the red pen

My first week as an assistant editor, Denny O'Neil called me into his office and handed me a script which had just come in. He told me to read it and get back to him with my thoughts.

It was the first script I'd ever read. I was thrilled to be reading a script by a writer I admired, thrilled to know I was maybe only the third person in the world to read this brand new Batman story. And it was, typically, a very good one. I went back to Denny and told him so. 

Denny nodded, then leaned back in his chair. "The plothole around how they discovered the maguffin didn't bother you?" 

I debated trying to pretend I'd caught the plothole but decided instead to admit that I'd totally missed it. And yet once he brought it up, yeah, there it was. 

I asked if he was going to send it back for a rewrite. 

He shrugged. "It's a pretty easy fix." 

He grabbed a pen—a red one, of course—crossed out a few words in one line of dialogue, added a new line of dialogue, and handed the script to me to send to the penciller. 

Then he held up the pen and said, "Before you pick up the red pen, make absolutely sure you're changing it to make it better, and not just to make it different, or the way you would have done it." 

Then he turned away and started reading something else. I was dismissed, having gotten my first—and still one of the very best—lessons in editing. 

[That photo up above—found online somewhere—was taken in the office Denny was occupying when I first interviewed with him, and yet I remember having the red pen conversation in a corner office he later had a few doors down; memory is a strange, strange beast.]

RIP Dennis O'Neil

I have written and rewritten hundreds and hundreds of words since I got the news first thing this morning. And none of those words seem right. None come close to capturing who Denny was or what he meant to me and my life. I don't have anywhere near enough skill. And even if I did, I just...I can't right now.

The world feels different today. It's like gravity has shifted somehow—not so much less of it, or more or it. More's not quite straight down any longer, but is now off to the side somewhere. Not a ton. Just a bit. But enough to make everything feel off-kilter, askew. The planet's still revolving, still rotating. But it's not the same. It's not the same.

illustration by the incomparable Brian Stelfreeze

Gotham Adventures #30: Heart of Clay

I love Scans-Daily. Long before legal digital reprints were easily accessible (or even available), Scans-Daily was where I'd go to find a story I remembered fondly (or couldn't quite remember very clearly). Even now, I find them not just an invaluable resource, but just plain swell.

It doesn't hurt when they like the stuff you write, of course. Such as, for instance, Gotham Adventures #30.

(Don't get me wrong—I know what they're really responding to is the wonderful art by the great Tim Levins. And who can blame 'em?)

Here's what I wrote:

Panel One
Batman and Clayface stand with Mister and Mrs. McKee and a doctor--let’s make this doctor female and either African-American or Asian, whichever you feel like, Tim. She wears a coat that clearly shows she’s a doctor, but perhaps the STAR Labs logo can be on there, to differentiate her from the Fort Kisco docs?
     DOCTOR: ...and since the floor temperature can be dropped in a matter of seconds, Clayface can be frozen into immobility at any time.
     BATMAN: I don’t think we need to worry about another escape attempt.

Panel Two
Batman’s opening the door that leads into another room. Clayface is looking sullen..
      CLAYFACE: Great. So you can keep me here, but you can’t force me to do whatever it is you want.
     BATMAN: Why don’t you explain that to Tommy?

Panel Three
Closeup on Clayface, his face going slack upon seeing Tommy.
      CLAYFACE: Who’s Tommy and why do I...
      CLAYFACE: Oh. 
Panel Four
Twoshot of Clayface and Tommy. Tommy’s ten and due to a genetic problem, he looks very much like a smaller, paler version of Clayface, only worse--his molecular structure is breaking down, causing him, in effect, to melt. The two of them look at each with a touch of horror and lot of recognition and resulting sadness.
Here, impossibly, is what Tim delivered:

How heartbreaking is that last panel? How crazy spot on is the expression Tim gave poor Tommy? I swear, I've seen this page dozens of times and it never doesn't get to me. The pathos is insanely powerful.

Somehow, Tim then surpassed that on the subsequent pages—here's what I wrote:
Panel One
Clayface holds out his right arm and pushes up his sleeve with the other. We can see that from the wrist up to the elbow it’s goopy and Clayface-looking. Tommy looks on.

Panel Two
Now Clayface’s arm solidifies and looks quite normal. Tommy looks happily amazed.

