Page One, Panel One features in-depth discussions between Van Jensen (The Flash, Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer) and other writers diving into the creative process behind comic books. This week’s conversation features Jeff Parker, who first broke into the industry in the 1990s as an artist before becoming known for his writing on such series as Agents of Atlas, Thunderbolts and Underground. He balances creator-owned titles with big-two superhero fare, and currently writes Justice League United and Batman ’66.
Parker is a master of crafting individual issues and overcoming all the challenges inherent: balancing action and character development, structuring fight sequences and leaving with memorable endings. So we picked his brain about his approach to structuring comics, his use of templates and what to do when something just isn’t working.
Van Jensen: To start, what’s your comics-reading background? When did you start reading? Where did you pick up comics?
Jeff Parker: My dad ran a grocery store when I was a kid, and there was a “Hey Kids! Comics!” spinner rack there. I read everything on it, from Harveys to Archies to DC and Marvel. But whatever distributer he used didn’t carry a lot of Marvel—I had to get those at 7-11. I also read the Warren magazines, which had stuff like The Spirit.
Jensen: I’m so jealous of that. Dang. Where did you grow up? I feel like I should know that.
Parker: I was in Burlington, N.C., a textile-producing town. It would have been fairly hard for me to find many comics had I not been right on top of them that way!
Jensen: And then, what was the first issue or series that you remember reading that you actively thought about the way it was put together as a story? Something that you didn’t just read to enjoy, but that you considered how it was formed?
Parker: I don’t think that hit me until very late, in high school. It was “The “Anatomy Lesson” issue of The Saga of The Swamp Thing, Alan Moore’s second one for them. Having that big reveal about what Swamp Thing was felt like someone throwing a big lever switch in my head. I hadn’t even considered who wrote it and went back to the front and looked for his name and then read it again.
Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 Cover Art by Tom Yeates
Jensen: That’s such a heavy issue. I read it for the first time in college and it still hit me hard. Had you given any thought to creating comics at that point? Or did that push you at all in that direction?
Parker: I had, and I think I assumed that because it was something I wanted to do when I was around 13 that it was some kid notion and wasn’t pursuing it any more. I probably wasn’t thinking seriously about my future at the time anyway. When I got to college I started doing comics for the school paper and that kept me on the path. I think I still assumed comics work was only a possibility most of the time until I met Al Williamson at a show as an undergrad. He liked the pages I’d drawn, or at least liked that I was not drawing superheroes probably, and let me come sit behind the table with him to hang out and talk. That was when things crystallized for me, I got much more serious about making comics. A living comics legend had treated me like someone who might figure in!
Jensen: Holy smokes. That’s incredible. It’s such a simple thing, but I remember growing up and not realizing that it was real people who actually made these comics, that it is something you can really do with your life. Did you start out planning to both draw and write, or were you solely focused on the art side originally? Solitaire #7 was your first book, right?
Parker: I think I drew a couple of issues of Wonder Woman before that. WW was the book they tried out artists on because it sold about the same no matter who worked on it. I had assumed I would eventually write and draw my own stuff, because I loved the work of people who did that: Carl Barks, Dave Stevens, Mark Schultz and more. I really thought writing for other artists would be weird for me until Mark Paniccia at Marvel got me to start doing it with the Adventures line. I was happily surprised to find I enjoyed the process so much, even though collaborators approached the art way differently than I would have. It really broadened my sense of the different ways you could tell the same story.
Jensen: So as you transitioned from having a childhood interest to treating this as more of a professional pursuit, what were you thinking in terms of building an issue? Did you have any kind of philosophy or rubric as to what makes a good comic? Were there creators that you started to really follow and emulate and learn from?
Parker: I think I locked onto the way Walt Simonson would pace and set up a story in his Thor run. To me that’s still my ideal of action adventure comics particularly with super-folks in them. I like nice clear endings too, and that seems to be an important thing with me, figuring out a satisfying ending that rings true. A great ending can make up for all kinds of sins in the other parts. And it’s what makes it a story. Just going from one development to another isn’t a story, there needs to be a clear arc and conclusion.
Jensen: If you don’t mind, I want to dig into the nuts and bolts of this. What is it about Walt’s work that stands out, from the way he put together each issue? I always felt like there was a really nice tempo to his books, very controlled and consistent, but with these huge moments that came at just the right time.
Parker: Tempo is a good term because the structure worked like music. He might start by grabbing you with a strong hook, often a short scene with an intriguing cold open of someone running for their life that’s not going to figure in for another couple of issues, but sets the tone. And then he could build to big action followed by a quiet scene that really built mood and character. There would be so much variety, just like in life, and that shores up the fantastic elements. There was often a place for humor.
