Superman Comic Books
Welcome to the Comic Book Work Force! (Sucker!)
Part 1 - Richard Caponetti InterviewNeal: Hey, Richard. Ready to go under the knife?
Richard: Sure. You got malpractice insurance, right?
Neal: Questions, questions, questions...
Richard: Answers, answers... answers?
Neal: I hope so...
How did you get your start with comic scripting,... and what resources did you use to learn the somewhat tricky format?
Richard: My first script merely recorded character dialogue, monologue and narration. I had no idea that comic writers are, in actuality, comic directors--dictating panel layout and scene composition, as well as putting words on pages and into their characters' mouths.
I didn't become familiar with the "director's style" of comic writing until months after completing my first script. It was a story that explored the mechanics of Superman's powers and sent the hero on an emergency mission to Daxam, which had fallen into chaos following a nasty trade dispute with Darkseid's wayward son, Grayven. The story also featured a brutal fight between Superman and The General; and indirectly implicated John Henry Irons in the events of JLA: Tower of Babel, which, unbeknownst to me at the time, would come to pass a year or so following my script's completion.
Through a complex chain of events, I managed to get the script into former Superman writer Dan Jurgens' hands. Within days, Dan read my story and returned a detailed critique of its script. Luckily, he both liked it... and hated it. Dan liked my dialogue, plot and characterization of Superman. He hated the script's format, however--though he never used those very words. In absolutely professional and diplomatic fashion, Dan informed me that omitting panel and scene direction was a grave faux pas; and would sink my efforts to publish the script.
Thankfully, Dan included a detailed schematic of basic comic book scripting in his critique. He included information on everything from formatting margins to utilizing caps lock and bolded font! I've used his schematic ever since; made only a few amendments along the way.
I often wonder if Dan remembers our brief Internet interaction. Regardless, I have to take this time to acknowledge the contribution he has made to my writing. Without his input, my stories would likely still resemble Oprah transcripts... and I would never have been able to garner the interest of a great artist like Norm Breyfogle, who wants to draw the story that I discuss below. Thanks, Dan.
Neal: Tell us a little about your project, without going into any specifics you don't care to.
Richard: No problem. The story expands upon plots and ideas taken from Jurgen's Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey and Grant Morrison's DC One Million event, and blends these elements with my background in politics, gnostic religions and world events:
A malevolent expatriate of the DC One Million "Superverse" sparks bloody jihad between the Doomsday-ravaged planet Calaton and a refugee world of my own design. The refugees solicit Earth's assistance; Superman and J'onn J'onzz answer their call to arms. Pitted against an unmatched military genius plucked from Biblical antiquity, a deranged avatar of the Radiant from Hunter/Prey and impossible power from the 853rd Century, the heroes desperately tax their minds and bodies to bring peace to the battlefield and deliver the Superverse rogue to justice.
The story is epic, serves as my calling card to the industry... and was an absolute nightmare to write: I purposely challenged myself to blend grandiose plot designs with unbelievable power heroics and intimate character development. I set out to disprove the theory that comic stories must either be plot-driven or character-driven; and may focus on powers or feats of strength... but only at the expense of character development and the literary worth. I wanted to show that you can have your cake and eat it, too. Plot, pathos and power need not be mutually exclusive.
Though the story was a nightmare, it was also incredibly fun and rewarding to write--I had never before immersed myself so completely in my work. And I do not believe I had ever before been able to synthesize my vision, love of Superman and literary interests to such a complete degree.
The story has received much positive feedback. In the summer of 2002, Grant Morrison read a very early, and very rough, draft--and gave it high marks. He also introduced me to a then-DC Comics editor and recommended that the editor solicit my story. In addition, Norm Breyfogle liked the story so much that he immediately attached himself to it... and did his best to bring it to the DC brass, which I'll discuss below.
Neal: From the outside, do you think getting into comics is more about your talent or who you know?
