As the Kickstarter fund raising campaign for Duster – one of the most exciting graphic novels to be released this year – draws to an end, Wicked Comics has a chat with Micah Wright and Jay Lender the creative duo behind this wicked project.
WICKED COMICS: When did you realise you wanted to become a writer?
MICAH: I was always a writer… when I was a little kid, I read like crazy, and I loved writing stories in class, on my own, writing and drawing my own comics, etc. I just never thought of it as a job you could actually do for a living until I was in college. My dad was an engineer, and so I thought I had to do something like that… but I was just horrible at it, hated every second of it, and eventually thought “If I keep trying to be an engineer, I’m going to go crazy,” and I started looking around for something else to major in. I settled on Political Science because I thought being a lawyer would be fun… but then I interned for a corporate law firm, the county prosecutor’s office, and the public defender’s office, and that disabused me of the idea that I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I stumbled into writing and acting in a sketch comedy group, which I enjoyed very much, and then added a Creative Writing focus to my studies.
JAY: I always wrote as a kid, not well, but pretty consistently. My dream, though, was to make cartoons. At my first job I spent months inbetweening pixie dust, and when the job was over my work accounted for a tiny fraction of the on-screen action for maybe 15 seconds of film. I knew I wanted to have more of an impact, so I moved over to television and worked my way into a storyboard job on Hey Arnold, a scripted cartoon. Suddenly I was working in a more broad fashion, plotting out action for the overseas animators, managing the visual end of character performances. I was accounting for the beginning, middle and end of a whole story, and I liked it. So I started sitting in on story meetings. My next job was on SpongeBob SquarePants, where we wrote the shows AS we storyboarded them. That launched my professional writing career, and opened me up to writing in many different media. You start with the white page, and when you’re done there’s a story there. Writing is where a single person can have the most impact.
WICKED COMICS: How did your first break in the industry occur?
MICAH: I moved to Los Angeles after college, and started temping. One day I temped at Nickelodeon Animation. It was a lot of fun, I really liked the people, and I did a good job… so when they needed another temp a month later, they called and requested me specifically. I dropped the other temp job I was doing at the time, and went back to Nickelodeon, and busted my ass making everyone there happy. By the end of that week, they decided to keep me on for a few more weeks, that turned into months, then eventually they made me a permanent employee. Over the next five years I worked my way up from the guy who got the donuts and answered the phones to a writers’ assistant (getting donuts and answering phones and typing scripts and keeping track of schedules, etc.) to freelancing a few episodes of some shows, then to staff writer, and then I pitched and produced my own action show pilot, “Constant Payne”… just as 9/11 happened. In the wake of that disaster, the network got cold feet about action shows, so it never became a full series.
So I kicked around for a few months, trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, and I met John Nee, the Vice President of Wildstorm Comics, at San Diego Comic Con, and talked to him about how I had just been working in animation. Because I had just mentioned animation, that made him remember that GI Joe was coming back into vogue in comics (which I hadn’t known). Then he mentioned that Whilce Portacio was under contract and they needed a new series for him to draw, and so on the spot I just pitched Wildstorm a comic about human Special Forces soldiers who were tasked to kill Supeheroes by the United Nations – a combination of the two kinds of comics that WS was famous for; superheroes and military books. John liked the idea, and he invited me down to Laguna Beach, where I met with Whilce and John Layman, their editor (now the writer of CHEW), and with Scott Dunbier (who now works at IDW). I showed them my animated show, and they all liked it, then I pitched them my idea… I’d fleshed it out to about 10 pages of writing and character descriptions and story ideas. They all liked my pitch, and so they hired me. Being in the right place at the right time with the right idea… that’s the secret to success. You need all three things to line up just right, and it doesn’t always happen. But that’s how I broke into comics… by first breaking into animated television.
JAY: I went to the Rhode Island School of Design to study animation, but after two years it became clear to me that they wanted me to be an arthouse film animator and live on grant money all my life. I wanted to do Bugs Bunny, so I headed to the California Institute of the Arts, essentially Disney’s pet art school. I studied for another 4 years there before heading out into the industry. The inbetweening job (on “The Pagemaster” an abysmal morality play about the value of books) led nowhere, mostly because I was trying to get out of the feature animation track. I ended up spending close to a year and a half at home working freelance art jobs and applying for animation work. My experience, repeated a hundred times was this: I’d go to a studio to apply for a job and they’d tell me “Come back in two weeks and we’ll have a job opening.” So I’d go back in two weeks and they’d say “you should have come last week, we had three jobs.” It finally dawned on me that when a new production launches the top people hire their friends first… then they hire whoever’s in the lobby, because if you’re going to take a risk on an unknown quantity you might as well take the risk sooner than later. The key was being in the right place at the right time, and for me that came when a former teacher and current friend, Ken Bruce, called me up to tell me that they were hiring for a new show called Hey Arnold “so get to Burbank now, Now, NOW!” I left the phone receiver spinning in the air and got to the studio before it hit the table. I was the first person in the lobby when they were done hiring their friends, so I got the job.
