Monday, January 23, 2012

Fireside Chat With Brian Wood - Conan and The Massive

Brian Wood is gracious enough to pull up a stump next to the fireside and have a chat with us here at The Weekly Crisis. He’s discussing his two new projects at Dark Horse: Conan and The Massive. Hit the jump to see how he goes about setting these mammoth runs up, what he’s usually listening to, and what’s coming next. Oh, and why you should be buying both these titles as they drop this year.

Brian Wood is a titan of comics. He’s written for nearly every major comic publishing company, he’s collaborated with a plethora of amazing artists, he’s been nominated for Eisner awards multiple times, and – most importantly – he’s good at what he does. You may know him as the Viking overlord who dreamt up Northlanders, I fondly think of him as the genius behind DMZ. If you want to dive into his entire back catalogue you’re going to need some time and money because the man has kept himself productive. But, first, let’s chat.

Ryan K Lindsay: Brian, how are you today, man?

Brian Wood: Cold, tired, overworked. Eyeballing the clock because I gotta go start dinner soon before the kids get too hyper. This is my life.

RKL: I got a little one of my own, I feel you man. Not to start off like some Chris Farley Show garbage, but I’m a massive fan and I count DMZ in my top 10 titles of all time. Seriously, it’s golden. I hope we’ll be seeing some HC releases of that book soon, but my question is, you wrote that book for six glorious years, do you see that ending, alongside your separation from DC, as the birthing flames for a new era of Brian Wood? Are you stretching your wings a little in terms of story type, tone, method, etc?

Wood: As far as HC releases go, I agree that would be great. But its DC’s decision and I don’t see it happening any time soon, short of a film or tv adaption being made (of which there are no plans I am aware, I should add). And yeah, a bunch of things are ending for me around the same time: DMZ, Northlanders, that Supernatural miniseries I wrote for DC, and of course my DC exclusive. I hate to see the word “separation” like that but I guess it’s fairly accurate.

RKL: Yeah, that was me just trying to be polite, ha. You tell it in your terms.

Wood: The situation is a little bit like being dumped by a girl but never really getting an explanation as to why. At some point, if only for your own sanity, you have to shrug and accept the situation and move on. I was exclusive for five of the six years I wrote for DC and I gave them 25 volumes of material. I think I did a pretty good job.

So with all of these books ending, it makes sense to take advantage of this new chapter to take a hard look at what I do, and what I want to do, and how I can ‘level up’ in terms of projects and craft. What 2012 is going to be is a year where I launch a ton of new projects, all with a renewed energy and focus, and try a bunch of new things, one of them being a lot more work for hire. I had actually made that decision last year, to work on some superhero books and had every intention of doing that for DC. But they ultimately didn’t want me to do that. Marvel did, though. You’re going to see a lot more X-Men work from me soon. And from Dark Horse.

RKL: We’ll chat Marvel in a bit, let’s first talk about Conan. You’re adapting the ‘Queen of the Black Coast’ story. However, this isn’t a straight up adaptation – this whole run is stretching to 25 issues. Why did you feel a two year run was the best way to tackle this tale which most would have read over the course of a weekend?

Wood: I think I read the original Queen Of The Black Coast book in an hour. It’s very short. The 25-issue thing was Dark Horse’s idea, it was part of the pitch they gave me explaining the project. And it makes sense, because in the original text, mention is made of an extended period of time – years – when Conan and Belit sailed around as pirates and did their thing. It’s essentially the second act of the story completely skipped over. And that’s where the bulk of my 25 issues will take place, in that space with adventures written from scratch. It’s a great thing, actually, because in doing that you can really breathe life into their relationship, all the ups and downs and successes and tragedies that any relationship has, so in the end everything becomes that much more poignant and meaningful and formative for Conan.

RKL: Do you worry about backlash from purists in regards to you expending this tale onwards and upwards from the source material or are you concerned with winning over new fans and showing the old ones there is still gold in these mines?

Wood: The bits that I am adapting directly from the original book are adapted very carefully and faithfully. But again, the original story has this gap in time where no mention of what happens is made, so my original content will be filling that space, but not changing or otherwise playing fast and loose with anything else.

And honestly, the backlash started the instant my and Becky’s name was floated for this book. You know how it is, the most vocal of fandom are quick to pile on ...anything, really. It’s a massive distraction so I stay away. My job is to write good stories that make Dark Horse happy, the Conan estate happy, Becky happy, and me happy. It’s literally impossible to try and write to make all aspects of a readership equally happy. It’s the path to madness and I like to think I’ve learned how avoid it.

