Tagged: GrimJack

John Ostrander: Back to the Beginning

Warp Play PosterWhen I get asked by earnest neophytes how to break into comics, my pat answer is “With a pick and a crowbar through the roof in the middle of a moonless night.”

Somewhat less than helpful, I know.

The truth is that I don’t know how to break into comics. I don’t think most of you can go the path I took. I had an old friend – Mike Gold, who you may have seen hereabouts – and he knew I loved comics and he had liked something I had written for the stage and offered me a chance. When Mike had first gone to NYC to work for DC Comics, I pressed on him a sample script I had written for Green Lantern. He dutifully did but the script didn’t go anywhere and it shouldn’t have. I was very keen but very raw in those days (although I did use elements of it eventually; writers are forever cannibalizing themselves).

Fast forward a few years. Mike left DC to return to Chicago and eventually co-found First Comics with Rick Obadiah. The first comic that First Comics was going to print was an adaptation of the play Warp!, produced by the legendary Organic Theater of Chicago. The play trilogy described itself as “the world’s first science fiction epic-adventure play in serial form”. The director and co-writer, Stuart Gordon, freely acknowledged that he was very influenced by Marvel Comics. (We’re talking late 60s, early 70s Marvel. The primo stuff.)

I was – and am – a huge fan of Warp! Heck, I was a huge comic book geek at the time as well. Peter B. Gillis was hired to adapt the play but I got a call one day from Mike (who was now supreme editor and High Poohbah of First Comics) asking me if I would like to try my hand at writing an eight page back-up story.

Of course, I said yes.

And so began the process of picking one of the characters from Warp!, figuring out a story, working out the plot, breaking it down into page and panels, doing it and re-doing it, learning the tricks of the trade as I went. I had written plays which are similar to comic-book scripts but comic book writing has its own practices and demands. I’d write it up, Mike would give me notes, I’d re-write it, I’d get more notes and so on until one day Mike finally called me and congratulated me – they were going to use my story as the back-up feature in the first issue of Warp! which was going to be the first comic published by First Comics.

“Oh,” I replied, “great. Uh … do I get paid for this?”

“Of course, you sap,” Mike replied and gave me the page rate.

As a side note, I’ll mention that at that point I hadn’t written anything for a year or more. I felt I had a bad case of writer’s block. I discovered that there’s nothing like getting a paycheck to dissolve a writer’s block.

I went on from there to write more back-ups. Then I got Mike Grell’s Starslayer as a regular assignment and from there I originated GrimJack thus creating my career or sealing my fate, whichever you prefer.

The fact that I have a career is largely Mike Gold’s doing. As my first editor, he taught me not only the tricks of the trade but how to be a good writer. When Mike returned to DC, he brought me with him. Thanks to Mike, I got the job plotting Legends which was the first big DC crossover following Crisis On Infinite Earths. It may not sound like so much in these days of constant company wide crossover events but it was big back then. (Len Wein did the dialoguing and John Byrne did the pencils.) At Mike’s suggestion, we debuted Suicide Squad in the pages of Legends.

Mike also famously drafted me into doing Wasteland (we brought Del Close along). It was Mike’s idea and I wasn’t sure about it or at least my doing it at first. However, Mike is persuasive and I’ve learned when Mike has an idea to just say yes; at the very least, it will be interesting and potentially it will be some of my best work (as with Wasteland).

Mike has also been a very old, very loyal, and very good friend.

It boils down to this – if you like what I’ve done with my career, hey it’s all due to me.

If you don’t like what I’ve done, blame Mike.

John Ostrander: Origins

Nero Wolfe

As I mentioned in a previous column, I’ve been on a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe reading/re-reading jag as of late and have been enjoying it greatly. As other commentators have noted, the pleasure in the Nero Wolfe novels is not so much the plots, which have been noted as serviceable, but in the characters, especially the rotund and eccentric genius, Nero Wolfe, and his wise cracking legman and assistant, Archie Goodwin.

(Sidenote: when I first met the late and great comic book writer/editor, Also Archie Goodwin, I meant to ask him about Wolfe but decidedly, I think prudently, that he had probably gotten enough of that in his life. End digression.)

Stout had written 33 novels and 39 short stories on the pair between 1934 and his death in 1975. After his death, his estate authorized further Wolfe and Goodwin adventures by Robert Goldsborough who has written ten books, one of which was Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to the Nero Wolfe stories telling the tale of how the two first met.

