Kieron Gillen is the current writer of top Marvel comics Iron Man, Young Avengers and Origin II; and Image’s Three and Avatar’s Uber. He is also known for the independent Phonogram series, and runs on Thor and Uncanny X-Men. He also hosts/curates the exemplary Decompressed podcast.
Simon Spurrier is the current writer of Marvel’s X-Men Legacy, Boom Studio’s Six-Gun Gorrilla and Avatar’s Crossed. His new X-Force title starts in February 2014. For 2000AD he is best known for The Simping Detective and Lobster Random. Simon has also written a number of novels including Contract and A Serpent Uncoiled.
Rob Williams is currently writing his creator-owned series Ordinary, Dynamite’s Miss Fury, and Low Life (Trifecta), Judge Dredd and Ten Seconders for 2000AD. His new Vertigo title The Royals: Masters Of War starts in February 2014. His bibliography includes X-Men, Deadpool, Avengers, Ghost Rider, Wolverine, Spider-man, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and Superman.
QUESTION 01: WHERE DO YOU GET STARTED ON A PROJECT?
Rob Williams starts us off: “That depends. Sometimes it’s a company asking you to pitch for a project that you potentially have zero knowledge of. But even if you do have knowledge of the characters etc, you don’t usually have a tonne of ideas for that character waiting to go. So it’s a case of doing a bit of research, trying to think about what makes them tick, getting to the heart of the character – that’s the key.
“For me, theme is so important. Without a theme or a controlling idea you’re just staring out the window waiting for inspiration to hit and that way lies madness. There’s a billion different stories to tell and you’ll end up possibly not doing any of them. But if you have a theme, that influences your story choices, it tethers them. What drives Superman? What does he want and why? Ditto for any character. Once you know the protagonist’s drive and what they want, the stories start to suggest themselves.
“If it’s an idea or a new story of my own, it can be influenced by many different things. But theme is the spine of a story, for me. This is another way of saying ‘try and get to the heart of the character’. What makes them tick? What do they really want?’ And even then, you can consciously think you’re telling a story with a certain theme and then find, halfway in, that a completely different theme has crept in and stolen prime place. Themes are sometimes overt and sometimes subconscious, and you find that certain themes recur in your work and keep coming back like a repeating meal. They’re plainly important to you, even if you don’t realise how much. Stephen King’s excellent ‘On Writing’ says that he often doesn’t realise what the theme is until he’s near the end (if I recall correctly). I think you need to know what your theme is supposed to be from the start. But he’s sold a lot more books than me, so…”
Kieron Gillen finds the core of his story too: “The Iron Man Metropolitan arc at the start of year 2 of my Iron Man arc, the idea is ‘Tony Stark builds a city’.
“A quote from a mate of mine, Matt Jones, a British designer: ‘a city is about a suit for surviving the future’. So what if the greatest suit designer in the Marvel universe decided to build a city, what kind of city would that be? And that’s the core of it.
“So normally it’s that core idea, and this really is obvious, it all starts from an idea. How much of that story remains in it by the end is something else entirely.” Kieron goes on to explain that as the story progressed it became less about a big sci-fi concept but about something else. “It’s no longer the core central sole idea, but still where it starts. It’s a compelling idea.”
These ideas are also how an arc can be ‘sold’ to an editor on an ongoing series. The one sentence idea is what they need to know, they need to know that it sounds like a story.
Simon Spurrier has an interesting take on this part of the process too: “I get sick of listening to writers talk about how fast they are ‘I can write 20 pages in a day’, but that doesn’t take into account all the time spent thinking about it, all the time on long walks and lukewarm baths and filling notebooks with nonsense.
“(So) I would always start with a breakdown of the episode.”
Once that rather sizable hurdle is overcome, then comes the process of turning that idea into a script.
Simon again: “I’ve got it down so tight that Monday is breaking down the pages. Tuesday and Wednesday are writing the dialogue for those pages. Thursday and Friday are writing the panel descriptions.”
