Jeff Parker is a writer that put lightning in a bottle — and comes out with Thunderbolts. Of course, that quirky cast of convicts isn't Parker's only hit — he's also responsible for crimson commandos in Hulk and cult classics like Agents of Atlas. A writer known for his character dynamics and balancing humor and action, we had to sit him down and find out what makes him tick for the thirteenth installment of Writer's Workshop. Discussing candidly about his rise to comics stardom, we caught up with Parker to discuss characterization, working with artists and even his tried-and-true script template.
Newsarama: Jeff, just to start off with, how did you decide that comics were something you wanted to do for a living? What were some of the challenges you had to overcome before you felt your work was ready for the big leagues?
Jeff Parker: I was always doing comic strips in my high school and then college newspapers, and working on stories that never appeared anywhere, but at least gave me something to show artists and editors at comics conventions. I don't know when I got adamant about doing it for a career, like many things you gradually go deeper and deeper in until one day that's what you do. If I had a lightbulb moment about it though, it had to have been when Al Williamson let me sit behind the table with him — I described that on my website last year after his death.
As for feeling I was ready — I always thought I was! Of course I wasn't for a long time, but I think it's that willful ignorance that gets you through the many, many pages you have to draw to get to a professional level. As much as I believe being objective is necessary for an artist to improve, being aware of how bad you are too early can derail you. It really is mostly practice, the art. Writing too, but you have to go through a number of stories to start making leaps. That's why short stories are important to do, and there need to be more venues for them.
Nrama: Let's talk about influences and teachers for a second. Did any people you worked with or media you consumed get something to click your brain, to bring that "a-ha" moment for you?
Parker: I was in the 'out of comics' phase so many people go through in high school, and wasn't seeking the books out. But through a fluke, one comic was coming to me- Swamp Thing. Because I had been so into Berni Wrightson's art earlier, and thus into the character, I had entered the Swamp Thing movie contest DC was running. I spent two bucks and sent in 20 postcards. I don't remember what the big prize was, but I won a year's subscription to the new Saga of the Swamp Thing book. And often DC would forget to take you off the subscription list, so the next year, the books kept coming. Sometimes all beaten up in the paper wrappers.
Right before my subscription finally ran out, "The Anatomy Lesson" issue by new writer Alan Moore arrived. There I was, about to go to college, thinking about that and being indifferent to comics but hey, I'll just read this since it came in the mail. I can still remember very clearly being kicked back on my bed reading and getting to the end and then sitting up- it felt like the top of my head had lifted off. I flipped back to the front — who wrote this?! And then I read it again. That one issue hit me like a wrecking ball and knocked out any notion that comics weren't relevant.
Nrama: It's a tough question for anybody, but for you, what's that first step when you're looking at that blank page? Do you start off with theme, concept, character arc? For you, what's the important thing you have to lay down first, to provide that foundation to put the rest of your script elements on afterward?
Parker: Absolutely anything that decides to bubble up first. Sometimes I get an image of something that could happen in a story, sometimes a dialogue exchange comes first, sometimes only the ending. I don't turn down anything the muse is offering.
A lot of writers are intimidated by a blank page, so I'll offer this simple practice I eventually adopted; maybe it will help. I have a word document that's broken up into a script template with all the pages my story will have and with five panels set aside on each because that is the ideal limit of panels, for me. Some cases will call for several panels, some pages need just two, but the point is it fills in and provides a skeleton I can start hanging muscle and skin on. Here's what it looks like...
Very simple, but you'd be surprised how much it helps. You can make one of these in a few minutes, there — take mine. I often have many more people speaking than two, often none. Next to the panel number I describe the scene because for me it works best to say what we're seeing followed by who is saying what.
Nrama: As far as going action before dialogue, why is that? What makes that approach work for you?
Parker: I sometimes hear people say they write dialogue first, but I think they should question that practice. Because it usually means you think the story is advanced by what is said. That's true sometimes, but this is a very visual medium and what is being done is what counts. I like to be able to get a strong sense of what's happening in a story from looking only at the art- think of it that way. And let the dialogue be icing on the cake.
