Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fireside Chat with Mark Andrew Smith

Today we are chatting with one of the best new titles to come out of Image this year (which is saying something considering there have been some phenomenal titles emerge from that publisher in the last few months). Mark Andrew Smith is the scribe of Gladstone’s School For World Conquerors (and Matt reviewed the first two issues yesterday). We have a nice long chat today and cover topics such as character creation, how to write to an artist, how intensive a writer’s job really is, and why Image are such sports to let the book have one of the strongest opening sequences of the year. Hit the jump to see it all go down.

Mark Andrew Smith is a young writer, only 31, who has continually made a name for himself in the business by producing such titles as The Amazing Joy Buzzards, Aqua Leung, The New Brighton Archaeological Society, and the new Gladstone’s School For World Conquerors. He’s definitely a new independent name to watch.

Ryan K Lindsay: Mark, thanks for joining us. My first question has to be, what exactly are you doing right now?

Mark Andrew Smith: I just got issue 2 mailed to me in Taiwan, and gave it a read. I just woke up and wrapped the lettering script to the next issue of Gladstone's.

RKL: That sounds like a pretty good morning. Now, speaking about Gladstone's, it's a book about a school that trains the next generation of supervillain, where did you come up with this idea?

MAS: I've always been a fan of badguys, in films and comics, and wondered what Doctor Doom or Magneto did in their free time. I think part of it was an extension of that and then making a larger story about how a universe of villains interact. In real life, they'd all know each other and probably work together. The book started with the name Gladstone's School for World Conquerors and then I began to flesh it out with the title in mind.

RKL: The title came first, that's interesting. What made you see this as a kid's book, which it kind of is and kind of isn't?

MAS: I see Gladstone's as Young Adult book. It's safe for all ages, but more for teens and adults. There are many different levels of humor for both adults and the younger set, and a whole lot of action, and very engaging characters. There's a universal quality to Gladstone's, where it can be enjoyed by every age group.

RKL: I see Gladstone's as being a book that every child should love primarily because it isn't aimed directly at them. It has this great Roald Dahl quality of subverting the tropes and standards we know to produce something unique and perverted that feels a little more adult than any kid should be reading. What other fiction inspired or guided you in your creation of this world? I'm sure many will point to this simply being a villain version of Sky High, or Zoom: Academy, or even Xavier's School For Gifted Students, would any of those assumptions be correct?

MAS: I like that comparison, to where it is a little subversive, and feels more fun for those reasons. I think mostly, it's just that the contrast initially between the cute, and the deadly mindset of a young world conqueror was what was so appealing about the book. I'm influenced by Saturday morning cartoons, and of course comic books, and wrestling.

I'd say the book is closest to Harry Potter than anything else and I like the tagline "Hogwarts for Villains" that's come up a few times. Maybe Harry Potter in sort of a sci-fi universe setting. By habit, people like to explain new things by comparison to other things. By the third issue, and especially by the fifth and sixth issues, Gladstone's will break away from all comparisons once the story takes off and be far different from anything to date.

RKL: To me it feels like the sort of pop Saturday morning cartoon that just isn't made anymore. It revels in being drawn with such a simple, and yet expressive, style and all the kid characters are the sort most kids could identify with and still think are completely awesome. I get a real Hanna-Barbera vibe from Bizarro World - the villains are the focus but the fun is still the same. It's like Roald Dahl just joined the Man of Action crew.

To look at the characters for a moment, how did you come about creating your leads?

MAS: Kid Nefarious is kind of the classic villain, with legacy parents. His parents have done it all, and he has a high bar to reach. The thing is that his parents have had their entire lives to reach what he wants to do next week. So he's kind of laughable in that way. He's definitely high strung and easily irritable. For him, I gave Armand simple instructions, like a living Tom Baker Doctor Who scarf and a lone ranger villain style mask of old. Armand did one drawing but it was kind of too serious looking. The next one he did was perfect and Kid Nefarious was born.

With Martian Jones, he's a classic Martian and a science nerd. He has some telepathic ability and telekinesis. But his inventive nature and his gadgets are his real strengths.

For Mummy Girl, it was a pretty simple villain type that we don't see that much of the Mummy, but as a cute student girl. Armand really went all out with the designs, and she took form. Her wraps are controlled by her and it's like she has a lot of extra sets of hands. I think once the characters took form, their powers started to develop more and more in the book. In issues 5 and 6 we see a huge battle and know what they can do.

Ghost Girl is the combination of two mythological heavy hitters in the Gladstone's universe and a combination of the ghost widow and the nine tail fox woman. But also different oni/dokkaebi and ghost powers and attacks are thrown in there for her.

With the Skull Brothers they're a bit of a combination of the Kobra Kai, Mexican Wrestling, and old Japanese Kaiju TV shows. They're my favorite in the series, and they really steal the show. We're going to see a lot more from them and find out more about their special powers and attacks.

