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The Outhouse Interview: Ed Brubaker

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Monday, May 13 2013 and posted in Features

The Outhouse Interview: Ed Brubaker

The Eisner award-winning writer of many, many comics takes a seat in The Outhouse!

For years, Ed Brubaker was known as the popular comics writer whose work struggled to find a large audience. Though he wrote a Batman title for DC, his profile couldn't bring enough eyeballs to smaller, well-regarded titles as Sleeper and Gotham Central. Things started to change in 2004, when he signed an exclusive contract with Marvel and wrote an exceptionally well-received run on Captain America, one which lasted eight years. In that time, Brubaker found a way to resurrect Bucky Barnes in a thought-provoking and original way, bringing a new dimension to the Marvel Universe (it was also during this time when Brubaker made headline news for being the writer who "killed" Captain America). Brubaker's time at Marvel also saw him write a dramatic run on Daredevil, but most notably, he launched Criminal at the publisher's creator-owned imprint. Re-teaming with his Sleeper collaborator Sean Phillips, Criminal was the place where Brubaker was able to luxuriate in his love for the noir genre, a love that shone through all of his books, both great and small (by the way, Ed Brubaker is the perfect noir name). In January 2012, Brubaker and Phillips launched Fatale, a pulpy horror comic at Image. Brubaker has also taken on a number of film and television projects over the years. He recently spoke to The Outhouse (over email) about Fatale, his writing, and how he woke up one morning with a bloody ear. 

The Outhouse (OH): Fatale has run almost a year and a half now, and it's still going strong. Do you feel that it's diverged in any way from what you and Sean Phillips originally conceived?

Ed Brubaker (EB): I wouldn't say diverged, but I've discovered new avenues in it that I wanted to explore as I went along, so it's expanded a lot, but it's still heading to the same final destination.

OH: In general, how tightly are your long-form works planned out by you and your artists and editors? Would you say that you're an adaptable writer of serial fiction (in terms of being able to solve unexpected problems)? Is that a skill that you had to develop over time, or did you find that you had it figured out pretty early?

EB: I do a lot of notebook work on all my projects, some of it gets pretty detailed, but my outlines for each issue are always a bit rough, so I have room to change things or come up with other ideas if something feels off. I don't know if I'd say I'm adaptable, as much as I try really hard not to make a  choice in chapter 3 that I'm going to really regret in chapter 10.

But I write almost entirely by instinct, and the only way I've ever been able to be productive is just to follow the characters to the scenes and moments that feel right to me. Any time I've tried to do something because someone else told me that's how it should be - like an editor or producer - unless it's one of those "oh man, you're totally right" eye openers, I've never been able to make it work. Not to my satisfaction, at least. 

OH: The themes you seem to come back to the most involve family or generational conflict, as well as conflict with one's past (also, the way those themes overlap). Having worked in that milieu for so long, has your relationship with those themes changed in any way? Are your reasons for exploring them now in different in any way from the reasons you had earlier in your career?

EB: I don't really think about that kind of stuff too much. I always just start with a character or two and build everything out from there. But everything you write is a facet of your own history and life and regrets, etc.  I just try to write whatever will keep me engaged and excited, honestly, and I like tortured main characters, generally.  I think I write more about characters with fucked up pasts more than fucked up family stuff, really, but like I said, I don't analyze it much. I don't want to wreck whatever it is that I do.

OH: Have you and Sean Phillips developed a kind of shorthand together in your collaboration?

EB: Yep. 

OH: What does your average Ed Brubaker script look like? In general, do you give a lot of direction in your scripts? Do you write differently for an artist you've never worked with before than you do for someone you have?

EB: I don't tend to over-describe details, for the most part, and I try to make the scripts fun and easy to read for Sean or whoever else I'm working with. I don't dictate camera angles, but I will say if something should be a wider shot or a full tier panel, stuff like that. I try to make the visual something they can grasp and not ask for too much in any single panel.

And to your second question, yes, absolutely. Working with new artists is always a bit nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time. But I tend to write a lot more text on those early scripts, until I get the hang of how to write for them and what they do best. Sometimes what they do best and what I do best don't jibe at all, and that's happened a lot. That's why stick with a few artists - like Sean, or Michael Lark, or Steve Epting. I've worked with them most out of anyone.

OH: Did your own artistic background give you a leg up on learning how to effectively write visually?

EB: I think so.  Knowing how to draw comics helps you know what works, like how many people can be talking in one panel. I wrote and drew my own comics for a large part of my life, so I think visually, and I can often see the pages in my head as I'm writing.