Richard: As far as I can tell... it's about both, neither and so much more. There certainly is a lot of talent in today's comics industry. Creators like Grant Morrison, Jeff Loeb and Neil Gaiman, regularly produce stories that deserve the highest accolades... and are no less relevant to the evolution of modern fiction than are the works of celebrated, mainstream authors like Umberto Eco and Kurt Vonnegut.
(Writer's random interjection into his own interview: he's right here, folks. Go out and read Eco and Vonnegut right now, Vonnegut especially if you like the comic book mentality, Eco especially if you want to know the kind of research you'll have to do for comics... ;) Do it in this order: Vonnegut: "Slaughter-House Five", "Breakfast of Champions", "Galapagos", and do Eco: "The Name of the Rose", "Baudolino", "Island of the Day Before" then "Focault's Pendulum". Now back to your regularly scheduled article. Sorry. I just love those authors too much.)
Morrison is comics' Eco: He infuses the genre with impossible imagination and accessible abstraction. Loeb is its Vonnegut: He graces the genre with a wonderful simplicity and understated wit. And Gaiman is, well, Gaiman: He rolls up Eco and Vonnegut... as well as Chaucer, Anne Rice, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and just about every other great author... into a single package. Truly, these men are in comics because they should be.
Of course, the comics world is also populated by people who, some fans believe, are absolute hacks--"artists" who, these fans opine, simply do not deserve a paycheck. Assuming that such creators actually deserve the "hack" title, I can only guess that at least part of their success is owed to the who you know phenomenon.
Incidentally, I'd give my right arm to be called a "hack"... it'd mean I'm being published and read!
Regardless of whether a writer is talented or merely connected, the industry is set-up to discourage new creator submissions. DC Comics strictly adheres to a no solicitation policy; and Marvel Comics recently enacted their own exclusionary statute... the company will no longer accept story submissions by unknown writers. Both companies expect aspiring writers to first cut their teeth on independent publishing. If you publish it, and it's good, we will come is, ostensibly, their motto. And therein lays the problem.
Indy houses are small, understaffed, underpaid... and, generally, have very limited publishing interests. Thus, it is extremely difficult to find a home for any given "newbie" book. This makes marketing to the independent shops a full-time job... one that, I'd say, few aspiring writers are interested in pursuing. Carry a mortgage, or an advanced degree, or an established career or whatever... and it's unlikely you'll be willing to sacrifice any of it for the sake of, what will essentially be, unless you are truly indie-inclined, no more than a writing sample. Traveling to conventions, producing excerpt packets, hiring freelance artists to bring your visions to life... all this is terribly time-consuming and expensive.
Believe me, there are defense planners, diplomatic officers, rocket scientists and other professionals out there who are willing, and able, to write the Great American DC or Marvel comic... but never will, given the obstacles the Big Two have inadvertently erected to deflect newbie interest. And that's a damn shame.
Neal: Have you ever worked with an artist before on your scripts?
Richard: Recently, Norm Breyfogle and I have explored work opportunities. Ideally, we'd both like him to draw the story I describe above.
I also have a creator-owned book that I'm trying to sell to the industry. I hired an artist to produce ten sample pages, eight of which are available to view below.
The story is entitled Gods and features proprietary characters and a plot inspired by the Cold War, the Peloponnesian War and the Book of Revelations. Like my Superman story, Gods is a true labor of love... unlike my Superman story, it has nearly bankrupted me. The artist costs, the convention and transportation costs, the emotional costs and costs yielded on my personal life... are incredible; and are costs I never wish to incur again. But will, of course, if need be.
I'll never give up. Even if it means the death of me... Gods will see the light of day and DC Comics will publish at least one of my Superman stories. Hopefully, the one I'm discussing here on the Superman Homepage.
Neal: In your opinion, what's more important in the comics industry...story, or sales? I think I know the answer to that one, but I have to ask...
Richard: Sales, obviously. Sales make stories possible. No money, no comics. It's as simple as that.
It's ironic, but disenfranchised comics fans often blame the shrinking profits of the comic industry on its publishers' economic interests... which makes no sense at all, if you really think about it. If "publishers only care about sales!" as the criticism goes... then why do they routinely publish books which yield diminished returns?
