Comic book writers united late Saturday morning at WonderCon in San Francisco, at the aptly named "Comic Writers Unite!" panel.
Assembled was a crew of folks mainly known for their recent DC Comics work: Jonah Hex writer Jimmy Palmiotti, Detective Comics scribe Greg Rucka, upcoming Justice League: Generation Lost co-author Judd Winick, once-and-future Birds of Prey writer Gail Simone and Green Lantern/Flash/Brightest Day/DC chief creative officer Geoff Johns; moderated by someone who's written quite a few comics himself, current Justice League of America writer James Robinson.
Robinson prepared quite a few thoughtful questions for the panelists, making for some lively conversation and keeping fan Q&A to a minimum.
The first question was a natural place to start: "Why did you choose to write comic books?"
"It's always been the art for me," Palmiotti said. "As a good consumer, I also had ideas for myself, and what I wanted to do. My career's just been an odd one. I went from inking, to editing, to self-publishing, back to inking...I eventually decided I wanted to give (writing) a shot. It's a career that's always changing. I don't know where tomorrow leads."
"I love comics books," said Johns, who Robinson cheekily introduced as being "best known for Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. "I always have loved comic books. I went to school, and I was either going to be an artist or a screenwriter. I got more into screenwriting, I met people at DC, they asked me to pitch something, I found out I loved comics more than anything else...that's what happened."
Palmiotti shared that he first encountered Johns while he was co-running the original incarnation of Marvel Knights with Joe Quesada, when Johns submitted a proposal called "X-Cons;" like Suicide Squad but with X-Men villains.
Rucka discussed some of the advantages of comics over prose work (of which he's done plenty), saying "Whiteout, I think, would have been a mediocre novel. It needed those visuals."
Winick told the crowd about his background as a cartoonist—which he still considers himself to be, though he hasn't drawn much lately. He discussed his past with the syndicated comic strip , and his autobiographical graphic novel Pedro and Me.
"I always wanted to be a writer, but my family convinced me I would never make a living as a writer," said Simone, bringing up her past career as a hairdresser. "I knew I was creative, and I could never do a 'normal job.' I just came to a point in my life where I wanted to do something creative."
Turning the spotlight on the moderator, Robinson discussed being inspired by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's while working for a brief period at Titan Books.
Conversation moved more to the differences between writing comics and other media like short stories and screenplays.
"I actually think writing comic books is a lot harder than screenplays," Johns said.
Robinson agreed. "It's like you're storyboarding a film and editing it at the same time. Johns also pointed out that there's no issues with budgets in scripting comics, mentioning a fight scene in his script that got cut by half due to budget.
Winick added that there's no "internal monologue" during fight scenes in TV or animated programs. "In comics, we like to give you two levels," he said.
"No one talks as much as comic characters talk," Rucka interjected.
"There's no one that's worked on 'the big stuff' that doesn't say that comics are the most freeing and independent medium they've worked on," Winick said.
Both Rucka and Palmiotti expressed that it's simply cool to be able to write such iconic characters.
"You write stuff and Superman says it, and you can't pay for that thrill," Rucka said. "You've added yourself in some small way to a legacy that's bigger than you will ever be. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman—these characters will be around in 50 years, in some form."
"'Me? I'm writing what Superman's saying?' That's so crazy," Palmiotti said. "That's the fantastic part of it."
Next topic was the ubiquitous topic of digital comics and shifting distribution methods. "That beautiful gatefold in Blackest Night #8," Robinson said, "you can't do that on a computer."
Both Rucka and Palmiotti said that writing for print vs. digital isn't so different, the approach just takes a "different set of tools."
"I think it's a great change. I embrace it," Simone said.
Winick said he thinks it's still the "dark ages" for digital comics. "It's the birth of a new way of transferring storytelling. Radio used to be king, than television killed it. Is the internet going to kill television? Probably not, but it's going to make it different. We still have books out there, but we've got kindle and whatnot—we're in the middle of it, and have no idea."
Like Robinson, Rucka said that digital comics can't simply replace the print product.
"The experience of reading a comic book is very unique," Rucka said. "And you will lose that until you can convince me that you can create the affective act of a page turn on a digital screen. Until that, you're going to have floppies. You can read the same comic book online, but it's a different experience."
Johns summed his opinions up succinctly: "I own a comic shop, and I hope we never, ever don't have paper comics."
With Blackest Night recently wrapped—which Robinson called "probably one of the best crossovers anybody's ever done"—talked turned to the good and bad of comic book crossovers.
"It can go wrong 100 different ways," Johns said, adding that for him, "it doesn't feel like a crossover so much as collaboration. I think when it's creative collaboration it works, when it's a 'crossover' it doesn't work."
"Ego is the biggest pitfall of these things," Rucka added. "Your job is to serve the story. If you cannot do that, get the hell out."
More from Johns: "I think the thing that hurt Infinite Crisis is that we had collaboration from the beginning, then you had people saying 'I'm tired, let's just do our own thing.' For me, Infinite Crisis was a learning experience, which is why I'm better at it now than I was."
Simone said that she always keeps in mind the basic theme of whatever she's writing, no matter how epic the event might be.
"I need to have one to five words in my head as to what the story's about," Simone said. Is it about fatherhood? Birth? Redemption?" Specifically turning to a Secret Six story about prisons, she said, "In my mind that was about, 'what does it say about a society—how they treat their prisoners?'"
This talk prompted Robinson to ask how writers "fix" things when they end up with "massive b-plots."
"I do an annual. That's how you know," Johns said. "If you see Green Lantern Annual #1, you know I screwed up."
"No, you don't screw up, you run out of pages," Rucka added. "That's why Jimmy Olsen got a special—and then we did another one."
The short audience Q&A involved asking Winick about Jason Todd's motivation ("It's the story of a little boy who doesn't think his dad loves him. 'The worst monster walking the Earth killed me, and that wasn't enough to murder him?'"), writer's block ("I always feel like a good cure for writers' block is the landlord knocking on my door asking for the rent," Robinson said), the role of editors (Johns called them "unsung heroes") and the process of writing itself. Rucka said it's more about discipline than inspiration.
"This is what we do for a job. If I don't do it, I starve," Rucka said. "If you sit around and wait for it to happen, you won't do it."