Author to Author: with Jeff Parker
Paul Tobin: First… since some readers of my blog might not be familiar with your work, give a brief, “this is who I am, and this is what I write.” And I do apologize for this question, because I hate it myself, but it’s as inevitable as Li’l Abner breaking Daisy Mae’s heart.
Jeff Parker: That’s appropriate because I in fact, write Li’l Abner. No I don’t really. I write a lot of comics books, many for Marvel like Hulk and X-Men First Class. I’ve also created original concepts like with the graphic novel The Interman and the series Underground with artist Steve Lieber. Much of the work is superhero stories, lots of adventure and fantastic concepts. Escapist fiction.
PT: I think we’d both like it if you DID write Li’l Abner. I’m already envisioning the Jeff Parker world of Li’l Abner, and it’s a wonderful place.
JP: It’s always fun writing hillbillies as we well know.
PT: Okay… now that you’ve said who you are and what you write, give us the romanticized version: who would you like to be, and what would you like to write?
JP: If I were at the point where masses would follow me just for my own writing rather than the licensed characters I handle, I would try to do nearly everything. More Interman books, more realistic adventure like Underground, more supernatural mystery like Mysterius the Unfathomable (another original book I did with artist Tom Fowler) and probably lots of humor and period fiction.
I want to write prose like you, and am working a young readers’ novel right now towards that end. I plan to illustrate it too, and have been sketching the characters as I go. Oh, I’d like to do more science fiction, in either comics or prose form. More in the vein of what John Wyndham would write, not so far removed from present day. Or even along the lines of the more exciting Michael Crichton books. I like writing things that require research, it makes learning the subject matter fun for me.
PT: So, you’re like me in that you figure you should probably write anything. I love researching too, although I get frustrated when not enough material is available on the subject matter. I’m working on a novel set largely in two different periods, the 1400’s and the Regency period, and it’s driving me nuts. The other day, I had a character make an offhand comment about getting paid a lot of money (circa 1450) and it took three hours of research to come up with what “a lot of money” would equate to, and what coin it would be paid in. Frustrating, but enough of all that… I’m intrigued by your mention of the young readers novel: can you talk more on that?
JP: It’s anthropomorphic animal folks because I like to draw animals, and set in something closer to the Victorian age. And though I distrust agendas in fiction, I am sneaking in scientific method as a way of life. I also want to charge against the hordes of stories where characters have a destiny, or are Chosen Ones. I want some characters who start the ball rolling instead of being drafted by existence into having an adventure. And I want it to be funny.
PT: I’ve watched you write. You have a very “spur of the moment” writing style. Do the ideas percolate in your head first… so that you’re assembling the puzzles pieces that are already there, or do the puzzle pieces burst into being as your fingers hit the keyboard?
JP: Good way to put it- I really think of it as ad-libbing, or in terms of that. Most of my best thoughts, and I guess I’m thinking I’m terribly witty but you asked, come in the moment. Erupting while in the middle of talking about something else and I find myself uttering an idea I didn’t know I’d given much thought. Early on when I started getting more serial comics work, I resolved that I wouldn’t waste that quality, that I wanted to have it in my scripts, not just everyday chatter.
While I can’t plan for having a brilliant flash or insight once delving into a scene, I can lay down a solid story structure that I am prepared to alter should some good character bits or ideas present themselves once I’m into it. It lets the stories be more fluid and dynamic, I hope. Often it keeps me from falling into formula.
PT: I think that’s a great way of looking at it. For me, it’s often like setting up the card table and all the cards, and then sitting down at the table and letting the card tricks flow out in spontaneous fashion. Hmm… I’m a little uncomfortable with the analogy I just made, though, as I don’t like to “trick” readers. I love presenting characters and drama in a straightforward fashion. Most of my favorite authors (Hammett and Chandler come to mind) do little in the way of literary disguise.
JP: I live by Chandler’s creed of “when things start to get slow or there’s too much talking, someone comes charging in the room with a gun.” And yeah, I don’t like to trick readers either, it can make me question whether all I had really was a gimmick. Generally I want to transport them, take them out of themselves.
PT: How would you say your writing has evolved over the years?
