When you think of up-and-comers in the comics industry, Nick Spencer is indisputably on the top of the list. Having taken the market by storm with his creator-owned works such as Existence 2.0, Forgetless, and Morning Glories, Spencer quickly made his mark at powerhouses such as DC Comics and Marvel, the latter of which he ultimately signed an exclusive.
Not bad for just over two years' worth of credits. Yet Spencer has also been very generous with his insights, in this latest edition of Writer's Workshop. Talking about voice, theme, and influences, Spencer spoke candidly about the successes and hurdles in his meteoric rise to success.
Newsarama: Nick, just to start off with — how did you decide that comics were something you wanted to do professionally? What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome to get to where you are now?
Nick Spencer: I wanted to do this when I was a kid. I grew up around comics — my dad was a big comics reader, and he passed it along to me. Some of my earliest memories involve comic books and comic book characters. I always wanted to be a writer, all through my childhood and teenage years — I thought that was what I was going to do. I think when I was 18, 19, 20, I did some pitching, did some work with artists. But I was a kid — maybe my follow-through wasn't what it should have been. And likely I wasn't where I needed to be yet.
On top of that, there was a big part of me was, well, the largeness of it as a career goal was really concerning to me. I had a lot of friends that wanted to be writers of some sort — I have a very practical side to me. I was very much like, "well, we're in Kentucky. I'm at a table at a bar, and there are eight people — and five of them are saying they're going to be writers? Something has got to give here." (Laughs) I think I discouraged myself to some extent. I started thinking about, "oh, I've got to be a grown-up, pay the bills pretty soon."
At the same time, I had a big experience because I went to Wizard World Chicago, and met Bob Schreck — the legendary editor from DC, Dark Horse and IDW. He was very kind, and he took me aside and gave me some free advice at the show. His advice was, "if you really want to be a writer, live for a bit, and have some life experiences." He talked about Matt Wagner's life before he wrote Mage, and how it informed Mage. For some reason, that advice really clicked with me — I think I was already sort of heading in that direction, and I think there was just a little voice that said, "now is just not the time."
So I went off and did a lot of other things — I did politics for a little bit, I ran a bar, I organized a music festival. Not very much of it ended up working very well — I'm not the best entrepreneur. Creative people tend to have great ideas for businesses, but not be very good at running them. That was sort of me in a nutshell. I got very emotionally involved in the projects, which is a pitfall of being a creative person. The whole time I'm doing these things, the whole time I'm doing these things, writing is in the back of my head from time to time, it's something I keep saying I'm going to come back to.
I'm still reading and enjoying comics all these years, and then, yeah, the bar closed up, and I was in a place where I didn't have a job. I didn't have a career. I didn't have a plan. I said, "what about this writing thing?" I think I'd done enough by then that it didn't seem as daunting. I got to do stuff at fairly high levels, and had seen some success, so it wasn't as terrifying to think that I could do it. So it seemed like the right time in life to do something drastic. So I took a Greyhound up to New York from Cincinnati, and we were off to the races from there.
Nrama: Just as far as influences go and teachers and media you've consumed, what's helped shape you as a creator?
Spencer: Oh sure. I think of stuff — I think of LOST, things like that. Everything in the J.J. Abrams-verse has had a pretty profound impact on me, in the way that I like to tell stories. I'm a big fan of the Mystery Box school, and everything that comes with that. Obviously Grant Morrison is a big influence — my biggest writing influence, my favorite author is Philip K. Dick. I think you see a lot of that in my work.
Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughan are guys that I like, with their characterization and dialogue and the back-and-forth. Certainly Aaron Sorkin. Brian Michael Bendis is a big one. Those are the guys that I sort of look at — I can their influences in my work, I can see what I picked up and what I took, and those are the guys I still look to, and sort of anchor myself with and test myself by.
Nrama: When you were consuming these particular authors, were there any moments that it just kind of clicked for you, and you thought, "wow, this makes a lot of sense, this is a tool I'm definitely going to use in my personal toolbox"?
Spencer: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick was a big one. I can remember sitting with it — for people that haven't read it, I'm going to spoil it some — VALIS is sort of a semi-autobiographical story. It's a fictionalized version of Philip K. Dick, who's on this quest for answers and meaning and purpose in his life. He's looking for divine inspiration, for divine contact. It's very much stream-of-consciousness as Philip K. Dick tries to sort through all these possible belief systems and all these different theories of what consciousness is and what the meaning of life is. It just spins and spins and spins, and you just get caught up in it. You start to believe in it.
He's a force of nature, he's very effective of reeling you in, making you think, "this guy is on to something." As you get closer and closer to the end, you get caught up, you're believing what you're reading. You're thinking, "this is like a new Bible, this is a new religion." You're bought in. And then in the last few pages of the book, he just pops the balloon — he just deflates everything, and he just has reality slap you hard in the face. You're just left in this sort of dejected, grounded place — and then just at the very last moment, he tells you to get back up and do it again.
