Tag: comics

An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy, Part III: playing in someone else’s sandbox

I’m back! And so is the vastly talented Patrick O’Duffy. And okay, yes I know, this week’s update is a day later than expected, and for that you can blame some feverish work last night on balloon research and some Nicolas Cage-inspired… stuff (it’ll all becomes clear next week, I promise). In this final installment, I dig into Patrick’s back-catalogue of work and bring the conversation around to one of our shared passions… and no, it’s not Rugrats cosplay.

HG: I understand that in your deep, distant past you did extensive work writing role-playing games. I know my way around a handful of odd-shaped dice, and my 20-year-old self would see that as a near-ultimate writing job (my 34-year-old self also sees it as pretty cool too, I should add). Were there particular challenges to writing, and worldbuilding, in a shared universe?
POD: There are definitely challenges to working in a shared world, and the biggest one is probably that you do have to treat it like a ‘world’. I’m not much of a one for worldbuilding; I like just making things up that I think would be fun or interesting and then justifying them later – or not at all. But when you enter a shared creation, like the World of Darkness or Thieves’ World, you don’t have that luxury – you have to answer to a higher authority (the publisher or IP holder) and you have to play nicely with the other writers and creator using the same toys. You do some of that by, you know, swapping emails and asking questions, but you also do it by treating the fictional construct of the setting as more of a real thing – poking at the corners, doing research, working your way back and forth the chains of consequences that attach to your ideas. Worldbuilding becomes more of a necessity, and so writing with others becomes more work than writing by yourself.

That said, it can be rewarding work, because it forces you to think things through and extrapolate, which can be fun and valuable. But I don’t know how much of that I could do for long periods these days. Which bodes ill for my chances of ever being given a major comics property to write, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s an inordinately good segue to my next question. Seeing as you have played with licenced properties before, have you ever had the desire to pitch to one of the majors of comics publishing? You blogged extensively about comics last month over at POD.com, so you’re clearly a fan of the medium.
Oh hell, man, you cannot imagine how much I would love to write me some comics. I think I read my first comic at about age 8 – I’m pretty sure it was about Batman, because what else could explain my lifelong obsession with the character? – and I knew right then that I wanted to write them. Or maybe draw them. Or, I don’t know, spit out the paper to be printed. Anything, as long as I was involved.

So yeah, I’d love to write comics. Any kind of comics. I love superhero fiction to pieces, and I have a bunch of concepts I’d love to pitch to Marvel or DC. But I won’t, or more to the point I can’t, because neither Marvel nor DC accept unsolicited pitches these days. They’re closed shops, and I get why they’re closed shops, given that fans have been submitting pitches since five minutes after Superman hit newsstands in 1939. They just hit a point where they had to stop the flood – and, of course, protect themselves from claims of stealing ideas.

It’s still frustrating, because godDAMN do I have pitches, albeit mostly Marvel ones these days (stupid DC reboot) and mostly ones with incredibly limited sales potential. I mean, I think a series about Spider-villain the Trapster turning state’s evidence and trying to give up the life of crime (and failing) is compelling, but Marvel need to sell that comic to other people as well, and the evidence suggests that most readers do not particularly want that. So my pitches stay in my head, or my hard drive, or occasionally get thrown up on Twitter for laughs, and I just keep on with my own stuff and occasionally cry in the dark while surrounded by Avengers action figures because no-one else understands me.

The alternative is go away from DC/Marvel and hit a smaller company, or indeed strike out on my own. That’s very tempting, and something I’d like to explore one of these days. There’s a real advantage on working on an established character, in that the audience has already done the heavy lifting for you – they’ve already decided to care about the character and their history and context. So comics work outside that umbrella takes more effort, but at the same time is (I imagine) more rewarding and has more potential to tell different kinds of stories. And that’s where you see so many of today’s exciting comics series, like ATOMIC ROBO, CHEW and the jaw-droppingly amazing LOCKE & KEY.

There have been a couple of times over the years that I’ve talked to artists and made vague plans to work together, or at least talk more, that never amounted to anything at all. Mostly that’s been my fault. But I really hope that once I finish the next project, increase my visibility a bit more and get some coherent ideas down, that it might finally be the time when I can hook up with an artist, come up with a script and put together a comic book, whether in print or online.

Huh. I hadn’t actually considered that as a goal until now. And now I can’t get it out of my head. Thanks for that.

Anytime, man. Now, for my final question I’ll ask perhaps one of the most inane questions possible about that medium: are you Marvel or DC? (Or Dark Horse, Image, &c.?)
Which bring us to what may actually be the trickiest question of all. For some historical perspective: if you’d asked this to me as a teenager, I would have said Marvel (with a bit of DC); if you’d asked me as a 20-something, I would have said DC all the way; if you’d asked me in my 30s, I would have been roughly half-and-half Marvel and DC, plus some Image on the side.

