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A.V Club Interviewed Scott Snyder talking about his many ways to write comic books, We're going to see very much talking about...
1. American Vampire
3. Swamp Thing
In just a few short years, Scott Snyder has established himself as one of the top writers in superhero and horror comics: His impressive 2006 short-story collection Voodoo Heart garnered the attention ofStephen King, who penned an original story for the first five issues of Snyder’s Eisner Award-winning Vertigo series American Vampire, and the success of Vampire led to an acclaimed run on Detective Comics focusing on Dick Grayson as Batman. Headlining two major releases in DC’s massive line-wide relaunch, Batman and SwampThing, while continuing American Vampire and co-writing Severedfor Image Comics with Scott Tuft, Snyder is quickly becoming one of the busiest writers in comics. The A.V. Club spoke with him about his writing process, the relationship between superheroes and horror, and his future plans for some of DC’s most beloved characters.
The A.V. Club: You seem to put a lot of effort into authentically portraying the different time periods inAmerican Vampire and incorporating facts into your stories. How much of your writing process is research, and how much do you know beforehand?
Scott Snyder: I’ve always been a relatively big history buff. In college I took a lot of history courses and when I was in grad school I liked to audit them. I don’t really dictate where we go with American Vampire. I try to figure out where the characters are emotionally decade to decade and then try to figure out a good context to have that play off. In the ’40s cycle that we just finished in American Vampire, I knew that Henry was going to feel his own mortality because Pearl isn’t getting older, but he is. There’s this huge, epic war going on around the world and he isn’t a part of it. So my feeling was, where can we put him? What context can we put him in that’s going to really challenge or reflect his psychology at that moment? So, you realize the Pacific. He’s isolated; he can be all by himself out there in this small platoon. So it comes out that way. Then the research becomes very specific to that area, because both [co-creator and original artist] Rafael [Albuquerque] and I like doing the research, and I feel like there’s always the threat of having it become procrastination. In my regular prose fiction as well, that was always a danger. You start researching things for authenticity and then it becomes an easy way to get out of writing it. I remember when I was in school I had this teacher give me this E.L. Doctorow quote: They asked him how much historical research he does for his books and he said, “As little as possible.” So I try and adhere to that.
AVC: How do you think your prose writing has informed your comic book writing?
SS: I hope it has in a good way, only in that I feel like my time in prose, both in school and then actually writing professionally and teaching, gave me a strong sense of the things I like to write about. And those things change over time, I’m sure. But at least for the moment I feel like I have a relatively solid sense of the things that interest me as a writer: characters facing their greatest fears about themselves and their own flaws, and things that are made clear to them through revelations that have to do with history and genealogy and that sort of stuff. I try to bring those things to any character I’m on. I feel that if a character interests me, it’s usually because I can get to that material through them.
I think in that way, and I was talking to Jeff Lemire a lot about it too, because he had a long time in indie comics before doing superheroes. I think it really helps, just because you have a chance to not have the spotlight on you so much and you can figure out the things that really fascinate you as a writer. Also, it definitely made me much more appreciative of the collaborative aspect of comics. When I first started writing comics, it was immediately one of the things that made me realize this might be something I enjoy more than fiction writing, getting to talk to your artist and your editor and your colorist and your inker, and really coming up with something as a team as opposed to writing entirely in a vacuum. The idea of coming up with something together as a team and how exciting that can be, having people to bounce ideas off of that aren’t just doing what you say as a writer but collaborating with you on every level. It’s definitely one of the greatest aspects of comic-book writing.
AVC: Jordi Bernet just did the most recent issue. Do you have any input on artist choice now that American Vampire is picking up steam?
SS: Yeah, absolutely. Rafael and I decide all those things, with Mark [Doyle] the editor.
AVC: Rafael too?
SS: Yeah. Rafael, we made him co-creator by issue 13 because he gives so much to the series and nobody deserves it more than him. We talk about that stuff all the time. And Jordi is one of the people he really idolizes, so we thought it’d be great if we could bring him in to do an arc. Especially right now, when the story fits his style so well. And Sean Murphy too, on [American Vampire: Survival Of The Fittest], was someone that Rafael really liked and luckily I was friends with as well. It really is our series, me and Mark and Rafael and Dave McCaig, the colorist. We try and do all those decisions together.