For me, I looked at that book, and I thought that's what storytelling really is. It's hypnotism. It's blindfolding someone and taking them somewhere, and then yanking the blindfold off. It's about disorienting people, and about making them dizzy. It's sleight-of-hand.
Another big moment for me was reading St. Swithin's Day, by Grant Morrison. For people who haven't read it, I'm going to spoil it a bit. St. Swithin's Day is about a very disenfranchised, very disillusioned man. He's very angry at the world, and he's about to do something very stupid and very tragic. It ends with him doing something remarkably brilliant, and it ends with him doing something very satisfying.
I think in addition to being a nice summation of what Grant does so brilliantly, I think again it's this is an exercise of getting you to buy into something without seeing behind the curtain. It goes back to that belief that storytelling is really about confusion, and about lying, and about making people see things that aren't there, and doing that on a lot of levels.
To me, when you look at both of those stories, they were hugely influential stories to me, but they're also lies and deceptions that the authors are telling themselves, to a certain extent — and that's what I think really makes them work, what really makes them special. The storyteller is just as much a part of the audience as much as everyone else, and that's a tricky, tricky thing to pull off. But those are two stories that I think do it, and do it incredibly well.
Nrama: You were talking about the author as a liar, and coming up with a great twist on things. For you, is that where you start when you're putting your scripts together? What's the foundation for you, when you're moving from the blank page to the finished product?
Spencer: It's a funny thing — I've never had an idea the same way twice. I've never started work on something the same way as the last thing. Talking sometimes about how things get started is very tricky for me — I've had stories that have come to me instantly, fairly fully formed. I've had small beginnings that I come back to for months, and add things to. I've had two completely separate ideas, two divergent concepts that I eventually marry.
I've never had it happen the same way twice. I find I spend a very long time finding songs and finding visuals and finding individual panels. It feels like it circling when you're doing it. It feels like you're getting closer and closer and closer, and then you sit down and you're like, "OK. I have these pieces. I have this influence map, or whatever you want to call it, of all these different things, and now we're patching them all together." It's about roping all those things in and making them cohesive.
So I'll have weeks and months of conceptualizing stuff. A lot of times this happens to music. I'll sit there and I'll start to have an idea, so I'll put a track on repeat. I used to have Last.fm, which reports online sort of whatever you're listening to, so your friends can join. You get off Last.fm when you're a writer, because inevitably someone's going to make fun of you for listening to Fake Empire 172 times. That's taking you somewhere. You were visualizing things to that, and it just helps to stick it on repeat and zone out, and just let your mind's eye play it out.
It's a tricky thing to corral sometimes, especially as your workload gets more and more intense, and you don't have two months to sit and bat the ball around a bit, to take your sweet time with it. You've got to find it a little bit faster. Learning to do that is a tricky thing. I'm working on something right now where it's a big, big deal project. It has a lot of people involved in it. I've got my outlines and everything, and I've got my general idea of how these first issues are going, but I was sitting around last night just doing the song on repeat trick and finding new things.
A lot of people get ideas from walking around places — I'm in London now, but I was in New York, and it would be very common for me to take the train in and just walk half of Manhattan. And then from there, it's about pulling it all together and putting it on the page.
But for me, once I'm actually in front of the keyboard, everything seems to go pretty quickly from there. It's the conceptual process that takes a lot of time — once I'm in scripting, usually at that point it's mostly dictation. Usually at that point it's a scene I've played out in my head, and now it's just memory. Now it's just taking it and writing it down. People say, "how are you scripting so many different things at once?" It's because I've already got the story there — now I'm just putting it on the page and tweaking what was already in my head.
Nrama: You were saying that sometimes you get a song, that'll lead to a panel, that'll lead to something you can circle around to nail your script. Could you give us an example of the work you've printed where that's happened?
Spencer: A huge one is T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. It's written to Broken Bells every time. Each issue of that — actually, the first issue of that book is titled "The High Road." I was stuck on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and I was freaking out, because it was my first DC work-for-hire gig. I had nothing, and I was freaking out. But I started listening to that, and the whole thing really poured out from that.
They've all got their soundtracks — they've all got the stuff that pushes them. The scenes all really have their moments — it's a tricky thing, because sometimes it can get in the way. But for the most part it's a big part of my process, and it's really helpful for me.
I think that's also why people end up saying that my stuff reads somewhat cinematically — I think that has a lot to do with it, in that I am usually initially conceiving scenes as moving pictures. Usually in the scripting, what I'm doing is taking that stuff that's in my head and I'm then in the script phase taking those things and figuring out how to turn those things into static images.
Nrama: When you are pacing these projects, for you, how do you break things down, to make sure that you're not trying to pack in too much on a page, or too much in 22 pages?
Spencer: You know, I think it's one of those things. I'm not afraid to take five pages out of a script — it's funny, I just did this a couple of days ago, where the first five pages of a 22-page book are some very menial, routine, day-to-day unexciting… well, there's no explosions, put it that way. There's no big reveals — it's moving chairs around and looking at the kitchen, and things like that. I do that because to some extent, and this is becoming more true by the day, we are getting more concerned about where we're going rather than how we get there in comics storytelling. That concerns me.
