Where do you get your ideas

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m kind of fond of Godzilla. The big guy has been a part of my life for a very long time and so, when I heard there was a sixtieth anniversary panel at New York Comic Con, I rushed to the back of the line.

Unfortunately, the king of the monsters didn’t receive a kaiju-sized room and I found the panel woefully overfull. It was the first of a number of instances where the limitations of the Javitz Center became apparent this year, but, while I would have loved to talk Godzilla with all of you, it turned out to be quite a fortunate bit of bad luck.

Dashing back to the room I’d just given up a spot in, I managed to find a great seat for one of the more interesting panels of my 2014 Comic Con experience: So Where Do You Get Your Ideas? And What Do You Do With Them?

“The question is not really ‘where do you get your ideas’,” moderator Heidi MacDonald told us, “everyone has ideas. The question is what do you do when you get that idea.” On hand to answer that question were Eisner Award-winning writer/illustrator Becky Cloonan; Batman writer and general comic book superstar, Scott Snyder; Bryan K. Vaughan, the brilliant madman behind such favorites as Saga and The Private Eye; and actor/writer, Amber Benson.

MacDonald’s first question was for Snyder: what was it like to get offered Detective Comics? Terrifying, replied Snyder. Surprising as it may sound in hindsight, Snyder’s acclaimed Batman debut, “The Black Mirror”, was intended to merely be the backup in Paul Dini’s Detective Comics run. Unfortunately Dini encountered time constraints and had to leave the book. Left without a headliner, DC called Snyder in to offer him the job. It was nerve-wracking, Snyder recalled, “I thought I was going to get fired.”

Intended as a backup, “The Black Mirror” made a startling debut thanks to Snyder being in a perfect position to appreciate the huge shoes Dick Grayson was being asked to fill.

Confronted with just about the opposite of what he was expecting, Snyder still had a case of nerves, worried that his story wouldn’t live up to Detective Comics’ lofty history. Nonetheless, after thinking about it for a minute, he eagerly accepted.

It was somewhat unclear whether this discussion took place before Dini moved to Streets of Gotham or if he was planned to return to Detective Comics, but given the numerous fill-in writers on the prior series and the overwhelming response to “The Black Mirror” and “Batwoman: Elegy”, I find myself in the odd position of thinking that it was for the best that Dini limited his output.

While Snyder was also working on American Vampire, this was some of his earliest licensed comic work. With licensed characters, Snyder told the crowd, it can be a challenge to make the story personal – much the opposite of creator owned work, where you struggle to give it enough mass appeal. In stepping into some of the biggest shoes in comics, Snyder embraced the similar position of his protagonist: then Batman, Dick Grayson. He contrasted the difference between the two Batmen. “Bruce is all, ‘I’m Batman.’ But Dick was, ‘Hey, I’m Batman!’”

Snyder admitted that he’s his own worst critic and that that’s inured him to outside critique pretty well. He also spoke briefly about the importance of that part of himself in writing the self-critical Grayson. For Snyder, it’s not worth writing Batman if you’re just going to tell a mediocre story, you need to have something to say. In the case of “The Black Mirror” he found his angle on the story, but he cautioned any writers out there against taking an assignment, even a career-making assignment, if you don’t have something unique to say about it.

Amber Benson was quick to admit that she wrote a lot of goth poetry in high school but never took her aspirations of writing much farther when she was young. That said, working as an actor, she had plenty of opportunity to be inspired by writing and eventually succumbed and tried it herself with a story in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer comic series. Liking the process, she sought out more projects, eventually being put in contact with Ben Templesmith. The result was Shadowplay.

Benson also spoke about Ghosts of Albion, a transmedia project that includes short films, prose, and even a tabletop RPG. While there is no comics component as of yet, Benson said that working in animation had a very similar feel to her.

Unfortunately, before she could be asked another question, Benson had to run to another panel.

This spider, the symbol of the titular Killjoys, was created for the original announcement of the series back in 2009, but it would be another four years before it, or the Killjoys, would grace a comic cover.

