G. Willow Wilson Interview conducted by Ian Burns Part Two (of Three)

Posted by on June 24th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

BURNS: So, when did the shift come to comics? Essays were, I believe, what you wrote primarily, up till your short in Negative Burn in 2006. Is that correct?

WILSON: Well, ironically, that short in Negative Burn was from something that I wrote when I was about 19 for Shannon Denton, who was running comicworks.com at that time. So it was actually one of the first things I ever wrote period, but it just didn’t make it to print until 2006, ironically. I mean, comics were something that I had wanted to do and had been trying to do for quite a while. I started writing Cairo within 24 hours of landing in Cairo.

BURNS: Oh, really?

WILSON: Yeah. It was just…the city just kind of blew me away and I thought my God…just like a bolt of lightning, and all the sudden there’s a story in my head. So it just sort of took a while to get into the groove of comics. It’s very, very difficult to write for comics in America [laughs].

BURNS: That’s my next question, actually. What sort of things changed about your writing, other than—you know, you’re writing in a script rather than prose—what sort of transitions did you have to make?

WILSON: Well, by difficult I don’t necessarily mean difficult to write. I mean difficult to publish. I tell people, when they say “I want to write comics.” I tell them—

BURNS: You’re an idiot!

WILSON: No. I say: “You know what, I’ve written for The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and I have to tell you, that that was easier by far than breaking into comics.” It is by far easier to write for The New York Times than it is to write for DC Comics.

BURNS: As a writer: they’re looking for cartoonists all the time.

WILSON: Certainly the process is probably easier for artists because they have portfolio reviews, so there’s like a set method to show your work, whereas for a writer you have to know somebody. You just…you have to. That’s how you put your writing in front of an editor is you know somebody who knows somebody. So I actually enjoy writing script better than almost anything else. I find that that structure is really great for me. I feel…

BURNS: Streamlined.

WILSON: It’s very streamlined, you know I’m kind of type A, I like structure, I like rules…. I’m not threatened by authority [Laughter]. So having a script and having it a set number of pages of the structure of panels per page is something I like a lot. And I think you can do a lot with it that you can’t do in other medium. So I didn’t really feel like from a stylistic point it was tough to switch to comics, or writing more comics.

It was very hard to get my footing and get good at it. When I read the first few issues of Air and even some parts of Cairo, I see how I would have paced this differently: you know I would’ve split this up in a different way. So it’s a little bit tough at first figuring out how much dialogue you can put in a panel, how much motion you can imply versus show, stylistically writing script I really liked. Took me a while to get good at it though [laughs].

BURNS: How did you and M.K. Perker meet, ’cause you’ve collaborated on Cairo, and you’re currently working with him on Air, so when did you guys meet?

WILSON: M.K. was apparently someone that Karen Berger had been wanting to use for a while. Or maybe Shelly Bond, I can’t remember. Somebody at Vertigo liked his work and wanted to use him for something, and when Cairo came up, they thought he would be a good fit because he’s from Istanbul, so he knows how mosques should look, he knows how those old houses should look. The Turks ruled Egypt for a very long time, so a lot of architecture in Egypt is Turkish architecture. So there’s a lot of overlap between the two cultures. So he seemed like a natural fit. And we got along so well that we decided to just keep going, like we’re on a roll. So we started Air like six weeks after Cairo wrapped. I pitched it to Karen and Karen liked it. M.K. called me and said “So what are we doing next!?!” [Laughter.]

BURNS: So you two met through Vertigo, but how did you get involved with Vertigo in the first place?

WILSON: That is a long and complicated story [Burns laughs]. The short version is, when I was working at comicworks.com, I got to interview a lot of people in the industry and kind of pick their brains. And one of those was Keith Giffen. And I met him at a Comic-Con and I had a very early draft of like the first 20 pages of Cairo, and I asked “Could you take a look at this and tell me what you think. What I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong?” And he said: “Sure, but I have to tell you, if it sucks I’m going to tell you it sucks.” [Burns laughs]. I said, “That’s totally fine.”

So he read it and actually liked it, and asked if he could show it to Joan Hilty who was his editor at DC, in the DCU, and I said “Sure, please go ahead. “ I mean it was not a tough decision on my part. So he showed it to Joan and it floated around DC and Vertigo for a couple years, and then finally got approved by Karen, and Joan actually ended up editing it, even though she was working in the DCU at the time. She did it as a Vertigo project kind of on the side. And she says that was partially the inspiration for her going back to Vertigo, which is where she is now. So I feel kind of proud of that.

