Our post-Comic Con celebration of come of our enormously talented, cross-media authors continues with an interview between Brian Michael Bendis, writer of Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Avengers, and Greg Rucka, whose first new thriller series in a decade kicked off with ALPHA, now in bookstores everywhere.
Brian Michael Bendis: So we’re being honest with our reading audience. Last week you were cool enough to come to my class—I teach a class at Portland State—and you came there and dropped some truth bombs on them, and rattled them to the core. It was a lot of fun. But I had questions left over that we never got to because it was more of a free floating conversation, so there was questions I was going to ask, and I didn’t. And the primary question I had that I think is more pertinent to this conversation than the one we were going to have in front of the students, was if you’ve given thought to your goals as a novelist at this point. Like, there’s the goals that you had when you started, which was to get published—and now you’re starting a new kind of phase in your career, in that age we’re in, we get more introspective. OK, we’ve been published—now what? OK, I get to do this—now what am I going to do with it? So I was curious if you had given thought to that, or if you were bring more take it as it comes.
Greg Rucka: You know, it’s weird, because coming into Mulholland, and Alpha is the first new series that I’ve done in over decade in novels, in prose. Stumptown was sort of the next step, but Alpha is the first in what is initially conceived of as the first of three novels, and may grow beyond that. I did give it some thought. There were two factors at work. The first is the obvious commercial one—you want to write something that’s going to be successful and you want to justify the publisher’s faith in you. You want to return them the money they’re willing to extend to you to write this thing, and most of the other novels are selling pretty well, but none of them have really broken out, and I’m not sure that’s a top agenda point.
But I would like to be able to write something that rewards the publisher’s faith. That actually does matter to me. I don’t hear a lot of writers talk about it. But self publishing is so viable that if you do go with a publisher you do want to make it worth everybody’s time. Content-wise, you touched on it, you know—I’m older. Like you, I’ve got kids. I have a different perspective than I did when I was 24, when my first novel was published.
I’ve always tried to write novels about things that piss me off, even if within the pages of the novel that anger was not necessarily evident. A book like Walking Dead, which has Atticus running really all over the world, pursuing human trafficking issues, that’s an obvious anger point. If you’re aware of the situation and not in some way outraged, then you’re not aware of the situation.
But with Alpha, with what I’m writing now in Bravo—hopefully what I’ll be able to achieve in Charlie as well—this is a guy who’s closer to my age, he’s not going to be perpetually young, he’s reaching a different point in his career as a military man; you can be Special Forces for a while, but at a certain point eventually your age is going to start catching up with you. I want his personal journey to be . . . there’s a dance here, and the dance is that these are suspense thrillers, those are what I wrote. These are about people with guns who are chasing after people with guns to keep the third party of people with guns from doing horrible things with their guns. That’s the mode, and those kinds of stories I feel need to entertain, they need to be exciting, they need to be page-turners.
But at the same time I also want, for my own purposes, there to be a level where the story is less about are they going to stop bad guy in time than is it about how is this man changing and coming to terms with the changes around him. And frankly, there’s an element that I think works very well for [Jad Bell]. We’ve come out of—come out of, we’re still in it—ten years, eleven years now, a really big globetrotting war. And the length, duration, and nature of this conflict really has taken, I think, that sacrifice and that cost and the changes that we have gone through as a nation, and they’ve been brushed aside, we’re not really thinking about them.
Look at the situation at Greece. If the situation is Greece is going to get much, much worse, it’s going to look like Germany did at the end of the first World War. Well, the economic situation at the end of the first World War, and the incredible punishment that was levied against them led directly to Hitler in the second World War. I was watching Cosmos last night, and it was the episode primarily talking about Kepler, and Kepler’s struggles, and the conflict with the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church at that time. And here’s Rick Santorum running for president on an anti-intellectual platform, on a platform that says I reject science, I reject the separation of church and state, by the way. So there’s an element right now where I feel history is setting itself up to repeat, we are cyclical patters. Why the hell nobody isn’t talking about this anymore—I can’t be the only one seeing it. Why somebody hasn’t pointed this out yet, I don’t know. But zealotry on any extreme worries me, and that’s one of the things that almost all of my writing is now focused on. It explains the price of that, and the price of that sort of brutal intolerance that says that not only are you wrong, but you’re so wrong that I need to murder you and salt the earth.
BMB: Yeah, it’s the intolerance.
GR: Yeah, it’s insane.
BMB: I can’t hear anyone else’s opinion. There’s the biggest different between us, you said it right there, you were watching an episode of Cosmos and I was watching the April Fools episode of iCarly. Anyway. You said the thing we wrestle with is, of course you want something to be successful, and we want as many people to see it as possible. And you can do everything right, completely fail, or do everything wrong, and completely succeed. But see, you can’t control any of it. Like, none of it. So you just go about your writing and work as hard as you can. The one thing I do share with you is that I want to do right by the publisher. This is a great gift that has been given and I don’t want them to feel like it was a complete waste of time on their part.