These days, I kind of have to say ‘Make Mine Marvel’, like they did back in the 80s, but without the exclamation mark. Part of that is that Marvel are in a creative high point right now and have been for like 6-7 years – not perfect, by any stretch, but constantly putting out some terrific titles. Part of it is that DC, on the other hand, is at perhaps their lowest creative nadir in their 75-year history. They have some good titles, certainly, but the DC reboot, the continual dwindling of Vertigo’s range and experimentation and this whole dreadful ‘Before Watchmen’ bullshit, along with some utter fuckheadery in their editorial and publishing wing, make so much of their output boring at best and unreadable at worst.

But the good news is that there are so many other independent comics and publishers out there right now, both in print and digital formats, that you could read nothing but great comics morning to night and still never crack open a Marvel or DC book. Image are in a place of unbelievable creative strength and diversity right now, for example, and IDW are also publishing some amazing books. There’s never been a better time for comics than right now, there really hasn’t.

Plus, you know, Grant Morrison on Batman. Win-win.

Oh, I’m with you there. Any time I get to see Bruce Wayne team up with El Gaucho, bat-hombre of Argentina, has got to be a victory for popular Western literature.

Batman and El Gaucho in… SCORPION TANGO!

where it began

I am the third of three children, the second boy. That meant hand-me-downs, and in my case hand-me-down comics. My older brother didn’t have a huge amount of comics, but he did have a fair-sized stack of black and white omnibus reprints. The covers had been torn off long ago, but it didn’t matter – what mattered where the stories inside. It was through these tomes, illustrated bibles to a child, that I learned of characters like Ghost Rider, Braniac, Mister Miracle and Red Tornado. I can still remember reading Batman’s origin story for the first time – the broken window, the look of shock on Bruce Wayne’s face… classic.

The first comic book that I remember being bought for me was an early collection of Daredevil, drawn and in some cases co-written by Frank Miller.* I looked it up for the first time, just then, and it seems to have been four issues from mid-1980. Like so many collected editions they were reprinted in black and white. In retrospect, the lack of garish colour probably lifted Miller’s work – I certainly never thought it lacked anything; everyone knew Daredevil wore red, who cared what anything else looked like? Those stories introduced me to villains like Doctor Octopus (it took years for me to realise he was on loan from Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery), the Hulk and Gladiator. It was fantastic stuff, full of conflict, tension, humour, wonder and danger. I read and re-read those issues, devoured them, internalised them. I am telling the truth when I say that I can still remember the images, if I close my eyes.

I also remember the first comic book I bought with my own money. I was in Grade 3, at a poorly-organised second-hand sale at my new primary school. Sitting on one of the tables was this;

I bought it with the silver coins in my pocket. It was, in fact, the first thing that I consciously remember buying with my own money.

It was something new to me, something dark. ‘Cloak’ and ‘Dagger’ were anti-heroes, a phrase that wasn’t used anywhere in the book yet one I knew on some instinctual level. Spider-Man came across these two mysterious figures on the dingy rooftops of New York City, stumbling into a fight between them and a bunch of no-good mobsters. The thing was, Cloak and Dagger had an edge to them, a raw, nasty edge. Dagger could throw shafts of light at people, shafts that could paralyse, could kill. Cloak had a, well, a cloak, but it was a cloak that trapped victims in a terrifying abyss, a confusing realm of darkness where they lost all sense of direction until they ran screaming… screaming, off an apartment rooftop, plummeting to their deaths.

Suffice to say, it didn’t end there. Cloak and Dagger had been street kids. Mobsters had kidnapped them off the streets (or maybe tricked them, I can’t remember those details), then used them in horrific experiments to test new designer drugs. Naturally, the drugs didn’t kill them but instead gave them powers, which they were now using to slay those who wronged them. Spider-Man fought a terrifying, claustrophobic three-way battle between these misguided, vengeance-fueled teens and the mobsters who were trying to kill anyone who got in their way. All in about twenty-odd pages.

I learned a lot of things from that comic. First, what an APB was (I remember the helpful editor’s note down the bottom of one panel). Second, I think the finale was on Ellis Island, and the author gave some evocative descriptions of the ghost-filled halls, of the pain of immigration, of being cast out from your home, of searching for acceptance. Third, that comics rocked.

I was hooked, and have been ever since. I’ve never been much of a Spider-Man fan, but to me that issue stands up as one of the finest, most evocative, most important works of Western literature. All for under a dollar.

* apologies to my brother if I got this wrong – this may actually be one of his. Out of the stack of comics that I remember from early childhood, though, this felt like mine, more than any other.