Happy Birthday, Truckus Maximus!

So. At long last, it's here: Truckus Maximus is officially official.

8 years I pitched Calista Brill at First Second Books a graphic novel about a world where the Roman Empire never fell, but where panem et circenses is still the name of the game—only here the gladiators are enslaved teenagers racing monster trucks on reality TV. A few weeks later (after Calista had emailed with the second-greatest sentence an editor can send a writer: "what happens next?!") they made me an offer.

6 years ago, I sent the first draft of the script off for notes.

5 years ago, Calista told me about this amazing young artist she'd found named José García.

A year and a half ago, José sent in the final art files to First Second. Truckus was done.

But unlike the world of mainstream comic books—where it's often only a matter of weeks from when the artist is done to when the comics are on the shelves—book publishing works at a whole different speed.

So it's only now, 18 months later, that the 280-page behemoth that José and I worked on so closely for so long has really entered the world. José and I got our copies a month or so back, and that was an incredible thrill. But it's only now, when we can walk into any local bookstore or comic book shop or go to a massive internet store and find a copy that it's really real.

So. Here's hoping you pick up a copy via your favorite online or brick-and-mortal store and here's hoping you love it. José and I certainly loved (almost) every minute of making it.


Artistic Collaboration, or, Shirking Responsibility

So Tim Levins has been absolutely rocking the Instagram recently. And a few days ago, he started posting some pages from Gotham Adventures #24, showing both his pencils and the final colored and lettered page.

A question followed about the shot description for one of those pages. I've kept most of my scripts over the years, so I was able to pull up that particular page and was very surprised by what I found. Since the first comic book scripts I ever read were by Alan Moore, I just assumed his way of writing shot descriptions was the norm. To put it mildly, it is not. Most writers give far less detail in their shot descriptions and many excellent writers are nearly spartan when it comes to what they request.

So I was interested and pleased to discover just how quickly in our working relationship I started simply turning things over to Tim, trusting in his artistic vision.

Here's the sequence:

And here's my script for this sequence:


Page Seventeen
Panel One
Upshot from behind and below Batman. He’s in the EFG on the rear of the truck looking up at the buildings overlooking the truck where he can see Catwoman’s silhouette running away in EBG.

Panel Two
Reverse angle, so we’re looking down past Catwoman in the EFG. Behind and below her we can see Batman swinging on his line, on his way up to us.

Panel Three
And the chase is on. Okay, Tim, you said you’d like lots and lots of rooftops and whatnot, so that’s what you’ve got here. In fact, if you have no objections, I’m going to let you take it away. Here’s where we end up: She’s on the edge of a building that’s at least five or six stories high (you can go higher if you want), that has only taller buildings nearby, and her building can’t have any fire escapes or other ways down. She’s got her back to the street and is facing Batman, who’s about five feet away and is holding his batarang/line. I have no idea how they get there.
            Have I ever told you my philosophy on the Adventures books? I could go on for hours, but you can boil it down to a few points. One of the things that sets them apart is this: they are a comic based on an animated show based on a comic. They are not simply kiddie versions of the regular books, though it is absolutely integral that they be accessible to children.

Panel Four(?)


Page Eighteen
Panel One
To that end, the storytelling must always be crystal clear and interesting and exciting. Now, animation has the obvious benefits of being able to move the camera and add sound effects and music and voices and all that. We can’t do that, so we have to rely on clear stories (which, hopefully, have an interesting twist and/or plenty of heart and some humour) with excellent and arresting art.

Panel Two
In order to simulate the pace at which the animated show goes--one of its strong points--we restrict ourselves to no more than four panels per page (making the rare exception for effect), and sometimes fewer, we always open on a splash and so on. Big exciting images. Although it would seem to be the opposite, it actually makes the book much more challenging and difficult, a fact which escapes many (though never you, Tim).

Panel Three
So, with that in mind...have fun. If you’d rather I paced it out, I’d be happy to, but since you wanted to draw Catwoman in the first place, I give you freedom. Fly, be free.
Panel Four(?)


Page Nineteen
Panel One

Panel Two

Panel Three

Panel Four(?)
And she’s seemingly trapped.
            CATWOMAN: You certainly know how to make a girl feel wanted.

            BATMAN: What’s this all about, Catwoman?


First off, I'd like to express admiration for how great the final version of this entire sequence is, but especially how clever and effective the layout of that middle page is. I'd like to, but I'm not a good enough writer.

But it's that last page that really struck me. Because it's not only one of my favorites, but a storytelling concept I've used several other times—where the character does a hesitant stutter-step, trying to decide which way to go, while the camera's locked off all the while for maximum clarity and humorous effect. And I am astonished to discover that I apparently stole it all from Tim. Oh, well: as they say, steal from the best.

Batman: Kings of Fear video review

Well, now, isn't this a nice way to kick off the weekend? (A: it is if you're me or Kelley Jones.)