That’s a story Rex Stout had never told and I’m enough of a fan to have wondered in the past about it so, of course, I ordered the book.

Pastiches can be hit and miss; the author is trying not only for the style of the original author but for the voice of the characters. There’s been a lot of different pastiches over the years for different literary creations; Sherlock Holmes has them, there are Conan the Barbarian pastiches, and more recently Robert B. Parker’s characters have come back to life with various writers of different abilities.

I read Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t Stout but it wasn’t bad. It hit all the clues about the characters’ backgrounds that Stout had sprinkled through the Wolfe canon. Goldsborough has caught Wolfe’s “voice” pretty well although I felt his Archie was a bit spotty. However, my biggest reaction after reading the book was “Why?”

Rex Stout never gave a full “origin” of the Wolfe/Goodwin partnership. Do we really need one? Yes, I bought the book because I was curious but I didn’t learn anything new about the characters. It got me to thinking: do we always need an origin?

When I started writing my GrimJack series, we joined John (GrimJack) Gaunt in the middle of his doing something. Sometime later, we did an “origin” which the late columnist and critic Don Thompson said was his second favorite origin story of all time, next to Superman’s. In it, Gordon, the bartender of Munden’s Bar which Gaunt owns and is his hang-out, offers to share Gaunt’s “secret origin” with a patron. It goes like this: Papa Gaunt. Mama Gaunt. A bottle of hootch. Wucka wucka wucka. Nine months later – Baby Gaunt.

The point of it was that Gaunt was born and everything that had happened to him since then is what makes him into GrimJack. I differentiate between “origins” and “backstory”.

An origin is the starting point from which everything else flows. Backstory fills in and explains different aspects of a given character. Sometimes there may not be any single starting point.

I wrote some stories with Del Close, the legend who directed and taught at Chicago’s Second City for many many years and then went to form the ImprovOlympics (now simply called “I/O”). I took some of his improv classes at Second City myself; they were extremely valuable to me as a writer and very liberating. One of Del’s rule was to start in the middle of the story and go on past the end. He used to say, “I get bored with all that exposition shit. Get on with it.” If it was a fairy tale, he wanted to know what happened beyond the “happily ever after”. For him, that was what was really interesting in the story.

One of the big questions Del made me ask myself was “Just how necessary – really necessary – was all that exposition?” What was the minimum that reader had to know in order to follow the story? The answer usually is: a lot less than you think. A writer may want to be clear about everything so s/he may overexplain.

I remember one of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read began with Spidey in the middle of a pitched battle on a New York street with the Rhino. I didn’t know anything about either character but the writer, Stan Lee, assured us in a narrative caption: “Don’t worry, effendi. We’ll catch you up as we go.” And damned if he didn’t. That also taught me a lot.

One of the rules that has been devised for comics is that Every Comic Is Someone’s First Issue. Therefore, it was obligatory to be absolutely clear about it all. Someone’s rule was that within the first five pages, the main character’s name had to be said, the powers demonstrated, and what’s at stake made clear. That’s important for the writer to know, certainly, but how much does the reader need to know? Usually, less than you think.

With GrimJack, Timothy Truman (the book’s first artist and designated co-creator) and I knew a lot about John Gaunt’s backstory but we decided to only tell it when it was pertinent to a given story. The reader sensed that there was more story than we were telling and that created some mystery about him but, at the same time, there was trust that we knew what we were doing.

The writer also has to trust the reader and to assume they are intelligent enough to fill in some blanks. It doesn’t all need to be spelled out. You can imply a lot and trust the reader to get it. That trust creates a bond between creator and reader and that’s when magic happens.

For me, that was the main problem with Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. It gave me the incidents of how the two met, the what, but not the why. How did that relationship start? Was there a chemistry from the start? The book was very prosaic but it needed a touch of poetry; there needed to be something between the lines. There needed to be a touch of mystery because in all the Rex Stout stories about the pair, that was there. The biggest mystery in every Nero Wolfe story, the one that is never solved but always there, is the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. That’s what keeps me coming back. Over and over.

John Ostrander: Not Your Father’s Superman

Batman-2nd-Amendment

My friend Paul Guinan put an interesting post up on his Facebook page yesterday. It sparked an equally interesting discussion, and, evidently, you can have discussions on Facebook that are not all salvos of rants.

