Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Revisiting the Bleed: Jeff Parker Interview

A Slightly Out of Date Yet Still Awesome Interview With: JEFF PARKER

Jeff Parker is the writer of Marvel's Atlas and Thunderbolts and is about to take over writing duties on Hulk as well. His style hearkens back to an earlier age of comics storytelling, when action and adventure were the order of the day and heroes weren't always the primary colored tight-dwellers we know today. He took a minute to sit down with Surfing the Bleed before this weekend's Baltimore Comic-Con and talked about his books, his process and his experience breaking into the industry.

Surfing the Bleed: Hello Jeff. Welcome to Surfing the Bleed. Thanks for taking the time to hang out with us today.

You seem to have a significant knowledge of the medium and its history. Does that stem from a love of comics as a child and was it always your goal to become part of the industry?

Jeff Parker: Before the internet made finding out about comics crazily easy, it was pretty difficult to learn how the books were made and about the personalities behind them. When Stan Lee would write his Bullpen Bulletins or Bob Rozakis would do his Ask the Answer Man for DC's books, they'd mention the creators and it would be a rare glimpse into these names as actual people instead of representing a particular art style. Then I found Comics Scene magazine, and eventually The Comics Journal, and I sucked up that info like a sponge. I devoured any history of Hal Foster or Milton Caniff I came across.

Do you remember the first comic you truly loved and how it affected your perception of the industry and your own personal goals?

Jeff Parker: Probably the Fawcett Dennis the Menace books. I didn't connect it to any goals at the time- I was 5, but I could tell I liked some artist better than all the others (it was Al Wiseman). I think at some point you look at comics purely by character; these are Superman books- and then you hit the level where certain ones matter more: these are CURT SWAN Superman books. And you know a creator is making the difference. Then hopefully you're on the path to following the creators instead, because that will yield more satisfaction for you as a reader.

You majored in English Lit, changing from your original goals to receive a degree in illustration. You cite the realization that you wouldn't be able to do the sort of illustration you wanted to do in the program you were enrolled in. Were you hoping for an education geared more toward a career in comics and how was that program holding you back?

Jeff Parker: Yes. I hid out in college for a good long time. I went to East Carolina University, first as an art major and then realized that like most modern art programs it was gallery focused, not as much illustration as I had hoped for. There were good teachers in the program. But I really got into my English classes thanks to some excellent professors. And since that was constant reading of story, it ended up helping me enormously- of course, I didn't know that later I would do so much writing. Many of my English teachers enjoyed comics and didn't feel the need to deride them like many art teachers did. Or at least, I lucked out and didn't get the teachers who would have scoffed at them.

What was your first work in the industry and how was the experience of breaking in during those early days of your career?
Jeff Parker: I did some stuff for free, like everyone usually has to at the beginning. I drew a story that artist Nathan Masengill wrote adapting Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, that was in a Caliber Comics book. Soon I got a job drawing a fill-in issue of Vampirella that never got printed because they went to a different format, but I got paid and that was exciting. A little later I got a couple issues of Wonder Woman to draw- a lot of people got to essentially audition at DC by drawing an issue of that. I finally got regular assignments from Malibu Comics when Hank Kanalz opened some samples of mine where I'd drawn the Fantastic Four. That put me on the book Solitaire with Gerry Jones writing.

Often times, it seems it is easier for an illustrator to break into the industry than someone who is only trying to make their way as a writer. Do you feel that your skills as an illustrator made it easier for you to break in?
Jeff Parker: That's true, but a loaded statement. "It's easier to break in as an artist, so go spend a decade or two learning how to draw, compose and do graphic storytelling. Then it's easy!" So it's a little silly for young writers to complain about how it's easier for editors to evaluate and hire an artist- it's a hell of a lot of work to even draw a story badly. But it is true that almost no one will read your script. No one has time to read your script, you have to find a way on your own to get it drawn. And that usually means Pay An Artist. If you think that's unfair, consider how much time you just shortcut by not having to learn to draw, and you'll feel better. Or look at all the much deeper investment almost anyone else has to make establishing themselves in another career. It's not like you had to pay your way through medical school.

Most of what you've written has been in the Action/Adventure vein. Your book Interman was a marriage of superhero tropes and Ludlum-style suspense, Agents of Atlas (now simply Atlas) feels a lot like an old pulp novel, similar in theme and style to the Doc Savage tales of old. Are you very familiar with those old pulp books and how big an influence were those early action/adventure stories on you as a writer?
Jeff Parker: Yes, back to college, when I started finding reprints of comic strips like Terry and the Pirates and Captain Easy, I was very happy. I essentially write everything more or less in the vein of those genres. Even when I'm writing an X-Men story, I'm thinking of them as adventurers, not mutants or superheroes. Probably the most clear homage recently I've done to that stuff is the new Gorilla-Man miniseries with artist Giancarlo Caracuzzo.

