Jocose John Rozum, writer of many classic X-FILES comics, stopped by the Recondite Pictures lot to hold court and let us a peer inside the mind of the intelligent comicbook creator.
Here is what he had to say:
What do you like about writing?
My favorite parts of writing are the generation of ideas and world building. I often find myself working on one project, but really dying to get started on the next project which is often in the most early formative stage. Sometimes new projects fall together really quickly, other times they can germinate for years as bits and pieces occur until there are enough of them that the rest of the missing pieces fall into place really quickly.
The actual writing process itself is less interesting to me, because by the time I start typing the story there isn’t as much that I need to figure out, so it often feels like transcription. To get around this I avoid outlining. This way there is still room for surprises to happen. Since I put characters before plot, and put a lot of thought into them, I find that simply letting them interact often brings forth aspects of the story, or new material that I didn’t expect, or plan for. Whenever this happens I find myself really enjoying the work, even if it means I have to reconfigure the plot to allow for these unexpected developments.
How do you get writing gigs?
It’s a combination of pursuing them myself, and editors coming to me. I’ll often approach editors I don’t know simply because I really like the other material they are handling, because I think there will be a positive connection between them and myself and my work which will lead to a project that both of us can be proud of.
How do you build characters?
Typically a story occurs to me and I’ll begin by deciding on what sorts of characters will best serve that story. This means I’ll either begin by occupation or personality type and work from there. I always want to know where my characters are emotionally and situationally at the beginning of the story, and where I want them to be at the end of the story. This often allows me to mold the plot in such a way that it serves their personal transformation. It’s also important for me to know how the characters feel about each other, so that their interactions are genuine, and so, in the case of comics, the artist can visualize this in body language, which Frazer Irving did beautifully in Xombi.
On rarer occasions I’ll think of a character first then figure out a story that I want to set them in.
What are the major themes of your work?
At some point I realized that most of my work is really the story of Pinocchio. I often tell stories about extraordinary characters who wish they could live normal lives. I’ve never really given much thought to why this is, because I think figuring that out will take away whatever power it has for me. I also think that themes in general work best if they are incorporated subconsciously rather than done with purpose, so I try not to pay much attention to the themes of my work.
How do you research for a book like X-Files?
The X-Files was particularly difficult because you had to deal with three things for each story. You needed to have the strange phenomena aspect of the story. You also had to have a way in which this phenomena could plausibly be explained through science, and you had to be able to turn it into a crime that would involve the FBI. I had a lot of stories that would have one or two of those elements worked out, but not the final piece.
What are the most important skills for a writer?
Time management and self motivation. As a writer you are forced to keep your own schedule and manage productivity. Procrastination is a constant temptation. I find that I tend to do a lot more non-writing than writing, but never feel like I am off the clock. Non-writing includes things that fuel the creative process whether it’s reading, watching a movie, or visiting a museum. To an outside observer this may seem like slacking off, but when I’m doing these things, I know it’s something that will trigger ideas in my head, either for something I’m currently working on, or something that will spring to life later. I try to surround myself with things that will stimulate my imagination.
What are the major influences on your work?
This has always been the most difficult question for me to answer, because there aren’t any individuals who really shaped the way I write, or drove me to create, but there a lot of things that inspire my creativity in some way. I’m convinced that the majority of people in creative fields are still inspired and shaped by the things they gravitated to in childhood. For me that would be old horror movies, ghost stories, science fiction, dinosaurs, pirates, myths and fairy tales and comic books. These are all things that still interest me, though I don’t read much science fiction these days. Some of these things don’t directly connect with my work, but things that I’ve taken from them, even if it’s just the way I’ve connected to them, find their way into my work all the time. I also find myself inspired by art, whether its a body of work, or a single image.
What should people seek out in the back issue bins?
Probably the original run of Xombi, or Midnight, Mass.. Xombi had an original run of 22 issues 0-21 (though you don’t need issue #0) followed by a six issue run a few years ago which is available in tpb. Midnight, Mass. was published as an 8 issue series followed by a six issue series. I also really enjoyed writing Dexter’s Laboratory, so there’s that too.
You've written over 100 issues of Scooby-Doo. How do you keep coming up with new stories for them that haven't been told already?
Coming up with stories for Scooby-Doo is a little like coming up with stories for The X-Files in that you need a monster and a mystery to be solved. You also learn very quickly why so many of the mysteries involve real estate scams. Since this is a comic book aimed at kids -- often very young kids, crimes like murder, drug dealing, and so forth are out of the question. On the plus side, the monster can be something entirely made up, or generic, and you always know how the story is going to end.
There were really a few ways that I approached Scooby-Doo. Many times a title would occur to me first, and then I'd put together a plot that suited it. Other times I'd look at what stories had already been told, and go for something that hadn't yet, like say something involving football, or libraries. Because I have such a deep interest in mythology, folklore and fairy tales, I'd often send the gang to another country so that I could use that culture and some creature associated with it. This would often provide a bit of variety and help make the stories feel fresh even though they'd still be following the same familiar formula.
The other benefit of having to work with a formula, is it would allow you to also find ways to work against it, or to play up certain familiar tropes. For example, in one story the Mystery Inc. gang was looking for a way to open a secret panel. On the tv series, these secret handles would often be found by Daphne clumsily tripping and accidentally hitting them. In my story I had Freddie purposefully bump into Daphne so that she would stumble and uncover the trigger to open the secret panel.