“Assuming that the idea is there. Assuming that there’s some sort of breakdown which has already been composed. (Then) Monday morning (I) go to that breakdown, chop it into twenty-two chunks then back to each of those chunks and breakdown mentally, make notes (and) you’d work out whether that feels like a five panel page, or a three panel page or whatever it may be.
“Then Tuesday I’d go back to those panel designations and I would start writing the dialogue for each of them. There’s nothing written down at this point about what happens in each of these panels because that’s all visual in my mind.
“When I sit down on Thursday having written all the dialogue it’s all in nice and neat little lumps and I can just sit there and switch on the music and chill out because it’s just describing what’s already in my head.”
Simon goes on to explain that that this method doesn’t always hold, when writing The Simping Detective for example the work rate drops to around 12 pages per week simply because “He can’t say a single thing without it being a clever, clever analogy or metaphor. There’s a reason I don’t write Simping Detective very often!”
Simon’s process is one that Kieron tried two years ago, but “I got bored of it.”
“I started pushing stuff to the back end of the week. I was capable, if I really pushed myself, of doing a script in a day. It’s a really abusive system.
“Last year I kept to a routine, the Ed Brubaker routine, write five pages a day, at least five, if you write more, great, but no less than five. Then the afternoon is everything else, quite often including re-writing stuff into an issue. So five pages a day, twenty-five pages a week – I wasn’t working weekends – and you multiply that up and that ends up being quite a big number.
“(However) any ritual bores and I’m a person who bores easily. So I’m not quite doing that as much. When I actually have a plot I’m able to write, I write five pages a day, (and) they’re better than first draft, and only need a minor polish to hand in. When I’m not able to write I do everything else, I work on the outlines because I’m the kind of guy who likes working on the synopsis. I’m a big structure-y kind of a guy. Whilst specific execution of the story may not be in the synopsis, the actual structure of how things play out, there’s a road map there.”
QUESTION 02: DOES THE PROCESS CHANGE DEPENDING ON THE PROJECT’S END FORMAT?
Rob Williams compares a 5 issue 20pg US comic arc vs a single-issue 5pg 2000AD story:
It does. But I usually try and break the story down to a rough three act structure whether it’s a 5 pager or a 5 issue arc – 100 pages in total. Act One is the inciting incident, our hero wants something and must set the world back to rights. That takes up about 25% of the page count. The Second act is the protagonist trying to get that thing and obstacles increasing in difficulty as we go. That’s about 50% of the page count. There should be a twist at the start of the final act, which is then the culmination of our story – our hero either gets what they wanted or doesn’t, and this resolution will be influenced by the theme. It either confirms the theme or denies it. The final act is about 25%.
So, for a 5 pager in 2000AD, Act One is Page One, Act Two is pages two to four, Act Three is page five, usually with a cliff-hanger on the end.
Simon Spurrier compares novels vs comics:
It’ almost not possible to relate writing comics to writing novels, it’s just such a different art. I have an analogy: they are a different as being an ambulance driver and being a mechanic. Both are vaguely related to engines.
At the moment I’m trying to write a novella. I haven’t touched prose for a year, and it’s really, really hard going back to it. It’s especially hard changing gears. Prose requires momentum. Prose requires that you wake up on a Monday and you know the last thing that you wrote on Friday, and you know where it’s supposed to be going, and you’ve got all day to write 2000 words.
Whereas if you’re writing an episode of something on Wednesday and waking on Thursday to try to get back into the novel you’re not going to do anything valuable until the next bloody week! It takes such a long time to get back into the groove.
I can be a bit of a tyrant when it comes to control of the work. I like collaborating with people I know, and that’s very rare. If you’re working for Marvel unless you’re really big and you get to say ‘I want this guy’, they will assign for you. With prose, not a problem. No one is to blame except you and that is quite seductive for a tyrant like me.