Author to Author, with Chris Roberson
This interview was a lot of fun for me. Chris has been a close friend for several years, now, but some of his answers still surprised me. Maybe I should interview all my friends, and even random people on the street? You really get to know a person this way.
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 apologize for this question, because I hate it myself, but it’s as unavoidable as our eventual alien overlords assuming cats are in control of this world.
CHRIS ROBERSON: Well, as someone who shares his living space with two felines, I can assure you that there is absolutely no way to interest cats in who you are or what you do. But I’ll play along. My name is Chris Roberson, and I type very fast. In the past I have typed all sorts of things, but I’m probably best known for typing a bunch of prose novels (the most recent of which is FURTHER: BEYOND THE THRESHOLD) and typing scripts for talented people to draw as comics… including iZOMBIE with Mike Allred, MEMORIAL with Rich Ellis, EDISON REX with Dennis Culver, ELRIC: THE BALANCE LOST with Francesco Biagini, MASKS with Alex Ross and Dennis Calero, two CINDERELLA miniseries with Shawn McManus, and the forthcoming REIGN with Paul Maybury.
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?
CR: I don’t know, Paul, I like being me, to be honest. And I’m writing exactly the sorts of things that I want to write. So maybe I AM the romanticized version of myself already?
PT: I can only hope that means you’re going to keep the moustache you’ve begun growing. A man cannot be the romanticized version of himself without a moustache. I also assume you’ll soon have a primate sidekick of some sort?
CR: The pencil-thin William Powell-esque mustache is part of my Halloween costume this year (Allison and I are going as Nick & Nora Charles), but the jury is still out as to whether I’ll keep it come November 1st. I’m leaning towards shaving it off at the first opportunity, but who knows? Maybe it’ll grown on me. Heck, it already is! (Rim shot, please.)
PT: Let’s get to the important stuff: Challengers of the Unknown, Thunder Agents, Doom Patrol, or Fantastic Four… who would win? And why, Chris… why? (feel free to add in your own contenders)
CR: Come on, you know better than that. If there is a story that features the Challengers, the THUNDER Agents, the Doom Patrol, AND the Fantastic Four, we ALL win.
PT: You’re speaking cosmic truth. I know that you and I are both huge fans of the “adventure family” genre of writing. Along with the above, we could easily toss in Jonny Quest, the Incredibles, the Doc Savage “family,” and so on. What is it about these groups that appeals to you?
CR: That’s something that I’ve wondered for a long time, and I don’t know that I have a good answer yet. I like the “family” aspect of those kinds of characters, certainly, and the sense that they might have their differences but they actually LIKE each other. But maybe, too, it’s the fact that all of those different sets of characters are out having adventures because they WANT to. They’re not driven by dark tragedy, or even the disfigurements that some of them might have. They are CHOOSING to go and explore, or help people, or fight villains, because of their own sense of morality, or just out of a desire for fun. And I find that really appealing.
PT: When you’re writing, are you generally working from copious notes, or just letting it fly from your mind? Does it change when you’re working on novels vs. comic scripts?
CR: My work habits have evolved over time. When I was doing exclusively prose, I tended to outline extensively. My outlines and notes for a 100K word-long novel, for example, would sometimes be as much as 30K words long, and in some cases the outline for a short story would be just as long as the finished story. I would sometimes outline to the level of paragraph, so that in effect what I was doing was more of an extremely rough draft as opposed to an outline, and the actual act of writing was more of polish.
With comics, I’ve learned to loosen up quite a bit. My early comics work (WAY back three or four years ago) involved a lot of detailed outlining, but what I found over time was that the more detailed the outline, the less lively the finished script. Comics have their own unique pacing, and by being too rigid in my outlines I ended up with scripts that were overly structured and mannered, I felt.
I also found that I was creating structural problems for myself, by thinking of the script as a whole before approaching the individual pages. I would start with a list of story beats that covered the entire issue, and then figure out how many pages to allot to each, and THEN start structuring the individual pages. But that resulted in scripts that didn’t make the best use of each page. Now, I tend to start with page one, and figure out everything that happens on that page BEFORE starting to work on page two. I’m still doing something that resembles my outlining process, but I’m approaching it “panel to panel” as opposed to “story beat to story beat.” That way I’m able to make sure that every page counts, ideally.
Of course, having changed the shape of my brain to write comics, when I switch back to writing prose as I occasionally do, I have to remember how those old muscles worked.
