Writing Comics 101, part 2: This week, Josh Jabcuga concludes his interview with Danny Fingeroth, a writer who knows a thing or two about working in the comics profession. Also, a review of BATMAN:TAS, Vol. 2, and SUPERMAN:TAS, Vol.1, two DVD box sets that know a thing or two about good television and how to successfully translate comics-to-screen.
February 24, 2005
According to the official bio:
“DANNY FINGEROTH was the longtime editorial director of Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man line. He consulted on the first Spider-Man movie and on the 1990s Spider-Man Fox Kids Network animated series. He has written hundreds of published comics stories and developed characters and stories for animation. He is the author of Superman On the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society (Continuum), and puts out Write Now! Magazine, the premier publication about writing for comics, graphic novels and animation, through TwoMorrows Publishing. Fingeroth also teaches Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels and moderates seminars with Graphic Novel creators at New York University and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including NPR's All Things Considered and E! Entertainment Television, commenting on comics and on popular culture in general. His op-ed commentaries have appeared in The Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun.”
You teach comics and graphic novel writing at NYU. What attributes would make a good student of writing, specifically, comics writing?
Passion and talent are key for students, as they are for professionals. Having something to say and a voice to say it with is always good. Understanding the needs of the different marketplaces is important, whether you want to write Superman or a highly personal graphic novel. The ability to take criticism and learn from it, and to be able to constructively critique your fellow students’ work is important to the learning process. Knowing when to keep plugging away at a piece and when to trash it is an important thing to learn. No one can teach talent, but talent can be directed and focused by a good learning environment.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Get out of your own way.” It’s good life advice, too.
As an editor, what do you or did you look for in writing submissions?
Mastery of the English language. Seems elementary, but a lot of people don’t get it. If your language or grammar or spelling isn’t good, have someone you trust edit your work for you before submitting it. (In other words, know your weaknesses and compensate for them.) A writer should display some understanding of how things work in the world, as well as how to stylize the real world for fictional and genre purposes. In a superhero writer, you want someone who understands the fictional universe they want to work in, but is not so obsessed with it that their work is all about “fixing” what previous writers have done. You also want someone who demonstrates the ability to tell a solid story of an established character, but who also brings something new to the table. That “something new” doesn’t have to be revolutionary—as a matter of fact, a new writer should avoid going wild when dealing with established characters. But some angle or insight you have that someone else doesn’t will get you noticed—so long as it’s consistent with the characters and universe you’re dealing in. Finally, a sense of fun is probably the most important thing. Make me feel like, even if what I’m reading may not change my life, it’ll help me pass the time I spend reading it enjoyably.
This one is for the kid living in the middle of Podunk, USA. Is it possible to break into the business without living in NY or LA?
I think so. You have to find some way to get an editor’s attention without being threatening or annoying. Be clever. Go to local conventions and make an impression on editors (in a good way). Have a self-published comic you’re proud of to show people. Have a screenplay to show, or a video of a film you’ve written. Be the guy who always sends submissions in a bright green envelope. Do something to show you’re a cut above the hundreds of other submissions they’ve gotten that week.
Being friendly to assistants is always a good idea. They “don’t get no respect.” But they usually have more time (when they’re not photocopying or calling freelancers to find out where the pages are) to yack on the phone with a prospective new creator than their boss does. They want to discover new talent that can help make their reps for them so they can get promoted. Maybe they’ll recommend you to their bosses. And when they get promoted, maybe they’ll hire you to write or draw for them.
I don’t watch much TV. I’m a huge movie fan, but for TV, it’s hard for me to schedule a certain time each week to sit down and watch an episode of something regularly. However, ABC’s Lost…it just blows me away. Right now, it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever seen anywhere. The characters are so perfectly written, and many of the twists are actually very subtle. I watch that show and feel totally humbled. I say to myself, “I’ll never write anything that good.” Has there ever been a time when you felt like that, and can you give me some examples?
Who hasn’t felt like that? Of course, I grew up in awe of Stan Lee’s writing, and that of writers like John Broome and Gardner Fox. Eisner’s work on The Spirit was a revelation. I guess the comics work that showed me, as an adult and a comics pro, that there was no limit to what you could do with superheroes was Frank Miller on his Daredevil runs. Ideally, you can use the work of people you admire as inspiration, as opposed to letting it intimidate you and keep you from working. The most important lesson a creative person can learn is that each piece of work doesn’t have to be new, unique and awe-inspiring. Before it can be any of those things, it has to first exist! You can revise, amend, or ultimately trash a piece of work you’ve done that you’re not happy with. But if you don’t get the work out into the world in some form, you won’t have anything to be satisfied or dissatisfied with. No matter who you are or how good you are, there’s always somebody better. But to dwell on that is pointless. Just do the work, and then at a certain point consider it “done” and move on to the next project. You learn a lot in the process, and may even stumble onto something inspired while you’re engaged in it.
Finally, Will Eisner. Can you share your thoughts on what he meant to you and the industry? Do you have a personal anecdote you can share?
Will was instrumental in the beginnings of so many things that have become the modern comics industry, both mainstream and independent. He was an innovator and a creative giant. And his example of continuing to grow as a creative artist over the course of one’s lifetime is extraordinarily inspiring.
I met will a few times and he was always gracious and friendly. He was kind enough to do a phone interview with me a couple of years ago for my Write Now! magazine. I made myself crazy trying to come up with at least one question he had never been asked before. I’m not sure if I did, but he was generously complimentary about my questions. His answers were, needless to say, extremely informative and insightful. (The interview is in Write Now! #5, which can be ordered, if any of your readers are interested, at www.twomorrows.com.) I had to schedule the interview two months in advance because that’s how productive and how busy a schedule he was working under. And, as the true professional he was, when I called on the appointed day and time, Will picked up the phone and was ready to go. No delays or re-schedulings, just a working creator—who happened to be a genius!—honoring a commitment.
