From Superman to Cinderella to Philip K. Dick, Chris Roberson has gained a reputation for putting a cool new spin on classic concepts. But that success didn't come overnight, as Roberson spent years working as a science fiction novelist before getting his big break in comics, ironing out his technique.
Juggling high concept, theme, character, plot and art, it's not easy writing comics. So how does the man behind Superman approach his craft? For the tenth edition of Writer's Workshop, we caught up with Roberson to discuss how he approaches a comic's message, how he goes about world-building, and how almost everything he writes begins with a simple "what if?"
Newsarama: Chris, just to start off with, how did you decide that writing was something you wanted to do professionally? What were the sorts of challenges you had to overcome before you felt ready for prime-time, and how did you overcome them?
Chris Roberson: I've wanted to write comics for as long as I can remember. Well, to be honest, originally I wanted to write AND draw comics, but when it became readily apparent in my teenaged years that I would never make it as an artist, I settled on just the writing parts. I used to go to cons, talk to the professionals, try to figure out how to break into the business--but in those pre-internet days, it was tough to find good information about the submission processes at the various companies, and breaking into comics has never been what one would call “easy.” So by the time I was in college, I'd decided that it would be best to concentrate on writing prose for a while, and keep trying to break into comics on the side.
Nearly twenty years later, in which I had succeeded in building a career as a science fiction novelist and short story writer (publishing thirteen novels and some three dozen short stories), I FINALLY managed to break into comics.
Like all aspiring writers, though, I was convinced I could do the job as soon as I started trying to break in, back when I was still in college. I wasn't ready, of course, not by a LONG shot, and I'll always be grateful for the long years of abject failure it took me to break in. By spending all those years trying to improve, by the time I finally got my shot I was actually ready for it.
Nrama: Just as far as teachers and influences, what would you say really informed your personal style of writing? Were there any "a-ha" moments you picked up along the way that really helped adjust the way you looked at things?
Roberson: In prose I was probably most influenced by Philip José Farmer and Michael Moorcock, but in comics I think I learned everything from Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, James Robinson, and Kurt Busiek. It was by studying the work of those four comics scripters that I learned how comics really worked, how to pace a scene and transition from one to the next, how to know when to express an idea through dialogue or captions and when to simply stand back and let the artist do their thing.
My “a-ha” moments probably came more from reading BAD comics, though: those that crowded the page with FAR too much text, or expressed in dialogue or captions things that the art was already expressing, or wasted time telling the reader things that weren't worth knowing.
My advice to aspiring writers is to read great comics to learn how to do things right, and to read BAD comics to learn what NOT to do.
Nrama: Something that people talk about all the time is the idea of "thinking visually," and I wanted to get your take on that. What do you feel is the difference between writing comics and writing prose, and how do you switch gears in order to think in terms of panels, pages and beats?
Roberson: Well, the trick with prose, of course, is that you have to do EVERYTHING with the words on the page. In comics, the artist does most of the hard work!
Really, though, my process for both is about the same. In prose, I tend to do a lot of outlining before I ever start writing, beginning with a rough synopsis, and then gradually building up detail until I have an outline that spells out all of the important story points and where they occur in the text. That way, by the time I sit down to actually write, I know exactly what happens next.
My comics process is similar, in a lot of ways. When I start working on a new script, the first thing I do is to work out the important story beats, what happens and who it happens to. Then I list all of them in order, and make sure that the story flow works well, plot-wise. Then I simply take those beats and figure out how many pages each of them should take up, and once that's done I've got a rough outline of the whole issue, with at least a rough idea what's going to be on each page.
Then I forget about the dialogue and the captions entirely, and try to imagine how best the page should LOOK. How many panels are needed to get these story elements across in each page? (And really, how FEW panels are needed, since putting too many panels to each page is something that those BAD comics I mentioned above usually do.) What's in each panel? Is there enough variety in terms of POV and perspective? Does the story flow naturally from one to the next, such that a reader could get the basic idea of the scene without even looking at the words?
Then, I write out all of the panel descriptions for the whole issue, letting the artist know how I think it should look (and, of course, giving them full license to do something different if they see a better way to approach it). Only after I've got the whole issue's worth of panel descriptions done do I go back and start doing the dialogue and captions, and then my goal is to put as few words on the page as possible. When there are more panels on the page, of course, there should be fewer words per panel, but even with a relatively roomy layout I think writers should resist the urge to load a page up with lots of balloons and captions.
Nrama: As far as out-and-out process for a story goes, where do you typically begin? Do you build upon a particular image, or do you start with a theme, or what do you typically use as your starting foundation?
Roberson: I almost always begin with a basic idea, a kind of “What if THIS happened?” seed, and then work out all of the plot mechanics in a lot of detail. Theme is usually something I discover along the way, typically about midway through the outlining process. (Sometimes, but rarely, I start with the theme already in mind, but even then it often mutates before the story is finished.) That way I have a story that I know works on at least a surface level, with a plot that makes sense, but I have time to go back and tweak it and twist it so that I can layer in additional levels of meaning.
Nrama: And to bounce off that last question, could you walk us through a little bit about a recent story you've worked on, and just how you developed it step-by-step?
Roberson: Probably the best recent example (that I can talk about without spoilers!) is the two-parter “Worlds' Finest” that ran in SUPERMAN/BATMAN #79-80. The story started with the basic idea of doing SOMETHING with the DC One Million versions of Superman and Batman. Then editor Wil Moss suggested that it would be nice to work in the “present day” versions of the characters in some way. It occurred to me that any story that used both characters would probably need to involve time travel in some way, and that set me thinking about the various time-based DC villains. I settled pretty quickly on Epoch, the Lord of Time, both because he hadn't been used too much before, and because his last appearance had been written by Grant Morrison, the genius behind the DC One Million world.
