An interview with Ed Brubaker
Below is an interview I did with writer Ed Brubaker a few months ago when his new series Incognito debuted. Originally this was going to run as part of my column but, well, que sera sera. Here's the full interview:
Q: So tell me about Incognito.
A: Incognito is an idea I’ve been mulling over since we were wrapping up Sleeper. I often try to think of the inverse of an idea to see what would be interesting — if this idea is interesting to explore in one direction would it be interesting to explore it in the other? Look at a story like The Shield, where you’ve got a corrupt cop who’s trying to save his soul. What if you flip that to the other side where it’s a mobster instead of a cop? I think of things like that sometimes and try to see if there’s a story in there.
Sleeper’s about a good person who for his government goes undercover as a bad guy and slowly loses whatever moral compass he had and starts to realize that the bad guys and the good guys aren’t that different in the ways that they act. And maybe doing bad things for the right reason is just as bad as doing bad things for the wrong reason. There’s a lot of moral gray areas to explore there, so I was thinking "What if you did the opposite, what if there was a bad person somehow forced into a situation where they actually either had to or ended up doing good things, but they’re someone who has no moral compass, who looks down at humanity and ends up somehow through circumstance being forced to live among them and develop sympathy for them perhaps?"
That’s where Incognito grew out of, trying to figure out, is there a story in that character exploration? Then I started thinking of it in terms of a noir story and suddenly I was "Oh, what if it’s a super villain living in witness protection," and everything started to come together from there. All my love of old pulp characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow started to come out. The idea of trying to do a story that’s sort of a mixture between the modern superhero and a '50s noir story really started to appeal to me. I started thinking “What if the pulps had never stopped? What if instead of crime stories and noir, the crime pulp stuff was mashed in together with Doc Savage and the Shadow and Operator Number Five?” What if they made noir-esque stories with these characters? Everything started building from that.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the main character and how you see him. He comes across as not the most likable character, and that’s always a little tricky because you want the audience to have sympathy for him.
A: He’s definitely an anti-hero. That’s the story. It’s the journey of a bad guy. He’s an Eastwood type. It’s that kind of character, Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars or somebody who is clearly an outlaw. And yet we’ll start to see there’s something about this person. I think by the end of the first issue you get an idea that this guy isn’t just this anti-hero who looks down on everybody and feels trapped by this thing. You see some of the wounds this guy carries and how he became who he is. He becomes a more human character even by the end of the first issue, even though he does retain that hardened edge of a guy who was raised on the wrong side. I guess if you’re raised on it, it doesn’t feel like the wrong side.
Zach and his brother Xander were raised -- they’re twin brothers -- and they were taken from a state adoption home and have no memory of it. They’re earliest memories are of being experimented on by this mad scientist guy who was in this evil organization known as the Black Death. They were taking orphan kids and doing science experiments on them to try to turn them into super villains, basically. He was a twin and he and his twin brother were major enforcers for this evil organization and at some point about three or four years ago something happened to his brother and he ended up turning on the people he worked for. Now he’s living in witness protection, but everybody thinks he’s dead. And he’s on drugs that make him a normal person. They shut down all of the enhancements that he’s been given.
Q: That sounds a lot like some of the characters and themes you’ve been exploring in your other books like Criminal. Certainly the idea of family, like the Lawless brothers in Criminal and even the Cap/Bucky relationship in Captain America.
A: There’s some truth to that. We all have a few themes we explore over and over again as writers, whether you consciously know it or not.
One of the main things in this for me came out as an accident in that it occurred to me that the main character was a twin when I was thinking about the themes of the book, when I was fleshing out the ideas of the book early on. The word Incognito has so many different meanings. You’re doing a story about people who put on costumes and run around but doing it in a sort of noir way -- well, all good noir is at heart character studies with a plot taking place around them. You really build your whole story from the character.
So I thought “Who is this character” and it occurred to me that a lot of what the story is about is a guy who doesn’t exactly know what his identity is. He’s living a lie. The person that he truly is taking drugs and is living in this suburban Anytown, USA, kind of place working an office job and pretending to be someone he isn’t. He’s completely incognito and yet he puts on a mask and feels like this is who he is. Or maybe it isn’t. There’s so much about identity.
And it occurred to me “why does this guy go into witness protection” and then suddenly the whole twin thing came up. Identical twins have so much of their identity sometimes wrapped up in their twin. A lot of time they’re really close friends and have mental connections and things like that. So the idea of a twin separated from his brother and everyone thinks he’s dead and he’s living this new life for the first time on his own, but everything about it is a lie. So it really gets to the heart of what the story’s about in a lot of ways.
