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Strangeways, Here We Come: Part 1 of A Talk With Matt Maxwell

Jeff Lester

I like Matt Maxwell. He strikes me as a good egg. He’s a little on the Eeyore-ish side of things–a bit dour, almost glum, without seeming unfriendly–which I also like. And when I finally sat down and read Strangeways: Murder Moon, the OGN that Matt wrote and published, I liked it, too. It wasn’t perfect, but I thought not only did it avoid a lot of rookie mistakes, it had a definite tone of voice to it–an understated one, which isn’t what one would expect to find in a horror western.

Anyways. About a week-and-a-half ago, on the morning of APE, I sat down with Matt in a dim sum restaurant and tried to interview him about the evolution of Strangeways, his expectations of his serialization of Strangeways: The Thirst on blog@Newsarama.com, and any unforeseen results from that just-started experiment. I say I tried to interview him about those things, but because I’m a newbie interviewer (here’s a tip: if you’re going to be conducting and recording an interview, don’t take the subject to a dim sum restaurant where people are walking by and talking to you every two minutes) and because, as I say, I like Matt Maxwell, I ended up piping up far too often with my own ideas, anecdotes, and opinions.

So what should’ve been an interview with Matt solely about all of the above, became more of a conversation between the two of us about learning how to write comics, with a dash of the other topics thrown. I picked up the check to make up for it. Hopefully, Matt, when I actually earn my interviewer wings, we’ll do it again and I’ll do it better. Double-ditto, for the art which Matt contributed: it’s lovely unlettered stuff, and I’m such a lame-o, I don’t really know how to create a subhead for it so I can caption it properly. I’ll learn.

Anyway, if that sounds like your kind of thing, check it out after the jump. It is…not short.

Jeff Lester: What do you think of the reception to the first couple of days of Strangeways: The Thirsty, on Blog@?

Matt Maxwell: I don’t read the numbers, so I don’t know exactly what the readership is. I’m assuming that it’s more people seeing it—far more—than would be reading it on my blog which, to be mercenary, was the point. If you’re going to give something away for free with the idea of getting attention out of it, you don’t put in a corner that nobody walks through.

JL: No, and Blog@ does get the coverage, so you’d think—I’ll be kinda curious because most of the webcomic stuff I follow is super-short and not always sequential, so…

MM: Well, that’s the thing. That’s why I kind of hesitate to even call it a webcomic because I didn’t change any of the formatting. You’re getting a page a day: that’s how it works.

JL: Which I know…Girl Genius and—I haven’t actually been following Finder since it went to web so I don’t really know if… I’m sure they’re obviously looking at the traffic, there’s lots of people who can follow a page of comic a day…

MM: And keep it together, yeah. Personally, I like waiting for having a backlog of material and then I can go through and read a bunch and see how it flows together. It’s hard for me to…

JL: So you think for people like you—are you going to do any promos, like, ten pages in, or something like that?

MM: I’ll probably do that, and certainly when there’s a whole chapter collected, I’ll make a big deal about it: ‘Okay, go read the first chapter. You don’t have to wait for…’ At that schedule, it’s not even a bimonthly comic, it’s almost a quarterly.

JL: And I notice, is it—if I’m following what you wrote correctly—you flipped artists on this one?

MM: Yeah, the artist from the main story is doing the ‘back-up story’ and the others from the ‘back-up story’ in Murder Moon are doing the main story here. Part of that was because Luis, who was the main artist for Murder Moon, left the studio in Argentina, moved to Spain, and then Norway after that. I guess he’s following his heart, as it were.

So I lost track of him, but then found him after the announcement for Murder Moon went out, when the book was actually published. He tracked me down, so that worked out well.

But the artists in—you know, the guys at Estudio Haus, Gervasio and Jok—I’d known and worked with them, liked their art, so I didn’t see a problem with [their taking on the main story this time.]

JL: I actually thought the back-up was the stronger of the pieces in the book, in your first book.

MM: You’re not the only person to have said that, which isn’t surprising.

JL: Which I sort of attributed, looking closely at it, it seemed very much to me like the art choice s and the storytelling choices seemed a lot stronger.

MM: Yeah, that, and the first one was the first actual script I’d done for a comic. So I’d obviously picked up more [for the back-up]. I mean, I packed in too much on all of those pages on Murder Moon. Not quite as badly in the back-up story, but it certainly was there, especially when you compare it to the airiness of most mainstream comics today.

JL: It’s interesting you mention that because I’ve spent a lot of time—I actually sold my first short script to C’thulu Tales.

MM: Congratulations.