Neal: What's your take on the DC Universe today, as opposed to the Marvel Universe, even further, as opposed to the Independent and Image scene?
Richard: I'm really not much of an industry historian, but, as far as I can tell, the comics world changed completely when Grant Morrison assumed the writing duties on JLA. In my opinion, Morrison was the first Vertigo-to-mainstream crossover writer to make a real impact in the DC Universe proper. His use of syncopated story pacing, mind-bending superheroics and avant-disregarde for conventional methods of character development sparked an absolute revolution in comic writing. Overnight, it seemed, the League's sales shot sky-high, which justified Grant's psycho-pop panache, opened the mainstream gates to his established, yet mostly neglected, misfit brethren--and spawned legions of Morrison wannabes throughout the industry.
As result of Morrison's revolution, today's mainstream comics writers tend to take bigger risks and accept bigger challenges than yesterday's mainstream comics writers. Today's writers aim to make characters more complex, dialogue more believable and plot more compelling than ever before. In achieving such mainstream success, Morrison has also, in my opinion, widened the divide between the cans and can nots. The distinction between those who can match his genius with their own creative brilliance, by whatever means, and those who can not hope to compete with him in any way, whatsoever, has become obvious. Since Morrison, the sky's the limit... and the bar's set just as high.
As an aspiring comics writer, Grant's success is an undeniable blessing, as it has led me to identify my own creative limitations and challenged me to transcend these shortcomings as best I can. As a lifelong comics fan, however, Grant's success is bittersweet: I enjoy good books much more deeply than ever before... I just find them less and less frequently. Grant put me through literary puberty, so to speak, to the benefit of my writing skill and the detriment of my reading pleasure.
Neal: Who is your personal favorite artist/artists in the comics industry...
Richard: There really are too many artists for me to name, and no single artist that I can truly call my favorite. My artistic tastes run the gamut from traditionalists like Norm Breyfogle (naturally!), Neal Adams and my pal Greg Scott (Sabretooth: Mary Shelly Overdrive) to post-modern experimentalists like Dave McKean, Bill Sinkiewicz and whoever drew those Levi's Jeans Silver Tab print ads five or so years back. That artist is amazing... it's unfortunate that I have no idea who he is. I'd be stalking him if I did. No doubt.
Of course, given this website is dedicated to Superman--the nearest, dearest character to my heart, the reason I ever put pen to paper and the virtual guardian of my sanity--I'll narrow my list to those artists with whom I'd most want to work on Superman:
Norm's a given, obviously... he is the guy I'm trying to work with.
If, by some twisted act of fate, Norm were to become unavailable, I'd tap the current JLA team of Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen, who's a pretty good Web friend of mine, to bring my vision to life. Hands down, those two draw the best looking Superman I have ever seen. Their Superman is powerful but graceful, huge yet aesthetic. And he makes Brad Pitt look ugly to boot... which is quite an accomplishment. There's no way I'd let Manhke and Nguyen's Man of Steel within a quarter mile of my girlfriend, Candace. She'd take to his studliness like a shark to an open wound. There's also no way I'd ever pass up working with these two extremely talented gentlemen.
Tony Harris and Ray Snyder would also be on my list. Their work on JSA: The Unholy Three is breathtaking: You don't see their characters, you watch them move. Unlike most artists, who tend to depict figures at the initiation or completion of a physical act making characters feel posed and synthetic, Harris and Snyder have the uncanny ability to capture figures in motion. I've never seen such organic comic book art. It's all too easy to suspend disbelief with these two at the drawing board.
And then there's always Doug Wheatley (Superman: Last Stand on Krypton), Josh Hood (JLA: Scary Monsters), Howard Porter (Morrison's JLA and the undisputed master of the dynamic layout), Tom Raney (formerly of Thor), Claudio Castellini (Silver Surfer: Dangerous Artifacts and the king of cosmic artwork) and any of the artists left over from above. Especially that Levi Jeans guy... whoever the hell he is.