That got me into animation, and from there I was drafted by Nickelodeon magazine to do some comic strips with the characters from Hey Arnold, and later SpongeBob. But in a way, Duster will be what breaks me into the comics world.
WICKED COMICS: You write for multiple mediums including video games, movies, graphic novels, comics and TV shows, do you find it easy to switch from one medium to another? Do you have a favourite medium?
MICAH: We do, and additionally, we write together AND we write separately, just to make everything far more complicated. Of all the mediums I’ve ever worked in, as a pure writing experience, I love comics the most… even on company-owned work, the stakes are so low and the investment so relatively small that you can write anything that you want to, within reason. And when you’re working on creator-owned material, you can write anything that you want to whatsoever because you’re paying for everything yourself. On a television show, however, there are so many executives who have approvals over what you write and draw that it can get really tiresome. You’re compensated for that, though, with much larger paychecks. Movies are fun to write, but you have to be willing to write something really fantastic, and sell it, and then NEVER hear anything back about it ever again. 98% of all movies which sell are never made. It’s heartbreaking, AND there are a lot of executives who have strong opinions about how they want to rewrite your movie for you. On videogames, it’s a really interesting experience where the people constantly working with you are giving you input and criticism about your work in real-time… there’s no room to get attached to anything, and everyone’s constantly rewriting you and making suggestions. Every single one of those jobs is totally different, and they all pay widely differently, but in comics, if you’re doing a creator owned book, you have total control. That’s what we love about Duster.
JAY: The basics of telling a story never change, so that part of the job is pretty consistent, except in the videogame world where you quite often have to write a story to satisfy someone’s idea for gameplay, rather than letting the needs of story dictate the action. But the presentation of the story material in videogames is basically identical to the presentation in films and television. Comics are a different beast because there’s no motion. In motion storytelling–animation, film, even theater– we have the use of subtle movements and expressions to communicate ideas. None of that can happen in comics without belaboring the point. How do you show something slowly rotating in a comic? How do you do an eye-roll of frustration without it being overly cartoony? When I do comics I have to constantly remind myself about the loss of those kinds of tools. There are incredible gains as well–thought balloons, captions, sound effects, the expansion and contraction of time. It’s an amazing medium, but writing it is harder than film. I have to think about everything twice as long to get the result I want.
WICKED COMICS: You have worked on a number of projects, do you have any favourites? Why?
MICAH: Constant Payne is the animated show that I wrote and produced for Nickelodeon. You can see it on YouTube. I love it, and I wish it had become a series. I’d like to get it going again someday. In comics, I’m still really proud of my run on Stormwatch: Team Achilles. People tell me to this day that it’s their favorite comic series ever, which is really nice to hear. I loved all of my artists on that book, and I think we had really hit a major stride toward the end there… unfortunately, it was a Mature Readers book, and I don’t think any of us had really considered how badly that MR rating would kill our sales. A lot of comics stores don’t want trouble with their local law enforcement over selling “porn” to kids, so they don’t order Mature Readers comics, no matter what the book is actually about. If we had known that from the get-go, I would have just changed all the “Fucks” to “Fuggs” and it would have been the exact same book, but would have sold 3x as well. In games, I think that the two “Destroy All Humans” games that Jay & I wrote together would be some of my favorite work.
JAY: I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my animation career. I was one of the first generation of people who got into the business after Roger Rabbit and the whole animation renaissance. There were incredible things happening and I was able to be a part of some of it. Hey Arnold was a fantastic program, (we called it Urban Peanuts) with a real soul to it. I’m very proud to have been a storyboarder for (and involved to a degree in the writing) of Pigeon Man, which is, for my money, the best episode we did–guaranteed tears. And after that I wheedled my way onto the original run of SpongeBob. Years later I wrote and directed for three and a half years on Phineas and Ferb, another classic in the making. I was never able to work with Bugs Bunny in animation, but I scratched my Looney Tunes itch hard with Micah when we wrote the videogame tie-in for the Looney Tunes Back in Action movie. Thousands of lines of dialog for more Warner Bros. cartoon characters than anyone should ever know the names of. Of course I’m dreaming of my own show, and I have several ready to go if anyone is buying… but Duster is near and dear to my heart because it is the first thing I’ve worked on that is truly mine (with Micah, of course.) Hopefully more such projects will follow.
WICKED COMICS: You guys wrote the forthcoming graphic novel Duster together, how does writing with others differ from writing solo, and do you prefer one over the other?
