Stellar Stefan Petrucha (X-FILES, NANCY DREW) held court in the Recondite Pictures commissary and offered us a peak into the mind of the writer of the smart and exciting hit comicbook series!
RP: How long does it take you to write a 22-page comicbook issue? Can you walk us through the process?
SP: It depends. With licensed books, the 1-2 page plot is approved first, so it’s spread out. The plot stage depends on how quickly an idea strikes me, which can be anywhere from a moment to half a day.
Once the plot is approved, scripting 22 pages take 1-2 days. So… three days total? But it also varies with the content. Something enjoyable, but simple, like The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, takes three days. Something more complex, like the work I did for The X-files would be more like five days.
I tend to start by breaking the script into pages and panels, to get a sense of how things fit, then go back and work on dialogue.
RP: What does every comicbook issue need to deliver?
SP: In terms of content – an intriguing hook that rises out of the world and its characters, characters that speak and act in a unique way, some sort of theme, and a satisfying conclusion that ties it all together.
In terms of style, all that should be told not only in a visually compelling manner, but in a way that suits the other elements structurally, considering point of view, focus, and other writerly-type tools like flashbacks, foreshadowing and etc.
RP: Can you give our readers tips on how to ensure they keep their freelance income steady through the years?
SP: Nope! Keep your day job. Wish I had one. Even with my long career, there are times when I earn a living writing, and times I don’t.
My only thought is to work at building an audience, and keep in touch with them via social media. The only real gatekeeper in writing is the reader. All else is vanity and investment capital.
RP: How do you convince editors they need to work with you?
SP: These days, based on my existing work, they tend to approach me. Past that, I try to write an incredible query letter that they can’t put down.
RP: What are the themes of your work?
SP: Oh, that varies wildly, not only from book to book, but from story to story.
SP: Oh, that varies wildly, not only from book to book, but from story to story.
- College of the Dead is about redefining yourself and your impression of the world in order to survive.
- The X-Files was often about memory, the self and what is reality.
- Nancy Drew is about relentlessness.
- The Power Rangers is about working together.
- Despite also being a gnostic horror story, The Bandy Man was about the relationship between writer and editor.
Then there are the 20 books I’ve written…
SP: If I think in terms of character traits, and look at concepts that are either diametrically opposed (Good/Bad, Sloppy/Neat) or metaphorically related (Brainy/Owl, Acquiring a voice/Singing) I usually don’t get stuck in terms of story ideas.
Past that, generally speaking, research really works for me. For my YA novel Ripper, which took place in 1895 NYC, a lot of it was about studying the time period and the people. For The Power Rangers it’s about re-watching the show.
RP: What is an average day like for you?
SP: I get up at 6:20, make breakfast for myself and my younger daughter, then read the paper/do the crossword until she leaves for High School. After that, I crash on the couch for about twenty minutes before commuting upstairs to my office, where I turn on the radio and look at email and messages from my online classes.
Around 8:00 I say hi/bye to my wife and older daughter before they leave for work/college. By 9-10 I’m usually writing either an assignment, or something fun for spec. 1sh I eat lunch, then I write until 4-5, play a video game for an hour, then it’s time for dinner and TV with the family. If my schedule and willpower allow, I also try to exercise for an hour on my elliptical a few times a week.
SP: Tough question.
In terms of comics, I’m probably most proud of The Bandy Man, a little known three-issue comic from Caliber, with art by X-Files pals Charlie Adlard, Jill Thompson and Miran Kim. It’s basically a gnostic riff about God’s first, abandoned effort at creating a man.
I also like the first issue of Squalor from First Publishing, with art by Tom Sutton, if only because it was such a benchmark for me in terms of my writing.
RP: Walk us through your process for writing X-Files comics. Was it different from your regular process? How? I really love your X-Files stuff. Do you have any stories about that time?
SP: Thanks – glad you enjoyed it. IDW recently released a very nice collection that seems to be doing well.
To answer your question, I’ve always been a huge paranormal fan (Fortean, not vampire romances). So, when I first found out I had the assignment, I made a huge list of paranormal stuff – UFOs, healing crystals, Nessie, etc. There were about 100 in all.
I’d start by picking one. In the first few issues, you’ve got the Fatima Prophecies, Roswell, Tunguska and Trepanning. Next, I’d figure out how to present the basics in a way that worked in a genre context, explored the implied issues, both in terms of science and metaphor, and tied-in to the Mulder/Scully believer/scientist dialectic.
It didn’t always work that way – Falling was more about Lord of the Flies than UFOs, for instance. More often than not, though, there’s a particular paranormal concept at the center of the stories.
After that, I’d white-knuckle it and pray not only that it’d be approved, but that it didn’t contradict or duplicate anything planned for the show.
We were all new to the process, the show quickly became huge, and 1013 wasn’t providing any advance info on their plans. I think the only “heads-up” I was ever given was something like, “Don’t write anything about the Anasazi or Native American myths.” Unfortunately, that was after I’d scripted the Aztec-based Silent Cities of the Mind.
Basically, I found out what was happening in the show when I watched it with everyone else on TV. In fact, given the oddities of comic vs TV production schedules, I’d sometimes write a story for the comic before a given TV episode was scripted, but that came out after it aired.
Of course, it would’ve been easier to stick with the monster-of-the-week sort of stuff, but that would’ve skipped half of what made The X-Files work. As a writer with my particular proclivities, I felt like I had a rare opportunity, and wanted to go for the gold. But in terms of continuity, I was flailing in the dark. I tried to work around that by coming up with my own conspiracy, and I’m pleased that folks are still reading the stories.
SP: In comics, Alan Moore and Stan Lee. In ‘literature’ Steinbeck. In YA, MT Anderson, author of Feed. In TV, XF alumni Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad).
RP: What comics are you reading right now?
SP: Honestly, none. I’m usually researching something I’m working on, which doesn’t leave much time for pleasure reading. After staring at words all day, I also tend more toward zoning out in front of the TV.
RP: Are there any common mistakes you notice comics writers making?
SP: Recently, in mainstream - I think abandoning things like captions is a big mistake. There also seems to be a desire to replicate the feel of a TV show or film. That can be great, but it doesn’t really take advantage of what makes comics unique – the ability to vary what’s going on in the picture and the words.
Past that, there’s the classic issue of long dialogue scenes. An actor can say a word like “the” in a million ways. Pictures of people talking to one another page after page is boring.
It takes effort, but all that exposition and chatting works much better in comics if something else is going on at the same time. But that goes back to the caption thing – you can have an earlier dialogue take place in captions over a fight scene, for instance.
RP: What advice do you have for comics writers who want to get better at the craft?
SP: Read things other than comics – look at art beyond graphic novels, find new things to bring to the medium. Practice, practice, practice. Don’t be afraid to write crap at first, don’t be afraid to edit yourself. Avoid redundancy, cherish brevity and focus on communicating character in a short space.
RP: What comics do you have coming out that our readers need to pick up?
College of the Dead, a free webcomic from Adam Post Productions, with art by Javier Aranda. It’s currently being released a panel at a time on Twitter and FaceBook, but the web page should be up soon. In terms of prose, I’d also love your readers to check out my book series, Hessius Mann, Zombie Detective. There’s more info at my website. Folks can also drop by the Facebook page and give it a like.