Panel Three
Tommy hold out his arm and grits his teeth and squints his eyes, clearly trying the same thing. Clayface looks somewhat anxiously expectant.

Panel Four
Tommy lets his arm and the rest of his body drop, very disappointed: this seemed to be his last hope, and now it’s gone too. Clayface looks quite sad.

Panel One
Clayface grabs Tommy’s arm and holds it with his arm, which is now goopy again. Clayface smiles reassuringly.

Panel Two
They both concentrate like hell, Clayface playing it up for all it’s worth.

Panel Three
Closeup on Clayface’s and Tommy’s eyes as Tommy concentrates and Clayface stares at Tommy intently.

Panel Four
Pull back for them both looking down at Tommy’s arm which is now the arm of any ol’ ten year old. Tommy looks like he was just told he’s taking batting practice with Ken Griffey Jr, while Clayface’s pleasure is a little more muted if just as deep; he’s purty durn stoked here. 

How perfectly did Tim draw Clayface's morphing lessons?  

I love how Tim used the exact same size and shape panels on each of these two pages, then changed them up—all widescreen on the first page and then switching to all vertical on the second. So great.

To his chagrin, time after time, Tim showed me that I could write anything—from ridiculously overcomplicated shot descriptions to pages where I'd just say "I have no idea what should happen here, Tim--help!" and I'd get back exactly what I wanted only ever so much more so. In other words, I'm pretty sure this sequence was a metaphor for our artistic relationship.

Demolition Man

Of the many perks that came with working at DC Comics in the 1990s, one of the coolest was the free movies. Every Wednesday night, there was a screening at the Warner Bros building a few blocks away of a current film—and not just WB movies, but from other studios too—for the DC employees. Free first-run movies every week? You betcha.

Which is how I saw the Sylvester Stallone movie Demolition Man, with Wesley Snipes as the scene-chewingest of bad guys, and a pretty much unknown Sandra Bullock as Sly's sidekick.

The best part, though, for me, was the laughter that swept through the audience at the surprise cameo appearance

Coincidence? Highly unlikely.

Batman: Contagion

Just the other day, Darren Vincenzo and Jordan B. Gorfinkel mentioned in our ongoing chat that we were really quite prescient with the Batman: Contagion storyline we worked on back in 1996. And what should pop up the very next day but this fine article from the ever fine Gotham Calling site?
[...] a storyline where the Dark Knight ends up fighting a disease—that is to say, a villain without motivation that cannot technically be outsmarted and certainly cannot be punched or kicked in the head. In part, the whole thing worked at the time because, under the remarkable editorship of Dennis O’Neil, writers Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, and Doug Moench had been fleshing out Gotham’s population and institutions for a while, so it was fun to see all these familiar characters deal with the challenge at various levels. It’s one of those tales in which the city itself is the protagonist!
That was indeed our exact point. As with the subsequent Cataclysm storyline, we specifically set out to explore what happens with the Batman and his allies run up against enemies they cannot physically fight, who aren't interested in outsmarting or humiliating them—who aren't really interested in them at all, because they're not human (nor alien).

It all started when Darren, who loves books like this, was the first one to read The Hot Zone and insisted the rest of us did, which we of course did. Not long thereafter, Catwoman penciller Jim Balent came in for lunch and casually mentioned that it'd be cool if part of Gotham were totally destroyed, how there'd be a lot of good story material there. A few months later, at one of our annual Batsummits, that idea was brought back up, and Darren suggested combining it with some of the stuff we'd learned from The Hot Zone and voila: a Contagion was born.

Why is this old crossover storyline on people's radar again? I couldn't possibly begin to guess. 

Batman: Kings of Fear one of the year's best

Well, that's awfully nice.
Kelley Jones just gets better with age, honing his abstract style to do more storytelling alongside visuals that put Bats and his rogues gallery into perspectives no other creator has thought to try. The covers alone are worth picking this one up, and the insides are even better. Some of the panel layouts and way Kelley works off Peterson's cool concept--what if Scarecrow drugged Bats enough to get him talking--were so good I just stared at them for several minutes. And that's not to underplay Scott's work here as a writer--he really digs into the psychological concepts of Batman, even if I disagree with some of the answers we find in the series. I don't read a lot of DC material right now, but I'm glad I got to this one, it's highly recommended and requires no prior context beyond a general knowledge of the characters.
I admit, I thought it was pretty swell, too.