THAT SAID, that’s different from writing an accessible story, and Conan The Barbarian is designed to work for any audience, even if all you know about Conan is that he’s a barbarian with a sword. Or if you are so hardcore that you have the entire text of The Queen Of The Black Coast tattooed across your chest.

RKL: How scary is it to suddenly world build within the parameters of Robert E Howard’s imagination?

Wood: Intimidating at first, but so much fun once I got started. Exhilarating in moments, and I mean that. I really get into it... I never get to write language like that, and there is a real sensation of letting go when I sit down to a Conan script, especially after being so serious and careful with a book like Northlanders.

RKL: Because you are straying away from the source material a little, what new elements and fun are you bringing to the table?

Wood: I’m not trying to reinvent the book at all, or stray. I think what I bring is what Dark Horse saw in my work and made them approach me in the first place, which is how I approached a similar sort of genre in Northlanders: find the humanity that transcends the genre. That can be humor, or tragedy, or imperfections within the character or points of real-life relevance. This sort of genre has proven to the world, time and time again, that it can have mass appeal, and so it just has to be written in a way that the humanity shines through the more fantastical elements of the story. I think I did that with Northlanders, took the Viking Age and figured out what about it was universal, was timeless, and wrote stories about that. I’m doing it again with Conan.

RKL: How have you worked to get into the headspace of the Cimmerian who will one day be king?

Wood: I read the books. I absorbed the books. In adapting this story, since I have so much real estate to fill from such a short story, I really pored over those pages, looking at every word, looking at what’s not being said, at what’s being implied, at any clue I could find to use. And any good story gives the reader a way in, an access point to connect with the characters, and Robert E Howard is no exception. Finding a way into Conan’s headspace was easy. Minding the details and understanding the “rules” was the only trick.

RKL: What was the first part of Conan you wrote where you felt like you hit your stride and thought to yourself, “Yes, this is it!”

Wood: When I got a handle on the narration. Which is just really over the top, at least compared to how I normally write. It’s complex and a little flowery and pulpy and iconic and very much of its time. It felt “wrong” to me for the longest time until my brain adjusted and I learned to just go with it. And then it became almost too much fun to write.

RKL: Is there one moment in the first issue you think will sell this new #1 to old school Conan fans? Inversely, is there a moment in the same issue you think will lure in pundits who have never read anything with Conan in it?

Wood: Old school fans, I don’t know. I think, and hope, that once they see this is a faithful and respectful adaptation and not, I dunno, the New Adventures Of Barista-Emo Manga Conan or whatever they call it within the Conan online communities, they’ll chill out a bit. It’s weird how there’s a segment of fandom that will never hate anything as much as they do at that early point when they know next to nothing about it.

New readers, I think the style of the narration will appeal in a fun way. There’s a degree of humor in that first issue. There’s some sex going on... and the art and colors are gorgeous. I dunno, this story, the original story, is so compelling that I honestly think that’s its main selling point. We’re just trying to support that.

RKL: You’re collaborating with Becky Cloonan on this project – what makes her the ultimate Conan artist to bring your words to life in an age before the ocean’s drank Atlantis?

Wood: If anyone spends more than five minutes on Becky’s twitter or Facebook, or looks at her minicomics, you’ll know that she lives for this sort of material. Like, truly is obsessed. So in addition to her talent, she has more enthusiasm in a day for Conan than you or I could muster in a year. And specifically related to this story, she is nothing like the artists to come before her in terms of drawing style, which is a good thing.

RKL: I have to say, I’ve read a lot of Conan – in prose and comic form – and I’m pumped to see you stretch this one out and have fun with it. I’ll certainly be along for the ride. Now let’s step across to The Massive. I’m probably just a little bit more excited for this series, but that’s because I lean toward DMZ. It’s billed as an environmentally political apocalypse story, is that accurate enough?

Wood: It is, yeah, but its not the complete picture. The Massive is a little hard to capture in a single line, which is actually something I need to work on. I need to find that single line that sums it all up perfectly. There was this half-jokey line I was using internally for awhile, “DMZ meets Whale Wars”, which did its job for a bit, but is also incomplete. I would go with something like this : The Massive is about a near-future world that’s suffered near-total societal collapse due to economic and environmental upheaval. A small group of environmentalists search the globe for their missing sister ship while seeking to unravel the mystery of what ravaged the planet.

So on one hand, yeah, its absolutely political. And it does deal with some heady environmental themes. But it avoids being partisan by picking up the story after the crash has already happened. It’s less about prevention than it is about disaster control.

RKL: Where does our story exactly start? Who is there and what is their narrative propellant?

