. I think DVDs are a half-step to a download-only model, and they’re good for another 10-15 years; that’s plenty of time. I think you’ll always have the full box set.” Opinion, not absolutes. “We’ll see how it evolves.”
Another thing about the means in which Global Frequency’s pilot is being distributed to the general public: it’s providing tangible feedback. There’s no numbers game here; actual people are giving their honest opinions, and it’s showing that the networks that turned the show down, who concluded that the show had no legs, may have assumed incorrectly.
“Again, the same model has been in place for over 50 years. There’s nobody in power now who’s in any way interested in changing it because they didn’t come up that way. The only guys who wanna change it are dudes who are old enough, rich enough, who don’t care anymore; or the young guys who are interested in the process.”
Dean Devlin is a creative force in the film industry that John holds in high regard. “He’s not getting half the credit he deserves; he’s one of the boldest innovators in filmmaking right now, and nobody knows it, and it’s ‘cause he’s just doing his stuff. He’s not going out and publicizing himself like some people.
“Dean is out right now shooting a film. All monies are from people. ‘Cause he’s Dean Deviln - he’s made a couple $300 million movies in a row, he can do that. He made his big movies, and he’s like, ‘You know what? I got a couple little movies I wanna make that I wanna enjoy, and if nobody’s interested in paying for them, fuck it.’ Now he’s in England, he’s privately financing, he’s shooting on DV. He did The Librarian, which was the highest-rated TV movie last year, all independently produced, the special effects all basically done ad-hoc in house, on the fly, assembled a team as he needed it.
“As he’s doing movies this way, the budgets are creeping up. From 4 million to 10 to 20 - what’s the next one? $40 million? $60 million?
“The problem is if you create this model between the producers, the writers, and the audience, an enormous number of high-paying jobs in Hollywood go away. And a number of very large buildings in LA will close.”
It has to be made clear right now that this isn’t something that gets its roots out of the communist manifesto. Really, it’s just about being able to get creative, talented people together to do their thing without having the obstacle of convincing a suit with a biased opinion that an idea is worth producing. “All the studios now are becoming an inefficient way to get money out of banks and advertisers. In the old days it used to be more streamlined: ‘Actors and producers and writers are crazy; you don’t wanna talk to them, so let’s create intermediaries between the creative people and the money.’ Now the money’s starting to realize that if you sit down and talk to the creative people, they’re not crazy, they know how to make their shit.
“We’ll see how it goes when the younger guys move up. A lot of us are sick of talking to people who don’t like these types of movies to make our movies.”
In regards to serial genre projects, with DVDs currently the monster source of income generating, even if a show brings in less than half the amount of viewers that the #1 show does in the Nielsen ratings, once the box set comes out the project would most likely still prove profitable. “There’re two types of TV. There’s ‘comfort blanket’ TV, and if you like it, that’s wonderful, but you don’t get passionate about it. You can watch CSI every week, which is a damn fine show, but you know they aren’t gonna kill Gil Grissom. The stuff that challenges you, the stuff that tells different stories, the telling of weird, offbeat stuff, the stuff that really puts the characters through the ringer and provides actual suspense on the idea that you might lose these people you’ve grown fond of, that’s fan TV. In a DVD-driven world, I’d rather have a rating of a 5 share with those fans, rather than a 20 share with people who see enough of the show on reruns, ‘cause they don’t need to buy the box set.
“I watch CSI every week, I love the show. But I don’t buy the box set. But Jeezus, I hunt down my genre stuff.”
Zombie Tales #1 Cover
Along the lines of these sensibilities, when Ross Richie told John that he was aiming to provide that kind of creative environment on the comics side, John jumped right in. “Ross Richie formed a comic company, Boom!, and he did absolutely the most amazing thing. He said, ‘You know what? Whenever you try to do this, guys try to get a big chunk of your life. All I’m doing is publishing the book. My job’s to be the guy who finds the printer in Korea. My job is to be an editor. My job is not to try to market this thing and make myself rich, sink my claws into it.’”
It’s a model that seems to be working. “As far as I know, his company has already jumped well above indie press status on the premise of the strengths of the talent he attracts and the concepts he sells. Ross is, ‘My job is to facilitate insanely creative people and help them get their stories out.’ Good job. Good goddamn job. Smart guy, great company, and I think he’s just done a great job.’ It’s the reason Steve Niles is going over. He’s the reason Keith Giffen’s doing his original book there. It’s just a good vibe.”
The environment that Ross sets up at his stable allows the creative process to flow the way the creators see fit. “How do you get Mark Waid away from the bigs? By going ‘Total freedom. Bring your artist, bring your story. Or if you can’t find an artist, I’ll bring you eight, see who you like. They’re all eager young bastards who can’t wait; never in a million years thought they’d be drawing a Mark Waid story.’”
It also taps into the spirit of a shared sense of community within the field. “This is part of the fun of the whole vibe he’s set up. On the second Zombie Tales, he says ‘Who do you want as your artist?’ I don’t really know artists. Unlike him, where he can rattle off artists in sub-categories of brush styles, I know who I like, and I know who I’m friends with at a con, but I don’t know anybody. So he said ‘Let’s poke around.’
“When I was living in Ottawa, I was going to the Silver Snail comic shop, and there was this kid who was just starting to sell stuff in the collectable card game thing, doing freelance assignments, named Tom Fowler. He was the kid with his portfolio at the comic shop. I was like ‘Wow, look at those drawings, they’re cool, you’ve got a lot of talent, maybe you’ll go someplace.’ Cut to 6 years later, he’s the dude on Green Arrow.”
