This ran in Crimespree #22
Ed Brubaker makes me wish I had a time machine.
I want to send him back to, say, December 1950, dead broke, with nothing more than a typewriter, ream of paper, and the address of Gold Medal books editor Richard Carroll. Then, I’d just sit back and wait for him to conquer the world of mystery paperback originals.
There’s no doubt he would conquer, because Brubaker has the mad genius and the pedal-to-the floor work ethic of the best of the 1950s guys. Right now, Brubaker’s responsible for no fewer four of Marvel Comics’ hottest superhero titles (Uncanny X-Men, Captain America, Daredevil, and, along with Matt Fraction, Iron Fist), but also Criminal, the Eisner-Award winning crime series, for Marvel’s Icon imprint. And while Criminal taps into that sweet ultra-hardboiled Black Mask/Cain/Hammett/ Stark vein, what makes the series a must-read is the undercurrent of strained and broken relationships—father and son, brother and brother, man and wife—running throughout the story arcs. Brubaker’s characters bleed like crazy, but that’s nothing compared to the heartbreak they endure.
So if I can’t hurl Brubaker back in time, the next best thing I can do is pin him down for a few questions.
This Q&A was conducted over a series of emails. I’d lob a question, he’d smack it back at me. Then, halfway through, he shot a few questions my way, too. We’d double-back and pick up a thread from an earlier email, and… well, if I just ran the emails straight, they’d be confusing as hell. So I’ve reordered the sequence a questions a bit; I didn’t change a single word. I just wanted to avoid this Q&A sounding like two rambling winos in an alley, mumbling about crooks and pulps and movies. Not entirely sure I succeeded, mind you.
Duane Swierczynski: When did you first get the idea for Criminal?
Ed Brubaker: The stories that I’m telling in Criminal have been bouncing around in my head for a long time, probably. Coward, the first book, started as an idea for a graphic novel for a French publisher, back in 2002, or so, but we could never get on the same page about what it should be, so I dropped it. But it just kept fleshing out in my head over the years, wanting to be told. Then about two years ago, I was trying to figure out what Sean Phillips and I should do as our next project after Sleeper finished (that was our book at Wildstorm, about a double-agent left out in the cold), and it just occurred to me that I should create an umbrella title to tell any crime story I wanted to in. And so I started jotting down all my ideas for the stories I’d tell, and the characters, and it all came together from there, and just started building.
DS: Did you intend the same thing for Scene of the Crime, back in 2000? I could see different kinds of stories playing out in that universe, too.
EB: Scene of the Crime was meant to be a continuing series of stories, but Vertigo kept changing the plan on us. First it was going to be a contract for 3 arcs, then 2, and finally, they played it safe and just gave us a contract for the one we did. Then by the time they decided they wanted a sequel, Michael Lark (who draws Daredevil for me now) was deep into a Batman graphic novel, so it was never really going to happen. By the time he could have done it, it seemed like too much time had passed, and Greg Rucka and I had come up with Gotham Central, our cop book at DC, and wanted Michael for that. I had outlines for two more mysteries, one of which I've altered and hope to do someday as a novel or a graphic novel, or some combination of both, maybe.
Scene was my first attempt at writing a mystery, and really sprung out of my love of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books, as a lot of first mysteries probably do. It also was something I came up with almost by accident, because our editor Shelly kept hounding me to pitch ideas to Vertigo and I couldn’t come up with anything that felt much like what I thought they did, so I pitched something I would enjoy, that I thought for sure they’d pass on, almost just to get it done with, and strangely enough it got approved like the next day, and suddenly I had a writing career.
DS: How many Criminal stories do you have in mind right now? Can you see these arcs going on indefinitely?
EB: I have ideas for 6 or 7 of them right now, but more keep occurring all the time. I'm actually delaying the third story I was going to do to write 3 interlinked short stories for the next few issues, that'll be longer than usual. Probably about 30 pages of story each issue for these. And they all take place in the late 60s to early 70s. One of them is the story of how Gnarly ended up owning the Undertow bar where all the criminals hang out.
But yeah, for now I could see writing stories like these forever. I see heists everywhere, as I'm sure you do, too.
DS: Since Scene of the Crime, many of your regular series have been infused with this great crime/noir vibe—Sleeper was pure noir, Gotham Central was hardcore police procedural, and so on. Is “crime” the lens through which you view much of life?