Paul wrote: “I grew up with Superman being a character of pure good. Every once in a while something like Red Kryptonite would cause him to do some bad things – nothing too bad – and he would be forgiven and once again beloved. He wasn’t a morose, frowning, reluctant hero, he enjoyed his life and mission.

Batman With Gun“Batman was a victim of gun violence. Bob Kane flirted with the idea of Batman carrying twin pistols for a very brief moment (a holdover from Batman’s inspiration, The Shadow), but seminal writers like Bill Finger solidified the code of Batman not carrying firearms. It made great thematic sense. Batman would sock a villain on the jaw, or throw his Batarang at a them – not beat them to a pulp and wind up with bloodied gloves. Batman is a scientist, detective, and martial arts expert. Such training develops character that’s in contradiction to being a rageaholic.

“Wonder Woman is the Princess of Peace, an ambassador for justice. Yes, she’s descended from Amazon warriors – but who had come to live a life of peace and tranquility on a secluded island. The Wonder Woman I grew up with wouldn’t carry a sword or shield, as that would be a sign of using men’s instruments of war to resolve conflicts. Her weapon? A Lasso of Truth! The villain would be socked on the jaw, tied up with the magic lasso, and be calmed.

“If the evolution over generations of an iconic character reflects society, then such indicators reveal we are becoming way too cynical and mean. Shouldn’t that be an opportunity to provide role models who inspire us to be greater, rather than reinforce our negative natures?

“I write this after seeing the second trailer for Batman v Superman, in which the DC trio is constantly angry –  even Clark Kent! The trailer climaxes in a shot of the DC trio. Superman is wearing a suit more dark and sinister than the outfit worn by “evil” Christopher Reeve in Superman III. Wonder Woman is dressed in a dark monochrome knockoff of the outfit worn by Xena, brandishing a sword. Batman looks as he should be is carrying a rifle. WTF? Sigh.”

I’m a founding member of the dark “grim ‘n’ gritty” hero (or anti-hero) club. GrimJack, Amanda Waller, my remaking of some established heroes – if I can find some tarnish to put on a hero’s armor, I’m known to apply it. However, I’m also not without sympathy for Paul’s point of view. The notion appears to be that if it’s darker, the story is more “realistic,” it’s more relatable to the reader/audience. That notion pervades not only comics but the movie and television adaptations of them.

And yet, what is my favorite superhero adaptation right now on TV? It’s not Gotham, it’s not Arrow – it’s The Flash. The main reason is that Barry Allen is presented as a hero, that he wants to be a hero, and that people respond to him as a hero. The show doesn‘t pretend it’s easy but that it is worthwhile. The show also really honors its roots and is often very funny. It’s well written and acted. It’s also very much in the tradition of the character as published by DC for the past few decades.

One of the issues raised is that many of the movies (Man of Steel was cited and, potentially, Suicide Squad might be another) are not meant to be for all ages. The attitude of some appears to be that superhero movies should be, at best, all ages or even kid centric, that superheroes are essentially a child’s fantasy, but this flies in the face of what movies are about commercially: studios want to put as many butts in the seats and eyes on the screens that they can. The movies that have been made so far have reaped tons of money and that tells the studios this is what the audiences want. If a little of this is good, more is better. Don’t fool yourself; plenty of kids went to see them as well and bought lots of the paraphernalia connected with it (and that’s where the real money is made).

Kids are not all that sheltered, either. Take a look at some of the video games that are popular. Kids know more than when I was a kid; take a look at the world around us. ISIL, climate change, the very real possibility the seas are dying (and with it all of life) – when I was growing up, we only had the specter of World War III to cope with. If movies are darker it’s because the world that the kids must cope with is also getting darker.

However, it’s not simply the dark and the grim that makes money. Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man were very successful at the box office and they were for a more general audience. They were brighter and more fun and more hopeful. Meaning what? That, as usual, it’s not all one thing or the other.

I believe that all characters and concepts cannot stay stuck in one time or era. To remain viable, they must be re-interpreted for the time in which they are in. They have to be part of the world that the reader/audience inhabits. That world, our world, has grown darker in the past few decades. The comics and the movies did not cause that; they reflect it.

