Comic Relief with Star Wars Writer Brian Wood
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Paste: Congratulations on your new Star Wars book. How’d it come about?
Wood: Thank you. My editor on The Massive emailed me saying ‘Randy Stradley, the Star Wars editor, wants to ask you about doing a project. Can I put you guys in touch?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I don’t know why you’d have to ask me, that’s great.’ And Stradley said they had this opportunity and LucasArts knew who I was and wanted to see if I’d like to work on a project. And it was that easy. They gave me a couple parameters of the job, and then it was go. It’s interesting, because it never would have occurred to me to seek out a Star Wars job. Once it’s presented to you, you discover that you’re pretty into it.
Paste: There’s a definite “flagship” feel about the title. It’s adjective-less and you’re using iconic characters from the original trilogy. What was the pitch like?
Wood: It didn’t have a title at the time. I lobbied for the plain old Star Wars title, because I’d done plain old Conan the Barbarian for them already. Selfishly, I wanted that iconic title. It was a pretty easy sell. I remember the pitch was fairly open-ended, but (editorial) was eyeballing a certain time in the Star War universe. They wanted it to be about the classic characters. They didn’t want it to be deep in continuity; they weren’t leaving the continuity, but they didn’t want it to be about it. They said you can do what you want, you just can’t break the continuity, which is the way every job should be. Every super hero thing should be that; you shouldn’t be trying to write stories about past stories. Even before I wrote a pitch, I told them that what I liked most about Star Wars is what everybody knows the best: that first film. I saw that when I was five. That’s the era I want to write.
Paste: It seems like there’s a tightrope with new Star Wars stories. If you’re making new stories with new characters, those plots lack the quintessential characters and Star Wars feel, but if you make new stories with the iconic characters, it’s hard to do massive changes because the audience knows where they’ll eventually end up. How do you approach this issue?
Wood: In this case it’s pretty easy because there’s this gap of time between the first two films (Episodes 4 and 5). There’s a 3-year gap that’s been begging to have stories written about it, so I have been. I’ve read a couple of novels set in this time period as well. There are dots you can connect. I even remember as a kid watching the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, not understanding what must have happened. Vader already knows who Luke Skywalker is. He didn’t at the end of the first film, but he’s calling him by name in the very first scene of Empire. So I figure there’s lots of room and opportunity in there.
What’s tricky, and what’s also fun, is writing these stories where the characters don’t know what happens, but the readers do. Luke and Leia don’t know they’re related. Luke doesn’t know who Vader is at all. He saw him at the Death Star, but that’s it. But the reader does. So it’s a really fine line, where I have to tread carefully with the Luke and Leia relationship, because obviously they’re brother and sister. So I have to make it all work with these two sides of the story between the characters and the readers. It’s been a lot of fun; it’s a challenge in the most enjoyable way possible.
Paste: You mentioned Luke and Leia. Before they found out they were brother and sister, they were flirtatious. Do you have to deal with that, or is it just gross at this point in the game?
Wood: Yeah, they kissed twice on the mouth at least twice. So in the book they have a closeness, but I tweak it a bit so they feel more protective of each other in a way that’s borderline jealous, but it doesn’t get anywhere creepy. I’m not giving anything away, but Leia is going to become jealous of Luke and someone else. But I don’t ever define, exactly, what she’s jealous of. It reads that she’s just jealous that Luke has a new friend that he’s spending all his time with. I would never, ever make it a sexual thing. They’re definitely close, but the blurriness is because they’ve had a lot of intense, shared experiences. The Death Star and all of those experiences have made them close. It works; it didn’t set off anybody’s alarm.
Paste: So you’re in the same situation Roger Langridge found himself in with The Muppets. Disney stated that Dark Horse’s contract for Star Wars won’t be renewed after the current one expires. Have you been given a quota of Star Wars issues for Dark Horse?
Wood: As far as I know, that’s a rumor. I’m not assuming it’s true until Dark Horse says anything to me, which hasn’t happened yet. When the news of the sale was first announced, everybody involved in the Star Wars books received emails saying how our contracts with Lucas are good for another year and we’ll see how that goes. That’s all I know. I signed up to write a year of Star Wars; that’s the term of my contract. So that’s safe. I’ll definitely write my year. I’m already on issue seven now. Beyond that, I don’t know. I can see a logic both ways. I can see them bringing it to Marvel, even though I think that’s a disaster. I can also see them recognizing a 20-year history with Dark Horse. Obviously, I hope it stays at Dark Horse.
Paste: Why would it be a disaster if Star Wars was brought to Marvel?
Wood: That’s less about anybody at Marvel. I don’t think anybody could do the job that Dark Horse does. My editor’s been editing this for like twenty years. (Dark Horse) has contributed as much to the Star Wars Universe as anybody has. That body of work, it’s part of the extended universe now. My worry, and it’s just my own gut feeling, is that if it became a Marvel book, the books would become about who the creators were than about Star Wars. Once it goes to Marvel, there will be this new class of creator that wants it. It’s going to be super-star writer A and super-star artist B on the Star Wars book. I feel like it shifts the focus in this incorrect way. That’s my feeling.
