Rapid City Interview Series: Mark Bertolini

At the Boston Comic Con a few months back, I happened to pick up a supervillain comic book call Breakneck. It was an interesting concept, and a lot of fun to read. I always like hearing form other people who write super-comics, so I sent the writer some questions and tried to pick his brains. Who are you?

My name is Mark Bertolini, I’m a comic book creator and writer who once upon a time wanted to be a comic book artist, before I realized I didn’t have the technical skill or patience to illustrate comics. I’ve been writing comics for several years, and only recently have begun to have any success at it. I’m also the father of two awesome boys who are also big comic book fans, and, at ages 7 and 4, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of superheroes and comic book characters.

What do you write?

I’m the creator and writer of the 215 Ink supervillain title Breakneck, which centers on self-professed D-list villain Ethan Shade, who is (was) a member of the world’s most dangerous group of super-criminals, the Cult of Intelligence. He’s constantly relegated to the background, which is why he was the sole survivor of the supervillain genocide that claimed the lives of every other villain on Earth.

I’m also the writer on a few other upcoming titles. I have a 4-issue sci-fi/noir miniseries called Ghost Lines that’s going to be published by Creator’s Edge Press, and the 4-issue apocalyptic end-of-the-world miniseries Long Gone, to be published by Markosia Entertainment. There are also a number of projects in the works with various exceptionally talented artists that I hope to unleash upon the comic world in the next year.

Why do you write?

Because if I didn’t, my head would explode. Seriously, though, I write because I have a need to get all these stories out of my head. I’m constantly coming up with new ideas, and these ideas mingle in with other ideas and suddenly I have the basis for another project. I tend to write limited series, things with a definitive ending to them. I also write comics that I, as a life-long comic fan, would want to read. I think there are certain gaps in the comic industry right now that I try to fill with my projects. Whether that gap truly exists or not is another matter altogether, but I still try and write things that excite me, things that I would love to read.

How do you write?

One word at a time. Again, in all seriousness, I take the act of comic script writing very seriously. Before I put a single word down in a script, I will have, at the very least, the full issue plotted. I used to have to draw out 22 little pages and draw in what happened in each panel, and then translate that into a script, but with practice, I can now hold most of that in my head, so the plot starts at point A and finished at point Z and I fill in what happens in the middle. I do a lot of my script writing at work (don’t tell my boss), and once a script is finished, it gets filed away for a minimum of two weeks. After that two week period, I will take it out again and read it, and make any adjustments I feel are necessary. I’m also lucky enough that most of the time, I’m writing a script for an artist, and I can gear the way I write to the artist. Parts of my scripts might look like an ongoing conversation with the artist.

One of the main things I try and do, since a lot of my projects are finite, is to know exactly where and when the story will finished, and work backwards from it. The last thing I want is to get to page 22 and then run out of space to finish the script.

Now that you no longer draw thumbnails for your pages, do you feel the impulse to rigidly control what the artist does? Has it been hard for you to learn to just trust artists to do what they do?

I think, when I used to create the thumbnails for the scripts I wrote, I was probably way too anal about how I wanted certain things to look, and I know that can be very frustrating and restricting to an artist. Part of my love of creating comics is that feeling of collaboration, and with me just directing traffic for an artist, it probably takes away some of the enthusiasm they have for the material. I generally encourage feedback on the scripts, if there is a different or better way to approach a certain scene then I’m all for it. One of the artists I work with, Jerome Eyquem, is a big fan of many panels on a page. I usually write for no more than 6 panels per page, but Jerome will take that and turn it into a 9-panel page without disrupting the flow or the momentum of the page, and it always astounds me how much better it looks with the increased panel count. It lets me add more dialogue as well, and I’m a big fan of my own dialogue.

In what specific ways to gear your writing for a particular artist?