I personally care a lot about building atmosphere and about showing how characters are feeling, not just through body language, but through actions. It's a thing where that stuff can be so effective in reeling people in and really making them lose themselves in the story. There are certain reactions that our minds have to seeing those seemingly routine things that just bring us closer into a story. This is what real people do, this isn't what fictional characters do, so it really sort of pulls us closer into a story. It makes us care more. So that's stuff I'm big on.
I know how to do a tightly paced story — I do a lot of six-page stories, I've done a lot of 10-page stories, I've done three-issue minis and one-shots. I know how to do a beginning, middle and end, I understand three-act structure. But I worry sometimes — now with the Internet being what it is, and just all this instant coverage of every single issue of every single book, that we're doing or not doing things that we might not be intended to do in the first place.
I think Morning Glories #6 is a pretty good example of this, of people saying, "the kids aren't in it! This is completely out of left field!" It's that thing, this sort of expectation that every individual issue and every individual chapter should throw the hardest punch that it can — I don't agree with that. I don't think that that's the best way to tell a story.
So pacing is a tricky thing. You, at the end of the day, just have to stick to your guns — if you know where you're going, and you know what your payoff is, you as a writer have to have the confidence to say "I'm going to make them wait. I'm going to make them hurt for a bit. I'm going to confuse them for a bit. It'll make it better when we make it to the finish line."
I've seen that in stuff that I'm a fan of — going to back to Grant, I can remember back when he started on Batman. This isn't some new guy at this point — he's Grant Morrison, he's a giant, he's already a legend. I remember when he took over Batman, and I can remember people screaming for DC to fire him. I can remember when that Batman run started — if you were to believe the Internet, and you were to believe the people who were lining up to get in front of mics at conventions, that run was a travesty. Now, everybody looks at that Batman run and says it's a classic, it was one of the greatest Batman runs of all time.
That's because Grant has that confidence. He'll spend 20 issues confusing the shit out of you, spinning you around, making you dizzy. It's an art form, but for me, that's what it comes down to. You have to have the confidence to hold this back until it's the right moment.
Nrama: Let's talk about high concepts for a second. You've had a couple of doozies yourself, in that department. When you're putting a concept like that together, what are you looking for to really give it some legs?
Spencer: To me, the good high concepts are not the maybe the Hollywood logline. For me, coming up with a good science fiction high concept, which is what I do a lot of, is about finding the mirror. It's about finding what is the human story that you can tell with that little bit of science fiction. On, say, existence — you have the logline, which would be "a physicist finds himself transferred into the body of the hitman that just killed him, and now he has to solve his own murder."
Great. That is the logline. But it's a story about what happens if you had made some mistakes and made a mess of your life, if you were generally an unhappy person and just wanted to be someplace else — and then suddenly you found yourself someplace else. You have this fresh start and this new life. What would that be like? In the end, it's a story about when we make our mistakes and we do the wrong thing, we tend to just want to get away, to run away. But what we need to do is be with the people that we care about and do the right thing.
So for me, any high concept that I have, it has to tie to some sort of cinematic discovery — it's got to be an inward journey as much as an outward journey. For me, science fiction is something that doesn't just tell us about our possible futures, or potentialities, but it's about where we are now, and finding that thing that makes us tick. It's learning something about ourselves.
Nrama: Once you've got that high concept, how do you go about wedding the right theme to it? I mean, like for Existence 2.0, you could have easily made that story just be about Sylvester's body image issues and getting over feeling ugly, but that's obviously not what your story was really about.
Spencer: He does have a little bit of that — you just mentioned body image stuff, and I think that is a part of the story. Suddenly he's attractive to women and is a fit guy. But again it just goes into that whole, you think you want to be someone else, but really what you want to do is fix your own life.
But past that, for me, marrying the two — it's a really funny thing sometimes, how this works in your head. It's more discovery than invention. You have this idea, for instance — this guy wakes up in the body of the hitman that just killed him. It just starts to spin out from there. You think, "OK, who would want to do something like that?" Or "where would a person like that go from there?" And the blanks just start to fill themselves in from there.
I see, sometimes, there are usually the graphic novels that are purchased by a studio before they are written, you know? That are just these… I don't know… "Werewolves in World War II." I always look at that kind of stuff — I'm just kind of bewildered. I'm like, "what are you trying to say?" What's the werewolf going to teach me? It just doesn't mean anything if it's not going somewhere. For me, I just don't understand it. You've got half of a decent idea. (And I want to apologize if anyone's actually written "Werewolves in World War II," I'm sure it's fantastic. I'm sure I completely missed the point of that which I did not read.)
But that's not a story idea, because it doesn't tell the reader anything about their lives. It doesn't have anything to connect to, or relate to. Don't get me wrong — they can make a comic book out of it, they can make a movie out of it, they can make a TV show out of it, it doesn't matter. It's still not a story. There's a phenomenal difference between the two.
Nrama: As far as Existence 2.0 is concerned, how did you end up discovering what the lesson was going to be? When did that hit you?