AVC: How have you gone about creating the history and genealogy of the different types of vampire? At this point in the story, there are different species all around the world. Do you tend to look into a specific culture and then reflect it in the vampire?
SS: It’s kind of a fun hook, saying “American vampire” and having Skinner, who’s this iconic outlaw, have almost this desert-like vampiric quality, because it does speak to the themes you associate with the American West. But I feel like it becomes dangerous once you start to think the vampires themselves, in terms of the characteristics of a species, are somehow going to be reflective of an entire culture that isn’t your own. So our idea was always to have it be a random mutation that creates vampires based on that person’s characteristics and that person’s bloodline, and that initial or prime vampire carries through. So Skinner’s characteristics dictated what kind of vampire he is genetically, and then his bloodline carries one way.
In this current cycle of American Vampire, the Jordi Bernet one, we’re learning about Skinner’s secret history with the man who brought him down, Jim Book. You get to learn a lot about who Skinner was before he was a vampire, and on top of that we’re introducing a new species of American vampire that was a bloodline that’s older and different than Skinner’s and is indigenous to North America. In a way, it’s not that he’s the American vampire and every vampire in America would have those qualities because they were the first of a species; it’s that this is a bloodline that began with a mutation that starts with Skinner’s body and from there forward they all have his characteristics until it mutates again.
AVC: The American vampire is vulnerable to gold. Is that random, or is there symbolism there?
SS: It’s a little of both. We wanted it to be fun, but we wanted it also to be rare so it would be something you couldn’t just—when you think about it, the Carpathian or European vampire is vulnerable to wood. You can pick up a stick anywhere and attack one of them. We wanted him to be vulnerable to something that is harder to get your hands on. There’s only one of him, and with Pearl there’s two of his kind. There’s hundreds of the other kinds. We wanted the things that would kill him to be harder to get your hands on.
AVC: Any plans to continue doing side miniseries like Survival Of The Fittest?
SS: I’m really proud of that whole series, and of Sean and Dave Stewart, and I can’t wait to do another one of those. We’re going to try to do one of those next summer.
AVC: With the same team?
SS: I have secret plans to do something with Sean in the future that I’m very excited about, but can’t talk about yet. We’re going to try and use different up-and-coming artists on those miniseries that we’ll do over the summer. Those miniseries really are meant to give the Vassals, the organization that hunts vampires in our mythology, the chance to shine and tell the story from that perspective of humans who hate vampires, and also the perspective of a group that has more information on vampires and vampire history and evolution than anyone else. When you read those miniseries, that’s where you’ll learn the most about vampire history, evolution, and genealogy. The biggest revelations in that department will happen in those series, and they will take place outside the U.S., as well.
AVC: Do you adjust your script at all for different artists? I’m thinking primarily during Detective, when you’d have Jock and Francesco Francavilla split issues.
SS: I don’t change the story at all, per se. I do change the emphasis page-to-page. Part of it is trying to figure out the best way to get the story out there and expressed by the artist you’re working with. The thing is, when any run begins, for me, the reason that we’re working with any artist is because they fit the story material hands-down. So Francesco I thought would fit the James Jr. story really well because there’s such an interesting suspense and tension in everything he does. Whereas Jock I thought would be great at making Gotham look unsettling, but also be good for the more kinetic, heroic action sequences. You try and get people you think are going to drive on the street to begin with. I do change the style a little bit, page-to-page, given what I think the artist can bring most to the table, story-wise.
Something like Greg Capullo on Batman right now, he’s just a master of expression. He’s really, really good at characters telling the story with their facial expressions and their gestures, and he’s also really, really, good at giant action and portrait scenes. Instead of having a conversation where the characters are at a distance from us—you’re looking at the scenery and the scenery is telling a lot of the story, which is something I loved doing with Sean, because he’s a world-builder—with Greg, I try and keep it close on the characters, because I know that he can add some subtleties to their expressions really, really well. So it’s kind of like that, where nothing changes in the story itself, in terms of narrative or content. But the way that it’s expressed or the style of each page or the structure of each page, I try and give the artist room to flex his muscles, because you want him to shine on the book, too.
AVC: Do you have any plans to incorporate Batgirl and Catwoman into the Batmanbook?
