TCJ 300 Conversations: Denny O’Neil & Matt Fraction

Posted by on December 21st, 2009 at 5:07 AM

 

The Next Generation

Valenti:
Looking at the current aesthetic state of comics as it’s been shaped by members of the previous generations such as Denny O’Neil, do you feel a need to shake things up and take it in a different direction, or do you feel a responsibility to live up to and carry on previous traditions, or some combination?

Fraction:
My first Iron Man arc was about kids with backpacks blowing up cities. I’ve written about alcoholics in downward spirals; the cultural, racial, sexual — tolerance of sexual preference and everything else. I feel an obligation — I’m acutely aware of the shoulders I’m standing on, and I feel an obligation to honor that.

I write the X-Men and there are gay kids with quivering voices and smiles at every show who find whatever it is they need to find somewhere in X-Men somehow — that book is so much about outcasts and misfits — they’ll find something in that book and it means the world to them. Something about that book in particular strikes people who have been prejudiced against, or judged, or shunned. People who feel like outcasts read that book and it means something. It makes them feel like they’re not alone and I think if you meet these kids, it shows. To carry on — just a sense of social consciousness, a political consciousness, Goddamn it, of what’s right in the world.

However small it is. For 22 pages where people wear ridiculous costumes and shoot beams from their face is some kind of fraudulence. I think these things can be more than 22-page fight scenes—and I’m a guy who likes 22-page fight scenes. I might’ve come for the steak, but I stay for the sizzle. And especially stuff like Denny’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow stuff, first or not, I definitely feel an obligation to carry on those traditions, because these things can be more than what they are. And if you can take something as ultimately frivolous in the cosmic scale of things in the universe and what’s important; people being born and dying and everything else that’s gonna happen today — if one gay kid in Shawnee Mission, Kan., reads an X-Men comic and feels for a second like maybe they’re not entirely alone in the world, that’s amazing. I’ll take it. Whatever size victory that is, I will take.


From Daredevil #214 written by O’Neil and drawn by David Mazzucchelli; ©1985 Marvel Characters, Inc.


O’Neil:
The other advantage of doing the socially relevant so-called stuff is, like Herman Melville said, “To write a mighty book, you must have a mighty theme.” What I found was: Writing about real stuff that really concerned me brought out my craft. If you’re writing a story about is Lois Lane gonna figure out that Superman is Clark Kent, it’s really hard to get involved in that on anything other than a craft level. And I’m not gonna put down craftsmanship; it is a noble enough thing to have made a table that you can pound on and it doesn’t fall down. But occasionally, we might have an assignment that engages some other parts of ourselves, and those tend to be the good stories. I think you have to be professional enough to make the good table. You’re not gonna be inspired 20 times a year.

 

Scripting

O’Neil:
Matt, are you guys still doing Marvel style, or full script?

Fraction:
I do full script. There are guys I know who do Marvel style, but I think they tend to be viewed a bit like lobster boys, or men with flippers. They’re certainly unique in their freakishness. I don’t know if it’s coming from a film culture and just having thought in storyboard for so long, but I wouldn’t even know how to go about working in Marvel style. I do a full script and it tends to — I’ve started to fold index cards into my process. This has been exciting. The last couple months I’ve started to use index cards more and more. Very messy.

O’Neil:
Do you talk the story out with the editor before you script?

Fraction:
Yeah, but it’s that butterfly. Like, “Uhh, I kind of know the beginning, maybe a middle beat, and an ending.” I sort of know who he’s gonna fight, what we’re gonna get, and what the hook is. Starting very broad and then narrowing in, moment to moment. These index cards are really helping. [Laughs.] I have a three-by-five-foot corkboard and a lot of index cards. That’s gonna really make a difference. I’m gonna really turn the corner this year, I can feel it.

O’Neil:
The thing I miss most is editors who want to do that. That’s pretty much the way I most successfully worked: exactly what you described. I know where it’s going, I know one or two of the set pieces, and I either know, or will pay attention to when the time comes, what pulls them into the story. I’m not going to open on five pages of talking heads if it’s an action story.

But one of the great things for me about writing Iron Man was for about three hours a month, just sitting in a Chinese restaurant, Second Avenue with Mark, and working the story out. People don’t seem to much want to do that any more. For me, it was always — not only the most pleasurable part of editing — we can all do without it, but it helps. For a lot of years, my wife Mary Fran has been my de facto editor, in that I can walk around town with her and talk out story problems. She’s not a writer; she has a stepson and a husband who are — she’s been around this for 20 years. And sometimes just talking it out, you’ll solve your own problem, explaining it to someone else.