Spencer: I knew that Sly was going to — spoilers for people who haven't read Existence — I knew that Sly was going to sacrifice his own life via the transferring process to save his daughter very, very early on. Because it made perfect sense for this story about evading or ducking mortality to end with the protagonist willingly giving up his life. To me, that made a lot of sense as far as how to end it. It's funny, because I say I write a lot about this, but because they're long stories, I haven't really reached it yet. I write a lot about mortality.
Nrama: You've also been involved with retooling a ton of books, like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Iron Man 2.0, Supergirl — what are you looking for, as far as character or concept or theme is concerned, when you're trying to reposition an existing character to draw in a wider audience?
Spencer: In some ways, characters that have been dormant for a long time are easier, because there aren't as many moving parts. They've been sitting for a long time, and they've had a lot of dust gathering on them — there aren't three different offices saying, "oh, we're doing something with this character here," or things like that. In a lot of ways, you take something like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, that's not very hard to do, really. You just have all the things that have happened right in front of you. It's just about distilling it back down to what made the character work in the first place, and building a story out of that.
With a character like Jim Rhodes, I was very lucky in that Matt Fraction had done a lot of the hard work there. Matt had set the character back to his foundational level, and sort of put him where he was supposed to be. So from there, I was able to put the story out, so I didn't have to do a whole lot of clean-up there. Some of the other things I'm working on now, it's juggling. It's finding ways to acknowledge what's come before and make it a part of your story, but to also make it seamless from where you're trying to go. It's a tricky thing.
Nrama: Looking at characterization for a second, since you've worked with both original characters and with icons — what information do you find to be particularly helpful in getting inside a character's head and really establishing their true north?
Spencer: For me, usually it's right on the page — what you want from that character is probably already there, so it requires pretty diligent reading of the back material. I have a really frustrating habit of having to read basically everything. I'm not one of these guys who can come on and take over a book and just read the previous arc or read the first issue. I need to feel very familiar with everything that's gone before. So if you're taking over for characters that have 30-plus year histories, you have a lot of homework. But the bottom-line is, if you do that, you start to see the sort of recurring themes and motifs of a character.
To me, the two guys who are the best at this are Geoff Johns and Brian Bendis. They're so good — in very different ways — of taking what's come before with the character and finding out how to make something that connects with a modern audience. Geoff does it a lot with updating the sort of concepts, you know — he has a tendency to take things like Green Lantern rings and take the existing mythology and build it out, times 10.
Brian, meanwhile, has a gift for taking those smaller character moments of Silver Age books and blowing them up, turning them into sort of connective tissues between stories. The best example being the Scarlet Witch stuff, where you could see that for 50 years. You could see that's where that character was headed — but people were still surprised, because you would only see it once every 10 years, and even then, it might just be for a few panels. But Brian could sit there and say, "look what happened to her kids, and how she responded to that. Look at how she was with West Coast Avengers, and how she flipped out then. Look at her childhood, look at her home life." And it all made perfect sense.
So I do a lot of that. I try to take the concepts and update them and build them out, and I try to take those little character moments and see what it might look like 30 years later, 40 years later.
Nrama: When you've got these characters with established histories, like Jim Rhodes, have there been any observations or discoveries that have really surprised you?
Spencer: With Jim, it's been interesting, because I think what Jim really needed, more than anything, was just to get back to the basics of who the character is. He's the military guy, he's the soldier, he's Tony's best friend, and he's the bridge between the United States military and Stark that sort of maintains that tricky balance that needs to be maintained between these very big, very powerful entities. I think that is where Jim needs to be.
I think that when you look at a lot of previous War Machine stories, they were two things — and there were some really good ones — but there were two things that kept popping up to me: Half of them involved turning Jim into something completely different. It was like, "we're going to take this character, and we're going to do something crazy different with him. We're going to change him a lot." And the other half of the stories seemed like, "look at all these big guns." That's fun — I get it, people like big guns — but in both cases, I said we've got to get back to the guy beneath the armor, beneath the guns, and he's got to be the guy that we recognize.
This is almost always true with these characters — it's fun to try to take them off to new places, sometimes. I'm a big fan of doing that. But this is a medium that is built to last for decades — hopefully centuries — and as a result, getting back to and staying in touch with these characters' roots is a very important thing to do on a regular basis. I think with Jim, I think that was what our job was — to get him back to something recognizable, something that even people who hadn't been familiar with the character other than the films would recognize.
Matt's the best at that — Matt is the best at finding ways to make these stories with decades-old continuity digestible and approachable to new readers. So people who were brought in by the films and things like that — I try to pay close attention to how he does that. With Iron Man 2.0, I think about that a lot — I think that people who come in, and they really liked Iron Man 2.0, they really like Don Cheadle, and they're like, "I want to read that guy's book." I think about that a lot.
I know there are fans who don't like that approach, and think that's disrespectful to the comics — but we have such a rare opportunity right now to bring people in. So if we can think of different ways to make the stories approachable for them, and to not scrap continuity, to not diss it, while still honoring what's coming before, then I think we owe it to the medium to try to do that.
