Writer's Workshop #2: JESSE BLAZE SNIDER: Not Just a Mohawk
Best Shots Advanced: HULK: BATTLE, More
When you meet Jesse Blaze Snider, the thing that's striking about him is that he seems so young, so excited to be in comics.
Well, that and the mohawk.
The son of Twisted Sister's Dee Snider, Jesse is a surprising study in being down-to-earth. As he'll be the first to tell you, comics are about making connections, and his friendliness is both unexpected and instantly disarming. But this is a guy who not only knows how to work a room -- he knows how to write. Working his way up the ladder steadily the past few years, Jesse has made his bones on books like Toy Story, Dead Romeo, and the surprisingly controversial one-shot Hulk: Let the Battle Begin. We caught up with Jesse for our second installment of Writer's Workshop, as he discussed the key to breaking in, relativistic speeds of publishing and what, to him, is the secret of high-concept plotting.
Newsarama: Jesse, let's start off with your road to breaking into the industry. How did you make your way through the door over the years?
Jesse Blaze Snider: Well, it was a long and slow process. I've been fortunate to make a lot of friends in the industry over the years and make no mistake, having friends in the business IS the business. No man or woman can afford to be an island in the comic industry. This business is fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective all about relationships and not necessarily about talent.
The short version of my story is that I met former Marvel editor Andy Schmidt at the Wizard World Chicago and he told me he was taking submissions for "Spider-man Unlimited" and was willing to take a look at anything I sent. I went home and busted my ass on something really sweet. Two weeks later, I sent it to him and he let me know that Spidey Unlimited had been cancelled. I was devastated.
But a few months later, I'm talking to one of my better friends in the industry colorist Chris Sotomayor (who I met through writer Marc Sumerak, who I met through former Wizard staffer Andrew Kardon. See what I mean about "relationships?"). Chris told me that Andy was just starting to take submissions for a new volume of "Marvel Comics Presents!" With this inside information, I wrote Andy a story. It was turned down a month later. So, I immediately turned around a second submission and sent it to him the day after I got rejected! A month later I had sold my first script. It's a hell of a feeling. You write things for free for so long, then someone offers you money for it and your like, "um, money? For my writing?"
The process from there has been a lot easier, but SLOW. My Deadpool story in Marvel Comics Presents led to a relationship with former Marvel editor John Barber, which led to "Hulk: Let the Battle Begins." A relationship with a friend outside of the industry led to a brief meeting with Dan Didio, who passed my Hulk & Deadpool onto Ian Sattler, which led to an as yet unreleased DC one-shot and ultimately my Dead Romeo mini-series. And as strange as it sounds that all led to Toy Story and Muppets some way or another.
Its easier to build off of past success, but any way you slice it the comic industry moves at glacial speeds.
Nrama: What made you decide that writing comics was the thing you wanted to do most? Do you have any influences that you felt really impacted your development as a writer?
Snider: I don't know exactly. I used to write songs and poems and essays and stuff when I was younger and I always enjoyed the process, but it wasn't until I wrote my first short story that I really got excited about writing. And since my favorite things to read were comic books, my biggest influences were Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon and later Joe Kelley's Deadpool, I soon realized that all the prose I was writing were always meant to be comic books. So, after a handful of short "fantasy" stories, which came out of a lot of RPGs like Rifts and D&D, I switched over to comics and superheroes and I never looked back.
I originally wanted to be a comic artist. I was on a bath to art school and then I moved and had a wonderful art teacher replaced with a real asshole who destroyed my love for art. Fortunately, the move gave me an amazing creative writing class and that quickly became my new passion. Though I am still tempted to draw my own comic one day. It will be SOOOOOO terrible, but I'd love to do it, just for fun.
Anyway, as far as why comic books in particular have always appealed to me, well I think very well of myself and really everyone for that matter. I think that anybody can do anything they want if they work hard enough at it and with that in mind, I've never been thrilled by stories about people achieving the POSSIBLE. What really gets me going is stories abut people doing and experiencing things that I will never have a chance to, things that are larger than me. I think that's why superhero comics have always appealed to me. It gives me something to aspire to, though I'll never actually be able to achieve anything these heroes do, its fun to imagine things on that level, because in my day to day life, I truly believe that nothing that is possible is impossible. I hope that makes sense.
Nrama: Now, one of the things you've done a lot, whether its with variant toys in Toy Story or Bruce Banner's purple pants in the Incredible Hulk one-shot, is you're all about the high concept. How do you go about picking these seemingly innocuous facets of a franchise and go about turning them into a full-length story?
Snider: Well, the "high concept" thing has become my basic writing style through necessity. When you're just starting out in the business your NAME doesn't bring anything to the table, but a simple high concept or big idea can turn some heads. Actually, a big idea is easy to dismiss, but a concept can really get people's brains going. So, I've tried to shift the emphasis away from WHO is writing the story to WHAT the story is about. I suppose once I make a name for myself I can just write whatever I want, but I'm not really interested in reworking the same ideas over and over. I really want to bring something new to the table every time I sit down.
