"Why marginalize myself?"
David Gallaher has creatively zigged where many have zagged, and it's given him a wealth of creative experience. Having worked with groups ranging from Moonstone to Harris Publications to the New York City Police Department, Gallaher has since become a heavy hitter of the webcomics movement with his Harvey Award-winning series High Moon.
Since then, Gallaher has kept busy — not only has he championed Marvel's team of Russian superheroes the Winter Guard, but has written a claustrophobic, reality-shifting webcomic with ComiXology's Box 13. But how does Gallaher work his magic, whether with western werewolves or with a recently-hospitalized man on the run? For the fifth edition of Writer's Workshop, we caught up with Gallaher to talk about dialogue, research, and plotting out the long game of comics.Newsarama: David, just to start off with — how'd you get involved in writing comics? What made you decide that writing was what you wanted to do?
David Gallaher: In high school, I was enrolled in a drama academy. In college, I majored in neuroscience, but truth be told ... I always wanted to be a writer. My senior year, I threw my hands up in the air and transferred school where they let me study and major in anything. Comic-writing was something I always wanted to try, so I buckled down and studied the history, production, and theory of comics, comic writing, and screenwriting. I essentially majored in comics. I really enjoyed it, but soon discovered comic writers didn’t have a very long shelf life.
If I wanted to continue in comics, I thought it would be in my best interest to hone the skills that would be necessary to write outside of comics too. Why marginalize myself? So, I started just finding a variety of writing jobs. Two of my favorite screenwriters — Lawrence Kasdan and Terry Gilliam — started out as copywriters, and that was the direction I started to take my writing. My first professional writing gig was in 1997. I started writing computer manuals. I wrote advertising for television, radio, and print. Wrote in one-act plays and college textbooks and the like. I used all of those projects to leverage a career in comics. The idea was that I’d write a little bit of everything and fold what I’ve learned into comics.
In 1999, I used my knowledge of computer manual writing to get a job working for Marvel Interactive as an intern and freelancer. There, I had the opportunity to explore the industry and explore if writing comics professionally was something I could do. I think my first published comic was a short story in Annex by Chalk Outline Studios. It was a small little eight-page story that I did with artist Amin Amat. I believe that came out in 99 or so. In 2001, I sold my first full-length story to Moonstone – YOURS TRULY Johnny Dollar, which was inspired by the radio show of the same name.
I decided to keep on doing it because it seemed that many people seemed to enjoy what I was doing.Nrama: I'm sure writing hasn't always been easy for you. (Or maybe you're one of those types of writers where it's never easy!) Starting out, what was the big obstacle for you, the big "a-ha" moment you needed to make it all make sense?
Gallaher: I don't usually get those moments. For me, writing is a process. I can’t toil about it for too long. As much as I love reaching that ‘a-ha’ moment, deadlines don’t always allow for that. Deadlines don't wait for inspiration. While I would love to have the ‘muse’ strike me for every project, its not very conducive to keeping me on deadline. If there is one thing I’ve learned from writing for other clients – it’s that at the end of the day, the work needs to get done. Some days you’ll knock it out of the park, some days you won’t – but you won’t get another chance at bat if you don’t hit your deadlines.
But, in terms of the 'a-ha' moment — the moment of clarity when I realized what direction I wanted to take my career. I think that hit right around the time I was working on Vampire the Masquerade — it was there I recognized that there wasn't quite an audience yet for the kind of books I wanted to write. And, I worked on learning how to find that audience years later when I started working on High Moon.Nrama: Now, just looking at your resume, you've been all over the place — including even doing some writing for the NYPD! Just as far as influences and the like go — how have these different gigs impacted your work? What sorts of tips did you pick up from these things? Perhaps to put it in a tongue-in-cheek way, how did the NYPD help train you in comics?
Gallaher: First of all, I loved writing for the NYPD. In terms of building my confidence as a writer, it was probably the second defining moment I’ve had as a writer. My work was seen by over eight million readers on any given day. That’s one hell of a thing. That’s a big personal success. But, it was a success that was earned with a lot of long game thinking, planning, and research.