Will was also kind enough to read, and give a complimentary blurb for Superman On the Couch. That he took the time to read the book—and that he actually liked it—is one of the great thrills of my entire career.
Thanks for the great questions, Joshua. I had fun answering them.
Thank you. It’s been a real honor.
Reviews: BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, VOLUME TWO (warnervideo.com, color, 624 minutes), and SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, VOLUME ONE (warnervideo.com, color, 396 minutes).
DVD box sets offer complete television seasons in one tidy little package. It’s a beautiful thing. I can’t commit myself to any one show in particular, just because of my wacky schedule; I never quite know where I’ll be on any day of the week at any given time. TIVO and digital recorders are useful assets, but still, you can record your favorite shows, but you can’t really keep ‘em. Hence the genius of picking up your favorite shows in multi-DVD box sets.
With that said, there’s a growing list of box sets becoming available that any film-slash-TV geek worth their weight in laserdiscs should own, without question. SIMPSONS, from like season three onward, undoubtedly. SOUTH PARK, fuck yeah. FREAKS AND GEEKS, oh my la-la-la-lady yes! How about the complete run of FUTURAMA maybe? Every episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, you’d better say you’re working on getting ‘em all. Are you a SOPRANOS fan? Chances are you own each season. My girl collects SEX AND THE CITY and now SEINFELD. Me, being the Michael Mann freak that I am, I gots to have me my Tubbs and Crockett, so I’m digging the latest release of MIAMI VICE: Season One in all its pastel-and-Phil Collins glory.
Another essential is the recently released BATMAN, THE ANIMATED SERIES: Vol. 2, along with partner-in-crime-fighting, SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES: Vol. 1. While Joel Schumacher was off fucking up a franchise with his Batman-by-way-of-Broadway (as in, bi- and curious), with those Batnipples and bad camp (as opposed to good camp with smilin’ Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman via Edward Gorey 1989 blockbuster version), some slightly unknown-at-the-time cats by the names of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini were doing the one thing no one had done outside of the pages of DC Comics: make a compelling adaptation of the Dark Knight that actually remained faithful to the character, while entertaining both kids and adults alike.
BATMAN, THE ANIMATED SERIES: Vol. 2, is another chapter in what many regard as the ultimate version of the ultimate vigilante. It’s really a beautiful collection of fleshed-out characters, brilliant casting of some of the best vocal talent out there, spectacular pacing, retro animation with a contemporary twist, and classic scripts. It’s a four-disc set filled to the brim with 28 episodes, including the first appearance of Ra’s Al Ghul, and the Emmy-winning “Robin’s Reckoning” featuring optional commentary by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. The remaining DVD supplements are sparse, but when it comes to dining out on filet mignon at a five star restaurant, who’s really interested in the garnish?
Next up is SUPERMAN, THE ANIMATED SERIES: Vol. 1. DC Comics and Warner Brothers are in a beautiful place right now. Hype for the new and sure-to-be-sublime BATMAN BEGINS with Christian Bale will soon be hitting the hype machines of glossy magazines and propelling them into the next stratosphere. And somewhere in the horizon, looms the shadow of Bryan Singer’s Superman flick, which has no right to be anything short of mesmerizing, considering the involvement of Singer. Marvel, on the other hand, well, er, they’ve got Spider-Man and X3 somewhere, but it’s gonna be hard to swallow after misfires with Jennifer Garner’s ELEKTRA, the off-the-mark THE PUNISHER, and the God-is-Schumacher-involved summer release of FANTASTIC FOUR.
It would appear that everything is coming up roses for the characters of DC Comics, and Warner Bros. deserves a healthy pat on the back for giving Superman fans something worthy to hold themselves over with the release of SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, Vol. 1. This collection serves as a nice companion piece to the BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, Vol. 2 release. This one’s a solid release and, like the BATMAN box set, reasonably priced. It’s a two-disc set, with the second disc utilizing both sides. It contains the show’s first 18 episodes (every episode from season one, plus the first five episodes from season two). The key collaborators from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES are involved, and again, when you look up the word “Talent” in the Warner Bros. dictionary, or nearly any dictionary published from approximately 1990 onward you’ll find pictures of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. (Can you imagine them helming a movie at Pixar? Mountains of cash for all involved, and a product filled with integrity, I’m sure.)
This set also contains the three-episode origin/pilot, voice talent appearances by Tim Daly, Malcolm McDowell, Lori Petty, Brad Garrett, and Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman. And oh yeah, did I mention the appearance by that one-time cool-as-hell character Lobo that seemed to grace every DC Comics’ cover in the 90s and managed to buy Simon Bisley a nice yacht somewhere?
Both sets are worth your money. You don’t need DUKES OF HAZZARD Season One or GILLIGAN’S ISLAND Season Two, you ass. Buy BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, Vol. 2 and SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, Vol. 1, and pretend Schumacher was never born.
Praise for the writing of Josh Jabcuga, who pens Squib Central, published every Thursday, exclusively at www.moviepoopshoot.com:
“Josh Jabcuga can take the 26 measly letters of our crude alphabet and capture the bi-polar soul of all that is classically yet disturbingly American. Then, when his typewriter is left to cool, he can turn right around…completely ready to trounce any drunk punk that’s got me backed into a corner.” –The Colonel J.D. Wilkes of The Legendary Shack*Shakers.
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