From The Immortal Iron Fist #12, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by David Aja; ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.


Fraction:
That first time that I ever articulate something out loud is always the most revealing. The first time something makes the leap from thought to sound, I immediately see where the holes are and what doesn’t work: and I can watch people get bored. To actually speak the words out loud — and I can tell, too, if I’m nervous about talking about it, I know I don’t have the story. I know on some instinctual level, if I’m nervous about sitting down for dinner with my wife and telling her what I’m thinking — I can tell if it’s not ready to come out of the stove. My instinct on that is somehow very, very primal and very inarticulate, but very real. I just know. It just doesn’t feel right saying the words: I know I don’t have it yet.

O’Neil:
George Lucas said, “Mythology is the end result of what has worked for a lot of different people telling the story to an audience.” Getting that immediate — the expression-on-their-face kind of feedback.

Fraction:
I’ve really come to study and embrace structure and appreciate it. I worked so instinctually and so off the top of my head. I also believe, just by osmosis, you can’t see as many movies as I’ve seen and read as many comics as I’ve read without having some kind of innate sense of narrative. You’re gonna find a beginning and a middle and an end. But embracing structure is precisely that. There’s a reason why these stories have resonated for thousands of years.

O’Neil:
Three-act structure prevails because it is the most logical way to tell a story.

Fraction:
Right. And you can’t argue with the results.

O’Neil:
Some young people don’t seem to be able to write structured, all-in-this-issue stories. For the first 25 years of my life, every story that I experienced had a beginning, middle and end. Sure, there were continuing characters all over the place. But it was Boston Blackie solving this crime in this movie. Not Boston Blackie getting a start on solving this crime but you have to see his next movie to find out whodunit. Same way with radio shows. So I think I knew about structure before I had a vocabulary to express the concept, because that’s the stories that I grew up experiencing. The major change, I think, in the last 50 years is going into a predominately serialized narrative form.

Fraction:
Right. The DC book that you wrote about writing was great in that all of those things that were in my personal ether were being defined. “Oh, that’s what you call that — that’s how that works.” And I’ve been aware of writing a long-form structure, but I’m curious in the year going forward to start trying to see what happens — can you keep a micro and a macro structure moving at the same time? Can these eight issues form a complete experience, and how singular can each issue be? Is there a first, second and third act to each component of each beat of the greater structure? Really wonky questions that having a bulletin board full of index cards might inspire. But I find that, for me, the structure is the hard part. That’s where the real writing is. Writing my list of what has to happen on each page — that’s the tough part. Once that’s done, the scripting is very enjoyable and tends to go briskly, if I’m focused and not paying attention to the ball game.


From The Five Fists of Science, by and ©2006 Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders.


O’Neil:
TV has learned from us about structure. Seems to me, the predominant structure on narrative TV is: The protagonist has an ongoing problem. Just like Burn Notice; he’s gotta find out who sabotaged his life. But, in the meantime, he has a problem that’ll be solved in the next 50 minutes. In order to make money, or to help out his mother or something like that — he has a set of problems, he solves them, but he still doesn’t know who screwed him up and he’s gotta keep working to find that out. Almost every major television show has some of that element. They have the same problems that comic-book people do. Continuing characters. They need to figure out a way to deliver your $2.50’s worth of entertainment and still give you a reason to come back. We’ve all solved it the same way.

 

Artists

Valenti:
Where do the artists come in?

O’Neil:
[Laughs.] I’m not sure, because, you know, we don’t — [Laughter.]

Fraction:
— associate with that trash. [Laughter.]

Valenti:
How much do you write to artists?

Fraction:
I do that all the time. Every script I write is very much tailored for whoever it is I’m writing for, very very very much so. And I always like to ask, “What do you wanna draw? What are you into and I’ll try and work it out.” It just seems complementary. You’re the guy who’s gonna take a month drawing this thing, you wanna draw a jet, lemme give you a jet. If I can make it happen, I’ll do my best. But each artist is different. Even in the same book, I’ve got two, sometimes three different guys doing X-Men stuff, and depending on who I’m writing it for, it’s a different style of script.

O’Neil:
That’s very interesting. Back when I started — and here I go [feigns old man voice] “My 70 years to heaven are comin’ up, got-dangit.” But we mostly didn’t know the artists. You may have had an idea. But like, Green Lantern/Green Arrow: I didn’t know that Neal was gonna do that first issue. So I came up pretty early on with the concept of an artist-proof script, and then I abandoned it later. But I remember one Western I did for Charlton: “A man called Lobo is leaping over the boulder, a gun in both hands, shooting the weapons from his blah-blah!” And what I got was a medium close-up of a guy sort of holding a six-gun next to his ear. [Fraction laughs.] And I later found out, this particular artist — if it didn’t exist in his swipe file, it didn’t exist in his world. It was a violation of technique that DC also did a lot, which is to say in a caption, “Leaping over the boulder with his six-guns blazing…” In good comic-book technique, the copy should never repeat the visual information.


