Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Interview: Comics Writer Sean E. Williams

After working in film and television for a number of years, Sean E. Williams transitioned successfully into writing comics. He currently has two active titles, Artful Daggers, a steampunkish tale of covert operations set after the events of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, as well as the new arc of DC/Vertigo's Fables spin-off Fairest, which debuts today. In between his appearances at C2E2, where he crossed paths with our own comics guru Mikey, he took some time to answer questions about both of his titles and the evolution of the industry.

NF: Full disclosure to our readers, after the dust of the Hollywood writers' strike settled, you and I worked on two screenplay projects together, but then you left Hollywood for what I assume is a far more sane environment. It seems like very quickly you found yourself working in comics. How did that transition happen?

SW: It actually came about fairly naturally. More naturally than I would have expected (especially coming from Hollywood). One part of it is (long story short) that I'd become friends with Bill Willingham and pitched him a story that led to my arc of Fairest. Another part of it was that I'd started to work with an exec at a production company who was also an editor at a comics publisher, and I had started pitching him comic ideas as well as movies. And the third aspect of my transition into comics was that I'd had a prose novella published for a property I was trying to get made into a television series. So when my wife got a job in rural Minnesota, I took a step back and realized I was doing more comics and prose writing than scripts and screenplays, and that I could do it just as easily from the Midwest as I could in Los Angeles, and for a lot cheaper. At that point, I went all-in on comics and prose.

NF: Comics and film are both collaborative, visual media. Can you talk about the overlap between writing for the two? Was the learning curve pretty smooth, or were there a few things that stood out as significant differences?

SW: Great question! A lot of people don't make those connections between comics and film, but you're spot on. Coming from screenwriting, I think I had a pretty easy transition. What helped, especially coming into Vertigo, was that I'd written six issues of a comics series for a small press company, so I was able to get the feel of comics there. Training wheels, basically. The hardest part was getting my brain to start chopping actions up in to smaller parts, for panels. In a screenplay, you can say “He jumps on a horse, firing his blaster at the aliens, killing three.” But in comics, it's “Panel one: He jumps on a horse. Panel Two: He fires a gun. Panel Three: The aliens get hit.” So that was a transition, but by the end of the six issues I'd trained my brain to think that way. It's basically the equivalent of calling out each shot in film, which you don't really do in screenwriting. I'd also gotten back into reading comics in film school, so my brain was use to the look, feel, and pacing of comics. I'd think it'd be hard if you were coming into it cold, but like TV and film, it's a learnable format for writing.

The other part of your question that's important to point out is that it's collaborative. I know some screenwriters (I was going to say “starting out screenwriters,” but I know some produced screenwriters who still have this issue) who struggle worrying about what a screenplay will look like on the screen. One of the best lessons I ever learned in Hollywood is that there's no point worrying about the words on the page being perfect, because the audience in the theater isn't going to see them. Not to mention the fact that the version of the movie in your head isn't the one that makes it on the page. That's the thing with film: there's the version in your head, the version on the page (the screenplay), the version that gets shot (with all the production setbacks, limitations, and happy accidents that go along with it), and the version that gets edited to be the final movie. The difference between the first version and the last is staggering, so why worry about getting what's in your head onto the page perfectly in the first place?
Artful Daggers

Comics are the same way. There's the version in your head, the version on the page (the script), the version the penciller turns in, the version the inker turns in, the version the colorist turns in, and the the version that finally gets lettered. And each phase can really change the story. With one of the upcoming issues of Fairest, we had Andrew Dalhouse, the colorist, add blood spray to change an injured character into a killed one after Stephen Sadowski, the penciller, turned a tussle into a brawl. You, as the writer, have very little control once it leaves your hands, which is the best part of collaboration, in my opinion. Everyone brings their best, and it raises the whole book up.

NF: You seem to be walking successfully on both sides of the street right now ­­ with a creator-­owned title (Artful Daggers) being published digitally by MonkeyBrain Comics and now an arc of Fairest for the granddaddy of them all, Vertigo's parent DC Comics. Can you talk about the biggest differences working under the two models?

SW: They're really two different animals. It's great having the support of editors at Vertigo to improve my writing and make sure that everything stays on schedule production-wise. For this latest draft of a Fairest script I turned in, Shelly Bond insisted that I add a flashback, and she was totally right. Again, I love a collaboration that makes the book better, which is everyone's goal. And with creator-owned books, it's all on you, which I personally love. If you forget to write the solicit, it's on you (something we actually had a momentary panic about last night on our weekly Artful Daggers call). If you run out of bristol boards, you have to track them down yourself. At DC, all those things are being checked and double-checked by everyone up and down the ladder. They're totally different, but both great experiences in different ways.
Fairest #15: Return of the Maharaja, Part 1

NF: How did you make the leap to Fairest, which was a pre-­existing title? Were you hand­-selected by Bill Willingham, or was there a different process involved?