When you made your path into the industry, was it always your intention to sort of revisit that style of adventure storytelling and update it for a modern comics audience?
Jeff Parker: I don't know that I did it consciously, I think I just write to entertain myself first and everything else just follows. But I do generally try to poke away that idea that high adventure can only take place in the 1930s, there's no reason in 2010 you can't embrace that kind of traveling story of discovery.

Between X-Men First Class, Atlas and all the Atlas tie-ins, Marvel has given you the go ahead to write what feels at times like a living history of the Marvel Universe. You're really telling the stories that exist between the panels of some classic Marvel moments. How does it feel being the architect of that secret history?
Jeff Parker: I did get to do a fair amount of that too with World War Hulks when they let me write the villain collective The Intelligencia (and yes, I know how it's supposed to be spelled. I don't remember why we decided to alter it). That stuff is fun to pull off, but can be pretty difficult, trying not to change continuity. I prefer writing something I don't have to check with others on, like ATLAS.

You're part of the new guard at Marvel that includes creators such as Matt Fraction, Jason Aaron and Rick Remender. How does it feel being on the crest of such a powerful creative wave? Is there a big sense of community amongst the Marvel creative teams and do you guys draw a lot of inspiration from one another?

Jeff Parker: I certainly like those guys and read their books. We don't sit around a huge table and push action figures around like generals, though we probably should. And I don't know how much everyone is on some level competing, but I know I feel I can never just phone a story in when others are doing such excellent work. I wouldn't anyway, really. It helps that so many of us live in Portland and often see each other at parties. To get more involved I should probably play X-Box games. 

You did some time on Marvel's kids-oriented line, Marvel Adventures. How important do you think it is that the big publishers make an effort to reach that younger audience with quality material? And, in your opinion, do you think that the industry is doing enough to try and hook new readers and create a next generation of fans for our work?
Jeff Parker: I think it's ALL-important. Anytime this subject comes up, you get the same answers "Hey, there's Bone..." Really we should have a hard time listing all the kid-friendly books, there should be so many. No other industry lets the young market get away as much as we do, most entertainment tries furiously to cater to them. Just because some approaches haven't worked in the past isn't an excuse to not keep trying.

Considering you are both a writer and an illustrator, you likely have a unique perspective on the collaborative process necessary to create comics. What advice can you give creators from both sides of the equation on how to best work together to create a successful finished product?

Jeff Parker: Writers, even if you can't draw, try laying out your pages with stick figures and make sure you're asking for things that work. Remember that it takes about ten times as long to draw the thing as it does to write it.

Artists, do whatever is in the interest of telling the kind of story this is, don't force it into what you'd rather draw. Pay close attention to acting, bringing a character alive is everything.

Both of you- write back and forth a lot and do some give and take. You can make this a collaboration that breathes instead of a mere assignment. 

Can you speak a bit about your own scripting process? Do you like to maintain a particular amount of control over the process or do you tend to leave things more open-ended for your collaborator?
Jeff Parker: I mainly have certain things I need to happen to keep the tone and direction of the story, and I leave a lot of room for the artists to be themselves- I hope. I have a fairly sparse descriptive style in explaining the scene. I like to chime in at layout stage, not to be a control freak, but to help keep things on message before it becomes too labor intensive for an artist to make changes. As an artist I prefer that too- ask me to make changes while we're in rough pencil, not later!

Does your process ever shift depending on the artist you work with? For instance, you’ve worked with a lot of different artists at various points in your career, but it seems of late that your most frequent collaborator is Gabriel Hardman. Given your level of comfort with Gabriel, do you give him more breathing room than you might with another artist?
Jeff Parker: Oh yes. I for instance won't write a tech-heavy script if working with an artist who doesn't draw that stuff easily. If I suspect an artist likes drawing animals, it will suddenly become a zoo of a story. Gabe can draw anything, anywhere, any way it needs to be done. All he cares about is that the story is intriguing. So yes, he gets maybe more breathing room than most, largely because the editors also trust him explicitly. We turn into a bunch of fans when his pages come in.

Lastly, what advice can you give new creators on their own path into the industry?

Jeff Parker: Don't try to second guess readers, what you think will sell or what the next big thing is. That's a cynical approach, and one thing readers can sense above all is sincerity. They can tell when you believe in what you're doing, and they'll respond to that by joining in with you. So please yourself first. Don't ever think "well my work is at least as good as Creator X and they hire him..." that won't get you anywhere. Set sights very high, too high. You'd rather fall short of something amazing than some average work you see a million of.

Here's a big one- don't try to start off with an epic. I don't know how many grand trilogies I've known that were to be coming out from talented people with lots of potential, and of course we've never seen any of these. Keep your first works short and achievable. Don't put the light at the end of the tunnel years away, put it weeks away. That's the way these kind of goals are met. I assure you, I am right on that!

Thanks Jeff! Best of luck with all your projects in the coming year!

Jeff Parker: Thanks Brett. Hey, what took you so long with this interview? 

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