Monday, April 29, 2013

CHARMING CHUCK DIXON

Dixon teams with fellow legend Paul Gulacy
on IDW's current GI Joe series.
Popular comic book writer Chuck Dixon was nice enough to stop by the Recondite Pictures lot and give us an insight into the mind of the master!

Here’s what he had to say: 

ME:  What was the most difficult thing about writing a great comic book for you when you were just starting out? Dialogue? Plot? Pacing? Something else? How did you meet this challenge?

CHUCK:  Plot is what separates the men from the boys in fiction (or women from the girls, to be all-inclusive), in my opinion. It all starts there; the, hopefully, unseen foundation for the rest of the stuff and the real heavy lifting. But, if I were being honest, segues give me the most grief. Knowing where a scene should end and how to move to the next one.  

ME:  What is the most challenging thing about writing a great comic book as a seasoned professional?

How do you meet this challenge? 

CHUCK:  Well, I don’t go into it planning for it to be ‘great.’ I just tell the story that’s in my head and hope it entertains someone other than me. If it turns out ‘great’ then that’s a plus. But if it diverts someone for fifteen minutes or more I’m happy. If they liked it enough to read it again I’m ecstatic.  

ME:  Do you ever abandon a story that isn't working?  

CHUCK:  Rarely. I subscribe to what I call the Kirby Principle; there’s no idea so ridiculous that it can’t be made to work. I might drop a story only to re-visit it later on.  

ME:  Do you write Marvel-style or full script? Do you try different formats for different stories or artists?  

Frank Robbins comics are among Dixon's favorites.
CHUCK:  Full script. The last time I wrote plot-dialogue was for Joe Kubert. I don’t think anyone at Marvel actually uses the Marvel method any more.

ME:  Brian M. Bendis is always talking about writing a script to the particular strengths of the story's artist. Do you change your story for each artist? Is it really that big of a deal?

CHUCK:  It is. But I don’t like to think of it as writing to an artist’s strengths. I think of it more like not missing an opportunity. I have a GI Joe Special Missions arc out right now with art by Paul Gulacy. He is SO good at water effects and undersea stuff that I included a lot of those kind of scenes. I also have Baroness wearing as a little as possible as often as possible. You want to take full advantage of all your artist’s talents while also giving him material he’ll enjoy working on.

ME:  Who are the main comics writers you look to for inspiration and why?

CHUCK:  Archie Goodwin first and foremost. Archie never wrote a word when a picture would do. He perfectly balanced the needs of the medium for words and images. Stan Lee, of course. And Frank Robbins. And I’ve been looking for the work of Hank Chapman recently. He wrote lots of stuff for DC and Atlas in the 50s. Punchy war stories.  

ME:  Who are the main writers in any field you look to for inspiration and why?  

CHUCK:  Edgar Rice Burroughs and Donald E. Westlake may not seem like they have much in common but they were the first authors that I really responded to a big way. In recent years I’ve been reading a lot of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s been helpful and intimidating as I write more and more prose in addition to comics. The man was a master of the perfect sentence as well as concealing the bones of his plot under action and character.

ME:  Besides just writing, are there repetitive exercises that comics writers can do to strengthen their skills? 

CHUCK:  Walking? Bowling? I’m not sure I can lecture any other writer on exercise. I do recommend reading criticism. Whether you agree with the reviewer or not it can be instructive. I read the Wall Street Journal and never agree with their movie reviewer. But I learn a lot from reading his criticisms. I even read the theater reviews even though I’ll never see those plays. 

ME:  You have a very fun-to-read writing style. I especially enjoyed your Marvel Knights series! How did you develop that style?

CHUCK:  It’s basically letting the pictures tell the story and only have as much dialogue and as many captions as you need to inform the reader. I also like to keep things moving but not by simply advancing the plot rapidly. I aim to have each scene serve two purposes. It might be an action scene but it also tells you something about the hero.
Russ Manning Tarzan comics are some of Dixon's favorites.

ME:  What are the important things to know in order to properly pace a good comics story? 

