DMZ #39If you've been reading Newsarama.com for any length of time, you know that we love talking to creators. But sometimes we want to go beyond that "journalist interviews creator" fix and be a fly on the wall when two creators discuss their careers, their crafts and their comics.
Today, we've got a conversation between writers Brian Wood (DMZ, Northlanders) and G. Willow Wilson (Air, Vixen). The two are both Vertigo mainstays, with Brian becoming a pillar of the modern Vertigo stable of creators and Wilson being a new Vertigo regular with her graphic novel Cairo and her ongoing series Air which releases it's first trade soon.
Wood initiated this conversation with Wilson, and it quickly turned into a back-and-forth about how they work and what they have planned for their respective books. We hope you enjoy.
Brian Wood: Willow, I recently read Air #1-5, kindly sent to me by Karen Berger, and aside from enjoying it immensely, I wanted to ask you something: it's a near-perfect set-up for an ongoing series, meaning it lays out these characters and this world that, with each issue, gets more and more open, suggests more and more directions a story could go in. As opposed to starting off with a huge world (like, say, DMZ) and then narrowing the focus down to a few characters and their journey. Am I right? Was this deliberate or am I reading into it, no doubt out of professional jealousy for such a strong start?
G. Willow Wilson: God, you're going to make me blush. I don't know if I deserve all this praise. As long as we're being honest, to me writing an ongoing series feels like driving a freight train downhill. All you can do is steer and pray. But yeah, you're right--Air is about unpacking the ordinary. Eventually there will be very little ordinariness left. That is deliberate, for the most part. One of my big literary heroes is Umberto Eco, who does the same thing--start out with a bunch of unremarkable Italian academics drinking wine and philosophizing, then throw in a homunculus and the Knights Templar. Out of nowhere. I love stuff like that.
But I'm glad you brought up the world of DMZ, which I've admired from the start...every time I pick up an issue, I find myself thinking 'How the F did he come up with that?' (Ghostly postapocalyptic ecoterrorists in Central Park? Insane. That's one of my favorite issues.) Is that world something that comes to you intuitively--evolving as you write the series--or did you have to sit down and plan out all its facets at the beginning? Logistically speaking, I mean. What factions would form during an American civil war, how those factions would survive, what their natural alliances would be, etc. Were all those things set from the first issue, or did you make adjustments and have epiphanies as you went along?
BW: Steering and praying, yeah. Certainly the praying part. And it's a tough road to walk (or drive)... I just hit the three year mark on DMZ, and if you factor in the time spent researching and pitching and working on the book before #1 hit the shops, its more like 4.5 years. Every day, for four and a half years, DMZ has been there, in the forefront of my mind, staring at me, waiting...
"How did you come up with DMZ?" is my number one most-asked question (with "why Vikings?" as a close second). I always felt it was one of those ideas that I couldn't believe I thought up first, and I was in a huge rush to land it at Vertigo because, surely, someone else was going to beat me to it. I think it came out of a few things... equal parts my older book Channel Zero, current events, living in SF at the time and missing NYC, and movies like Escape From New York, Death Wish, and The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3. It all sort of mixed together in my head. And yeah, my proposal laid out the general landscape of the world, the factions and why they exist and what they're all about. A lot of that never made it into the book itself, since the point of DMZ is to drop the reader into the middle of this situation, this war that's been grinding on for years and years. No one in the story is thinking about why it happened anymore, but rather thinking about how to walk two blocks without being shot at. That was a risky thing to do, as the writer, but necessary.
Air #5GWW: ...Damn it. I just committed my own cardinal sin: asking The Same Damn Question Writers Get Asked All The Time. But you've brought up something that I think captures your perspective really well: the idea that people living in a war zone don't sit behind their computers on political forums waxing poetic about how the conflict got started. They go into survival mode: food, shelter, protection. I think the fact that you keyed into that basic truth is what sets DMZ apart from so many other war stories. It captures something undeniably human--it's not political, not polemical, it's just human.
BW: Back to the thing of ongoing books being slightly out of control... I found that very quickly into a series I was deviating from the plan as it was laid out in the pitch, so that by the end of the first year the book was already something very different.. it had kind of taken on a life of its own and as I was writing it I was getting new ideas, better ideas, or seeing flaws in the pitch that I was forced to adapt to fix. I've heard other writers, like Brian K. Vaughn and Brian Azzarello say the same thing. It's only natural. Are you there yet with Air?
GWW: Yes and no. The book looks and feels roughly how I imagined it. But the further I go, the more I realize how massive the storylines and themes I've saddled myself with really are, and that's pretty freaky. That's the freight train element. The more you put out there, the more you have to resolve. Air is the most literary comic I've written so far, and that poses problems. I use a lot of images that are meant as visual metaphors, but I end up getting asked "So is this really happening or not? Where is this place in terms of dimensions and reality? Why can this element or object do X but not Y?" Most comics-- Sandman is an exception, and so was Animal Man--are very literal-minded. Air isn't.
Changing gears, you've often expressed frustration at the unending snarky chaos that is the blogosphere, especially as it concerns comics. But I have to play devil's advocate on this one--having written for at least half a dozen group blogs, I've developed a masochistic love for The New Media. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that our most recent presidential election was won on Blogger and Wordpress and Facebook. Part of me is of the opinion that those of us in the public eye should just roll with the punches in the name of democratized speech. Do you think that's fair, or should comics creators do more to counter snarky digital comics coverage?