Probably goes without saying, but just in case: lots of spoilers in there. (Including one for Spider-Man: Far from Home.) 

The Storytelling Genius of Genius Artist Tim Levins

You know what I love? Besides genius artist Tim Levins and genius artist Tim Levins's artwork? I love when other people recognize the genius of genius artist Tim Levins and his genius artwork. I love that a lot.
If there is one Batman run that doesn’t get enough praise, it’s the strand of highly entertaining stories published in Gotham Adventures #15-60, from 1999 to 2003, written by Scott Peterson, mostly with pencils by Tim Levins, inks by Terry Beatty, and colors by Lee Loughridge. Adapting the characters and visuals of The New Batman Adventures animated show, these were action-packed comics that steadily delivered exciting standalone tales without talking down to their audience. The ultra-compressed narratives – effectively carried by taut dialogue as well as by an art style of crisp lines and low average of panels per page – were a lesson in minimalistic storytelling, spinning twist-filled yarns that were rich in characterization yet never felt overloaded.  
Of the many outstanding features of this run worth pointing out, today I want to focus on Tim Levins’ ability to bring to life ‘silent’ (i.e. wordless, without even sound effects) sequences that go on for pages. Scott Peterson clearly trusted his artists to convey all the necessary information and knew that readers enjoyed visually-driven set pieces, so his scripts provided Levins (and the rest of the creative team) with plenty of chances to shine.  
Levins rose up to the challenge.
Damn right he did.

Tim Levins’ deft pencils inject this sequence with peerless vitality through tilted angles and, in the second page, tilted borders (as the layout smoothly establishes the scene’s rhythm). Notice how Levins uses a small number of panels, letting the pages breathe, yet suddenly multiplies the images of the Caped Crusader, which gives the impression of a quick (yet clear) succession of graceful movements. Besides creating a loop for the readers’ gaze as it follows the action across the page (thus further increasing the dynamism of the reading experience), this neat trick efficiently illustrates an incredible acrobatic feat, underlining how athletic and cool Batman is.
Spot on. I'd add that in addition to all that, Tim notably refrained from having any elements breaking the panel borders, a technique which can be extremely effective in adding excitement to a layout, but which would have completely unnecessary here. Moreover, it's frequently used incorrectly even by some very good artists, because if not done just right, it can easily lead the reader's eye away from where it's supposed to go and into an area it's not. Such common gaffes are not for the likes of Monsieur Levins, however.

Without exception*, Tim took whatever I asked for and made it ever so much better than I ever could have imagined. After working together on just a handful of issues, I started paring my shot descriptions back further and further because there just kinda was no point—I could describe in the minutest detail what I was looking for and he would deliver it perfectly and it would look spectacular...or I could write "Batman and the bad guy fight" and he would deliver something even better than merely spectacular.

Tim's going to hate this post, incidentally. That's another reason I'm so happy about it.

[*there is actually one exception. Tim knows what he did.]

Batman: Kings of Fear review

Look, since I wrote Batman: Kings of Fear, I'm not going to say this guy's right about all this...I'm just going to say he makes a highly persuasive case, which has the added benefit of not being wrong at all

[A] consequence of having so many Batman books flooding the market is that potential readers are not aware of which of those comics are worth investing their time and money. An excess of merchandise by the same brand can lead to some good stories being lost in the mix and that approach is counterproductive.  
Let’s take this 2018-2019 miniseries, Kings of Fear, written by Scott Peterson and drawn by Kelley Jones: it flew under the radar while it was published and it has not gained any major hindsight from critics in the last couple of months, which is a shame given that this book provides us with some very fascinating insight on Batman as a character and delivers a conclusion that is actually quite refreshing for those of us that perhaps are not very thrilled with the direction the character over the last few years. 
What sets Scott Peterson apart from the rest of the current Batman writers (with a notorious exception being Peter J. Tomasi and his exceptional Detective Comics run) is the fact that he acknowledges these criticisms of Bruce’s war on crime, but he also offers us the chance of viewing the other side of the coin, as if this were a debate of sorts. This results in great scenes like Batman helping a little girl and her showing that his motivation is to prevent kids from going through what he went through, that his villains don’t keep coming back because he creates them or prompts them but rather that they are just insane and a scene with a professional in Arkham that tells him that his husband actually did time in jail and never committed another crime again because he was still terrified of the Batman, becoming a family man and a honest worker.  
You also get Gordon’s take on the matter, which seemed like a callback to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, in my view, and, most importantly, Alfred’s take, which to me defines the whole argument: that Batman might not be the most pleasant solution, but is one that has given a lot of possibilities and help to Gotham as a whole, often hidden beneath Bruce’s obsession to do more and never-ending quest to push himself even further.  
This is what I find the most appealing about Kings of Fear: it tackles a topic that has been discussed for years among comic book fans and it delivers an answer that is actually counter-cultural in these modern times, showing Batman as a force that has provided good to the city that he has sworn to protect. All through the Scarecrow’s classic psychedelic lens 
In a market that is filled with Batman titles, Kings of Fear is short and yet entertaining book that also offers a major insight into the Dark Knight’s motivation and place as a hero.  

mad editing and lettering skillz

So I had a problem.