EB: Yeah, and espionage, a bit. My dad and his brother (who I’m named after) were both in the intel field. My uncle was a big mucky-muck in the CIA and my dad was in Naval Intelligence. Not that either of them were ever forthcoming with details about what they did, but it probably accounts for my interest in that genre. And when I was a teenager, I was kind of a thief and a drug-addict. I did a lot of things I'm not proud of, and lived in a really ugly world of speed-freaks and scumbags for a few years. Nearly going to prison straightened me out, though. Scared the shit out of me at 18, basically. But you never forget sitting in the felony tank with 50 other guys fighting over sandwiches.
So, when I started writing stories for other people to draw, I just always thought of crime stories. Just before my first paying work, in 1991, I had read a lot of the Jim Thompson reissues from Black Lizard and had been on a real true crime binge, so that probably played into it a lot. But I think on some level, I identify with criminals, even though now that I'm older and a home-owner, I hate them. I never liked any of the ones I knew, really, it was just the life I fell into. I like the ones I make up, but they’re much more romantic than the criminals in real life.
DS: Very true. Especially bank robbers and heisters--they're guys you can cheer for, because they're just trying to beat the system. You mentioned reading a lot of true crime. What kind of stuff were you reading? Dillinger bios, or serial-killer-of-the-month paperbacks?
EB: More the latter, sadly. I was big into modern true crime then. Zodiac, the Dead Girl (about a murdered jogger in Berkeley and the necrophilia involved in her death), and one I can’t remember the title of about the secret behind the Son of Sam murders. That one claimed there was a snuff-film ring that was actually doing the Son of Sam murders and that Berkowitz was only part of the group. It was a chilling read, whether it was true or not. It connected up to the murder of some movie producer who was found chopped up in the desert, too. There are some images in those books that I'll never get out of my head. I had a fascination with Ted Bundy books for a little while, too, for some reason. Then when I moved to Seattle, I was at a party once, and realized it was in the house where Bundy took one of his early victims and I totally freaked out the girl whose bedroom that currently was by telling her about it. I'm like, oh yeah, wow, your bed's even in the same place hers was. I'm pretty sure she moved.
Now all the true crime stuff I read is about organized crime, or the police, or stuff like that autobio of the jewel thief that came out a few years back. I guess I outgrew the serial murderer phase, thankfully.
DS: Going back a second, those Jim Thompsons were among my first crime reads, too. I remember being broke in college, and only being able to buy one every so often. But each one I savored. Have you ever read Robert Polito’s bio of Thompson?
EB: I never read that bio, actually. I meant to, but I was pretty broke back then, too. I was lucky enough to live in Berkeley back then, and Moe’s Books on Telegraph generally got a bunch of used Thompson books in for cheap, so I was always trading in books and getting more of them. I think my favorite may be Nothing More than Murder, actually. It’s about a guy who runs a movie theater and he and his wife aren't in love anymore, and he's going to leave her for another woman. It's a real tragedy, and I don't know why, but that one always stuck with me.
Another favorite that I read at that same time—the late 80s—is Fredric Brown’s The Far Cry. That's one of the most messed-up books I've ever read and was a big inspiration to me. The writer obsessed with the dead girl genre has always appealed to me
DS: What are you favorite espionage novels? I imagine you digging the old-school stuff...
EB: Probably LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is my favorite. I love all the Smiley books. And I really love Graham Greene’s spy novels, too. I like to read non-fiction about espionage, too. There are a bunch of books about Kim Philby and his group that are really fascinating. And Rucka turned me onto the Sandbaggers, the old British TV show, which is so well-written it’s scary.
DS: Who are your favorite classic writers, aside from Thompson and Brown? (And by “classic,” I mean people who are dead, and were producing stuff anywhere from 1930 to 1970.)
EB: I’m a big David Goodis fan, and Charles Willeford. Did you see the film they made of his book, Woman Chaser a few years back? That was really great. A truly bizarre work of art about art. I recently found an early 70s paperback original that I’ve been getting a lot out of called Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, by Harry Crews. I know he’s not of that era, but I never knew he had his paperback original pulp writer phase. And I love Patricia Highsmith. Also, thanks to you, I recently discovered Dan J. Marlowe, who I can’t believe I’ve never read before. The Name of the Game is Death is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
DS: Who are you digging these days?
EB: The usual suspects, I’m sure. I read a lot of mystery and crime fiction. A standout for me the past few years, that I always try to recommend to people, though, is About the Author by John Colapinto. It’s a really captivating book about the desire to be a writer, and the allure of fame and glory, and I don’t want to say more than that, really. I just highly recommend it.