BW: I certainly don't dislike blogs - I have a few of them myself, and read dozens of them every day. But yeah, I get frustrated for what passes for comics "criticism" a lot of the time. I grow very weary of snark, and that thing so many comics bloggers do where they delight in pointing out the misfortunes and mistakes of creators and publishers. I could go on and on... obviously not everyone is like that, but enough of them are and I think its a little depressing. New Media, good. Blogs, good. Criticism, good... I'm all for more and more of the good stuff. I am just asking for better criticism, is all. And rolling with the punches? Sure, that's obviously all that can be done. That and just getting out of the way entirely, to just ignore it. I look forward to the day when I can stop reading my own reviews. But I still do too much self-promotion and marketing and need to be out there looking for pullquotes and stuff.
DMZ #40In a recent column, I believe in the back of Air, you mentioned how you work, your process, and you referred to yourself as a "salaryman of comics." I know what you mean, and I think more of us are like that than not. We sit at our desks and put in the hours. I do drink a lot of coffee, and procrastinate plenty, but I am on the obsessive side, the organized side.
GWW: God, that's a relief. A lot of my writer friends--some of whom are brilliant--work when the Muse calls them, for lack of a better description. You know, days of nothing, then this creative burst where they write for 36 hours straight fueled by caffeine and idealism. And the result is amazing! If I worked that way, by the end I wouldn't even be making grammatical sense. Makes me feel like I'm missing some kind of High Art gene, which I've replaced with... obsessive scheduling.
BW: I really have serious OCD issues when it comes to research, reading dozens and dozens of books in prep for projects like DMZ and Northlanders... just the other day a separate work thing came along where I have to have a decent knowledge of the Medici family. I ALREADY have that, from art history classes to books I have read for fun, but the instant I was told this I was off to Amazon, and now eight books and a DVD are on their way to me. I really tend to overdo it. I am guessing you enjoy research as well, so what sort of things did you read up on for Air? For Cairo?
GWW: I really had to do more research for Air than for Cairo:, ironically. When I lived in Egypt I was constantly absorbing information...even from the dust, it sometimes felt like. So Cairo required almost no independent research. The book is built on conversations that are happening every day in Cairo--about the future of the city, about its history, about the implications of all its layers of culture and religion. The story was about places and people I saw every day. Even the magical bits didn't feel like much of a stretch. But for AirI had to find out all kinds of stuff about flight attendants. How many hours are they allowed to fly? Are they based in one place, or do they jump around? Et cetera. And then I kind of threw all that out the window.
BW: I think you retain more than you think... when I read books for reference they get filed back on the shelf. I never have these things open in front of me as I write, since the bits I need have somehow stuck in my head. I call it “front-loading: doing a ton of research in the early days and living off that fat for years to come.
GWW: You've intrigued me with this Medici thing. One thing I admire about you as a writer is the breadth of subject matter you're willing to tackle...from not-so-futuristic war zones in DMZ to everyday people problems in LOCAL to 10th century vikings in Northlanders. Yet everything has a kind of signature Brian Wood vibe. Maybe it's the way the dialogue is set up or the way the stories are told--I honestly couldn't put my finger on it, but it's there. How long did it take you to develop your distinctive 'voice' or style? Is it something you cultivate consciously, or does it arise on its own?
BW: Probably subconsciously and over many years. Meaning that I write what I like to write, what would appeal to me as a reader, and so obviously everything is going to have a similar mentality, a similar vibe. But I don’t set out with that in the forefront of my mind, no “time for another Brian Wood-style topical thriller!” or whatever. I do consciously try and balance the output, so you get books like Local and DEMO at the same time you get books like DMZ and Northlanders, but that’s a timing thing more than anything else, a scheduling thing. It’s not part of my decision to write them or not.
Air #7Related to that, I just had a series of conversations with my film and TV agent, and she is very attuned to the recurrent themes in my work since she uses them as a starting point to know who to try and pitch my stuff to. She WILL ask me for another “Brian Wood-style idea”, and I’m finding ways to play off these themes in new ways while still being true to myself. Northlanders is a good example of this... I mean, that was created for Vertigo, but it’s an example of what I mean. I’m currently working up a film proposal that’s set in the world of celebrity chefs and foodie culture, but you better believe it’ll be something that sits comfortably next to DMZ and my other books. It makes sense in that context.
The breadth of subject matter is also as much a self-defense thing as anything else. Meaning, it keeps me interested and happy and creatively fulfilled, having a variety of things to write like that. I think if all I was doing was DMZ, or DEMO, I’d be really antsy and run the risk of burning out. But I get to switch gears every week, from the topical DMZ to something a little more relaxed like Northlanders, to something heavily character-based and “indie” like DEMO. I imagine writing Vixen helps you in that regard.
Anything else like that coming up, besides Air? Also, I have to admit, I couldn’t even begin to guess what you might have cooking for the next year of Air, either.
GWW: It does help to switch gears. I think all writers run the risk of telling the same story over and over again…mixing things up by working with different subjects in different genres really helps. Vixen was nice that way, you’re right. I wanted to see if I could tell a straight, classic hero’s journey story—which I’d never done before—but bring in themes that are close to my heart, like the homeless feeling you get when you’re caught between two countries.
What am I working on besides Air…I’m finishing up a memoir called The Butterfly Mosque for Grove Press; it’s due to come out next winter. This book, ladies and gentlemen, exists more or less because Brian encouraged me to write it, many years ago. He was only slightly famous, and I was about six months out of college. I’m also developing a screenplay. As for new comics, there are a couple of things in the pipeline; all too early to talk about. But everybody should pick up the first trade paperback of AIR on March 18th. It’s going to be hot.
Well, this has been fun. Thanks for suggesting it. I look forward to what you have in store for us next, Mr. Wood.
The sixth volume of Brian Wood's DMZ is out now, and Wilson's inaugural volume of Air is due in stores shortly.