Rapid City Interview Series: Brandon Barrows

If I recall correctly, I happened to get some copies of a SuperNoir thriller Jack Hammer in trade for the last few copies of my own comic. Honestly, I was just taking whatever I could get, so I was pleasantly surprised by what a good comic it turned out to be. Who are you?

I’m Brandon Barrows. I write comic books, and I’m a staff writer for the website CosmicBookNews.com.

What do you write?

I write a detective series called JACK HAMMER, about a detective in a world of super humans. I also write the adventure/sci-fi series VOYAGA, about an astronaut stranded in the 31st century. I have a new series called WESTERN ADDITION, which is a western series focusing on a fictional town in 19th century Colorado. I also write short one-off tales on a frequent basis that have appeared in a variety of anthology books in both the US and British comic markets.

In the past, I’ve written a sci-fi series called SOLARWIND and I’ve written and drawn a few minicomics in my day.

Why do you write?

Well, I’ve always been a writer. I’ve been writing fiction, for my own amusement, since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I think my first story was written when I was about 7, about a group of knights hunting dragons who had stolen the king’s treasure.

I’ve also been reading comic books since before I could actually read the words. I guess it was inevitable that someday I’d start writing comics.

How do you write?

Most “big ideas”, on-going series or the graphic novel I’m working on in my spare time, tend to germinate for a long time in my head before I ever write anything down. It’s often months, or years. When I get to the point that it’s ready to spill out of my ears if it doesn’t come from my fingers, I write down every little thing I can think of just to get it out of my head. It helps me sort things out and I’ve found that stuff that works in my head may not on paper, so it’s best to get it out there as early as possible.

Once I have as much in the way of notes as I need (or think I’m going to get), I’ll start scripting. Sometimes I script directly in comic script format and sometimes I’ll make the story work as a prose story before going to comic script. It depends on how much of the flow of the story I already have down. A 22 or 24-page script can take anywhere from 10 to 30 hours once I start writing, depending on the complexity and how my writing mojo is flowing.

Many of the short comic stories I’ve written, however, have been more or less spur of the moment ideas that I get down on paper immediately. These I frequently write directly in comic format and only occasionally do I write up notes or plot points first. These can sometimes take as little as an hour to write the first draft.

Jack Hammer isn’t just set in a world where superhumans exist, it is set in a Boston where superhumans exist. Capturing the unique feel of a city is not something that superhero comics are usually known for, with many cobbling together amalgams or stand-ins. In Noir, however, the city in which it is set defines the story. So, why Boston? What does that setting bring to this story? Why not simply use “The City”?

For two main reasons. The first was because it seems like everything in comics/movies/etc takes place in New York or Los Angeles, even some foreign comics and movies, and I wanted to do something different. Boston is certainly large enough, and old enough, that it would have the kind of diverse population and history that would be ripe for a detective series. I also chose Boston because I wanted to use a city I was at least somewhat familiar with.

As for not using just some generic city? Well, I wanted to add a bit of realism. One thing I’ve tried to maintain with Jack Hammer is that yes, there are some super humans running around, but other than that it’s just like our world and I think placing it in a concrete, real, setting enhances that. I’ve had people come up to me and say “hey! What street is Jack’s office on?” or “hey, I know just where you’re talking about in issue 3” or whatever. It gives people something to identify with.

Is there a certain kind of story that makes more sense in Boston than is any other city? Is Jack Hammer one of those stories?

As I said, it isn’t specifically Boston but the type of city Boston is (and my complete lack of firsthand knowledge of other major comic hubs like NYC): it’s old, it’s very diverse, it has a sizable population and this kind of stuff is absolutely happening in Boston as I type this (minus super powers, of course).

What mistakes do you find yourself making again and again?

Not that I’m aware of. If I do, the artists I work with must work around it without letting me know. But, kidding aside, I made a lot of mistakes very early on in my writing career and I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a lot of major mistakes out of my system and learned from them. I’m completely self-taught when it comes to writing comic scripts (note: I don’t recommend this for aspiring writers. Denny O’Neil’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics or Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics are good resources I wish I’d checked out back then) . I know the format I use doesn’t really correspond to anyone else’s but I’ve developed a format that works for me, and no artist has complained about it since I more or less finalized it.

In your writing, what are you really good at?

I’ve been told that I’m really good at two things: taking the essence of a classic genre (all my work is genre-based except some short one-offs) and mixing it with elements of my own to create something unique and interesting. I consciously tried to do that with Jack Hammer and it seems to have happened on its own in my other major works, Voyaga and Western Addition.

The other thing, and I kind of pride myself on it, is the cliffhanger. I’ve gotten a real knack for ending a story on a note that makes people say “oh, man, I GOTTA know what happens next”. I’ve had fans email me or friends call me and say “you bastard! I was so caught up in the flow and then you drop that on me? You gotta tell me what happens next!”. In fact, before Jack Hammer was first released, there was a few teaser pages posted online and I actually got an email from a lady who was very concerned for the welfare of one of the characters. It was pretty amusing, but also very gratifying.