JL: Thank you. And that was, of course—I packed that with way, way, way too much…Even going by the rule of thumb about word counts per page…

MM: What’s the rule of thumb you used? Because I’ve heard different ones, many of them.

JL: I used the one that Alan Moore talked about that was sort of a modified Weisinger one, where it’s something like thirty-five words per panel based on a six panel grid. So the ceiling is about 210 per page, or something.

MM: Yeah, I had heard the Stan Lee rule was no more than forty in a balloon, and that’s probably restrained—even for Stan!

JL: Yeah, when you look at the other stuff, it’s obvious that those things change.

MM: You look at those early Marvel superhero texts and they’re so text-heavy compared to…I mean, the Weisinger Superman comics, you had narration but it wasn’t as heavy as Stan’s very purple…

JL: Yeah, very prolix. Well, and it’s kind of interesting because that’s one of the things I find fascinating in storytelling: you go back and look at that stuff—and of course I grew up on the stuff so it’s second nature—but I can definitely see when I go back and look at a bunch of it, it’s really dense, and everyone’s writing like they’re Stan Lee, so there’s a lot of verbal tics.

MM: Yeah.

JL: On the other hand, it’s so information-rich. I sometimes think that part of the success of the Marvel melodramas and the soap operas is that you can actually have this stuff progress–at the same time, someone can be fighting and thinking about Aunt May at the same time, so you get a lot with that density.

MM: And it’s all story-driven stuff. It’s not there just to be there, just to fill up a page.

JL: In fact, it’s almost the opposite. It’s got so much going on. And it’s interesting watching someone like Brubaker figure out how to get a similar story density in there when you can’t do that pacing.

MM: Yeah, you couldn’t turn in a script like that. You can’t. Even if you’re doing a ‘retro’ book like any of the Marvel Adventures—you read Jeff Parker’s script for many of the Marvel Adventures stuff he does and it’s still light, textually, compared to older Marvel material, but then it also has to reduce down to digest size, so you can’t crowd as much on. The original presentation is a standard 7’ by 10’ comic that—I understand they sell far better in digest than they do in the direct market.

JL: I would assume. I would hope.

MM: Yeah.

JL: So, when you started writing the first book and your first script, what kind of rule of thumb do you use for…

MM: [Laughs.] I didn’t. I tried to keep it to seven panels. I tried. I tried really hard to keep to seven panels a page. Because the first thing—the original presentation for Strangeways was going to be a twenty-two page monthly comic before I’d gotten the crazy idea to just go ahead and do the whole thing as a graphic novel. And even then, as a graphic novel, I was still dividing it in 22 page chunks, anyway.

JL: Which seems smart.

MM: But then the Speakeasy deal came along and I said, ‘Okay, well, now it needs to really work as a single comic.’ I’m not convinced of its success in that regard, but it didn’t need to.

I tried to keep to no more than seven panels a page. I often went to eight. I did have to boil down the dialogue. I’m doing my own lettering—which I highly recommend for anybody who’s writing comics if you have the opportunity to.

In some ways it’s tedious and mechanical, and in lots of ways it’s…I think it might have been Richard Starkings who said that ‘the letterer is the writer’s inker.’ And that’s absolutely true. If you can have a hand in how the words go on the page, then you may be a step ahead of the game, especially if you’re still a rookie like me, and you realize, ‘Oh yeah, that beat shouldn’t have gone there, it should go in the next panel,’ and then you have to jiggle the dialogue that follows on the page.

But I tried to keep things reasonable, and the common criticism, that I really can’t disagree with, is that there was just too much on the page. It was too claustrophobic.

JL: Although again, some of that was—I thought—how much you were packing in, and some of it was… I thought the artists in the back-up team even when handling a lot of density seemed to find some very elegant solutions to it.

MM: I found that—and maybe this is just my perception—a lot of, particularly, the South American comics artists grew up reading European comics and not American comics. They may have read them, but that wasn’t their mainstay. And you get a completely different sensibility working out of that. Not that one is better than the other, they’re just different. Particularly now.

I mean, I’m still trying to figure out, what’s the date of death of the thought balloon? It’s struggled back a couple times. Because I stopped reading comics in the mid-90s, right around the time Sandman ended. I was still reading Hellboy and a few other irregular series, but I wasn’t going to comic shops every week. And I remember, before that, you still had thought balloons. You came back after that, and it was, you know, it was night and day. You didn’t have much internal narration; if you still did, you would do it as captions rather than thought balloons. And I adopted the same—when I have Collins doing internal monologues, it’s as captions, not as thought balloons.

JL: I think it would be very hard to put in thought balloons as a new writer, as people would just assume that you’re not paying attention to the market.

