Writer Charles Soule's bio makes him sound a little like a modern Renaissance man. A successful New York attorney, he also writes music, plays guitar and sings for his own band. And — oh yeah — he has traveled across the world. And in his spare time, he writes novels.
But for fans of comic books, the part of Soule's bio that is most familiar is his seemingly sudden emergence as a leading writer in the comics industry. One year ago, even the most die-hard comic readers had never heard of him. But now, he's one of the more prolific writers in mainstream comics, with this year seeing him take over the ongoing Thunderbolts series at Marvel, and Swamp Thing and Red Lanterns at DC.
On October 9th, Soule will get even more eyes on his work, as he launches the new high-profile book Superman/Wonder Woman for DC with artist Tony Daniel. The writer will also be launching his own new ongoing at Oni Press in October — the political sci-fi thriller Letter 44.
Despite all the success in the comic industry, Soule's not quite ready to walk away from his day job as an attorney in New York City, where he's lived for the past 16 years or so. As a result, he's working two jobs that are pretty much full-time, although we can only assume the legal fees pay better.
So why would a successful attorney and musician use his spare time to write comic books? What motivated him to write in the first place? And when does this guy sleep? Newsarama talked to Soule to find out more about the man behind the page.
Newsarama: Charles, how did you get interested in writing comics? Because you obviously have a day job, or another career. What was it about comic book writing that made you want to try it out? Were you a comics fan when you were young?
Charles Soule: Absolutely. The first comic I remember getting... hmm. Some guys can cite the exact issue number, but I can't. I know my dad came out of the drug store with comics for us. I have three siblings, and he'd gotten all of us each our own comic. I was just a little kid — I could read it, so I must have been more than 4 or 5 years old. But I was still pretty young.
It was an issue of Fantastic Four that featured Asgardians, so it had Thor and some of those characters. Beyond that, I couldn't tell you exactly what it was. I probably need to go back and try to track it down someday.
But what I remembered in particular about it was that it wasn't the whole story. It was one issue. It was in the middle of a run. So it started in some weird place and it ended in some weird place. And I remember thinking, wow! There's more to this story. Out there are other issues I could find that would tell me the rest of the story. That's how they get you. It certainly worked on me.
Nrama: You said your dad bought you your first comic. Was he a comic book guy?
Soule: Yeah, I would go to my grandparents' house, and I'd poke around in his old room, and in the closet would his old issues of the first T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series and a bunch of other stuff.
Nrama: So what did you first start collecting? Or start reading regularly?
Soule: The first story I remember hunting down all the issues for was Secret Wars II, of all things, with the Beyonder and all that craziness. We used to take trips down to Florida — we lived in Michigan for most of the time I grew up, but we would take trips down to Florida for Christmas sometimes. The grocery store down there had a spinner rack. And so there was Secret Wars II, like issue #7 or whatever it was, on the rack. But they weren't great about clearing out the spinner. So if you dug back behind whatever was in front, you could find the earlier issues. Once I'd exhausted that particular spinner, which gave me, say, issues 3, 7 and 8, I went on this crusade all over that area of Florida to find the rest of it. And that was it.
I was hooked from then on.
Nrama: So is that the reason you're a writer? Because you're a fan? Because you're currently still working as a lawyer, right?
Soule: Yes. I'm an attorney. That's my second job.
Nrama: There aren't many comic writers who are lawyers too, are there?
Soule: There are a few. Marc Guggenheim has a law degree. I believe Marjorie Liu has a law degree.
Nrama: And Brad Meltzer, right?
Soule: Of course, Brad, yeah. Brad and I actually went to the same law school. We both went to Columbia. He's a few years ahead of me. And he came and spoke in my copyright class once and talked about — and this was before he'd written anything in comics — so he talked about his novel writing career, and that was a big influence in me getting into writing. And he and I have sort of stayed in touch. And he's been incredibly generous with his time. He's somebody I would consider kind of a mentor in this world.
Nrama: Is that what got the gears turning? Hearing Brad talk about it?
