When I was learning to play guitar, I remember reading something to the effect of “listen to every piece of music and melody you hear, and try to play it on your guitar.” This included commercial jingles and bad pop music and TV theme songs. The idea was to be able to understand all forms of music, and what worked and what didn’t work. The same goes for writing, and it’s one of the better pieces of advice I’ve come across for aspiring writers. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, suggested that one of the most important things you can do as a writer is to read as much as you can. This is fantastic advice, as long as you don’t, as I certainly have, use this as a way to put off the actual writing. So I guess that in reality, the most important thing you can do to write is to write. But right after that, it’s to continually fill your mind-tank with as many varying words and stories as you can find.
This applies to comics as well, but it seems like a good deal of the people who want to make comics really only count comics, or at the most sci-fi among their influences. But the guys who are doing the best work at the big superhero books are clearly influenced by all sorts of stuff. Hell, Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet are almost running Secret Invasion by indirect proxy. The fact is, if comic books were the only input into the creative output of new comic books, it would all start to feed on itself, and we end up with far too much self-referential in-jokes that, while fun at first, eventually become tiring and ultimately unsatisfying (see: Family Guy). Further, it has long been my contention that the comic book is capable of telling any type of story, with just as much range as novels, or films and TV. Therefore the more places creators pull inspiration from, the better.
All this got me thinking about my favorite writers, and how that informs my writing (both the stuff on iFanboy and the fiction comics that might never see the light of day). Some are obvious, and others surprised me, when I think about how they find their way into my work. What’s really interesting to me is how many of these are based in comedy, and how much I like comedy, but so little of my work actually turns out funny. Talk to me in real life, or listen to any of the shows we’ve done, and I can’t help but make jokes (defense mechanism of some kind I suspect), but I often have to go back through things I’ve written and try quite hard to make them less dour. Still, there are lessons to be learned from well produced comedy writing that have nothing to do with being funny. So funny or not, and regardless of their medium, format or genre, the following writers had enormous impact on the way I put words together and why I do so.
- Neal Stephenson – Stephenson is a novelist, whose work is so diverse, imaginative and ambitious that I don’t have a simple term to put his work into a genre box, and I don’t want to. When I read any of his work, from Snow Crash to The Diamond Age to Cryptonomicon (possibly my favorite book ever), I see something that I don’t think I could ever match in depth and intelligence. For some, that might be discouraging, but the fact is, Stephenson is a god, and trying to catch up to him is futile. But at the same time, it’s clear that something can be that big and that good, and it is possible, and that gives me hope. I’d love to see more comics with the ambition of Neal Stephenson. The world building and deep continuity is there, but I rarely see the courage of concepts he chases. I think Claremont could have kept up with him for a time, except for the fact that Stephenson’s ever growing books are also frighteningly entertaining, almost in opposition to what it would seem to be at first glance.
- Monty Python - Most notably, I think the stuff written by Graham Chapman and John Cleese really spoke to me, for taking things that seem so obvious, and right there in front of your face, and making them completely new. Cleese and Chapman so frequently took what was a normal situation, and twisted them just slightly, leaving one exasperated person to try to make sense of the nonsense happening around them. There’s the Cheese Shop, and the Dead Parrot and the Ministry of Silly Walks and the Silly Job Interview, and many more, and the lesson for me was to look right in front of you at what’s odd or interesting about the most mundane things in life. Interesting writing can show us how easily switching out one normal facet for one that doesn’t quite fit gives you drama or comedy. Monty Python would juggle ideas, and play with your expectations, which are fine traits for any writer.
- Brian Michael Bendis - He’s the only comic book writer on my list, and he’s here for several reasons. To me, Bendis changed what was expected of a mainstream superhero comic book. He was a guy who did his own thing for a long time, and when he got to Marvel, he kept doing just that. He dabbles in different stories, and while I don’t always like them, I am impressed with his fearlessness. I wouldn’t have thought in a million years that the Bendis I had come to know would be able to make New Avengers something I’d think about reading. I thought he could only to snappy dialog, street level crime, and that’s about it. But he put his stamp over every kind of book they have at Marvel. And while some might say that all superheroes are the same, we know that’s not true. Further, Bendis had a style of writing I felt I could aspire to. I know I can’t write like Mark Waid, but when I read Bendis stuff, I think, “This is both really good, and I think I could do something like this,” meaning, there’s a chance for me, not that I want to do books in his style. Bendis is also an immense inspiration for me. He’s a guy who really toiled for a decade doing books no one knew or cared about. He proves that you can stick with it, and persevere, and do the work you want to, and be successful, and all you’ve got to do is try, really hard. He always reminds people that the only thing they have holding them back is themselves. That’s such a great lesson, and it makes me want to sit down at my keyboard and make something. It’s so plain and so true, but you just have to do the work, and keep doing the work, regardless of whether you think anything will happen with it.