I guess you get the longer version of the story after all! When I first pitched Bill to do a story in the Fables universe, Fairest was only an idea he'd started to put together. I think he'd started to talk to Adam Hughes about doing the covers for a spin-off series, but it definitely wasn't finalized yet. This was at San Diego Comic Con in 2010, and Chris Roberson's first standalone Cinderella arc had done well, and he was already working on the second. I asked Bill if it'd be okay if I pitched him an idea for something similar, and he said yes, so I went to a local place away from the con and wrote out a whole proposal that night and gave it to him the next day, which he definitely wasn't expecting!

Here's the thing, though, I'd known Bill for years at that point, so it's not like I was some fan who asked him out of the blue. We'd met at SDCC in 2003, I think, when I approached him about doing Fables as a series or movie (it wasn't available), and so we started trying to get Proposition Player made around town, to the point that by the end I'd even written the first draft of a pilot script for Bill to rewrite. So he knew that I knew how to use a keyboard, at least.

So basically, I've been working on Fairest since 2010, is the short answer.

NF: Fairest is interesting on a lot of levels, but I'm wondering from a writer's standpoint what it's like to step into something that's had a couple of arcs already, but doesn't have 50 years of lore behind it like your Batman or Spider-­Man titles. Did you have a lot of latitude in writing this arc, or was there something like a TV model where you broke the stories in collaboration or in support of a larger vision?

SW: You hit on a couple of different things with this question without realizing it.

First, since I'm dealing with Kipling Fables and some characters from the epics of Hinduism, I'm working with a bit longer on the lore-scale than most superhero stories, for better and worse. For instance, when I pitched this version of my arc (there was a whole other arc I worked on for almost a year, the first one I pitched actually) to Bill, I was keeping with the Fables rule of “what happened in the Fables universe isn't necessarily the same as what the stories tell.” But then halfway into writing the arc Bill told me he wanted me to keep the Jungle Book as it was, and not change it. So I had to adjust the backstory for one of my characters, which worked out fine, if not better, but it was an adjustment mid-stream. On the other hand, with Nalayani, who is a minor character in The Mahabharata but the star of my arc, I read three totally different versions of her story while doing my research, so I had a little more wiggle room with her.

As far as breaking the story goes, I pitched this version to Bill after meeting with him over the holidays in 2010, when he told me he and Shelly Bond wanted me to write an arc centered on the character who'd become “The Maharaja” in my arc. That was all they gave me, a character, and I came up with the rest for the pitch. Then Bill and I would kicking around ideas to flesh it out. For instance, he wanted there to be no men in the Indu, the Fables world where my arc takes place. Which was a great idea, and really added a lot to the dynamic of the world. But for the most part, Bill's been fairly hands-off, which I really appreciate as a writer. Another good example is when Stephen Sadowski, the penciller for the arc, drew the fight scene I mentioned before to be a lot more gruesome than I'd envisioned, Bill okayed killing off a fairly substantial character, without really worrying about it. That kind of freedom is liberating, and intimidating at the same time.

NF: Finally, I wanted to ask something a little broader of scope. The digital revolution has traditional publishing famously shaking in its boots, but I don't sense that same kind of dread in the world of comics -- ­­ possibly due in part to the success of Comixology. What do you think the digital delivery model offers for both creators and fans that makes the industry seem more in balance than the traditional print model?

I think digital is going to save comics, with ComiXology playing a huge role in it. The big reason I think that is that a large part, if not most, of the country doesn't have a local comics shop. I mean, comics aren't carried in groceries anymore, so how else are people going to get (much less discover) comics? I took it for granted while living in LA, which has at least four amazing comics stores, but once I got to rural Minnesota and had to drive an hour and a half to the nearest shop, I saw the biggest hurdle comics had to overcome as an industry. So digital is getting rid of that. Having tablets (which are the perfect size for reading comics, and have better and brighter color than paper) take off and become as ubiquitous as they have is a big part of that too. They go hand in hand. So that's the fan side of things.

From the creator side, it means if you can make a comic, you can get it out into the world. There aren't any gatekeepers anymore (for better and worse). In addition to the web, you've now got ComiXology Submit, and Amazon's Kindle Comic Creator, so you can reach basically anyone world-wide. Which still blows my mind. It doesn't mean you'll be a hit, but it at least gives you a chance to have your work read.

NF: I know you're out there a lot and available for fan interaction, so what's the best way to track you down on the interwebs, and in­-person in the coming months?

I'm on Twitter all the time, as is most of the comics industry, at @sean_e_williams, or you can like my Facebook page for updates there, or my tumblr/blog is www.seanewilliams.com.

My next convention appearance is CONvergence, up in the Minneapolis area, followed by San Diego Comic Con later in July.

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