Writer's Workshop #11: Greg Pak's Path From Film to HULKS
But it would be hard to fault the writer of The Incredible Hulk, Silver Surfer and one-half of the brain trust behind The Incredible Hercules for his in-depth responses. With a thoughtfulness that rivals his intelligence, Pak was the perfect choice for the eleventh edition of Writer's Workshop. Once you've spoken with him, you'll find that you're thinking about storytelling structure in a whole new light.
Walking down his journey as a political science major to rising to the top of the Marvel echelon, we caught up with Pak to discuss creating new characters, how to structure a story based on premise, and the big lesson given to him by legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury.
Newsarama: Greg, just to start off — can you tell us a little bit about your career path, and how you started off as a writer? What made you decide that this was what you wanted to do professionally?
Greg Pak: Well, when I was a kid, the first thing I ever wanted to be professionally was a writer. I was writing stories from the time I was 9 or 10. I was poking around in storage over the holidays, and found a bunch of sci-fi stories I wrote when I was 12. I was always reading and always writing. I was also always drawing, and I did cartoons through high school and college and beyond, but I never thought about pursuing comic book writing as a career for some reason. When I was young, I thought of myself as a fiction writer, I was going to be a short story writer and a novelist. My heroes were people like Ray Bradbury and Lloyd Alexander and William Faulkner.
Then I got older, and in college I studied political science, thinking I was going to be a politician. But I finally got a chance to be involved in the student film group, and ended up going to NYU film school for grad school. And that's sort of where my energies and interests had focused. When I was in film school I made a bunch of short films, I made a feature film called "Robot Stories," after I got out. It was around the time we were taking "Robot Stories" to film festivals that my agent called me up and said that Marvel was looking for writers, and would I be interested? And I said, "Would I!" So I sent in "Robot Stories" as a writing sample and they dug it, I guess, and brought me in to start to developing stuff. About a year later, my first Marvel book came out, which was the Warlock miniseries in late 2004.
It's one of those things that, I didn't plan for it, but when it all came together, it all made perfect sense, y'know? Particularly because it was Marvel that ended up hiring me. Because the kinds of things Marvel was justly celebrated for doing was taking these crazy superpowerful characters and investing them with completely human emotional lives and flaws. That combination of utterly relatable, everyday human drama with crazy genre hijinks was exactly the kind of thing I've always been compelled by. That's where my love of things like Ray Bradbury and the Twilight Zone and everything else comes from.
It’s exactly what I was pursuing in "Robot Stories," which is a crazy independent movie about love, death, family and robots, basically — the stories are about families and couples struggling to deal with the kinds of things that families and couples always struggle with, but there's a crazy robot twist in each story. So that kind of combining everyday but emotionally compelling experience with crazy robots and superheroes and whatnot was right up my alley. It felt like the perfect place to be.
Nrama: Because you've been writing for years, I'm curious, have there been any big breakthroughs you've had over your career as a craftsman?
Pak: Oh, yeah. It's interesting that we're talking now, because I've actually spent a little bit of time over the last few months reading the stuff I wrote when I was really young. It's interesting to see the way I developed. I read obsessively as a kid, all kinds of stuff. I was a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan, I'd read all kinds of genre stuff. I was reading all kinds of classic fiction, I was reading through my parents' library, all kinds of stuff. I read Twain and Faulkner and Hemmingway and all those American classics — I became obsessed with Harlan Ellison and Kurt Vonnegut and I was reading all kinds of other stuff, like Shirley Jackson... it was a wide range of stuff, but in addition to all that, I was reading books about writing.
That's the cliché: "Writers write," you know what I mean? It's the cliché piece of advice: If you're not writing anything, you're not learning anything, and that's totally true. In that essay Ray Bradbury talks about the day that he finished a story and I think the story he was talking about was "The Foghorn." It's about a dinosaur, like the last dinosaur, falling in love with the sound of a foghorn. He finished this story, and he said, "I've finally written something good."
That had a big impact on me because it led me... well, it basically gave me permission to be bad. [.] That's what you have to do! You have to keep writing and not be scared of being terrible, because we're all terrible. We all have a lot of terrible stuff to churn through. But if we don't go through that process and spend years writing and working stuff out, we'll never get better. The fact that Bradbury, who was my literary hero, was telling countless stories before he wrote the first one that he finally realized was good, that's a big gift to a young writer. It let me cut loose and not to fret so much about being perfect, and to work more on just working, to work on trying to be better rather than trying to be perfect. If you try to be perfect, if you're obsessed with perfection, you're never going to finish anything. So that was huge.
