Devin Grayson is a Comic Book writer who has penned various Batman and Catwoman stories.
You’ve worked on a lot of Batman-related stories. What is it about that universe and those characters that draws you in?
I find Batman genuinely thrilling because I believe in him. He’s human. The mythology of superheroes—the powers and the symbols and the archetypes—are all so much fun to play with, but at the end of the day they’re just metaphoric stand-ins for human anxieties and human fantasies. I think I’m at my best as a writer when all of that is stripped down. I guess is some ways I’m not ready for that level of metaphor yet, because I’m not done playing with and exploring unadulterated humanity. There’s a lot of symbolism and many archetypes in the Bat-verse, of course, but the fundamental story of Batman is a story about taking the worst of human pain and shaping it into the best of human resolve. That, to me, is the stuff of a true heroism. Moral action isn’t an accident of science or a gift from an alien race, it’s a decision. We know exactly what motivates Batman and the ways in which that motivation has both stunted and driven him; although his adventures are beyond what most of us will ever experience, his internal life is completely accessible and authentic. And that’s true for everyone in his world.
I also love the urbanity of the stories; the psychology of the characters and the socioeconomic rhythms of Gotham. There’s so much rich material to explore.
When you are tasked to write for a established character like Batman or Catwoman, do you do any research on the character before you start writing the story?
If there’s time, absolutely, that’s part of the job. I think people sometimes confuse character research with creative references, though. Character research is always helpful; at best it creates a rich amalgamation of information and history to draw from and at worst it at least keeps you from recreating a story someone’s already written. When you’re synthesizing all of that information, though, you’re also naturally distilling core concepts that you’ll use in your interpretation of the character in question, and a big part of that process is exploring the resonance that character has with all the other creative references you’ve collected over the years. I think our industry sometimes runs into trouble when people are processing comic book stories and characters and only have other comic book stories and characters to compare and contrast them to. That’s how you end up with convoluted, self-referential stories that are so steeped in continuity, no one but the most devoted reader could ever hope to understand them. When you can bring in references from outside of comicdom, you’re opening up the material to a much broader audience.
A great example of this is Neil Gaiman’s work. The Sandman series is full of allusions to classical literature and contemporary psychology and all kinds of other great stuff with which many people outside of the realm of comics have some familiarity. Those points of access make them feel welcomed and comfortable and open to discovering some of the tropes and grammar of comics.
So I enthusiastically support character research, but also advocate for interests and exploration well outside of mainstream comic book lore. It’s really important to find a way to be inclusive of all that’s gone before without becoming circumscribed and myopic.
When you start writing a story, do you follow a particular pattern/writing method?
Before I start writing I like to have a sense of where I’m going with a story; not just the main beats, but also a central question I’m striving to answer or an insight I’m hoping to illuminate. I used to do page-by-page outlines, but now when I’m working on a comic script, the story just automatically conforms to twenty pages, so I’ve gotten a little more free-form in my approach.
The one ritual that has always served me best, though, is the creation of story and/or character-specific playlists. Sometimes it will just be four or five songs that create and hold the mood of a short one-off, but when I’m working with a place or character for a long time, I end up with these sweeping soundtracks that help keep me thematically focused. The music helps me get and stay in the right headspace for the story in addition to helping me shut out external distractions. It also diverts the editorial part of my brain so that I can access my creativity without second-guessing every word I put down—my inner critic is brutal, but fortunately she’s also a sucker for sing-alongs. I need total silence for editing, maybe because I’ve trained my brain to associate critical thinking with quiet and creative thinking with music. In any case, the playlists have deepened my love affair with music, because familiar songs—or in some cases bands or voices—tend to have strong, immediate associations for me while new music can spark fresh story or relationship ideas. I would love to be more talented at actually making music, but in lieu of that, I very much enjoying using it as a tool for concentration and inspiration.
What do you think are some common mistakes/story-related problems that comic book writers in particular (or writers in general) make?
