Immoderate Quantities of Caffeine and Other Keys to Devin Grayson’s Success
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Tuesday, August 26

Joe Quesada: Through the Years
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Paul Levitz: Living In An Amazing World
Wednesday, August 20

Tom Spurgeon: Documenting Stan Lee
Tuesday, August 12




Immoderate Quantities of Caffeine and Other Keys to Devin Grayson’s Success
By Tim O'Shea
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Devin Grayson is a writer who broke into the industry in 1997 and quickly established a reputation in the DC Bat-family of books. In addition, she has also scripted Black Widow and Ghost Rider miniseries for Marvel, as well as USER for Vertigo and Relative Heroes (a creator-owned miniseries for DC). Currently writing Nightwing for DC Comics, Grayson took some time (after wrapping up revisions on an upcoming Smallville novel) to discuss a range of topics.

Tim O’Shea: The use of Maxine Michaels, the journalist character (in Nightwing) seems to have a dual purpose—stir up trouble for Dick, but also you seem to be making a commentary on the quality/sensationalism of journalism in general. Am I correct in this latter observation?

Devin Grayson: I love Maxine. The impetus for her was actually those great Redgrave (Max)/Cruise (Ethan) scenes in Mission: Impossible (M:I) where there's this incredibly competent, ridiculously good-looking young guy who ends up in a sort of flirtatious relationship with a very polished, accomplished, dangerous and somewhat smitten older woman. As Dick and Maxine's story progressed, though, there was so much going on in Dick's life that I never really got in anything like that M:I car scene where they're in some bizarre situation but sort of flirting their way through it - Dick's just been having too hard a time of it lately to be in one of his more playful moods.

So then yes, Maxine's proximity to him did sort of become a threat, and this very particular threat of invasive sensationalized reporting. I don't want to suggest that Maxine isn't a good journalist, though - she's one of the best. Look what her instincts are leading her towards here. Really, if I were to make a comment about journalism today, I think the piece that troubles me more than the sensationalism is the complacency. Our media is being used much like a propaganda tool, and in the greater story structure of Nightwing, Maxine is really a catalyst who ends up being used in a similar way. She's the nexus point of information - not in an active Oracle sense, but in a more passive, receiving way, she's the one who ends up with all the personal stories that, if tied together, could give one of the characters a startling glimpse into a much larger picture.

TO: What qualities do you appreciate most about new artist Patrick Zircher's approach toward Nightwing?

DG: I have been tremendously fortunate with artists during my career. Having Rick Leonardi on Nightwing initially was just amazing; I really loved what he was doing and respect his work tremendously. When we lost him to Batgirl, we really had to think carefully about whom we wanted to bring in next. Those were big shoes to fill.

I had worked with Patrick before on a few fill-ins and he's basically got everything you could ask for. His story telling is vivid and clean, his characters are very expressive, which has always been important to me, he loves working on detailed backgrounds, and he's got a very exciting, lucid, cinematic style. That was why I was excited about him coming on to the book.

But then it just got even better because, on top of all that, Patrick began to express a tremendous amount of passion for the characters. We talked a lot about who everybody was, especially Dick, and discovered that we felt strongly about a lot of the same qualities that we wanted to make sure to be emphasizing. I've come to realize that that is maybe the most powerful advantage a collaboration can have - when two or more people are bringing their individual talents to the table to try to achieve the same goals, an energy is created that begins to take both people's work to a new level. Editor Michael Wright, Patrick, and I, in listing our favorite things about Nightwing invariably hit the same points. As an editor, Michael isn't at all afraid to deal with long-term plans -- in fact he encourages them. So suddenly I've got this editor saying, "hey, take as long as you need to make these things happen, let's really do the story arcs right here," and an artist who looks at every single story beat and says, "got it, I know exactly what you're going for there, let's do it." That kind of patience is actually quite rare in this industry, and with Patrick the simpatico enthusiasm ranges from the very broad, conceptual ideas we share about Dick's physicality and loyalty all the way down to the smallest details on his new motorcycle.