JP: I have a ton more confidence now, and that’s something you can really only get from doing a lot of work in your field. That allowed me to have plenty of feedback, seeing what works on the readers month in and month out. It gives you a good sense of what will work, and how it will be interpreted. I’m certain I’ll charge into say, a dialect with a character more boldly than I would have ten years ago. Or I won’t feel the need to over explain a fantastic concept, I trust the reader much more than I used to.
One of the things I used to do was start a story, jump to the ending and write that, and then make the two hook up because I wanted to make certain I could end the story well. Now I tend to only do that with very short pieces. I generally have the end in mind but I like to leave more ambiguity waiting for me, because it’s just a bit scary and thrilling and I think writing should be that way. Alan Moore referred to it as landing a plane, and I like that analogy. After a while you have confidence that you can land this thing no matter what, and it encourages you to take bigger risks.
That’s a great advantage to writing lots of comics as you know, you are writing complete stories all the time. I’ve heard of many novelists who got into their second or third novel and choked, afraid of not being able to resolve it all in a satisfying way. They’re writing a lot while working on these tomes, but they still haven’t done many complete stories anywhere. It puts a lot of pressure on you when you’re in the single digits of stories.
PT: Having confidence in the reader is something I really had to grow into, as well. In the early days, I was almost jumping into the story and waving at the readers, saying, “Hey! Pay attention to what I’m doing! And if you need me to explain the concept again, don’t worry! I will!” These days, I pay more attention to how I myself read, and what I want the author to do, and NOT do. Also, your comment about being on a second or third novel and choking rings true with me. I’m on book four of a middle ages project (with the characters from the Banana Sunday work that Colleen Coover and I did at Oni Press) and each word just gets harder and harder. I can feel an enormous amount of weight on my shoulders… a huge burden of linking everything together in a satisfying manner. Do you ever feel reader weight on your shoulders? How do you deal with it? Myself, it’s just a matter of time before my ego starts to swing the ol’ bravado around, and I can get back to work, but I’m curious how it works for others, and for you.
JP: I don’t want to say I DON’T feel that weight, because as soon as I utter that, I will within the week. And I think that’s the fear/impulse that causes people to repeat themselves- ‘the readers expect something like the chicken train scene, I better give them another chicken train!’ I have no idea where that analogy came from.
PT: Where do you write?
JP: In the coffee shop near my house, and down at Periscope Studio in downtown Portland, mostly. Also in bed in the middle of the night should I wake up.
PT: Are you actually disciplined enough to write in the middle of the night? I’ve lost many a good character / plot point by drowsily thinking, “That’s so good that I’ll remember it in the morning.” Which is never true. Also… how do showers work for you? I’ve heard a lot of authors (like me) speak of the shower as being a great place for sudden inspiration. Are you among them?
JP: Yeah, often I’ll wake up with anxiety, and the only way I can make it go away is to feel like I got some work done. And I’ve also lost good stuff by not writing it. The shower is a big one for me too, and anywhere I can do something with a droning white noise, like mowing the yard. I once took three hours to mow my little yard because story kept coming to me and I kept running back inside to write it down.
PT: Where do you wish you could write?
JP: Europe, or the tropics. Writing in the internet age is something you can do anywhere, and I’ve yet to really take advantage of that. Of course how hard would it be to write when you want to go out and experience a foreign land.
PT: Some of my earliest Marvel writings were done in a rented flat in the middle of Paris, and I really enjoyed that. I have all these romantic visions of me writing on tropical islands, and on mountaintops, etc… but I admit the part of the vision where I’m looking for a plug-in on a mountaintop is less romantic.
PT: I know that part of the reason you don’t draw much is because writing is faster, and therefore you can create more comics / paychecks, but if money wasn’t an issue, would you be drawing more… or is it that you just prefer writing to art-ing?
JP: Probably, but it’s also that I’m usually displeased with my drawing. Much of it is overworked and later when I’m done with it I finally realize how it could have been enjoyable to do. But then it’s too late. I see other artists like Juanjo Guarnido and think ‘that looks so much fun to draw!’ and yet for some reason I can rarely make that happen for my own stuff. It’s a big part of why I want to illustrate the book I was talking about. Then I can pick exactly the fun bits I know I’ll like to draw and will get lively with.