It's funny, because just a few weeks ago I found this big notebook that I kept through in 1982, and it's just tons of stories. I just wrote story after story after story, over the course of a few months in this notebook. And on one page in the middle of it, I wrote something like, "there's a story in here that's almost good. I'm almost there!" I had to write 200 pages of a lot of bad stuff, but there's something in there that almost works. That's the way it had to go.
After years of this, I wrote a story called "Mary Loves Her Boy" when I was a junior in high school, and it was the first time I thought, "this really works." It was my "Foghorn" experience, like Bradbury had. That story actually ended up being the first story I had ever written that got outside recognition, outside of my friends and family. I sent it off to a Scholastic literary competition — Scholastic, which is best known now I guess for publishing the Harry Potter books — for years has run a literary competition for kids. So I sent this story in, and I ended up winning second place in this short story competition. I got a $50 savings bond, which is tacked to my bulletin board even as we speak. That was enormous for me, because I had learned not to overpraise myself. So when I found something that I thought actually worked, and it went out to other people in the world who said, "yeah, I think that it does kind of work," it gave me some confidence that I might have something here. So that was a big deal.
I know I'm talking way too much for you here, but there are two other things that pop into my head. One, I remember when I was visiting — and this is actually one of the best pieces of advice I can remember getting when I was a kid — when I was visiting colleges, around when I was a junior or senior, I visited Oberlin, and there was a creative writing professor that I met with. He was just amazing — just really sharp and insightful and a funny guy. Somebody who clearly loved working with young people, as well. Here I am, this fresh-faced kid who thinks he's going to set the world on fire, I guess — and he locked eyes with me and said, slowly and carefully, that "young people's writing is very often over-praised and under-cherished." I just thought that was perfect.
I think that kind of thing is really helpful because anything that can give you the ability to get any kind of objective eye on your work is important, not to get praise, but for the sake of getting better and actually telling the story that you want to tell as well as you possibly can. It’s part of developing the ability to listen to the voice inside that tells you when you're faking it or falling short. When you can listen to that voice and make it better — that's huge. That's the hardest thing ever, because it's painful, and it's embarrassing and difficult in all kinds of ways. But that's the only way to do it. Those were some big "a-ha" moments for me.
Nrama: As far as your process has evolved over the years, when you are coming up with a story, where do you typically start off? I know some people say you have to start with your ending, and move backwards — I know others say they have to come up with a character first, and the situation will be dictated through that. For you, what's the foundation you need to put your story on?
Pak: Different stories for me have come together in different ways, so there's no single way in which I'll stumble into a story. I made a short film when I was in film school called "Mouse." It was about a guy chasing a mouse around his apartment. I actually had mice in my apartment and did all these ridiculous things to try to chase them — which actually ended up in the film. And while I was in that kind of crazy mode of hunting these mice in my apartment, as I was doing these ridiculous things, I was thinking "this could make a pretty hilarious short film." That's an example of something that comes out of real life.
But I also knew that in order for it to really work, I needed something else going on. I needed what the guy was doing, and then what the guy was really doing. At a certain point, when I was thinking about why somebody might be so scared of a mouse, what the mouse might represent. I ended up coming up with the notion that what he's really freaking out about is the possible pregnancy of his girlfriend. Then the story became about a guy who's trying to escape a conversation about pregnancy with his girlfriend while chasing a mouse around the house. Suddenly, the story suddenly started to work on multiple levels, and the film came together. That was sort of my "Foghorn" experience in the film world, when I made something that I felt came together in the different ways that it needed to in order to actually work.
That's one example. That was kind of instructive in that lots of times I'll have a notion of, say, a genre that I want to play with, but then I have to figure out what it's really about. I might have the plot engine, but I have to figure out what that story is about on an emotional level. Planet Hulk was like that. The initial injunction I was given — which was just awesome! I felt like giving Joe Quesada and Axel Alonso and Mark Paniccia and all the other guys in the room a big kiss when I heard, because Joe said "Hulk on an alien planet in a gladiatorial arena fighting monsters with a big battle axe." That was just perfect right there — there's just so much to play with there. And that kind of big crazy genre stuff was exactly the kind of story that I was hungry to play with.
But then I had to go home and sit down and think about what exactly this story was really about. What's the emotional story here, so it works on multiple levels? The idea I ended up tacking up over my mental desk was "monster to hero." When I knew that was the journey the Hulk was taking, then all of these action elements and all those other things that happened could feed the theme. That kind of working on two levels, that's always been a big way for me to get my bearings and figure out what I'm doing. Know what my big crazy genre plot-associated hijinks are, and then figure out why we're going through all this — what the emotional human reason is for our character to be plunging through all this.