I was actually really bummed out by the way that Dead Romeo turned out, because my initial pitch was high concept and new. But I was asked to scale the whole thing down and make it a more "familiar" sort of vampires versus vampires kind of story. And I still had a few high concept ideas present within the series, but most of them didn't present themselves until later in the book. But that was my fault. Sometime you don't notice how major a small change is to a story. You take out one element and all of a sudden it doesn't work as well. I tried to tell the same story minus my high concept and it didn't work as well. I really should have rethought the structure and led with some of the higher concepts that didn't come into play until the end.
Literally EVERY writing assignment is a major learning experience. And many are lessons in disappointment. Of course, there are also wonderful lessons to be learned and every disappointment ultimately makes you a better writer.
I know that I kind of got away from your question a bit, but the short answer is that a legitimately "high concept" idea leads to more questions than answers and I like to consider myself a creative problem solver. I think you can find that in all of my work, I pose the hardest and most wonderful question I can find and then I try and creatively figure my way out of it. I like to really have to work for that happy ending and come up with ideas good enough to convince you that the story deserves the happy ending in the first place. For me, this is an easy way to work and its the most fun. You can squeeze an awful lot of story out of a nice high concept.
Nrama: This might touch upon the previous question a little bit... when it comes to characterization, what's your process? What do you feel you have to have in order to get inside a character's head and make them three-dimensional? Considering you're working on a licensed book like Toy Story, how do you go about making the characters "sound" like the ones everyone knows and loves? What do you do in order to keep characters from sounding bland or unrealistic or -- perhaps even worse -- like each other?
Snider: Well, in addition to writing comic books I am a song writer and a voice-over actor and either because of that or in spite of it, I have always had a good ear for voices and dialogue. In the case of Toy Story and the Muppets I'll usually watch a movie or two to refresh my mind of what the characters sound like and then I'm good to go. When I write it in my head it usually comes out right the first time.
Some comic characters are a bit harder. While Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil are the definitive Batman & Joker voices in my mind, Bruce Banner doesn't really have an established voice outside of the comics. Of course, I've read thousands of comics in my life and at least a few hundred issues of the Hulk, so I draw from that obviously, but to really write for him, I had to try and understand the character better than I ever did before.
I thought about what it would be like to live his life and that really got me to see from his perspective. Perspective is really where all dialogue comes from, the character's world view. You can usually pick up on it without understanding it just by listening to them talk or reading their dialogue, but once you understand their perspective it really makes it easier to write for them. In my Hulk one-shot I really needed to understand the small day to day movements of Banner's life and it really helped me flesh him out as a character in a way that you don't always see. I was pretty proud of the character work I did with Bruce, especially because of all the time I spent trying to get in his head.
Every character has a unique perspective, but some characters are similar and you have to be careful when writing them, especially together in the same scene. In Toy Story, Slinky and Bo Peep are very similar characters, both love and are supportive of Woody, both speak with a bit of a southern flare and both are fairly good natured. But they are NOT identical. Obviously, Bo is a girl, Slinky is a boy. But less obvious is the fact that Slinky is a bit dimwitted and Bo is much sharper, with a confidence and subtle sarcasm. Those are the things you have to focus on, because if you don't then the two characters can come off as the same and that would really be a shame.
Nrama: You obviously dig comedy, seeing your work on Toy Story, Deadpool, the Hulk... for you, what's the key to comedy? What do you do in order to make certain that you sell the gag?
Snider: Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, but a good picture is worth a billion, so often times really selling a gag falls squarely on the shoulders of the artist. But for my part I am a huge fan of "The Princess Bride" both the book and the film and that book seamlessly merged huge doses of laughter with a lot of action and excitement and love and revenge and I think proved that there is no reason why any story should just have one and not the others. So I'm big on comedy and in these crazy superhero worlds there is a lot of comedy inherent in the craziness of what's going on, while I think some people shy away from it in order to keep their stories lofty and weighted, I like to use it to break the tension and make the ride that much more enjoyable. The reason why this worked in "The Princess Bride" is honesty. They never went for over the top comic relief, so much as bringing out the inherent and honest humor that was already there.
Honesty is really key. If its true and relatable it won't take you out of the story, it will charm you. Deadpool is a comedian. Spider-man is a charmer. You like Deadpool. You LOVE Spider-man. (Although those of us who read Joe Kelley's run on Deadpool love Wade as well.) Charm will often make you laugh, but it is engrossing and it draws you into the character and the events of the story. Charm can be a character builder. Charm will take you a lot further than straight comedy AND its often just as funny. Honest and positive humor.
Nrama: What do you feel is the most difficult obstacle has been for you when it comes to putting together a script? How do you overcome it?