Neal: And what does a man who makes comics read when he goes to the comic book store?
Richard: Surprisingly little. I'm poor, picky and far too occupied with my own comics to follow more than a handful of others. I read the Superman books religiously... whether I like them or not (I can't quit... I'm an addict), and "Byrne steal" Morrison, Gaiman and other top writers' books from a few very understanding comic shop owners and any given Barnes & Noble.
Neal: Now you've talked with a number of people in the business about your scripts and your future in the business... how about some name dropping and stories?
Richard: I think I did enough of that above, with respect to those professionals who have actually read my stories. A few others have yet to check out my scripts, but have spent a good deal of time swapping and critiquing ideas with me. J.M. DeMatteis is one such professional. I Web-met J.M. through Norm and have to send a shout-out his way. He has been very encouraging and his insight is invaluable. Plus, he seems to dig my stuff... which makes me all warm inside, given he is an incredible author... particularly when he authors Superman. If you haven't done so, pick up his Superman: Where Is Thy Sting? one-shot. It's simply one of the best comic stories I have ever read. Amazing pathos and absolute blood from a stone--it's a conventional storyline with a well-worn message (love conquers all)... that, somehow, comes off as fresh and cutting-edge as anything out there today. Don't ask me how that works... read the book and you'll see that it just does. Amazing.
Neal: How has the experience gone for you, and what is the end result thusfar?
Richard: My interaction with the professional comics writers and artists has been very positive, as I said at the outset of this interview. My interaction with the editors from DC has been mostly disappointing, however, as they have all refused to read so much as my story's synopsis... on account of their company's no solicitation policy.
I have had at least one truly horrific experience with a well-known comics editor, which I will now detail--though I won't reveal his name or the company for which he works, for obvious reasons. A year or so back, a professional artist brought one of my story's to this editor's attention... dropping its synopsis and full script off at the editor's office. Days after doing so, the editor called me at work and proceeded to yell at me for a good thirty minutes. Inexplicably, the editor thought I planned to ensnare his company in a legal bear-trap with my submission... and he let me know, in no uncertain terms, that his company would bury me in court, baby. I'm not kidding... he actually said that. "We always win", he told me. "We'll bury you in court, baby!"
To this day, I have no idea what the hell he was talking about.
Neal: Is there an artist working in comics whose work you abhor?
Richard: I bear no grudge against any artist out there, personally... but there is work out there that I don't care for. I'd be lying if I said otherwise... as would anyone. We all have our preferences.
Neal: For instance, I find several artists rather distressing to look at, simply because they're so out of place in the medium they've been offered. Or, if you don't want to point the finger, is there a style that is pervasive you're not fond of?
Richard: I wouldn't care to see any of my stories done in manga style, to be honest. Though, if I ever wrote a story with a manga feel... I wouldn't care to see it done in anything but the Eastern pop style.
Neal: What do you plan on working on in the future?
Richard: I've plotted half-dozen or so Superman story arcs, each a minimum of 150 pages long. These stories explore Superman's status as the "nexus being" of the DC Universe, a status that was introduced in 2001's Our Worlds at War event and was briefly touched upon in last year's Man of Steel "I.D.C.A.P" plot... but hasn't been explored since.
By way of this "nexus," I tie in Superman's existence with the creation of the Torquasm-Vo reality and the formation of the DC Universe's primary institutions of power, law and order: I.D.C.A.P, the Quintessence, Wonderworld and the Green Lantern Corps. I also link Superman's ancestry with the history of the Fifth Dimension... as well as the New God Uxas' rise as Darkseid. How does it all connect? Rao only knows... rest assured none of it involves time travel or the use of any other conventional plot device.
As with all my works of fiction, these stories juxtapose DC Universe continuity with real-world history and myth. One story traces an historical path through the Crusades, the Panama Canal, the Watts Riots, the Khmer Rouge... and the death of an obscure Christian missionary, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mxyzptlk. Another story explores the complex political and personal relations that Lord Rao of Krypton once maintained with The Endless, the Asgardian pantheon and the Royal House of El.