PT: I find this very interesting, because we have evolved in entirely opposed directions. When I began writing comics I would start at the beginning and unfold the story, but I found that revising was a problem, since everything was based on the flow of writing, if I need to cut or insert material, it was a problem. Also, I’d consistently have way too much story left when I started reaching the end of a script. So, now I’m changed into the method you say you’ve changed out of. I come up with what I want to say in a story, then break down the story beats, then the page-by-page, and finally the panel-by-panel, finally working out the full script. I suppose it just goes to show that individuals work better by different methods. That’s one of the reasons I tend to avoid questions of “How does someone write PROPERLY?” There’s no one answer. Writing is as unique as fingerprints, and writing methods are as unique as snowflakes. Hmmm… was that too poetic?
CR: Perhaps it would be simpler to say that you USED to write properly, and now you’ve forgotten how? Because OBVIOUSLY the way that I do it is the RIGHT way.
PT: Do your favorite writers actually influence your writing, or just inspire it?
CR: A little of both, probably. The inspiration comes in the form of me wanting to write something that gets readers to feel like I did when I read the work of the writers who inspired me, if that makes sense. To spark the same kinds of reactions that resonated with me. But in terms of influence, I’ll sometimes think back to how the writers I admire approached a scene, or structured a reveal, or what-have-you, and see if there’s anything there that I can steal and use for myself. Because I’m not above stealing from my inspirations, and do so gleefully.
PT: Can you names some specific instances during your readings where you thought… “THAT is the feel I want to create!” Any particular moments when you can remember thinking, “Shit! This author just NAILED this!” Myself, I tend to think of Hugo Pratt. There’s a couple of his endings that still just amaze me. The last line in the Brazilian Eagle story, for instance, where Corto Maltese utters the most perfect tonal sentence / ending I’ve ever encountered. And recently I really enjoyed Bucko by Jeff Parker and Erika Moen, as I felt the project, as a whole, had a spontaneity to it, a sense that there was whimsy in the world, enough of it that we could all have some.
CR: There are a lot of panels and scenes in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City that I can point to, where he just perfectly captures a very relatable moment. Even if the specifics of what is happening in the scene isn’t anything that I’ve personally experienced. There is a brilliant little short story that Kurt wrote years back, “The Nearness of You,” that manages to encompass an entire “line wide crossover,” complete with a reality-changing reboot of all existence, in a matter of just a few pages. But we see the story play out through the eyes of someone who isn’t directly involved at all, but is more of a cosmic innocent bystander. And there is one panel near the end that sums up more emotion and sentiment and love and loss than entire novels have managed before. Which is why I someday plan to eat Kurt’s brain, in an attempt to steal his talent.
PT: Where do you write?
CR: I CAN write anywhere. When I get to choose, I write at home. Usually while my wife is at work and my daughter is at school, and the cats are off sunning themselves in sunbeam in another room. But if needs must, I can do almost all parts of my writing process in a coffee shop, or on a train, or in a park. The only thing I can’t really do as well in other locations is write dialogue, which tends to be a more immersive experience for me.
PT: Dialogue is tough for me unless I’m completely alone, or entirely overwhelmed. So I can write dialogue at my home studio, or in a café full of strangers, or at the strip club where I sometimes write, but if there’s anyone I know around, I can’t concentrate. For this reason, though I’m honored to be a part of Periscope Studios, I tend to stay away from actually writing there. I only go in when I miss the rest of the gang.
Now then, we talked just last night of how you’re in the process of buying a house. Have you already begun scheming of how to build the ultimate Chris Roberson writing room? More importantly, will it have a secret entrance?
CR: The thinking is that we’re going to turn the basement into my office, complete with built-in bookshelves. We might not be able to work in the secret entrance, but there IS a cat-flap in the door to the water heater closet, for some reason, so that’s something, at least.
PT: Where do you wish you could write?
CR: If I could write anywhere, it would be in the floating island that I’ve made my secret headquarters. Or on my own private space station. But unless and until I get the floating island or space station, I’ll settle for this corner of my bedroom.
PT: It sounds like you and I are probably destined to be enemies later in our lives. First I’ll get my floating island, and you’ll be jealous. And then you’ll build your space station, and I’ll be green with envy. And then you’ll come for a visit on my spacious Nautilus-style submarine that I dock in my hollowed-out volcano, and then at some point we’ll start a design feud and our hovering heli-carriers will be decked out with lasers, and we’ll open fire. That said, I can’t think of a guy I’d more love to have as my arch-nemesis, as we could fight all day long and then have cocktails at night, discussing the latest sorties and soirees.
CR: I like the sound of this. Count me in!