So coming back, full circle, Ross says “‘Hey, Tom Fowler’s available.’ Well isn’t this fucking cool? So I call up this guy I haven’t seen in 5 years, and I’m like, ‘We’re doing a comic book together!’ Thanks to that cool sensibility that Ross has set up, two guys who were hanging out in a comic shop store six years ago wind up doing a comic book together.
“This is the way the industry’s supposed to be. You have talent, you find something you wanna do together, you wind up doing it. And not to slight the bigs, but it’s the reason why guys are showing up, you know?”
Zombie Tales, an anthology of, well, zombie tales, will be John Rogers’ first comic piece gone to press. It’s got the likes of Mark Waid, Keith Giffen, Ron Lim, Andy Khun, and Andrew Cosby too, all giving their eight page take on the zombie element of the horror genre.
The idea came from a casual hangout session with John, Ross Richie, Waid, and Andy Cosby. “A bunch of us were together and we were like, ‘Why are zombie films so popular?’ You can’t make a zombie film that doesn’t make money. There’s something about the archetype, something about the way it relates to us in death, in consumption... Each of us had a reason we that thought it was relevant, and Ross was like, ‘Well each one of those is, in theory, a short story.’ Each one of those viewpoints is a way of examining the myth. And that’s an anthology right there.”
Six shots at eight page intervals; the result is a collection of stories enjoyable on the strength of the craftsmanship alone. Readers won’t need an established interest in the horror genre: the talents on the book have more than enough of that already, giving the audience good reason to trust the tales to be of nothing but good quality, regardless of genre preference.
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Through short story anthology, the creators involved are able to punch out compact ideas that, while still significant, wouldn’t fill a full-length tale. “There’re always little nooks and crannies of archetypes that don’t support a full run, but they’re interesting ways to explore why the archetype is popular. I believe that was the spark going in: a lot of writers basically do the one cool idea they had that could never sustain a novel or a Walking Dead-length book.
“And the great thing is you don’t do any groundwork. It’s a zombie book - you know they’re zombies, you can cut straight to the cool twist. And that’s been the fun of it; just coming up with the weird twist, and the odd way of looking at that very prevalent image.
Believe it or not, there’s more to the zombie appeal than watching the horrifying passing of undead cooties. “It’s interesting to see how everyone approached the zombie mythos. Zombies are, very much, archetypes; are very much about the way society around them is structured, and how that’s the way you portray that society. The way you look at society; your commentary on society.
“Romero, Cronenberg, they came out of the Vietnam era. There’s a reason why that horror has resonance; there’s something underneath it. All the 70s movies were commentary on things like American politics at the time. So what’s the cool thing I can do here? The archetype’s just my easy way in.”
These ‘Jam Sessions’ have become something that creators in the Boom! stable look forward to. “Ross is gonna expand it, I believe, in other ideas. Everyone finds some attractive, big idea they can explore. There’s definitely a literary bend to some of these things. And sometimes there’s just people getting their arms ripped off, which is also fucking fun.”
“So as I look at what I’m enjoying,” John reflects, “I’m not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ll go back into Canada, to Ottawa, and work on telling stories. Comic books, gaming stuff, maybe some miniseries seem to be the more interesting way to go.”
John is looking forward to being able to tell the stories he wants to tell. “I’m ridiculously happy. I’m working on a book for DC next year, and I’m sticking with Ross with all my original stuff.”
For all his experience, however, John admits that there’s a new learning curve involved in these new plans. Working on Zombie Tales, “It was a ton of fun, it was an enormous learning experience; comic writing has gotta be the hardest writing on the planet. And I have done every other form of entertainment writing: I’ve done TV, I’ve done feature film, I’ve done animation; comic writing is brutal. I called Mark Waid in the morning, I went, Holy shit this is hard. ‘Yeah, not so easy now Mr. big money boy?’ Oh, man.”
It’s the compressed, demanding nature of the medium that makes for a completely different writing experience. In writing a comic script, there’s much more to plan out in detail than the dialogue and plot. “The interesting thing is, on a feature script I’ll call a lot of shots ‘cause I’m a visual guy, but generally you write your scene and the director will figure it out. In comics, you call all your shots, you call your panels, you figure out how to do everything with a minimum amount of dialogue, you gotta figure out what goes in the gutter, what happened there?; how deeply can you stack a panel and still have meaning?; I’ve got three people doing something in this shot I can’t do that, no one’s gonna figure out what’s going on back there. You have to have a good understanding of page space. It just kicked my ass.
“Ross called me in the other day. I was on the second script, and Mark Waid just handed his in. I read it, and it sent me into a spiral of depression, ‘cause what he does in 8 pages destroyed me. He’s been doing it for 20 years, it’s just one of those things where it’s like gaaaaaaah, gawd!”
This is where Ross makes an intervention. “‘Hey, this is your editor speaking.’” John reiterates. “‘Sack up, turn in the pages. What’s your problem?’ “‘This, this and this.’ “‘Okay, try this, just turn in the pages.’ “He’s a good editor. He knows when to apply the carrot, when to apply the whiphand.”
At the end of the day, John goes back to his initial mantra, something that has served him through out his professional careers. “The whole secret to Hollywood and success, to me, is to put your head down, do your job, and five years later, you’re a success. Just make sure you put your head down on the right job.” Navigating switches from comedy to writing on Cosby, moving onto features and having a number of success in writing genre, it seems to have worked. And John’s just getting started - again.