From Batman #237, by O’Neil, Adams and Giordano; ©1971 DC Comics.


Fraction:
A trick I picked up from reading Frank Miller scripts from when I believe you were editing him, was: He tended to always start his panel caps sometimes with a general noun and a verb. “He weeps,” and then there’d be whatever else. And a couple of collaborators of mine have always said that the first sentence of my script is for them, and everything else that comes after is for me. Which is true, that’s very much how I try to write. The first line is just to get the physical action down, and then I’ll kind of drift off into whatever else I see in my head and they can take it or leave it.

O’Neil:
And, if you’re lucky, the artist will pay some attention to that, and sometimes they don’t. One of my ex-freelancers has a horror story of working Marvel-style with a given publisher, and he gets the artwork back and one of the three main characters is nowhere present in the story. [Fraction laughs.] So he asks about this and is told, “Well, the artist doesn’t like that character.”

And in one of Doug Moench’s many stories, the McGuffin in the story is a red car. It was very essential that the red car be in the shot. He gets the art, and there’s no red car. There was a building, empty street, building. He calls the artist, “Where’s the red car?”

“Oh, it’s behind the building.”

So that’s the kind of thing that sometimes made you — if I had any hair left, I would pull it out.

Fraction:
I have a friend that wrote a story of some sort featuring some character, and then when the art came in, suddenly there were dinosaurs in the background [O’Neil laughs.] And when asked of his editor, “What the hell is up with the dinosaurs,” he was told, “Oh, yeah, the guy really likes dinosaurs.” But we’re late, so fix it in lettering.

O’Neil:
Some editors don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s about story. Otherwise it’s a collection of drawings. And half the responsibility for the narrative — at least half — falls to the artist. So when Stan devised the Marvel method, well, he was working with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Those guys were very experienced and consummate visual storytellers. But if a guy is 20 minutes out of art school and thinks that superhero comics are just about mesomorphs in capes crashing things, and that’s 18 of your 22 pages, you have a real challenge as a writer. For a long time, Marvel style was prevalent. People now tell me that it has gone full-script.

Fraction:
Like I said, I’ve never worked that way.

O’Neil:
It depends. There’s maybe a half a dozen artists that I would certainly be happy to work Marvel style with. But mostly no, if only because when I’m finished with the job I don’t want to think about it any more. And I don’t want to wait for somebody to do his job before I can do mine. A lot of practical considerations come in.

Fraction:
Then would you go back and polish lettering once art came in? Re-tweak dialogue around finished art?

O’Neil:
Not only do I not do that, I never look at published work. Ever.

Fraction:
Really? I’ve worked with a couple colorists who have worked so subtly that the printed work never translates — I never know what it’s gonna look like on my screen until it comes out. So I’ve looked at things for that. But I always tend to do a lettering pass, once the art comes back, just to make sure everything still works and reads right and makes sense.


From The Annotated Mantooth!, by Matt Fraction, Andy Kuhn and Tim Fisher; ©2002 Andy Kuhn.


O’Neil:
If you go back and look at it, and something is really screwed up, there has been some horrible mistake made in the art — you’re probably not gonna be able to do anything about it. And I just want to spare myself that grief. Mary Fran, especially when I was writing a lot, read everything. And when she just quietly left the room and turned on the computer and called up that script, I knew we were in trouble. I knew the artist had not delivered something essential to understanding the story. I am not bragging about what I do. If I had to be as conscientious as I ought to be, I’d get past that emotional glitch.

Fraction:
I dunno, maybe I’d be a lot healthier and a lot happier if I didn’t.

O’Neil:
Well, Doug works Marvel-style, but what you get from him as an editor for a 22-page story is sometimes a 25-page plot with a lot of dialogue. So, I once said, “Well, while you’re at it, why don’t you go the last 25 percent of the way and then you’ll be done with it?” and his answer is: He wants to look at the art. Sometimes something the artist does will give him a great line that he wouldn’t have thought but, in any case, it’s a chance to give yourself a little insurance against the unforeseen. Doug is a better man than I.

Fraction:
Now I just want to try writing in the Marvel style, just to see what happens. [Laughter.]

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