Paste: Your other new book, Mara, a nice return to your female, indie protagonists, just saw the release of its first issue a couple weeks ago. It’s probably the most optimistic version of the future I’ve ever seen in one of your books, in a world where entertainment defuses war and social discord. What influenced you to create a book about an elite female sports star?
Paste: Or did I completely miss that?
Wood: (Artist) Ming Doyle and I both really like the movie Starship Troopers. And that’s a future where everybody’s super upbeat and super happy, but it’s dark as hell. It’s a really, really fucked-up world. So we wanted something like that, where (Mara’s) happy and on TV and there’s all this money flowing around. Everybody’s super upbeat about it. But it’s emblematic of a really sick world. It’s the worst kind of sport, where it’s all about endorsements, media, and money. And exploiting kids. The flipside is this war, but it’s not even war. It’s this super-cynical war where it’s also about competition and endorsements and who’s the best. I really wanted to make the sports world cynical in a way a person strives for achievements. It’s really gross when you think about it. It’s literally like turning war into a video game.
I definitely understand. There’s this veneer of flash and polish and upbeatness. That’s because everybody’s psyched. But they shouldn’t be! We’re going to see it evolve. Obviously, it’s just the first issue. But those two worlds are going to mix, the sports and the war. And Mara and her brother.
Paste: That sounds much more like a Brian Wood book than what I initially interpreted.
Wood: I think it is at its core. I’m also responding to what Ming likes and what she wants to draw. And like I said, I’m also giving it a very different veneer.
Paste: I couldn’t help but think of DMZ and to a certain degree, The Massive, as Hurricane Sandy occurred. As a New Yorker who writes a lot about New York under duress, what was that ordeal like for you?
Wood: Personally, it effected my day not at all. There was a real disconnect from what I was seeing outside my window and what I was seeing on the news. In my part of Brooklyn, which is fairly elevated, we got a lot of rain, and a lot of wind, and nothing at all. If all I had was just looking out the window, I wouldn’t even know it was a hurricane. But they closed the schools, so my kids were home. It’s kind of crazy because they just go half a mile down the street from my house and there are entire buildings flooding. It was strange to look out the window and know, just out of my view, all of this horrible shit was happening. I personally felt a lot of guilt on some weird, gut level, like I shouldn’t just be kicking back with electricity, playing on the internet. It’s really messed up.
And I think a lot of people felt the same way; over the next couple of days they were volunteering their cars and driving to other parts of Brooklyn with food. It was very grassroots, because all the churches were overrun with people wanting to help. So it got to the point where people were just collecting food and diapers on the street. And you could just drive around, like we did in our car, and just find that, load it up, and bring it to other neighborhoods. Completely unorganized and unofficial in the sense that it wasn’t through a church or the Red Cross.
But watching it on the news was really alarming. I’ve written all of these stories where New York is put through hell, but seeing anything even approaching that couldn’t have been more different. It really underscored the difference between fiction and reality. You can’t even compare the two. We got off very, very easy.
Paste: Based on your Tumblr post about unrealized pitches, it seems like there’s a massive amount of work poured into projects that never see the light of day. How much of your work is divided between laying ground for new projects and working on published scripts?
Wood: It’s impossible to turn off the part of your brain that’s thinking up new stuff, which can be frustrating. I am so booked for a year. I have no business thinking of anything new for an entire year.
Paste: Aren’t you on five monthlies right now?
Wood: Yes, there’s one other thing that isn’t announced yet (since the time of the interview, that project has been teased as XX, to be published by Marvel this Spring), which I’ve been working on for a while. I don’t always count Mara, because that’s almost done; it’s a limited series that’s only six issues. But as far as monthlies go, yes, I’m writing five which is kind of a bad idea. I didn’t want to turn Star Wars down even though, purely based on schedule, I should have. But I’m never going to get this Star Wars job offer again. If I’m ever going to write any Star Wars book, this is the one I should write, so I felt compelled to take it.
But every time I start a new arc on a book like Conan or The Massive, I have to outline it and send that in. That’s all writing that nobody ever sees. I also write these documents for new artists coming in, like every time there’s a new artist on Conan. I have this document that has links to all the references and things artists have to know about the character and what to maintain. There’s always writing like that. That’s always the first page that starts a new arc or a new artist. And I keep pitch documents on my desktop. At least once a week, I’m writing these pitches that I’ll eventually get to one day.
Paste: You spent an entire year researching vikings and history for Northlanders. Was any of that work repurposed for your run on Conan?