Actually, Patrick's design for that bike was when I really knew we had something special starting. Michael was just laughing at us, we were trading spec ideas on this fictional two-wheeler with the fervor of Ducati engineers. We were INTO it, and it's not even like I've got particularly huge plans for it, we just wanted him to have his own bike. I felt like we were creating a special gift for the character, and I sensed that Patrick felt the same way. There's something a little crazy about that, but it's crazy in the same way that the fans are crazy - we all just love this character and want his life to be rich and involving.

TO: By taking Dick off the cop beat, how will this free you to use the character and his "free time" differently?

DG: Losing the cop job is actually a real blow to him. He's very unhappy about it. It was Chuck's idea to put Dick in that uniform and I think it was a brilliant idea - that really meant something to the character and let us learn some new things about him. He's sort of an adrenaline junkie, and having the ability to do "heroing" 24/7 was both very rewarding and very dangerous for him. So now in the stories we're at the point where he's mourning the loss of that. That job was an unexpected gift, and now that it's gone, he has to look at the fact that there's a hole in his life he needs to fill. As long as he had that job, he didn't have to think about anything, he didn't have the time. But now he's alone with his own head all day, and he's realizing that he's on a kind of auto-pilot with Blüdhaven - will he be content to just keep doing that work and protecting that city, or will he want to find a way to reach out for more and continue growing?

TO: Given that the new Tarantula is on the wrong side of the law, any chance we'll get to see John Law's (the original Tarantula) reaction to events unfolding in Nightwing?

DG: John Law does a play a part, yes, but it actually kind of works the other way around. Catalina doesn't think of herself as a bad guy and it's not until John Law ends up in the crossfire of something else she's doing that she's forced to take a look at her allegiances and what she's creating with this Tarantula legacy she pretty much stole from him.

TO: Where do things stand with Matador, your Wildstorm/Homage project with Brian Stelfreeze?

DG: Stelfreeze called me last week and, as I understand it, he's starting the first (of six) books right now. I'm not sure what kind of production schedule he's set up for himself in terms of a time-line, but I know he's into this project and I can't wait to finally start seeing his pages. This is a story that he initially came to me with and I fleshed out with him, so it's always been something he genuinely wants to do, the delay was just a matter of clearing time in his schedule to do it. Sounds like the time is now, which is such a relief. I'm burning to see these pages from him. I love working with this man and again, similarly to what I was saying about Zircher, Stelfreeze and I are obsessed with a lot of the same kind of thematic material.

We were talking about the characters in Matador the other day and both acknowledged that they'd absolutely taken on a life of their own. They stopped by in Brian's head first, he told me what he knew about them, I sat with them for a few weeks and laid out a trajectory for them to move across, and then that was the last bit of control either of us felt like we had over them, they were just off and running. I'm just happy that they're haunting him now instead of me. The scripts are in; the rest is in his more than capable hands.

TO: You're wrapping up work on a Smallville novel (which will be out in March 2004, called City. You've written one Batman novel, as well as a scholastic book. How much fun is it to be able to expand on characterization and plot in novels? On the other hand, are there times you write a scene for a novel and wish the reader could see the action visualized in the sequential art platform?

DG: I went into these prose-writing assignments a little cocky, actually, and man have I been humbled. All my background and academic training is in prose, and in general, it's a medium I'm much more comfortable with than comics, which continue to be a learning experience for me. The first cold bucket of reality dumped over my head was the deadlines - literally ONE MONTH for the 300 pages Batman novel (though in that scenario I did have a co-writer who had already written the plot, which is based off a video game he did), and two for City, the Smallville book.

Scott Peterson wrote to me in the middle of my work on Smallville and asked whether I thought comics or prose were easier to write, and I said prose, with the caveat that, thanks to the artist, a medium to bad comic script can still come out looking better than a medium to bad novel. But in terms of structure and pairing things down and thinking visually and creating an illusion of change in a serialized but static medium - I just honestly think that when done well, a comic script is really frickin' hard work, whereas with a novel you just, you know, start writing and keep writing. One idea gets you through three hundred pages (unlike in comics, where you're constantly worrying about what's next), and you have as much space as you need to set things up and resolve them.

