Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Seven Questions with KURT BUSIEK

This week, The Vault had a chance (through the magic of internet tubes) to interview Kurt Busiek about his various projects. Over the past three decades, Kurt has worked on a number of renowned series, such as Marvels, Untold Tales of Spider-man, Avengers, Thunderbolts, Kurt Busiek's Astro City and, most recently, Trinity. Plus, he recently launched his own website. That means we've got a lot of ground to cover in just seven questions, so let's see how we did.

1. You recently announced that Astro City is returning to a monthly schedule and that you’ve got a new series, Kurt Busiek’s American Gothic, coming out soon. What can you tell us about your plans for these series?

I don't want to tell too much -- I always like it when the audience finds out what's going on by reading the stories, instead of hearing about it on the internet. But what's next for ASTRO CITY is a 2-part Astra story, later this month, all about the night she graduates from college, and what happens then. After that, we have the 4-part finale to the epic-length DARK AGE project, then a special look at the Silver Agent, and that wraps up, we hope, the "specials and mini-series" era of ASTRO CITY. We'll go officially monthly at that point, with a story about the inner workings of Honor Guard. After that, we've got a story about the secrets of the N-Forcer program and a tell-all book, a larger story involving the origin of Winged Victory, involving Samaritan and the new Confessor, and even a story about a talking gorilla who wants to be the drummer in a rock 'n' roll band. And plenty more.

AMERICAN GOTHIC starts off with a number of single issue stories -- it's a series about magic all around us, in the modern-day real world, and we'll see a wide range of things from a vampire in Alcoholics Anonymous, a long-haul trucker driving the ghost of his late wife to her eternal reward, a night in the life of a tooth fairy, the exorcism of a murdered business, and more. After the opening batch of stories, we have a longer arc planned, about a young girl in a fishing village in Rhode Island that's fallen on hard times, and what happens when the Norse god Thor takes up residence on a nearby island. And again, plenty more.

With luck, we'll do it well and it'll all be fun.

2. Does your commitment to these books signal a change in emphasis to more creator owned works (like, maybe a new ShockRockets or Arrowsmith series?) or can we still expect to see you on Marvel and DC properties such as Superman? How about Alex Ross’s Project Superpowers?

My commitment to those two books, at least, means that'll be most of my workload. Two books a month is more than half of what I'm capable of, so I won't be piling on additional ongoing series, at least not at present. And I'll admit, after spending a solid year on the weekly TRINITY, I'm itching to do more creator-owned stuff, so I'm happy to be following that path for a while.

There is another ARROWSMITH project on my plate -- an illustrated novel -- that I'm working on slowly. And I expect I'll keep my hand in on the big-company characters -- I'm doing a project called BATMAN: CREATURE OF THE NIGHT that's a follow-up of sorts to SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY, and I'm sure we'll be talking about that more when there's some art to show. No plans for me to work on PROJECT SUPERPOWERS, though -- but I did point out a 1940s superhero Alex wasn't aware of, and he's planning to get him into there somewhere, so I guess I've had some small effect on it.

3. Your recent work at DC -- the large, one-sheet Wednesday Comics and the weekly series Trinity – pushed the boundaries of traditional formatting and scheduling within the comic industry. How interested are you in exploring these more experimental formats and how do different formats affect your approach as a writer?

I like comics. I like the variety of forms comics can take, from something like the daily three-or-four-panel comic strip to massive original graphic novels, and I don't see any reason comics need to be in that same monthly 22-page format all the time. So yeah, I'm interested in other formats, provided they're a good format for the story I want to tell (and vice versa, I guess, since in both WEDNESDAY COMICS and TRINITY the story was tailored to the format). There are other formats I'd like to try -- downloadable weekly 7-page chapters, landscape format comics, original digests and more. If it's a way to showcase good comics, I'm interested in it.

As for tailoring work to different formats, that's key, I think. Whether it's a different page length, different page size, different frequency, it's going to affect things like the rhythm of the story, how much room you have to establish and explore things, where the cliffhangers and revelations fall, how much recapping you need to do, and more. So whenever I'm working an a new format, I mess around a while beforehand, trying to get a sense of what'll work best, what'll suit the story I'm telling, how to use the medium effectively for that format. It's good to have challenges, you learn a lot that way.

4. For my money, the epic Kang saga that finished your Avengers run was one of the greatest Avengers stories ever. Yet, none of the Earth shattering events in the book were referenced in any other Marvel title. What was behind the decision to have this story be completely self-contained in Avengers rather than a larger event?

It wasn't completely self-contained, actually. I know there was some connection to in in DEFENDERS, in a small ways, and I think Fabian brought it up in THUNDERBOLTS. But the decision was made to let everyone else know what was going on, and if they wanted to tie into it, they could. Fabian and I were the only ones who did.