PT: I admit that I would love to be a comic artist, but when I sit down to draw, nothing happens. Or nothing I like happens. That’s what draws me to writing, in that when I sit down, something happens. There are always words there for me. Do you find that when you sit down to write, you are having fun? That what you want to say is making it down on the page, or are you only getting a percentage of what you want, the way it sounds like you feel about your art?
JP: I get much, much closer to want I want when writing. It might help if I’d never been exposed to so much great art that all floats around in my head, setting the bar high and far away. I can write so much faster than I can draw, and I’m horribly impatient. Really, you’d think I’d have more patience than I did when I was younger but it’s gone the other way.
PT: When you’re writing, how do you deal with distractions? Are you an author who likes to write with music, or do you have a blowgun at the ready for those who make too much noise?
JP: Even as a kid I could tune people out when I started to focus on a project. I see my own daughter do this, and then have to hear teachers misinterpret it as her ‘spacing out’ or not paying attention. And it’s true, she isn’t listening at that point, but I want to explain to them that this is the way creation really happens. Something gets completely inside your head and becomes real for you, and the rest of the world can’t compete. This is how I can write at the cafe or the studio when everyone’s talking. I could put on music, but I wouldn’t really hear it.
My major distractions are other work duties, like an editor needing me to proof the final pass of a story after it’s been lettered, or I have to check an artist’s layouts against script to see if it works- not that I’m a control freak or don’t trust my collaborators, but I work with a lot of talents who don’t speak English and not everything gets across. All of this is very necessary to making a story live and do what it needs to do, but I never feel like it’s the writing, and it can keep me from getting momentum with my writing.
PT: Man… I feel you on that. It’s amazing how I can work my ass off for six or seven hours doing the work of being a writer, but not having actually written a single thing. That’s a huge distraction, and a momentum and inspiration killer. I envy your ability to write at Periscope Studio. I’ve been going less and less, and I miss everybody, but I just can’t tune them out while I’m there. If I’m writing at a café, or a bar, or even the strip club, I can tune EVERYTHING out… but when I’m at Periscope I’m keying in on the voices of my friends… and I can’t delete them. So I stay away.
PT: If you could steal one character from fiction and move them over into your own works, who would it be? What would you do with the character?
JP: Eeyore from the Milne Pooh stories, though you could make a convincing case that Douglas Adams already did that with Marvin the Android in Hitchhiker’s Guide. God I love that character, he’s hilarious. I love the Disney movies, but their version of Eeyore is that he’s mopey, depressed… and that’s not at all what he is in the books. He’s a ruthless acerbic who judges all the other characters. Easy to see why they didn’t go with that in the movies, it didn’t fit the sweet tone they did with the art and execution; Eeyore would have come off as practically a villain. But I love to read his parts aloud.
There’s a lot of value in reading your character’s lines out loud, as you know.
PT: I’ve never actually read the Milne books. You’ve made me want to dig into them. And I’m in total agreement that there’s a huge value in reading character’s lines out loud. It really changes things: sentences that look okay on paper are suddenly revealed as fumbling on the lips. When I’m working on prose, I read everything out loud as part of the final drafting. I do it in a very low voice, though, because Colleen keeps thinking I’m talking to her, or secretly setting up liaisons on my phone.
JP: And, you are.
PT: Like me, you love a lot of Marvel’s second, third, and even fourth tier characters. And, like me, I know that’s partially because you can play with them a bit more, as they’re not caught up in continuity, etc, as much as the “big” characters. That aside, if you could form the Avengers out of any seven characters, with no editorial interference, who would it be? And, hell… let’s open it up to all characters from any companies, any media.
JP: Not sure any actual Avengers would make it in- well, Hulk. That’s what the movie did right that the books abandoned almost immediately, put Hulk in there. Then maybe Popeye, Supergirl, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, and Venus, also a Marvel character I wrote in Agents of Atlas.
PT: This project is approved. Popeye having to work with Dracula? The Hulk with Sherlock Holmes? Yes.
PT: When I’m writing, characters and events often take over, moving me away from my plans, willfully dashing my outlines. Does it work similar for you, or are you able to herd everything in the straight line you’ve envisioned?