Two weeks into the Smallville revisions, I wrote him back and said I must have been on crack when I wrote that first email. The thing about novel writing is that you're all alone out there. For a comic, you visualize what you want to have happen and you write it down well enough that, you know, some insanely talented artist somewhere will understand what you're going for. You can even write, "What I'm going for is...." and he can even call you if he still doesn't understand. And sure, there's tricky stuff like how to express the themes visually and how to keep the dialog genuine and yet succinct, but EFFIN' HELL! You don't have to stop after every sentence wondering whether you explained it clearly or beautifully or meaningfully enough. You don't have to worry about grammar (unless you're using third person captions, the only part of your writing that will actually show up in the comic verbatim is dialog, which can always be colloquial). You can explain something four times if that's what it takes to get the point of across, and even refer to work other people have done if it helps (it's fine to tell an artist that Lex gives that cool, enigmatic smirk that Michael Rosenbaum has endearingly trademarked on the show, for example, but you can't exactly write that in a book! "Lex looks Clark up and down and smiles that way he did in the red kryptonite episode," doesn't wash in a novel).

There is just NOTHING to hide behind in prose. It's the difference between having your buddy ask the girl you like if she's seeing anyone (comics) and being all alone with her in a room for over four hours, during which time she will speak not word one (novels).

But I love it, I absolutely love it. Having just completed those two books back to back, I'm kind of a nervous wreck and I'll admit that significant deterioration in health, tears, and dangerously immoderate quantities of caffeine were involved. But being immersed in something like that is the ultimate rush; you're really living in that world until the book is done. I never, ever want to do that again and I absolutely can't wait for my next novel assignment!

TO: Can you provide any details on the Joker graphic novel you're doing with John Bolton?

DG: I think that one's coming out in November as well, right? Switch is a strange little tale about…well, about the Joker, and in that sense it's difficult to say with any precision exactly what it's about it, since it has to move sort of fluidly with him. But I'll go out on a limb and say it's about identity.

As with Matador and Stelfreeze, Switch was born in Bolton's head and was an idea he brought to me, asking if I could noodle around with it and coax it into a full grown story. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I felt tremendously honored to be able to do that for him, partly because I respect and love his work so much, and partly because along with Sean Phillips, he'd done the same thing for me with USER, which was deeply personal to me and just amazing to see it brought to life so magnificently.

The idea was not to reinvent the Joker - I don't think there's anything wrong with the Joker and I have no interest in "putting my stamp on him" or doing anything other than crafting a story that takes us a little further into his oh-so-intriguingly-dangerous head. Structurally the story is actually pretty simple - you don't want to start getting tricky on the Joker, he's going to do that for you. I worked hard to let him express himself in terms of words and actions, and John created these fantastic, disturbing, captivating images of him and Batman. The artwork in Switch is absolutely amazing. I haven't seen it in color yet, but both John and editor Michael Wright assure me that it's even more incredible. Honestly, I think that's all you need to know.

TO: Given that you describe yourself as "botany-obsessed", are you partial to a character like Poison Ivy?

DG: Yeah, definitely. I love the idea of having a character that can think like a plant. Flora conducts itself very differently than we do, and when I was as young as six I told my dad that I thought plants were actually a lot smarter and further evolved than we were. The next day he showed me a picture of deforestation in progress and I cried (I didn't say "stronger" or "more obnoxious," after all), but I'm still very intrigued with the plant kingdom and what that might mean in terms of an anthropomorphic archetype, which is something Poison Ivy could definitely be.