It really depends on the artist, and what their strengths are. With Ted Pogorzelski, the artist on Long Gone, I try to put in a lot of detail into each panel description, because Ted is like the second coming of Frank Quitely, his attention to detail is insane. The smallest thing in the panel description will find it’s way onto his page. With Breakneck’s James Boulton, I know he’s going to hit me with big, stylized images, so I make sure there are lots of opportunities for these big, powerful shots. Also, James seems to really enjoy architecture, so there’s lots of buildings and design work that I add in. With my Ghost Lines collaborator, Carl Yonder, I usually try to find a balance of light and shadow, and base scenes for him to illustrate with lots of both. Carl’s a genius at showing the passage of time, and it’s a trick I work into a lot of our work together.

What format do you generally use, and when formatting do you primarily consider what suits your writing style best, or what will be easiest for any given artist to turn in to pages?

I studied a lot of comic book scripts, and took bits from a few that worked for me. I don’t think my scripting style would work for another writer, I really don’t know. I just eventually developed a style that was comfortable for me to write in, and it seems to do the trick for most artists I work with. I haven’t heard any complaints, at least!

I have been pretty impressed with Breakneck. It is the story of a supervillain who finds himself out on his own in a world dominated by big-name superheroes. As an indie superhero writer, you are also a man out on your own is a world dominated by big-name superheroes. How much of your experience of creating this book has found its way onto the page? How much does his struggle to just do his own thing in that world reflect your struggle to do the same?

I like that analogy, but to be honest, it never occurred to me that Shade’s struggles would reflect my own. I know superhero comics sometimes get looked down on, which I think is a shame, because for most readers, I bet a superhero comic was the first comic they read. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t know, and it’s probably a statement on the industry as a whole, but I love superhero comics, and I just wanted to create my own. I don’t think that I’m competing in any way with any of the big books. I basically make fun of the majority of the mainstream superhero books. If you read a cross-section of my work, you might think that I hate superheroes, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I just enjoy superhero comics that have a little more meat to them. Warren Ellis’s original run on the Authority was probably the biggest influence on me in terms of telling a superhero story. And I’m glad you’re enjoying Breakneck, be sure to stay tuned, there’s some big things coming!

“Indie” usually means “anything goes”. Indie book can be, and are, about anything under the sun. There is, however, a perception that the indie community turns up its collective nose at superhero comics. If indie comics are the marginalized minority in the world of comics, then the superhero indie is doubly marginalized. How have you experienced this in your relationship with the greater comics community?

Personally, not really. There’s been a lot of love for Breakneck in the indie comics community, both from readers and my peers. And while I’m always happy that comic book readers are enjoying the book, when a peer, a fellow comic creator tells me they’ve enjoyed it, I’m ecstatic. I think right now there is such a fantastic indie comics community, some incredible work is being done, and for me to be a part of that in any way, shape or form is amazing. I’m a fan of so many indie creators right now, and to have them tell me they enjoy my work is a little surreal.

I think “indie” comics are sometimes badly stereotyped as low-budget, crappy, badly illustrated comics that are Xeroxed and half-assed, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is such depth and dedication to the medium in the indie community. I think one of the best recent examples if FUBAR. When you look at the creators involved in that project, it’s the cream of the crop of the small press, independent talent. Being invited to write a story for FUBAR volume 2 was a highlight of my fledgling comics career, but just to be in the same book as guys like Jeff McComsey and Stephen Lindsay is a thrill.

I know that I am largely talking about stereotypes, which are usually not very accurate, but how would you characterize the indie world’s reception of superhero work. Where does it sit on a scale from “we are all brothers making comics, regardless of the content or genre” to “we make indie comics, You make wannabe mainstream comics”?

I think with indie comics, the thought is “I can do anything I want with comics, so why would I want to do superheroes?” And that makes a lot of sense. If you don’t want to re- hash stories that have been around for 60 years, you can create something completely off -the-wall and unique. But I believe you can still do the same within the superhero genre, and I strive to put that uniqueness into my work. I unabashedly love superheroes, I will never deny it. I grew up reading superhero comics. I still do to this day. But I can understand the notion that, if I can create anything I want, why do superheroes? I’ve wanted to create superhero comics for my entire life, so Breakneck breaking through was literally one of my biggest life goals. And the idea of indie creators as brothers-in-arms is absolutely true, regardless of the type of work you create. There’s so much support and encouragement in the indie community right now. It was probably always there, but I’ve only been a part of it for a little while.