Soule: It was. It was. The way that it played out was that I was a musician for a long, long time — all through college. I minored in music composition. And then I ended up going to law school. And while in law school, it occurred to me that I wasn't going to be able to head out from the firm after graduation and just play a happy hour gig. My ability to play music was going to be curtailed enormously.
So I thought, what else can I do that I like that's creative? And so, after seeing Brad speak in that class, it was like, "Well, I could write novels."
I actually started trying to be a professional writer with novels, and I wrote two that exist and are around… kind of. But they never really went anyplace in particular. I still like them both.
What it showed me was that you can spend years on a novel, and then it could just be, like, OK, you spent that time and that's that. It's a very long cycle from beginning to end, and with no guarantee of reward or even feedback, really.
So comics became something I started doing on the side while I was working on the novels, just doing little short stories and seeing if I could find artists. And the reception to those was always so quick. It was kind of like a palette cleanser after novels. And when the feedback to those comics was good, and I started to get a little fed up with the novel writing process, I started focusing more on comics. I came up with the pitch for Strongman, which was the first thing I had published.
Since then, it's just been no looking back, leveraging each project into the next one, and trying to keep going forward. And then you get to this year, which has just been phenomenal.
Nrama: It's interesting that there are several people in comics that have law degrees. Do you think there's any connection at all between being an attorney and writing comics? Or is it a coincidence that there are a few who've pursued both?
Soule: I think it's probably just something of a coincidence. That said, I do think lawyers tend to be detail oriented, deadline oriented, and they tend to be able to sit down and focus and get stuff done. These are all generalizations, obviously, but I know more than my share of lawyers, and I think that all those things are pretty fair to say. Those skills all things that serve you well in any creative discipline. You've got to sit down and do the work; you can't just sort of stop halfway.
Nrama: Strongman had a pretty unique concept behind it. He's a lucha libre wrestler that never takes the mask off. What was the genesis of that idea?
Soule: I had always been interested in lucha libre, but I also had a friend who was really interested in it. And we were just sitting in a bar one night, talking. And I told him about another idea I had that was way, way, way too complicated, and he said, "Listen, man, that's too much. It's cool, but it's too much. Why don't you do something simple? Why don't you do something about, like, one of these old lucha libre guys who's past his prime?"
The next day, I had a full outline of what the story would be, and it just spun from there.
Of all the things I've done, the first Strongman story was one of the easiest things to write. It was almost fully formed from the get-go.
It's almost a Dark Knight Returns riff, except you have a battle-worn Mexican wrestler instead of Batman. It's a lot of fun, and I really like it. I hope to get it out in the world again somehow soon. It had a small run and it was years ago, but I'm hoping I can get people to take a second look at it. It'll be up on comiXology very soon, but I wouldn't mind doing a hardcover re-release or something like that some day.
Nrama: It had a sequel too, right?
Soule: Well, that's an interesting story. There's a 148-page, completely drawn, finished, lettered, perfect sequel to it: Strongman II: Oaxaca Tapout. We took it to the publisher — this would have been summer 2011 — and at the time, it didn't seem like it would make sense to publish it., for a variety of reasons. I'm not bitter about it or upset about it, but I would like it to be out in the world.
I'd love to get Strongman I out, then get Strongman II out in a nice package that people can enjoy.
So yeah, very few people have read Strongman II.
Nrama: After Strongman, you wrote 27, which built upon your knowledge of music.
Soule: Right. This was an Image series that came out in 2011/2012. It's based around the legend of the "27 Club" in rock 'n' roll, which involves a bunch of famous musicians and brilliant artists and creative people who have died at age 27. It includes Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janice Joplin, and more recently, Amy Winehouse, plus many others.
So the premise of the book is that you have a famous guitarist who turns 27 and gets hit by that same curse, but he's got to try to beat it and live to 28 — and hopefully keep playing shows and having rock 'n' roll adventures. It ended up being an exploration of what it means to be a creative person on a high level, and what it means to be really famous. Should fame be your goal, or should you aspire simply for creative perfection, no matter how many people actually see your work?
I think it was almost like a rock 'n' roll Sandman, if that's not too grandiose a description. I love 27, and I'm really glad it made it out into the world.
