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Pulp, grind, manifesto : Vaughan, Grayson, Waid & Heinberg on comics (joss whedon mention)

Emmett Furey

Wednesday 20 September 2006, by Webmaster

The sun was oppressive this past Sunday at the West Hollywood Book Fair, but in the intimate venue that was the comics and sci-fi pavilion, four of the comic book industry’s most respected creators braved the heat to muse on the state of the industry to all who would listen. The brainchild of comic writer Joshua Dysart and West Hollywood Book Fair organizer Roz Helfand, the "Pulp, Grind, Manifesto’s" lofty goal was for the assembled panelists to produce a manifesto for writing the monthly comic book. And even though there were at least as many opinions as there were panelists, that did not stop distinguished guests Devin Grayson, Allan Heinberg, Mark Waid and Brian K. Vaughan from engaging in a spirited, insightful discourse on the medium of comics on that sunny, Sunday afternoon.

Moderator Christine Boylan got the ball rolling by defining the term "pulp," for the record. Pulp, she said, "is the name given to both comic books and magazines mostly published in the ’20s through ’50s." Known for "sensationalism, exploitative narratives and dynamic cover art," pulp heroes like the Shadow, Doc Savage and the Phantom Detective were the "stem cells" of our current superheroes.

Boylan first asked the panelists if any of them had their own manifesto for writing. Vaughan quickly chimed in in the negative. "It seems like having a manifesto for writing is like having a manifesto for drinking. It’s something I have to do, I wish I didn’t do it so much."

Waid disabused him of this notion, announcing, "I have a manifesto for drinking." But Waid maintained that his only manifesto is to keep himself and the readers entertained.

Heinberg affirmed that entertainment is paramount, with the caveat that he only writes stories that are deeply meaningful to him personally.

Grayson finds the writing process to be "fairly compulsive" and does it for her own personal reasons.

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The next topic on the docket was a discussion of what is unique to the medium of comics. "I think comics are a little more participatory [than film or TV]," Vaughan began. "Readers have more control. You can choose to linger on a page for five minutes or 30 seconds." Vaughan also suggested that comics was the most autonomous of the visual mediums, with the fewest number of creators between the idea and its realization.

Grayson agreed with Vaughan that the level of audience involvement in comics is "unparalleled." The audience "makes the continuity come together" by actively filling in the "gutters that separate the action and the time sequences."

Heinberg, a relative newcomer to the industry, is "constantly surprised at the types of stories that can only be told via comics," superhero stories being chief among those. In his eyes, the fact that so few of the comic book adaptations in recent years have been "satisfying in any way" actually "makes the comics medium seem more and more valuable." He mentioned "juxtaposition of words and images" and "interior monologues" as a few of the medium’s strengths, and contended that "the more popular comics become in other mediums, the more essential they become in and of themselves."

It was Waid’s assertion that comics provide a unique opportunity to "connect with characters in a way that you can’t in any other medium." He explained that his favorite character in a TV show "still scrolls by at 24 frames a second every week," whereas in comics he has the freedom to access the scenes he likes about one character. Waid says comic characters are "well enough defined to be interesting and attractive" but not so well defined that the reader can’t project his/her own interpretation of the character’s personality onto them. He contends that part of the reason "Legion of Superheroes" has been so popular for as long as it has is that the sheer size of the ensemble cast limits the exposure of any one character, making characterization a "collaborative process" in a way that is unique to the comics medium.

Heinberg admitted that there is a "proprietary feeling you have about these characters you grew up with and became emotionally attached to, and as writers of these characters, who have been around probably longer than we have and will outlive all of us, it’s sort of an extraordinary experience to be able to tell these stories on a great big canvass that are essentially really intimate personal stories." He also said that the age of the internet promotes an "immediate fan response" that he’s never experienced in any other medium. His work has been profoundly affected by the fan feedback he receives.

"Wonder Woman" #1

Grayson tries to keep in mind that comics is a serialized medium, in some cases drawing on 60 years of history. It’s a delicate balance, she says, between "laying the groundwork for the entrypoint of a new reader," while at the same time appeasing the book’s dedicated, longterm fanbase.

It is at this moment that a bemused Waid interrupts the flow of the panel by "accidentally" spilling water on colleague Vaughan’s copiously prepared notes. "He’s ruining my notes!" Vaughan lamented.

Boylan next asked the creators if they felt that they had a responsibility to be creative extremists. "I wouldn’t say responsibility," Grayson responded, "but I’d say we have a golden opportunity." And as far as she’s concerned, it’s an opportunity that mainstream superhero comics don’t take advantage of nearly often enough.