But you're also talking about the initial inspiration. The initial inspiration, to me, is anything. For years my dream project in the film world has been a screenplay that I've written called "Rio Chino," which is about a Chinese gunslinger in the Old West. I just had this image in my head years ago of a Chinese gunslinger, because there were thousands of Chinese men in the Old West, and that's a story that's never quite been told on film. I just thought that would be kind of an amazing thing to pursue, to do a straight-up Western, but with a Chinese lead. That was the initial inspiration, but that doesn't get you anywhere if you can't figure out what your character is and what he or she is striving towards, and what the point of the story is. But that was the starting point for that particular story.
Nrama: Spinning off that, when you're talking about characterization, for you, what do feel a writer needs to know about the character in order to make them three-dimensional — or, to open up another can of worms, to make them successful?
Pak: Well, ideally you know everything about your character — that's a hard thing to do, but in a kind of funny way, if you're talking about comics, it's not so hard. With a lot of these characters, there's just a ton of history there. If you take the time to go through all that history, you'll see that generations of writers have cumulatively built these intricately detailed and gripping histories for these characters that have brought them from birth to the point where they are. Given the nature of how it came together, sometimes its totally contradictory, sometimes it makes no sense at all, but there's very often a really solid core of facts and experiences that the character's gone through that are incredibly helpful in terms of telling stories about these characters.
I mean, with my own experiences writing the Hulk, Stan Lee and all the other writers who have worked on the Hulk over the years have contributed some really essential elements to Bruce Banner's backstory. Bill Mantlo and Peter David have done a lot of amazing work in particular with Banner's parents, and that's a well I've drawn deeply from. There's a lot of great stuff that helps you understand this character, helps you understand where his anger management issues come from, and what makes this character tick.When you're creating that character from scratch, I don't always know everything about a character when I'm writing them. But the more I work on a character, the more I learn and the more I can fold those things into how I'm writing the character. I remember once as a writing exercise in film school, one of the professors gave us a big giant list of questions for us to ask ourselves about our characters. I think Callie Khouri, who wrote "Thelma & Louise," I remember being quoted somewhere, when somebody asked her what flavor ice cream Thelma would like. And she knew! [.] She just knew instinctively what flavor of ice cream Thelma would like.
Knowing your characters at that kind of level is ideal — that's going to really make them work. It's not that you're dropping that information in every panel and every frame — it's not like you're just tossing that information out at every opportunity just to show that you know it — but knowing all those things becomes the subtext of the whole thing, and part of your own way of making the character consistent. If you know who your character is, you know how he or she is going to react in any situation — or you can figure out how your character is going to react, and it's going to be consistent with his or her life, as you know it. And also when your character does something totally crazy, you can go back and figure out how that makes sense, based on how you see the character. Gradually developing that kind of knowledge about your characters is key.on his blog fairly recently, and he said a very nice thing — he said he had a lot of fun asking me what Banner would do in a particular situation, and then I'd kind of tilt my head back, think for a second, and tell him. And he took a lot of pleasure watching the gears turn in my head. So Banner's one of those characters I like to think I know at that level. Amadeus is another character like that, Hercules, too — I guess the main characters I've been working with all these years, these characters I've spent so much time with I think are characters about whom I kind of have that understanding. The challenge becomes that if you're working with these characters for such a long period of time to be able to kind of sit back and challenge yourself and think about them in different ways from time to time, so you don't fall into ruts and that you're challenging yourself to find the next thing, rather than just relying on what you think you know about them.
Nrama: As far as when you're trying to go for a character's direction, or trying to get into their heads a little bit, what do you typically do to sort of get your bearings and get yourself in someone's headspace?
Pak: Well, I think ... I think it's just like being an actor, I guess. I remember in film school, all of us directing students had to take an acting class, because to work with actors, you need to know how actors work. And I realized at a certain point that was just as helpful in terms of writing. Because the question that an actor has to ask about characters are all the same questions that writers have to ask — the classic cliché of "what's my motivation?" That's something actors supposedly ask all the time, but that's something that writers need to ask themselves constantly. "What are the character's motivations for doing what he or she is doing, what is it that's driving him or her?"
Because you could be a bad actor as a writer — and then you're just writing clichés. You're writing characters that are just doing things because they have to in order to move the plot forward, or characters that are just serving a mechanical purpose that might go counter to the sort of emotional truth behind that character. You'll see actors do that all the time — sometimes they're sort of boxed into that because that's the way the character is depicted and portrayed in the script that they're working with — and writers do that all the time, too. That's kind of one of those shortcuts or cheats that I was talking about before — you have to really challenge yourself to be aware of it when you're doing that. I think it's the same process. You ask how do you do that? You have to take the time to research and understand, and really walk inside your character's shoes.
I think that when characters have gone through experiences that are completely different than your own, you've got to find a way to learn about and imagine those experiences in order to portray them. If you don't do that, you end up writing clichés. Instead of writing about something true, you're writing about a representation of something, you know what I'm saying? You're writing stories about stories instead of stories about people.