MICAH: I love working with Jay… he has a view of the universe which is drastically different than mine, and that’s a helpful thing to have when you’re sitting down to work on a big project. He’s excellent with plotting and making sure that the story holds together. We sometimes have different takes on things, and those conversations always yield the best version of whatever we’re talking about. When you write alone, you’re completely in charge and never have to justify anything to anyone… but you’re also completely responsible for any errors you make, or any blind alleys you lead your script down, or any story choices you decide on which screw up your script. It’s great having a second pair of eyes to bounce that stuff off of. Then again, sometimes you WANT to be completely in charge to make your own mistakes and say exactly what you want to say, even if it’s not 100% perfect, it’s still 100% you.
JAY: There’s nothing more frustrating and valuable than having your harshest critic staring over your shoulder when you write. We have had more screaming matches than I can count, but in the end we come up with something better than either of us was thinking of on our own. We may go primarily in one person’s direction, but the other person always has some grace note to add that takes it from functional to great. We stand on each others’ shoulders and reach higher than we ever could alone.
WICKED COMICS: Some writers prefer to go into great detail plotting almost every aspect of every panel while others prefer to leave a lot of freedom to the artist when it comes to panel design. Which group do you subscribe to and how would you describe your writing style?
MICAH: We’re pretty excruciating. At least on THIS book we were. On our next book, we’re already planning to let the artist take over some of those decisions. On Stormwatch, I was dealing with artists who didn’t answer directly to me, so I was forced to be a lot more collaborative. I might suggest 5 panels, and the artist only draws 4, for example, so I have to change the script around, etc. to make the dialog work. No problem, that’s what I’m being paid to do. On this book, however, we’re paying the artist to draw exactly what we want, so we’re pretty specific. We’ve actually posted several “script to page” posts on our Facebook wall at http://Facebook.com/DusterGrapicNovel where we show a script page, Jok Coglitore’s rough layout, Jay’s corrections to Jok’s layouts, then Cristian’s pencils, then Jay’s corrections to the pencils, then Cristian’s inks, then the color and lettering. It’s a fun look behind the scenes on this book. On Stormwatch, by contrast, I just wrote scripts and fired them off to the editor, then changed the script when I saw the art finished.
JAY: Yeah, I’ve been a bit of a taskmaster on this one, but Jok and Cristian are perfectly willing (and welcome) to step outside the lines when they feel like it’s important. And when they’re that invested they tend to make changes that stick. Luckily, comics are such a fluid medium that we can shift some dialog or add a caption or sound effect and sew things together in a new and better way. In industry parlance we’re using a hybrid of the DC and Marvel methods.
WICKED COMICS: How did Duster come about? And how would you describe it?
MICAH: I had a dream when I was at the San Diego Comic Con in 1995 that I was on my grandparent’s farm in the 1940’s and a planeload of Nazis with Hitler on board crashed in Texas. I went back to work and told Jay about it and he said “Hitler makes a shitty McGuffin, but you should turn that into something someday.”
JAY: Here’s how we describe Duster: On top it’s a rip-roaring, blood & guts action book about a female crop-duster pilot fighting Nazis in Texas… but below the surface it’s a story about the creation of the Modern American Woman, who can work, raise a family and make her own decisions. At last, a graphic novel 50-year-old cougars and their 24 -year-old boyfriends can read together!
WICKED COMICS: Duster will be exclusively published through the fund raising site Kickstarter, any particular reasons for doing this instead of pitching it to publishers?
MICAH: Well, THIS edition will be exclusive to Kickstarter… but we expect that once we publish this special edition for our Kickstarter backers we will reprint through a traditional publisher. The big hurdle for creators is expenses; it costs a lot to sit down and make comics, both in real dollar amounts and opportunity loss. Then there’s printing and shipping. At the end of the day, the artist is lucky to make 10% of cover price through the traditional comics marketplace. On a book where we have $30,000 in expenses, that means we’d have to sell 10,000 copies just to break even on our art costs, much less printing, shipping, etc. Say we self-published this book and distributed it through Diamond–there’s no guarantee that Diamond would accept the book. Second, we have to convince America’s comic shop owners that there’s a market for the book. Mark Andrew Smith learned the hard way about that… he solicited Sullivan’s Sluggers through Diamond with Image as the publisher and got orders for fewer than 300 copies. So he moved to Kickstarter and sold 3000+ copies, and then he’s going to sell it exclusively in person at cons, and digitally via Comixology. What’s that say to you about the current comics marketplace? To me, it says that many store owners believe they can’t sell a book without superheroes, so they don’t order any, which only reinforces their own customers’ biases. I had a comic store owner complain to me that he can’t sell 3 copies of a Walking Dead trade paperback even with a weekly televised show on the air pimping those trades. Whatever the reason for that state of affairs it seems like the current system does not work for indy comics people… I think Kickstarter is going to be what saves comics from superheroes, and what saves indy comics from this broken system.