Nrama: Looking at Strongman, 27, Strange Attractors and Letter 44, and I was trying to kind of nail down your writing style. And one of the most striking things is that, even though you began as a novelist, it's light on narration. You instead rely on strong dialogue, and your stories are heavy on characterization. Would you agree? Or do you have a description of the way you write?
Soule: I try to focus on character. If I can't find the character, then it's not interesting for me. And so just writing action or just writing set pieces in a sort of character vacuum is not something that I like. I only enjoy doing the big set pieces if they are defined by the characters and their personal stakes to whatever's happening. Just a bunch of stuff blowing up or a lot of punching is not as interesting to me.
Nrama: Do you think all your work is tied together in that way? Or in any other way?
Soule: Yeah, I think the thing that ties all the stuff I've written together is that you've got very strong central characters, even in the Marvel and DC stuff I'm doing. Guy Gardner is the main character of Red Lanterns, you've got Alec Holland in Swamp Thing — they're meaty characters with a lot going on. They're not just a one-note archetype that you have to try hang a book on.
And yes, I like dialogue. I like writing characters that seem different from one another. So if you were to hypothetically look at a bunch of lines from books I've written, just out of context, hopefully you would be able to determine who said what. That's the goal, anyway. I try to strongly differentiate through dialogue. But then, I don't shy away from narration if it makes sense; getting inside people's heads can be helpful as well. It's all a tool, and you use it when you need to.
Nrama: You also use humor in a clever way, even in some of your darker books. For example, I remember in Red Lanterns #22, you had Bleez saying one thing, but something completely different happening behind her. And it was funny.
Soule: Thank you! It's a visual medium, and I like to take advantage of that. And I like humor, as much as I can get into a book. I think that's what some comics are missing. I don't think it makes sense to make Red Lanterns a comedy book. I don't think it makes sense to make Swamp Thing or Thunderbolts a comedy book. But at the same time, if you have a moment of levity, then it makes everything else that much stronger in comparison.
So if you have, like in Red Lanterns #22, the issue you just mentioned, there's a lot of funny lines, a lot of crazy stuff, but then all of the sudden, it gets really serious at the end. And you're almost surprised back into that mindset, like, wow, these guys are really deadly and they're capable of horrible things, and it's almost more of a gut punch than if they were all dark and dreary the whole time, or all hilarious the whole time. Using both tones creates a valuable contrast.
Nrama: And with you mentioning character being important to you, it was interesting to see in your team book, Thunderbolts, you concentrated on one character in each of your first couple issues. You're doing a team in Red Lanterns as well. Do you think it's a new challenge to do a team book?
Soule: I've finished the first full arc on Thunderbolts with the whole team, which is issues #14-#18. And with Red Lanterns, it's a little different because you've got Guy Gardner as the focus, and the others are slightly second tier, so they don't get as much screen time.
But Thunderbolts has Punisher, Elektra, Deadpool, Red Hulk, Venom — all these people who are tier-one people who all need their moments. So you're right that it was a new challenge when I started. But I talked to some of my fellow writers about it — I think I asked Jonathan Hickman or Nick Spencer — and the feedback I got was to just break them up. You know, have as few scenes as possible where they're all in the same place. If you break them up, it's just two or three people working on a mission, as opposed to seven people in a room and everybody has to get in their funny line.
It seems obvious in retrospect. But that's kind of the biggest trick of the trade I figured out with team books. And it really works. You put Punisher and Deadpool together and they throw sparks off one another. You can put them in the same scene if you want that kind of antagonistic energy. On the other hand, if you want people whose goals are more aligned and they're going to be more streamlined and just get it done, you put together Punisher and Elektra.
You know, it's like recipes. You think about how these tastes might work, and what kind of taste you want in a scene. And then you start thinking about which characters to use to get that flavor.
But that's coming at it a little high. A bunch of the time, you don't think that way at all. [Laughs.] You just write what happens naturally, what would actually happen if those characters were faced with that situation. And that works too.
Nrama: There was an interview you did about 27 where you mentioned that story was originally a very different story, and it had been filed away in your "stories file" on your computer. Do you still have a stories file filled with ideas?