Nrama: As far as original characters are concerned, whether its Toby and Colleen over in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, or Sylvester over in Existence, or any of the Morning Glories kids, what do you find helpful about building up these characters from the ground-up?
Spencer: With me, character creation is always just about shoplifting. It's just about shoplifting personality aspects from different people. I've never written a character that I'd say is a friend of mine, or someone that I've met, but I liberally take from a lot of different people and collage it into a person. Sometimes that's a very simple character archetype, and other times it's a lot more complex than that.
I think that in a book like Morning Glories, part of the fun is taking very stereotypical kids, taking some clichés that you think you know, and sort of turning them on their heads over time, or just building out from that very recognizable archetype. With other books, like with Colleen and Toby over in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, it's about starting from the place of confusion, and from well deep into the layers, and then peeling back to whatever they are. Those are two very different approaches. It's just about, it's about patchwork.
Nrama: When you are putting these patchwork personalities together, just to use Toby as an example, what sorts of bits of personality were you taking from different sources? How did you end up finding these particular patchwork pieces?
Spencer: Some of them don't have to be people that you know. Sometimes they can be characters from television or film. Toby started as Adam Brody in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, if you've ever seen that. That was the starting point for him — I liked that character a lot, and was pissed that he got about 10 minutes of screen time in one movie. I was always like, "that would be a fun starting point."
But then, obviously, anyone who's read T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents knows that we got a full 180 from that start point. Toby, or James, is really about a guy who has always looked up to someone else and has always been able to be the young one and the weak one. He's so eager to please, and he's just sort of just naturally obedient. It's about sort of when older brothers disappoint younger brothers, when authority figures let you down — which is a big part about what that book is. It's about taking something like that, somebody that you know or somebody that you see in fiction somewhere, and adding and subtracting. It's a tricky process, you know?
And then sometimes you'll get a character like Colleen, who I think is wholly unique in a lot of ways, in terms of her personality. I couldn't tell you where Colleen comes from. Sometimes you get these characters that really pop up out of nowhere. She's, without spoiling too much, I'm writing a lot of Colleen right now, because she's the focus of the second arc.
What I'll say about her is I like Colleen because she never says what's on her mind, and she's in some ways a little like Jim, because she's surrounded by people with big goals, big plans and big ideas, and they're willing to step on things to get to them. She's very much more has her feet planted on the ground, and is trying to prevent as much damage as possible from being caused by these "great men" around her. She's in a persistent state of being annoyed by the people around her and her own conscience.
Nrama: For you, are there any particular tools or exercises that you do that help you guide or shape your story?
Spencer: One of my big things, and I think people are learning this as we get into books — my first few books were all shorter stories. I think that people are seeing this as we get a little bit deeper into Morning Glories or T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, but I'm the decompressiest of decompressies. I wear that on my sleeve, I won't apologize for that. I'll take my time, because I want you to be able to look back on a 30-issue story, or a 50-issue story, or a 100-issue story — I want you to be able to take it as a completed work, and I want it to read right that way.
Anybody that gets upset about this, I'll usually ask them, "name me your five favorite comics in the last 30 years." You know what they're going to come back with? They're going to come back with stuff like Sandman or the Invisibles or Preacher. If you go back and look at the single-issue breakdowns of those books, those books, they took their time. The characters didn't lay all their cards out on the table five pages into Issue #1.
For me, those are the books that I enjoyed the most, and they're the books that kept me reading comics, and they're the kinds of stories that I want to tell. For me, Colleen will tell you what she's up to in her own sweet time — you'll find out what's going on in her head when it's the right time to find that out. In a book like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents or a book like Morning Glories, nobody's exactly what they look like.
I think that people appreciate feeling like they're reading about fully formed characters — just real people. There's only so much you can do in 22 pages effectively. Which isn't to say you can't hit a perfect emotional beat in a panel — that's not the case — but every emotional beat isn't going to get hit that way.
I get excited when I think that five, 10 years from now, there's going to be in addition to right now, people enjoy the books coming out month-to-month, hopefully there's going to be hardcovers out with these books, and you'll be able to give it to somebody and say, "this is T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. This is Morning Glories." I want them to read well that way, too. I think about both, and you have to keep your long game and your short game in mind all the time. I think I write some pretty good single issues, but everything that I write, I'm also writing thinking about where we're going, where we need to be a year from now, two years from now.
Nrama: You mentioned that you can only fit so much in 22 pages. As far as packing up and dividing the long game in these 22-page chapters — or even just based on a page-by-page basis — how do you determine how much you can fit?
Spencer: Well, usually I know where I'm starting and where I'm ending in a story. I know what Page 1 and what Page 22 is. Then it's about connecting Point A to Point B. I have a habit of writing my first few pages and writing my last few pages, and then I'll connect them. In any given issue, I want to tell a satisfying, self-contained story as I can pull off without sacrificing the long story.