Asked about The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, Becky Cloonan revealed that the project had taken a long, long road. Cloonan was approached by Gerard Way and Shaun Simon in 2008. The concept was “totally different in the pitch,” Cloonan told us, “more Doom Patrol.” Nonetheless, surviving the complicated birth process of a creator-owned comic wasn’t enough for the Killjoys, who were eventually benched. Not to be discouraged, Way revived the concept as a trio of music videos, with Cloonan supplying concept art, but My Chemical Romance’s financial troubles ended the project before the final video could be filmed. The Killjoys would finally find some measure of stability in 2013, when they made their overdue comics debut.

MacDonald turned to Vaughan next, saying that he had described Saga as Star Wars meets Game of Thrones. Vaughan confirmed this, though he admitted that he still hasn’t seen Game of Thrones.

With a chuckle, the multiple Eisner Award-winning writer told the assembled crowd that all of his stories are expressions of whatever frightens or depresses him that his friends won’t listen to. Using Y: The Last Man as an example, Vaughan said that he wrote it just after getting dumped and felt like he couldn’t complain about it anymore, so he added a monkey. Likewise, Vaughan continued, “I made babies with my wife…and that’s terrifying. But no one wants to hear about your babies.” That was Saga. Vaughan said that the whole idea sounded kind of terrible – “maybe it’s still terrible” – but credited Fiona Staples with bringing it to life.

Vaughan also said that the details of Saga came from a complex imaginary world he had been building since childhood. A product of GI Joe and Transformers, the future writer created a somewhat derivative angels vs. demons story, a detail still apparent in the wings and horns of the protagonists. It could have been very standard, but Vaughan kept coming back to it, justifying it to his maturing sensibilities over and over, until he finally gave up on making it sound respectable. He then changed the focus from the major players to a pair of star-crossed nobodies – a sort of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take” – and, voila, Saga!

I’d say that this explains so much, but, honestly, it raises just as many questions.

The Wake was about exploration and the fear of what you might find.

Asked about The Wake, Snyder said that it was originally born out of a feeling of constriction working solely with licensed characters. American Vampire was on hiatus and Batman, while great, was suffocating him a bit, so he pitched an underwater horror book where he would be free to indulge the sense of discovery he missed.

Like Vaughan, Snyder credited his artist, Sean Murphy, with much of the series’ success. Ever eager to share more about his process, he quickly got sidetracked with a story about Murphy.

Apparently during an early stage of development Murphy turned to Snyder and asked – with Snyder mimicking a distinct and palpable energy in his retelling – “are we going to be real friends?” “Yeah, man. I guess,” Snyder replied, perhaps not knowing exactly what he was getting into.

Fast forward to the weekend before the convention. Snyder’s wife, a doctor, was on call and he was home with his kids. Partway through the day, Snyder’s phone rang. Inevitably it was Murphy, asking what he was up to. When Snyder told him, Murphy replied, “I wanna come over. I wanna come be Uncle Sean!” The day ended with Uncle Sean taking Snyder and his kids go-karting.

While it was something of a strange detour, it definitely made me want to meet Sean Murphy and proved effective in communicating the relationship that the two men found in working on The Wake.

Before getting back on track, Snyder also credited his wife, saying that she helps him out a lot in digging up the science that drives or colors his scripts, notably The Wake. Frequently, he said, he’ll call her up and she’ll reply that she’s busy with a patient and can’t answer at the moment. “Your patient would want to know…” Snyder mumbled softly.

Snyder and Murphy quickly found that they brought out the best in each other. Murphy often assumed a prominence in the storytelling that Snyder was unused to but he found that it really worked for him. Snyder would throw pretty crazy ideas into his scripts but, rather than smoothing over his madness, Murphy would often try to one up him. “‘I’m going to make a sonic dolphin.’ ‘Well I’m going to make the sonic dolphin the star of the book.’ ‘Then I’m putting him on a mountain, so you better write me a helicopter.’”

