I have a confession to make. I love comic books. I am unabashedly obsessed with the monthly adventures of Batman and the X-Men. I have read Grant Morrison’s epic series “The Invisibles,” three times. I have seven long boxes chock-full of 32 page epic graphic stories in my closet. At a certain point in time, mainstream society would have deemed this weird for a 20-year old college student, but then something happened; comics stopped being for little kids and started being cool.
Books like Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” took the gloss and polish off of the early days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and instead, made these superheroes people we could relate to. No, I’m not a crime fighter in a cape and mask who drives a car with a flame for an exhaust, but I understand what is beneath that.
Duane Swierczynski is a writer. He was the editor of Philadelphia’s City Paper, is the acclaimed author of crime novels like “The Blonde,” and the upcoming “Severance Package.” He has written books and oh yeah, he writes for Marvel Comics.
Campus Philly: So, first off, since Duane Swierczynski is a name new to most comic book fans, how did you get involved in the medium?
Duane Swierczynski: I’ve been a comic book geek since I was a kid, but I really came back into it big-time in 2000, right around the time the first X-Men movie came out. A little more than a year ago, I picked up Ed Brubaker’s “Criminal,” which blew me away. I sent him a fan letter and it turned out that he’d picked up my novel, “The Wheelman,” just the week before. Ed was cool enough to introduce me to his editors, Warren Simons and Axel Alonso… and from there, things took off. It’s hard to break in, but I think having a few novels under my belt certainly helped.
CP: You mentioned Ed Brubaker and “Criminal.” What characters and creators influenced you, both when you were younger and now?
DS: As a kid it was Spider-Man… as well as Batman, and any of the Marvel or DC horror characters. Man-Thing, those old EC Comics (“Tales from the Crypt”). If it had crime, horror or wisecracks, I was into it. Then later, as a teenager, I got into the Punisher, and then some of the big comics moments of the 1980s–Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns,” “The Watchmen,” Clive Barker’s short story adaptations (“Tapping the Vein”). Later still, it was Warren Ellis, whose “Transmetropolitan,” I absolutely loved. So, in short, things on the darker end of the spectrum.
CP: I’m halfway through Transmetropolitan and it’s blowing my mind
DS: Isn’t it great? Are you a journalism major, Steve? If so, this is your comic.
CP: Yeah, magazine journalism.
DS: It’s the best Hunter S. Thompson homage ever.
CP: But I’m also kind of hoping to follow your path and get involved in writing comic books.
DS: Well, you’re certainly going to have the right kind of training. Plus, you’ll be exposed to all kinds of stories and topics… it’s perfect for a budding novelist/comics writer. I feel lucky that I had a bunch of years working at magazines and newspapers.
CP: Totally. That’s one of the main things that drew me to the field in the first place. Speaking of newspapers…How exactly did your time at City Paperhelp your work in comics, besides exposing you to lots of different story types and ideas?
DS: It taught me how to use my time wisely. And stick to deadlines. Before that, I worked at monthly mags and the pace was quite a bit slower. And true, comics are monthly, but I’m working on two monthlies now (plus other projects), so it feels like I’m hitting weekly deadlines all the time.
CP: I’m glad you brought up other projects, because the story broke the other day that you’ll be taking over “Immortal Iron Fist.” How’d that come about and how excited are you about it?
DS: I’m absolutely thrilled about it. I’ve been a big slobbering fan of Iron Fist ever since Brubaker and Fraction re-launched it. But both guys are moving on to different things at Marvel (namely, “Uncanny X-Men”), so Warren approached me to see if I would like to take a crack at it. I jumped at the chance. What really appeals to me is the pulp roots of the book, as well as the idea that it’s one big saga. Are you an IF fan?
CP: I’ve been catching up recently, but I haven’t dove too much into it yet.
DS: Definitely check out the first trade, if you can. You’ll be hooked.
CP: Another project that I saw you have coming through the pipeline is Batman: Murder at Wayne Manor. Can you give a little detail on that? Cause I for one, am very psyched to read that.
DS: I sound really busy, don’t I?
CP: (laughs) totally.
DS: “Murder” is an interactive mystery. Not in the online/computer sense, but in the old school, pull-some-clues-out-of-the-actual-book sense.
CP: That is awesome.
DS: So it’s not a comic, but a narrative story, with all of these cool old letters, photos, medical reports, etc. Yeah, the publisher is Quirk Books, based here in Philly, and they’ve done a stunning job. I did a similar thing with Sherlock Holmes, called “The Crimes of Dr. Watson,” which came out this past December. It’s exactly the kind of thing I love: experimenting with storytelling.
CP: Yeah, I remember reading about that in your blog, but haven’t had too much of a chance to get a look at it.
DS: No worries. And to be honest, Victorian-era mysteries aren’t my first love, but it was too cool a concept to resist.
CP: One of the things that I loved which was one of my first forays into experimental storytelling was “House of Leaves,” by Mark Danielewski.
DS: Oh yeah! I picked that up and it gave me a headache. But I really thought it was cool…… if a little daunting.
CP: Exactly. It was hard to get through when I first got it, but it’s pretty great stuff.
DS: The weirdest thing I’ve read lately is “Sharp Teeth,” which is a werewolf story… told in free verse. Have you seen this?
CP: No not at all.
DS: It’s strange, violent, and fantastic.
CP: I was actually finally able to find “The Blonde,” at the Borders in Center City last week. Which brings me to my next question: have your novels seen a boost of some sort, speaking in terms of popularity, thanks to your new forays into comic books?