These are the stories I have on deck, in addition to a number of creator-owned ideas I'm currently plotting.
Neal: Is there a point where you will simply give up if you are not published? If so, what is that point, and if not, well, what's keeping you going?
I tend to think that death would put the kibosh on things... but even that's not certain, as my girlfriend Candace, my best friend Tom and my close pals Ed, Budd and Chris would certainly carry the torch. I'll be submitting from the grave.
Neal: What is your dream project, even if it's already been done and you think you could do better? :)
Richard: My dream project is to see any story from my suite of Superman tales published by DC Comics. Could I "do better" on this project? Of course... how could I do any worse? I've failed to get it published; it doesn't get any worse than that.
With respect to my writing... there's always room to improve. Improvement might come gradually, imperceptibly even, but it will come with time, effort and patience.
Neal: What is your favorite piece that you've done?
Richard: I'd have to say the story you've read, Neal.
Who knows? Maybe it sucks... but it means a lot to me. You've read it... whatcha think?
[Writer's note: Aforementioned story is the Superman/Manhunter story that takes place on Calaton. Great read, all article stuff aside.]
Neal: What work do you like the least that you've done?
Richard: Last year, I forced myself to write what I termed a "genre work" comic--replete with all the cliches, cheesie humor and plot conventions that I can't stand--just to see if I could do it. I did it. And I hated it.
I simply could not find any way to make the story interesting. I set up a challenge and I failed... I couldn't spin a silk purse from that sow's ear. Morrison could do it. DeMatteis could do it. Those guys could re-work the phone book and make it interesting. Not me, though.
Neal: Okay, here's an open ended question that you can take advantage of in any way you want... what do you think of the industry in general?
Richard: Honestly, my heart goes out to those who make it work, however critically. Their job is impossible. The advancements made in video gaming, home entertainment and feature films, however superficial, have drastically reduced the youth demographics' interests in reading comic books. Creatively, the comic world has responded by maturing its average title above the long-time, industry-standard reading level (which has always been too low, in my opinion)... which is a good thing. Corporately, however, the comic world has failed to reconfigure its brand strategy to match the implicitly re-targeted reader demographic... which is very, very bad. I base this opinion not in my interests as an arm-chair comics pro, but in my experience as the manager of a DC-based think tank that specializes in best-practice corporate research.
Neal: All right. Now for the lightning round.
Neal: Favorite movie?
Richard: I generally like films that are directed in the auteur style, which pays obsessive attention to each aspect of filmmaking the use of music, cinematography, mis-en-scene, dialogue, etc and fully integrates these aspects to serve the film's narrative and the director's vision. I place Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket in this style; as well as The Velvet Goldmine, 28 Days Later, The Ring, Twelve Monkeys and Pi.
Richard: Favorite book?
Novels: Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground; Kurt Vonnegut Slapstick; Herman Hesse Damian; Marc Jacobson Gojiro.
Poltical Science/Strategic Planning: Noam Chomsky Rogue States, Deterring Democracy and World Orders, Old and New; Andrew Krepinevitch Army in Vietnam; Holy Sklar (ed) Tri-Lateralism; Peter Schwarz Art of the Long View.
Comics: Neil Gaiman Sandman (entire saga) and Mr. Punch; Grant Morrison DC One Million, World War Three and Rock of Ages; Dan Jurgens Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey; Dan Jolley JSA: The Unholy Three; Jeph Loeb Superman For All Seasons; J.M. DeMatteis Superman: Where Is Thy Sting?; Mark Schultz Man of Steel (entire run); and every other story I'm forgetting.
Neal: Favorite musical group/music?
Richard: Snobby: J.S. Bach, Bella Bartok, Stanley Jordan, Robert Fripp/King Crimson, Neil Peart, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tool, A Perfect Circle, Radiohead
Guilty: Kittie, Dead Kennedys, Sneaker Pimps, Jerky Boys
Whatever: Stone Temple Pirates, Led Zeppelin, 311, Fiona Apple
Neal: Here's a question I always ask myself... if you had it to do all over again, what would you do... do you think you'd be an artist?