Truckus Maximus: what more could a reader want?

Another librarian likes us! She really likes us!
A futuristic, dystopian world where the slightest mistakes can get you sent to your death, exciting races (also to the death), and a bunch of teenagers using their skills to make a family - what more could a reader want? Excellent art, well detailed with as much or more of the story told in pictures as in the text. My manga fans are going to love this one! Can't wait to get it on the shelves.
When you're writing a comic and you've José García as your artist, you'd be well-advised indeed to tell the story in pictures more than the text.

Truckus Maximus: adrenaline high, action-packed

A good review is always nice. But a good review from a librarian is extra special:
This was a fun, adrenaline high, action-packed book. The illustrations are gritty and intense, with a full range of colors that evoke a dystopian world. The plot is quick moving, with training montages and a climatic race to the finish. The characters are lovable, quirky, and authentic, and the story is a great modern take on the Roman Empire and gladiators. If you love adventure, racing, monster trucks, or gritty illustrations and characters, this is a perfect book for you. 

Truckus Maximus: the interview!

Chris Barton, who's not only a wonderful children's book author but also one of the only human beings who might just have better musical taste than I, interviewed me and Truckus Maximus illustrator José García (one of the only human beings who might just be more prolific than Chris Barton) about Truckus.

Being interviewed together was a delight, as I discovered yet again that José and I are like peas in a pod, except for the ways in which we have absolutely nothing in common. I like to think that strange combination is what makes us so simpatico as collaborators.

Here's the interview—and if you move fast, you might even win a free copy of Truckus Maximus! Oh, sure, I know, you've probably already bought a copy of Truckus for yourself, as well as several more copies to give to loved ones this holiday season, but if you win Chris's giveaway, you'll also have one to give to strangers, and what could be better than winning—nay, earning—the eternal love and gratitude of a complete stranger? Exactly: nothing!

So what are you waiting for? Go now—operator is sitting by.

“I was drawn toward tales of underdogs — especially when they banded together to achieve something none of them could ever do on their own.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for December 2019

"I AM Batman."

So partner-in-crime(fighting stories) Tim Levins posted this page earlier today:
And great as his storytelling is—as always—this page never doesn't make me laugh, because of the middle panel.

I was so sure everyone was going to pick up on my blatant Seinfeld reference.

Truckus Maximus: an alt-world action movie

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books weighs in on Truckus Maximus!
With its action-packed visuals, tricked-out cars, and edge-of-your-seat racing stunts, this sci-fi graphic novel holds plenty of tween and teen appeal. The plot reads like an alt-world action movie, complete with training montages and climactic race to the finish, but the story never loses its heart or its humor. Readers will be drawn to Axl, stubborn Piston, and the rest of Team Apollo’s crew. Give this broadly likable novel to fans of Camper’s Lowriders in Space, NASCAR, racing video games, and The Fast and the Furious franchise.
My daughters love the Fast and the Furious films so from their point-of-view, that's some high praise indeed.

Truckus Maximus: boisterous fun

Booklist weighs in on Truckus Maximus!
With nearly 300 pages to work with, author Peterson is not afraid to pump the brakes in order to develop his characters and flesh out his bizarre world, helpfully sandwiching such scenes between daredevil races and huge car pile ups. 
In artwork resembling a mash-up of Speed Racer and Mad Max: Fury Road, [artist] García compellingly pairs anime-inspired character designs, complete with over-the-top expressions, with heavily detailed cars and in-depth racing action, bringing lively, dynamic motion to the scenes. He also makes clever use of space, switching nimbly between full-page spreads and short runs of panels.  
Boisterous fun for manga or racing fans. 

Truckus Maximus: high-octane adventure

The School Library Journal reviews Truckus Maximus! An excerpt:
Welcome to a futuristic world that never saw the collapse of the Roman Empire. There are enormous disparities among social classes, with the rich cloistered away in temples with plenty to consume and the poor working themselves to death for a meager existence. One of the few things that unites everyone is watching Truckus Maximus, the ultimate car race.