Sometimes you're going well, well off the beaten path. You see things like Morning Glories #6, or Iron Man 2.0 #4, or Morning Glories #7, where we really went way off the reservation. That's what I mean when I say having that confidence in where you're going. But at the same time, I want to individual issues to be fun reads — I want them to be rewarding, and I want them to be worth 3 or 4 bucks. I try to make sure that each issue has some sort of three-act structure, or something like it.
Nrama: Something I think a lot of people might overlook about you is your dialogue. You've got some pretty snappy speech going on in your books, but it also works in a utilitarian fashion, as far as getting exposition and character across. What's your approach as far as putting words into your character's mouth?
Spencer: It's the oldest line in the book, pretty much, but I say my dialogue out loud. I say it out first. I tend to write dialogue first for a page — usually when it's done, I'll write out 1-2-3-4-5, as my panels, and then I'll go out and do the dialogue for those panels, and then I'll write out my panel descriptions. Once you've done that, then you'll start moving some things around, and once in awhile, you'll get a crazy idea of how to shake it all up.
For me, I think one of the big tricks to dialogue is that dialogue is all about rhythm, it's all about being in it — if you sit back and you're breaking from it from every panel or every page, it's going to feel forced and it's not going to feel like a song anymore. It's going to feel like a lot of stops and starts, which is what a lot of comic book dialogue has a tendency to sound like. It has a tendency to sound like 10 conversations over three pages between the same three people.
I can always tell when that is — it's usually because either the writer is writing out his action beats first, or he's writing his action beat, then his dialogue for it, then his next action beat, then his next round of dialogue. That's why it's sounding more stilted, that's why it's stuttering more.
What I'll go through — I've written entire issues as dialogue, and then gone and done the panel breakdowns. What ends up happening is it sounds a lot more like a real conversation, because you just let it play out — you let the back-and-forth happen, you let them talk to each other. That's the shorthand for me, really, is it has to work read out loud or on the page.
It's a tricky thing, because we don't have actors reciting dialogue — that makes it a lot harder, because good actors cover up a lot of lines of bad dialogue in film and television. But unlike novels, we're a visual medium, so we don't have the prose to dress it up, either. So it's really got to sink or swim on its own.
It's maybe the most challenging medium to write dialogue for. Because of that, I find that the smartest thing is to let the dialogue run the show when it needs to. Just let your characters talk, then go through what happened while they were talking.
Nrama: We might be veering into minutiae here, but since you were discussing going from dialogue to laying out panels, how many panels do you think you can put on a page before it feels too crowded? And as far as scenes or conversations go, how long do you feel comfortable letting them go on?
Spencer: Well, like I said earlier, I'm not afraid to hold the ball for a bit. That's one of those things I kind of stick to my guns on. If the scene needs to be 10 pages, it needs to be 10 pages. If the scene needs to be 22 pages, it needs to be 22 pages.
For me, in terms of panels per page, there's all sorts of shorthand of what you can do here — Matt Fraction showed me this one time the Mort Numbers, which is sort of this formula for the number of words that you can have per panel, per page. It doesn't work entirely perfectly, but it can give you a little bit of shorthand. I don't use it very much anymore, because so much varies between artists, is one thing.
People don't understand this — you look at words per page in a Brian Bendis comic. He can do a lot because A) he's very good at visualizing a page layout, B) he's working with artists who know how to draw small and understand balloon placement, which is a lost art for a lot of people. To understand this is how big the balloon has to be, and this is where it has to fit in order to flow right, and now draw around that. It varies from artist to artist in terms of what you can do.
I think it's about knowing what your artist can do, about knowing what you want your page to look like — because you can do a nine, 10-panel page, you can do a 12-panel page, but you need to know what it looks like. You need to know what that picture in your head looks like. If you've read enough comics, and if you've written enough comics, you're going to know how many words can fit. It's something I'm still learning. That's one that I'm still working my way through, because I'll get my books sometimes, and I'll see sparse pages, and I'll see crowded pages. It's just kind of learning what you can do, where, what artist you can do it with.
I just saw the lettering on Secret Avengers #12.1, which I did with Scott Eaton. Scott's been at Marvel for a long time, so he's worked with a lot of wordy assholes like myself. I was very nervous, because we were trying to do a done-in-one, self-contained adventure, and we wanted a lot to happen. I wrote it, and I said, "Oh man, I'm scared it's going to be too wordy. It's going to be big blocks of text." But Scott is such a pro that Avengers-style, that X-Men-style comic, that's his specialty. He nailed it, so it just looks perfect. It's a little big at parts, but it gets the job done — that's the thing, when you've got artists like that, it helps you a lot.
Nrama: Since we're talking about working with artists, I wanted to ask — when you're doing your own creator-owned books, you've kind of got to act like your own editor, as far as finding the right artist to work with, and then planning your release schedule. I know you had a ton of books coming out rapidly over the past few years, so I wanted to ask — how did you go about planning this staggered release?
Spencer: Poorly! Nah, you're absolutely right. When you're working on creator-owned books, it's like running a business. It's very hard, because there's all kinds of behind-the-scenes stuff that has to be done. I remember, back in the day — what I'll say is the thing about creator-owned work is that it can be enormously satisfying, and you can make a good living off of it, but you have to understand that there's more to it than just turning in the script.