Soule: Yep, I'm looking at it right now. It is the "Story Ideas" folder that has comics stuff in it. There's a treatment for a haunted photocopier story. There is a treatment for a guy that wins the Power Ball. And a bunch of other stuff. I haven't looked at it in quite awhile — now that I'm looking at it, I realize I need to update it and add some of my new stuff into it.
But yeah, some of those will be creator-owned ideas. Some of them end up being combined. You think one idea can run a whole story, and then you realize it's not as big as you thought, and it's just an arc for something else. Or it's one element in another story.
It's just good to have them. Ideas are all valuable, and you never know when you might be able to use one.
Nrama: There was a page in Strange Attractors where Dr. Brownfield had said something that sounded like, to me, a philosophy you might follow. He says, "An intellectually curious mind investigates what is set before it because it cannot help itself." You seem like, as a lawyer, musician and writer, that you're definitely the "curious mind" type. And your stories reflect it, because you take things you're interested in, and turn them into full-fledged stories. Or am I reading too much into Dr. Brownfield's statement?
Soule: No, not at all. Not at all.
I think he put it a little more formally than I would have, but that's how his character talks.
But yeah, I think that one of the greatest — and no joke; this word is not being used ironically at all — but one of the greatest joys of being able to write so much is that I get to learn new things all the time, because I'm always trying to educate myself about new subjects that I'm writing about. For an upcoming story, I made a bunch of phone calls to guys who build stunt motorcycles, like Evel Knievel type stuff. Absent this particular story, I never would have gone down that path, but the fact that I had an excuse to learn about that, and the fact that these guys would think the comic writing was cool enough that they would actually take the time to talk to me about it - it was great.
It's almost like an extension of college, which I loved. I loved having my entire life built around learning new things. The fact that I currently have a legitimate excuse to do all this research and go places and absorb new information is a blast. It's one of the best things about it for me.
Nrama: And you're still, currently, practicing law, right?
Soule: I am. Yes. I love comics work, and I hope I never stop doing it. But at the same time, I have my own law practice that I've built up over quite a while — it's been more than a decade that I've spent building that business — so it seems a little premature to just shut it down after nine months of working at a high level in comics.
We'll see. I'm sort of hoping for some magic signal that will tell me it's the right time. But right now, I just want to continue doing work I'm proud of, and do my best to make sure I'm not a flash in the pan.
Nrama: You've got three series at DC, a series at Marvel, and your indie stuff coming out constantly. For most writers, that's full time.
Soule: Yeah, Letter 44 starts in October as an ongoing as well.
So right now, I'm scripting five ongoing series each month, plus whatever else comes down the pike, like OGNs and stuff.
Nrama: So would it be rude for me to call you an overachiever?
Soule: [Laughs.] I don't know. I talk to other writers about pace and how long it takes them to write stuff. And I think I'm pretty fast, which is very helpful. I think the discipline thing that we talked about before is a real asset, so I can sit down and not get up until I've got a draft. If I sit down, I can get up five hours later, maybe? Five hours seems to be a pretty standard pace for me to write a full script. I don't know how typical that is.
But what that means for me is that I can still do it, even with my law practice. I would have to think hard before I took on any more. It would have to be the right project. But right now, I'd rather be maxed out than not. So if I can handle it, I'd like having the work. It's still fun. A lot of fun.
Nrama: You're working with very different artists, from one project to another. The art from Alberto Albuquerque on Letter 44, for example, is a different style from what Tony Daniel is doing on Superman/Wonder Woman — both series that start in October. How much does the artist on a series influence the story you write?
Soule: It absolutely influences what I write in a big way. Bigger than I thought it would. I just finished a script for Superman/Wonder Woman, and Tony's so talented, but like you said, he has a particular style. He's great at everything, really, but he's really good at those big moments and big beats. So as I'm scripting, I'm almost unconsciously making sure that I'm giving him the space to do what he does best.
In contrast, the current arc of Thunderbolts is being drawn by Jefte Paolo, and his approach is very stylized and less hyper-realistic. The character work is impeccable, and the story telling is fantastic, but it's also not what I would call photo-realistic detail. That enables me to play with the comedy beats a little bit more, with that style.