Q: It’s interesting because your description also fits Clark Kent.
A: Does it though? He was raised to be Clark Kent. Going into witness protection is a lot different. (laughter)
Q: That’s true, but —
A: "As a baby, Superman killed many, many people, but he was able to testify against Kryptonians and moved to witness protection in Kansas to be raised by an elderly family."
Q: That’s my recollection of the story.
A: That’s actually a pretty good story. If I ever get my hands on Superman ...
Q: One of those Elseworlds tales —
A: Even as a baby he had full adult intelligence. That’s a creepy story though. I like that.
Q: But it does sound like you’re playing off the kind of wish fulfillment that a lot of superheroes provide. Especially in that initial 2-page preview, where the lead is saying “I’m better than all the other people I’m surrounded by.”
A: Yeah, it is kind of the flip side of Superman/Clark Kent sitting there and thinking “nobody knows.” This is him sitting there and thinking “Nobody knows I could kill all of you and not care.”
Q: Are you consciously going to be playing off of the traditional superhero tropes in that aspect?
A: I don’t think so. I never consciously set out to do a parody of anything.
Q: I didn’t necessarily mean a parody —
A: No, I know what you meant. But I don’t think I’m consciously trying to reference any other superhero comics at least. There’s little nods here and there to the pulps because when you do a story like this and you’re creating the whole thing from the ground up, you have to do a little bit of world-building. My world-building was creating these pulp-hero characters from the '30s and '40s and they’re not really important to the story at all, they’re just background elements to the world. You may not ever see them in the same way there’s tons of elements in Criminal that nobody ever actually sees. We referenced Sebastian Hyde a number of times before anyone actually saw him.
With Sleeper we did that thing where the characters all told their secret origins in third person which was a little play on the origin stories of characters and a little play on the way origin stories used to be told. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. Who knows? It’s hard to tell when you’re in the midst of it. I’m deep into writing this project now. All I can think of is the character and the shit he’s getting into. Obviously the point of the thing is to explore the gray area between good and evil from the other point of view. We always see that side of it, the good person doing bad things and how that affects you; on some level this is approaching that.
Q: You talk about taking part of things from the pulps and noir and superhero comics. What things are you consciously taking? Are there any genre tropes you’re taking and how do you roll them up and keep them from bumping into each other, because they’re different genres, or at least perceived as such.
A: It’s kind of apocalyptic noir in this weird way. Noir isn’t really a genre — People think of it as a genre, but the people who think of it as that, when they start to tell you what movies that would fit into that don’t realize how elastic that actually is.
A noir story, if there are rules to it, the main rule seems to be whoever your main character is, nothing good is going to happen to him. (laughs) And at the end of the story he may be dead. If he’s narrating, he may be narrating on his deathbed. It’s more of the way a story is told as opposed to what the story is. Many things that a lot of people consider noir could also be considered straight crime stories. A lot of people consider the Parker novels to be noir, but I just think of them as heist novels. Parker tends to live through all of them and there isn’t a lot of tragedy involved in that process.
I think instinctively I’ve always brought that air of tragic noir element to whatever I'm doing. I’m trying to subvert some of the principles of that genre a little bit by doing this. It’s kind of an experiment to take pulp and make up sort of an evolution of where these pulp styled characters would have gone and how they would have affected a world of also try to tell it through this really character-driven noir story. So it is a little bit of an experiment, but I really like the elements of something like Doc Savage; I love these apocalyptic literature of pulp fiction with these characters who were just sort of weird, crazy, vicious characters who were planning to destroy the world, and you had a guy like Doc Savage who would take out whole organizations and whoever would survive they would take them back to their institute and carve out pieces of their brain so they wouldn’t be bad guys anymore.
There was weird stuff going on in those pulp stories that comics sort of evolved from. As comics started being more and more for kids a lot of that eccentric bizarre early atomic-age stuff just fell by the waste side. That’s the kind of stuff I’m tapping into a little bit with Incognito. Just using that hard, crazy science edge to some of this world. Not as if I’m the first person by any means to explore the pulp roots of what superhero comics grew out of. Alan Moore started a whole line of stuff. But they weren’t the first either. We wouldn’t even have Batman if not for the Shadow.
Q: I talked to you back when Criminal first came out and I remember you saying how with Sleeper, because it was aimed at more traditional comic book readers, you were able to be a lot more experimental in your layouts and design. And with Criminal you wanted it to be very basic so that anyone could pick it up. What about with Incognito?
A: I think it’s mostly pretty straightforward. With every project it seems like Sean starts to experiment a little bit with the way he tells a story or structures a page. With this one, my favorite art from him, maybe ever, is the stuff for Incognito because I love the way he’s doing these no-panel borders, using the gutter space as negative space and hard clean balloons for the word balloons. Everything’s very mechanical except for the stuff that’s hand drawn by him.