Mostly though, I gave one paragraph descriptions of the characters to Armand, and he hit them out of the park perfectly. Once I saw the characters, they became very easy to write, and then build on more on more as far as their personalities, powers, and places in the Gladstone's universe.

RKL: Oh, man, you sold me on Kobra Kai. That's spot on for how those guys are turning out just two issues in. I think the cast is strong because anyone could be someone's favourite. Are you conscious of keeping it an ensemble book or is someone going to rise to the fore and take all the plot threads?

MAS: It's going to stay an ensemble book. There are a lot of characters in it, with the Parent's world and the world of Gladstone's, but the focus will be on the main group for right now. Eventually there will be a few new additions to the group. There are new characters popping up all the time that will become familiar as the series builds.

RKL: Aside from the kids, there's also a rich world of adults you are building into this book. They don't feel like background or stereotypes, these people have their own stories going on - something we especially see towards the end of the second issue. How much does the world of the adults, the environment off Gladstone property, affect the overall tale?

MAS: I think a lot of the adults are very original and not stereotypes. Especially the Nefarious family. The world of adults is one that's going to effect the kids world in a big way in future issues because appearances are kept up that aren't what they appear to be. In the world of adults there's a huge split between supervillains as well that affects everything and is delicately balanced.

RKL: I won't press further for spoilers but suffice it to say there's intrigue with these adult supervillains. I also want to discuss the originality of these characters. Did you find it hard coming up with this many new creations and how many are homages or references to established characters we know?

MAS: I think a lot of them are influenced by the pantheon of classic villains. But they take on their own identity and become further and further removed from any homages from where they began as the story progresses. They take shape and become their own people in the series with their own back stories and personalities, that are exclusive to them and take their own identities that are more rich because with supervillains in most comics we don't know much about them and their characters don't really progress or develop all that much, they're just a menace to provide conflict. But here the focus is just on the villains and they're going to develop and grow as characters at a much faster pace than say some villains have in 50 years at the big two.

RKL: That's a big call, you're really throwing down the gauntlet on that one. I like it. Do you think character development, and change, is integral to true character drama and investment?

MAS: I think in some ways it's important but not the be all and end all. I think what is important is to throw some heavy challenges at the characters, and over time everyone's interactions change. Characters get wiser but with everyone a sense of personality and identity is a very flexible thing. Character development is essential because you're expanding the characters more and more but change isn't always and we don't want characters to change too much, but change is very different from the growth and development of a character. I think for investment, you really need to have a sense of who the characters are, and be able to identify with them on many levels, even if it's not the hero. With that done we've done our jobs well.

RKL: Were there any characters you created, or toyed with, that didn't make the final cut? Did some kid have a fishbowl on his head, and I mean a real bowl filled with fish, or someone else with the power to talk to heads of lettuce?

MAS: Haha. There originally was a list of about 20 characters in the original brainstorm. We settled on 6 or 7 that Armand conceptualized in his original character sheet. The other ones we threw out with the bathwater and they never made it into the book. With that said, Armand draws so many cool and original characters wandering the halls, that eventually, some of those characters will make it into the book more and more and appear. There was a speedster character on the cover of issue one that was going to be in the original cast, but we're going to put him in as a main character later in the series and he'll become a regular cast member.

RKL: How liberating is it to create from the ground up? Do you feel like the warped cousin of Avengers Academy (a Marvel U school for tomorrow's heroes), and if so what advantages do you think you have over that title? Are there any barriers you feel to your ability to create in this title?

MAS: In a way, I see Gladstone's as being kind of like One Piece over time in that regard because the Gladstone's universe builds and builds into something massive. It's very liberating to create from the ground up.

I haven't read Avengers Academy, and don't have any formed opinion of it, bad or good, which makes it an impossible question for me to answer. I would be like a critic reviewing a movie that I haven't seen, which is reprehensible. What a hard question, jeez.

The sky is the limit. We own Gladstone's and both Armand and I are hard at work every day to create the best book imaginable. I see endless possibility, literally, for what can be done on the title.

RKL: To get into the story, when did you come up with the origin of Gladstone himself? It's a sequence that is one of the funniest things I have read in a long time, and yet it truly is so bittersweet. There's so much there to digest and yet it doesn't impact the characters or the actual setting at all - or at least not as we know it. It's the sort of sequence that is all about stating the intent and tone of the series rather than getting out strict narrative and action. Did you have to convince Image that the opening of your book should be one big set up and then the true tale would start?

MAS: I came up with the origin story after writing the first issue and it made me laugh as I was writing it. I think it is bittersweet, and more often than not in life things don't go how we plan.