I've been very lucky in a lot of my creator-owned stuff, particularly Morning Glories and Infinite Vacation, working with artists that I consider friends, guys that I think very highly of as people. I think that makes the process a lot simpler. I think that's when a lot of really special work gets done, especially in creator-owned comics, when two guys are really on the same page.
I think about it with Christian Ward on Infinite Vacation, he's such a good friend, and I genuinely think the world of the guy. It makes you work differently — I won't say that it makes you work harder, but it makes you really excited to give them your best stuff, and to do something groundbreaking. And Joe Eisma on Morning Glories is just the sweetest, most professional guy — just such a great positive attitude, and is just such a nice, laid-back approach. He cares so much about the story and about the characters.
Look, I built my career on that stuff, on that creator-owned work, and it was years of corralling and cajoling artists to work on books that weren't going to make any money. It was years trying to keep these things on schedules that were very hard to maintain. It ain't easy, y'know? But I'm real proud of how much we were able to get done, and the quality of it.
Nrama: So did you basically end up having all those books in development around the same time?
Spencer: Well yeah, this is one of the things I always tell new guys when they have their book out — they're real excited, you know? They'll come to shows and say, "hey! I got my comic! This is what I've been working towards for years! I got my first comic published! It's got the Image logo printed down here!" And the first thing I'll say is, "that's awesome, man — now go do three more, and try to get them out within a year." Because that is what it takes now.
There's so much good creator-owned work these days — we are in a golden age of this stuff. If you think that your one good book is going to sit up and make the world take note, you will probably be disappointed. That isn't to say that's always the case, but the faster you can build up that library — the more you can stay in people's heads as someone who keeps producing — the longer you can build that buzz, there will be a lot of people who will never even read those books… but they know who you are. They're reading the websites or whatever, and they're hearing about you. That's a big part of the secret.
Now don't get me wrong, sometimes people can have that one book, and it's so brilliant that Marvel and DC are calling them right away. But you even look at somebody like Jon Hickman, whose first book was incredible — it was a fuckin' masterpiece, the Nightly News — but what did Jon do? Jon did three more books right away. Jon Hickman was an imprint at Image for that year, with Pax Romana, Transhuman and Red Mass for Mars were coming out. It was just one after the other. Marvel and those guys saw that and said, "wow, not only is this guy producing great work, but he's producing a lot of it. He's motivated."
That's the stuff I looked at — so as soon as I had Existence out, I thought, okay, we've got to get Forgetless out, then Shuddertown, and after that we'll get Morning Glories out. That was all the plan, you know? The plan was to do all that as quickly as possible, and in order to do that, you've got to work really hard.
Nrama: As far as finding the right artist for the right project, how'd you go about doing that? Was it a matter of style, or did you happen to know and like these people beforehand?
Spencer: I think on that, you know it when you see it. You know what your story is, so you know what kind of art it needs — chances are, you're out on the Internet looking for that story in mind. Certainly when I was looking for who was the right fit for, I don't know, for Forgetless or Existence, I would certainly find great artists, but it wasn't the right artist for that book in particular.
What doesn't hurt you then is, if you find somebody that you like, just send them an e-mail saying you're liking what they're doing. Don't even say you've got a project or whatever, just say that you like their work and this is what you're trying to do right now. Just try to network a little, to build a friendship or a relationship there. Because later down the road, when your book gets picked up and you're looking for something else, you might have another idea for them. Or sometimes you'll see their stuff and something will come to you.
I visualize in my artist's style all the time — I have a very hard time working on books where I don't know the artist. I won't script at this point, unless I know who's drawing, because I've learned that it doesn't turn out right. I need to know who they are, and study their work so I can play to their strengths.
Finding artists on those first books, it's a really hard thing to do, and it's just a thing that stops a lot of guys in their tracks. It's what kind of brings dreams of a career to a screaming halt — people can't handle that level of rejection or flakiness that they'll undoubtedly come across as they start cold-calling artists. My best advice to all those people is to save up, because if you can pay them, they will likely do it. I found that to be a rule to live by.
However you do it, it was one of the hardest things about breaking in, certainly, was finding the right artist. I went through all kinds of artists for Existence before it got picked up. I don't know — it's a tricky thing, but you've got to stay at it. That's what separates the men from the boys and the ladies from the girls.
Nrama: Just going back as a tangent a bit — you said earlier that you worked in politics. How'd that affect how you work in the industry now?
Spencer: I had some real jobs, and did some other things, and that's always a help in some ways, just because you tend to approach things with a little bit more professionalism, and you tend to think of them as work just slightly more. I'm still a creative person, so I'm not perfect in that regard, but having other gigs informs you.
I talked earlier about getting started, and I was 18, 19 the first time I started pitching books around. I'm thankful everyday that none of those ended up happening, because I think I would have been one of those writers who didn't have a lot to bring to the table, because I hadn't done anything besides writing. I think that I only could have brought the experience of a spectator at that point. All the stuff that I did through my 20s has really helped to inform what I do now.