Nrama: Since we're on that tack about research, have there been any moments or examples where a character's history has really surprised you, and taken your stance on the character in a different direction?
Pak: Yeah, definitely. That happened to me when I was working on the Hulk. For the first year that I was working on the Hulk, I was working on Planet Hulk, which focused almost exclusively on the Hulk. I was definitely thinking a lot about Banner, and the relationship between the Hulk and Banner, and Banner shows up a couple of times over the course of that storyline. He's always there in subtext — I'm thinking about him all the time — but I wasn't writing Banner all the time. I wasn't writing Banner's voice all the time, I wasn't spending time in the room with Banner the same way I was spending time in the room with the Hulk.
So when I finally had the chance to write Banner by himself, I started to learn a whole lot more about him. And I thought I kind of knew what was going on with Banner — and in broad strokes, I did — but when I came back to the book with Incredible Hulk #601, and the focus was really on Banner and Skaar, because Banner had been depowered, he no longer turned into the Hulk — instead it was a team-up between the puny father and his big, Hulk-ish barbarian son.
Now, finally I was concentrating almost exclusively on Banner, and had the chance to delve deeply into that part of the character. I definitely learned a lot of stuff, and was kind of pleasantly surprised in the way that Banner was able to develop — one of the fun things we played with was this notion that Banner may be the really dangerous one in the equation. One little fact that we played with was that Banner's the guy who's actually killed his father. It was an accident, but that's part of the history of the character. His father was attacking him, he struck back, and his father ended up dead. The argument could be that it was Banner that did that, not the Hulk, and Banner's really the dangerous one, here.
And that has been a fun dynamic to play with — maybe Banner turns into the Hulk not because he's losing it entirely, but maybe sometimes he's turning into the Hulk because it's the safest way for the world to handle him. Maybe if it was Banner venting his rage as Banner, he might be capable of a lot more destruction than the Hulk ever has. That particular idea never occurred to me in the early days of Planet Hulk, but developed organically as we thought more about the character and played with the character. When you find those things and run with them, it's pretty exciting.
Pak: One was just a personal niche that I needed to fill — I was hankering to write a character who could talk too much, basically. I had been writing a lot of terse, Clint Eastwood-style characters, which I loved, but there's something fun about being able to write a young character who just kind of talks too much, and have fun with language and fun with dialogue. That was part of my motivation — to give myself a different kind of voice to play with as a writer.
Amadeus made sense to me as someone to try to bring into the Marvel Universe because he was somebody who was going to look different than just about anybody else in the Marvel Universe — he's a scrawny kid running around wearing an Army jacket, not in costume, and when I thought about how to visualize his big-brain mental action, this idea of these swirling equations wasn't something that I had seen before, and I thought it could be kind of fun. It's funny, because after doing a few Amadeus Cho stories, I happened to see that show "Numb3rs," where they have those numbers swirling around when the character's thinking big. That cracked me up.
It actually really started when Mark Paniccia, the main editor with whom I've conspired over the years at Marvel, threw a bunch of Golden Age names that Marvel owned to different writers with the challenge to pick a name and reimagine the character. The name that jumped out at me was "Mastermind Excello," because that name sounded so big and fun and crazy. When you have a name like "Mastermind Excello," you're going to be writing a character that's got those big brains — he's a mastermind, he's got to be doing something big with his brain. And that was the initial kernel that led to my thinking of all these different things about Amadeus. With Amadeus, I was really proud of that little 8-page story that we did. It was one of those projects on which the right team came together at the right time. Takeshi Miyazawa did the art, and it was just gorgeous. Christina Strain did the coloring, and Nate Cosby was on board as assistant editor, and the combined vibe of everyone just made sense.
At some point I came up with the idea of the arrow balloons or arrow captions that have been associated with Amadeus, kind of jokey expository captions that point to different things in the frame, and something about Amadeus let us do that, breaking the fourth wall sort of thing. There's no internal logic to it, there's no voice actually saying those things, but given the character's whole vibe, it felt justified, it felt fun, and Nate certainly was totally down with that. A lot of different people came together with the right spirit to make that story work.
But then Amadeus really took off when we paired him with Hercules. Something just special happened there — and that's where I think we really figured out what Amadeus' niche was going to be. Amadeus first came out of that short story, that eight-pager, a lot of people really responded to it, he won an online contest where people voted for their favorite of those characters, and different bloggers and reviewers said "there's something special about this character," which I was really flattered by. But it was only when we paired him with Hercules that we figured out how he could interact with the rest of the Marvel Universe in a really fun way. There's something about pairing this very contemporary kid, this scrawny, wisecracking, contemporary kid, with you know, one of biggest, strongest gods/heroes in the Marvel Universe. That kind of contrast we got from that just made everything make sense.