GR: I think you and I see it a lot because we see it a lot in comics. We see a lot in comics coming in and going, I’m going to use your toys, I’m going to use them to my end, and then I’m going to hike.
BMB: Or just the entitlement. I’m here now. Congratulations to you—I’m here. We’ve now been in it long enough now to where we see people come and go. We’ve seen the crash and burn, and you can see the crash and burn coming down the street. The only thing shocking thing about it now is that it used to take a two year solid arc of crash and burn, right? Now it’s eight months and you’re out. With all this entitlement, sometimes our names are brought up in it. Why do they get this? Without any self-awareness of how obnoxious it is and stuff like that. But it’s fascinating to see. Whatever road we’re on is littered with the corpses of entitlement.
GR: That entitlement factor I think—you and I work very differently. I think one of the things that we recognize in each other, really from the first time we met—I remember when you came to Portland—you and I have always taken the craft very seriously. I sometimes feel in my more darker and self-aware moments, I wonder if I put too much stock in that faith in craft. But at the end of the day, it’s all I got because it’s the only thing you can control.
BMB: Yeah, it’s the only thing that’s in your control.
GR: You had Tweeted last week about you had retired from conventions. I think I’ll be following those footsteps very soon. I don’t think I can see myself doing conventions for very much longer. One of the things that you get consistently at conventions or bookstores or signings, if you last, is what is your advice and how do you do it. And I always end up saying the same thing. It always comes down to commitment to your craft. That’s the only thing you can control. You cannot control anything else. All you can control your relationship to your work and the effort you’re willing to put into it, and how willing you are to recognize that you’re never going to be good enough and that you always have to get better. There aren’t many trades in the world, and this is an artistic trade, but when you’re writing for a publisher, for money, there are not many trades in the world where you can say what you know is not enough. There’s always more to learn. You can learn the tax code for 2012 and you’ll be covered for 2013. But the thing you wrote yesterday and the thing you write tomorrow, you pray to God that is a qualitative difference that what’s coming out tomorrow will be better than yesterday because of what you learned.
BMB: Well, as far as the convention retirement thing goes, there’s no trouble getting a hold me and you online at any time of the day. There’s a complete interaction with our audience if they so choose to have it, and I love that. We have both been a part of the positive aspects of that for a very long time, and I’ve had some truly amazing experiences. But my life’s changed. I don’t want to miss what’s going on in this house, you know? So I get the best of both worlds. I can hang out online or raise my children. I had a friend come through here on the way to Emerald City, and they were like ah, I don’t think I want to do this—and I’m like yeah, you don’t. You’ve done it three hundred times. You’ve mastered it. You conquered it, so find something else to conquer. Some people think it’s disrespect to the readers, and I’m like no. I’m online all day long. I’m not ignoring anything. I want to stay home on the weekend. When you got a nine-year-old and a four-year-old, that’s when the good stuff’s going on.
GR: My son’s twelve, now. Elliot’s twelve. Dashiell is going to be nine at the end of May. Literally, every day is a show. There’s never a shortage of material at the house either, you know, so.
BMB: That’s true.
GR: If I’m going to be traveling, I want it to be for research purposes more than anything else. I find, for me, it’s gotten harder and harder to get out of the house to research. There’s a trap of sort of defaulting to the internet for research, which is never going to be as good as first hand, and getting on the ground and talking to the people there, it’s just never going to be as good.
BMB: I certainly can’t do police ride-alongs like I used to do all the time. I go, Yeah, I got kids—I’ve done this like twelve times. You’re just being a jerk. Stop sitting in the back of the squad car with a meth addict. Oh, I did have a great parenting moment last night. Olivia turned to me and said, Which Beasty Boy is Mike D? And I literally teared up. How beautiful—I waited nine years for you to ask me that. Anyway. That was the best. Nine years brainwashing and it worked. I got her. Goodbye, Taylor Swift. I win.
GR: The problem is you have to maintain it.
BMB: No, I’m fully invested.
GR: Olivia is playing drums, right? Dashiell is on piano and guitar, so we have the next Portland band in the making.
BMB: Olivia was upset because she can’t keep a band together at nine. She’s part of Rock Camp for Girls, and they get to put a band together for like a semester and then they focus on one song and everything goes away. They’re at that age where they don’t think to take each other’s emails or anything. She’s was like, Ah, we can’t keep a band together, and I was like, Call someone, I don’t know.
GR: Let her know that Dashiell is available.
BMB: That’s very cool to know. I’ll let her know.
GR: A lot of songs about you and me. In Four Years, My Dad Did . . .