With the rules of writing superhero comics so ingrained in most people in the marketplace, Heinberg opts to "doodle in the margins." "My extremism is in the relationship area," he explained. He thinks people who want to continue to challenge and be challenged by the medium should focus less on extreme sex and violence, and more on the psychology of the characters.

Waid does agree that there is a mandate to be extreme, in the sense that every time he sits down to write, he feels it is his responsibility "to find new ways of using the language [of comics] that has not been used before."

Vaughan had a different opinion. He cited his two favorite movies as "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca." He suggested that "Citizen Kane" was "incredibly innovative" and pushed film forward, while "Casablanca" was a very formulaic and traditional movie created under the auspices of the old Studio system’s "assembly-line process." Both are brilliant films in his mind. "So I think our one responsibility is to be good, not to be innovative for innovation’s sake. You don’t have to worry about reinventing the wheel."

This was met by a resounding "Thank God" from Waid.

This segued into a discussion about morality in comics, whether they should be about topical, real-world problems, or simply provide escapism for the reader. Grayson, for her part, is "fascinated by the allegory of the superhero." But at the same time, she acknowledges that the evils of the world are perpetrated by ordinary human beings, and that throwing superpowers into the mix "makes it political in the sense that you can remove it from everybody’s life and nothing changes on the ground."

"As a writer I would always rather be too soon to talk about something than too late." - Brian K. Vaughan Vaughan took this opportunity to invoke Oscar Wilde’s quote, "There’s no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all." He points to his original series "Ex Machina," about a superhero who prevented the destruction of the second WTC tower on 9/11, as being a book that even he considered might be in questionable taste when it was first conceived, and that many people suggested was produced "too soon" after the disaster. "As a writer I would always rather be too soon to talk about something than too late."

"I don’t know about moral or immoral," Waid began, "but I do know about escapism in the sense that I have no use for it whatsoever." He believes that there are plenty of opportunities for escapist entertainment available, and he reacts negatively to fans and readers who admonish him because his comics remind them too much of the real world. "You can’t tell a story with any significance whatsoever if you’re going to go out of your way to make sure that it doesn’t touch on the human condition."

"I tend to shy away from writing topical stuff," admitted Heinberg. "I feel an immense responsibility to be entertaining and to provide escapism, but at the same time, because of who I am, I tend to only write about the questions that I have about life and love, and the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do." He went on to say that he was "allergic" to the kind of topicality of sending Batman in search of Osama bin Laden, referring of course to Frank Miller’s controversial "Holy Terror, Batman!"

Waid suggested that "when a medium’s been around for 75 years, no one’s going to break it at the point. Not even Frank when he tells his Batman vs. Osama bin Laden story."

Vaughan, for his part, opted not to object to the story until he’d had the opportunity to read it himself. He played devil’s advocate by citing the imagery of superheroes punching out Hitler (that pervaded the industry during the second world war) as Miller’s inspiration. Superhero comics is a genre, he contends, and one in which writers should be able to try anything.

"Some people call comics a disposable medium," Boylan prompted. "Does that make the recycling of themes and storylines more acceptable, retelling them for a new generation?"

Vaughan holds up his soaking wet notes and announces helplessly, "I don’t know!"

Heinberg sheepishly admits that during his tenure at DC, he, along with friend and colleague Geoff Johns, has been "slowly subverting the DC Universe as it exists right now back into the one we grew up with in 1977."

"These stories are told today in this way for these reasons," Heinberg says. "We’re constantly trying to tear away the stuff that’s been applied to these concepts and get back to what was essentially true about them when they were created."

Grayson recounts the tale of a six-year-old friend of hers who upon asking a playmate if they knew the secret identity of Batman received the response, "Terry." An answer which would be correct if you were referring to the animated series "Batman Beyond."

"The bottom dropped out of my reality," Grayson lamented, only half-joking. She believes the character she grew up with should be available for new generations to discover.

"I disagree with these guys completely," Vaughan says, flatly. He mentions his upcoming "Dr. Strange: The Oath" as a case in point. While positively brimming over with praise for creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Vaughan confesses that there is no love lost between himself and the title character. "I think your obligation as a writer is to write the best story possible, even if that means reinventing them from the ground up." When these characters were originally created, he doesn’t believe that their creators thought of them as icons or archetypes.

And rather than preaching blind deference to creators gone by, Vaughan believes each creative team should leave their own mark on the work. Soon to leave "Runaways," he happily passed the torch to his successor, Joss Whedon, and submitted that he would rather see Whedon write his own version of "Runaways" than one that feels beholden to what Vaughan did before him.

