Target Interview #1: Q&A with Devin Grayson

RoyToys for some time has been attempting to get some interviews going with the writers and artists of our favorite red-haired archer, but with time schedules and such, the interviews have just never gotten off the ground. I recently sent Devin Grayson, now currently writing Nightwing, an email asking for a few precious moments to give RoyToys her view of Arsenal. She graciously agreed and I'm pleased to say that Devin still remains the top writer of our boy Roy (not that her saying no would have changed that, but y'know, it never hurts to add in a bit of flattery).

RT: First off, Devin, I'd like to thank you for bringing Roy Harper back into the focus of fans and DC Comics' editorial staff. I personally wasn't all that familiar with the character until the 1996 Arsenal one-shot written by C.J. Henderson. The piece, which many will remember as a very gritty and dark work dealing with Roy's heroin addiction, peaked my interest, but it was your Batman Plus Arsenal that really blew me away. Your take on a character that I had only previously seen as a dark, angst-ridden individual was a complete reversal. You seemed to leave the angst with him but added a lot of Ollie's irreverent behavior into the mix. To me, *that* is when Roy Harper came alive and became a character that was worth checking out further. Was that your intention, to revive a character that had previously been either a plot device, a point to make politically, or a forgotten second-string hero?

DKG: Well, first of all, let me say thank you. That may be the nicest compliment I’ve ever received. That’s sort of how I felt when I read The Dark Knight Returns – suddenly Batman became real for me, and it was a really powerful experience. If I can ever do that to any degree for anyone with any character – especially one I love as much as Roy – then, as Harper himself might say, “my work here is done.” ;-)

The Batman Plus Arsenal special you’re referring to was only my second-ever comic script (after the ten page Dick and Donna story in The Batman Chronicles #7)…at that point, I was only barely getting the extent to which these characters came in and out of favor and focus. In a funny way, that naiveté was a bonus, because I knew these characters in the broadest strokes only and was able to take those very basic ideas – in Roy’s case: archer, Navajo, drug addiction, rock drummer, daughter with supervillain – and thread them together into something that seemed full and vital to me. The thing that really hit me right away about Roy’s story was how adaptable and strong he’d been forced to be in his life. Over and over again, he tried to set up one kind of life and then more or less gets kicked out of it: he’s a little boy with a father who dies unexpectedly, he ends up living on a Native American reservation for his formative years only to be pushed out of that when he hits his teens (and how painful, you know, to lose that entire sense of cultural identity and tribal unity at that age), and from there he’s sent to nearly the opposite extreme; a playboy billionaire archer who thinks it’d be kinda cool to have a sidekick around. That works out really nicely for a while, but then Ollie starts traveling, takes off with Hal, and once again, Roy is sort of alone and abandoned. This is where the drugs come in (and heroin is a pretty frickin’ serious drug!), which eventually has the effect of jeopardizing his standing with the Teen Titans (and, we can assume, Great Frog)….it just goes on and on, he’s never allowed to “land” anywhere, never finds shelter. Until Lian. And how fucked up is that? He falls for a supervillain and she has a kid he ends up having to go rescue and raise largely on his own…craziness! But she becomes his family, the one person who will never question his place in her life, the one aspect of his own life he absolutely can’t abandon.

There’s so much in that story, you know, and the thing that really struck me was how fluid and adaptable and fundamentally gracious this guy would have to be. You can’t go through all that and be single-minded, you just can’t. If you’re still on your feet, then you must have some awfully good self-defense mechanisms, like a sense of humor. I felt like I knew him, knew guys like him – the easy-going looker in the back of the bar, full of hidden depths but offering nothing but a wink and a smile. The guy with that secret sadness in his eyes that he can’t hide but won’t talk about. The guy who gives excellent advice but never quite seems to have his own act together. The guy everybody likes and no one relies on, even though the truth is that he never lets anyone but himself down.