A few years ago, I was in a place where I was stressed out, and in good guy mode, and I felt like I was doing everything right but not getting much back from it. I heard a great quote by Daniel Handler, during an interview on the WTF podcast where he said something along the lines of that we grow up hearing stories that if you're good and do the right thing that you're told you're going to be rewarded. But that's not the way that the world actually works. I think there's a huge truth to that statement and brilliance and the greatest irony of life.

The origin of Gladstone's School is a fairy tale gone wrong and in reverse but there are also lessons to be taken away from it. I think that's one of the themes that we explore with Gladstone's and being a villain. Villians are quick to see the truth of life that there may not be any cosmic accounting system in place and that the world is one giant free for all. But there are human repercussions and consequences to our actions.

Image was really good in that they let us do it for the opening of the book and I think just setting up the school and how it came about really set the tone for the universe.

RKL: Many writers currently subscribe to the theory that villains are the heroes of their own story - they don't see what they are doing as wrong. Are these villains out and out evil or do they serve a societal purpose? And which kind of villain do you prefer?

MAS: I think it is a good theory that everyone thinks they are the hero of their own story and true in actual life and don't see what they're doing as wrong. The Gladstone's kids are just normal kids who happen to have supervillain parents and world conquering is the most natural thing for them. They don't question it because they were born into it. In the Gladstone's universe there are villains, and then there are hardliner villains and really bad guys. In the Gladstone's universe the bulk of the villains are very rational and they also serve a greater purpose and are part of a community, with others depending on them. The hardliner villains want to mess everything up and go back to the old ways. I prefer the rational villains because things aren't black and white in life, and even villains have to keep in mind the preservation of society.

RKL: Did you come up with any villainous characters or deeds that were simply a little too harsh for this book?

MAS: I think in the early stages there was a temptation to do more of an adult book in a cartoon style but as the project developed, we quickly knew that was the wrong choice, and to not shoot ourselves in the foot. But there was never anything too villainous that we had in mind initially, it was always more humorous from the get go.

RKL: I think you have landed on the perfect tone for this book to succeed as both being a unique entity on the shelves as well as being extremely well executed. I want to talk about your writing process for just a minute, what does a regular writing session look like with you? Are you a laptop in front of the TV kind of guy or more about a notepad in a secluded office with a fire crackling and only the most emotive weather outside your window?

MAS: My writing session, I don't think matches any particular person. I'm a morning person. The bulk of my writing is done between 8am-1pm. I think for me having a comfortable desk, and comfortable chair is important, and waking up to some coffee. Then some music, but nothing with lyrics because those distract.

I'm both a computer writer and a notepad man.

I always start in notebooks. I'll go to a place or be traveling and keep writing down idea after idea for a project in a notebook, until I have enough of it down on paper. Brainstorming sessions.

Then the next step is to take the notes and type them up. I think getting out of the house and exercising or going on hikes or swimming is a great place to get ideas, because you're doing something, but your mind is free to roam. That's usually when a lot of the best ideas hit.

I have the iMac and I write on it in the morning and usually, I'll work in about 6 to 10 page sections.

I need to print the script to edit and revise it, because editing works best away from the computer and in new surroundings. As I said, the bulk of my writing is between 8am-1pm, but I can go to a coffee shop with the printed script and in new surroundings, and I can get in an extra hour of writing, then go back and type it up again, and that's another hour.

I'll take a break from a script for a few days and then look at it again with fresh eyes. As I read what's there, I'll come up with new ideas, and write them in.

Next, I change the notes in the computer and add new material. Then wait a few days, and print and revise the pages again. If the pages in the script are ready to go, I label the page number in green, and that means that the artist can start drawing.

After the full comic book comes in colored, I'll sit down and go into the lettering script. All of my dialogue is temporary in the artist's script, and usually, I'll have so many different versions of dialogue and text for a single line that will make it into the book.

With the colored art in front of me, I start a new document for the issue, and gut out all of the panel descriptions. I leave just the dialogue by panel. From there I have to keep tweaking, and then decide which versions of dialogue I have are the most effective.

In the lettering script stage, editors and friends are valuable, because I get feedback about which versions of dialogue work the best, and make tweaks. Without the input, I'm working in a vacuum with no input. I'm comfortable like this on the art script, but on the lettering script, that's going to go to the letterer and be the words in the balloon on the comic book. There is no room for a single error and that's frightening actually. I stress, panic, and worry. There's a lot of anxiety for me in this stage. - I won't lie and try to act cool about it.

It takes so much proof-reading, and it's really a meticulous task, to get that perfect.

Not even a comma should be in the wrong spot. For the lettering scripts, the more eyes, and the more input the better, because if I make a mistake the letterer will have to change it. Depending on their temperament, (Thomas is actually very nice) they might get angry with me because he has to go back and do it again. With the lettering script, it's a lot of pressure, to get it right and to turn in the best versions of dialogue that you can. Editors are very valuable.