Waid’s opinion falls somewhere in between the two extremes. He cites legend Jack Kirby, who always encouraged his successors to find their own style, rather than replicate his. That said, Waid believes these characters are part of the "tapestry of 20th century pop culture," and that creators do have a responsibility to keep them true to who they are. "Because if you stray too far away, those characters just disappear into gossamer, and they become forgotten things that are no longer a part of American pop culture."

"You can’t tell a story with any significance whatsoever if you’re going to go out of your way to make sure that it doesn’t touch on the human condition." - Mark Waid Vaughan is of the opinion that the characters have taken on such lives of their own that "there’s nothing we can do to ruin them. Spider-Man’s going to be around long after we die, so why not make our mark, do something different." But he does recognize that many readers would disagree with him on this point.

Grayson counters that, if the story you’re telling changes these characters on a fundamental level, "Why aren’t you writing about a different a character?"

The next question posed was whether the creators feel inspired or constrained by the restriction of deadlines and the 22-page format. Grayson says it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. "Having to come up with a new story every month no matter what makes you grab some ideas you wouldn’t in a million years have thought you would come up with," which, to her mind, is inspiring. But on the flipside, the crunch of the monthly grind can become "hell on earth."

Heinberg explains that he has yet to have to face this dilemma. With steady work in other mediums [TV’s "Grey’s Anatomy"], he doesn’t sign on to write comics projects unless he already has stories in mind, and he always limits himself to self-contained story arcs with a beginning, middle and end.

He likens comic writing to television writing. With a mandated six act-outs per episode of "Grey’s Anatomy," "that’s a lot of cliffhangers per episode." Comics have a cliffhanger at the end of most issues, but Heinberg has also found that at the end of "most pages, especially the odd-numbered pages, it’s good to have them ask a question that turning the page forces you to have to answer."

"I don’t care what medium you’re working in, there’s always rules," Waid said. He acknowledges that the 22-page format is completely arbitrary, but that once you’re used to "the language of 22 pages," it’s difficult to break out of that. But, Waid says, "I actually like the discipline that it brings to the work."

"I just did my first graphic novel, 136 pages," Vaughan began, referring to the just-released "Pride of Bagdad." Monthly comics are a "pain in the ass," he says, in the sense that you often "get to issue number 5 and realize the great setup you should’ve placed in issue number 1, but it’s been on the stands for a month already." In the longer form of the graphic novel, he appreciated having the luxury to implement those kinds of realizations before any of the work saw print.

On the other hand, he explained that "’Y the Last Man’ was always supposed to be a story about the last boy on earth becoming the last man on earth. I wanted you to see him grow from 22 to 27. And reading it every month, you get something out of it you don’t get reading the collections. You get to grow up with him, and see that progression of time."

Waid then says that sometimes that phenomenon of retroactive realization works in just the opposite way. He mentions "52," the DC comic written jointly by himself, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Geoff Johns. He admits that trying to produce 52 issues, what would ordinarily be 4 years’ worth of comic material, on a weekly schedule has been daunting, at best. But despite the time constraints, he and his collaborators consistently find that they’ll come upon sudden inspiration that "would seem to undercut everything that comes before, but if you go back and look, we planted the clues there, there’s some sort of gestalt that happens whether we mean it to or not."

"That’s the most rewarding part of writing," Grayson agreed. "The magical, organic moments where suddenly a story just unfolds in front of you and all you have to do is get out of the way."

Boylan moved on to the idea of presentation, and asked whether or not the fact that monthly comics, more often than not, find themselves reprinted in trade collections influenced the panelists’ writing process.

Vaughan was quick to debunk the conspiracy theory that publishers are forcing creators to write stories in six-issue arcs for the sake of the trade market. "I write the same way now that I did when my stuff was so bad no one would even think to collect it."

"I like monthly comics," Vaughan said. "I read comics in the bathroom. Did I say that out loud?"

Grayson agrees that the promise of trades doesn’t usually affect her work, because most of the time she doesn’t know for sure whether or not her work will ever be collected.

"I don’t think any writer, no matter how much you talk about them being decompressed, says, ’Oh, this will be good when you read it in addition to five other books,’" Vaughan suggested. "I think everyone thinks, ’How do I write 22 satisfying pages?’"

"I can think of at least two writers off the top of my head," Waid quips. "But generally, if you pay $2.95 for a unit of entertainment, as clinical as that sounds, I just want you to be able to have a sense of conflict and resolution within even the smaller story," whether or not that issue is part of bigger storyline.

Boylan went on to ask the panelists, "What has your work shown you about yourself?"