And then you have [the recent Archaia original graphic novel] Strange Attractors, which is a sort of sci-fi book about New York City, and I very consciously sought an artist who could draw all the locations of New York City in an incredibly realistic way. I found Greg Scott, who lives on Staten Island, and has lived here, I think, all his life. He made it almost a personal crusade to get all those locations right. He would go around the city and take all these pictures and put them on his drawing board for reference. And the finished book just is New York City. It's amazing.
Nrama: You mentioned that you minored in music composition, so I assume you write music. And you play several instruments. Do you see any similarity between writing music and writing comics?
Soule: There are parallels. Obviously, they're both creative pursuits. But for me, music is a very immediate thing. I like playing with other guys. I like playing in bands and so on. Most of the writing… I've had a bunch of projects in a bunch of different bands. That's somewhat decreased since law school. But before then, I had a band that had guitar and cello and violins, and I would compose all these full scores. Those took a long, long time. I did it all by hand, so I have drawers full of these handwritten scores, multiple parts for all the instruments. And I think there's some parallels with that kind of composition and writing — particularly longer-form stuff.
But as far as how I see my music versus how I see my writing? Music is an immediate rush. You've having that feeling of connection with other artists. It's all right away. It's very much in the moment. You're seeing what happens and evolves second by second.
Comics is much more of a long game. Even in the fast production cycle of Marvel or DC Comics, you're still waiting, at minimum, 30 days between when you write a script and when you see the final product. And more often, it's more like 90 days, because I usually write my stuff early to make sure it's all squared away. So it feels like a much more extended process.
I get a much different gratification from each, but they're both great.
Nrama: What do you play? Guitar?
Soule: Yeah, I play guitar and sing. Those are my primary instruments when I'm performing. But I also play violin, I play piano, and most stuff with strings. I'm a bad drummer. I can't play any horns. But pretty much everything else, I can hack together a tune.
Nrama: Do you want to promote your current band? Are you in a band right now?
Soule: I do have a band. We don't play as much as we used to, just because I don't have time. But the band is the Charles Soule Band, actually. We play private stuff sometimes, but the last big gig we did was actually the release party for Strange Attractors in May, which was a lot of fun. We did covers of New York themed songs, and it was fun. We're supposed to play a show for New York Comic Con this year too, which will be great. I am absolutely not above getting a few gigs out of some comics notoriety.
Nrama: You're on Twitter and social media. Do you have much time to check that stuff?
Soule: Yeah, I use it as an escape valve sometimes. It's fun to jump around on Twitter and see what's going on. It's obviously a very good promotional tool. You can let people know what you're doing and what conventions you're going to attend, and let them check out previews of your work when it's coming out. I think it's valuable to do.
It's also tricky, because it's a place where people can voice their opinions to you very directly about your work. And most of the time, people are very kind and the things they have to say are very nice. I think I've been lucky in that way.
But sometimes, putting yourself out in the public space has its downside. Another creators I talk to a lot uses Twitter quite a bit, but he almost never talks about his work. He uses it for other things. And his view is that the artist owes nothing to the audience other than the work. And anytime you offer more and you engage more, it blurs the line between audience and artist. He's a firm believer that that's a bad thing.
I don't know that I feel that strongly about it being a negative, but I do think there's an expectation that gets set up when you start giving too much of a glimpse behind the curtain. It takes away some of the mystery. It makes people feel like they have a hand in crafting the stories.
It's hard, because I don't want to sound like some pretentious artist or something like that. But at the same time, I know for a fact — because it's happened to me — that if you let other people's voices into your head too much, you lose your own. So I try to be very careful about it. I used to talk much more about what I was doing and how I was doing it, and I still do sometimes on my blog, but I use Twitter for different things now. I have a presence, but it's not as much about process as it was before my profile jumped up a little bit.
Nrama: That's interesting. And you are also not exclusive with either Marvel or DC, which is unique in this business for people who are doing very many comics. Obviously, you don't have to tell me if you've been offered any exclusives, although you're welcome to say so, but is this because you've got your day job and you don't need a dental plan? Or you're keeping options open?
