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Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’s comic book series Criminal has won scads of accolades since it started in 2006. Each several-issue arc of the series is self-contained, telling a different crime story within the same shared world, with certain characters crossing over between them. A recent two-issue arc, Bad Weekend, has now been published as a standalone own graphic novel. The story follows a onetime comic book artist escorting his washed-up mentor through a comics convention, as it slowly unfolds that the old man has some less-than-legal adventures planned. Intermingling with this plot are numerous references to the history of comics and fandom, particularly how poorly comic book writers and artists have been treated by the companies they worked for. The book was of course timed to release right ahead of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.
I spoke to Brubaker over email about the book, Criminal as a whole, and the new Amazon miniseries Too Old to Die Young, which he wrote alongside Halley Gross and director Nicolas Winding Refn.
Hyperallergic: Comics show up as a motif throughout Criminal. Is this a natural consequence of writing these stories as a comics fan? Do you think that, given this is the medium you’re working in, it’s a natural point of reference to use?
Ed Brubaker: I think it’s probably some obsession I haven’t thought about the reasons for too hard. I always enjoy meta-fiction, and thinking about the kinds of movies or TV shows or comics that your characters might read. There’s a Donald Westlake book where one character reads a Parker novel (written by Westlake under his pseudonym “Richard Stark”) and decides to try to pull that heist [he reads about], and I just loved that. It’s like this weird blend of real history with fiction, and I like to have layers in our comics, so they reward going back and seeing connections you might have missed the first time.
For the two Criminal stories in Wrong Time, Wrong Place, it was partly a function of the time period they were set in. I had heard that in the ’70s and ’80s, mags like Savage Sword of Conan and Heavy Metal and Creepy were big favorites of people in prison. Their families would buy them subscriptions, stuff like that. So I started thinking about Teeg Lawless in jail, reading a comic that reflects his situation, but in the story, the character is not powerless like he is. (That story inside the story is also an homage to Point Blank / The Hunter, but with a barbarian lead, which only a few people have noticed.)
With the next [story in Wrong Time, Wrong Place], I was thinking more about Tracy Lawless, a kid on the road with his dad, and the way a comic book can become your only company sometimes. That story reminds me a lot of my own childhood, which was filled with comics, obviously.
On a sheer technical level, it’s just a lot of fun for us to try to create these objects themselves, too. Those Criminal issues came out as magazines, with fake ads and letters pages, maps, painted covers. I’m a sucker for stuff like that. I get obsessed with the details.
H: A lot of stylistic imitation goes into these comics within the comics — departures in both writing and art from the Criminal mode. How much research or practice do you do to nail the period tone and voice of these excerpts? How do you figure out the look with Sean Phillips?
EB: Oh yeah, we put a lot of effort into getting the tone and look right. I’ll send Sean a variety of examples of the basic look I’m thinking of for things. Or tell him, “Think like a Hanna-Barbera or Filmation animated cell from 1970.” That’s part of the fun, trying to create something that feels seamless to the actual history we’re referencing. Danny Dagger and the Fantasticals [the in-universe cartoon in Bad Weekend] needed to feel real, like something we would actually have had on lunchboxes. Sean never lets me down on that front. I think he enjoys doing different styles when the story demands it.
H: For the art of the book itself, how much do the two of you work together to figure out a given story’s look?
EB: We’ll occasionally discuss the art, if it’s going to be something different-looking, or the color if there’s some reason. We discussed the color palette of My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, and he showed me some examples of what he wanted to do, which was helpful when his son Jake ended up coloring almost the entire book anyway, and then became our new regular colorist. But mostly, if anything, I’ll just put some color notes in the script. We have such a shorthand now, I just send Sean pages and hope he likes them. So far, so good.
H: What inspired the use of a convention as the setting for Bad Weekend? I’ve read in other interviews that you grew up going to Comic-Con. Was this an idea you had for a while that made for a natural fit for this story, or did this story grow out of using this particular backdrop?
