LIFE IN FOUR COLORS #38
by Bill Gladman
Being a comic creator - and I would like to consider myself a comic creator, please indulge me just a little - I've come to learn that something magical occurs when you work with another creator. In truth, this magical event isn't isolated to creating comics. It can also happen on film, with a talented actor feeding off the skills of an equally talented actor. Or perhaps it's a director that adds to the strength of the film by bringing out the highest quality possible from the assembled cast.
It can happen in music, and I consider myself fortunate enough to both witness this and be a part of it as well. Lyrics, no matter how well written, are indeed just words and music no matter how amazing they are. It takes both elements to become a song. Great songs become great albums, and great albums are created by great bands.
It happens in the world of sports. A great team needs both great athletes and a great coach.
But something somewhat unique in the forming of the creative partnerships involved with producing comics is the fact this merging of philosophies, techniques, and skills can occur on several different levels. The first way this can occur is perhaps the most obvious: writer and artist. When you have an equally strong writer and artist on the same comic book, then the comic fan is in for a real treat. I have been collecting comics since I was seven years old...let me do the math for you. That means I have been collecting comics for over thirty seven years.
During that time I have witnessed quite a few stellar writer/artist teams. First and foremost Stan Lee and Jack Kirby...Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas and John Buscema, Roy Thomas and Neal Adams, Dennis O'Neil and Neil Adams, Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller, Marv Wolfman and George Perez, Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden and the list could continue.
When you are involved with producing indie comics and you manage to work your way into the talent pool you actually get to pick and choose a little bit when the writer and artist question comes into play. If you are an artist of justifiable merit you can approach a writer that you respect and admire and suggest working on a shared project. Writers on the indie level are very active seeking out just the right artist that they feel will bring their project to life. And for the most part this only happens on an indie level of creativity. If you are working for a company, an editor more often than not will actually pair up the writer and artist for a specific book or project.
That is just one of the many perks of being an indie comic creator. And it doesn't stop there. Artists can pick their inkers. I've seen artists and inkers go over each other's work at conventions and other social gatherings and the air is full with comments like "man I would love to see your inks on my pencils!"
Colorists and letterers also get picked in much the same fashion. An inker may suggest a colorist to the artist...a writer may actively pursue a strong letterer. It's an amazing thing to see in action and over the years there have been some amazing collaborations born from this process. Let's see....Josh Warner's inks on Sean Forney's pencils, Chris Hoskins' inks on Chris Metzger's pencils, Lisa Moore's colors on Chad Strohl's pencils and inks, Brant Fowler lettering a script by Ron Fortier, or a story by Chad Lambert drawn by Chris Steininger.
Artists can even work with other artists. You can have a cover artist that enhances the interior artist. You can have a different artist for each chapter of a story. Same holds true for inkers, colorists, and letterers.
But there is one combination that is difficult to pull off.
No matter how much one writer admires the work of another writer, two writers working on the same story in most cases is a train wreck waiting to happen.
I mean look at some of the previous writer/artists teams that I mentioned. When the artist involved begins to feel that his or her story telling abilities are equal to or even better than the writer they are working with, the creative team in question is usually doomed. Names like Kirby, Byrne, and Miller all pop to mind right away.
And the situation becomes even more difficult when two writers are involved from the very start. I have experienced this as well. Take for instance Dustin Carson.
I have always wanted to work with Dustin on a project that the two of us could "co-write" together. I even suggested the idea to him once. Dustin wanted to know what I had in mind...I sent him my story idea. He liked it and replied. "This is already a completed story, Bill. What do you want me to do here?"
He was right. That story was entitled "Driver's Seat" and it would later appear (among other places) in Pandemonium Spotlight #1, drawn to perfection by Chris Hoskins. An artist that I had always wanted to work with, and was able to approach, and luckily persuade him to work with me.
This story would not be the only instance where I would attempt to work with another writer. And not the only time where the other writer involved or myself felt like Dustin did in the previous example. It didn't matter if the other writer and I were working on writing a song, a graphic novel, or a 7 page story. Most of the time a story just needs "One Voice".
Dustin and I would later have a pretty good discussion about this topic at Main Street Comics and Games a month or two ago when he showed up at a book signing that Joe Pruitt and I were appearing at.
