SDCC '08 - Marvel's 'TV Writers' Panel

Eternals #1

Marvel wrapped up their panel schedule at the San Diego Comic-Con on Sunday by bringing together several of their comic writers who also work in television and film.

Marvel’s Jim McCann hosted the panel, which included Aron Coleite, who writes for NBC’s Heroes and Ultimate X-Men; Joe Pokaski, a writer on Heroes, as well as Secret Invasion: Inhumans and Ultimate Fantastic Four; Marc Guggenheim of ABC’s Eli Stone, Young X-Men and a member of the Amazing Spider-Man “brain trust;” Daniel Knauf of HBO’s Carnivale and co-writer of The Eternals with his son Charles; Kevin Grevioux, who wrote the film Underworld and writes New Warriors and the upcoming Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel; and playwright Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa, who works on HBO’s Big Love and is writing Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four and The Stand adaptation.

Noting that a common question they received at panels all week was how to break into comics, McCann asked each of the panelists to talk about how they broke into comics or Hollywood.

“If you’ve got any fully automatic weapons, that comes in really handy in the ‘breaking-in’ thing,” Knauf joked. He went on to say that there were two ways to break into comics -- one is to “network like hell,” and the other is to “work on your craft” until somebody notices.

“Those are sort of the far extremes of both ways,” he said, adding that it’s good to build your craft up before you try to start selling yourself. “If you want to be a writer, you don't talk about writing, you write. It’s as simple as that.”

"I broke into comics twice,” Guggenheim said. The first time he wrote two issues of Aquaman for DC Comics. “Those two issues so set the world on fire that absolutely nothing happened to me.” A year later, he made a contact at Marvel who introduced him to editor Axel Alonso. Alonso bought a Punisher story from him, which led to doing the Civil War issues of Wolverine.

Pokaski said he was “naive enough” to think that in the world of television, he’d be promoted for his hard work. He worked as an assistant to Heroes creator Tim Kring before the show was created, who was an “exception to the rule.” He said when the opportunity came, he had a script ready to show Kring, which eventually led to his job on Heroes.

When the writer’s strike happened, Jeph Loeb -- who was scheduled to be on the panel, but had a conflict with the Michael Turner tribute panel -- helped Pokaski get work at Marvel. By the time he received his assignment, though, the strike had ended and he was back to work. “Now I’m working in both television and comics,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen my wife in about three weeks.”

“It helps to know Jeph Loeb,” Coleite said. “He certainly opened a door when he said, ‘Are you interested in doing comics at Marvel?’” Coleite said it’s important to be prepared “once those doors open.”

Aquirre-Sacasa said when he started at Marvel, he was writing plays. He said at the time, Marvel had someone whose job was “to recruit writers from other disciplines.” Several of his plays had “comic book themes,” including one about the Archie characters growing up, which caught the attention of Marvel. He said the Big Love producers read his Fantastic Four stories, noting that Big Love had its own “alternative family.”

Grevioux said he also tried to break into Marvel twice. The first time he received two form rejection letters. “My world was done then.”

However, he went on to write Underworld and eventually decided to try comics again. “But instead of going directly to Marvel -- and I encourage anyone who wants to get into Marvel to do this -- I actually created my own comic books, got them published through another company and then through God’s grace met C.B. Cebulski.” Eventually he was introduced to Joe Quesada and landed the New Warriors gig.

A fan asked how they handle multiple projects at once.

"Lots of methamphetamine,” Knauf joked. He said after the strike he had a lot of projects that were set up around the same time. “You’re just buried,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to. It’s just like if you had two or three jobs. You just kind of go to work, and you're stuck there for about 18 hours a day, and then hopefully you get enough sleep to wake up and do it again until the works done.” He added that having too much work is better than the alternative.

McCann said Marvel has taken some flack for hiring TV writers to work on their comics, noting everyone on the panel was a “fanboy at heart.” He asked the panel to “dispel the rumor” that they received a "free pass" to work at Marvel because of their Hollywood work.

Coleite said he still has his Marvel rejection letters framed at home. “It was the most heartbreaking thing ever,” he said. He noted the letters had Spider-Man on them. “It’s awesome; it has Spider-Man right on it, rubbing it in your face.”