EB: An idea that I’d been kicking around for a long time was about an artist at the tail end of his career, going to get an award at a convention, and having to go through his past. And having grown up as a fly on the wall at Comic-Con, and then spending years as a pro at conventions, I just know that world so well. And you know, all parts of the industry converge at the big conventions, so it’s really perfect. Conventions are exhausting, and you run into old friends and coworkers constantly. Or even old enemies sometimes.
H: Did any personal experience from any cons you’ve been to filter into the book?
EB: Not in specific, no. I mean, I did once see Jack Kirby and Jim Shooter both stand up in the audience at a panel and start yelling at each other over Kirby’s treatment by Marvel, so stuff like that is certainly filtered into the background.
H: Besides a few characters, almost every industry figure mentioned in the book is real, along with their stories. You name-check a few historical tragedies and instances of exploitation, but are there any others that formed the basis for the main character’s backstory?
EB: Oh god, yeah. I mean, [the main character] Hal Crane is all of them rolled into one, in some ways. He’s got one artist’s bad attitude, another one’s alcoholism, the gambling problems and art theft of another famous cartoonist (I wouldn’t name him, even though he’s dead), and the poor treatment of… I guess the majority of creators in comics, from the kids who created Superman up to modern times.
Most people in the industry have heard these kinds of stories about a handful of big name artists from the old days. Alex Toth (designer of Jonny Quest and Space Ghost, among others) was the artist with the attitude, legendarily nearly getting in a fistfight with Julius Schwartz at DC Comics once, right in the office. And Toth spent the last years of his life totally secluded in his house, according to his biography. A tragic artist, who was probably one of the best natural cartoonists who ever lived.
Archie Lewis is sort of a stand-in for Alex Raymond, but only in that he dies in a car crash with another artist in the passenger seat. It was less about Archie Lewis and more about what a young Hal Crane would have thought about his comic strips, and how they saved him during the Depression. You never see Lewis, it’s just about his strip.
There are a few stories in there where the names were changed, but are wild stories I heard from inside the industry about the old days. And way too many of our best comics artists have been alcoholics. The industry gave them lots of reasons to drink.
H: The problem of the way the comic book industry treats its creatives has taken some new turns in more recent years, as these properties are getting made into movies making hundreds of millions of dollars. What ways do you see this issue possibly evolving going forward?
EB: Well, with the whole “vertical integration” of Hollywood, I don’t see it evolving in favor of the creators. This is part of why I only publish through Image, where me and Sean Phillips own everything we do completely.
I think that these days, most of us go into those arrangements knowing what work-for-hire means, but on a moral level, it’s not great. You can’t look at these Kickstarters and Indiegogos, or like when we had to raise money to help Gene Colan (who co-created Blade) pay his medical bills, and think this is right. And look, it’s better now than it used to be… but we still see these auctions for people who created characters the company has made so much money on.
That’s part of what the book is about, to me. The fact that we all know this system is built on a bad foundation, and yet we all love the medium itself so much, and even sometimes the characters, that we just do it anyway. I find that fascinating, that from the dawn of comics, most of the artists have barely scraped by, or been ripped off when something they created hit big, or lied to by publishers… but they just kept plugging away. This was the art form they loved, even when it was something most of the world thought was embarrassing or childish.
For me, the story of Bad Weekend grew out of that grey area between actual comics history and the way fans and artists sacrifice for the love of the art form. I find that both beautiful and tragic, and not cut and dried.
H: Criminal has always been formally fluid, and the new ongoing has already toyed with several different short stories, including this one. Do you plan to keep the series running in this vein, peppering one or two-issue stories with longer arcs and standalone graphic novels like My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies?
EB: I’m not sure yet. I’d certainly love to keep switching things up. Right now I’m midway into the longest Criminal story we’ve ever done, about the summer of 1988, when some of our main characters were just teenagers and their parents were teaming up to commit crimes. Once we wrap that, I think we’ll do some short stories, or single issue stories, most likely. That seems to be what we do —a long story, then some short stuff while we figure out the next bigger thing.
