Comics are a collaborative art at their heart, and a group of top creators Saturday at Heroes Con explained that collaboration itself is a fine and a complicated art. The freewheeling discussion took place at the "Collaboration and Storytelling in Today's Comics" panel.
Matt Fraction (Immortal Iron First, upcoming co-writer of Uncanny X-Men), Darwyn Cooke (Catwoman, New Frontier), Cliff Chiang (former DC assistant editor-turned Green Arrow/Black Canary penciller), Barry Kitson (Amazing Spider-Man, Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes), and Jimmy Palmiotti (Jonah Hex, Countdown) have encountered their share of continuity woes, crossovers, artists and writers not agreeing. They’ve also witnessed the magic born from four creators sharing one singular vision.
Moderater Tom Spurgeon opened by noting that the panel was intended to include Ed Brubaker, who cancelled his Heroes Con appearance. Spurgeon referred to Brubaker and Cooke’s reportedly tense collaboration on the Catwoman relaunch.
Cooke described the run as two creators looking to prove themselves yet having contrasting ideas on the characters. Cooke wanted to show off the character’s physicality and superheroic traits; Brubaker, as Cooke described it, wanted a panel-heavy noir style.
“We did have a few emotionally-charged telephone calls. Oddly enough, I think it’s the best collaboration I’ve ever been involved in,” Cooke said. “Ed and I both had distinct visions on what we wanted to do in the book. Ed was so focused on what he considered important (and vice versa), we had to find ways to compromise . Whether you’re getting along or not, generally I’m not working with anyone I don’t respect. You have to say: there’s value to this.”
One example of such compromises was Catwoman #2, in which Cooke kept Brubaker’s script but condensed the panels to make space for moments of Catwoman jumping off building, breaking into the police headquarters – being Catwoman, essentially. He said if either creator’s vision trumped the other, the book would have suffered.
Though Brubaker and Cooke proved the “coal under pressure makes diamonds” cliche, Fraction described how ugly writer-artists conflicts can turn. “There’s a power differential in where artists have the a-bomb,” Fraction said, explaining that if a disgruntled artist wanted to force a change, they only need turn their pages in at the bleeding edge of deadline, making corrections impossible.
“And suddenly you have to rewrite. It’s a real thing that’s happened to me. And it was absolutely not Barry,” Fraction said with a smile and nod to his panelmate and artist on The Order.
Kitson explained editor-creator relationships have their own pitfalls. “I think one of the sadder changes were you used to have editors who were former creators themselves,” he said. “One of the best editors was Archie Goodwin. There’s a real difference between an editor that understand the process you’re going through versus the editors you don’t. Not mentioning any names.”
With the fan questions, company-wide crossovers reared their head. “You mean like Countdown?” Palmiotti asked to the audience’s laughter. Palmiotti, who declined commenting for much of DC’s panel earlier on Saturday, described his crossover experience like a parade of alpha males converging and each trying to make the crossover work only for the hole to grow deeper.
“Countdown was one of those things when we weren’t in a group,” Palmiotti said. “It was madness, okay?”
Fraction’s crossover experience fared far better than Palmiotti’s. “With Civil War; it’s like hearing music from the other room,” he said. “With Secret Invasion I can throw in and contribute. It’s like making comics when you were a kid with a group.”
Aside from most of the panelists living in a “Six Degrees of Ed Brubaker” world, most also came from an advertising background. All of them hated it as well, not missing the high-stress, insane deadlines, and dictatorial creative decisions. Describing leaving advertising like a recovering alcoholic, Palmiotti described his “scare” out of advertising.
“I’d been working all weekend on this B.S. campaign that wouldn’t mean anything to anybody. It was Sunday night and I was presenting to the client Monday morning. So it’s like 8:00 at night, it’s like 20 minutes to my house. I get to my house and go to sleep. Wake up, the clock says it’s 5 to 9:00. Presentation’s at a quarter to 10. I get in another cab, sweating. Then I realize it’s getting dark, not light. I’d been asleep for 10 minutes.”
“I had the cabbie stop, I had gotten out of the car. I didn’t see anyone about it but I’m pretty sure I had a nervous breakdown on the sidewalk.”
After that, he found comics; compared to his previous profession, it was relaxed just working on one thing at a time.
Fraction had similar issues, but the breakneck pace he learned in advertising was essential for him to learn to work in a collaborative effort like comics. It gave him a perspective outside the bubble of comic industry drama.
“I got to have all my teenage angst and ennui about being told what to do in advertising,” Fraction said. “So I got to have those fights with Coke … I had to go through that in a different field. When I get told ‘No, you can’t use that word,’ I learned how to pick and choose my battles in a different medium. I know a lot of guys get themselves wrapped up in that.”