That said, there also has to be hope. There desperately needs to be hope today. That also should be reflected in our movies and our superheroes.

If that sounds like I’m conflicted, I am. I see both sides’ views and sympathize with all of them. I’m looking forward to the Suicide Squad movie; the trailer suggests to me that they got what I was doing and it will be part of the movie. That said, I’d also like Superman to be a bit brighter than they seem to be making him, to represent the best in us. That was my Superman.

Oh, and he should wear red trunks. Definitely they should bring back the red trunks.

John Ostrander: Nero Wolfe Revisited

Nero Wolfe

My mother once told me that an odd pleasure she had in growing older was that she could go back to favorite books, particularly mysteries, and enjoy them all over again because she didn’t remember the ending. She knew she liked it but she could discover it anew.

That’s happening a bit to me these days. I’ve recently started re-reading Rex Stout’s mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (not to be confused with the late, great comics writer and editor with the same name, although that would have been an interesting pairing as well). I read quite a few of them a few decades back but not all of them; that would be a monumental task since Stout wrote 33 novels and about 40 novellas about Wolfe and Goodwin.

Rex Stout (December 1, 1886 – October 27, 1975) was born of Quaker parents in Indiana and was raised in Kansas. He served as a yeoman on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. In 1916, he created a school banking system that paid him royalties and made quite a bit of money. He described himself in 1942 as a “pro-Labor, pro-New Deal, pro-Roosevelt left liberal”. A man after my own heart. He was denounced as a Communist during the McCarthy Era but denied it. He told House Committee on Un-American Activities chairman Martin Dies, “I hate Communists as much as you do, Martin, but there’s one difference between us. I know what a Communist is, and you don’t.” J. Edgar Hoover was not a fan and Stout wasn’t a fan of his or of the FBI and that figures prominently in Stout’s very famous Nero Wolfe mystery. The Doorbell Rang.

The Nero Wolfe stories are an ingenious pairing of a cerebral detective (Wolfe) and hard-boiled detective (Archie). I love narrative alloys like this; my GrimJack stories are a combination of hard-boiled detective and sword-and-sorcery. Suicide Squad melds The Dirty Dozen,  Mission: Impossible, and The Secret Society of Super-Villains.

Wolfe is fat. He is more than stout, he is obese. He’s been described as weighing a seventh of a ton, fluctuating between 310 and 390 lbs. He lives in a beautiful brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City that he owns; Archie lives there as well, having his own room. Wolfe takes on detective work only as a source of income to indulge his passions, which includes orchids, fine food, and beer. He keeps to a very strict daily schedule and does not even allow the investigations to meddle with it. He is brilliant, fastidious, idiosyncratic, arrogant, demanding, and filled with wonderful character tics.

Archie is Wolfe’s “legman”. He does the physical stuff, tracking down things and witnesses, bringing suspects to the office for Wolfe to question, acting as secretary as needed. He’s also a wise-guy, quick with a quip and good with his fists. One of his jobs is to needle Wolfe, keep him on the job, make him relatively human, and just be a pain in Wolfe’s sizable ass. He’s also the narrator of the stories; we know what we know through Archie and Wolfe sometimes deliberately doesn’t tell him everything, often just to annoy him.

The stories also have a stable of supporting characters, each with their own well defined personality tics and traits. One of the real pleasures of the series is the interaction between Wolfe and Archie; Stout tells a good story and can plot with the best of them but it’s the interplay between the two leads that drives the series. Like any serial fiction, including comics, it’s how you play the expected tropes that keeps the series fresh. Stout does endless and inventive variations of the expected notes; it feels a little like jazz to me. That’s a lesson I need to keep learning; how to take what is expected and make it surprising, fresh, and entertaining.

I don’t know if I’ll go through all of the Nero Wolfe cannon this time; I doubt it. There’s just too many other things to read. However, what’s nice is that I know I will enjoy what I’m reading. I did the last time even if I don’t exactly remember why. Such are the blessings of aging.

John Ostrander: VOX

the spectre

As part of the Kickstarter campaign for Tom Mandrake’s and my new project, Kros: Hallowed Ground (which, by the way, is still going on at x.co/kickkros), I’ve done a number of podcast interviews, which have been fun, and I always try to listen to them. I want to get an idea of how Tom and I sound to the fans who might be listening. However, my voice always surprises me. It’s not how I hear myself. I’m told this is the same situation for many people. How you sound to others is not how you hear yourself.