Both of us agreed that "control issues" were associated with the writer of most projects more so than any other creator involved with the process. So over and over these co-writing attempts turn into a power struggle. And these power struggles can quickly turn ugly. And there seems to be several other possible writer versus writer flare ups just waiting to occur that prevent most of these type of projects from ever crossing the finish line.
So when it comes to writing partnerships, maybe it's for the best to just avoid them. They're more trouble than they are really worth.
Or are they?
There does seem to be notable exceptions on both the "mainstream" and "indie" comic creating front that would lead one to believe that this train of thought is not necessarily true.
A writing team that I really enjoy reading pops to mind immediately. And I buy anything with their names on the cover (that doesn't also have DC on the cover). Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, better known in creative circles as DNA.
This writing team has been working together for years, decades even. The first time I read a book written by the two of them was Force Works #1 that appeared on comic stands back in July of 1994
I admit their writing has improved a great deal since they worked on this book and only the most die hard DNA fan will have any of the Force Works books in their comic collection. (I have issues #1-12).
And to be honest, although a lot of people hate on these books, I don't think they were that bad. I love the Tom Rainey art that was featured in many of these issues. I've always been a Tom Rainey fan. And a lot of the elements that have made DNA a writing favorite of mine are evident throughout this early stuff. Including their love for music and using musical references in their stories. Something I enjoy doing as well. And as a bonus, they seem to like the SAME type of music as I do.
References to Jimi Hendrix and Randy Rhoads are found popping up in their Force Works stories. Later the "Cosmic Marvel" books that the two of them would go on to write together and become most known for, including most of the Annihilation books, Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy books would feature titles, characters, weapons, and even star systems named after songs from Metallica, Rush and Soundgarden to name just a few.
They even add to their coolness factor by naming a bar that Starlord and Rocket Raccoon are known to get trashed at after one of the greatest Cosmic Marvel talents of all time...Jim Starlin. What is there not to like about these guys?
Another good writing team I have enjoyed reading is Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. They did some decent stuff with Marvel's Daughters of the Dragons and Heroes for Hire series, but the stuff I enjoyed the most was their run on DC's Jonah Hex.
In many ways it was their run on Jonah Hex that led to an increased interest in the character who has always been a favorite of mine and brought about the production of a Jonah Hex film.
Yeah I know that's not impressive to a lot of people, but I happened to like this film. Better than any DC film that came out this past summer.
And as much as I liked the material written by the writing team of Gray and Palmiotti I'm not going to deny I like the stuff that DNA produces much better. I'm also sure there are other writing teams working in comics right now that I missed, and even others that I know about but did not mention. One of my favorite writers is Ed Brubaker and he has co-written his share of comics with other so called "hot" writers, but in my opinion when this does occur it's like Superman in the JLA or the Hulk in the Defenders. The "Dummy Down" syndrome comes into play. Ed has to tone down his writing style to balance the story due to the sub-par contributions the other writer brings to the table. Maybe Ed is overwhelmed and can't write some of these books by himself. Maybe Marvel is pairing him with these writers for the hopes of increased sales. Who knows? All I know is Ed is a much better writer by himself. So just leave him be.
Really. If you have Superman or the Hulk on a team...who needs a team to begin with, right?
Looking at this from an independent comic creating point of view, not a lot of writing partnerships are out there that I am aware of. Other than a few I am aware of because I am one of the writers in question.
The longest running writing partnership I was ever involved with that was actually, quite surprisingly enough, successful was a web comic that ran here on the Comic Related website for just over two years, and although I am no longer involved with and it is no longer featured on the CR site (EDITOR's NOTE: Don't speak too soon, Bill...) it continues to run on its own website. Perhaps you have heard of it. It's called New Comic Day.
Eric Ratcliffe came up with the idea to work on a strip together. It was crazy enough that I thought it just might work. So I came up with the name for the strip (originally entitled New Comic Book Day, but thankfully by accident more than anything else it became known simply as New Comic Day or NCD). I also wrote the first few strips and sent them to Eric to see what he thought. He liked it and we were off.