Sleeper — he’ll probably do a story like that again, with that kind of experimental storytelling, but I’ve seen what he’s doing now with these odd panels that have these full bleeds. He’s doing this thing where he’ll make certain panels pop so they’ll bleed to the edge of the page.
Q: Of course, Criminal has changed. Both of you have gotten a little more experimental.
A: Yeah, but we’re still basically sticking to a three-tier grid. I can’t remember who said it, but if you can’t tell a story on a three tier grid you can’t tell a story. The first advice I remember reading in a book about experimental layout when everybody was trying to do weird angle panels and imitate Neal Adams with all of his crazy storytelling stuff he did and somebody pointed out that before Neal Adams ever tried that he made sure he could tell a story in 6-9 panels per page. Learn the rules before you break them.
Q: Not to take away from any of the other artists you’ve collaborated with, but this is the third book you and Phillips have worked on and you seem to click together well. What do you think it is that allows you to work together so well?
A: I don’t know. We’re just on the same page about the kind of comics we want to do. I really feel like a lot of what I do pacing wise really fits most of my scripts if you look at any of them have as much description of facial expression and what the character is feeling as it does with "in the background there’s this and this." All my stuff wouldn’t wouldn’t work at all if I didn’t have artists that can really generate empathy from the readers for the characters. Sean just does that really well. We love a lot of the same comics and aspire to do things on the same levels as the books we really dug. A lot of times we’re playing to each other. I feel like I’m writing this stuff to some degree for Sean because he’s the first person that reads anything I write for anything I own.
Q: Is this going to be an open-ended story? Do you have a definitive end in mind? Or could this go on?
A: It’ll depend. I know the end of this story, I’ve got the last scene written already. It came to me early on. It’s definitely left in such a way that if someone were to want to, we could revisit this character or other characters in this world, depending on if I end up sticking with that scene.The plan right now is once we finish this to go back and do more Criminal. We’re having a lot of fun. With Criminal especially built up a pretty loyal, sizable audience of people who are clearly following us over to Incognito. And hopefully we’ll pick up some more from Incognito. As long as people keep buying comics by us in enough quantities that we can afford to keep doing it, Sean and I will put out as many of them a year as we can.
Q: I was going to ask you how Criminal was doing.
A: It’s doing really well actually. We’re one of the more stable books on the market apparently. We’ve been doing about 18,000 an issue. That’s advance orders. I think we’re doing close to 19,000 on final sales. That’s better than most books like that. I always want to reach more people and I feel like it’s still under-performing cause I still hear from people all the time whose stores buy three copies and sell out the first day so I always know they could be selling at least a few more. It’s better than almost everything Vertigo publishes.
Q: I was going to say.
A: Yeah, other than Fables. From my side, once we relaunched with the new format and I think after issue two, the orders for issue three actually went up and in issue four the orders were higher than one even. And we’ve just stayed at that level. One issue I think was 30 copies less. It’s insane to have a book where the numbers are the same every month.
Q: What about the trades?
A: They’re doing really well too. We’ve sent the first one back for a second printing and we’re pretty close to selling out the first print run of the second trade. I’m just waiting to get some statements. but we’re moving really good numbers, and mostly through comic stores. We’re not really doing huge bookstore push because I handle all that stuff myself. Also we’re in print in five or six other countries and our French publisher has gone back to print with the first book. We’re coming out all over the world with this stuff. The more books come out the more they seem to feed each other. Every day I hear from more and more people who are just getting turned onto it, so it just seems kind of crazy, for two years and only 17 issues.
Q: How many issues is Incognito?
A: Five issues and then we’re back to Criminal. We’re doing the next Lawless story after that. Incognito’s just five issues. We’ll probably do more of it. We’ll see how we like doing it the further in we get. So far I like it, which is surprising, because after Sleeper I thought "Let’s just do crime stories and not deal with any of the super-powered stuff at all." But it’s a lot of fun to be back doing something like this with Sean where we get to flex some different muscles and have some fun within that genre. I like working in comics you can do a story like that and a large part of your audience goes into it knowing what a super villain is.
Q: Working for someone like Marvel or DC you’re under these creative restrictions as far as what you can or can’t do with the character. In your case I”m not sure that’s true, because they always say they can’t kill the character and you did.
A: I’ve gotten really lucky with getting away with murder, literally, on books but also I haven’t slammed up against a lot of restrictions. Things you can or can’t say I get a lot, in terms of from month to month it seems to change. There’s never any hard or fast rule. You can say "damn" in a book but you can’t say "damn"19 times on a page. Weird things like that.