And then when I started to study some of the Navajo beliefs (which are the ones he would have been indoctrinated with because of the developmental significance of the time he spent there, age-wise) they really reinforced my ideas about him – this is a man who would have been taught to take strength from the dirt under his feet and the sky over his head and the fact that no matter what, the sun always rises in the morning. This is a man who believes in the concept of a kind of chosen destiny, or a road that you can’t help but be on, even when it feels like you’re straying dangerously off course – destiny without rigidity. We’re not on this earth, we’re of it -- and we don’t have to be perfect, we just have to be grateful for what we do have. Roy spoke to my heart, he immediately felt like someone I knew intimately, and my goal when I started writing him was just to share what I perceived as being the beautiful complexities of his story. I wanted to celebrate his survival and triumphs over adversity. He still feels very important to me in that sense – a hero in the more down-to-earth sense, someone who can act with integrity in a very black and white world and yet still see things in shades of gray, someone who accepts fear and moves past it, through it if need be. In many ways, I think he’s the most modern hero DC’s got. It never occurred to me that he might need saving, but I do think I see why he’s so underused. He’s more real person than superhero – more character quirks than archetype – and that’s not a concept that everyone’s comfortable playing with within the superhero genre.

RT: The next thing I wanted to touch on was art. Rick Mays, in my humble opinion, is by far the artist that has captured Roy's, um, shall we say, quirkiness the best. Other artists have tried Roy on for size, most notably any of the Titans artists like Phil Jiminez and in the distant past George Perez during the Perez/Wolfman Titans run. Is there any artist that has drawn Roy for you seem to catch what you see Roy as? That mischievous glint in the eyes or his seemingly devil-may-care attitude that covers up a deeper and more serious Roy Harper?

DKG: I’m with you on Rick Mays – I saw a fill-in story he’d done with Roy and Martin and immediately wanted him for the Six Degrees mini-series. The thing about Rick is that he’s sort of a hip, cool, well-dressed guy himself, and man he’s good with the sex appeal! I told him I wanted him to make Roy dangerous sexy – not pretty-boy, matinee idol sexy like Dick, but “fuck, I hope that guy doesn’t hit on my girlfriend,” real world sexy. His girls are pretty frickin’ luscious, too (which was why we put so many of them in Six Degrees! ::laughs::).

What’s really amazing about characters like Roy, though – by which I mean well-developed characters who’ve been around a while -- is that you recognize them no matter who‘s at the drawing board. I laugh sometimes when I see panels than an artist has drawn in response to a script by a writer who may not think Roy is quite as cool as I do, and Roy’s kinda lookin’ cool anyway, you know, like it just couldn’t be helped. ;-)

RT: For both Nightwing and Arsenal you've centered your writing of the characters on aspects of their heritage, Dick with his Rom background and Roy with the Navajo aspects. Other characters that you've written (keeping with DC only) you've kind of avoided this. Is it because they perhaps didn't have a known background like Roy or the opening for a heritage like Dick? What made you center on expanding the backgrounds of these two characters? Not that I'm complaining, mind you, as it has opened up a whole new outlook on the characters and definitely fueled more imaginations than you can possibly know.

DKG: Hm…this is a tricky question. You’re asking me to talk about writing cerebrally when in fact I experience it as a very intuitive, organic process -- that is, I don’t experience myself deciding things about characters so much as discovering them. But I think the thing that made both Roy and Dick’s (and over at Marvel, Natasha’s) cultural background seem so central to their characters was the period of their lives during which they were exposed to it. I’m half Russian in that completely American way of never having been to Russia, and not having had family members there for generations, so although that background may influence my coloring or bone structure, it doesn’t have a huge impact on my personality. On the other hand, my college sweetheart was first generation – she’d lived in the Soviet Union until she was nine, and you’d better believe that that remains an important, dynamic part of who she is and how she views the world. Both Dick and Roy were being raised by one culture before something happened that forced them to adopt to another, and that’s what I think is bound to have impact. Roy doesn’t “have some Navajo blood” in him, he was being raised by the Navajo – he spent all of his most formative years learning their laws and their way of life – there’s no way that’s not an important part of how he thinks and behaves. Similarly, Dick lived with his parents until he was eight, and he went from this nomadic, below blue collar, earthy existence to this rarefied, blue blood, above white-collar world. That’s actual experience that has to play a part in shaping who someone is. We know Bruce’s family came from Scotland originally, but Bruce’s world has never been particularly touched by that experience – that’s the difference. What interests me more than anything is where people experience themselves as being and what they experience themselves as belonging to. For both Dick and Roy, due to very concrete occurrences in their lives, the demographic cultural identifiers attached to them have clear influence over their worldviews. Failure to acknowledge that would be a failure to acknowledge their childhoods.