Wood: Literally, where does it start? Alternately, the North Sea, Siberia, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and the Southern Ocean. I know that’s probably not what you meant, but I say it anyway to underscore the global nature of the story. We will, in all seriousness, span the globe. I’m being as meticulous in my research and details as I was in Northlanders and DMZ.

The stories appearing in DHP [Dark Horse Presents] function as prequel stories, as introductions to the three main characters, and also to the world, broadly speaking, of The Massive. We have Callum Israel, who we see as a young mercenary tasked with clearing an oilrig of protestors on behalf of an oil company. We have Mag Negendra, a Sri Lankan boy who sees his family’s way of life threatened by toxic waster being dumped off his beach. And we meet Mary, the oddly calm and capable African student who falls in with the other two. Flashing forward in time a couple decades, this is the cast of the book, seasoned professionals who have given their lives to environmental causes. They are on the Kapital, the sister ship to The Massive.

In the main series itself, we flip back and forth between the pre- and post-crash world, following the Kapital as it evades Siberian pirates in a fog-blanketed Bering Sea, and also as it explores the world in ruin, specifically a sinking Hong Kong. It’s a incredibly dense story, a smart one that demands the readers focus, and is as detailed a world-building project as I’ve ever done. Actually, twice as much as I’ve ever done.

RKL: This is yet another title with a pretty massive scope in potential for character growth, for location, and for meaning and moral implications. Such a large story should surely scare any writer and yet you revel in digging deeper into these worlds, why?

Wood: It’s the story of story I like, as a reader. I also think I’m good at it, that previous attempts have been well received, and the idea of cultivating this further seems smart. But mostly I just like these types of stories.

RKL: I love to hear a creator state such confidence, that’s refreshing and quite fantastic. How far do you want to go with this title? Is it going to be another 70+ epic?

Wood: If there’s one thing DMZ taught me, is never do a 72-issue series again. That’s six years, and a lot can change in six years. I changed a lot in six years, and was eager to get on to new things, like The Massive. So I have The Massive planned out to 30 issues, which is five trades, a nice amount of work. If the book is some runaway success we can of course extend it, but I really would much rather keep developing new ideas and progressing. Why do a 72-issue series when you can do two series at 36-issues each?

RKL: As a reader, I love that exhaustive scope of a 72 issue opus like DMZ. Though I can see it scaring off new readers who need to invest in a dozen trades. Five trades probably gets a lot more airplay, I can imagine. What can you tell us about your lead character in The Massive? Feel free to give us his favourite meal or just the overall reason he does what he does.

Wood: There are three, really, like I answered a bit upthread, but here’s some more info: Callum is something of a special case, having been born a white guy in Bangladesh, grown up poor, joined the service at a young age and soon after that the prototypical paramilitary contracting company aka corporate mercenary company Blackbell. After a formative experience on an oil rig he seeks out the environmentalist company he was once tasked with eliminating and joins them. A little while after THAT, he assumes control of the ragtag group and remakes it into Ninth Wave, a direct action force committed to the health of the oceans. That’s a little long winded, so to get closer to the point, he’s an older man, around fifty, ex-military turned conservationist, a citizen of the world, and while now a pacifist, believes in direct action.

Then there’s Mag, also ex-military (how Callum recruited him), and before that was a Tamil Tiger in his native Sri Lanka. Also having had a formative experience in the water, he brings a more aggressive edge to the group, a more straight-forward military sensibility, but respects Callum’s vision totally. He’s in his late thirties, early forties.

Mary is a mystery of sorts, because not much is known about her. She is an ex-student from Harare, Zimbabwe, a member of Ninth Wave, predating even Callum’s involvement. She looks young, but her experience in the world is formidable, and is often the person who diffuses a tense situation or is out there in the middle of it all. She and Callum have a relationship. Mag is unsure about her.

The thing about all of these characters – and there is the crew of the ship itself, who play secondary roles – is that none of them are American. The American perspective is absent from this book. This story doesn’t take place inside America. Part of that is just me rebelling against myself after spending 6 years on DMZ. Another part is to tell a more truly universal story that takes place in locations around the world that you may never otherwise see in a comic. It’s a stronger book for it.

RKL: That’s a bold move. Hopefully readers can approach this will still fresh eyes. Now, you’re known as a guy who puts together a bit of research before you make any project, what sort of material went into making The Massive what it is today?

Wood: Mostly a lot of reading, that’s sort of all I do when it comes to research. I did, for The Massive, rent and watch a selection of recent disaster flicks... I’m talking 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, etc to try and analyze what works in terms of visuals, and why. It’s an interesting exercise, one I also did with Northlanders. Some of the movies are better than others, but I was really trying to pay attention to what I was looking at, and challenging my own gut reactions. These over the top action scenes... why did I like them? Was it a purely visceral, “man that shit is cool” type of reaction, or are they triggering something emotional? The Massive is an action comic, sure, but that’s where we START, not the goal. When I write the action, especially disaster scenes, I want them to be ABOUT something. Not just the comic book version of flashy CGI.