The tricky thing for me about Poison Ivy, though, is that to take her in that direction right now would mean stripping her of a lot of traits other writers have set up. She's usually portrayed as more of a femme fatale who just happens to be able to use botany as a defensive (or occasionally offensive) tool, but she doesn't often behave like or exhibit the motivations of a plant. It's sort of like the main story problem they were confronting in the movie Adaptation - plants are fascinating, but they're not terribly active. They don't tend to propel a plot forward in terms of human drama. They're actually quite aggressive with one another, but rarely aggressive with humans unless you're taking the weeds in your yard very personally. And as far as Ivy goes, that's totally fine, I love it when characters are fleshed out and made to be very human, but it is different than where I'd want to take her, which would be more into the territory of something like Michael Pollan's wonderful book, The Botany of Desire. Which actually gives me a good idea - hold on, I'm calling my editor now. ;-)

TO: Do you think a bisexual brings a unique area of experience and knowledge when writing romantic scenes? Or does a person's sexual orientation have no bearing on one's writing ability/area of knowledge?

DG: I think the coolest thing about writing is that everything you are and everything you know is brought to bear. Even your mood when you sit down to write is relevant. I feel very strongly that any writer of any sexual orientation should be able to write about any character of any sexual orientation (the same thing being true for race, gender, creed, economic status, etc - if you can't put yourself in other people's shoes you aren't going to be able to write believably, that's pretty much the name of the game), but I also believe that who a writer is in his or her day-to-day life and how he or she moves through the world will flavor and influence his or her work. There's just no way around that, and indeed, that's as it should be.

On the one hand, you could say that I'm at an advantage, because I have first-hand personal knowledge of what it feels like to be in love with both men and women. But on the other hand, I've only been in love with a few specific men and women, and only as myself (um…for the sake of argument), so I really don't know any more or any less than anyone else. The most important thing is to be open to and aware of other realities. It's fun when a writer populates a world with a cast full of interchangeable alter-egos who all talk pretty much the same way and believe the same things and move around their environment in some distinctive, evocative way - we may like hanging out there, listening to the fast-talk and the swearing and the insults and being part of that unique world for a little while - but it's even more exciting when every single character is unique and full in their own right, and half of them say things we can totally relate to while the other half constantly surprise and challenge us. As a bisexual, I've been forced to acknowledge that there's more than one way to do things, more than one viewpoint out there. I have always been a nonconformist surrounded by other nonconformists in a nonconformist environment. I can't help but get it that people want and need and believe and strive for different things. But unfortunately, I think that's something that a lot of people in general, let alone writers specifically, aren't in touch with. And that's the problem. It's got nothing to do with who you do or don't tend to fall in love with, and everything to do with your capacity to hold that other people may do things differently.

We've been in a place in mainstream superhero comics for a while now where we've moved away from the broadly defined good versus evil prototypes and are interested in creating and exploring more individuality and diversity, but unfortunately there's still a tendency on the part of the big publishers to filter everything through one or a couple people (which of course will homogenize everything and everybody) and a more understandable tendency on the part of the creators, myself included, not to venture too far afield with previously established characters, who usually make up the majority of our casts.

A final comment on the sexuality issue: I find it interesting that some of the best homoerotic material came from men who I don't think any of us believe were intentionally framing things that way. If anything, it was their very unconsciousness about sexual diversity that led them to set up some situations that we look back on later with chuckles and slow shakes of our head. As often as not, the answer to "What were you thinking!?" is "Oh, uh, I wasn't…" I am actively trying to incorporate a broader range of sexual choices, behavior, and inclinations into my work, but honestly, I don't see how I could do better than some of what's already, albeit completely accidentally, there. ;-)

TO: Are there other Grayson projects on the horizon that folks should seek out in 2003 or 2004?

DG: I'm hoping to do more work for licensed publishing (the department in charge of novelizations) and there are definitely a few projects on the burners, but of course nothing I can talk about yet. I'm just pleased that 2004 will finally vindicate me - al lot of what's coming out then is work I completed a while ago, so I'll finally be able to prove that I wasn't just blowing my friends off to play SIMS for the last few months.

From now to the end of 2004 should see the release of those novels we've been talking about, the Scholastic children's story, Switch, Matador, and a nice pile of new Nightwings. I think there are mumblings about a Bat-event next year, which I would certainly want to participate in, and my DC exclusive expires before the close of this year, which may bring up some new opportunities. I do have some shorter projects I'm working on now as well that may make it out before the close of 2004, but it's always hard to say. If you want good artists, sometimes you have to wait.

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