RT: You started out as a fan fiction author writing, if memory serves, quite a bit for a Titans fanzine. Jay Faerber also started out as a fanficcer. Others undoubtedly bounced off that diving board too. Was being a fan fic author a help or a hindrance once you went "professional", so to speak? Did the urge to use any of your stories previously written as fanfic ever come up when you might have gotten a case of writers block? In a quick addition to this question (feel free to answer or not), I believe DC Comics policy prohibits writers from reading or reviewing fan fiction. Considering its a venue you stemmed from, was it hard at first to restrict yourself from reading other works for fear of swiping an idea without realizing it? And the old question that you undoubtedly get asked a lot, how feasible is it for an "amateur" writer to ask one of the "pros" to take a look at a submission?

DKG: First, let me correct something. Neither Jay nor I started out as fan fic writers, fan fic was something like the fourth or fifth step for both of us, it wasn’t an entry point or the genesis of the desire to write. I’ll let Jay tell his own story, but for me, by the time I was with TitanTalk, I was already enrolled in post-graduate writing classes at UC Berkeley – I’d been seriously pursuing writing as an avocation for quite some time.

What the fanzine was for me was an entry point into comics continuity. Since I’d discovered comics so late in life, it was really helpful and exciting to be in contact with a group of people who had been reading about these characters for decades and knew all the ins and outs of their histories. It was a great way to get up to speed, and tremendous fun to talk to people who were as unabashedly passionate about the characters as I was. I actually was not with the zine for all that long – six months total, I think, if that – but it was definitely fun and it made me feel much more comfortable with comics as a medium and…well, a hobby, I guess, or an obsession.

It was not at all helpful professionally, though, and one of the first things I was asked to do when I signed my first voucher for DC was to quit the fanzine if I hadn’t already (I had). As you mention, DC does have a policy in place strongly discouraging writers from reading or reviewing fan fic for the very reason you site – it would be a tremendous legal burden for DC if a fan fic writer were to step forward claiming someone had swiped one of their plots. But that said, I have never once felt tempted to swipe one of my own fan fic stories, much less anyone else’s, for the simple fact that they’re not comic stories – the beauty of a fan fic fanzine is that they run serialized prose stories that tend to follow the minutia of the characters’ private lives when they’re not out fighting crime. There’s really almost no way to make most of them into sellable comic scripts. I view the stories I wrote for T-Talk as great exercises in characterization and submersion into the DCU, but of the four or five of them I submitted, none of them would be appropriate or feasible comic scripts.

As for your final question, it kind of depends on what you mean by submission. If you just want to ask a pro to read a story of your own creation, that’s usually fine. I usually agree to read short stories as long as they don’t involve any established DC or Marvel characters. It would also probably be okay to ask a pro to look over a solicited submission before you turn it in to an editor…that is, if you’ve already been invited to pitch for something by an editor who is expecting your submission, then another pro could read that knowing that it would soon be on an editor’s desk with your name on it. But keep these things in mind when you’re approaching pros:

1) the writers absolutely cannot get you work. It’s really the editors you want to befriend, they’re the ones who can dole out assignments. All a professional writer or artist can do is critique you and/or introduce you to an editor.

2) Professional writers and artists are freelancers…walking up to them and asking for help breaking in is, essentially, asking them to help you take their job away. If you keep that in mind, it’s actually kind of amazing how nice and helpful most professionals are willing to be.

3) Professionals are at legal risk when you expose them to your work, and no amount of assurances on your part can change that. So if someone does take the risk for you and agrees to read something of yours, be mindful of the difficult position they’re in.

4) Last but not least, writing comics is, for professionals, by definition, a job, and it may be that the last thing they want to do when they’re finally done working is read MORE about the characters they’ve already spent all day with. You may have better luck with teachers or peers or writers from other genres, for whom the material will be fresh and new.