I prefer the art script because that's just pure organic writing that's spontaneous, whereas the lettering script causes so much pressure and anxiety and, is so precise.

The art script is my happy place, and the lettering script is the boat in the storm.

RKL: That sounds...very intensive. You paint a very cool picture of the creative process - I love the idea of stripping the script back to just dialogue and getting the flow from there. I can't imagine how many words you write per issue just to get it all finalised. How long do you think each issue takes you and do you work on anything else at the same time?

MAS: I'm not even sure, often, I'll do oversized issues at 32 pages an issue or work in the original graphic novel format. Right now doing the monthly format in color, and sticking between 22-28 pages that's much easier. If I'm on a streak with an original graphic novel, I can hit 100 pages in a month. With this question, everyone wants to say something impressive, or say they're a beast in the bed. I'm not sure how I measure up to everyone doing comics full time as a job.

I can write a 22 page issue in a week as I go back and revise. With the lettering scripts, they usually take about two weeks to get done, but I'm working on other things in the art script stages.

Before, I would put a lot of pressure to get a lot of material finished, and out, but this year, I've gotten very patient, and my goal is to keep Gladstone's on schedule perfectly, and actually get far ahead, and then to release Sullivan's Sluggers in October, as well as to complete the second half of New Brighton Archeological Society for next year.

Sullivan's Sluggers is all wrapped for the art script, the first half is colored and lettered. It's just a matter of when the rest of art is in and James has completed it, doing the lettering script on the second half.

I've scaled back this year in favor of making sure I have strong focus as I tackle the monthly but because the other two projects are original graphic novels, it makes it really hard to gauge.

For Gladstone's Armand, deserves my best, and I'm going to take my time. My focus is on quality.

I'm working on two projects for next year but those have real flexibility. Until, I go monthly with everything uniform, I don't even know what I'm capable of, but I'm not going to push it either right now.

Hopefully, if I can do it as a full time job, in the right work environment, I can find out.

RKL: I think producing quality pages is always going to be more appreciated by the fans than a glut of pages that are average. It sounds like you have a fair bit on your plate, do you want to use this venue quickly to plug your other projects before we wind things down?

MAS: We have New Brighton Archeological Society Book Two coming out in January. If you're enjoying Gladstone's, you'll want to pick it up. Gladstone's I see as a Sci-Fi YA series, and New Brighton is an all ages fantasy series. I'm very proud of both.

RKL: With two issues down on Gladstone's, can you tease anything for the future of the title?

MAS: In issue 3, you're going to completely understand the Skull Brothers. In issues 5 and 6, we get a really epic brawl. I'm looking forward to October to hear people's reactions, and then also I can talk about the series more without worry of giving too much away. We're just two issues in, so it's a little hard at the moment. I'm really looking forward to October.

RKL: Those are some pretty good hints for things to come, nice. You've given plenty of praise to your partner in world conquering crime, Armand Villavert, and I think his ability to craft these cute mini villains but also crazy slimy monsters and dynamic action are a big reason why this title pops off the page. What's it like working with him, do you get out of his way or are your characters and scripts detailed?

MAS: Armand is great to work with. He comes up with great characters and then adds his own extra flair into the artwork. I think my scripts fall somewhere in the middle. I don't write Alan Moore style because that would drive both of us nuts. Then not screenplay style either, and it's probably more like a shooting script with the action broken down by panel, and then he gets to direct it and I cut him loose with it.

I'm not sure exactly, but I feel like I do more than I've seen other writers do.

RKL: The last process question and then we'll head into our Literary Rorschach Test. Is there a soundtrack to Gladstone's, both the making of it and the story, and what music makes the score?

MAS: That's a good question. There's not. With other books, I'll have more of a soundtrack or music in mind as I go, but with Gladstone's I think it's more of an original soundtrack or movie score to go with it. It would be an interesting process when the first trade comes, to have readers come up with a soundtrack for each scene.

RKL: That could be the coolest competition ever. Alright, now here's the fun part, the Literary Rorschach Test. I throw out ten words and you play some word association, have fun:

Villain - Doctor Doom
Class - Film
Noir - Chandler
Typewriter - Hemingway
Brown - Tree
Saturday morning - Cartoons
Razor - Ramon
Sitcom - Spaced
Europe - France
Parents – Father

RKL: Alright, Mark, it's been a pleasure chatting with you. I'm digging Gladstone's and I look forward to many future issues. Hopefully we can catch up again in the future and talk about the next Gladstone's graduation. Thanks for your time.

MAS: Anytime, thank you for a great interview Ryan!

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Ivan said...

Heh, "Martian Jones". Subtle. :P

Great interview, looks very interesting. I'll check it out if I get the chance.

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