OH: Fuck Marry Kill: Brian Michael Bendis, Grant Morrison, and Robert Kirkman.

EB: Uhhh... 

OH: Moving along. Word is, you're doing some work in film or television. You're probably not going to announce here what any of those projects are, but in what ways do you think you're suited to those media?

EB: I'm old enough now not to take any of it too seriously, I guess, and thankfully, because I'll always be doing my comics with Sean, if one of my movies or TV doesn't get made, I still get to write for a living. But surviving 13 years on the monthly comics grind certainly prepares you for anything.

OH: Do you separate story concepts according to what medium they'd be best for? Do you think to yourself "this should be a comic and this would make for a great serial TV or web series," etc. Do you generally come up with the concept first, or the medium first?

EB: I have ideas for TV shows and films and comics that are all separate from each other. I'm happy if someone sees something I do in comics and wants to make a movie or TV show out of it, but when I sit down to write a comic, I just try to make it the best comic it can be, and use all the language of the medium.  I have had a few ideas that just sit in notebooks for years because I can't decide what it is, but I think all three of those media are a lot different in many ways, and things that work in TV don't always work in film or comics, and vice versa.

OH: Considering the incentives you include in the Fatale single issues (a practice you and Sean instituted with Criminal), it seems obvious you're a proponent of serial comics being purchased (and read) in their single issue form. However, you don't include the back matter in the digital version of Fatale either. That said, where are you on the state of digital comics today?

EB: We don't include the extras in the digital single issues because we charge more for the printed issues, and the digital comics apps won't let us price it the same. If they'd let us charge the same price, I'd include the extras in the digital singles, too. That's the only distinction, in my mind, and I want people who are paying more for the printed issues to get their money's worth.

Where am I on the state of digital comics? I'm not sure. Personally, as a reader I prefer print for books and comics, and I love big hardback art books like the IDW Artist Editions or Mignola's Hellboy hardbacks. I love the convenience of digital, certainly, but I have yet to lose myself in anything I'm reading on my ipad the same way I do with a printed book or comic.  Other people love it, and that's fine. 

I'm glad to see them available the same day as the print versions, because I think delaying them, sadly, just encourages people to steal them (and feel justified in doing so, like that guy who did the comic about how it's HBOs fault he had to torrent Game of Thrones).  But I think the current model is a bit flawed, because I think the prices are too high and I hate all the DRM and how you're not actually buying anything.

OH: What did you think of the "pay-what-you-want" model Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin (among others) have devised for their creator-owned work? Do you see yourself ever taking on something like that?

EB: I think it's great for them. I'm certainly supporting them doing it, as a fan and friend of both those guys. I'm glad to see some bigger names in the field trying it, and it's certainly something I've considered, if I were to do a digital-first project. I hate that they say they're never going to print it at all, because I want a big collection of it, personally.  What I've thought about is closer to a subscription model, like getting X amount of people to commit to paying a dollar per chapter for a serialized graphic novel, and then publish a big hardback when it's all completed.  Like I said, I love print, so I'll probably never do a digital-only project.

And really, I get so pleased when I go to people houses that still have bookshelves full of books. Everyone super excited about digital books and comics seems so obsessed with "getting rid of their clutter" but you know what? I like seeing what books people own and what records they listen to. It tells you about a person. And I love borrowing a great book from a friend or loaning out a copy of a favorite novel. I'm not against anyone reading in any form, obviously, but I want to be able to make snap decisions about their taste in books, and now that's much harder to do. You have to hack people's iPad passwords and open their Kindle apps... it's no fun.

OH: Similarly what do you think of Mark Waid and John Rogers' Thrillbent, and the way it presents the comic book medium?

EB: I haven't checked out all of it, but again, I think it's great to see bigger names from our industry trying new things in that space, and I've been really enjoying Insufferable, although I'm a bit behind on it. 

OH: Is it true you left Marvel because you're trying to destroy the comic book industry?

EB: That's what THEY say. 

OH: Reportedly, you once had strep throat so bad that your eardrums burst. What? Seriously? That can happen? How??

EB: Just my left eardrum. I know. I had a bad strain of strep that kept coming back and finally my congestion got so bad my eardrum burst from the pressure. I woke up with blood crusted all around my ear. 