Thinking short-term can be detrimental. Working for the NYPD, I learned that every large success was built on the shoulders of smaller success and failures. I take a very long-game approach to writing. I may have a wretched day of scripting, a review might pan my work, or one of my books might tank in sales, but I can’t let that slow me down. I take the time to acknowledge any possible missteps, the same way a football coach might replay footage of his last game, but I don’t let it stop me. I can’t be successful if I don’t allow myself to stumble or fumble from time to time. There is no learning or improving otherwise. Just because something didn’t work out in a line of dialogue or what have you, I can’t just throw in the towel. I’m not getting paid to lick my wounds. I’m getting paid to sit on my ass and write the best content I can write at that moment.
Or to put it more succinctly:
The most important thing I learned from the NYPD was the discipline to keep moving forward despite the obstacles.Nrama: Something that I'm particularly curious about is your sense of plot construction. With stories like High Moon and Box 13, you're clearly thinking about the long game here. So I should ask — how do you go about structuring these long-form plots? Is there something you need to hook onto to flesh out the skeleton of your story?
Gallaher: From a practical standpoint, I write long-form stories because I like to keep myself employed. It’s self-preservation, really.
But, from a craft standpoint, High Moon and Box 13 are both heavily-influenced by the plot-structure and model used by Old Time Radio and the old Republic serials. I want to get readers interested enough to keep coming back for more. So, it is vital for me that I keep them engaged. When I conceive the stories, I usually start with the ending first and then work backwards. I know how Box 13 and High Moon will both end, for instance. I then work backwards and structure a plot that will help me get there.Nrama: And one thing I seem to recall is an interview you did with us, where you talked about doing research into the historical and the occult for High Moon. For you, how has in-depth research affected your writing? And perhaps most importantly, how do you target your research so that it's both helpful and yet doesn't ultimately become some huge barrier to you actually sitting down and writing?
Gallaher: I give myself about three to four weeks of intense concepting and research time. I think of it like cramming for the GRE or SAT. I try to absorb everything. During this period, I’m allowed to just take notes. I don’t require myself to do any actual writing. For the period pieces I work on, Johnny Dollar and High Moon, for instance, I try to absorb as much authentic history as possible. I need a stage for my characters to perform on – and for me it all starts by building their world from the ground up.
Once the stage is set, I look for all of the material that supports my majors themes and my plot. I also take copious notes. Box 13 has some sixty-five pages of supporting material, including material I requested through the Freedom of Information Act. My notes for Darkstar & the Winter Guard are equally as vast. The key for me is to weave as much of that into my final outline as possible. I literally start just building my outline and my scripts from my notes — they are the foundation of the project, so why not build the story on top of them?
At some point, I think you can tell when you are using research as a crutch to keep you for writing — but as I mentioned before — at the end of the day, the work needs to get done. And if you don't turn in your script, you don't get paid.Nrama: Following up on that last question a bit, could you walk us through a little bit how you approach a script, and how you go about "building" an organic story off a blank page? Do you have a sort of set process, or does it jump around a lot?
Gallaher: A blank page makes me anxious. In order to get over that anxiety, I created a little trick for myself, which goes something like this.
First, I figure out how many pages I have to tell my story. The length of the story is a crucial specification for me. Knowing the format is essential too. Is this a digital or mobile comic? A widescreen comic? A standard comic? All of those elements play a vital role. Once that is nailed down, I grab a piece of paper and start writing numbers consecutively down the page. If it is a 22 page story, I number 1-22. If it is a 60-page story, I number 1-60. If there is a sequel option, I make a note of it on the very last page – with notes about where the story goes from here. At that point, I start filling all of the numbers in with key elements. By a quarter of the way through the story, I should have shown or introduced all of the major players in the story. By the 1/2 way point, I've begun to tackle the main conflicts and the complications, etc. Once the key story structure is in place, I start defining where my cliffhangers will be. I also draw very terrible layouts for each and every page of the book to make sure my page breaks and chapter breaks flow as best as they can. And I use that skeleton to hang my plot on.
The plot builds from the characters and the inciting incident that drives them to either maintain, restore, or upset the status quo. There is also a lot of material I jam in — which requires my poor reader to read very closely sometimes. But, I try to pay a lot of attention to how everything flows — and how engaging my stories are to readers. But — it all starts with finding a frame to hang my story on. So, yes ... I have a process. But, I also have some tricks.
One trick I'll use — for example — involves the seasons. Every new season (every sixty pages) of High Moon is a new season of the year. The first chapter is Summer. The second is Fall. The third is Winter. The fourth is Spring, etc ... and often I will use the season and climate to influence the plot and themes of the story. Johnny Dollar is structured more like a five-act Shakespeare play, but still uses a lot of seasonal elements that influence the plot.