CHUCK:  Start with something engaging. Action, a mystery, a big dramatic moment. Whatever. Kirby used to open Fantastic Four stories cold with maybe Johnny and Ben chasing a dinosaur through the Baxter Building. It got things going as well as introducing the characters and their environment. From there you just keep up that level of engagement to keep the reader turning pages. I feel I’ve failed if a reader can put down one of my comics halfway through.

ME:  What are your regular sources for story research? 

CHUCK:  Well, the Internet has made me lazy like everyone else. But trust me, the sum total of human knowledge is NOT on the Web. I have a huge book collection and turn to it often.

ME:  How long does it take you to write a 22-page issue? Can you take me through the process?

CHUCK:  I start on Page One, Panel One (or more typically Splash) and go from there with a vague idea of where I’m going and the plot synopsis I gave my editor. While I usually stick to the spirit of the synopsis, it’s not cast in stone. I think of the best stuff while scripting. If I have to write “this happens then this happens then this guy comes in and…” my brain wanders. But when scripting I’m laser-focused and can see the structure of the story and sense when a surprise or new element is called for.

The beginnings are easiest and I can usually get the first eight pages laid down in about five hours with dialogue. Then it’s chipping away until it’s done. Lots of walking away and thinking about or NOT thinking about it. But I can do a script easy in one week. Three days if pressed. The Simpsons, though, takes me two weeks. Funny is more work.

ME:  What is your favorite thing about writing?
Winterworld offers a great
introduction to Dixon's writing.

CHUCK:  Not having to be at a job. You know, a J-O-B. I work hard but it’s at my own pace doing something I love. Even when I worked at CrossGen, which was an office job, I used to stroll in when I wanted to but would often be there until late into the night. There wasn’t much they could say because I was always at least three months ahead on all four of my titles.

Me:  What are the most important aspects of writing for a lesser-known writer to develop?
CHUCK:  Being alone. When you write you’re by yourself even if you’re in a room full of people. Get used to that. Whatever it is that made you an observer and a chronicler is your gift. Learn to enjoy that time and you will succeed.
ME:   How do you come up with something that connects emotionally with the reader in each issue?

CHUCK:  Something they might recognize in themselves. The hero with a moment of doubt. The villain in a moment of weakness. A good plan coming to pieces as events unfold. That’s what brings a story to life.

There’s a moment in Hitchcock’s Rear Window where the murderer is trying to make a deal to escape justice. He’s pathetic and pleading in that moment, his back to the all and the only way out is to make a deal or kill again. When the choice is clear he becomes a monster again. In that one scene, we can’t even see the actor’s face, he becomes ourselves; trapped and desperate and not sure what to do next. Those few seconds make that movie the classic that it is.

Dixon works with the legendary
Paul Gulacy on GI JOE.
ME:  Purely as a fan, what are some of your favorite comics currently and of all time?

CHUCK:  Deepest apologies to my peers, but I don’t really read anything contemporary. Probably because they don’t comp comics like they used to and I never set foot in a comic book store.

Of all time? Ditko on Spidey. Jack on FF. Russ Heath’s work on SGT Rock in the early 70s. Pure comic book heaven. Early Creepy and Eerie. Russ Manning’s Tarzan both in the comics and the strips. Frank Robbins on anything; either his Johnny Hazard strip or his work at DC and Marvel.

ME: What are a few stories that new readers should search out in the back issue bins to start digging into your comics work?


CHUCK: Winterworld by me and Jorge Zaffino. Detective Comics Annual #7 where Batman becomes a pirate. My work on Punisher. And a LOT of issues of Savage Sword of Conan in the mid-eighties.

ME: What projects do you having coming up?
 


CHUCK: I’m almost done writing my fifth SEAL Team 6 novel. They’re available only on Kindle for now. I’m currently on GI Joe Special Missions for IDW and doing quite a bit of work on Spongebob Squarepants for Bongo. There’s a new paperback collection of Robin/Batgirl Year One coming soon. And I have a few things I can’t talk about yet.

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