DS: You had an uncle who wrote noir screenplays as well, right? That’s one hell of a genetic cocktail running through your veins. Did you hear little bits and pieces about what they did growing up? Or were you kind of oblivious to it until later?
EB: I knew my dad and his brother, my uncle Ed, actually, did something suspicious, because it was never talked about. I lived in Gitmo for three years, and started school there, and knew my dad was in the Navy, but I knew he didn’t sail boats, you know? I have my Uncle Ed’s CIA medal of service on my mantle-piece now, which I inherited when he died. Apparently it’s really rare to have that, because usually those are kept locked up at Langley, according to an ex-spook I correspond with.
As for my Uncle John. He was John Paxton, married to my dad’s sister, Sarah Jane. He wrote a bunch of movies. Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, On the Beach, The Wild One... the list goes on. He was always sort of an idol to me as a child, but mostly because he also wrote the cartoon Emergency Plus 4, the Emergency spin-off cartoon where Gage and DeSoto teamed up with four kids to solve crimes. Sadly, he died before I realized I was a writer, and could have benefited from his advice. He was good friends with most of the Hollywood Ten, but managed to get through the Blacklist era without naming names or getting in trouble, somehow, but I know that era soured him on Hollywood a lot. Dalton Trumbo's widow and my aunt Sarah Jane are still close, according to my dad.
DS: You’ve got to be one of the most disciplined bastards on the planet, because you produce so many monthly Marvel titles (Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil, Captain America) along with Iron Fist (with Matt Fraction), and of course, Criminal. What's your average writing day like?
EB: It really varies. Years back, when I first got to the four books a month level, I used to work five days a week from about 9 AM to 3 PM, making sure to get 5 pages a day done. Now, because of various distractions, I end up doing that a few days a week, and spending part of the weekend catching up on whatever I’m behind on. Sort of writing in spurts, on deadline pressure. I wish I was more disciplined, and I’m trying to get back to that all the time, but any time I have to take a day to go run errands and don’t get any work done, it gets me out of the groove. It’s really a constant struggle, and I often feel like a pulp writer, having to churn out a certain amount of stories a month to pay the bills. It’s a good life, no question about it. It beats working a real job on its worst days, but it’s a struggle that I feel like I’m always losing a little bit.
I always think I’d like to do less than I am, but then if I ever think about quitting any of my books, I can’t. I just love writing them all too much.
DS: Every time I mention your name to a crime fan, he/she wonders aloud when you'll sit down and write a prose crime novel. Do you have anything cooking along these lines?
EB: I have, on and off. It’s finding the time, really, more than anything. I write a comic a week for Marvel right now, just about, and write Criminal around all that. A few years ago, I got about halfway through a detective novel, but I had to set it aside to hit deadlines, and when I came back to it, so much time had passed, I couldn’t get back into it the right way. But I do have a new one I started earlier this year that I’m sort of picking at a few times a month that I hope to actually keep working on. I need a deadline of some kind, is the problem. I’ve been making a living writing comics for so long that that eternal deadline cycle really motivates me.
DS: Any hint of what it might be about?
EB: When I was a teenager, my friend and I committed a pretty serious crime, and I got lucky, but my friend didn’t, he got caught. It’s something inspired by thinking about the various different ways that could have gone. I don't want to say more than that, because you know, if you explain your idea, you don’t end up needing to write it sometimes.
So, let me turn this interview back on you for a while, since I'm curious. You've recently started writing comics. So, as a journalist and novelist, how are you finding the transition? People often compare comics scripting to screenwriting, but I always think comics scripts are like writing pulp poetry. You get paid by the page, you have deadlines to hit, and you can only fit so much text on any one page, so you have to keep it clean, but still make it feel like something. Still have a personality. When I write prose, which I don't know if I'm any good at, really, the one thing I notice is the freedom. The room to go as long as you need to. Even with Criminal, where I don’t stick to a page count, I have to keep the narration really sparse because there’s 7 to 9 panels a page.
So, how are you finding it?
DS: The transition's been a lot smoother than I would have thought. Before Axel [Alonso] showed me a bunch of sample scripts, I had only read a few--namely, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman scripts, which were hyper-detailed. So it was really a revelation to see other scripts that were stripped down like movie screenplays: mostly, direction and dialogue.
But I think you're right: there is an element of pulp poetry involved. You've got to pack a lot of meaning into very few words.