Wood: I’m keeping it out of Conan, just because I’m keeping it for myself. But I had written up this TV show treatment for a viking show that wasn’t Northlanders, but it was close. I was approached by producers who wanted Nortlanders, but couldn’t get the rights out of DC. So I’m like, ‘fuck that, I’ll just write you a new one.’ Northlanders is a series of separate stories. The only unifying thing is the title. I’ll just write another Northlanders and we’ll call it something else. So I did. I wrote this multi-page world-building Bible, and it never went anywhere in the TV world. But I could launch a new monthly comic out of it immediately. So I’m holding that in reserve; that’s where all my Northlanders stuff went.
Paste: That makes sense. It doesn’t seem like you were done at all when Northlanders wrapped.
Wood: No, I definitely wasn’t. I have a lot of notes and basic ideas, but I actually had three fully-outlined stories that would have been subsequent Northlanders arcs. So there will definitely be another viking book hopefully after Conan wraps up, and I’m writing issue seventeen right now and I have to go to issue twenty-five. I’m not intending to do anymore Conan after that, so I’m going to try to get this viking thing going after I finish writing it.
Paste: Have you spoken with any publishers about it yet?
Wood: No, I haven’t. Nobody’s going to listen me at Dark Horse because I’m so booked up, but I feel like I have a couple of options. I think I’ll probably offer it to Dark Horse first and see what they think. But it’s really ready to go. I could sit down after this phone call and start, based on all the outlining done. I’m going to try to do it soon, because like you said, I was not done when Northlanders ended. Luckily my enthusiasm level is still up.
Paste: On the topic of where to take creator-owned ideas, your work for Vertigo was definitely a huge part of the label’s identity in the past ten years. It seems like most of the horror and independent ground that imprint established has been passed on to creator-owned venues like Image. I think it speaks to the long-term success and influence of Vertigo, if possibly at its own expense. Is there anything that you can’t do right now that you could’ve done six years ago at Vertigo? Is there a benefit to developing creator-owned ideas for a big publisher?
Wood: The business models at Vertigo and Image are so radically different. They’re so hard to compare. Image has been the same since I first did Channel Zero. Their model is the same, all the stars are just aligning for them in terms of creators who are willing to invest themselves into creator-owned books, and Image’s ability to get retailers to order the books. Interest is high and everything is working out great. Vertigo’s changed radically over that same period of time to have a worse deal (for creators). I know that’s a subjective term, because it’s still not a bad deal and it might be a good deal for someone at the time. It definitely was for me for a lot of years, but I feel like I’ve moved past it, which is why I don’t think I would do any more Vertigo work. For myself, I feel that I was the last writer who was able to have a career doing only creator work at Vertigo. I was doing two monthlies, living off that, and providing for my family. The reason why Northlanders was cancelled was because monthly sales were dropping and trade sales were dropping. Whatever Vertigo was doing so great for so long was no longer a viable thing, and its hard to say what the reason is, if it’s an internal or external thing. They cut the imprint down, they started going with these safe bets, like more Scott Snyder books, licensed books. Those anthologies that they’ve been doing? Those are company owned. Those are not creator owned, which is something that I don’t think a lot of people know. But that’s a significant shift. They’re getting original material out of us writers — I did one, in all honesty — but they’re owning it outright.
I can speculate for hours about what I think is happening at Vertigo, but it’s hard to arrive at a solid conclusion. I think what is happening in the industry as a whole is that the ability to do these big, monthly books for a big publisher, creator-owned there isn’t space for it anymore. Wildstorm closed. They used to do it and they’re gone. Vertigo, I feel, is basically gone as far as that goes. And there’s Dark Horse. They’ll still pay you a page rate in the traditional sense. They’re a small company; they’re great, but there’s only so much they can do. All of these people are having to take these leaps of faith at Image, where there’s no guarantee of money. Most of their books aren’t Chew or The Walking Dead. Most of those don’t make money. I don’t see anything new rising up that’s going to be a creator-owned safe spot, like the way Vertigo was, which is kind of a depressing thing and I don’t actually know what that means. I don’t know what it’ll be five years from now. But I’ve seen all of this stuff get worse for creator-owned writers, most of us anyway, without any way out. We’re in the valley and we have to come up again. I don’t really know what that coming out is going to look like. I went from having an entirely creator-owned career to having a mostly work-for-hire career. And that’s been out of necessity.
Paste: Do you have a preference between your creator-owned and licensed books right now?
Wood: At the end of the day, it’s always best to create your own stuff for a lot of reasons. That said, that’s all I’d done for like 15 years, so there’s a real novelty now for me, working on X-Men and Star Wars. I’m definitely having fun. I don’t regret taking these jobs. I don’t see it being a thing to do for a lot of years. I’d like to shift that balance back, more in favor of creator-owned stuff. I cash a check for writing X-Men and that’s it. That’s all the money I’ll ever see off of that book. Whereas a creator-owned book has the ability to put the kids through college. That’s income that always happens on a regular basis. That’s the sort of thing that can make my career and support me for all of my life.