Nrama: Working on the other side of the equation, when you have worked with characters that have that history to them, when you are looking to play with those characters, what are you typically looking for in order to get your personal take on them?
Pak: Well, first and foremost, I have to figure out what the character's deal is, y'know? Some characters are very easy, in that their deal is so apparent. The Hulk is like that — the Hulk is all about anger, right? Everybody knows that. So getting that initial angle into the Hulk was not hard. It's about the tragedy and consequences of anger. And that's a fairly easy thing to grasp, and as a result you can tell all kinds of complicated stories as a result — or, I wouldn't say "complicated," I'd say deep stories. Sometimes the simpler that initial thing is, the easier it is to tell deep stories. When you have a set-up that's really complicated and you can just get bogged down sometimes — or if you don't really know what your character's deal is, then it's really hard to tell a clear, emotional story that goes very deep. So the Hulk's kind of an easy one.
When I'm working on a character I haven’t worked on very much before, it helps sometimes when the story's very focused. Magneto: Testament was a little bit like that, in that our story was about the early years of this character, his formative years during the Final Solution of the Holocaust in World War II. The whole thing is hinting at, in some ways, the person he will eventually become. But the point of the story was to dramatize these initial experiences — I didn't have to reference all the countless X-Men stories that he appears in later on down the line. I had to know those stories well enough to understand where the character was going, but I could really just focus — just tell the story at hand rather than try to do everything.
Similarly, when I first started writing the Hulk, the Hulk had been shot off to this alien planet and had a fresh start, and I could tell this story. I didn't have to reference/justify/incorporate every adventure the Hulk had ever been on — I was just telling this one story of the Hulk, stuck on this alien planet and going from monster to hero. Again, I had to be familiar enough with the rest of the Hulk's history to tell that story, but it's freeing when you just concentrate on telling the story at hand and telling that story well, rather than try to explain everything in the world there is to explain about a character. Stories have been written about these characters for generations, and stories will continue to be written about these characters for generations, and lots of times the stories that work best are the stories that take that one moment in a character's life and explore that one moment deeply rather than try to sum everything up. So that can be a helpful strategy — learning to limit my scope and tell a good story about this one moment in a character's life.
Nrama: When you were doing Planet Hulk, there was this real element of world-building you had there. When you are trying to build up these kinds of environments for characters to move in, how do you make them tactile and interactive?
Pak: It's that Lajos Egri thing — you come down to knowing what your story is. In the case of Planet Hulk, it was about the Hulk going from monster to slave, to gladiator to rebel, to conquering emperor to hero. And so the whole world, all the world-building that we did was created in order to create the context for where this journey could happen and still have it make sense.
So there were elements about the world that I created because — well, for example, I knew that when the Hulk arrived on this world, I didn't want him to be at his full strength, because then things would be too easy, and he wouldn't necessarily be forced to rely on his smarts, he wouldn't necessarily have to form relationships with other characters as he did, and as a result, he wouldn't necessarily have gone through the same kind of journey. Since he was vulnerable, and could possible even be killed when he first landed on this planet, he had to forma what would eventually become real emotional ties — which was a huge contributing factor to his changing, for his actually joining this community and becoming a hero.
In practical terms, that's what inspired the notion of the Great Portal, which is this giant wormhole that leads to this planet — when things like the Hulk go through the Great Portal, they're drained of a lot of their power, but as a result there have been a lot of things that have fallen through this wormhole onto this planet, which gives this kind of ancient Roman culture that's about at a technological level of ancient Rome. They have random bits and pieces of technology that have fallen through this portal, so it allows for this kind of crazy world, where they can have battleaxe fights and hand blasters at the same time. You can have airships and swords, and have that all make sense. So all those elements of the world-building were driving towards making that story make sense.
As another example, I created a whole religion — there's all this talk of a prophet, and his teachings about the Sakaarson, who will either create us or destroy us. Different characters have different interpretations of what this means, some people wonder if this is supposed to be a metaphor, others wonder if this is supposed to be literal, and that is a way to have people bring out those themes of the Hulk's journey. Is he going to be a monster? Is he going to fall back on what he knows, or is he going to step up and become the hero that he could be? So yes, this creation of the religion of this world was designed to help bring out those themes that resonated the most with the Hulk's journey.