JP: Same for me. I saw Joe Hill on Twitter describe it really well, where he said something like the plot is a suggested map for the characters, but once you let them go, they blaze all over the place and shape it their way. And if you’re writing character-driven plots (which you should be doing!) that’s what will happen. I usually don’t look back at my outline once I get into the writing, and then look at it once I’m done to see how close I got. I’m often surprised that I came pretty close, but sometimes the ending changes completely, which is exciting.
PT: When I wrote Prepare To Die!… the only things I knew going in were the premise, and the rock-solid ending I had in mind. During the course of the writing, the premise stayed true, but the actual ending of the novel is VASTLY different than what I had in mind on Day One. I still like the ending, and plan to use it on a different project, though… sometime down the line. I presume you have a whole mental box of endings / premises / character moments that are just waiting for the right partner?
PT: Did you have action figures as a kid? What were your favorites?
JP: I had Mego Batman, GI Joe, Stretch Monster, those stand out. I regret shaving Joe’s hair off on top. I made him wear his army cap all the time after that point of no return.
PT: I’m jealous. All I had was plastic army men and plastic animals. None had any real personality to them. I still engaged them in massive wars. I assume you did the same. I like the thought of Batman leading the G.I. Joes into battle. Cobra might not get the fight they need… but they’ll get the one they deserve.
PT: In all the history of comics, who are the creators you wish you could have collaborated with? How about creators outside comics? Ever dream of Jeff Parker and Rembrandt van Rijn’s X-Men?
JP: Imagine writing something that Noel Sickles would have drawn! Or Wally Wood. There’s so many. The temptation is to think of working with the difficult geniuses, to see if I could write something they would actually approve of. Could I have written a story that Toth would have gone for? That would involve going deep into Archie Goodwin mode- I hope I have an Archie Goodwin mode.
I do kind of pride myself on being able to work with ‘difficult’ artists and finding ways to make them happy with a story. Really they’re rarely difficult, they just want to be treated as co-storytellers with ideas and opinions and not handed a shot list to illustrate. I almost always ask artists to at least give me a wish list of things they’d like to work with. You see writers sometimes trying to tailor a script to the artist but they end up typecasting the creator, giving the same kind of story that artist always gets.
But if I get into a situation with someone who say, doesn’t draw backgrounds and perspective well, I will quickly make that story happen in fog or a desert if possible. Or if I don’t think you draw women well, suddenly this project will become a complete dude-fest. I’m all for artists overcoming weaknesses, but I’m happy to avoid that tough slog and let that learning time happen with someone else.
PT: It used to be that, every time I worked on a script for Colleen, I’d put in at least one thing I knew she was terrible at drawing. Because of this, she learned to draw a lot of things that were outside her wheelhouse, and became a better artist. Really can’t do that unless you’re married to someone, though! And your Toth comments have made me shrink in fear. Would have LOVED to have worked with him… but I can just imagine him bursting through my window in the night and punching my face with my script. I also have a fear of what it would be like to work with Jack Kirby… where there’s every chance that he would be drawing faster than I was writing, and I would feel humiliated. And I would have loved to have worked with Eisner, but my fears there are too numerous to enunciate. How about you… do you think you would have enough bravado to work with legends?
JP: I feel I have in writing Kevin Nowlan a story. It’s hard to put any cartoonist up on a pedestal as high as I do him. And yet I felt it was solid and entertaining, and Kevin seemed to like it (it was an X-men First Class story). The opening page was mostly a Queen Anne Victorian style house, but I felt confident he would want to draw something like that instead of more superheroes, based on what I’ve seen him do. Also I knew he was probably sick of drawing grimacing characters, so there were people smiling and making comical expressions. I’m always very conscious of not wanting to waste an artist’s time and that I need to give them something worth spending a day a page on, with creators of that stature I probably will always go a bit more classic in nature, more timeless.
Still if I ever got to work with Walt Simonson I’d probably freak out and go run off into the woods.
PT: I’ll just use your “run off to the woods” as an exit line. And… scene.
Jeff’s writing, such as BUCKO, UNDERGROUND, INTERMAN, and MYSTERIUS THE UNFATHOMABLE can be found by clicking on the links, and his huge wealth of comics can be found at any comic store in the world. In the world, I say!
Gingerbread Girl, my latest graphic novel, can be found… here.
My online ongoing Bandette comic can be found… HERE.
A huge wealth of my other work in the field of comics can be found… HERE.