The same has proven true in my writing. Every writer develops a “voice” – a style, a way of expressing oneself that is unique to the individual writer. If authentic, it will reflect your views, your values, how you think, how you feel, how you react to the world around you and so much more.

Can you imitate someone else’s voice? Of course you can just as all the Elvis imitators out there try to channel Elvis Presley. It’s a whole industry. Within that industry are variations and nuances as each imitator tries to develop their own “voice” as Elvis.

In addition to all your own experiences you add the influences that work on you. What you read, what you see, the music that you hear and so on. One of the ways you develop your voice is by imitating the works that have made an impression on you. You take a bit from here, a touch from there and gradually it becomes how you express yourself. Imitation is certainly permissible at the beginning but, to be a good writer, you must develop beyond that. You take what you learn and make it your own.

The first time I came to the halls of DC comics, I met several editors including Dan Raspler who would later become the first editor on Tom Mandrake’s and my version of The Spectre. Dan did a double take when he saw me and confessed he was startled. He was a big fan of my work on GrimJack and, from my writing, he thought I’d be a big burly and surly young biker type. Instead, he got a genial, balding, pudgy white guy edging into middle-age. I’ve been told I’m very personable and pretty easy to get along with. Some editors have said that if you can’t collaborate with me, you can’t collaborate with anyone. I don’t think that’s how my stories read and that surprises me as well. Dan was right; I write like a surly biker. My work is often cynical, with a dark sense of humor, and I love conflicted characters. I prefer villains to heroes. That’s not who I am in life but it is how I am on paper. And, yes, that sometimes surprises me.

So if you meet me at a convention, come up and say hello. I don’t bite. (Hard.) I’m not that guy you’ve encountered on the pages I’ve written. Overall, I’m pretty nice.

Just don’t cross me.

Kidding.

 

 

John Ostrander: Face To Face

Floyd_Lawton

Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 film from director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball, and World War Z, among others), is a favorite of Mary’s and mine. It that starred Will Farrell in a very atypical Will Farrell role, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson.

The story concerns an IRS auditor named Harold Crick who starts to hear a narrator in his head. The voice turns out to be a world famous author who is writing a story about an IRS auditor named Harold Crick. The author, Karen Eiffel, always kills off her main character at the end of the book. The real Harold’s only hope to survive is to find the reclusive author and convince her not to kill him. Eventually, they meet.

Karen Eiffel, understandably, is freaked to encounter an actual Harold Crick. He’s just as she pictured him. They both know that if she kills him off in prose, he will die in reality. She is confronted with the reality of what she does; Harold Crick isn’t just a creature of her imagination. He’s a flesh and blood person.

As a writer, I find that notion unnerving.

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to have a somewhat similar experience. At the Motor City Con I got a chance to meet the actor, Michael Rowe, who was playing Floyd Lawton – Deadshot – on the TV series Arrow. And, yes, a bit of Stranger Than Fiction ran through my head. Of course, Mike Rowe is not Deadshot; he was perfectly nice and friendly and complimentary. However, I had a few nanoseconds of feeling, well, anxious.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think I would want to meet most of my characters face to face. Why? Because I’m the guy who makes their lives miserable. I can see most of them wanting to take a swing at me – or worse. For them, I am the Creator. I incarnate their lives and their adventures. I’m god. Not the god but a god (as spake Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day).

Have you ever had a day when you really just wanted to haul off and hit your Creator? I know I have and I’m an agnostic. When my late wife Kim was dying, I was sitting in the car at one point, hitting the steering wheel and cussing out God. I thought we had a deal; I would accept her death and she would die without pain. That day she was in excruciating pain.

I talked it over with my pastor, The Rev Phillip Wilson, and he thought my cussing out God was a good thing. He said that the Bible had lots of instances where the human argued or yelled at God. Towards the end of the story of Job, the title character learns that all his troubles stem from a bet between God and Satan and lets loose on Yahweh for destroying his life. Job was justified if you ask me.

God’s answer? Essentially, God skirts the issue and demands, “Hey, where were you when I created everything?” He tells Job that he’d better button it. Not a real answer but I can see why Job didn’t press the issue. This is Yahweh after all who drowned the earth in a fit of pique.