Just more than that, I know there are amazing 19-year-old authors out there, and I'm sure there are amazing 19-year-old comic book writers out there — I know that Jim Shooter was writing Legion when he was, like, 13 — but on the whole, I think your writing will greatly benefit from some like experience, good or bad. And I think that being able to self-reflect a bit more than you're able to do in your teens or most of your 20s, I think that having that ability to look back at over a slightly longer range of experience is probably a very helpful thing.
Nrama: Looking back at your career, what do you think was the smartest risk you ever took, and what do you think was the biggest mistake you ever made?
Spencer: I moved up to New York to break into comics — which is by no means necessary. Most guys don't. But for me, it was the smartest thing I could have done.
One of the tricky things about breaking into comics as an industry is because it's all so decentralized now, and because it's so based around the Internet now and e-mail, you don't need to be in a certain zip code. You don't need to move to L.A., like you would if you wanted to be an actor. You don't need to move to New York or Austin or Portland like you would if you wanted to be in a good band.
For me, it helps me because I think the double-edged sword of that is when you're doing it as part of your normal life — and I think this has happened to a lot of guys — it's just so easy to get distracted, it's just so easy to get pulled into other things, so it becomes easy to be that guy who has a script in that bottom drawer. This "oh, I'm going to get back to it, I'm going to get back to it" line.
The purpose of moving to New York was to break into comics. That was all I was there for. It shaped my mindset — I might have given up if I didn't have that New York thing. And what was the other question?
Nrama: What was the biggest mistake you've ever made?
Spencer: (Laughs) Jesus — that is a loaded question! Look, Existence is all about that. Existence and Forgetless and Shuddertown — all of it is, well, somewhat vaguely autobiographical. Existence is more spot-on than most. I had a business fail, back in my hometown. I had a lot of things in life fall apart. I had a big break-up — just had a lot of things go wrong. I knew it was time for a fresh start. I knew it was time to start something else. So I did what everyone else did in their late 20s, if they haven't sort of settled in, by saying "what am I doing? Where am I going? What can I see myself doing for the next 30 years?"
Existence is all about that. Existence is all about a guy who has made some mistakes and finds himself in a new life, and finds himself sort of pulled back to the sorts of things that made him him in the first place, back to what really mattered and what he really cared about. I think that is very true — you learn more from your mistakes. I was saying earlier, about that ability to self-reflect — that's a major asset for any writer. If you want to tell meaningful stories, if you want to tell stories of substance, chances are you're going to be pulling from things you've seen from your own eyes, yourself. I think that I wouldn't be half the writer — if I'm a decent writer now, it's probably because of those things.
Nrama: Finally, for those who do want to break into the industry as writers and creators, what do you think they should know about the job or the industry that they just don't?
Spencer: In my experience, not too much surprised me. I think I paid enough attention, and read enough about the industry. I took Andy Schmidt's Comics Experience courses, which were a nice little briefing on what breaking into comics looks like, since he was at Marvel and stuff. If they need to know something, and I know we talked about this a little while back, it's that getting a book published is something you get to enjoy for about five minutes before you're supposed to get started on something else. What they think is the top of the mountain is literally just starting the climb. You don't enjoy that as much as you think.
And the other thing is, hold yourself to a very high standard. I decided that Image was mine. I don't mean that as disrespectful to any number of other small publishers — there's a lot of them out there, and plenty of them are great and are doing high-quality work — but there's a difference between having a book published and having a book printed. Yes, it is true — you can print a minicomic and take it to Jim Hanley's or wherever and get them to sell a few. That's a great feeling, and you should do that. And you should enjoy that and savor that, because you made something, and told a story.
But if you're saying that you want to be in that sort of rarified air of Marvel and DC work, and high-profile creator-owned work, if that's really where you want to go — and that won't be for everybody, because there's plenty to be said to be doing your books for a smaller audience and just having complete freedom and having fun doing that and having the satisfaction of doing that.
But if you're saying you want to be the next whoever, then you have to hold yourself to very high standards. Because you will get emotionally attached, and you will get excited when a page comes in from an artist, and you won't be able to say that the anatomy is wrong, or that the flow of the page isn't right. Your balloons are all over the place.
You have to hold yourself to a very high standard, and the best way to do that is to pick a publisher that is known for publishing good work, and saying "I have to get accepted by them." I did that with Image — there was a number of great publishers, but my thing was, I need to know that my books were good enough for Image, because that's where Jon Hickman started, that's where Matt Fraction did Casanova, that's where Brian Bendis did stuff.
That was the standard that I sort of held myself to — understanding that your stuff is going to have to sit on a shelf next to theirs. It's going to need to be as good, or better. Those are your options, so hold yourself to that, and don't get satisfied.
Nrama: Is there anything else that you think people should know that I haven't asked about?
Spencer: Cut down on your Twitter time. (Laughs) But in all seriousness, cut distractions out of your life as much as you can, and if you're really making a run at it, make as many hours in your day about writing as you possibly can.For more of Newsarama's process pieces, click here! Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER! FB