H: This particular storyline seems pivotal. A lot of other arcs in the series refer back to its events in some big or small way. How much work goes into balancing the individual stories with these nods to the wider universe of the series?
EB: I think it’s just gut instinct at this point. When I first pitched it, the idea was that each book tells its own story, but they are in the same world. Like Elmore Leonard’s books, was what I was thinking. Someone who’s a minor character in one book stars in another one years later sometimes, and I always loved stuff like that. And as the series continued, I realized that allowed me to create something richer. I think of it as a bit of a tapestry. I just follow the characters and figure out what stories need to be told next. With Cruel Summer, it just felt like it was finally time to get [this story] out there.
I have a friend who says Criminal is like a shared universe of crime stories, and I laugh at that description, but it’s not fully wrong. But the most important thing, and just about the only important thing as I’m writing, is making sure each book works as its own story. I want them to be able to be read and enjoyed in any order. I almost regret even numbering them, but what can you do?
H: Switching to Too Old To Die Young, you’ve written for TV before, but nothing like this. What was it like to conceive of, map out, and write the entire series with your collaborators?
EB: God, it took forever. I started working on the pilot script before I got hired on Westworld, then I went back to it ten months later and finished it while Nic [Refn] was editing his last movie. Then we sold the show to Amazon and started writing it a few months later. We probably worked for a year before production started. It was long hours and lots and lots of rewriting. And then we were writing all the way through the ten months of shooting, too. I did so many drafts of some scenes that I could recite them, I think.
Me and Halley [Gross] were always co-writing with the director, or rewriting based on new changes he wanted to make, or a change he’d made on set that we had to then track through the next scripts. So while I see a lot of what we built from the start in there, once we got into production, it became Refn’s beast to try to slay. He films in chronological order, so he can change things on the day of shooting on set, and follow his creative impulses.
So ultimately, it was a creatively frustrating experience, because I’m used to calling the shots more… But on the other hand, I think we made something amazing and unlike anything else out there, and I got to work with the most incredible cast and crew and staff, so it was a great learning experience. But a big part of what I learned was, next time, be the one charge. Just for my own writing sanity.
H: What logistical differences are there in the scripting stage between writing comics and film — how you describe and pace action, or set out a scene, etc?
Well, with comics, you have to write dialog that reads like it sounds like people talking, but you’re limited to the amount of words per panel that will actually fit. So it’s a trick. If you get it right, people don’t notice, but with screenwriting, you can sort of let the characters talk a bit more like real people would. Rambly, cutting themselves off. Not getting to their point. Um. Stuff like that.
It’s something I really enjoy, writing dialogue and letting people talk, so it’s one of my favorite differences from comics. The biggest difference is just getting your head around the idea that nothing is ever locked. In comics, you finish a script, it’s drawn, that’s it. Maybe some minor changes here or there before print. But Refn always told me, you write one movie, you make another movie, and you edit a third movie, and that’s what comes out. It never goes how you thought it would at the beginning. So until it’s done being edited, you’re constantly writing this evolving thing. If you can get used to that, you can survive writing in film and TV.
Otherwise, writing comics is maybe a bit harder than screenwriting, because you’re isolating each moment in time and describing it, whereas in a screenplay you can just write: He runs down the street in the rain. People don’t always realize how different it is. It’s a whole language of its own. Screenwriting is describing a story to an audience, as if they are already watching it happen. Comics writing is more like a conversation between you and your artist (unless you draw your own stuff) where you’re helping them visualize the story and the beats of the page. There’s a rhythm to the page itself, and it has to pull the reader into the story and across the pages. It’s an amazing art form, really. Like my old hero Harvey Pekar said, “Comics are words and pictures, and you can do anything with words and pictures.”
Bad Weekend is now available at Amazon and other booksellers.