So why do I do it? Why do I make my characters’ lives so miserable?

It’s for the sake of the story.

When we were first married, Kim used to ask me how would I react in such and such a situation. How would I feel?  (I could get myself into trouble by suggesting that this is the sort of speculative question some women like to ask their men. I don’t want to get in trouble by saying that, although I admit to thinking it.) I would always answer “I dunno. Ask me when we get there.”

I felt and feel that’s a fair answer. We don’t know how we would react in a given situation or facing this or that pressure. We only know how we’d like to think we would act but until you’re in that moment, you don’t know. You can’t until you’re actually faced with the situation.

How we react in those situations reveal who we really are – not who we think we are or hope we would be. In a story, it reveals character. The tougher the situation, the clearer we see who the character really is. It’s one of the rules about character. It’s not what they say, it’s what they do that really matters – just like in life.

By putting my characters through the wringer, I reveal who they are and the reader, by vicarious experience, may learn something more of who they are. That makes the whole exercise worthwhile. That can make the story compelling and memorable.

So what I do to my characters is not out of sadism (well, not only out of sadism) but for the sake of the story.

However, I still wouldn’t want to meet GrimJack or most of my other characters in a darkened alley in the middle of the night.

Brrrr.

 

John Ostrander: We Eat Our Own

A recent Internet brouhaha occurred when some feminists attacked Joss Whedon after the opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron claiming he was a misogynist, etc, for his portrayal of Black Widow in the movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet – I may be one of a handful in the world who hasn’t – so I can’t comment on it although given Whedon’s track record, I am skeptical.

When Whedon closed his Twitter account, the Internet went crazy and charged he was chased off by “militant feminists.” Again, I was skeptical. Whedon himself later stated “I just thought, Wait a minute, if I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place, and this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life.” That’s true of the Internet in general, by the way. A great tool but also a great temptation for wasting time.

This practice of attacking our own is not new. Will Smith playing Deadshot in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie, has been attacked by some as being too lightweight for such a stoic badass character. This ignores the work he did in such films as The Pursuit of Happyness or the minor role he had playing the devil in Winter’s Tale. Serious characters, well played.

Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice? According to sections of fandom, heresy! They said the same thing about Michael Keaton waaaay back before his first Batman film. When I was writing GrimJack at First Comics, we got a letter from someone who said I should leave the book and let other writers do the character because I wasn’t up to this letterhack’s standards. That may explain a certain lack of sympathy I have for these type of fans.

It’s not everyone in fandom. They can, however, be a vocal segment of fandom. Often an angry and strident voice in fandom. They seem to have (or think they have) a Fan Early Warning system (or F.E.W.s), a sort of Spidey-Sense that starts tingling when they sense something wrong (especially in casting) in an upcoming project, especially film. There is a certainty that they are right, a vitriol that accompanies the attack, and an unwillingness to hear any other point of view. It isn’t what they wanted, it isn’t how they would do it, it’s not how they see it and so it is wrong. No debate, end of story.

Does it matter? It is a small minority, after all. A small, strident minority that can be heard over the din of the crowd. That’s part of the problem with this country today – minority voices stridently decrying what they think is wrong and refusing to listen to any other opinion because, you know, that would be compromising their principles. You can’t just agree with them; you have to agree wholeheartedly and for the right reasons. You have to share the same religion; you have to drink the same flavor of Kool-Aid.

Everyone has a right to their own opinion but it is often formed without actually seeing the work. The dissident fans haven’t seen any footage of Will Smith as Deadshot, yet they already know he is wrong. Their proof that Ben Affleck will suck as Batman? His performance in Daredevil. (He has also performed in other films since then, including a fine turn as George Reeve in Hollywoodland .)

Negative comments can create a negative image of a given work, especially movies, before it’s seen. The “buzz” can affect how a film is perceived and received. It can affect the box office. That, in Hollywood, is serious.

It’s not hard to be heard these days. Is it too much to ask to consider what is being said? To think before you speak?

What am I saying? This is the Internet. Of course it is.

IMO.

 

John Ostrander’s Writing Class: Details Details Details

grimjackLast week, I wrote about plot and character and I applied Newton’s First Law of Physics – a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force – to both. I want to delve this week a little more into character.