Nrama: Let's also talk a little bit about dialogue here. How do you approach dialogue? What do you feel different characters need in order to sound different and three-dimensional from one another? Or perhaps to spin it in another way, how do you get in a character's head to make them sound "true"?
Gallaher: I start with sourcing my language. For period pieces, I think this is essential. Everybody has their own way of speaking, but we all share similar cultural language touchstones. Usually, I'll spend a few days trying to inhabit the minds and bodies of the characters, making sure I have their verbal tics down. If I get stuck, I'll look towards old radio programs, films, or books for inspiration to get me over the hump. I am fortunate in that most of my characters are so visually different from one another that they almost all have to have their own voices. The slender Tristan from High Moon is going to sound different than the loyal and fierce Ursa Major from Winter Guard. The story also really dictates the dialogue too. I use a lot of "direct dialogue" to move my stories forward. Characters don't beat around the bush — they speak with bravado and bluster, but all in their own unique ways. Tristan has presence of chivalry. Macgregor speaks with the authority of William Conrad after he's gargled with gravel and razor blades. Conroy speaks with sorrow and regret, but also with the confidence that comes from never backing down. I really feel that the best dialogue comes from knowing your characters, living in their world, and staying true to their motivations.Nrama: Now, something else that's interesting to me is the fact that you've really made a lot of your career on entirely independent properties, as opposed to licensed characters like Spidey and the rest. For you, what do you think is the key to a bankable high concept — or at least a strong, viable long-term story?
Gallaher: I enjoy working on licensed characters from time to time — I see it as a way to give back to the creators that inspired me so much as a teenager; but, my roots and influences are entrenched in early pulp fiction. Johnny Dollar, High Moon, Box 13 and some of my upcoming projects are also inspired by the pulps. Many of the pulps and early radio programs lived or died by their ‘high concept.’ I’ve heard more than my fair share of wonky high-concepts – and what I’ve learned is the high-concepts that work best succeed for two reasons. One – they are appealing. Two – they are simple. Simplicity sells. My feeling is that the High Concept is great at getting readers to the door, but it’s the job of your story to invite them in and get them to stay.
Nrama: As far as continuing to build up your skills, how do you go about doing that? Are there any exercises or tactics that you find are helpful to utilize to look at your scripts at another angle, or that helps you tighten the internal logic of your story?
Gallaher: When I can find the time, I rent out part of a local area bar for the Brooklyn Comic Writer's Workshop, where I invite editors and peers to brings copies of their work and share their experience. I used to host the events on a monthly schedule, these days it’s a little more random, but I find the feedback from peers to be an invaluable asset in improving my skills. When I can’t host a workshop, I rely on a group of five peer readers to evaluate my scripts and my appropriate notes. I have tough skin – and if I’m missing a mark or a beat – I like to know it. I don’t think anybody sets out to tell a terrible story – but we all make mistakes – and it is great to have a group of peers who have your back. Of course, I also rely on the feedback from my editors – they have the unfortunate job of managing my particular brand of crazy.
Nrama: Finally, over the years that you've worked in comics, what's been the biggest surprise for you? What's the lesson that you've learned that you think everyone else who's working their way in as a writer should know?
Gallaher: The biggest surprise? As a writer? Man … I’ve been in comics for 11 years now … and … if I were to be completely honest, I’d have to say that I am completely appalled by how terribly some comic companies treat their talent. Comics are a serious business. As with any business, it can have some truly amazing people and it can have truly-wretched human beings. At the end of the day, sometimes just being talented isn’t enough. I’ve seen utterly amazing projects squashed by ego-maniacs and bullies, just out of spite. I’ve seen executives employ the 'Scorched Earth' policy — torching all of the titles in their line – and then lie about it. I have heard some horror stories about writers getting paid late, getting underpaid, or not getting paid at all by their publisher. Those sort of business practices disgust me.
But, those surprises taught me this valuable lesson though:
“Work with people, not corporations.”
At the end of the day, the projects I have chosen to work on are projects that were fueled by the desire to work with some truly outstanding creators and professionals. In the last decade I’ve been in comics I’ve had the chance to work with folks like Ron Perazza, John Cerilli, Jordan White, Kwanza Johnson, Steve Ellis, Frank Tieri, Gregg Sanderson, Joe Gentile – and many, many other remarkable people. The learning, growth, and creativity that grew from those collaborations have really shaped the writer I am today.