RT: And the last, unfortunately, question, as I don't want to take time away from and monopolize (feel free to protest here),

DKG: No, really, Wolfie, please, it’s a delight to talk with you! Ask anything you like! ;-)

RT (cont.): other writers have taken on Roy since your four part miniseries as well as your run on the Titans book. Have you kept up with events in Roy's life just in case you decide to pitch another one-shot or miniseries to an editor? If so, what do you think so far? And what would you do to expand on Roy if given the chance to write an Arsenal book as you do for Nightwing (don't we only wish THAT could happen)?

DKG: I haven’t kept up with Roy much…I find it difficult to read about characters I’ve been close to…it’s like having dinner with your old boyfriend and his new wife or something….uncomfortable. I actually just started writing a Catwoman story for the Bat-office, and I haven’t read any Catwoman for so long, I was stunned when I realized how much they’ve changed her. I got all the information I could from the editor and then did what I always do…pretty much ignored it and wrote her the way I understand her, careful to stay away from situations that would force me to directly contradict her current continuity. I’d do the same thing with Roy…get the info and then figure out how to do what I had already decided to do without actively contradicting it. That’s part of why I’m always begging you not to worry about series continuity in your fan fic – if I were still working in a medium that didn’t require me to follow anyone else’s chronology, I’d jump at it! I have tremendous respect for most of my professional colleagues, but that doesn’t mean I always agree with them or want to tell the same stories they want to tell. I’m not going to “tone down” my take on Roy or Selina in deference to another writer, and I wouldn’t expect them to do that for me. You can only write what you understand.

As we’ve touched on briefly in emails, one of the stories I’d really love to tell about Roy is an exploration of his mother…is she really dead, and if not, where she’s been all this time? (Though if you beat me to it, Wolfie, rock on!) When they finally get smart and give our boy his own series, I’d want it to focus on Roy as the really easy-going, funny, sexy, all-American guy we know him to be, while slowly delving into his much darker psyche and background (which I think really IS a part of the All-American guy…it’s not an easy time to be male, or American, let alone a father, superhero, or honorary Navajo). The heroing would be almost incidental – it would be a book about a young single father whose greatest skills in life happen to be aim and adaptation. He can use anything as a weapon with lethal accuracy, and hasn’t even had time to think about what it means to be a hero yet, because he’s still concentrating on what it means to be a man. In a world full of people constantly saving the entire future, Roy’s living one day at a time. I think he’s a very accessible, likeable character that almost all of Gen X can relate to, and he’s unlike anyone else in the DCU. To paraphrase Dinah as written by me, in a community full of near-perfect heroes, the bravest guy there is the one who is flawed.

RT: Many thanks again, Devin, for your gracious time.

DKG: You’re very welcome, always a pleasure!

RT: With your run so far on Nightwing coming to a head here in a month or two, fans are on the edge of their seat just wondering how far you're gonna go and where you're going take Nightwing after his finale with Blockbuster.

DKG: I hope you guys enjoy the climax of this arc! This is something we’ve been building up to in Nightwing for a long time.

RT: For my money, I'm hoping an Arizona desert, starting with an opening shot of Roy Harper looking over Monument Valley, but I'll take just about anything with Roy in it.

DKG: ::grins:: Well, Harper’s a little too healthy to show up in this particular chapter of Dick’s life (“Wingster, what the hell are you DOING!? I’m supposed to be the screw up around here, not you!) , but I promise you I’ll get him and Dick together for a visit eventually. RT: I'm hoping that your interview here at RoyToys will be the start of a new trend here at the website and feel free to drop in a take a look (avoiding the Storytellings area of course) whenever it suits. RoyToys is full of bowhead lurkers, I guarantee, so all you RoyToys out there need to keep an eye out for Devin Grayson, cuz you never know what she's got up her sleeves!

DKG: Thanks, Wolfie! And remember, “fundamentally, the archer aims at himself.” ;-)

RoyToys would like to heartily thank Devin for her time and fantastic answers to the questions above. I'm surprised I managed to come up with some "not too fangirl" questions to ask! If you ever have a chance to meet Devin at a convention, do so. You won't be disappointed. She is one fantastic gal!