PT: Explain the usual process of your writing, from idea to completion. Has this process evolved over time?
CR: I spend most of my time on the idea stage, if I’m honest about it. I will tinker with a concept or character for weeks or even months before I actually start writing anything. I used to keep notebooks filled with ideas that I would rework and refine over time, but more often than not these days most of that tinkering is entirely mental, and I only jot down notes or ideas once they’ve spent weeks and weeks bouncing around in my head.
Once I’ve got the basic ideas down, I build up the world and the setting, the engines that will drive the plot, things that like. And this usually involves a fair amount of typing, since I’m basically building a “bible” for the series. Or “manual,” more like, since I’m drawing on my years playing role-playing games as a kid when I do so.
And then once I’ve worked out the characters and concepts, and mapped out the rules of the world they inhabit, I set it all aside and concentrate on coming up with a story that makes the best use of all of it. And here, the role-playing game analogy is probably even more apt, since what I’m doing is similar to what a game master does in running an adventure. Once I’ve established the characters and the rules of the world, those are set in stone. The story comes out of moving those pieces around in the most interesting way I can come up with, and figuring out all of the little nooks and crannies in the world that allow for some interesting storytelling possibilities, or ways the rules can be bent to make interesting things happen.
Then I do my page-by-page breakdowns, as I described above, then I type up the panel descriptions and put together any visual reference that’s needed for the artist. And the very last thing I do is go through and fill in the dialogue and narrative captions.
PT: Love that you include visual reference for the artists. I think that’s very important, because it saves the artist valuable time, and also assures that writer and artist are of one mind, and… hell… it’s just the respectful thing to do. Yet, I’m constantly being thanked by artists when I do it, because they’re not used to it. Why is it so rare? I know that you and I and Jeff Parker and are little group of writers all think alike in these terms. Are we just better than everyone else? I’ve talked to one TOP writer who told me flat out that he doesn’t care about what his artists like to draw. Doesn’t consider it of any note. I find that very sad. Comics work best as a collaboration. Any thoughts on this? How do you go about working with an artist?
CR: So much of the narrative weight of any comic is carried by the artist, to say nothing of the time and effort and expertise that’s required for any given page. If I could draw worth a damn, I’d do it myself, but I can’t, and I respect the hell out of anyone who can. I want any artist that I work with to be happy with the work, to be energized about the page that they’re drawing, and to be invested enough in the project that they’ll disagree with me if they see a better way of structuring a scene than I’ve suggested.
PT: Authors are always interviewed about the right things to do… give me your thoughts on the WRONG things to do.
CR: Well, I don’t know that there’s anything that’s ALWAYS wrong to do. It’s all a question of process, and an individual writer’s process can be judged only on the basis of whether or not it produces results. If the result is a good story, or a well-written script, or whatever, then it wasn’t the wrong thing to do.
That said, speaking purely subjectively, I despise crosstalk in comics. That is, when one character talks both before AND after another character, sometimes more than once. That kind of back and forth and back and forth exchange is fine in prose or in film, where there either (a) aren’t any pictures or (b) the pictures move with the words. But when you’ve got words and static pictures, as in comics, the panel is showing you a snapshot in time. It can be a discreet moment, like a photo image, or it can be a progression of moments that moves from left to right in the panel (in the direction that you read, in other words). But having the character on the left talk, then the character on the right talk, and then the character on the left talk AGAIN, the flow of time is zigzagging back and forth across the panel in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with the way it is laid out or structured, but only to do with the way you’ve crammed the words in there. And that drives me NUTS.
PT: Hah! I can well understand your ire on the matter. I do it sometimes, though. It sets a pace I sometimes want. It would be better done with multiple panels, but sometimes that’s not an option. It was a particular problem in my later scripts on Marvel Adventures, where I was doing two complete stories in every issue, and they both had to have splash pages, meaning that available space for a story of any worth was TIGHT.
CR: I know, and it’s cropped up once or twice in my books, usually because things are rejiggered after the script stage. And I think there are instances where it’s not as bothersome. But when it’s the rule and not the exception is where I take issue.
PT: Some editors I’ve spoken with believe that writing characters / worlds with magic at their disposal destroys any drama in a story… that a character who can use magic can simply “cheat” and thereby win the day. How would you respond to that?
CR: I would say, “That’s stupid. You’re wrong.”
PT: I’m going to get a shirt made with this quote on it. We’ll share royalties, of course. Prepare to be a millionaire.
CR: One step closer to my floating island!
PT: If you could make any one genre of writing dominant in comics, what would it be? And how important do you think it is for comics to be a compendium of myriad genres?