That I'd have a problem isn't news to anyone who's ever met me. But this one was pretty unique.

As others have picked up on, I like the comics I write to be as sparse as possible, when it comes to dialogue. I don't care for sound effects, generally speaking, and I hate thought balloons. (Yeah, I still like first-person captions, in some contexts, at least. What can I say? Comics from the mid-to-late 80s were very formative.)

Batman: Kings of Fear was a bit different. Since it was set as Doctor Jonathan Crane's dissection of the Batman's psyche, it was always intended to be more dialogue-intensive than most of my works, but still with large stretches of silent or nearly silent panels or pages and even entire scenes. And when I'd get the pencils from Kelley Jones the great and terrible, I'd pretty much always say, yup, that's exactly what I was looking for! And then be amazed when he'd suggest I add some dialogue. I mean...why clutter up his phenomenal art with [what I saw as] unnecessary copy?

Still, I'm all about the cooperation, so I generally did as he requested, no matter how wrong he was, because, as Immanuel Kant once asked and answered, "what is going to achieve one's goals? Working together as a cooperative unit."

And then we got to the final issue. Here's what I wrote for the opening:
Page One
Panel One
Batman, out of control, has the Scarecrow by the front of his costume and is screaming into his face, out of control. Or maybe he’s got at least one hand around his throat? This is a scary, violent image.
            BATMAN: yaaargh [dialogue to be tweaked, presumably, after being pencilled]

Page Two
Panel One
The Batman is very clearly just about to kill the Scarecrow....when…

Panel Two
…he glances over or up or whatever works logistically and sees the guard all trussed up over in the corner, nearly forgotten.

Panel Three
And the danger passes. Because the sight of the victim (or at least a witness) makes the Batman remember who and what he is. (A damn hero is what, Kelley, you cynical, jaded son of a gun.) So a similar pose but now all the tension is gone.

Panel Four
Sad tired Batman is sad and tired. He drops the Scarecrow, who falls on the ground in a heap.
            BATMAN: Why?

Here's what Kelley drew:


Perfection! Print it! (Well, I suppose inking and coloring it first might be advisable. Especially considering how good the inker and colorist were for this issue—namely Kelley Jones and Michelle Madsen, respectively.)

And then Kelley said those dreaded words: "I think he should be saying something in the first panel of the second page." I grimaced. I scowled. I looked at the pages again. And for once I didn't entirely disagree.

It really did look like it could use a tiny bit of dialogue, that the Scarecrow should be saying—perhaps babbling—something. But what?

I thought for a moment, and then I wrote:

            SCARECROW: i'm sorry okay oh my god i'm so sorry please don't hurt me please don't hurt me please don't i know i probably deserve it and you’re probably really mad and i don’t blame you but please don't you're really freaking me out i'm so sorry
And I thought...yeah, I kinda like that. 

The problem was, that wouldn't look good in a word balloon. First of all, there's simply too much copy. And I could cut it way down, obviously, but I thought having the Scarecrow word vomit all over the dark knight was the most effective way to go, and trimming that overly copious copy down too much would kneecap its efficacy.

So. What to do, what to do? Well, one of the nice things about working in this business is that after a while you tend to develop a group of peers to whom you can turn for advice, whether it's in the initial spitballing or looking at an entire storyarc to make sure it works on a structural level or who'll be willing to go over an individual line of dialogue with you and pick it apart and put it back together over and over and over again until it shines like the top of the Chrysler building.

In this case, I turned to the utterly indefatigable Devin Grayson. I explained the problem to her, sent her the page and the dialogue. She looked at it for about half a second and then suggested:
what if there's no actual dialog, but the background is a faded scroll of Scarecrow blather. Like the whole background, in a very faint font, is just all "no please don't okay you win just don't hurt me"? Almost like Scarecrow's blathering on but Batman doesn't even really hear him, it's all just in the background, wallpaper...
And I thought, oh hell yes.

But that brought up the next problem. Which was that lettering that was likely to be pretty tricky, which meant it might not work out at all the way I wanted, and could really annoy the letterer, something no writer ever wants to do (and all writers do anyway).

Fortunately, in this case, I had (my apologies to all the other very fine letterers working today) the best letterer in the biz on the job: the great and hirsute Rob Leigh.

I ever so politely asked if he could take the babble and fill the second and third panels with it...and this is what I got:

I am a very lucky man.

(Writing this just now, I discovered a note to myself during an earlier draft, where it's all silent, except for the Scarecrow whispering, very softly, in one of the first two panels, "you're scaring me." I like the final version much better...but I must say, that amused me.)