It stands out strongly when I see work that lacks variety, just hitting the same note and sticking with it for a whole issue. And in some cases every issue after that, like you have to get the same experience each time. Ugh.
Thor #340 Cover Art by Walt Simonson
Jensen: And that’s interesting about endings. Do you want each issue to have a definitive ending? Or are you more focused on the arc’s conclusion? How do you know if you have a good ending or not? Is there one you’ve worked on recently that is a good representation of that? On my end, I just watched the first season of Alias for the first time, and it really made me rethink endings. Not that that’s a perfect series, but every episode ends at the height of tension, right at the cliffhanger. Then the next episode starts with the climax. I had done that some, but never consciously. It seems so obvious in retrospect.
Parker: More the arc than the issue, surely. Though each issue should have something conclusive about it, just like each page should achieve a goal in moving the story forward. That’s what I usually suggest to writers coming from other media, where the individual page doesn’t matter like it does in comics. It’s a visual form constructed of individual pages and you have to consider that as you go.
Speaking to your point about Alias, I think it’s important for us to realize that cliffhangers aren’t always the same kind of thing, and in our case that means not always a life and death moment. They can be about a choice to make, a pleasing development that may impact another character we care about, so many things. I mainly think you should leave off on an intriguing point— readers will ignore them if it’s always a new attack that will certainly be survived.
I rarely like when a cliffhanger is simply ‘Character X Shows up!’ I don’t think someone ‘showing up’ is that sweet a move. Now I’ll probably remember a dozen times where I did it. ‘Character A turns out to be Character X and was there all along and you just told her where you hid the map’ is a better version of it, for example.
Jensen: That’s a great point. A cliffhanger doesn’t just mean imminent peril. It just means we’re at the high point of tension—and that tension can be anything. I remembering seeing your work around the time of Agents of Atlas (I even tracked down your email to tell you I loved it) and marveling at how indie it felt, even while you were doing big superhero stuff. Is that a trait that you see in yourself? To you, what is it on a structural level that separates indie and mainstream comics? Is there anything, or is it just the trappings?
Parker: The indie ideal is pretty much a story about the further adventures of Santa Anna’s leg, Van. I’m actually not kidding about that! That’s the kind of thing a reader can’t anticipate and makes every page a process of discovery, that’s the strength of good indie comics. When you don’t know what’s coming next and enjoy the ride, that’s something that should also be in superhero books. And really it should be easy to do, follow an idea that hasn’t been done to death, or subvert expectations with it in surprising ways.
Jensen: Well, thank you! I certainly wasn’t trying to do anything other than follow that journey wherever it led me.
Parker: Though I do think it’s also worth doing a classic type story in a modern approach and doing it as well as you can. You don’t have to reinvent comics with every job, simply trying to get the full potential out of a directly-told story has power too.
The Leg Cover Art by Jose Pimienta
Jensen: When you sit down to plot out an issue, what’s your approach? Do you have a set process? How much outlining do you do on the front end?
Parker: I think early on you should outline, and after you’ve written a lot of stories that succeed, you can trust yourself more to wing it a bit. But a lot of times I will write a bulletpoint list of what the main thing is that happens on each page, often saying “on pages 12-15, this happens.”
Whatever’s coming to me first is what I start scripting, and it’s often the second scene of the book for whatever reason. I might guess at what page it would fall on, and then change that as it comes together. That rough outline or list gives you a general roadmap that you can then veer from once you start fleshing out the scenes. And what you hope for is that the characters surprise you and start doing unexpected things- the thrill of that for you will translate to the reader.
Jensen: And as you work on building out the issue, do you think visually or thumbnail?
Parker: I always think visually. Even if what’s coming to me is pure dialogue, I try to think of a setting where what’s said will maybe have a nice contrast and definitely be interesting for the artist to draw. They do not want to draw people sitting at a meeting table talking, artists want the discussion to happen while exploring a cave or walking through a river. Then the characters are more than bubbleheads that anchor word balloons, they’re beings that can move and react according to what their personality is. Someone skipping along gracefully or nervously avoiding cracks in the ground gives you insight you don’t get from them sitting at a table.
I tend to thumbnail more if it’s an action-heavy issue and I want to make sure it will all fit well. There may be readers here who don’t know the term if you want to explain it for them.
Jensen: Good point. Thumbnails are the pages of the issue rendered roughly in tiny format, to give the creators an early sense of the flow of the story. They can be done with stick figures, even. Just something that shows what the panel breakdown and flow of action is going to look like.