CR: The only kind of writing that should dominate comics is “good writing.” Or maybe “great writing,” if we can manage it.
As a reader, as a moviegoer and TV viewer and music listener and food eater, I like more than one thing. I love pizza, but don’t want it for every meal. I think that SCOOBY DOO: MYSTERY INCORPORATED is the best show on television, but I’m glad it’s not the ONLY show on television. And while ERNEST SCARED STUPID is probably the only movie anyone ever really needs to see, it’s nice that they have a choice. In other words, we need both kinds of music, country AND western.
PT: I think that’s really important, too. I’ve been a little concerned (okay… GREATLY concerned) with the Big Two of Marvel and DC in comics, of late. They’re really narrowing their focus. If you’re not a fan of Avengers or X-Men, Marvel doesn’t really seem to want you around anymore. And at DC, there’s a very specific type of story-telling, and hell with you if you don’t like it. I find it worrisome, as both companies have a wealth of amazing characters that could be widening readership, instead of culling it. Luckily, there are other companies that ARE taking the medium and sending tendrils out in all directions… companies like Oni, Dark Horse, IDW, Archaia, and definitely your own Monkeybrain, through where my wife and I publish Bandette. Can you speak a bit about why you think variety is important for both readership and also creative spirit?
CR: Variety is essential, both creatively and from a business standpoint, because if you only sell one kind of thing, you’re only going to appeal to people that like that kind of thing. For years people have railed against the “mainstream” comic market for only (or at least primarily) focusing on the superhero genre. But in recent years, the focus has narrowed even more to being only one or two KINDS of superhero comics. The people who enjoy those particular flavors and no others are probably satisfied, but anyone who would rather have a little more variety in their comics diet runs the risk of going hungry. But luckily, I think the comics MEDIUM is healthier and more diverse now than it ever has been before, arguably, so as soon as readers step out from the shadow of DC and Marvel they find this vast buffet of choices waiting for them.
PT: If you could steal one character from any type of fiction and move them over into your own works, who would it be? What would you do with the character?
CR: If I COULD steal? Dude, I DO steal characters from any type of fiction. I just file the serial numbers off, slap on a new coat of paint and fake license plates, and it’s off to the races.
PT: Your honesty is appreciated. Half my characters are Nancy Drew. There. I said it.
CR: And don’t you feel better?
PT: What projects of yours are you proudest? Why?
CR: I’m probably proudest of the two scripts that I collaborated with my daughter Georgia in writing. The first, “Ice King Dumb,” ran as a one-page backup in an issue of BOOM! Studios’ ADVENTURE TIME, illustrated by the magnificent Lucy Knisley. Since then we’ve co-written a longer piece that will be appearing in the not-too-distant future. Together, those two stories amount to less than a dozen total pages and only took a couple of afternoons to write, but I probably had more fun doing those few pages than just about anything else I’ve done.
PT: I can see how that would be fascinating / satisfying. You’re not only getting to watch Georgia grow as a person / creator, but you’ve also got this dual creator motif of creating part of a story, and being the co-creator of Georgia, who created the other part of the story. It’s very meta.
CR: Whoa. You just blew my mind.
PT: It’s the apocalypse. Cities have crumbled. Brigands and cut-throats rule the remnants of society. You can form a super-team with one fictional hero, AND one fictional villain. Who are they? How will you save Earth? And how do you fit into the team, beyond making the mojitos?
CR: Well, obviously I would choose Superman for my fictional hero, and circa 1967 Julie Newmar as Catwoman for my fictional villain. Superman can do anything, so he would have no trouble stopping all of those brigands and assorted cut-throats and putting the world to right. Meanwhile, I would mix up a big batch of mojitos and keep Julie Newmar entertained. Problem solved.
PT: Sir, I like your style.
Last question… my spellcheck doesn’t recognize “mojitos.” How do you feel about that?
CR: I prefer caipirinhas, myself, so I’m not bothered.
PT: Yes, well… caipirinhas are also denied existence by my spellcheck. There is no justice in this world, or decent cocktails in the world of my spellcheck. Now… let’s all go have cocktails. Interview finished.
Chris Roberson’s many many writings can be found in bookstores & comic shops. Or, here’s a nice assortment.
And don’t forget Edison Rex!
Gingerbread Girl, my latest graphic novel, can be found… here.
My online ongoing Bandette comic can be found… HERE.
My horror series, Colder, is available soon (November 7th) at comic shops.
A huge wealth of my other work in the field of comics can be found… HERE.