Thursday, June 28, 2012

Toys & Corners, Some Thoughts, Part Six...

(Yeah... this was originally going to be a short series of posts about comics, my career, and where I'm heading.  Clearly it's gotten a lot less short and a lot more long-winded than I had planned.  You can see just how less short and more long-winded it's gotten in the other five - jeez, is this really the SIXTH one of these that I've written?! - installments -- part onepart twopart threepart four, part five.)

I played bass in one band or another from the time I was in high school until my early 30s.  All through that time, my biggest fantasy was that I'd go to a U2 concert and someone would come and say they were going to have to cancel the show because Adam Clayton had gotten sick and couldn't go on.  The band couldn't play, unless...

...there was a bass player in the audience who knew all of Adam's bass lines.

You can see where this fantasy is heading, right?

(Amusingly, I was watching a documentary where Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters confessed he'd had a similar fantasy about the drummer of one of HIS favorite bands when he was growing up.  See?  I'm not alone!)

It's a fun dream.  Would never happen, of course, but I do still pull out the bass and run through U2 songs every once and a while to keep them fresh in my mind.  Just in case.

I had a similar adolescent fantasy when I was out of comics and working full-time at Borders.  Around that time, I started playing with the idea of writing a novel.  My comic book career was over at that point, but the urge to do something creative had never really gone away, and considering my strong desire to write more, novels were a logical direction to move in, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that it turned out I didn't suck at it.

But somewhere in the back of my mind, there was a little dream that I clung to... that I'd write a book, it would sell really well, and all those editors who had rejected my stories for years would be knocking on my door, begging me to write comic books for them.

I'm not proud of that, but there it is.

Luckily, my motivations to write prose ran a lot deeper than just wanting editors to finally notice that I could write and welcome me back into the warm embrace of comics, the only career I'd ever really known.  But the funny thing is... the more prose I wrote, the less I wanted to write comics.

Yeah... let me explain...

I've said before that the hardest thing about learning to write isn't learning HOW to write but learning WHAT to write.  The mechanics of writing are straightforward enough, and anyone can learn them if they're motivated enough and willing to put in the time.  Seriously... THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE is like, what?  A 100 pages or something?  What do you have to do to learn that many rules... read it 3 or 4 times... 5 at most?  Seriously, this isn't rocket surgery.

Okay, maybe it's just a little more complicated than that, but anyone who has spent their entire life reading books or comics already knows most of the rules purely by osmosis, the rest is just sitting down and learning how to pay close attention to what you're actually doing and fine-tuning the details.

But once you're familiar with the mechanics, you have to figure out what it is you're actually going to write about, and what, if anything, you have to say...

I'd actually figured that part out long before any of the mechanics.  Not sure why it happened that way with me, but when I started out at Caliber, I already had a crystal clear idea about what I wanted to say, the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and more importantly, I'd worked out a stack of actual stories I COULD tell.  I had a long way to go towards being a good writer -- still do, I'm sure -- but I at least had a starting point.

I had barely made a dent in that stack of stories when I made the jump to being an artists for DC and Marvel.  And when I eventually started pitching stories to the editors I was working with, I soon learned that the stories I wanted to tell -- much like my art --  just didn't fit in with what was going on at the time in comics.

Man, I tried to come up with something that WOULD fit in.  I twisted myself into knots trying to come up with a superhero story that someone would let me do.  And while I got pretty close a few times, I never quite succeeded.

And in a way, I'm glad.

Nothing I came up with during those years was a 'Matt Smith' story.  They were just pale imitations of the same superhero stories everyone else was writing.  There was nothing uniquely 'me' about those stories.  Anyone could have come up with them.  Anyone could have written them.

If I'd gotten a chance to do them, I'd like to think they would have been good stories, but they wouldn't have said anything new or interesting about the world.

I've talked before about the process of re-discovering the kind of stories I wanted to write, and how I dusted off the ideas I'd developed during my time at Caliber and discovered they still had life in them.  And as I started to rework some of those ideas into prose projects, I stumbled onto my voice again, and it was stronger than before, thanks to an endless series of writing workshops and conferences, and long conversations about the the craft of writing with other writers.

And when I returned to comics and started pitching stories again, I found I couldn't pitch the same old stories any more.  I just didn't have it in me to pitch anything other than 'Matt Smith' stories.  And boy, they STILL didn't fit in with anything else going on in comics.  If anything, they fit in even less than before, because the mainstream comic book industry was even more dependent on the superhero genre than before, and that's saying something.

Nothing wrong with superheroes, of course, but looking at it as a writer, there's not a lot I want to 'say' with them, and they don't make very good vehicles for the kinds of stories I like to tell.  There's a certain tone to my stories, and they don't feel like 'my' stories until I get that tone.  Throw a superhero into the mix, and that tone goes right out the window.

Yep.  There I was again.  A square peg in a round hole.  I didn't want to just write a comic book anymore, I wanted to write 'my' kind of comic book.  And since the kinds of stories I wanted to do didn't fit in, there wasn't going to be much chance of that unless something changed.

Sure, there were creator-owned avenues like Image I could have explored, but to be blunt, I had bills to pay, and the only way I could pay them was to do projects that had money attached.  I couldn't afford to take the time away from paying work to do something that had no guarantee of making a single cent.  If I was going to keep a roof over my head, I needed to do things like draw Doctor Who.

Have I mentioned I like Doctor Who before?  Yeah... I know... I almost never shut up about it.

And that brings me to one last cherished fantasy -- that my editor on Doctor Who, would call me up one day and say, "I need a Doctor Who story right away and everyone else is busy.  Can you write it?"

And then he did call.  And he did need a story.  And for whatever reason, he wanted me to write it.

So I wrote and drew a Doctor Who story.  And it felt amazing.  I was able to say some things about the character I'd always wanted to say, and do it in a way that felt like a 'Matt Smith' story AND a Doctor Who story at the same time.  And people genuinely seemed to enjoy it, especially hardcore WHO fans like me, which, I have to admit, was a huge relief.

I'd put everything I'd learned about writing and story and the kinds of things I wanted to say into a single story.  And after years of trying to convince people to let me write something, I'd finally gotten a chance to do it, and somehow managed not to embarrass myself.

So how do you go back to being just an artist after something like that?  The answer?  You don't...

NEXT TIME: No, really... the slow torture is almost over...


Anonymous said...


And I say that with love. :)

matthew dow smith said...

I'm being being torturous, aren't I...

Tomorrow is when I announce what I'm doing, and Monday is when I announce where I'll be doing it.