Nrama: How does theme end up affecting structure for you, if at all? How do you try to find the right theme for the right story, to make your scripts work on more than one level?
Parker: A theme always emerges if you have an actual story to tell, I've found. The danger is when you try to force one on a story, it may not ring true. Sometimes you'll look at what you've written and realize the theme is not what you intended, but it's better to enhance and bring out what is there, even if it took you by surprise.
A plot may be complex or full of sci-fi or mythic trappings, but I always try to have a simple dynamic going on underneath. Back in Atlas, the 3-D Man's outer story is that he's being hunted by extra-dimensional aliens, but his under story is that he's just trying to find a place he belongs. Red Hulk is on the surface about a man turned monster going against the most powerful forces in the world- underneath, it's the story of a man who is retired from the military and now has to redefine himself in a new life.
Nrama: In terms of characterization, for you, what kind of information helps you really get into the character's head, and figure out their True North? Or maybe putting it in another angle, what do you try to do to get a character to be relatable and resonant for a reader?
Parker: No matter how alien or freaky a character is, there's some basic emotion or reaction you can give them that readers will recognize in themselves. In Thunderbolts, Fixer feels like he's being taken for granted in his workplace, passed over for promotion. Who can't relate to that?
Nrama: In terms of series that you've worked on, I think Agents of Atlas might have one of the biggest cult followings. Could you describe to us your approach in terms of relaunching this book, as far as your goals and retooling obscure characters for a modern audience?
Parker: My thought was to embrace all the stuff lots of readers today think is silly and outdated, and show them that it's actually cool. Again, it's all in how you tell the story. And I wanted a team that was actually loyal and respectful of each other, not yet another squabbling group with soap opera subplots like has been the team book standard for forty years now. I wanted Jimmy Woo to be a leader that inspires but is still fallible — he goes chasing after a lost love to find out she's a supervillainess, and it almost costs him the whole empire he runs.
Mainly I wanted those pulp archetypes to have consistent personalities that readers could relate to. Where you would feel like you know a Venus or a Bob or Ken among your friends or peers. I feel like we pulled that off, too. Even with the dragon advisor Mr. Lao. With super talents like artists Leonard Kirk, Gabe Hardman, Carlo Pagulayan, Dan Panosian, we built a corner of the Marvel Universe that I think was a cool place to visit. I love meeting the diehard readers at comics shows, they make it clear we managed to get at the heart of what comics is for them. I'm very grateful they supported the book as long as they did in this market.
Nrama: Speaking of working with an artist, can you discuss a bit about your relationship with artists, and what your back-and-forth is with them?
Parker: The artist is everything in comics. She isn't merely illustrating your story, she is doing the other half of the storytelling. You've got to give her characters that she can believe in so she can pass that on to the reader.
But you can tell when an artist is making a story look good by sheer professionalism and when he's really inspired. You've got to give your collaborator a solid structure with engaging visuals and compelling scenes for him to really turn on the magic.
When working with a new (to me) artist, I hope they're comfortable doing a round of layouts before going to tight pencils. Because I want to be able to give helpful notes before pages get too hard to change. I only ask for changes when something will affect the story adversely, not because I didn't happen to see an image a certain way in my head. If something is important to get a particular pose or detail, I usually give a rough sketch. I want to save the artist time if possible.
Nrama: Can you talk with us about action for a minute, and how in-depth you choreograph action for your artist? How hands-on (or hands-off) do you leave the action beats, and how do you feel action beats end up affecting the rest of your script as a whole?
Parker: I do break down a fight or action scene into specifics, because I believe the way a character moves and behaves is as telling as anything else the character does and says, or dresses. Most of the artists I work with understand that if they have a neater idea about how it can go, they're welcome to do that instead. Kev Walker often changes my action scenes in Thunderbolts to something he feels he'll pull off better, and gives me notes on rearranging dialogue to fit what he wants to do so I know how to rewrite the bit. That's the kind of collaboration that makes a team effort feel natural. I can usually tell when an artist was given an inventory script and had no back and forth with the writer.