SS: Yeah. We’re going to see Barbara pretty soon in Batman, and I think you might see Selina pretty soon. We’re really interested in bringing in some strong female characters. Actually, in #7 you’re going to see somebody who I’m excited about as well. You’ll see a lot of the Bat-family in general, and those characters specifically. We wanted a story that is very deeply about Bruce and Gotham. The story, for me, is built around this notion that, the way Gotham challenged Dick Grayson in Detective, in terms of changing itself to fit his weaknesses and try and challenge him in the most vicious way it could, we want Gotham here to be a challenge to Bruce in the same deep and probing way.
The same way Dick’s greatest strength was his empathy and compassion and Gotham went after that by giving him a villain that had none of those things, one of Bruce’s greatest strengths is his confidence and his familiarity with Gotham. He knows he is its hero and its protector and he feels very much at home, and he’s coming off the events of that and feeling very confident. What we wanted to do was construct a story where Bruce, little by little, begins to feel that there is some enemy in Gotham that has maybe been there since colonial times that he has never believed in but he has heard about. And if it’s been there, it’s built into the architecture, and this organization has deep pockets and has manipulated things over the years in ways that Bruce can’t even imagine, and plays a part in the fate of both his family and the families of his allies, like Grayson.
And in that way I think it undermines his confidence and is more backbreaking in a more figurative way, where he feels like, how could something so big and dark be happening in his city and he didn’t see it? That’s pretty disturbing to him, and in that way we want it to be a story that really does bring in the rest of the Bat-family and the other characters, because even though it’s a Bruce alone story, it’s also a story about him needing other people. You’ll see a lot of Bat-family people. Nightwing plays a big part.
AVC: How closely coordinated are the Batman andNightwing books?
SS: They’re closely coordinated. We really wanted them to be things that you could read independently and don’t really lean on each other at all. I don’t want people to get the idea that the story playing out inNightwing is somehow answered in Batman, or visa versa. That’s not the way it is at all. But they’re characters that have a deep and interesting relationship. I think both of them need each other and depend on each other for things that are essential to who they are as characters, so we wanted the stories to cross at a certain point and impact each other. Around issue seven you will see the story ofBatman resonate through Nightwing, and the story of Nightwing will resonate through Batman around then, too, a certain revelation. We’re excited to play in the same sandbox; I love Kyle [Higgens] and his work. That was a huge pleasure, writing Gates Of Gotham with him, too. I’m excited to share a little Gotham with him.
AVC: On that note, how have you adjusted to a co-writer process? How do you find the balance?
SS: Severed is the only thing I’ve actually co-written. The other ones I was involved in the story. That means Kyle scripted Gates even though we spoke about it extensively, page to page, issue to issue. So in terms of Severed, that’s a book where it really stems from an interest my friend Scott Tuft and I have in this particular period of American history where things were very shiny and new, a lot of new inventions like cars, the electric lightbulb, phonographs, all these things were becoming popular, and then there was this sense of dread about the same things and about the war overseas. So we wanted to tell a story that featured a really frightening villain that represented all those fears: a guy with super-sharp teeth who travelled the roads and rails and gobbled up kids. And then have a hero that represents the optimism and excitement of that time, which was this boy, Jack Garron, looking for his father on the road, the rails. His father is a traveling minstrel, a blackface performer. Co-writing that has been a real pleasure because the guy writing it with me is someone I really respect as a writer, who is a filmmaker, and also happens to be one of my oldest friends in the world since I was 13 years old. He’s my best friend. So it’s great to get to work with him, and I think the story is a lot better for the things that he brought to it that I wouldn’t have put in, like the quieter moments and the more building psychological horror, where I might have gone for the throat a little more quickly.
AVC: Your characters all seem to be metaphors for something, for bigger ideas, like with the “Gotham is…” narration for Batman. Do you explore the core concepts of these characters and build off of that?
SS: Yeah, I do. When I get the possibility of using a character like Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson, I try and think about what’s most exciting or interesting about them as a person, so I try and think what they are at their core, or what piece of their psychology do I gravitate toward that I respect and I’m excited by it when I read books about them. Then what I try and do is figure out a story that really challenges their personality and their psychology and really goes for the throat.
AVC: Then you have a character like Alec Holland, who doesn’t really have a history—you have the idea of the Swamp Thing, but his character never got fully developed. How do you build on that?