[José] García’s art owes much to traditional manga—characters have large, expressive eyes and artfully spiked hair. Creative paneling and great use of fumes, fire, and smoke capture the frenetic action. Peterson effectively conveys Piston’s journey as an underdog and Team Apollo banding together when facing obstacles.

VERDICT ...this high-octane adventure will appeal to fans of manga or racing.
They could not be more right about José's amazing ability to capture frenetic action via  creative paneling, great use of fumes, fire, and smoke and pretty much every other tool in the kit, as well as a few I think he invented.

Oh yes

Truckus Maximus: tribute to underdogs

A pretty spiffy review from Kirkus:
Thanks to the incisive probing of the crushing power of spectacle via a focus on the game and its toll on the drivers, the story evokes oppressive regimes. The gritty artwork overflows with frenetic action, using colors that evoke a dystopian world. Ample use of close-ups, irregular panel layouts, and other techniques sharpen the story’s emotional resonance and stakes.

A truly marvelous tribute to underdogs.

Batman: König der Angst!

Today I Learned: that the German edition of Batman: Kings of Fear is titled Batman - König der Angst and I couldn't possibly love that more. And to discover it on Halloween yet!

It's available from Panini as well as the German and Austrian Amazons, with the translation courtesy Josef Rother.

Man. The only thing that makes the Batman even more the Batman is when he's German. (I think that's the answer to one the Riddler's riddles. But probably not really.)

José García: modern gladiator

It wasn't easy finding the right artist for Truckus Maximus. See, most artists have a thing or two they especially like to draw...or hate to draw. Some love drawing tech, others hate it. Some love to draw animals, others hate it. Some love superheroes, some hate 'em. Some love fantasy or sci-fi, others get the idea. So finding the right creative team for a project is always a challenge, but a vital part of the process. A brilliant artist on the wrong book just isn't likely to catch creative fire.

Truckus was especially challenging. Because a lot of the book is people talking.

And the rest of the book is insane car races.

Finding someone who loves drawing either one of those isn't too hard. Finding someone great who loves drawing either of those, however, is. And finding someone great who loves drawing both? That's nearly impossible.

What's more, for logistical reasons, I needed to write the entire script before locking an artist down—the first time in a long time I'd done a major project without knowing in advance who the artist is. That's a key bit of information for a comics writer to know. Because if you know who your artist is, you can write to his or her strengths and avoid the things he or she doesn't like. Your artist loves cityscapes? Set your story in the urban jungle. Your artist loves drawing horses? Write a western. Your artist loves tech? Set it in a futurish factory. Whatever. The more your artist likes what he or she needs to draw, the better your story is likely to look and the better it's going to therefore seem—and the better a writer you're going to therefore appear. Genius!

So. We had a monster script that called for two specific skills sets which are themselves a bit on the rare side in comics and which are even more rarely to be found in the same person. We know this because we looked for an artist for a long, long time. But although we considered a fair number who could do one thing well or the other thing, no one was quite able to nail both aspects perfectly.

And then one day editor Calista Brill said, hey, I think I found the guy.

Enter José García.

She'd seen his stuff at San Diego Comic-Con and was really impressed. She sent me his samples and I was really impressed. So we pulled together some material for him to try out on.

And a few days later, this stuff came in:

I believe Calista put it quite well when she said, "HOLY CATS."

That was my first look at what José could do when unleashed upon the stuff I'd written. These characters who'd lived in my head and in my script for so long were suddenly real. And they were spectacular.

So. Okay. Sure. He could design characters like no one's business. And invent one seriously badass automobile. But how was his storytelling?

A few days later, these came in:

I believe my reaction was something along the lines of "homina homina homina."

So. There was no doubt: we had our artist. And I was a very happy boy. A very happy boy indeed.

But it was many, many months later, after José was able to really start on the project in earnest, that I fully realized just how much I'd lucked out. It was the day this double-page spread arrived.

Everything about it was just right. It showed that he not only totally understood who these characters were, but was also able to convey that in just a few images, and without even the benefit of (almost) any words. The characterization is so deft. The storytelling is impeccable. The drawing is perfect. And it's simply gorgeous. 

And, improbably, somehow José actually kept not only matching that amazing page, but even topping it. And, somehow, even 250 pages later, he was still talking to me. (That's how you can tell he's a keeper.)