At this point, the structure was still completely vague. I had two sets of characters, one in the modern day (more or less, though not necessarily the present moment) and another in the 853rd Century, and then a villain that could travel anywhere he wanted in space and time. But that's a set of characters and a setting, not a story. I wrestled with it for the better part of a day before I realized that the key lay in Epoch's obsession with conquering the past, and in particular the “modern day” of the DCU. Since he first appeared in the 1960s, Epoch has been shown to have the ability to travel any time, any place, and yet his stated goal was always to conquer the late 20th century. But why, when he could travel to any far flung future, for example the world of the 853rd Century.
I'd also been thinking about how it was unfortunate that we'd seldom seen the DC One Million characters since they first appeared, since there was so much story potential in that world. And then it occurred to me that so many of us, as readers and creators alike, tend to return to the familiar characters and settings time and again, rather than looking to the new and unfamiliar (and as a reader I'm just as guilty of this as anyone!).
I realized that turning Epoch into a symbol for comics readers and creators meant that I actually had a story, an IDEA, and not just a collection of characters bouncing off one another.
Nrama: One thing that really stands out, at least to me, in your work is your sense of story logic and worldbuilding. I wanted to ask how you approach building the sort of "architecture" you have you characters nagivate in a story, and how you look to make sure your rules are air-tight?
Roberson: It's probably a result of spending a lifetime reading the manuals to role-playing-games, but I'm obsessed with worldbuilding and the rules that govern fictional worlds. Whenever I start on a new project, I spent a LOT of time working out the world and how it works before I ever start writing anything--often before I even know who the characters are. Ideally I like to get the world all set up, establish its rules and its parameters, and only THEN get started figuring out what kind of characters could best be used to explore that world.
One of the main things I do in that world-building process is “kick the tires” and make sure nothing falls loose. I try to figure out the weirdest, most out-of-left-field corner-case and see if it breaks the rules, and if it does, then I need to go back and rework the rules. As soon as everything seems fairly air-tight and internally consistent, I'm usually pretty confident that I've built a structure that will work. (Which isn't to say that some repair work isn't needed now and then, when I discover that I've missed a gaping hole somewhere!)
Nrama: Something I wanted to get your take on was the relationship between high-concept and metaphor. Clearly you've been onto something with Cinderella and I, Zombie, and I wanted to ask, when you're trying to take a new spin on an older concept, what are you looking for as far as making things fresh and interesting?
Roberson: I think that too many people try to stay away from familiar tropes and clichés all together, and while that's certainly one way to go, I think it runs the risk of limiting your palette far too much. I prefer to take those familiar tropes and find ways to put a new spin on them, to approach something that appears to be worn-out from a new and interesting perspective--in other words, to make the cliché COOL.
Just how you go about doing that depends on what the cliché is, of course, but a solid approach is always to take a recognizable character type and figure out (A) how they would work as fully three-dimensional character and (B) is there something larger for which that character type serves as a metaphor. This is something that Kurt Busiek has been doing so well for years in his Astro City comics, taking a familiar character type (“the laughing daredevil”) and making them work as believable individuals (“Jack-in-the-Box is a businessman and loving husband as well as a well-known crimefighter”) and as metaphors for larger issues (“an expectant father's concerns about his unborn child”).
Nrama: Speaking of characterization for a minute -- for you, what information do you feel is most important to know about a character, to really recalibrate yourself and get inside their head? And when you are actually creating a character whole-cloth, what do you feel is important in order to make them resonant and exciting or endearing?
Roberson: I usually create long lists of personality traits for all of my characters, covering things like temperament, background, aspirations, likes and dislikes, but for me the essential thing to know about any character, whether they are the protagonist of the series or a spear-carrier who only appears on one page, is this: What does the character want? Everyone in a story should want something that they don't have, and the conflict is all of the stuff that's standing in their way. The story comes of seeing what they go through to get it, and what happens if they do (or don't) succeed.
Nrama: Let's talk a little bit about layers and subtext and meaning here. I was talking with someone the other day about writing being able to have different levels -- some of which the writer and artist can influence, others being meaning that readers fill in themselves. For you, how do you add meaning beyond the linear "Person A does Action B" throughline?
Roberson: Well, the thing about layers of meaning is that (A) not all readers are going to notice the subtext, and (B) the subtext they notice may not be the one that you intended. If you're lucky, they'll get the message you were trying to get across, but if they don't, they can either see something that isn't there, or they see something you didn't KNOW was there.
In terms of layering in meaning beneath the surface, I think that so much of that happens on its own, so long as the writer and artist are conscious of the message they're trying to get across. You don't have to encode meaning into anagrams or into complex visual clues in the background, so long as you are conscious of the deeper meaning of your story and careful not to include anything that might confuse, distort, or obscure that meaning. If you do that, the careful readers will pick up that something deeper is going on (and the readers who AREN'T careful probably won't notice, no matter WHAT you do).
Nrama: Writers are often faced with lots of challenges, and I wanted to ask you: What's the most difficult part about writing for you? How do you overcome it?
Roberson: When the “research” for your job involves sitting around and reading huge stacks of great comics, it's often hard to stop researching and start WRITING!
Nrama: Finally, for those who are looking to get into the industry, what don't they know that you feel that they should?
Roberson: Too often aspiring writers read a comic (or novel, or short story) and discover that it's merely mediocre, and think “I could do better than THAT.” And they're right. But a slightly-better-than-mediocre story is probably still mediocre. What aspiring writers SHOULD do, rather, is read the BEST comics (and novels, and short stories) that they can find, and say “How do I do better than THAT?” You shouldn't compare your work to the bottom rung, to the barely serviceable and the forgettable. You should compare yourself to the absolute best, and set your sights at being as good as, and hopefully better than, the BEST.