SS: My favorite Swamp Thing stories have always been about a man wrestling with monsters both internal and external. Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s stuff was about a man who thought he was a man beneath all this muck and wanted to get back to it, but couldn’t let go of it. Then in the Alan Moore material, where he learned that he had never been Alec Holland, he still couldn’t let go of Alec Holland, and that’s what gave him this humanity and made him such a rich character. Even though he was supposed to let it go and become this god of nature, he was always with Abby and couldn’t let go of that consciousness. So, Alec Holland as a character has always been fascinating to me, and I thought since he’d only been on 15 pages or 10 pages of comics ever—I mean, there’s nothing about his history, nothing about who he was before he was Swamp Thing beyond just the immediate event—it became really interesting to me to get the chance to explore that whole dynamic of both his character and the mythology of Swamp Thing.
I began to think, what if there’s a reason that he was chosen? What if there’s something in his past? What if he’s always known that Swamp Thing was waiting for him and waiting to claim him? What if he wasn’t just meant to be Swamp Thing, but the accident that supposedly turned him into Swamp Thing actually prevented him from becoming the Swamp Thing he was supposed to be, because you’re supposed to bond to the Green in your life, and the accident killed him? And this idea that he’s not just supposed to be Swamp Thing, but he’s supposed to be the greatest Swap Thing ever. We’ve never seen that creature that he could be, hypothetically. Once I had that I knew that was it. I was like, “This is my story.” It’s everything I love to write about and I’ve been a fan of the character forever.
It was one of the characters I started talking to Karen Berger about the moment I started working at Vertigo. Not because I ever thought I’d get a chance to write it, but because I’ve read everything Swamp Thing and I love the whole mythology. The other exciting thing is, everybody that’s gotten their hands on the character has done something that’s been extremely purposeful and different than the person before, so the book demands that. It’s really intimidating in some ways, because of the great names and the great stories that have been told with the character. But at the same time there’s something exciting and challenging about that, because everyone makes it their own. So the goal is to take Swamp Thing and make it your own, but build on everything that came before.
AVC: Now that we’ve seen Abby show up at the end of the second issue, is she going to be a regular character?
AVC: What does that mean for Alec?
SS: Well, that’s the question. He has these memories of her and he doesn’t know what to do with them. He’s kind of haunted by her. But by #3 you’re going to see that she has something similar going on where she has a history, through the Arcane family, with the opposing element to the Green and the Red, the same way Alec has a history with the Green. One of the things we’re really excited about is actually revealing the reason they’re both drawn to each other and afraid of each other. We want the whole epic thing to be a love story in some ways, but also be a horror story, where the person you are drawn to might also be your worst enemy. She’s a major part of the story; she’s going to be in every issue. She was a character I was dying to get back on the page. Our version of her is going to be different than the version you’ve seen before, but she is the same character. Everything that’s happened to her before has happened, but she’s been through a lot since the last time we saw her. Who she is now on the page is maybe a more formidable, tougher version of herself that you saw last time around.
AVC: Is Swamp Thing and Abby’s daughter Tefé still around? Are you allowed to talk about that?
SS: I thought about Tefé. She’s someone we’re thinking about for far down the line. I love that character, too. I love what Andy Diggle did with her. She’s a really interesting character to me. We didn’t want to bring everyone back at once, just because we want to make sure that we were telling a story where it can really stand on Alec’s shoulders and Abby’s shoulders, and then bring back the supporting cast if we have ways of doing it that we thought were compelling and interesting. And we do have stories for those characters planned, we just didn’t want to have the whole cast come back very quickly.
AVC: In regards to the connection to Animal Man, we see that the Green needs there to be Red underneath for the Swamp Thing. Is there going to be a connection with the core of the Red being a giant tree? Was that something you and Animal Manwriter Jeff Lemire talked about?
SS: Maybe not as literally as that, but there is going to be a big connection that we’ll be exploring separately in our stories, because the Red and the Green are the forces of life and growth and this other element is kind of at war with them here. It is the rot, this decay. And in that way, these three elements, these two on one side and one on the other, are at war all the time and are extremely volatile. That’s one thing we wanted to make sure, that the Green wasn’t something that was all bland and happy and peaceful. It’s a force of nature the same way the Red is. Sometimes the Red is dominant, like it is right now, and people are trashing the environment, and sometimes the Green is dominant, and other times the rot is dominant in ice ages and other times of barrenness. We want these three things to be at odds with each other, at war, violent and frightening. They’re very much connected in terms of the elements they represent: Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and the villains in the books. But they’re separate right now, while they will eventually intertwine after our first arc. They will a little bit in the first arc, but they’ll really come together in our second arc.