BURNS: So you’ve changed the DC Universe [laughs].

WILSON: Yeah, that’s right, I inspired something, I don’t know what.

BURNS: Describe your collaboration process with M.K.?

WILSON: We’re really, really on the same wavelength about a lot of things, which is great. We’re both workaholics, we both work very fast, which is nice—although we’ve slowed down in recent months, after having worked together non-stop for about five

years. We’re hitting the burnout point. But we have very similar vision; we have very similar taste. I’ll write up a script and just fire it off, and M.K. takes it and runs with it, and will e-mail or call if there are little things that he has questions about. But, you know, I trust him, and so if there’s something that he wants to change or thinks should be changed I just say go for it. So a lot of the time I’ll get the pages back and there’ll be new panels, or things will be taken out. And I just roll with it, because I think, as the artist, his aesthetic sensibility is kind of paramount. And so I trust his instincts. I tend to do a certain amount of re-scripting after the art comes back, because there’ll be new panels there’ll be…

BURNS: Replacing dialogue.

WILSON: New places for dialogue, that kind of thing.

BURNS: So you would say it’s highly collaborative.

WILSON: Yeah.

BURNS: Your scripts aren’t so tight that he has no room to work in.

WILSON: No. I mean I do do full scripts, so I do PANEL ONE, PANEL TWO, PANEL THREE, but I don’t do the really super-detailed full script. Some people like to do PANEL ONE: TOP LEFT, SMALL, INSET INTO PANEL TWO. I don’t do any of that. Because I have kind of a vision in my head of how the page will look, but it’s not in such detail that I want to override an instinct that the artist might have about the placement or size or anything like that. So it is very collaborative. I write full script but it’s kind of literary full script. I try to be evocative so that the artist gets a sense of how the page should feel, but as to how the page should look, as far as I’m concerned, what they feel is best.

BURNS: Well that’s interesting that you just said evocative, because that’s something that I would imagine you can’t do with screenwriting.

WILSON: Probably not.

BURNS: ’Cause they want something.

WILSON: Concrete.

BURNS: Right, with comics we’re able to go “This isn’t going to show up in anybody but the artist’s hands.”

WILSON: Right, exactly.

BURNS: And you could say “I’ll flower it up!”

WILSON: Right. Nobody knows: Nobody will ever see it. I think I do write for the artist when I write scripts because the reader will never see my script, as you said. So to me it’s important that the artist enjoys reading it, that it’s thematically coherent so that the art can be thematically coherent so that they know what the look and feel should be. So that’s it I don’t try to micromanage what the reader will see, I just try to inspire what the artist sees in their head. That’s what I see my job to be.

BURNS: When you arrived in Cairo you started writing the book, and you took an approach that kind of fused mythology and, I hesitate to use the term realism, but the actual history of Cairo, culture of Cairo, religion of Cairo. So what made you take that approach?

WILSON: To me that’s just kind of how the world looks. To me, stories and myth and belief and the unseen are not really separable from the concrete, the seen and the rational. So, I didn’t really think of it as being a fusion of magical realism, or fantasy and reality. To me this is just sort of a reflection of how I think. I don’t know how much of that has to do with being religious and how much of it is just sort of my own weirdness or whatever. But to me it was just sort of externalizing the natural relationship between concrete reality and mythology and stories and that kind of thing.

From Cairo. Click to view larger image.
BURNS: And you have some very specific—not so specific that they don’t have their own life—but some specific character types in Cairo. You have Kate the expat, Shaheed the potential terrorist, Ali the journalist, Ashraf the drug runner, Tova the IDF soldier. Why these specific character types and that milieu that they create?

WILSON: I wanted to have characters that would complement each other. I wanted each one to have a foil so that they had ways to grow and ways to react to each other. So it made sense to me to set up three pairs of characters that would antagonize each other in some way. So that’s why I chose those particular different people.

BURNS: How long did that take to write Cairo, was it written all while you were staying there?

WILSON: It was all written while I was in Cairo. It took about a year, probably, to write from start to finish. There were some revisions along the way of course.

BURNS: Were you kind of taking in the city and found new directions that you had to go in?