There are plenty of other things in this world that we could have explored, but it didn't have anything to do with the Hulk's journey, so we didn't. I think, like you say, it can be really fun to just create a world, and I think over the course of a story you can become enamored with things that are just really clever ideas or really fun themes or fun things to play with, but at a certain point you have to look at it and figure out if it really fits. And if it doesn't fit, and if it's bogging down the story, you've got to take it out. That's a big thing I learned in film school also, while editing documentaries — I made a movie called "Fighting Grandpa," which is about my Korean grandparents. I thought I was going to make a movie to find out who my grandfather was. My grandfather died, and I realized that nobody in the family really knew him. He was a very... he was a kind of a very powerful but mysterious character within the family. So I thought I was going to make this documentary and figure out who he was.
And at the end I realized that the story was really about my grandmother, because she was the one who was still around. I ended up focusing on that, and her relationship with my grandfather. At an early stage, the documentary was over an hour long, and there were all these details that I thought were incredibly compelling, but would put anyone else to sleep. [.] For anyone outside the family, it was just rambling, it was just little observations about all kinds of different aspects about the family, but it didn't become a real story. It was a long process — it actually took about two and a half years to edit — but in the end it was a 21-minute film, and it was just really focused on this relationship between my grandmother and my grandfather, and the question of whether they were ever in love. There were lots of compelling things from other members of the family that I just loved, but took out, because it didn't further that central storyline about my grandmother and my grandfather. So I learned huge lessons from that, which have stuck with me.
I should say this too, all this stuff I'm saying is stuff that I know, but that I have to struggle everyday to actually implement it, you know what I mean? [.] It's an ongoing struggle to have the discipline to make these stories work the way they really should. To cut out the stuff that doesn't belong, and to invest the stuff that should be there with real emotional truth rather than manufactured shortcuts, and to find the most dramatically compelling fashion to tell the story rather than just the easiest way to tell the story. These are ongoing challenges that I wrestle with every single day, trying to do the best I can and trying to figure out better ways to do it.
Nrama: As you've been building up your writing skills over the years, are there any exercises that you do to help you flex those muscles?
Pak: That's a great question. These days I haven't given myself those kinds of writing challenges, that are not directly associated with the job, just because all my time is spent working on the job. [.] But I do try to pick different kinds of projects that will challenge me in different ways. Like, for example, when I was writing Hercules and Magneto at the same time, you can't get too much further apart — those two were about as disparate as you can get in terms of tone and theme. And that was a conscious choice — I wanted to flex those different kinds of muscles by working on those different kinds of projects. So that's something I try to do a lot of.
There are times where I'll be asked if I want to do an eight-page story, a fill-in story here or there, and if I can make the time, I always try to do it, because you can learn a huge amount of stuff by doing a really short, focused story. I also find if I can work with different people — if a different editor asks me to do something, or if I can work with artists I haven't worked with before to do a project like that, I really try to jump on it also, because it's a way to learn. The more people you work with, the more things you can learn from them, and that's really important, just to keep learning. If we're not getting better, we're stagnating. I'm always trying to figure out how to challenge myself.
It is interesting, though, because looking back on the stuff I dug out of storage, I saw a lot of stuff that I wrote that really was — I mean, I don't remember my motivations for everything that I wrote here — but some of it definitely does seem like challenges I gave myself to try different things. There's different kinds of writing in this book from when I was 14 years old — some of them, there's a mystery story. And I never remembered writing a mystery. I love Raymond Chandler and all that stuff, but I didn't spend a lot of time writing mystery stories. But in the middle of this thing, there was a mystery story.
There's also other stories that are really concentrating on very specific things — like, some of these stories I've seen some very meticulous descriptions of physical action. [.] Which is kind of funny, because there's just a lot of verbiage about how people get from one place to another. I was thinking a lot about how to keep the choreography of the scene clear in my head, and how to write it out, but it's a little clunky, because there's just so much of it and it's so meticulously described — it doesn't need to be, but I think looking back I was giving myself a challenge, of just trying to understand the geographical placing of where this character was working and to try to use those elements of how he moved around. I was giving myself those kinds of challenges in those throwaway stories I was writing.
It's interesting, too, because there was stuff that I was writing and never going back to, and then there were things I was writing to submit to whatever school literary magazines there were and whatnot. I wrote tons of stuff that nobody ever saw — which I think is perfectly fine, perfectly good! [.] But I think it was kind of a sign, that I was writing this stuff just to learn about writing different kinds of things. These days I think I continue to do that, but I do it in a more public way on jobs that challenge me in different ways, which is actually a thing that keeps me really happy as a writer. Every once in awhile I'll take on a job that'll really scare me, that's going to push me in the way that I need to be pushed. It'll make me take risks, and then I'll learn from those risks, and that's the only way I'm going to learn the next thing I've got to learn as a storyteller.
Nrama: What do you think is the scariest story you've ever taken?