MM: You’re not paying attention, and ‘well, don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

JL: I think Alan Moore, like so much else—he really helped take out the sound effect balloon in Watchmen, and then around the time of Swamp Thing, I think he switched pretty much right off the bat—I think he went to captions, and there’s no thought balloons in his work. And he’s the first one I can think of that kind of started that, and then the rest of the Brits…I don’t know, I don’t follow the 2000 A.D. stuff enough to know, but maybe…

MM: Yeah, I didn’t follow them in 2000 A.D., but all the writers who came over in the ‘80s and ‘90s—I’d have to look at Doom Patrol again, I’m trying to remember if interior narration like that, and I don’t think it did very much, I think it did captioning.

JL: I think, again, captioning. Very much so. I think it was sort of a Brit thing that killed that, that everyone adopted very quickly. Although, now that I think about it, I guess Dark Knight—Miller used thought balloons in Daredevil, and might have eschewed them totally in Dark Knight.

MM: Well, I think that was probably a Shooter edict. I was reading the collected Frank Miller Daredevil—which I’d read on the stands when I was a much younger man than I am now—but you don’t notice when you’re reading it month to month that there’s always the page of, ‘Oh, and I’m Matthew Murdock, and a tragic accident turned me into Daredevil and here’s my superpowers.’ And that’s great when you’re introducing people to the monthly serial, but when you read the whole collected chain of the story, it’s like ‘Oh, and here’s that page again. Okay.’ And usually you can see him getting it out of the way as fast as he could and moving on to the rest of it.

JL: Yeah, that was always his way of handling it. Which, I guess, was pretty much as elegant as you could get under the Shooter system.

MM: Yeah, he fulfilled his obligations to the editor and now, on with the story.

JL: It’s interesting how people handle recap pages now because they’re in most of the Marvel books and they’re—to me, for the most part—incredibly hard to read.

MM: Really? Do they have just a plain recap at the beginning? Because I haven’t read Marvel month-to-month, other than Daredevil and Captain America occasionally.

JL: You know, I’m thinking of Ultimate Spider-Man which has the recap in it. But I’m trying to think if there are other ones… Cable and Deadpool, of course, had a recap page where they did as a full page of comic art, and after that, honestly…I’m a little hard pressed to think of one now. Maybe they’ve dropped that and moved back to, ‘screw it, it’s a page no one cares about anyway. Like, if you really want to know, wikipedia it.’

MM: Yeah. Before, when you’re the lonely thirteen year old geek at the 7-Eleven, and you don’t have friends who read these comics to explain it to you, then you need that page to get you hooked into it.

JL: It’s interesting watching the marketplace consider how ‘open’ the book is or should be in order to actually work. I’m kind of fascinated by people like Morrison, who are ‘You know what? It’s more attractive if it’s almost impenetrable. And it’s this sort of mystery that gives the reader this sense that there’s a huge, sprawling, larger-than-life thing going on, and screw the recaps.’

MM: And to some extent, I can see that being true. When I was introduced to the Marvel cosmology—the legacy cosmology of the ‘70s and the ‘80s—it was like, ‘Oh, okay, there’s much more stuff going on than just what I’m reading in this comic,’ and that got you reading other titles in some cases. But you’re not going to read a bad comic even if you’re interested in a universe.

JL: Which is a rule that I wish comic publishers would learn.


JL: So Strangeways, you started off shooting for a seven panel and sometimes bumping it up to eight…

MM: [Sighs] I know have some nine panel pages in there, but nine was the absolute limit. That’s kind of… Is it Fell that’s a sixteen grid? I don’t know how he does it.

JL: The thing that is shocking to me is when it’s done well… I mean, Watchmen is on a nine grid, I think.

MM: Yeah, Watchmen is a nine grid, even though he breaks it out in some places.

JL: Yeah, but you can always see where’s he’s snapping tightly to the grid. And they make it look incredibly easy. Both he and Gibbons make it look incredibly easy.

And I know that was my downfall walking into scriptwriting: ‘I’ll try and plot it out as a nine panel thing, it’s easy, it’s got a flow that brings the reader into it,’ and then, of course, you have to write more concisely for each panel…

MM: Yes, you do.

JL: And still the artist is like, ‘I can’t fit all this on one page.’

MM: I know I ran into that. I’ll send out the scripts, and I’ve got, say, thirty-forty words of dialogue, and the panel comes back and, ‘Well, that’s a mighty small panel!’ Not to fault the guys doing the art, because they’re doing the best with the script they’ve been given, but there are certain times it’s like, there’s no way this is going to work, and now I have to reconstruct what story value is going to put on the page.