OH: We at The Outhouse ruffled some feathers, yours included, when you were the subject of a parody article about the $3.99 price point in comics.  In all seriousness though, from your side of the table, what are the real advantages of the $3.99 price point. Some fans try to make it correlate with "entertainment value," but how in your view does it serve the market to have single issue at that price?

EB: I am not a fan of the $3.99 price point, actually. When it was a few of their biggest books, and they all had extra pages, I was okay with it, but there are very few comics I think are worth $4 for 20 pages.  The problem is, both companies did it, sales dropped across the board, and then when DC lowered their prices back to $2.99, their sales didn't go up. That's why the New 52 happened all of a sudden, to try to bring back all those readers they chased away from the habit.  Now we're at a point where about half what they each publish is $4 and the rest are $3, so at least it steadied out a bit.

OH: Your uncle, the screenwriter John Paxton, was active in Hollywood during the Communist blacklisting, which ruined the lives of many in the motion picture industry. That said, wouldn't you agree that The Outhouse being blacklisted from DC Comics' press list is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of blacklists?

EB: I don't know, my uncle's best friends were some of the Hollywood Ten, who got sent to prison, which is probably almost as bad as being on a DC comics press call. 

OH: The news about The Outhouse blacklisting came the same day as the (larger, much more important) announcement that Comics Alliance was shut down. What are your thoughts on the state of comics journalism, criticism, and discussion today? How plugged in are you to that space these days? In what ways is it strongest, and what can be improved? Is this something that creators, to your knowledge, think or talk a lot about?

EB: I grew up reading The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes and CBG, and I think that kind of coverage about comics - reviews and interviews and analysis - is important.  I found out about a lot of great comics because of it, as I'm sure tons of people do from the various comics sites and blogs these days. But I'm not very plugged into that world, really. 
I read a few blogs and comics sites now and then, but I find that as a writer, it's best to stay away from that stuff, if you can. 

I get frustrated sometimes when I talk to friends who are writers or filmmakers who worry about some element that may offend a few commenters on Youtube or Twitter, because of how instant all response is these days. But you have to be true to your work. Some people won't like it, some people may hate it, some may misinterpret something a character says or does and think horrible things about you because of it, but if your goal as a creative person is to not offend anyone, you're doing it wrong.

Like, if Louis CK was putting Louie on Youtube instead of airing it on FX, he'd never be able to look at the comments after something like the "Blueberries" episode, which to me, was one of the funniest and most heartbreaking things I've ever seen on television. Just brilliant.  But comment culture can be so kneejerk, it becomes like the thought police. So my thinking is, write your stories and take the feedback of friends or other writers you trust, but once you put it out there, you have to let  people react however they react. That's how it should be.

OH: What does Brian Michael Bendis smell like?

EB: He has no scent, actually, like the guy from the book Perfume.

OH: Do you and Sean have any plans, even vague ones, to return to either Criminal or Incognito? If so, is there any kind of a timetable set for that?

EB: Definite plans to return to Criminal, still mulling over what comes next for Incognito, but no timetable. I'm still not sure how much longer we'll be doing Fatale. 

OH: As a creator who has had success in work-for-hire comics, do you find that some of the pressures that come with publishing creator-owned comics are alleviated by the fact that you're kind of a "big name" in comics? Are there any pressures that are added due to your having that status?

EB: Publishing comics like Criminal and Fatale is just as much pressure as someone with a bigger known name as it is when I started out in comics. Actually more, because the artists are getting paid upfront, so they can devote their full time to it. You constantly worry you're not selling as many copies as you should be, or not doing enough press or that you should do more store signings. And getting the comic out 10 to 12 times a year is a lot of work.  People don't appreciate how difficult what Marvel and DC do every week really is, really.  

Since we started Fatale at Image, our audience has grown a lot, but I don't think I'll ever get to a point where I'm not worrying about my projects being able to succeed. For me, success on those projects has generally meant making sure the artists make enough upfront that it's worth it, but now that it's my only comics work, there's added pressure. But I like it, I prefer the kind of projects I'm doing, and I like being in charge of paper stock and things like that.

OH: Some of us remember encountering a young Ed Brubaker in Lowlife a decade or so ago. Do you have a sense of how you might approach autobiographical work differently if you were to embark on a project like that today, rather than when you were younger?

EB: Not really. Everything I do has some autobiography in it anyway.  I just grew more and more interested in noir and crime and mystery writing as a form. 

OH: Do you think much about your life story, even in the context of your early work as a professional creator?

EB: Of course I do, I'm a writer. I do very little that isn't thinking about my life. 


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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch

As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well.  You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.


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