But here's a little secret about NCD. Eric and I rarely, if ever for that matter, worked on the same strips together. I would write anywhere from four to seven strips, pass the ball to Eric and he would do the same, and then pass the ball back to me. So actually we were never really writing this TOGETHER.
Sure, we would read the material and tweak the dialog if need be to make "Eric" sound more like Eric and "Bill" sound more like Bill. And artist Chad Strohl (the true un-sung hero of NCD) would iron a lot of the rough edges out as he did the panel layouts.
Maybe this is how all comic writing teams work? Does Dan Abnett write six pages...and then pass the ball of to his partner Andy Lanning? Does one write certain characters and the other write other members of the story's cast?
I'm not sure. All I know is that it works and works very well. And NCD worked well for Eric and I until about the two year mark when various factors came into the picture and I decided it was best for me to take my leave.
Maybe somebody like Justin Gray writes one complete Jonah Hex story line and then Jimmy Palmiotti comes in to write the next story line? Or maybe one writes the first half of the book and the other guy writes the second half, finishing it off? They might even throw in a little challenge. When the book gets passed off to the other writer at the mid-way point, maybe the writer getting the story has no clue what's heading his way. So the challenge would be...here I got it this far...you finish it.
That could work. As a matter of fact I know it could work because that is exactly how my writing partner Ron Fortier and I work together on a second web comic which has spun off into an ongoing comic book series. This project is called Price for the Asking.
In many ways this project runs a lot smoother than the co-writer gig I had with NCD. And it quite possibly can be because both Ron and I have a much tighter vision of what we want to do with Simon. It could be because the two of us worked together since day one to create a cast of characters that are very believable and likeable. Ron created about half the cast and I created the other half. I gave him a few names for some of the characters which he would mold entire personalities around, and he would create characters which I would write into the stories. It just seems to work and thus far has been very well received and has been a pleasure to work on and I hope to keep writing PFTA with Ron for a very long time.
But once again, although there are instances where Ron and I do work on the same story together we are not really writing together. We create characters together for the most part, work out story ideas and such but when it comes down to it Ron writes a story pretty much by himself and I will do a back up feature, I write a story by myself with Ron throwing in material for back up features and about every third or fourth story we throw down the 12 page writing challenge....here I wrote this...now you finish it.
Great results so far, but does this qualify as writing something "together"? Does this make us a writing team?
Another writing partner I have worked with on a project I enjoyed a great deal is Frank Raynor. The two of us "co-wrote" a story called "Hero of the Day" which featured characters created by Chad Strohl from his Did Somebody Call for a Hero series. Chad also provided the art for this book as well, which I think the book turned out very nice.
But Frank and I cheat on this as well and employ yet another "co-writing" technique. The story contains events that occur in the present day, and events that occurred in the mid 1980s. Frank wrote the "here and now" stuff and I wrote the 80s stuff (seeing how I admit I'm stuck in the 80s for the most part anyway). Once again Chad smoothed out all the rough edges while making sure his characters stayed true to his vision as he added the art work.
I love how this book turned out, one of the ones I am most proud to be a part of...a great team effort aided by the cover art team of Derron Church, Tim Hagans, and Jonny Rizzo.
A very solid book that all of us are very proud of, written by two writers who were in contact throughout the entire writing process, but the story is not truly written as a team working together.
Or is it?
All of the these examples were very successful as far as having that "One Voice" element Dustin and I discussed, but were they really created in the same way other writing teams work?
I'm just not sure...
What qualifies as a writing team in your opinion? Any of these? None of these?
I'll leave you to think about that for a few weeks and I'll be back towards the end of next month with yet another geek filled column ...the next one is actually in part inspired by a Julia Roberts film?
Trust me, when you read it you'll understand. Or at least I hope you'll understand.
Until then...See you in the funny papers!
Bill Gladman - Bill is a writer and illustrator and currently working on several different projects including the first issue of an ongoing comic book series (Prodigy), an illustrated fantasy novel (The Book of Noheim), and the first of four illustrated science fiction/fantasy novels (Jack the Rabbit, Living Legend of the Purple Plains) as well as a light-hearted on going mini-comic (Three Wise Men), and co-creator of the hit webcomic New Comic Day. Bill also writes the column Life in Four Colors and contributes reviews and such from time to time.
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