Speaking of action, do you have a particular mindset to crafting action sequences? How do you think about them in terms of where the action fits within the larger script? And how much do you choreograph things for the artist? I’ve seen some writers be super detailed, whereas other will just write something like: “Space Cabby totally beats the crap out of some gross alien dudes.”
Parker: Sometimes there’s a fight just for the sake of ‘we’ve got some bruisers here and everyone wants to see them fight,’ and that’s often a good place to step back and make sure you’re not getting in the artist’s way. In that case I would describe briefly how it should go down on the three or four pages or whatever in terms of—“Chad Chutney starts strong, kicking Slam Jensen in the face, but then Slam breaks out dirty tricks, maybe busts plaster wall to blind Chad for a second, then pushes him out a window. You can do whatever as long as Chad ends up with a broken arm at the end of the scene. I don’t imagine them saying much during the fight, but have some mouths open, teeth gritted often in case we need to stick some minimal dialogue in there.”
Something like that, where I stress that Slam Jensen has a dirty fighting style to reveal something about his character. If there’s some particular development we need in such a scene I’ll break it down panel by panel, but this way often gives an artist freedom to do something cooler than I would. And you have to go by each artist, some like this rough quick description, some prefer it be done like every other scene in the book. I probably wouldn’t give just the description of Space Cabbie beats dudes because I want to say something about whether this is an easy fight for him, a skin of the teeth victory he eked out, did he learn something new about these weird aliens during it, etc.
Jensen: In a broader sense, what’s your philosophy with panel count? Do you tend to work in a specific comfort range? How do you use that aspect to heighten storytelling?
Parker: I always think in terms of a five-panel average, because years ago it struck me that some of the most pleasing pages, and at the moment I’m thinking of Mark Schultz’ Xenozoic Tales, hung around that number. There’s room for a bigger establishing shot, some close ups of characters, a lot of what you typically need. But I do mean that as an average, like sometimes there will be a page with just two big panels. If I do one with something like a nine panel grid, it’s usually light on dialogue and the small panels are full of close ups of key tight shots—a hand reaching for a knife, a face peeking through a window, that sort of thing.
I made myself a template in Word and it has five panels on every page, and I add or subtract to it as I need. Do you use a template?
Jensen: I have one for scripting, but it doesn’t have panel counts. I never considered that, but it’s a great idea. I have another template/worksheet for building out a story, and others for pitches and outlines. So…I like templates.
So, I started at DC shortly after the switch to 20-page issues, down from 22. And I remember thinking that the biggest adjustment was fitting enough story into 20 pages. I’ve gotten a feel for it, but I came from the world of graphic novels, where there was no constraint. Has it made the job harder for you, over the years, with issues downsizing? Have you developed any tricks to help tell a story more efficiently?
Parker: It definitely threw me at first, and what it impacted most was how I would use splash pages. I was more generous with them before! And then I finally got used to thinking in terms of 20, and now I’m working on Justice League United which is a 22-pager, so I end up with more room than planned. Rather than try to cram in another scene, I use it to give the artist more room. I tend to do quick cuts and very compressed storytelling, but it lets me unravel one scene out a bit more usually.
Batman ‘66 Vol. 2 Cover Art by Mike Allred
Jensen: I was also just reading the second trade of Batman ‘ 66, which is so damn fun. But I was also really admiring the way it’s put together, the way that you took the elements of the TV series and built them into a structure in the comic. Do you enjoy that kind of work, taking a bunch of constraints and figuring out how to build around it? Or do you prefer gigs with more of a blank slate?
Parker: I think any job you take on you shape with parameters. Once you know what those are, you can start throwing out things that aren’t part of the assignment, and that helps you start to build structure. I certainly like blank slates, but something like ’66 is clearly a job where you’re trying to connect to a beloved creation, and there are expectations of what makes that thing what it is. But with that I immediately realized replicating the formula for how they set up an episode was way less important than how the characters behaved. Formula is tedious, but dropping familiar personalities into new situations is interesting.
Jensen: And one thing I’m always curious about is what writers do when they’re struggling on something. Can you think of any issue recently that you had a tough time cracking? If so, what was the issue, and how did you work through it?
Parker: JLU #16 was a lot tougher than any of the previous issues and anything else I’ve written for a while. I wrote multiple scenes and then took them out because they weren’t advancing the story enough, and I needed a lot to happen beginning to end in just one issue. Most of the time I can anticipate that in my head and edit before I even write, but this time I had to go through the process of writing scenes and then tossing them. Ultimately no one will be able to tell that though, and it came out great. You don’t appreciate the easier ones if you don’t go through the ringer every now and then.