It's always a difficult choice to make -- does the company force everyone else to turn their series into a piece of someone else's story, or do they allow creative freedom, and assume that the stuff you don't get to see happens in between issues somewhere? I've always disliked having to write someone else's story, which is why, whenever a crossover came up on a book I was working on, I preferred to be in the driver's seat (I'm thinking here of "Maximum Security" and "Live Kree or Die"). I'd rather be driving the bus than get run over by it. That's another reason I'm happy to be doing more creator-owned work these days -- both major companies seem to be doing lots of enforced cross-continuity, with big, sprawling, line-wide events, and speaking as a writer and a reader I prefer more self-contained material.

So while I wish more people had wanted to tie in to "The Kang Dynasty," I'm glad we didn't force them to. And glad you liked it so much!

5. Keeping with the theme of the mega-crossover, do you feel event books help the industry by spurring interest among current fans, or do they hurt by making books less accessible to new fans? How does a writer go about managing the impact a company event has on the stories they wish to tell in their own title?

Oops, I think I just answered that -- or at least some of it. I think event books clearly work, or are at least working at present, because the fans like them and buy more of them. I probably would have been really excited by that kind of thing when I was 15 or 16, myself, and certainly a lot of readers are excited about it these days. For myself, it's not to my current tastes -- I'd rather have a book be self-contained, which may be why I prefer series like FABLES and USAGI YOJIMBO and SAVAGE DRAGON to books that are constantly telling pieces of a story that may be happening in books I don't even buy. So it makes them less accessible to me, but it wins over other readers who get excited about it. Six of one, half dozen of the other. If it works for the publishers and brings them a bigger audience, that's what matters, and I'll find other stuff to read.

As to how a writer manages the impact, well, they need accurate information from their editor about what's going to be happening, because the impact may need to be written in their books before the events in the other books are published, so their "aftershock" comes out a month after the event, or whatever. It's the same process as keeping continuity from older books straight, with the added handicap that you can't always read the stories you're tying in to.

One writer I know was writing a book that was crossing over with a major event in a larger book, and the writer of the larger book was so late, the writers of the tie-in books were writing their issues two or three months ahead of him, and revising them when his scripts came in, which made for a lot of extra work and headaches, but the result turned out to read much better than you'd expect, from a process like that.

It's part of the landscape, I suppose.

6. As comics have become a source for more mainstream media like TV and film, more and more comic creators seem to be jumping to those industries. Do you have any plans do move from comics to other media, and are there any film or TV adaptations of your work in the pipeline?

I'd like to write novels as well as comics, and I'm working on that. But I don't intend to jump ship -- I like comics, and expect to keep writing comics for a long time to come. I like novels, too, so I'd like to do that, too. Movies or TV strike me as scarier, because the writer has so much less control. But if the right project came along, who knows?

As for adaptations of my comics work, there's nothing specifically in the pipeline. Film rights to one series have been bought, and there's interest in others, but the road from interest to an actual movie or TV show is a long and hard one, full of stumbling blocks and minefields. So maybe something'll happen, and maybe not. I try not to pay too much attention.

7. Lastly, what’s one specific storytelling technique you use that you could share with new creators to help them hone their craft?

A couple that I used while I was new to comics -- I used to take comics that I thought were particularly well-paced and actually write out an outline of what happened in them, panel-by-panel, kind of reverse-engineering a plot-outline from the finished work, so I could see more clearly how the writer had structured out the story, how much information he (or she) got on a page, where the story sped up or slowed down and why. I did a variant of this for Scott McCloud, too -- I wrote up a plot outline from an issue of AVENGERS that he hadn't read, and he drew that comic (very roughly, just storytelling layouts) from my outline, then went and compared it to the published comic to see how the actual artist had done it, and learn from the contrast.

There have also been times that I had to write a character with a tricky speech pattern, and I'd type out all their dialogue from several issues of whatever series they appeared in, to get the rhythms of it in my head. When I wrote an UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN that was narrated by Mary Jane, I started each day by typing out all the MJ dialogue in ten issues of Stan Lee's run of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, just to get her "voice" down.

There are different ways of opening a scene, too -- start close on an action and pull back to reveal the scene, start with an establishing shot, zoom in on a particular set of characters, then cut to individual actions. One I'm fond of, particularly when there's a crowd of characters, is to start with a big roomy master shot that has everyone in it, and then zoom in to tighter shots of individual actions -- this means that first big panel is a pain to draw, but the artist only has to establish the crowd once, and the impression will carry over to the tighter panels.

But mainly I'd recommend people experiment, try all kinds of stuff, and see what works best for them and their own style.

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