Well, when learning to write comics, I think movement, dialog economy and continuity plotting tend to be the biggest stumbling blocks. Movement is the easiest to overcome; you just need someone to remind you—sometimes repeatedly—that every panel is static. Thinking cinematically is great…until it starts interfering with your ability to orchestrate action through serialized stillness. Dialog economy was probably my greatest stumbling block. Early on, I was anxious to share the voices I was hearing for the characters and to demonstrate my value as a writer through the quality (and—*wince*—quantity) of the dialog…but of course, that’s not really what great graphic storytelling is about. Learning to tell a story visually and holding dialog and captions to a minimum so that the art can shine takes a little practice and gets so much easier once you’ve had the opportunity to work with some really great artists. By continuity plotting, I mean the tendency of over-ardent fans to want to craft stories solely around perceived continuity flaws. The passion that goes into that is admirable and absolutely part of the recipe for success, but they risk being dangerously out of touch with both what the publishers need and what the rest of the readership cares about. Those aren’t really stories so much as statements, and that kind of story crafting doesn’t prepare you for the way more fluid and hurried realities of monthly story creation for licensed characters. You’ll need a lot of very flexible ideas that you can very quickly spit out and rework.
In your mind, what goes into making a well-rounded/interesting character?
My favorite characters all have three key aspects: a unique past; an agonizing anxiety, flaw or blind-spot; and an impulse to be truly virtuous in at least one venue, instance or set of circumstances. Of the virtues, loyalty is my favorite—probably because it is so rarely rewarded or even entirely justified. I think loyalty if my favorite flaw, too. It can have a really brutal, narcissistic edge to it, with shades of martyrdom, privation or even masochism when wielded recklessly. Loyalty is unsafe, but also potentially protective. It invites great complications like contempt or exploitation, but also allows for the possibility of significant, enduring bonding. It can tell you a great deal about a character really quickly and it can even be turned. And it plays heavily into one of the themes that I circle compulsively in my writing: family; particularly the family of origin. Most of the characters I work with generally don’t make it through a week without some reflection or contact or contention with their family, which puzzles me actually, because I don’t experience myself—or any of my friends or loved ones, for that matter (with the obvious exception of
the very young)—to be even remotely engaged with family on a regular, meaningful basis. Maybe it’s a kind of contemporary anxiety; as a writer, I sense that that’s where a lot of our narrative comes from, but as a person, I feel distanced from it. Or maybe I’m kidding myself and I’m totally locked into family-of-origin drama in my real life, too. Either way, it greatly influences most of the characters I write.
At the most basic level, every character you write just has to have some quality or struggle with which you can empathize.
Are there any projects that you are currently working on?
I’m currently working on a YA Horror novel series (prose) about a young ghost hunter trying to come to terms with her brother’s impending death. She’s friends with werewolves, vampires and even a mage—all of whom have unique perspectives on mortality—but it turns out that knowing a lot about the afterlife doesn’t make you feel any better about having to send your loved ones off in to it.
Also, the second graphic novel I scripted for Scott Westerfeld based on his NY Times best-selling UGLIES series is due out in December; you can preorder it now on Amazon. It’s called UGLIES: Cutters, with art once again by the amazing Steven Cummings and it follows UGLIES: Shay’s Story which was publishes by Del Rey in March.
I’m also still actively contributing to Womanthology with a short sci-fi comic with artist Lindsay C. Walker coming up in Womanthology: Space/ Star, issue #4. It’s called “Smell of Sunshine,” and it’s based on a longer story that I’m thinking about running on Thrillbent.
Nerd Question: Favorite Batman-related Graphic Novel, Movie, and Show?
Arkham Asylum, Mask of the Phantasm (ha!), and B:TAS.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I think it’s a really exciting time for comics again and I hope the readers can sense that. The new online publishing paradigm has a lot of promise; not just as a viewing medium but as an invitation to new talent and a call for new models of interaction. There’s also been a lot of momentum behind self-publishing ventures like Image lately; there’s some terrific stuff going on over there that I hope everyone’s checking out.
Last but not least, thanks for this opportunity and for your interest in my work!