The basics. Every character you write is you, some aspect of you. If it isn’t, the character is stillborn. There’s no life in it. We all have many different aspects to ourselves. Different people bring out those different aspects. Good, bad, indifferent – every character is you. I once described Story as an author talking to him/herself. It helps, therefore, if you are aware of those different aspects you possess.

So the first step in creating a character is finding yourself in that character. It is, however, only the first step – a broad outline. To fill in the character, you need details. You also need to write them down. It’s not real until you’ve put it into words. Having it in your head is all very well but the character doesn’t exist until it’s written.

Character is found in contradiction. Never try to explain a contradiction away; put it out there for the reader to explain it. Every wise man is a fool in some way. If you love someone, there will be moments when you hate them. Parents and children, taken together, are evidence of this. (“I hate you!” “I brought you into this life and I can take you out!”) You may love someone more than you hate them but there will be moments when you would gladly strangle that person you love, if only for that moment.

The great rule in writing is “Write what you know” but what do you know? Yes, there are specifics and you should know them; if you’re going to write about a policeman, you need to know something of how they live their lives. What you really have to write is what you know to be true in life. Not what you were told was true; what has your own life taught you to be true. What do you know from experience? That’s what has to go into your characters.

Details matter and they can go from the broad to the very specific. What is the gender, age, race, ethnicity? Not just for the main characters but for the minor characters as well. Give them names. The more specific you are, the more real they become to you and thus the more real they will be to your reader.

What clothes do they wear? Peter Parker dresses differently than Bruce Wayne. Where do they shop for clothes? Armani? The Gap? James Bond has a signature look – he should be in a tuxedo at least once in a story. Clark Kent wears glasses.

What is their background? Do they have siblings? Oldest, youngest, middle child? Do they/did they have pets? What are their quirks? What are their foibles? What habits do they have? What hobbies? What pet peeves?

What do they believe (and not simply about God)? Do they believe in their country? Do they believe patriotism is for fools? Do they have a cause? Do they think white chocolate is a form of chocolate? What other delusions do they have? You need to ask yourself questions and you need to write the answers down. You’re like a photographer trying to pull an image into focus; details are the lens.

You won’t use all the details you discover but you need to know them in order to be able to choose which ones to display. When Tim Truman and I began our work on GrimJack we knew a lot more about the character, his background, and his setting than we told right away. The readers sensed there was more to the story; they sensed a depth and a reality and they trusted us as a result. You pick and choose the details to fit the story, that will drive the narrative and reveal the character. You need to know and then you have to forget it all and just write, letting the details work on your subconscious and guide the story.

That’s the job.

 

John Ostrander: Going Walkabout

GrimJackThey grow up so fast.

I’ve worked on/created a number of characters in my writing career, trying to define them through my writing. They exist first in my head and then become incarnated through my words and stories and the depictions by the artists. In some ways, they are like my kids – my murderous, nasty kids.

In the movie Stranger Than Fiction (one of my Mary’s fave films and the most atypical Will Farrell movie ever), the writer of a novel finds that her lead character – who she was planning to kill off – is a real person and comes face to face with him. I don’t think I’d ever want to do that for the main reason that I tend to make the lives of my protagonists pretty miserable. If I’m their creator, I’m a pretty asshole god. I have very good reasons for doing these terrible things – it reveals character and makes a better story. At the same time, I’d never want to meet any of them face to face. I’ve given them cause to do really nasty things back to me.

This is not a situation likely to come up… except that every now and then one of the characters goes walkabout. They slip away from my stories and show up elsewhere, doing and saying things that I never gave them to do or say.

With Jan Duursema I’ve created lots of characters for Star Wars in the Dark Horse comics I did for almost a decade. Two of them – Aayla Secura and Quinlan Vos – have shown up elsewhere. Both of them have shown up on the animated series, The Clone Wars, and Aayla went live-action in Episodes II and III of the Prequel Trilogy. In the animated series they gave her a French accent which threw me a bit – I never heard her that way in my head when I wrote her. In Episode III she was gunned down by her own troops who continued to fire shots into her back when she was down. That was harsh to watch. My baby!

Even my character GrimJack has done walkabout a bit. I was – and am – a big fan of Roger Zelazny’s Amber series of novels. Evidently, Zelazny was also a fan of GrimJack. In one of the later books, he introdued a character called Old John. Oh, you might have been using an assumed name but I knew it was you, Gaunt! Zelazny described him to a tee and caught his personality perfectly. We later got Mr. Zelazny to do an introduction to a GrimJack graphic novel. That was so cool!