AVC: In Swamp Thing you’re creating this mythology out of the past Swamp Things that we’ve never seen before. Are you going to be expanding on that??
SS: Yeah, definitely. You’ll be seeing a lot more of that in Swamp Thing. I want the weight of the history of Swamp Thing to bear down on Alex. It’s important to understand, for him, how many there have been, how far back this goes, who’s been Swamp Thing, the sacrifices they’ve made, what it means to be that, the enemies you face. All that stuff is something that Alec knows in a small way, because he gets the memories of the creature he was cloned from, but he doesn’t really know, because even that Swamp Thing didn’t face Swamp Thing’s real enemy in our mythology the way we’re building it here. The avatar of death on the other side is the thing that Swamp Thing was designed to battle. Alec doesn’t really know what he’s up against, either.
AVC: How have you negotiated writing horror versus superhero?
SS: I guess the way I think about it is that I kind of write everything like a horror story. The thing that really interests me is characters facing challenges that are emblematic of the things they are most frightened of about themselves. In a lot of ways, that becomes a horror story, even though there aren’t monsters in it. The things I’m interested in writing are the things that take a hero and go for his jugular psychologically and emotionally, and I usually get scares and darkness. I feel like no matter what I’m on, whether it’s Tiny Titans or Swamp Thing or American Vampire there will be an element of horror in it. Which would be fun for Tiny Titans.
AVC: Do you have any desire to branch out to other genres?
SS: I don’t know. I’m kind of happy where I am on the darker side of the street right now. It’s not so much that I think of them as horror stories as I do stories that are psychologically challenging, hopefully, so that the character is facing things that really affect him, and that way, the story really matters. Like Bruce confronting something that might be a failing in his personality in a way that really shakes him to the core, and the same thing in American Vampire cycle-to-cycle, and Swamp Thing has this too. I like stories where people have to face some big demons internally. It always seems to be an element of horror, because it’s pretty scary to have to face yourself and the things you’re most worried about: your own abilities and your own capabilities and your own level of competence in being a hero.
AVC: Are there any big DC characters that you’re interested in writing after Batman? You’ve mentioned that you wanted to go at least a year on Batman.
SS: I love everybody in Gotham. Gotham suits me really well. I’ll write anything from Nightwing toBatgirl and any of the villains. I wanted to do Wonder Woman before I saw Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s take on her, because I love what they’re doing so much. I saw it a year ago when they were first starting it I knew it was something. Now I’m too scared to go near that character. She’s somebody I really wanted to use. There’s a lot. But for now I’m really happy in Gotham when it comes to DCU, and in the swamps of Louisiana.
AVC: A month after the fact, how do you feel the DC relaunch has succeeded? Where do you think there could still be work?
SS: It’s been a success on a level that’s unnamable to all of us. It’s startling to all of us as creators. It definitely took me off guard how many people are reading Batman and how many people readSwamp Thing. The numbers were sort of staggering for me. It was definitely immediate and intimidating, seeing there were all these people reading it and this is working. Then it became really exciting to see DC bringing a lot of people to comics that haven’t been reading them for a while or are new to them entirely. I guess the challenge becomes finding the line between—I’m trying really hard in Batman and Swamp Thing in particular to tell stories that appeal to the character’s long-time fans who know everything in an encyclopedic way about these characters, and at the same time, making the stories acceptable for people who are picking up their very first comic book. That to me is the thing that all of us are getting our sea legs with: There are huge populations of new readers coming to the books. I think maybe some of us hoped that would be the case, but didn’t believe that there’d be as many as there are. But I get questions all the time like, “Why does Batman has a live dinosaur in his Batcave?” or, “Doesn’t Swamp Thing come out of the swamp when they hit a remote button and then fight other monsters like Godzilla in the cartoon?” And that’s wonderful to get those questions, because that means someone who’s never seen the character is seeing them for the first time in your book. So being aware of those fans and not alienating fans who have been there a long time is something I think is exciting and that we should all be conscious of.