McCann asked if there was any pressure on them to produce their scripts on time for the artists, because “if you don’t type, they go hungry.”

Guggenheim said they’re used to that sort of pressure from working in TV. “There are a whole assembly line of people who don’t get to do their jobs and thus don’t get paid unless we’re doing ours in a timely fashion,” he said.

Another fans asked about the differences and similarities in writing for comics and television.

“I think there are similarities, but there are a lot of differences as well,” Grevioux said. "Movies, TV shows are not comics. There is a different left-brain right-brain thing happening there.” He noted the structure is different, but editors play a similar role to producers. Because he was such a big comic fan, he figured it would be a natural progression. “I just didn't expect it to take this long," he said.

An audience member asked if it was important to have an English degree to write comics.

Several members of the panel noted they didn’t have English degrees; Grevioux, for instance, majored in microbiology. Knauf said that as a producer, he used to receive sample scripts that had bad grammar, and it left a bad impression.

“Even if you aren’t great at it, you have to know someone who is good at it who can look at it for you and say, ‘Hey, it’s not “Its” it’s “its.”’ He said everyone reading scripts is “teetering on the break of no at all times, so you don’t just want to give them a little push over the edge.” He said if you want to be a wordsmith, you need to know the rules of basic English grammar.

Another audience member asked if there were similarities in the structures of comic scripts and TV scripts. The panel agreed that comics were all over the map, with several of them noting they used the same software to develop them, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. Guggenheim said he used Microsoft Word, as it allowed him to include graphics to show the artist. McCann said the script is “almost like a conversation between you and the artist, and the artist response is what you get on the penciled page.”

Another fan asked if an artist had ever misinterpreted something they wrote. Knauf said he’d probably just call them if that happened, while McCann noted the editor can act as a “buffer zone” between the two.

"I can't think of an example in my career where I've had an artist completely misinterpret the intent of the scene or a panel, but when I get the lettering back from editorial, I’ll go through and I will adjust the dialogue in slight ways,” Guggenheim said. He might change it, for instance, to match a facial expression with the dialogue. “But it’s not a massive reinterpretation of what the artist as done.”

He said that happens in TV as well, when actors re-record lines off camera to ensure it catches the intended meaning of the script.

A Carnivale fan asked if the show would ever return to TV or to comics. Knauf noted he just sold a TV show to HBO, but it wasn’t Carnivale. He said the third season was supposed to take place four years after the second season, so “maybe we’ll pick it up and do it.”

Marvel was interested in doing a comic, but he said HBO is very “lackadaisical” about doing comics based on their properties. “They just don’t know how to deal with that.” Knauf said he’d like to recover those rights and license it himself.

A fan asked Aquirre-Sacasa what it was like to work on The Stand. He said he was a big fan of The Stand and typically wouldn’t be excited about doing an adaptation. “But when they said the stand, obviously that was a huge influence on me.”

He said after getting approval, he went to re-read the book, and it took more than a month to get through it. He said everyone at Marvel loves the book and is very protective of it. “I wasn’t scared at first, but every day that passes I get more and more scared.”

What makes for a gripping story? Grevioux said conflict and drama. McCann joked, Putting Wolverine in it usually helps, too.” Pokaski said character and understanding why they want something. Knauf said clarifying what’s at stake for the character and investing the reader in that.

Another fan asked how to pitch a story. McCann said reviewing writers is far more difficult than reviewing artists, so being published somewhere else first really helps. He suggested going down to Artist’s Alley, write a good eight-pager and get them to draw it. “If you are interested in pitching ideas, all websites at all major companies have a submissions section,” he said. He also suggested making friends with editors, particularly the ones who work on your favorite books.

Another audience member asked how the writer’s strike affected their work on shows that were still in production. Guggenheim said his favorite episodes of Eli Stone, the last four, were shot during the strike. He said when he went back to work, the rest of the crew said it was difficult to work without him there, but he thought they were “phenomenal.”

From a creative standpoint, both Knauf and Guggenheim agreed there were far less “cooks in the kitchen” with comics than in Hollywood. He also said it’s easier to disagree with editors and still feel supported. “It’s great. I think it’s one of the appeals apart from working in a medium that you’ve loved since childhood,” he said.

Twitter activity