The character that I created who has done the most walking about has to be Amanda Waller, the leader of the Suicide Squad. She has had the most incarnations in a variety of looks of anyone that I’ve created. Amanda has shown up in animated features on both TV and in films, video games, and television shows. On Smallville she was played by Pam Grier – which is beyond cool – and in Arrow she is considerably younger and more svelte. Hey, it’s the CW.

She’s also been in movies. Angela Basset played her in the Green Lantern movie. Okay, I know mostly no one liked the GL movie but – Angela Basset?! That’s amazing right there.

And, of course, there’s the Suicide Squad movie that starts filming any day now where she will be played by Academy Award nominated, Tony award winning star of How to Get Away With Murder actress Viola Davis. Boo-yah!

Amanda also sends home money. Every time she appears outside of the comics, I get what they call “participation”. If they reprint my work with her in TPBs, I get money. My Star Wars kids? Not so much. GrimJack? He would but so far he hasn’t. But the Wall? Oh yeah. Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money – you bet. I love that Amanda.

It is interesting to see characters that you created or defined show up elsewhere (for example, I defined Deadshot although I didn’t create him). Sometimes it feels a little surreal. As I said, they started up in my head and then to see them and hear them walking around doing and saying things that I never wrote can be weird. It’s also nice. My kids are out in the world with their own lives. That’s interesting to experience.

Of course, would it kill them to call home now and then? Well, maybe not Gaunt.

 

John Ostrander: Under The Influences

Every artist has their influences. The ones who came before that make an impression on you. They blow your mind, they lift your heart, they power your imagination, they open your soul; you want to be like them and influence others as they have influenced you. The influences come from everywhere – real life, film, media, other artists – but ultimately you filter them through your own consciousness. You borrow from them but you make it your own. For myself, part of the reason I wanted to become a writer is because of the joy I got as a reader. I wanted to return that energy that I had gotten from my reading.

By the time I was ten, I had read all the Sherlock Holmes stories by A. Conan Doyle. The puzzles fascinated me, yes, as did the characters of Watson and Holmes but what I took away perhaps more than anything else was the setting and the time – the fog-shrouded street, the hansom cabs, the gaslight, the apartment, the back alleys. London of the late 1800s. When I think of that era, I think of the Homes stories. My takeaway was the importance of place in a story and it shows up most in my work with Cynosure in GrimJack. The city is the most important supporting character in the series; it has defined GrimJack and there is no relationship in the stories more important than the one between GrimJack and Cynosure.

Chicago has also influenced Cynosure as well. It is a city of neighborhoods and the ethnic culture changes from one area to the next. That’s how I understood the various dimensions that make up Cynosure; it was my experience of Chicago.

Robert E. Howard also was a major influence on me, especially the Conan stories. My takeaway here was the pell-mell sense of storytelling, the breathless sense of excitement and action. In a similar fashion, Peter O’Donnell also influenced me with his Modesty Blaise comic strip. He might spend some time setting up a given story but he never wasted a panel or a word. It all drove the story, the characters, the action forward like a juggernaut.

Shakespeare showed me how to marry theme to the plot. Yes, there are the great soliloquies, the great speeches addressing deep philosophical questions but they are all tied to the specific moment in the plot. When Hamlet launches into his “To be or not to be. . .” speech, it’s not an idle musing. This is a guy who is contemplating killing himself. It’s a debate, it’s an argument with himself. It’s actually full of suspense. His life is at stake. The language used, the questions raised, all advance the character and the plot.

Our own Dennis O’Neil in his classic Green Lantern/Green Arrow series with Neal Adams showed me how comics could marry the important topics of the day with superheroes. Without those stories, without Denny, I would not have written the Suicide Squad or the Spectre as I did.

There are many many others in all fields – in movies, in TV, in music (Aaron Copland! Beethoven! The Blue Nile! Kate Bush!) – that have had a bearing on me, on who I am, and thus into my work. Others have told me I have an influence on them (which I sometimes have trouble dealing with) but we all have to be open to outside influences if, ultimately, we are to realize our own voice. We come from others, we give to others. That’s part of the wonder of it all.

Photo by JD Hancock