I also tweak dialogue right before it goes to the printer, to make what's said sync up better to the way it's drawn. Sometimes it means losing a line I really liked, but the characters aren't clotheshorses put in to hang word balloons on, the world has to be convincing and breathe.
The script alone isn't the story. The whole thing drawn, lettered and colored is the story.
Nrama: How do you view action as a narrative tool, and how do you think it affects the rest of your script? Particularly, say, when you're putting a fight scene into your script, what's effect are you trying to get out of that scene, outside of it being sort of a staple of superhero stories?
Parker: I do feel that high action is an expectation of the genre I'm working in, when I'm writing superheroes. It should advance the plot and reveal character. If it were a musical, that's what the songs should do. And if possible, each character should be doing something only he/she can do. You want the readers to imagine themselves in that situation, embracing the escapism of it. Like with the first Matrix movie, they should exit the theater wanting to do unrealistic kung fu. It's about exceptional people doing exceptional things.
Nrama: Looking back at structure as far as pacing, what's your approach in terms of outlining a plot both in the short-term and the long-term? How do you figure out how much you can story you can pack into 22 pages without it feeling too cramped or decompressed? And how do you organize your plot points so that you can keep them straight in your head?
Parker: It depends upon what part of the story I'm in. Early in a story, I tend to keep the information coming in gradually and simply. Once everything is set up and the characters are well in play, that's when I can crank up the speed and have many scenes hitting quickly. It can become extremely compressed then.
I got into hyper-compression from writing so many Marvel Adventures comics a few years ago. The standing rule with them then was that they were all done in one stories, you only had 22 pages to tell the whole thing. So I was pushed towards stories that begin with the protagonists already on mission, and I had to use every available bit of dialogue to say something about a character or get out an entertaining line; I couldn't waste a panel of it.
That just exacerbated my already existing Lack Of Patience. Things have to be happening constantly or I get bored. Even when I do a conversation scene, usually I have the speakers doing something central to the plot as they talk. Turning over stones looking for monsters, building a defense, etc. Or they should at least say all this in a really interesting location that is neat to look at — and draw, for the artist.
Nrama: For you, what do you think is the key differential between a decent story and a great story, at least as far as today's marketplace is concerned? How do you try to incorporate this into your scripts?
Parker: Well both should have a real ending, first. One of my biggest complaints, and not just in comics but in prose and film, is that endings aren't always considered enough. You should know the essentials of your ending before you start the story, let the middle be the amorphous part, not the finale. Endings are important, but it's a vestige of monthly periodicals that they often suffer in comics.
What intrigues me most to attempt, and that I love seeing in other books, is when someone takes the reader down a path they haven't seen before, at least not in the way it's unfolding. If I'm being genuinely surprised by what's happening, I'm more likely reading a great story. It's not about what happens, but how it happens that makes all the difference in quality level.
Nrama: What do you think is the smartest thing you've ever done in your career, and what do you think has been your biggest mistake?
Parker: Switching from being primarily an artist to a writer is my best move so far. All the things that hurt me career-wise as an artist work well for me now. Mainly, I would always bend my style or approach to the type of story I was telling, and that's not often rewarded in our industry except for a very few. It's just a hazard of the terrain — sticking with a very strong style and honing it makes an artist stand out and be remembered by editors and readers. Blending in, morphing constantly just naturally works against you here — though it does reward you if you work in animation, film production, that kind of storytelling. And of course if you go with a very distinct look that falls out of favor for a time, ouch. For whatever reason, I have more of a voice as a writer, even when I'm changing it up.