Pak: It was definitely Magneto: Testament. That was the project that was the most intimidating. Because it deals with very controversial details of X-Men mythology and continuity, and whenever you're getting into a continuity-heavy story, you're courting disaster, in some ways. [.]There's always going to be choices, and they're going to be contradictory oftentimes, just because of the way these stories have been told over the years.
And lots of times it's easier to just leave it well alone and not deal with those things, because they're not addressed directly — you don't want to point out the contradictions and stir up a hornet's nest — but for this story, we had to make some clear choices about where this character came from, what his original name was, and what world he came from. And every one of those choices was going to have the potential to contradict something that had been written before, because there are already contradictions about his history in the record.
But that's just par for the course — every time you write a superhero story, you've making some decisions like that. What really made Magneto: Testament challenging is the fact that it deals with the Holocaust, and that we were actually depict some of these events in the context of a superhero's backstory. I mean, as soon as my editor Warren Simons told me about this project, I knew I had to do it. I just felt like I understood exactly what he was talking about when he started to talk about it, and I saw the potential, and I saw these huge challenges, and it felt so right that I just plunged in.
Because of my specific background, I felt I had the beginnings of a good foundation for me to actually do this project. I had studied German in high school and college, I read a lot about the Holocaust and German history. I saw the character's history and who he could be and where he started, these characters started to come into my mind. I saw Magneto's father, I saw him as a German Jewish man — a proud German Jewish man — a veteran of World War I who loved his country, could not believe what was happening. He could not believe that the heart of European culture could become what it became.
As we took that stuff out, it really came together. That's one of those very scary but very exciting projects that I couldn't say "no" to. It really came together because this entire team was so committed to it. I knew in the beginning — I felt really right — Warren was just these amazing collaborators on this whole thing, he was a great sounding board, and together we were able to figure out the answers that helped us make the story work the way it wanted to.
Nrama: On the flip side of that, what do you think is the smartest thing you've ever done?
Pak: Oh boy. I can tell you a lot of dumb things that I've done… Smartest thing I've done as a writer? Huh. Okay, this isn't a specific thing, this is just a general thing, but I think one of the smartest things you can do as a writer is just make a choice and go for it. I did improv comedy for a lot of years, in college and beyond, and improv comedy is all about making a choice and sticking with it, and making it work. I was thinking about this not too long ago that every step forward represents a billion lost opportunities — but if you don't step forward, nothing's going to happen. [.]
And you've just got to pick something. You can fret over what the perfect choice is going to be, but if you're going to fret about that forever, you're not going to make your deadline, and you're not going to get another job. [.] And you're not going to learn, because you won't have finished this project. So it's just making a choice, picking it, carrying it to the end, and making it work is really important. Another thing about writing is that if it doesn't work, you know what? You just rewrite it. But the time that you spend worrying about whether or not it's going to work could just be spent trying to see if it works — just committing to it, putting it down to paper and seeing it through. I think that's huge in any creative endeavor, just working up the courage to make choices and commit to them and just see if you can make them work.
The other thing — and this is also one of those general things, but you mentioned it before — and that's knowing your ending. And I think that's really key. One of the dumbest things I've ever done — and I've done this many times — is to just start writing a story without knowing where I'm going, or not knowing where my endpoint is.
But when I was at film school, I started and never finished something like six or seven screenplays. I'd get to Page 40 or so, and I'd just kind of run out, because I'd just see where I was going, and I'd lose interest in going there because it was either too obvious or it just got mucky and it became unclear what the story was about. Each unfinished script had plenty of brilliant, funny little moments and scenes and tiny little details that worked, but the thing as a whole was kind of a mish-mash. Maybe I had to do that — it was part of the process of learning by writing and by doing all that I learned a lot about writing individual scenes, and technical things about putting my words together, etc., but as finished projects, those scripts were just dead ends, because I didn't know where my end was.
So one of the smartest things I can do is as much as possible figure out where my endpoint is. Know where you're building thematically — you don't need to know every single solitary detail along the way. And inevitably in comics a multitude of things are going to change. But if you know what your final endpoint is, you can roll with the punches and make lemons into lemonade, as little details change along the way. If you know where your story is going, if you know what your story is about, you can always know why you're writing each individual scene, and if you're pushed off the path you thought you were on, you can figure out how this new path can take you back where you need to go, or your endpoint. If you don't know your endpoint, then you can just end up rambling. I've had that with Planet Hulk. I knew my last two pages from the very beginning. And Fred Van Lente and I had that with the Incredible Hercules saga. We knew we were going to end with the thing that ended up becoming Chaos War, to direct all this emotional growth these characters have had, all their trials and tribulations, and point it to this. So that's one of the most helpful things.
Nrama: Finally, to wrap this up — over the course of your career, have there been any rules or maxims that you've picked up that you think new writers really need to know?
