Readers of historical thrillers know David Liss as the Edgar Award-winning author of six acclaimed novels, including A Conspiracy of Paper, The Whiskey Rebels and The Devil’s Company. This week, comics readers will be introduced to Liss’s brand of suspense via his Marvel debut in Daring Mystery Comics Special #1, which stars The Twelve’s Phantom Reporter and features art by Jason Armstrong (BPRD: Lobster Johnson). We caught up with Liss via phone from his home in San Antonio, where he spoke about learning how to write for comics, graphic novel “snobbery,” and how he’d love to take a crack at the guys in spandex some day.
Newsarama: So, how did this job come about in the first place?
David Liss: A number of years ago I had some brief conversations with (editor) Bill Rosemann about doing some work for Marvel, but at that point I was still trying to lock down my career as a novelist, and I couldn’t see dedicating the necessary time and energy to trying to learn how to write in an entirely different genre. Things came together last fall when Bill emailed me and suggested the Phantom Reporter project. I was finally at a place in my career when I had the creative energy to spare for new kinds of story-telling. In fact, I’d been actively thinking of ways to break into comics, so naturally I was thrilled to be asked to write the script.
Nrama: What specifically about this project attracted you?
Liss: This assignment had a lot of advantages for me: The Phantom Reporter is a minor character, with very little back story, which gave me a room to create some depth and context and to contribute significantly to a character’s (if an admittedly minor one) history. Also, because he’s not fundamentally plugged into the Marvel continuity, the character presented fewer problems for someone who had been away from comics for several years. Finally, because most of the novels I write are historical fiction, I liked the potential of a 1930s setting, and I also liked being part of a project commemorating Marvel’s 70th anniversary.
Nrama: Did you go back and look at his old appearances in the 1940s Daring Mystery? Were you a fan of that era to boot?
Liss: I wasn’t specifically a fan of the Golden Age comics, but of course I was familiar with many of the characters as well as the feel of the period. When I went back to early appearances of the Phantom Reporter, I was amazed how raw this material was. The character is essentially unhinged. He’s a psychotic; if someone looks at him funny, he takes his gun out and starts firing. It’s hard not to enjoy the raw energy of a character like that, but it’s also ridiculous. Today’s Marvel universe is, of course, unrealistic and fantastical, but at the same time there’s an effort to portray realistic, believable, human characters within that universe. So, I saw my challenge as retaining some of the old elements of that character, and at the same time make him engaging and likable.
Nrama: Did you read J. Michael Straczynski’s take on the character in The Twelve, and did it affect your portrayal of him?
Liss: I did look at JMS’ series and in some ways I wished I hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely admire his writing, and his work on The Twelve was terrific, but his take on the Phantom Reporter ended up coloring mine. JMS made him the most rational member of that group of characters, and I let that influence me. I ended up reading far more pages of the JMS Phantom Reporter than of the Golden Age version, so it’s hard not to follow that lead. Also, if you’re dealing with a character’s broader history, pieced together by different writers, you have to be respectful of that varied history and to everything that’s come before you. The trick is to portray the character in a fresh way while being true to the qualities that other writers have invested in him. That’s also the fun of it, as well.
Nrama: How difficult was it to make the leap from writing novels to working in a form that is primarily illustration-based?
Liss: It was incredibly challenging, though always in a good way. It was a steep learning curve for me. Fiction and comics are very different kinds of writing — comics are far more collaborative, and of course they are visual. In a novel, you don’t need to weigh and measure every single word the way you have to in a comic script. By example, I usually average about ten-twelve pages a day while working on a first draft of book. The first day of working on this comic book, it took me five hours to write one page.
In a comic book, there are gaps, in a way that there aren’t in fiction — there’s the spaces between the panels and a lot of implied progression — and I found I had to spend a lot of time plotting my moves whereas in novels, I could just run with it, and my language didn’t have to be as precise. But I love the collaboration in comic books — getting to work closely with an editor, and talking about the ideas with the artist and then later down the line seeing what the colorist has to say. With a novel you’re out there on your own, but as a writer on a comic I’m out there with a team. I have an incredible amount of respect for my editor. Bill has all this knowledge of the medium, and several times he would make seemingly minor, but nevertheless brilliant, insightful suggestions – things that would help me open up the story and take it to the next level.
Nrama: A lot of folks talk about making the move from comics to movies or novels, which might be indicative of some insecurity the medium still feels. Can you talk a little bit about going the other way and what you’ve learned from comic books?
Liss: I think any time you attempt a different kind of writing you learn something. It’s easy for a writer to get comfortable with certain ways of doing things, and that kind of comfort can be good, but it’s good to make yourself see things in news ways. I’ve already begun to feel that the kind of thinking I’ve had to do in scripting this book has changed the way I think about my fiction writing. It’s given me a kind of strategic perspective on how narrative works, and any time as a writer you can make yourself see things anew, that’s useful. As to the first part of your question, It’s certainly true that some writers of comics want to write fiction, but I don’t see it as any kind of moving “up.” These are lateral moves. Most people who write in any kind of narrative form – I hope – do so because they love storytelling. I know that’s the case for me, I genuinely enjoy it, and getting to do it in different medium — with its own possibilities and advantages — is a great deal of fun.
But I also think there is a real snobbery out there about the form. On the one hand, I know plenty of people who couldn’t care less about the fact that I write novels, but they think the fact that I’m writing comics is incredibly cool! On the other hand, there are other people who I tell I have a comic book coming out and they’ll “correct” me and say, oh, you mean a “graphic novel,” as though I certainly could not be wasting my time with anything as silly as a comic book. I think there’s a certain kind of mainstream graphic novel, which tries to “compensate” for its form by being as morose and emotionally bludgeoning as possible! I have nothing against using the graphic form to tell difficult stories, but I don’t see why that kind of storytelling ought to be elevated above traditional superhero comics. In the end, it’s the quality of the story and the depth of the characters, not weather or not they wear spandex, that counts. A certain kind of snobbishness dismisses comics of the sort sold at the comic book store as trivial or childish, which is insane, especially considering how many gritty, challenging, complex comics there are out there.
Nrama: What books did you read when you were younger?
Liss: I was a big fan of Justice League by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, and I loved the post-80s take on Batman. I also really liked Daredevil after Frank Miller got involved with the book, and Punisher always fills that kind of violent-thrills bill! I also really liked the old Next imprint, which had Nexus and Grimjack.
Nrama: All of this enthusiasm suggests you intend to continue writing comics!
Liss: Absolutely. I am working on a new limited-run series with Marvel now. I’m also working up a few projects elsewhere in the hopes I can get something off the ground. I have a longstanding love of on-going, serialized stories, and my goal at this point is to have my own book I can develop over a long period of time. I’ve only had the smallest taste so far of what I can do in the medium, and I’m eager to see where I can go with it.
Nrama: You’ve got a new novel out as well, right?
Liss: Yep. The Devil’s Company is out now, and of course the comic book ships Wednesday.
Curious? Check out Liss's website for more info on his work.