BMB: The one thing I’m fascinated about in your lifestyle is that you either get the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds. That is the immediate response of a monthly comic. You know, for football it’s every given Sunday—you’re either a hero or a failure. For us, it’s every given Wednesday. Every given Wednesday, we’re either the best thing in the world or the shittiest thing in the world. With books, there’s this longer term—you know, you’re telling a joke and you have to wait months if not a year to get a laugh. Bill Murray said the worst thing about movies is you tell a joke and wait a whole year to hear if anyone thinks it’s funny, versus being on the stage and getting that immediate response. I’m fascinated by that. We both have collections of our works out that people have read over the course of years. But there’s a specific thing with a brand new novel, putting it out there in world and seeing some of your fans consume it that day—we were talking about that last week.
GR: Yeah, and that frustration that this took a year, from start to finish. From research to draft to publication, and now it’s in somebody’s hands and they’re going to read it in four hours. And sometimes that’s a fantastic compliment, and then there’s times where I’m like why did I bother.
BMB: It’s funny because my wife rips through novels in like a day, right? And never in my life would I do that for a second. Subconsciously, I am aware of how long this took, so I don’t want to do this to the writer, whereas someone who doesn’t do it wants to devour it as quickly as possible.
GR: Well, there is a difference in that turnaround. You know how it is with comics. Half the time, you’re like, oh, when people read this they’re going to go crazy—and then there’s no response. And the other half of the time you’re like oh, yeah, I did this thing—and people go nuts. A comic comes out and I don’t tend to go for cover. Oh, it’s Wednesday—do I need to worry about what’s going to happens on the internet today? Yes? No? There are professionals who will go to every bookstore on the day of release and sign every copy and say, Hah, it’s non-returnable now, and so on. Try to push it at launch. I have to just fight this urge to just bunker up. It’s an issue of familiarity. The turnaround for comics is so quick. You strip and you get your pages and then the book’s out, and by the time the book’s out, three or four, five, six things down the line, you just keep the schedule going.
With a novel, even though I’ll be deep in or ideally even finished with the one that is to come next, the distance isn’t actually insulating for me. It makes it feel very raw. It’s gotten easier the further I’ve gotten in my novel writing career. I think I’ve got like sixteen of them, now. But I know when the first, second, third came out, I was very aware of letting the child go out into the universe, and hoping the book would survive out there and people would love and cherish it. The worst thing for the book is for it to be ignored, and because of that feedback loop and that delay in it, I know—Alpha comes out May 22nd—I know that. And I know that when the book comes out, it will be a nerve racking day. It’s not as if anything would have changed. It really isn’t. The book would have gone on sale. That’s really it. But the reviews would already start coming and I will still refuse to read them, and I will still be traumatized. I will still be going around on that day going to book is in the wild, now.
It’s not an issue on investment. It’s not as if I invest more in a novel. I tend to use the metaphor: writing a comic strip is a sprint compared to running a marathon that is a novel. But that is never meant to apply that one gets a better effort than the other. I’m going to try to bring the best to everything I write. Regardless of whatever it is, I’m going to try to bring my best game. Also, and maybe because of the orbits that move in online, the novel-consuming community where it does not cross over with the comic-consuming community has been in my experience a far more muted one. They tend to be less histrionic, perhaps.
BMB: No, no, I’ve seen that in comics as well. There’s a gigantic part of the online community that is enjoying themselves immensely and doesn’t want to fight about over every goddamn about thing. They don’t have any interest in it at all. They don’t know what it’s about. It’s embarrassing to them and they don’t want to be a part of it. A lot of times these conversations can be dominated by the histrionics.
GR: It’s an issue of volume, whoever gets to be loudest. The Internet sort of being that great mythological equalizer—he who shouts loudest or has the most ratings, their opinion is the most just.
BMB: Exactly. And then there’s the reading comprehension level. And I’m not talking about my work. I’ve seen this with other peoples’ work where I’ve seen something that’s quite lovely and I’ll see somebody respond, Oh, you didn’t understand it.
GR: And it feels like, well, you read something totally different. It’s always interesting to see what the audience brings to any given work at any given time, anyway. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been accused with well-constructed arguments for my sexism. And I’m like, that’s not the book I wrote. That’s not the story I wrote.
BMB: You want to see what you want to see because that’s what you want to see.
GR: Well, I’m a liberal arts educated English major, so I know how literary criticism works. I know that you can take the text and you can read the text to be anything you want it to be. People who bring poor critical skills can turn something to be whatever it is. The other thing the Internet has given us is a whole lot of self-appointed critics.
Greg Rucka is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen novels, including the Atticus Kodiak and Tara Chace series, and has won multiple Eisner awards for his graphic novels. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children.
Brian Michael Bendis is an American comic book writer and former artist. He has won critical acclaim (including five Eisner Awards) for his self-published, Image Comics and Marvel Comics work, and is one of the most successful writers working in mainstream comics.
Greg Rucka’s ALPHA is now available in bookstores everywhere.