For Snyder it was an attempt to break the rules and get away with it. Delaying the action until the third issue, breaking genre boundaries, leaving bizarre cut-aways hanging, shaking things up mid-way through, even giving characters similar names! The Wake was an opportunity to feel freedom and – in his unique, writerly style – he pulled it all together by explaining his major theme for the series. For Snyder, The Wake was a two-faced coin. On one side the terror of exploring and the fear of what you might find. On the other, the necessity of being daring and the sweetness of being rewarded for it.

As Snyder finished, I couldn’t help notice Vaughan cheerfully shaking his head. I can’t say what was going on inside the mind of the man who brought us Prince Robot IV, but I second his reaction. Snyder couldn’t have been more scattered, but it made for a brilliant story; a brilliant, casual, neurotic, academic, go-karting story.

Wolves

Cloonan’s short comic, Wolves, was an adaptation of a werewolf story she just had “laying around.”

Cloonan’s short comic, Wolves, was a side effect of the Killjoys creation process. Having already turned down other work while waiting for scripts, Cloonan found herself unable to work on any new work. Needing to do something, she dug up a “little werewolves story [she had] lying around. Asked how such stories related to real life, Cloonan explained that she tends to fictionalize real feelings but tries to do so in ways that have their own narrative life.

Brian K. Vaughan spoke about The Private Eye, describing it as a future where the Cloud has burst and there are no secrets. The impetus for the story was simple enough, Vaughan isn’t on Facebook or Twitter and, quite honestly, is baffled by the concept of opting in to sharing huge swaths of your life, willingly and without your notice. He acknowledged that the concept sounded pretty silly but imagined that ideas like Swamp Thing or even Batman probably seemed fairly silly to their creators too. It’s hard to tell, he said, “It never starts to feel right or brilliant.” For Vaughan, the only way to know that he’s not just vomiting nonsense onto the page is to not get canceled.

Asked if he’s ever surprised when people dislike a story he expected to be a hit or like a story he was more tepid about, Vaughan answered, “I’ve never written anything where I thought ‘people will like this.’”

A fan asked the writers if they felt that they needed to know the ending of a story to write it. “This is just personal,” said Snyder, “but yes.” Vaughan and Cloonan agreed, with the former saying that he needs to know the last page and the latter flat-out saying that she needs to know “everything about the characters.”

Snyder said that he once found himself caught in a conversation with Grant Morrison, a writer whose work he says he finds very intimidating. Grant asked him how Batman was going and Snyder said that it was going well. Then Morrison asked him how it was really going and Snyder said that he was completely lost in this story. Morrison’s advice was to really make Batman your own. “DC is never going to let Batman die,” he said, with some experience. Nonetheless Morrison urged Snyder to think about his Batman as having a single story and to find the end of it. “Think of your Batman’s death.”

Snyder said that this advice was really helpful in getting him through his writer’s block and the internal answer to that question eventually externalized in the form of “Twenty-Seven”, his story for the Detective Comics #27 anniversary issue.

A fan who wants to write for film asked if the assembled writers had any advice on how to get started on a story. The strong feeling among the panelists was just to get started. Don’t get too attached, don’t let a story fester, just write. Cloonan even suggested just discarding some of those beloved brilliant ideas if they’re too precious to let go of in written form.

The writer’s advice in short: pay your artists and be passionate.

“How do you focus when the world calls,” one fan asked Snyder. “Let it go,” he answered.

The final question was for Vaughan, asking how he handled worldbuilding. It all comes from the characters, he answered. You can have a gorgeous, filled-out world with wars and governments and vendettas stretching back ten generations, but, as Vaughan put it, “readers don’t care. They want to know who wants to smooch who when, and that’s it.”

“So you build your worlds around smooching,” MacDonald asked.

“That’s X-Men, isn’t it,” Vaughan replied.

The Private Eye was an exploration of Vaughan’s discomfort with social media and information culture.

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