I also decided early on that I needed to figure out who the characters were beyond just the smart one, the pretty one, the chickens, etc., so I started adding attributes to them that built on what was already there without violating the familiar traits of the characters. Freddie became someone who didn't like to lose, Velma was a puzzle solver who would ask the more technical questions, Daphne was the personable one who would ask the questions about the people involved as well as the broader questions and would often serve as the stand in for the reader, and Scooby and Shaggy while being terrified of ghosts and monsters they encounter in their mysteries were also big fans of horror movies. Other writers have built on this as well. Daphne now is really athletic, a trait that runs contrary to her always bumbling into things when working a case. I'd develop stories that would focus on attributes of one of the characters, especially as the page count for the stories was shortened. This also led to all of the educational, non-mystery stories such as the popular Velma's Monsters of the World, cooking with Shaggy and Scooby, and the pieces where Freddie would explain automotive repair, or how to make a monster mask.
What is your biggest writing challenge?
Starting when I don’t feel ready, or the second act. I have a lot of old projects that have an incredible first act and then stop. This is why I need to have a rough trajectory in mind before I start. Those aborted projects were things I just decided to start with no more than a premise in mind, and they just fizzled out. I generally use the second act as a quieter time that allows the characters and audience to catch their breath before moving on to the excitement of the conclusion. Some readers like this approach, some don’t. I find that it allows the reader to get to know the characters better and to sort out their feelings towards them, before things get crazy again.
How do you outline a story?
Unless I’m forced to, I don’t. As long as I have a rough idea of where I want the story to go, I don’t need to. At most I’ll jot down a few things that I don’t want to forget, such as character A needs to say this, character B needs to do this here. Introduce such and such prop here. I just need the roughest dots to connect them in a way that feels satisfying to me, and hopefully translates as a satisfying read to the reader. With an outline, I feel like all the fun work is done, and fleshing it out is just tedious. It also makes it harder for me to tell if something is working, because it no longer feels fresh to me.
This was the most difficult thing about writing for television. Outlines are necessary because budgets and schedules are a consideration. Outlines end up being revised several times before you can even begin a script, and by that time, jokes and bits of action that felt inspired in the first outline, seem stale to you as the writer before you even begin the first draft of the script. This doesn’t mean they are suddenly bad, or don’t work, it just means that you are over familiar with the material by the time you’re beginning the work that matters.
I’d much rather the story retain it’s freshness by discovering the bulk of it as I’m writing it, which is why I avoid outlines as much as possible.
How do you pitch a story?
This is the part of the writing process I hate the most. Pitches are all about plot, which to my work, is the least important element. Everything that differentiates my work from anyone else's comes from the characters, the tone, and especially the details that make it unique. These are the elements which it’s hardest to convey in a 2-3 page proposal. So pitching a story for me is an incredibly painful process, and typically for me once a story is approved, I never look at that proposal again. I can only imagine that the finished story has only the most rudimentary connection to the proposal. It’s far easier for me to write a 96 page script than it is for me to write a 3 page reduction of what that script will be.
How long does it take you to write a 22-page comic? Walk us through the process.
Not long at all. I can usually finish one as quickly as it takes me to type it. I usually write one in two four hour sessions, and then let it sit for a couple of days before giving it a quick reread for things I want to adjust or change before I send it in to the editor. Depending on whether I’m working with an artist I’ve been working with, or someone I’ve never worked with my scripts vary in length from about 22-30 pages for someone I’m comfortable working with, to 40 pages for someone unfamiliar. I always encourage my artists to do things their own way, but like to provide them with as much information as possible in order for them to get comfortable with how I visualize things and to make sure that important details don’t get overlooked. On the original run of Xombi, artist J.J. Birch and I were in such regular contact, and had developed a common vocabulary, that by a certain point my scripts were really short because so much of what was needed had been conveyed in conversations between us. Likewise with Frazer Irving. Once I started getting artwork from him, I realized that I could cut back on certain areas of instruction and the scripts became shorter for him as well.
The process for me is pretty basic. I always start at the beginning and never jump around. Whenever new locations or characters are introduced you’ll find a large amount of descriptive text. After this, lighter descriptive text which often only conveys body, or facial emoting, and some basic acting for the characters between dialogue, as well as who should be seen in the panels and how they are interacting. The dialogue usually takes care of itself as I go along. I’ll occasionally make a note to provide visual reference, and that’s about it. I’ll write to the end of a scene then stop and pick up there the next day.
What is a normal day like for you?
A normal day for me is pretty boring. I generally get up around 10:00 and have a leisurely breakfast before I start my day. I always read for an hour or so, then I spend the day running errands, or working on a piece of art I need to make for a gallery show. Once my kids come home from school and until everyone else goes to bed I’ll typically spend time with my family. I’ll do some more reading around 9:00, then start working by 10:00 - 10:30 and finish by about 1:00 am, read for an hour or so and go to bed. If I work until I go to sleep without this time to unwind in-between, I spend my whole night going over what I just wrote, constantly getting up to write down notes to myself and I don’t get any sleep.
I also find I work much better at night. There are fewer distractions, and I can get more done in three hours at night than I would in an eight hour daytime shift. Even so, a lot of my day is filled with thinking about what I’m working on, or doing research, or just creatively charging my batteries. As I said earlier, I always feel like i’m on the clock.
What are you working on now?
After my experience on Static Shock, I needed to take some time off from comics which I did working on things in other media, most of which I cannot say what they were.
Currently I’m juggling a number of creator owned projects which are in various stages of development. At least two already have artists involved. Some are not even at the point where I’m ready to start thinking about art. Each one is very different from any of the others, but all involve the paranormal to some degree, and each of them I’m completely committed to. These are all labors of love. It’s still too early to talk about any of them, but keep an eye out in the months ahead.
Scott Amundson co-writes the upcoming ongoing series BANG IN THE CITY with Dheeraj Verma (TRANSFORMERS: FALL OF CYBERTRON).