Richard: With training, I might have become a decent artist... but I doubt anything better than that. I can draw the human form somewhat photo-realistically, but, unfortunately, only from reference. And I really can't draw much else... and so it goes.
Any artistic talent I may have or could develop is moot, however, as I don't want to be anything other than a writer. With respect to my professional ambitions, writing is the end-all, be-all... everything else is either a means to an end or a distraction.
With that in mind, if I had to do it all over again, I would have majored in journalism and interned with the Big Two. No doubt about it.
Neal: I think I'd have been better off a plumber than a writer, but hey, sometimes you can't stop the muse, huh?
Richard: I couldn't stop her if I had a shotgun full of Prozac, a Day-Glo Oan arrest warrant and Bush's Mother of all Bombs at my side. She's relentless. She's irresistible. She'd kick Supey's ass in a heartbeat.
Neal: What do you think?
Richard: I think a lot if things:
I think The Death of Superman movie, were it ever to be made, should be the most horrifying work of cinematic fiction in the history of film. No humor. Minimal music. Shot in grimy, digital video and ending with Superman falling dead in Lois' arms... before cutting immediately to silent credits. People should feel the need to seek psychological help after seeing this movie. Superman's death should be the most terrible thing imaginable.
I think Grant Morrison should become editor of the Superman books, should Eddie Berganza ever leave the post.
I think Candace, Tom, Jeanie-Shawna, Larry, Chris and Ed are the best friends a guy can have. But I guess that's neither here nor there.
And I think DC Comics should publish my Superman stories.
Neal: Do you know of any websites where people can display their work and potentially get noticed?
Richard: Artists can post anywhere, essentially, and expect at least some feedback. Web sites like the Superman Homepage, Alvaro's Comic Boards, the Superhero Chat forum, DC Comics Online and the Joe Quesada Web page allow artists to display their work. And, as these sites are frequently visited by comic book professionals, Joe Quesada's page especially, they may be a quick means to garner the right people's attention.
Writers are screwed. Once an unsolicited Big Two script is posted on the Web, it's useless... it will never be sold to either DC or Marvel, for various legal reasons. No doubt about it, we writers start out with two strikes against us: The Web is the kiss of death; and the no solicitation policy is a cross to bear, melodramatically speaking (or maybe not).
Neal: How do you get solicited by major comic companies?
Richard: If I only knew...
Neal: I know they gave a comic to a sitcom guy recently... that really burned me, trying my best to get in, and this guy writes comedy so they give him a 64 page special... name selling... what do you think of that?
Richard: Kudos to him. And kudos to the JSA fan whom Geoff Johns' brought to DC. Kudos to them both. And big, green mountains of envy for me.
Any well-written story is well-worth publishing, obviously. If the sitcom guy's story is strong, the industry's stronger for publishing it.
I really don't care where a story comes from... quality is all that matters. Publishing a bad story bothers me. Publishing a good story does not and cannot... no matter what its source.
Neal: All right. That's all I have in terms of general questions, so I'll leave you the rest of the space to say anything you think important that I might have neglected... feel free to talk about anything... we want to hear what you have to say, and I for one am interested in what you might say that I have missed in my many inane questions, which I will now thank you for answering finally while ceding the floor... thanks, Rich, and update us on what happens. I'd love to do a follow up.
[Writer's note: Rich was tapped, and who wouldn't be, after a grilling like that? ;) At any rate, he declined further comment.]
Neal: As for a follow up?
Richard: You got it, Neal!
Thanks so much for hearing me out, Superman Homepage!
If only DC was so kind...
Neal: Fantastic answers. Now, we've got Richard's responses to the questions. He's not in the industry, of yet (cross your fingers).
Click here to continue on to Part 2 of our "Welcome to the Comic Book Work Force" article, to read the interviews with Norm Breyfogle and Tom Nguyen on their thoughts on breaking into the comic book industry.