Have you been surprised by how warmly or coldly your work has been received by non- superhero creators? Are there any specific instances that have stuck with you?

Nothing makes me realize how fortunate I am that my work is being read as when a fellow comics creator tells me they enjoy Breakneck. A lot of the support that Breakneck has received so far has come from the small press community (which has been dubbed “the Small Press Commandos”), as we all tend to circulate our work to each other for help and guidance. I don’t think I’ve had anyone tell me they didn’t enjoy it. Of course, there are certain parts that I’ve been taken to task over, but for the most part, the book’s reception has been very encouraging.

One of the biggest things that stands out to me was when I approached Stephen Lindsay, the creator of Jesus Hates Zombies, to write the introduction for the upcoming Breakneck trade paperback. I gave him about fifty outs, just in case, but his response was “it would be an honor.” That’s something that sticks with me. Stephen has no reason to give me an ego-stroke, but he genuinely wanted to contribute in some way.

What things to do you see in other “indie” superhero comics that make you roll your eyes? Or, what do other indie superhero creators do that might give books like yours a bad reputation?

I think, with superhero comics, just about every possible scenario has been tackled. The job is to take those scenarios, those archetypes, and turn them on their head. There’s nothing wrong at all with doing superhero comics straight up, with a hero fighting a villain. That’s the basis for hundreds of comics every month, but I like to take those generic ideas and spin them 180 degrees and approach them from another direction. Plus, there are so many clichéd, classic comic book moments that are just begging to be made fun of. One of my favorites is in the opening pages of Breakneck issue 5. I took two classic comic book scenes, and smashed them together (literally). I hope people like it as much as I did when I wrote it.

What mistakes do you find yourself making again and again?

I’m a big fan of dialogue, so I try to avoid pages and pages of non-stop hero/villain fighting. I’d rather have a couple pages of Ethan Shade getting his ass kicked, and then take the next ten pages to have him complain about it, bitterly, over and over. That may not interest everyone, but I love some good complaining, and Shade is the perfect character for it. I don’t like things to stagnate, so I try and throw something new into each issue. Even though the full series has been plotted fairly tightly, there’s always room for something else to be thrown in the mix.

What do you think that you do particularly well?

I think I write a pretty good cliffhanger, if I do say so myself. I studied the art (and it is definitely an art) of the cliffhanger in Brian K Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. Vaughan is a master of the compelling cliffhanger, and I always strive to leave the reader wanting more, wanting to know what is going to happen next.

And not necessarily in terms of the actual writing, but I think I’m a pretty good judge of artists. I’m extremely fortunate to be working with some incredibly talented creators, guys who I think will be stars in the industry in the next 5 to 10 years, if not sooner. In almost every case, I’m more excited for the exposure the artist will get than for myself. If I can do one thing in the comic book industry, it will be introducing people to these artists.

I enjoy the Breakneck universe, will there be more comics set there?

Probably. The current series is set to finish as of issue 10, but based on how things go once we reach that tenth issue, I’ll have to re-evaluate where it goes from there. I think there’s a lot of stories to be told in the Breakneck universe. A dream of mine would be to put together an anthology of other creators, writers and artists, creating their own Breakneck stories.

We do have a Breakneck anthology coming out at New York Comic Con, with three short stories written by me, with three different artists illustrating them. These stories focus on some of the other characters in Breakneck, and I’m very much looking forward to that, but having other writers tackle a Breakneck story would be fantastic.

What is up next for you?

I have a short story in FUBAR volume 2, and the NYCC Breakneck exclusive. I have several other projects in the works as well. My post-apocalyptic survival story Long Gone is nearing completion. I have a pair of short stories approved for the 215 Ink anthology (and I’m hoping to score a hat trick with a third story soon). I have another superhero series called Antihero that I hope will see a release before the end of the year, and a sci-fi/crime story called Knowledge that we’re anticipating will be a 100-page graphic novel. And one of the newest projects I’m working on is called Broken, and it will be an 80-page graphic novel. Broken is my twisted take on the origin of Batman, and how that traumatic experience early in life could have warped a young man, and taken a much darker (yes, darker than Batman already is) path.