"Dark, dark, dark," Waid put forth, grimly. "It’s amazing that I write about Superman, and it shows me dark, dark, dark. But please, someone else."

Grayson has observed that family is the theme that recurs most often within her work, usually father-son relationships. "I was raised by my dad and wanted to be a boy."

"It’s so much therapy for me," Heinberg adds. "In ’Young Avengers,’ I’ve just completely recast and idealized my childhood. I wish I had been gay in high school, had a boyfriend, had powers. I think a lot of that stuff is obviously still unresolved for me, and ’Young Avengers’ was my one shot to do it right." "Wonder Woman," too, is similarly applicable to Heinberg’s formative years. "Although I probably shouldn’t dig too deeply into that," he says, wryly.

"I’ve learned nothing about myself," Vaughan admits, again bucking the trend. "I feel like I am the only thing I understand in the world. I like girls, and Hostess cupcakes and ’Night Rider.’ I’m not very complicated, I don’t understand anything else. So my books are about everything but me. The only thing I’m escaping when I’m writing is myself, I guess because I’m profoundly bored with myself."

"See, I find myself endlessly fascinating," says Waid, "so I take exactly the opposite approach." When he works on a character, he looks immediately for that part of his personality that he can reflect in that character. "If you work hard, you find that commonality."

Waid has been shocked to notice that, like Grayson, there has been a profound trend of family in his work. "And I have no family, I have no interest in having a family, I didn’t come from much of a family. Clearly there’s some sort of weird intimacy issues that I’m working out here through my work." This, he follows up with the glib, "And now you know too much."

Boylan asks her next question over the sound of Grayson banging her head against her microphone: "Is there such a thing as a masculine or feminine aesthetic in storytelling?"

"Ladies first," says the magnanimous Grayson. "Brian?"

Vaughan insists over the crowd’s laughter that he takes no offense to that. "There’s nothing remotely masculine up here."

"Neil Gaiman used to say that ’Sandman’ would travel like a venereal disease through relationships," Vaughan began. "A guy would give it to his girlfriend, and they would break up, and she would take it to her boyfriend. And I saw that happen with ’Y’ a little bit. The first year of ’Y,’ guys would bring up their girlfriends, ’This is the first comic I ever got my girlfriend to read.’ And now by the 4th year of ’Y,’ I have women coming up saying, ’This is the first comic I got my boyfriend to read.’" This says to him that storytelling is neither masculine or feminine.

"I like monthly comics," Vaughan said. "I read comics in the bathroom. Did I say that out loud?" - Brian K. Vaughan Vaughan goes on to say that he thinks the periodic, ill-conceived attempts of publishers to put out a "women’s line," with such arbitrary strictures as making the narrative 60% romance, and writing only female protagonists is "nonsense."

Grayson has been writing comics for nine years running, and she explains that she spent the first seven of those "screaming that there is no such thing as feminine or masculine fiction." But after losing several jobs this year for "having a female point of view," harsh reality has forced her to reconsider this position. "What it meant in the context of the people who were dealing with me, was the exploration of relationships over action." She loves martial arts, explosions and the way fire looks on a splash page, but her favorite part is when there are relationship issues going on. "And maybe that makes me a girl."

"It makes me a girl too," Heinberg observes.

"I don’t think that there are mentalities that are automatically at birth tied into gender," Waid began. He does say, in what he insists are the most general terms, that in his experience, male creators do tend to have more of a pulp sensibility, placing more of an emphasis on the physicality on the characters, whereas female creators tend to focus more on emotional conflict. He attributes this to the way children in western societies are raised to be "gender correct."

"I’m constantly told we need more female heroines and female characters," Grayson says. "I’m like, ’I just want to see Arsenal with his shirt off.’" Yet another point on which she and Heinberg agree.

"Coming to comics so late," Heinberg says, "and being so gay, in what is essentially such a straight medium," he’s always felt that the "girl" in him wanted to focus on relationships. "I also believe that the currency of the medium is, they have to work this stuff out while they’re punching each other. This is the idiom in which I’m working."

When he started ’Young Avengers,’ Heinberg expected an outcry from heterosexual fans, accusing him of pushing his "homosexual agenda." But to his surprise, this reaction has been in the minority. As long as you’re telling good stories with characters that people care about, whether they be gay, straight, male or female, the audience will be with you.

While agreeing to disagree seemed to be the order of the day on many of the talking points, the "Pulp, Grind, Manifesto" panel was nothing if not a wellspring of thought-provoking discourse of one of entertainment’s most misunderstood mediums. And after all, if comics is indeed a disposable medium, shouldn’t a comics manifesto be just as disposable?