Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Comics and Conversation II

Late last year, I received an email from a fellow Northwestern University -- and Daily Northwestern -- alum, Russell Lissau. He'd seen a post of mine in Warren Ellis' Engine. Now a newspaper reporter in suburban Chicago and occasional freelancer for Comic Book Resources, Russell had also had his first comic book story published -- in the August 2005 Batman Allies Secret Files and Origins 2005 comic book published by DC.

Early this year, I bought a copy of the comic on Ebay, and I just this week emailed Russell a series of questions about his experience writing for DC. (By the by, starting bids for the book now run from $1-$8, and original page art is listing for $80.) While I know many comic book artists, writers, and publishers at various levels of the industry -- self-published to working with the largest publishers -- I was thrilled to learn that someone I'd gone to college with was in the business. And I think his remarks are particularly interesting and instructive.

Here is an edited transcript of my email exchange with Russell:

Media Diet: How did you get involved in the Batman Allies Secret Files and Origins 2005 project?

Russell Lissau: I'd been pitching Batman story ideas to editor Matt Idelson for more than a year, and after realizing he couldn't get rid of me, he offered me the lead story in the Secret Files book. I was excited and frightened. Excited because I was actually going to write a Batman story for DC Comics -- and frightened because he was asking me to come up with something new rather than simply using one of the stories I had pitched. He told me he was confident I was up to the task, and that took a lot of pressure off. He was a great editor, as was assistant editor Nachie Castro. They really coached me through the process.

MD: Were you assigned the story -- the kind of story, the characters to include -- or did you pick the theme and focus yourself?

RL: I was given an assignment: To write what was essentially the first Batman story after the events of War Games, the big Batman-title crossover that came out in early 2005. It dramatically changed life in Gotham City -- Batman's allies had either died or left town and the police had a shoot-on-sight order for him -- and my job was to pick up the pieces and write about Batman in these new circumstances.

Because of War Games, Batman was alone in Gotham. And although he'd operated without a Robin many times and without the rest of the Bat Family (Nightwing, Batgirl, etc.) many times, he'd always had an ally in the Gotham City Police Department: Jim Gordon. But Gordon has been retired for years, and because of War Games, the replacement commissioner was no friend of the Dark Knight. I firmly believe Batman needs that ally, someone to keep him grounded and fighting the good fight, someone with whom he can share information and whom he can rely on in law enforcement. To me, the natural choice was Detective Renee Montoya, an existing character who'd become the star of the fantastic-but-now-canceled series Gotham Central.

MD: Were there many limitations or restrictions because of existing continuity? How did you tap into that -- yet still propel events in your own story?

RL: It's like following the laws of physics. It's the DC Universe, so I have to play by the rules established in that universe. That's a lot of fun -- I didn't find it constraining at all. Plus, my editors really gave me a lot of room to tell the story I wanted to tell.

The scene in which Batman and Renee meet in the garage is my favorite in the book. It established a link between them, but it didn't necessarily make her "the new Gordon." If she wanted to continue the relationship, she could; but she's also a good cop and could tell him to take a leap if he crossed the line down the road. Of course, comics being what they are, that relationship is in limbo now because DC has reset its universe with the fantastic One Year Later event. I hear Renee plays a big role in the upcoming 52 series that accompanies One Year Later, and I look forward to seeing what she's up to.

I also got to refer to one of my all-time favorite comics moments in one panel. There's one page that has flashbacks to War Games and other recent Batman events. One panel shows Batman holding a tearful Robin (Tim Drake) near the body of Tim's father, who was murdered in DC's Identity Crisis miniseries. I loved Identity Crisis, and being able to refer to it and build off of it helped establish that my story was "real."

MD: Speaking of "real," what kind of research did you do to prepare to write the piece?

RL: I read all of War Games, and I relied on my comics, research books, and the Internet to make sure I had the characters -- especially Montoya -- down right. The work writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker did on Gotham Central was particularly key. I wanted to write their Montoya, and I think I succeeded. I've interviewed Greg and met him a few times, and I had a recurring nightmare that he'd call me up and say, "No, you idiot! You got it all wrong!" But he never did, thankfully.

MD: Given that this was your first assigned script, how did you prepare to write it?

RL: When I first started writing comics, I got many scripts from friends in the industry and studied them. I mean, really studied them. I compared those scripts to the finished book and looked at how the words on white paper become a comic. When it came time to writing my own stories, I pretty much cribbed the script format of writer Devin Grayson. I've interviewed Devin several times through the years for a variety of magazines, newspapers, and Web zines, and she was very forthcoming. I just felt comfortable with her format. Writer Jeph Loeb also shared his scripts and really mentored me through the process. In fact, it was Jeph who introduced me to editor Matt Idelson.

MD: How many revisions did you do? How much of the final work is drawn from your script?

RL: I think I did three drafts. It's all my work.

MD: And how long was the final script?

RL: It was a 19-page story, but because I write full script, the text versions usually run longer. So, in this case, it was a 25-page Word document.

MD: Wow. How much did your script dictate the panel layout and artwork?

RL: Like I said, I write full script. I use a lot of detail. I wanted the penciller to know what I envisioned, sometimes down to camera angles, clothing choices, hairstyles, and panel layouts. But I also told the penciller, the wonderful Brad Walker, to have fun and make things better if he could. He did. He followed my descriptions and pacing and improved them, and the layouts were far better than I ever could have imagined. I was stunned each time I got a new set of pages to preview. The work was stunning.

MD: How did that collaboration work?

RL: I sent my editor the script. He sent it to Brad. Brad sent pages in batches, and the editor sent them to me. We did collaborate on the ending, however. The last page was a true team effort between Brad and me.

MD: Did you get any feedback from DC or readers of the comic?

RL: Fans seemed to like it -- according to the Net, anyway. Sales were in the mid-20s. And if my memory is right, it was the 101st selling book that month. Nearly cracking the Top 100 is pretty cool. (Keep in mind that there were two other stories in the book. It wasn't just mine, so I won't take all the credit.)

MD: Have you done other comic stories since this came out? What more can people look for?

RL: This summer I've got a short story in Ronin Studios' Hope: New Orleans, a collection of stories that will benefit the Red Cross' Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. My piece is a short, personal story, without capes and cowls. I covered Hurricane Andrew down in Florida and turned an experience from that into this story. It's due to come out in August, in time for the first anniversary of Katrina.

I've also got something coming out later in the year at DC, but I can't say too much about that right now. It's exciting though!

1 comment:

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