WICKED COMICS: The Duster campaign appears pretty solid and includes a fully lettered and coloured 40 page downloadable preview. What do you think are the ingredients for a successful campaign?
MICAH: Number One: don’t run your campaign during San Diego Comic Con. Two: set up your press interviews in advance, or you will end up chasing publicity and fail to get enough of it. Three: Have a big chunk of what you’re selling up on Kickstarter so people can see it and read it and figure out if they like it enough to give you money. Four: Have a good video which features your product and features yourself. Use a microphone. Do a few takes. Try to get it right. Kickstarter says that people respond better to a video where you look people in the eye and ask them to help you out… I think that’s probably true.
JAY: We planned day and night for this campaign and still made many mistakes. Like Micah said, the biggest of them was to do this during Comic Con week. But that said, a LOT of people have downloaded our preview and more will come in the final days. Maybe some of them were waiting for the convention to see if there was a better place to spend their money, and I’m betting that a lot of them decided there wasn’t a better place. We have a fantastic book here and I’m betting that a lot of fence-sitters will come down on our side in the final week.
WICKED COMICS: On the Duster you collaborated with some talented artists including the contribution (cover and limited edition prints available as perks) by the legendary Howard Chaykin. As writers how do you choose artists to collaborate with and how do you feel to have the cover laid by such a prestigious artist?
MICAH: It’s awesome. I love Howard’s art and his writing, and it was important to me that he respect the writing enough to do the cover. I’ve known him since 1995, and it was a difficult thing to call him up and ask him to lend me his credibility in that way. Charlie Adlard I’ve known since 2002, and I think he’s a tremendously talented artist. We tried to work together on a few cool projects, but got a lot of shrugs in return. Now that he’s one of the best-selling artists in the country, I’d like to think they’re kicking themselves for not seeing in his work what I saw; a guy who draws the best realistic-looking human beings in the business. Real characters, not mannequins who can only be distinguished by their hair color. That’s what DUSTER is about, and when I thought about who I’d like to work with on covers, Charlie leapt right to mind.
JAY: We searched long and hard to find someone who has that human quality in his work–people like Tim Truman or Sam Glanzman. When we saw Cristian’s work we knew we had our man–and Jok’s breakdowns provide Cristian with an amazing storytelling foundation. Five years from now we’ll say “we knew them when…” You know, I’ve made a career of drawing other people’s characters. The idea that people are drawing mine? That’s incredible. Chaykin? That’s surreal. There isn’t anyone who has drawn for us who can’t do what they do better than I could do it. I’m in awe of each and every one of them.
WICKED COMICS: What advice would you give to budding writers?
MICAH: Write as often as you can, and go back and look at your old writing and figure out what’s wrong with it and then rewrite it once you’ve got some distance. Enter every scene at the last possible moment and cut out of it at the first opportunity. Make everyone in every scene want something. Never let two characters talk about a third character. Try not to get bogged down in exposition.
JAY: Writing is not just dialog. Start with story, tell as much of that story as you can with action. Use dialog when there’s no other way. In animation we spend a lot of time watching silent films. Charlie Chaplin doesn’t say a word in City Lights, but will City Lights make you cry? You bet it will.
WICKED COMICS: Do you have other projects in the pipeline and what can you tell us about them?
MICAH: We Do! And Nothing! :)
JAY: My next project is to sleep more than 3 hours a night. I’m planning to get right to work on that after the Kickstarter campaign is complete.
WICKED COMICS: Do you have any plans of appearing at the Malta Comic Convention?
MICAH: I would love to! I cannot wait to visit Malta! I hope to sell so many copies of Duster that we have the money to attend the Con next year!
JAY: I will visit any Mediterranean island nation that purchases more than 1000 copies of Duster.
WICKED COMICS: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MICAH: Buy our book! Please! http://Duster.me
JAY: Obey Micah! OBEY!
Duster takes place at the close of the European conflict in World War II, and tells the story of a war-widowed female crop-duster pilot who must defend her daughter and her neighbors against a planeload of escaping Nazis who have crashed in her small Texas town. The action-packed story examines women’s changing roles in American society during the war years, as well as surveying all the various way that tough, independent women could kill a bunch of rampaging Nazis with farming equipment.
The Duster Kickstarter campaign will end on Tuesday 24th July 2012 and with plenty of mouth watering perks available as different bundles for those who pre-order, Wicked Comics strongly recommends that those who haven’t pre-ordered their Duster copy already to do so now!
Duster Kickstarter Project: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/propagandist/duster-the-graphic-novel
Duster Facebook fanpage: http://facebook.com/DusterGraphicNovel
Twitter: @MicahWright and #DusterOGN