Rob Kutner on Learning How to Write a Comic Book
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A script is a script, no matter the medium, right? Well, not quite. Writer Rob Kutner has been writing for TV for awhile now, but he is completely new to comics. We asked him to talk about how he came up with the concept for Shrinkage, bringing it from a pretty strange idea knocking around in his brain to the page.
My name is Rob Kutner. For 12 years, I’ve been writing for late night TV, from HBO’s Dennis Miller Live to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to my current gig, CONAN.
So how did I make the creative shift from topical humor to a comic book?
In combing the news every day, I found myself increasingly drawn to science stories, in particular the latest research on the brain. I started buying every issue of Psychology Today and Scientific American Mind and consuming so much brainstuff, even my zombie friends were like, “Dude – pace yourself.”
This brain experiment in particular inspired me:
I find the brain and brain research so tantalizing, because, while we know increasingly much about it, we also still know laughably little. It’s a Wild West full of inexplicable yet critical happenings, and buried intangibly within is the very mystery of who we are.
In other words, a hell of a place to set a story.
But what kind of story could possibly take place inside that eight inch wad of fatty goo? It would have to involve really REALLY tiny people. Why and how would there be the wherewithal to shrink people to that size, and have them agree to go into that cranial spaghetti-mass?
It had to be a matter of world-shaking importance. It had to be the most important noodle in the Free World (besides Stephen Hawking and Joss Whedon’s): The US President’s. Also, what medium could do such rich and unconventional visuals justice? It could only really be a $200 million special effects-filled movie, a sprawling street mural, or a comic book. Lacking entrée to a studio boss or tagger, I went with number three.
GATHERING MY BRAIN TRUST
So how does a comics fan but comic-writing “noob” like me cross the forbidding Veil of the Staple? First, I consulted with my pal Gerry Duggan, writer of Final Horizon, Nova, and the uproarious new incarnation of Deadpool
Gerry said to find an artist, but all the ones I wanted were committed to projects so many years down the road, by that time we might be driving hover cars and jetpacks – probably into each other and without insurance. So I set about figuring out how to write the damn thing. For me, the comics writer who most made me (foolishly) think, “Daaaamn! I wish I could do that!” was Peter David (Hulk, X-Factor), who as it turns out, literally wrote the book on writing the books.
David’s guidance had me dreaming up a story where a crusty old Cold War general still lusting for glory got paired with a feisty, frazzled young female neuroscientist, shrunk, and sent into POTUS’ brain to stop tiny, radioactivity-eating aliens bent on puppeteering the prez into launching WWIII… AKA “Permanent Snack Time.”
A bit of a cliché, but I liked it.
Then I went to a neuroscientist friend, who hooked me up with a graduate-level “intro” textbook with the snappy title Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind - Fourth Edition. (Though some critics slam it as just a transparent attempt to bring back the characters from the Third Edition).
CN:TBOTM-FE was to be my bedside reading for the next six months, but I was probably the first to be reading it with questions like “Would this be the best brain section to set a laser battle in?”
Now I had a story and a title: Shrinkage. But I had trouble finding a conventional comics publisher willing to cross the “superhero/preexisting character” divide and take it on. Fortunately, just then, I was approached by Farrago, a feisty new startup that could become the “Netflix of Comics.” They were making deals with creators and publishers (IDW, Valiant, etc) to let readers access a huge library of comics for free via an app for iPad and for Android. And just like Netflix, they were looking to make their House of Cards.
I have often been mistaken for Kevin Spacey – and enjoy looking to the side and confessing my true sinister intentions – so it was a deal.
Finally, the best part! Farrago found me an artist. An AMAZING artist. John Lucas, whose work has graced everything from X-Men to Deadpool to Conan...
I looked at a LOT of artists first. My typical reaction: “He/she seems competent, I imagine they could figure Shrinkage out.”
My reaction to seeing John’s work: “He ALREADY gets it! He’s just as crazy as I am!”
So John whipped up sketches of the characters, which was an incredible process because it forced me to not only delve deeper into who they all were, his designs actually transformed my ideas about them.
For example, I envisioned Lana, the neuroscientist as being sort of a TMI oversharer, who was all about herself. But when John came back with his version of her, I immediately saw, “Man! She is FIERCE!” It injected a whole new energy into the character, and into her eventual showdown – at a scale invisible to the microscope – with her partner, General Sturge McCrain.
You thought a full-on alien battle inside the President’s head wasn’t explosive enough! Wait until you see the fireworks these two make.
“Ow” is right!
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