Soule: That's part of it. I'm fortunate that I can be selective, if I want to. But also, I haven't been doing it so long that anybody's going, wow, we have to tie this guy up! I mean, maybe I'm wrong. But the conversations I've had so far, on both sides, have been very much like, you know, you're a freelancer, but let us know if the other side wants to make you exclusive. It's kind of like, if you get to the point where you can't do work for us, or you think your work is suffering because you aren't exclusive, then please talk to us. But that's as far as it's gone.
So I have not been offered an exclusive contract anywhere. But I think it would be kind of a big deal for me to do that, because I like working on all kinds of different stuff. And it doesn't seem like something I need right now. But who knows? Maybe next week, there will be a compelling reason for me to do that.
Nrama: When I do these interviews, I often ask people, when did you feel like you made it as a comics writer. Your language indicates you're not quite there yet, mentally anyway. Or is there a point where you thought, wow, I'm in!
Soule: Well, I would say that a moment I really felt like, this is real, this is not just a pipe dream, like I can actually, maybe, turn this into something, was probably when 27 got picked up, which was at C2E2 a few years ago. Getting a book out through Image was always a milestone for me. It was something I very much wanted to achieve as a comics writer.
After that, I think the next big one was when DC chose me to write Swamp Thing after Scott Snyder departed. I actually got the formal go-ahead around Christmas last year.
Nrama: A Christmas present.
Soule: Yeah, exactly. It was a great moment, because we'd been talking for awhile. But I was a new guy, and I think that's a bit of a risk on their part, you know? So when I got that, I thought, wow, this is my shot.
As I mentioned earlier, this year has just been fantastic. I've been thrilled, by and large, by the reception of the books. I've been thrilled by the execution of the books. I can't believe some of the people who are drawing my books, how amazing they look, and the effort everybody puts into making these projects as wonderful as they are.
I've been fortunate to have great people to work with on all my projects. Fingers crossed that that never changes.
Nrama: You mentioned what you "haven't achieved." Is there any character that you want to tackle?
Soule: There are a lot of characters. I think Daredevil would be a pretty natural fit for me, particularly with my law background. I mean, I don't think anybody wants to pick up Daredevil and read a legal drama, necessarily, but on the other hand, that's a world I know pretty well, and I think I could pull some stories out of it. And I'm a New York guy, and I've always liked Daredevil.
I've got a great Captain America story I'd like to tell someday. There's an Hourman story I'd really like to tell. A Green Arrow story….
Soule: Yep, yep. I like him because he's inherently limited in a cool way. Like, one of the things that's tough with these superheroes is that they're perfect. So finding ways to put them in jeopardy can be really tricky. Like, you take Swamp Thing, who is a god of plants. And being a god of plants means that there are very few things that can cause him any trouble, based on the way his powers are set up and the things he can do.
But on the other hand, you take Hourman, who takes a pill and gets moderate superpowers for an hour and then he's done. That, you can do a lot with. There are a lot of dramatic situations you can put that guy in. Plus, there's the fact he's using a pharmaceutical to do it.
I probably shouldn't give too many details, but I just think there are a lot of fun things I could do with Hourman.
As far as I know, he's kind of available.
Nrama: Yep. I think his company was mentioned in Earth 2, but he hasn't shown up.
Soule: I would guess somebody's going to stake their claim on him at some point. But if it doesn't happen for me any time soon, it could happen in 10 years. But I just think it could be kind of cool.
Nrama: And I interrupted you. Anybody else?
Soule: Well there are a lot of awesome characters on both sides of the fence. And I'm hopeful that, at some point, I'll get to work with them, as well as creating many more of my own.
But I'm also thrilled to be working on the characters I'm working on now. I mean, come on… it does not get bigger than Superman and Wonder Woman. I'm really fortunate. I recognize that. I want to use that good fortune to tell some good stories — as many as I can.
Charles Soule is on Twitter at @CharlesSoule, and he has a blog at http://charlessoule.wordpress.com, and he's on Facebook.