I don’t think I could do the work for hire stuff if I wasn’t also doing original work. I think they feed each other at this point for me. I went a few years only doing work for hire stuff when I first started out at Marvel before Criminal. It just seemed like I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t start doing some work that I actually had a stake in and felt like was important to me. I have a big stake in Captain America and Daredevil. They are important to me but it’s a whole different thing when you create all of it from start to finish. You own it and it’s your universe. It’s not everybody else’s too.
Q: You don’t have to worry about tying it into Civil War.
A: But even that stuff, if you take those jobs at Marvel, you can’t complain when somebody says "Oh we want you to tie into such and such." I’ve been really lucky. People think that happens more than it actually does. I have editors who say "Hey our book needs a boost, tie it into such and such a thing." I’ve been on that end at DC. I don’t think I’ve ever been on that end at Marvel but I’m sure there are people who have been.
You’re trying to tell the best story with someone else’s character and I lie to myself and make myself believe I own the Captain America part of the Marvel Universe other than Brian being able to use him in Avengers. But during Civil War Cap was in every third book and usually getting beaten up by the main characters. He probably got captured like nine times during Civil War. I’m the only one who didn’t have him get captured.
You lie to yourself and tell yourself it’s your character while you’re writing it. You have to otherwise you’re not going to do a good job and give the readers their money’s worth. which is what your job is to do. Make people want to keep reading these characters. That’s a great fucking job. It beats flipping burgers, which I’ve done. It beats any job I’ve ever had because it’s still creatively fulfilling. But doing your own stuff is even more fulfilling. (laughs)
I like both. I love Captain America. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve had these ideas that I would grow up and work on Captain America. I probably went a good decade or so without ever thinking about it, but the moment I got that phone call from Brian saying "Hey is there anything you want to do? I know you’re exclusive is ending soon," and Joe called me the next day to offer me Captain America. There was no way I was saying no. It’s pretty cool. It’s the same way I would work on Doc Savage or the Shadow if Marvel had them. I find if I go a full month without writing something that I’m doing — all the stuff is intended to be read and enjoyed by people but Incognito and Criminal, as long as I’m doing something that Sean wants to draw and that I’m really into. Bad Night is one of the best things I think I’ve ever written.
Q: I have to say, I thought that last issue was supurb.
A: Thanks. I was trying to do one of those James M. Cain style things. Jason Star did a book called Twisted City that has the best last scene in a crime story that totally changed everything about the main character in his last moment. I didn’t go for that.
It’s interesting. I do read the odd review and I noticed until issue four’s reviews, almost all people online reviewers were thinking that Jake was having conversations with the Frank Kafka character throughout the whole story. If you read it, you can see that’s not actually happening at all. In the first three parts of the story, up until the very last panel of part three, he never acknowledges Frank’s presence at all. As a reader you can think he’s just imagining what his comic book character would say or do because he doesn’t interact with him. It’s almost like it’s a voice inside of his head, which is what you’re supposed to think. And then you realize it is a real voice inside his head.
That was one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on and one of the hardest things to write too. There’s not a single scene in there that isn’t important to the big conclusion. Even the first line of narration about the house burning down across the street comes back around. Everything comes back around. I feel really lucky to have a platform to do stories like that. The minute that sales started feeling stable, that sense of “Oh this is going to go away someday,” went away. I started to feel like we have a fan base that is actually following what we’re doing. I was always worried during the first 10 issues cause sales would fluctuate where it would seem like we were doing really good and then the next issue orders would be down 2,000. I knew we were being underordered. I didn’t think it was a bunch of "trade waiters" cause I kept hearing from people who could find part five of a five part story. I think we stabilized 3,000 higher than we’d been selling on the last four issues of the previous run. I can’t believe the same stores are ordering the exact same number every time. But maybe.
Q: I suppose in these times retailers can’t afford to take chances on extra copies of anything.
A: That’s why I’m really thrilled Incognito did as well as it did. It didn’t do as well as I initially thought when we first announced it and everyone flipped out. But that was a week before the economy started to tank completely. Or at least publicly tank. Bad time to be launching a new book. I keep reminding people not to flip out too much about the whole economy thing because: a) that will just make it worse and b) even during the Great Depression 25 percent of the country was still working. Don’t automatically assume you’re going to be in the other 25 percent.
Q: Right. It’s just in the newspaper industry.
A: (laughs) Right. You guys need to get a bailout together. The problem is those stupid news media conglomerates that seem to think you’re supposed to make a profit on journalism. Journalism is supposed to be a break even thing at best.