WILSON: Yeah I did. And I found stuff that I had to junk and to revise also. Because of course your first impressions are almost never the whole story. So yeah it did undergo a lot of revision and it gained in a lot of depth as it went along. A lot of different people read it. One of the versions of the script was actually read by one of the original IDF dissenters, one of the IDF soldiers who went to jail for refusing to serve in the occupied territories: because I wanted Tova to be as real as possible. That was cool. I got a lot of great input from different people, also a lot of stuff that I would rather not know about the border between Israel and Egypt. People would say “Well, you know this part of the border is actually really porous so if you’re going to have her accidently wander across at this part… “ I’m like “OK, you need to stop talking. “’Cause I don’t want to know this!” [Burns laughs]. “I don’t want to know how you know this!” [Laughter.]

BURNS: Had you experimented with comedy before? I found Cairo very humorous at points. My favorite line was “Tie up your fucking camels, love of God!” So…[Laughter.] Had you experimented with humor before?

WILSON: No, I mean, to me it’s just sort of… humor is part and parcel of any story. I can’t stand stories that are completely serious, that take themselves too seriously, because life isn’t like that. Life is full of funny weird stuff that you laugh at. I think humor is actually harder to do than serious stuff. It’s very easy to be melodramatic, very hard to be funny. So it’s something I like, something I’d like to get better at.

From Cairo. Click to view larger image.
BURNS: Your next comic work after Cairo was…correct me if I’m wrong…was the Outsiders: Five of a Kind one shot in 2007, and then Vixen: Return of the Lion in 2008. I’m guessing you were writing Air at that time too.

WILSON: That whole time, yeah. I mean, Air…we were working on Air a good year before it actually came out. So we had a bunch of issues already done by the time the first one hit the stands. But yeah, as I was working on Air I was also working on…I think I actually did the Outsiders one-shot while I was working on Cairo, or maybe right after Cairo wrapped: but again, in all parts of publishing, when stuff comes out usually bears no resemblance to when it was written. I don’t know what you guys have at Fantagraphics…

BURNS: Oh God.

WILSON: …in terms of publishing schedule, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

BURNS: What about your writing changed when you were tackling superheroes? That was your first time, right?

WILSON: Yeah. The thing I think that was most challenging to work around was all of the back-story that a superhero has. A lot of which is contradictory because they’ll get retconned and they’ll have one line of continuity, oh, but in this other world there’s this other thing that happened, and…So you have to be cognizant of that, and you also have to defer to the writer of whatever ongoing series they’re in so, with Vixen, when the mini was first proposed, she was kind of like a C-list character. But while I was writing it she became very, very important in the Justice League ongoing monthly series. There were a lot of things I had to change to kind of compensate for that.

BURNS: Was Dwayne McDuffie writing it?

WILSON: Yeah, I think it must have been Dwayne.

BURNS: Did you talk with him?

WILSON: No, not really [laughter]. You know, I would just sort of read the issues as they came out so that I could stay on top of what was going on, and he would read my script and then veto things, and I would have to go back…

BURNS: Fun…

WILSON: I love you Dwayne! [Burns laughs]. I have nothing against you whatsoever. I think you’re a great writer [Laughter].

BURNS: So did you find working inside of a continuity stifling?

WILSON: I felt like I didn’t really have the right to find it stifling because it’s part and parcel of the job when you take on a superhero. It’s not your character. You’re just borrowing it for some set number of issues. When it comes to superheroes I try to practice non-attachment and kind of roll with the punches. I do get a little bit upset when the story suffers. And just sort of gets weighed down in a lot of extraneous junk and it doesn’t read as nicely, it doesn’t follow a nice arc ’cause you have to pack in all this stuff. So that does bug me. Because the reader sees that and the reader is like, “It would have been so much better without this that and the other thing.” And I’m sitting there thinking: “I agree with you. I absolutely agree. “ [Laughter]. So, that is frustrating. But…this is the genre. That’s just kind of how it goes.

From Vixen: Return of the Lion, drawn by Cafu ©2009 DC Comics

all Cairo images ©2007 G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker

Tomorrow: In the conclusion of this three-part interview, Wilson talks about the cancellation of Air, the Standard Attrition website, the challenges inherent in writing memoir and being interrogated by little blonde stewardesses.

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