Snider: Well, we already spoke about "high concepts" and that is hurdle number one, because you are setting about the task of coming up with an idea or a look at an idea that no one has ever done before (you hope) it usually takes a while to figure that out. Once you've got that the story will often write itself and then you just have to make sure you execute it well, but at that point I'm not really worried about any single element in particular, except maybe...
Cliffhangers. I put a LOT of pressure on my self for good cliffhanger endings. I love good cliffhangers and I really bust my ass from the beginning to get those story beats. And I don't think I've ever written anything without knowing exactly what moment would be the cliffhanger of every issue, though on occasion I have had to shift a planned cliffhanger for space reasons. I've had a few people tell me that they weren't really vibe-ing on Dead Romeo, but the cliffhangers kept them coming back every month, and hearing that really makes the added effort worth while.
Nrama: Since you're still working your way up the ladder, for you, what do you do in terms of building up your craft? Are there any exercises or people you turn to for advice in order to keep stepping up your game?
Snider: Well, I have load of friends in the industry who are extremely encouraging, from Chris Sotomayor and Ethan VanSciver to Paul Jenkins and Jill Thompson. Everyone of them has been a big help to me at some point and there are many more outside of them. But my main source for as long as I have been living is my dad. He was a comic fan when he was a kid and he got me into comics in the first place. Plus, he is a great writer himself and he is quite literally the only person besides myself who has read every comic book script I have ever written. I've got a group of 6 friends who I send scripts out to and he is always the first person to read my script and give me any notes. Although recently I've had to send scripts straight to my editors for time constraints.
But my dad is my greatest supporter and fan. Which is why I dedicated my Hulk one-shot to him. It's his favorite character and he was over the moon when he read the story. It was nice to be able to give something back to him to show my appreciation.
As far as building my craft goes, I used to write scripts in my spare time just to do it, but now I don't have time to work on full scripts when I'm not getting paid, so now I mostly write loads of pitches. I just write one after the other and annoy my editor friends until they read them. And I build my craft by writing a new issue of Toy Story or Muppet Snow White.
Nrama: That's interesting that you mention your creative writing teacher, as well as the influence your father has had on you. What sorts of craft lessons have you picked up from them, or are there any hurdles their instruction helped you overcome? In other words, every writer has to start on some foundation -- what was the foundation they helped build for you?
Snider: Confidence. The class that I took in High School was called "Independent Writing for Publication" and in it we wrote constantly and always something different. I wrote every kind of poem you can thing of, essays, features, reviews, one act plays, short stories, but the most important part of the whole thing was that EVERY SINGLE THING we wrote was for the purpose of submission into various writing contests. So, I would write 50 things in a year and have 50 things submitted to some sort of contest and when you are submitting to so many things you are liable to find something your good at or someone who likes what you do.
I ended up being published with an "honorable mention" in Emerson College's Annual Journalism Competition, had a feature article published in Long Island's own newspaper Newsday, had multiple pieces of poetry selected and published in various "collections" and coolest of all, my one act play "BOME" was performed by my High School drama club.
Now most of these accolades are really nothing to speak of, but as a fledgling writer these minor successes were the positive reinforcement I needed to give me the confidence to pursue a career doing what I loved most.
My dad has always been supportive and helped guild me in lots of small, but important ways. (Though no major or specific direction that I can recall.) My dad is the best and he has always been there for me, but you kind of expect that or hope for that from a parent.
I have always been most impressed with my Independent Writing teacher Mrs. Krinsky. She was a very formal and sort of uptight and traditional sort of literary teacher and based on everything I know about her, there is absolutely NOTHING for her to like about the kind of quirky and off kilter sort of poems and essays and plays that I wrote. And yet she was ALWAYS supportive, no matter what. She never really gave me a lot of content notes. She would help me with grammar and structure and any thing glaring, but for the most part she never tried to steer the heart of what I did and how I liked to do it. Though I know it really wasn't her cup of tea. But the fact that she could look at my writing and acknowledge that there was a place for it in the world and know just because it wasn't her thing, didn't mean it wasn't any good. That always made me feel nice. I would hand stuff in expecting the inevitable shoot down and I'd get a pat on the head and some genuine and sincere affection and help from her. Maybe I read her wrong and she did like my stuff, but I'm pretty sure she didn't. But that is what made her such a great teacher and someone who really affected my life in a wonderful and amazing way.
Nrama: For those who are on the road to becoming comics writers, do you have any pearls of wisdom that you've picked up along the way? What's one they don't know about the biz that they should?
Snider: Work on your people skills. There are a few people in this business who I did not understand how they continued to get published based on the low quality of their work and then I met them and they were really great people. And THAT is why they get work, not because they are so talented, but because people like to work with them even if they aren't particularly talented. A little bit of talent can go a long way if people like you. A lot of talent helps, but its not as important as people skills.