Reading the sample scripts also made me realize that a lot of good scripts can be understood (almost completely) through the dialogue. But it’s the art and art direction that brings it to life, sets it in motion. Granted, at this point I only have five scripts under my belt. And I still try to fit way too many panels on a page.
EB: You can comfortably fit 9 on a page, depending on your artist and what's supposed to be in each panel, but that's something you probably need to build to still. That'll come when you and your collaborator start to really groove together. That's the best part of writing comics, in some ways, those developing collaborative partnerships. Most of the artists I work with make me look so good at this point, because we know each other's style and intentions so well.
DS: But my natural style seems to be “stripped down” anyway--I really admire the James M. Cains and Ken Bruens of the world, who pack so much heart and muscle into so little.
EB: Yeah, that's something I'm always trying to get better at, making a really simple sentence have impact. It makes you appreciate Hammett and Hemingway all the more.
DS: What's your approach to dialogue? Any tricks you've picked up over the years on how to convey, say, emotion without being maudlin or wordy?
EB: I’ve never thought about it, really. Until this moment. I think I just try to make it sound realistic, but artistic, too, if that makes any sense. I generally cut a lot of dialog before I send in the final scripts, too, because I'll read some that just makes my eyes hurt, so that goes. It's like that line from Steve Martin’s L.A. Story, where his friend says her policy on fashion is she turns her back to the mirror, then turns back around, and the first thing that she notices, she takes off. That's how I am about dialog, if I notice it, it goes. That's one thing I've learned well in ten plus years of doing this, to cut the fat. Again, that's something that comes from trust in the artist. A lot of the stuff I do in Criminal, I couldn’t do with another artist. I know Sean can get facial expressions and mood across. I know he'll pace stuff properly so the story beats are right.
DS: Funny you bring that up. Lately, I've come to realize that I'm at my best when I have limitations--where I intentionally make my world a little smaller. In Wheelman, it was writing about a character who couldn't talk. In The Blonde, I decided: okay, no guns in this novel. There's Kowalski with a rifle in the very beginning, but once he puts it down, it stays down until the end.
And in Severance Package (my next one), I gave myself another limitation. Don't want to tell you--it might spoil it.
But these kinds of self-imposed handicaps forces me to be a little more creative with the characters and plot, and keeps me away from lazy writing.
EB: Constraint-driven pulp fiction. I like it. Next time you have to write a mystery without the letter Y in the entire book. You know, I didn't even notice that in The Blonde there were no guns, damn. I did that to myself with the second arc in Criminal, Lawless. It's a five part story, and in each part, there's at least one heist of some kind. I thought I was going to have to break the rule for part 4, but without even thinking about it, I suddenly had multiple heists going on in a flashback sequence.
DS: You talked about getting into a groove with an artist. But you also do your fair share of collaborations with other writers--first with Rucka on Gotham Central, and now with Matt Fraction on Iron Fist. How do you like it? How different is it from the doing all of the lifting on your own books?
EB: It’s the same and different. With Gotham Central, Greg and I had figured out a way to work where we never stepped on each other’s toes. We’d alternate storylines, and then team up for a “red ball” case every third arc. It worked out beautifully all three times we did that. We’d talk on the phone and hammer out the ideas, kick stuff back and forth and come up with new twists. Then Greg would send me a scene by scene breakdown for the issue, with the scenes divided equally based on who’s characters were in each one (we wrote different squads, mostly) and we would race to see who got his half in first.
With Iron Fist, it’s a different ballgame. Me and Matt talk about the overall storyline, which I’m sort of steering, like I’ll say, “when he goes back to K’un-Lun, we'll find out there are six other mystical cities like this with their own champions, and we’ll stage the whole arc around a huge Kung Fu tournament.” And then Matt actually comes up with the names and ideas for the champions and the new cities, and sends those to me for feedback. Then we hammer out a plot for the issue, Matt writes the rough draft of the script and I edit and rewrite and tweak. Then when the book is drawn and lettered, we each go over and rewrite little things here and there, because often our artists drawn something that makes our writing superfluous. So we cut it, or change it. It’s much more a fluid beast, Iron Fist. We’re actually going to be doing the next batch of issues more “Gotham Central” style, though, just to try it out, and because I want to write more scenes on my own in the book. Often on Iron Fist I feel like an additional editor as much as a writer, and that’s kind of weird.
The collected trade paperback of Lawless, the second arc of Criminal, is available in fine bookstores everywhere.
Check out : www.edbrubaker.com/