RKL: Kristian Donaldson might be an unknown quantity to so many spandex comic readers – what has he done so far on the title you think will blow everyone away and make them instant fans?

Wood: Possibly to the detriment of his sanity, and his personal life, he’s approaching this from an extremely well-researched, very highly-detailed place, building 3D models of all the ships and interiors and hardware... creating his own reference, really. Which leads to finished pages that, frankly, are astonishing. I’m giving him really tough scripts to draw, really challenging material full of huge futuristic vistas and action scenes straight out of the heaviest-CGI’s Michael Bay-style movie ever. I have to admit I feel vaguely guilty about it, but I’m trying to create a sort of ultimate comic here, a combination of a dense, compressed story, multi-layered world building, and high-end visuals.

RKL: The double splash preview page of the oil rig, I think, completely sells all of that. Donaldson is doing amazing work here and I’m sure his efforts will be thanked by many. Looking at the two projects side-by-side, it seems your scratching some very different itches. How do you balance your workload between a barbarian romp and an eco-serious thriller?

Wood: It’s all just about keeping myself from getting bored. When I started DMZ I was also starting up LOCAL, two books that couldn’t have been more different. I think it healthy, both mentally and creatively, to do this. I think if I had to live in the headspace that DMZ of The Massive comes from, 24/7, I’d be a lot more depressed.

RKL: Do you set a different mood for each project – what sort of food/music/ambience accompanies each book when you sit down to write?

Wood: I can’t listen to music any more when I write. I mean, I can, but I don’t really hear it and before I know it the CD is done and I’m vaguely surprised by that. I completely tune it out, so what’s the point? Sometimes I’ll put headphones on, loud, to tune out other sounds, like street noise, the clanking of the heater, my fingers on the keyboard, kids yelling in the other room... like a sensory depravation chamber. What I listen to is irrelevant, it’s all about creating a wall of noise. Typically its pretty raucous stuff, like Sonic Youth.

I have a very small office, about 7’ square, and in that is crammed a desk, two file cabinets stacked vertically, a sofa, three bookshelves, a could chairs, and a coffee table. Very little floor space, but I do have a deep shag carpet, baby! I am an amateur guitar player and I have a decent setup of amps and effects pedals for recording. I found that the more and more my creative work – writing and sometimes drawing – became for commercial consumption; I needed something to do that was creative and entirely private. Something I could do for the pure pleasure of it and not be judged by strangers. So that’s music. Tends to be either messy ambient stuff or 60’s garage-y jangly stuff.

RKL: I like that concept – keeping a little something for yourself. These books are both long-term, will they be all that fills your upcoming schedule or is there more to excite us with?

Wood: There are also two other creator-owned projects I’m just starting, small ones, which you should hear about soon. One of them will be digital-first. And I just got hit with an offer for a HUGE book that would be for 2013 that I want to try and find time to write.

RKL: With your Marvel work, did you ask to be placed in the mutant sphere of the universe or is that where they thought you would best fit?

Wood: I think both, actually. When Axel Alonso and I first spoke, I gave him a brief list of Marvel books and characters I knew best, and I'm sure I stressed the X-Men. When he got back to me he put me in touch with Jeanine Schaefer, and editor in the X-office. I think its where I fit best, and where all my ideas and pitches seem to be focused on. The X-Men are such a relatable group of characters... the very concept has some serious mass appeal, and I am not immune from that.

RKL: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Let’s end with the Literary Rorschach Test. I’ll give you ten words and you have to respond with the first thing that pops into your head for each one – it can be a word or a full blown paragraph. Go!

Noir – no idea what this means anymore. It’s applied to so many things now.
Ocean – map
Purple – Rain
Razor – fish (I worked for them during the dotcom boom)
Road – trip. I’ve never taken a road trip in my life
Petal – guitar
Graphic – pencils. My kid has pencils that say ‘graphic’ on them
Plain – yogurt (?!?)
Atlantis – wish I had a better answer for this one, but... the tropical resort destination. I am a victim to commercials and marketing
New York – more and more this means Manhattan to me, and where I live, Brooklyn, is something else

RKL: Thanks for being with us, Brian.

What about you, dear reader, are you going to pick up Conan or The Massive and get more Brian Wood in your life in 2012? Let us know in the comments.

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The Fab Five said...

Uh definitely. I am already drooling. :)

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