- Bill Watterson - A 10-year old Josh picked up the Essential Calvin and Hobbes before going camping for a week, and he was never the same. There are many levels of Watterson’s work, but what stands out to me is the pure simplicity in Calvin and Hobbes. The basic heart of that work is so relatable that it becomes reality. You want to know this kid, and you want him to be happy, and you want him to be real. It was funny, and real, and you couldn’t help but see the heart, and it was communicated so elegantly, that it fit into just a few words, and just a few panels. Nothing has ever made me wish I could draw more than Calvin and Hobbes. There’s almost no separation between the words and the pictures. They worked in perfect concert, both aspects of equal importance to the final product. When I think of sincerity and pure emotional resonance, I think of Bill Watterson.
- James Downey - Here’s a name you might not know right off, but I guarantee you’re familiar with his work. Downey (Tony Stark’s uncle, for the record) wrote for Saturday Night Live for many seasons, and is known mainly for his political sketches. I realized during the years long election we just concluded, that I learned a lot of my thinking on politics from watching SNL skits in the 80′s which I didn’t fully understand at the time. Yet, when it comes to cutting through the crap and seeing politicians and the people who run our lives for what they are, Downey’s sketches were instrumental. I didn’t know he was doing the bulk of that writing until much later in life, but regardless, he was a huge influence on me. From the parodies of George Bush and Dan Quayle, to Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, to much of the recent work we’ve seen, Downey is a pro and a veteran. It’s generally accepted that Downey leans more to the conservative side of things as well, proving that you needn’t pick favorites when poking fun at the emperor. Obviously, we’ve been talking about politics a great deal lately, and I believe politics have a vital and important role in storytelling. A giant influence on the way I see politics comes from the work of Downey. While the format isn’t necessarily what I would put into comics, the ideas and thoughts behind them very much influenced me.
- Kevin Smith - Depending on your age, you might be thinking a few different things with my inclusion of Smith. If you’re my age, you knew Kevin Smith when Kevin Smith was a big deal, and a new thing. There had been nothing like him, and he hadn’t turned into…whatever it is that he is now. He hadn’t become a joke in comic book circles for announcing projects that never happened, and taking the better part of a decade to finish a story. Back when I was 19 years old, he was a guy who was just very funny and very honest. Clerks was a phenomena I will never forget. It was so natural and it didn’t matter that it was shot terribly, and the acting was, for the most part, barely adequate. It wasn’t very realistic, and yet it was the most true thing available at the time. What Kevin Smith did was to channel himself and the things that make him great into this script and he got that on film. And all his charm and wit and appeal were right there on the screen and in those words. Later works weren’t as successful, but you can never say that they weren’t 100% Kevin Smith, which is about all you can expect of him. Yet for Smith, it seems that being himself is enough. There’s a stellar wit, and a glowing enthusiasm, with just a bit of weariness. Smith taught me to just do what you do best, and if you’ve got it, that will be enough.
- Pete Townshend - Pete is the reason for the Who, who are the reason for so much wonderful work that followed them. From Pete Townshend, I learned to try to find your voice in whatever medium you’re working, and make it authentic. This is a guy who told ridiculous stories through overblown concept albums before there were concept albums. He told stories through songs, and they were long stories. Before Pete, albums were at best, short story anthologies, and Pete made Tommy into a novel. But it’s not just Tommy. Even the earliest work spoke so plainly and so evocatively about the experiences of kids living in London at the time he was writing. He did it without flowery words, and did it in such a way that I honestly feel like I know the guy through his work. Finally, Pete is about attitude, and how you can inform your work that attitude, as long as you stay authentic to who you are, and what you’re trying to say. If Pete can communicate so clearly through songs, then surely that authenticity can be found in the pages of a comic book story.
Of course, there are probably more, but this is a good cross section of writers who impressed me and inspired me. As you can tell, they’re almost completely unrelated to one another, and other than Bendis, there are no comic writers (Smith doesn’t count). You can learn about how to tell a story from anything you read, from non-fiction to 3 panel strips. I’m sure you’ve got your own lists of writers and artists, where you read something they produced, and you just get that smile, and that warm feeling, where on the one hand, you’re awed by their talent, and on the other hand, you think, “if I could just get serious for a little while and get myself going, I too could produce a work like this.” The trick, it seems, is getting yourself to do that. So, if you’ve ever had that passing thought, and you made up some excuse why you can’t, let it go right now. Go start writing that thing you’ve been thinking about. Think about the artists who’ve inspired you, and influenced you, and just jot down some of the thoughts you’ve had. You never know what it might turn into, but if you do nothing, you’ll have nothing. So just start with something.