My biggest mistake is one I made many times during a down phase of my career I like to call "the Nineties." I let myself get derailed by setbacks of all kinds. If a proposal I had with a company fell through, I'd go into a down spiral as if a main door was just closed in my face. I would not rally back as fast as you need to — to show the industry that you're not going away, you're going to keep making stories and they might as well let you proceed because you're a full-time creator no matter what.
What really helped me finally stop doing that was going and working in other fields like animation and live-action TV. And it wasn't because storyboards pay well, it's because I realized that I wasn't only a comics guy. I was a storyteller in any medium you dropped me into. I had more options, and one thing wasn't going to make or break my success. Working alone at home exacerbates those fears too, which is why I encourage creators towards studio environments when possible.
Nrama: For those who do wish to break into the industry as writers, what do you think they need to know about this job that they just don't?
Parker: They don't know or don't believe that no one has time to read their scripts. I assure you, it is true. Even writers who are already being paid for scripts find it takes forever for editors to read the things- everyone is under the gun trying to get books finished and to the printer, they simply don't have the quality time to sit down with your script, read and imagine how it plays out. You absolutely must find someone to draw your story if you can't do it yourself. Only when it's in an easily digestible comics format, professionally lettered so someone can look over it on the train or at home, will you get through to them.
You will probably have to pay an artist real money to get this. You should. It takes at least ten times longer to draw a page than to write it, even by a seasoned pro; don't ask them to do it for free unless it's a property you both own, and really you should still find some money.
But here's the one they really, really don't want to hear. If you think it will cause the site to be hacked to death, block it out, David, but…
STOP WATCHING TV AND PLAYING VIDEO GAMES ALL THE TIME.
I'm not kidding. Where do you think the time to write everything that will propel you forward is going to come from? Do you want to create this stuff or only consume it? And here's where many throw in that they want to see a show for inspiration, some kind of justification- we've all watched enough television to last us a few lifetimes, most of it not that impressive. It's not like you're watching only The Wire. And I hope you're not shooting for being derivative. You need all that time to either be creating or going out having real experiences to bring to your work. I know way too many people who complain of being unproductive before going into X-Box land for five hours.
And you should love to write, and write your own characters and stories. You shouldn't aspire to write Batman as your end goal. It's great work, and could be extremely rewarding, but don't you ultimately want to create your own worlds? It's the people who keep plugging away writing and creating new things that get asked to be on those books, by the way. Similarly, stop spending hours on message boards picking at entertainment you didn't like, go do it right instead.
I encourage you to write out of your comfort zone, attempt a genre you don't believe you have an affinity for. That's where you'll find out what you have to say as a creator or if you're just regurgitating entertainment you consumed in the past. And you'll be more employable- we are after all talking about being a commercial creator. If the paradigm shifted and Westerns came back in vogue overnight, you can damn well rest assured I'll have a cowboy comic ready to go next week. I'll find stories I want to tell in that area. I don't really think of myself as a superhero writer, believe it or not- if you read my Marvel stuff you'll find that inside they're really adventures, mysteries, horror, comedy, romances- with people who happen to wear tight-fitting bright colored costumes. I currently write a webcomic called BUCKO with Erika Moen because I need another place to tell way different types of stories. It keeps you off the path that leads to Formulaic. I hope.
Have we used up all the space on the Internet yet? If any of my advice sounds too harsh, I suggest you go try to become an astronaut or a surgeon and see if those hurdles are any lower. At Periscope Studio, we sometimes get people from other fields inquiring about making comics, and of course it's because they (insultingly to us) think it must be easy work. Then they find they can't write or draw one successful page when put to the task. Freelancing anything is difficult, marry that to writing and it becomes a real plate-spinning act on a unicycle.
So hopefully I haven't alienated everyone, but if you're serious about writing, none of that will sting much anyway. I often answer specific questions on Twitter (@jeffparker) if you have any and aren't tweeting just to defend the new Hawaii Five-O. I'm trying to give you the edge! You can do it!Click here for more of Newsarama's Process Pieces! Visit Newsarama on FACEBOOK and TWITTER and tell us what you think!