Because it’s all about the single page. I mean, yes, you string it altogether in a story but if you can’t manage a page—which I’m not convinced I can yet, but…

JL: I don’t know. I thought that your pages worked. I was pretty impressed that I thought your story rolled at a pretty decent pace. I think as someone gets more experience under their belt, it gets easier to figure out how to change gears, I think. Just getting it into a decent rhythm is hard enough, and then trying to change it up a little bit is a whole different skill.

MM: I just wrote a column about this at Comics Waiting Room: It’s really the page beat that’s everything. I didn’t know anything about page beats before I came back into beginning to write comics and read comics in 2002-2003. And, if you remember, that was the ‘Epic Initiative.’ And they actually had page beats shown—an example of page beats written out in one of the—it might’ve even been the Epic comic, that really dreadful book. And I said, ‘Oh, okay!’ Because it never had really clicked for me before, that it was all about, ‘it’s one page at a time in a sequence.’ At least, that’s in the long form comic storytelling. You have different rules when you’re doing mini-comics, and I mean, you still have to pay attention to the page, but I think you have a lot of flexibility.

JL: But in long-terms stuff, the idea of trying to get a beat on the page and something at the turn. That’s the one where I really found myself going…

MM: That’s the thing. If you’re writing a six issue miniseries effectively, you can say, ‘Well, I’m not really writing six acts.’ But you are writing six acts. Or you’re writing seven acts, and you have half an issue of dénouement, instead of a whole issue, which I guess is better. I’m sure an entire issue of dénouement would be kind of dreadful.

JL: You think it would be, but every once in a while…I think part of the problem about learning to write for the medium, is you always remember the successes better than the failures. So you’re kind of like, ‘Well, yeah. Look at that classic issue of Avengers, where it’s after the big fight, and everything is wrapping up.’ Or again, something like Watchmen

MM: You know, the thing with Watchmen—and this happened a lot, and still does—is people don’t love Watchmen because it was a nine panel grid, or because it was grim-and-gritty superheroes doing things that superheroes don’t usually do: people love Watchmen because it’s a great story. The nine panel grid is effectively a surface—I don’t want to say trick, it’s a lot deeper than that, certainly, in terms of setting up the rhythm of the story—but that isn’t why people love it.

JL: Absolutely. On the other hand, I think the brilliance of the nine-panel grid is that they were able to put so much information into each issue that I think if you tried to do Watchmen on a five panel grid, which seems really standard now…

MM: You couldn’t do it. All the story turns would be completely wrong.

JL: It would just feel mushy, unless you totally rejiggered…Even rejiggering the stories, I don’t think you would have enough event per issue, and you’d have to end up deeply compressing some of the storylines…

MM: Eventually, comics are going to have to get past the issue at a time format. We’re still trying, we’re still struggling with it. But that’s the format that a lot of people are used to reading, it keeps people coming back to the comic stores every week, but it does present a lot of difficulties for storytelling.

JL: Right.

MM: Or you’re just wired for it, and you can just crank stuff out.

JL: I’m not sure if that’s really true. Maybe there are, but I think if you look at most of the guys…both Bendis and Brubaker were cartoonists before they turned to writing, and that allows them a huge…

MM: And so was Moore.

JL: So was Moore. Morrison apparently did a lot drawing…

MM: I don’t know if he did much sequential stuff, but I mean for instance, he did almost all the design work for Doom Patrol, and probably does for whatever he’s working on.

JL: But Moore was an actual cartoonist, and I think that allows them a lot of confidence when it comes time to break a story down. This is sort of what I was bitching a bit about in a recent column about Grant Morrison and how much responsibility he might bear for ending up with not-so-great artists. He might be overpacking—his Batman stuff looks like it very well could be incredibly overstuffed, and his artist is just overwhelmed.

MM: I confess I read up until the Black Glove story, with the J.H. Williams stuff, and J.H. makes every script he touches look maybe even smarter than it actually is.

JL: I thought so in that particular case. I’m really convinced that first Black Glove story was very much the world’s best-looking case of lipstick on a pig.

MM: It was a ‘Ten Little Indians’ Agatha Christie mystery—which is generally a form I’m not fond of at all—with beautiful art.

JL: With absolutely stunning art.

[Art: from top to bottom–a page from Strangeways: The Thirsty, art by Gervasio & Jok; a page from Strangeways: Murder Moon by Luis Guaragna; a page from “Lone,” the back-up story in Strangeways: Murder Moon by Gervasio & Jok; another page from “Lone” by Gervaiso & Jok; Another page from Murder Moon by
Luis Guaragna; and another yet-to-be-published page from The Thirsty by Gervasio & Jok]

Tomorrow: Strangeways, screenplays, good days and bad days.

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