Pak: "Show, don't tell" is the cliché, but it's true. As much as possible — this is sort of Dramatic Storytelling 101, but we pros have to remind ourselves of this all the time. I can't emphasize this enough — all this stuff I'm talking about is stuff I have to tell myself everyday, because it's so easy to find yourself slipping, and you have to challenge yourself everyday to remember it and to keep finding the most interesting and compelling ways to tell the story. The notion is dramatic storytelling is like the difference between a novel and a movie — in a movie, you're watching people in action, for the most part. You watch them interact with each other, as opposed to a novel, where you can spend pages just describing somebody's inner state, what somebody's thinking.
In a movie, you're trying to convey what people are thinking and feeling through action as much as through dialogue and through thought — lots of times in comics you will have an internal voice going throughout the story in captions, from time to time. So you can have some of that novelistic interior monologue — but at the same time, comics are a visual medium. They are stories told in pictures, so they really fit more with dramatic storytelling that you'd find in movies or in theatre. So in that kind of storytelling, you need to find unique ways to put your character in motion and the medium gives you this incredible opportunity to convey emotion through action. In the crassest form, you've got big fights, ‘cause we’re talking super-hero comics, right? And that's great and fun, but there are ways that you can use the simplest image to convey the deepest emotion.
In the film world, one of the moments that I'm proudest of is in my movie "Robot Stories," there's a scene with the mother and the daughter, and the mother pushes the hair out of the daughter's eyes. And that's just an everyday gesture, it would mean nothing almost if you just saw that on random in the street, but in the context of the story, it's a huge moment, because this is a mother who rarely expresses any kind of emotion. She's in denial about her emotions, and this kind of tiny but tender gesture speaks volumes about her changing relationship with her daughter. Finding those kinds of visual ways to convey emotion is a huge part of this kind of storytelling, and that's something we need to challenge ourselves to do.
Other stuff? I think it's very easy for us all to fall in love with language, because we're writers, right? We love words. But usually, less is more. I should be talking less right now. One of the big challenges that I've been giving myself over the last year or so is to reduce the verbiage in my scripts. Not necessarily the dialogue — although keeping the dialogue snappy is always great — but in panel descriptions. I think I've overburdened different artists at different times over the years with overly-detailed panel descriptions, and I love all these artists, and I hugely appreciate them putting up with some of that. Sometimes it's necessary to go into considerable detail to get a certain kind of effect, but lots of times I think I can get simpler and not over-explain and trust my artists to understand the emotional context or the way the action is coming together. Using fewer words to describe these things helps a lot.
A lot of people have to read these comic book scripts: They are being read by multiple editors, the artists, by colorists, letterers — everyone has to read them in order to understand the context and the simpler and clearer they are the easiest it is for everybody. So that's a challenge I've been giving myself, to become more efficient in the way I write those panel descriptions. Which isn't to say that from time to time I don't describe something very specifically, but I'm trying to spare everybody a little eyestrain and confusion by trying to be clearer about it all.
Nrama: Greg, thank you again for being so gracious with your time like this. Is there anything else that you'd like to add to our readers out there?
Pak: Oh boy. You've been great, and I've talked way too much, so I'm hard-pressed to think of anything. You know, actually, there is something I should say. You asked what is the smartest thing I've ever done as a writer? The smartest thing I've ever done as a writer I had nothing to do with. I didn't realize I was doing it — I didn't realize that this was what I was going to get out of it — but the smartest thing I've ever done as a writer was getting a job working in comics. Because working in comics is such a fast, intense job that you learn an enormous amount every single day. And working with comics, the relationship between editors and writers is a very special thing, and I've learned an enormous amount by working with all the editors I've been working with. And the artists, and everybody — it's just a genuinely collaborative medium, and by getting constant feedback about the stuff I'm writing, I'm writing better — I'm hopefully getting better, quicker than I would have if I was just sitting by myself, trying to be perfect.
Seeking out feedback is critical for writers, and scary, and the hardest thing that writers do in a lot of ways. [.] Comics doesn't give you a choice, it just throws you in there, and you're constantly getting feedback, learning from these notes and learning to incorporate these things, and finding different ways to rise to different challenges. It's constantly pushing me to learn more, and that's huge. Particularly working at Marvel is fantastic, because every editor I've worked with has had amazingly perceptive things to say. I've learned a lot just on a purely technical level, but in terms of character and story arc and all of those things — every week I'll talk with an editor and learn something that I'd never have known about, or that would have taken me a long time to figure out on my own. Oftentimes it's right there in front of my face, but it's hard to see when I'm right in the middle of it, and having smart editors who understand story is solid gold.
So — thanks, Fred! You complete me.Click here for more of Newsarama's Writer's Workshop and Artist's Alley process pieces!