DS: It’s too soon to tell, but I’m hoping that some comic readers would want to check out the books. And vice versa. I’m the kind of reader where, once I find a writer I like, I want to snap up everything they’ve ever done.
CP: I’m exactly the same way. Grant Morrison for example.
DS: Yeah. I was thrilled, for instance, when I read that Charlie Huston would be doing Moon Knight. Yeah–Morrison, exactly.
CP: I’m such a nerd for anything Morrison does, which also brings me to my next question. This weekend. A big event for you. Your first convention.
CP: (Which I will also be attending) How does it feel to be doing one of these for the first time?
DS: Oh yeah? Aweso
me! Please do stop by and say hi, if you can.It’s exciting, but I really don’t know what to expect. The only frame of reference I have is mystery conventions and I think they’re a much different thing. Have you been to these before? Maybe you can tell me!
CP: I’m in the same boat as you. I’ve been into comics for years, but never got to go to one of these before.
DS: But I’m definitely not the kind of writer who needs/seeks any kind of limelight (not that I’ll be in the limelight Saturday… but you know what I mean). I got into writing because I was a shy kid, and thought–hey, writing will let me hide from everyone. Joke was on me.
CP: It’s interesting that you say that’s why you got into writing. Cause most of the people who will be at this kind of convention are basically the same
DS: Yeah. I was very much a nerd as a kid. Still am.
CP: I started reading comics because I was super shy and Batman was my escape. Speaking of being a nerd, are you much of a gamer?
DS: I hear you. No, not at all. Though I always wanted to be one, growing up. Some friends were into D&D, but I never could convince my parents to buy me a Dungeon Master’s guide. They probably thought it was something sexual.
CP: (Laughs) If Marvel approached you to write for something like let’s say a “Cable” video game, is that something you’d be interested in taking a crack at?
DS: Oh yeah. But that’s mostly because I’m crazy enough to try anything. I love the learning experience.
CP: Going back to Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison…Would you want to try crafting something like The Invisibles or Transmetropolitan or Planetary? Just a big sweeping epic narrative across so much time?
DS: Definitely. The kind of thing is very appealing to me–especially since I don’t really do that in my novels. (Those are usually really told in short time frames.) Iron Fist has a lot of that, though–it really reaches back through the centuries, which makes it fun. But someday I would like to pitch something creator-owned. As for now, I’m still learning the ropes.
CP: If someone came to you with the idea of turning something of yours into a movie, giving you complete control, which book would you pick, who would direct it and who would star?
DS: Wow. Good question. Right now, I’d have to say my newest book, “Severance Package,” because it’s my favorite of the lot.
CP: And that comes out in May, correct?
DS: Yes. As for whom I’d pick to direct, etc… I’m actually talking to a few people now about it, but I can’t say who. So, I’m going to keep mum for the time being.
CP: Oh man, I barked up the right tree then.
DS: You really did. Good instincts, my friend.
CP: Speaking of “Severance Package,” on the Amazon page, it lists this quote from Joe Schreiber: A hot shot of adrenaline straight to the neural plexus.”
DS: I paid Joe good money for that. Kidding!
CP: That’s a pretty great sentence to get someone to pick up a book.
DS: Yeah, it really is. And Joe’s stuff is really amazing, if you have a chance to check it out. “Eat the Dark,” is a flat-out thrill ride.
CP: Before I let you go, is there anything exciting coming up for you that we haven’t touched on?
DS: Hmmm… I think we’ve covered it all, actually.
CP: Well any last words of wisdom, advice, scorn or otherwise?
DS: Very good questions. Um….No scorn…I guess the best piece of advice I ever heard was from Joe Lansdale: Writing = a** + chair. Basically, you have to put the time in. And it’s important to remember that it’s always the work that’s important, not money or attention or reviews. Sometimes, you see a writer get caught up in the business end of it, when it’s really important to stay focus on story. Story is the boss.
CP:Exactly. I’m so glad to hear someone say that.
DS: The moment things clicked for me was the moment I said: I’m going to do this regardless. I remember it vividly. I was sitting at my kitchen table and telling my wife: I’m going to keep writing novels until I die. Maybe none of them will sell. Maybe my grandkids will find them in a trunk and have a good laugh. But I have to write them anyway. A few weeks later, “The Wheelman,” sold to St. Martin’s. It was as if the gods had to hear me say it out loud.
CP: That’s an awesome story.
DS: Totally true. Hopefully, you’re finding time to write your own stuff, despite being in school – it can be tough.
CP: There’s been many times when I’m working on something, musically or just putting pen to paper, where I get so discouraged, and then it just clicks.
DS: Exactly! The more you do it, the more it’s like a habit, and the more your brain starts working withyou.
CP: Totally. It’s not a fight to work anymore. It’s completely symbiotic.
DS: Exactly. So I wouldn’t worry too much about breaking in someday; just focus on telling the best stories you can. Doing that puts you ahead of 95 percent of the competition.
CP: That is awesome advice, Duane. That brings me some sense of comfort.
DS: Thanks. This is all stuff I wished someone had told me back in the day. If you’re in it for the long haul, the breaks will come sooner than you think. Okay, I’d better go…but it was awesome chatting with you
CP: Thanks a lot Duane. You too and I’ll be sure to swing by Saturday.
DS: And please do stop by Saturday. I’m at the Marvel booth at 2, if you have the time.
You can contact Steve Ciccarelli at email@example.com .