Rapid City Interview Series: Brian McKenzie

Below is the second installment of my interview series. Each week I will interview another with a comics creator on the art and craft of writing comic books.This week I spoke with the creator of the very insightful and informative blog Superhero Nation, Brian McKenzie. If you are writing superhero comics, I highly recommend you check this out, even if you already know everything there is to know about the genre.

Who are you?

I’m a blogger with a bit of editorial experience. In August, I’m set to start teaching high school English in Korea. Some random facts about myself:

My writing advice blog, Superhero Nation, has had ~300,000 readers, which means I’m still getting killed by autotuned cats, Newsweek and Rebecca Black. My interests range from the nerdy (I’m a fairly high-level player in a few video games) to the profoundly nerdy (I’ve spent thousands of hours running a website about how to write superhero novels and comic books). In high school, I was voted Most Likely to be an Abercrombie & Fitch Centerfold, which was probably the senior class prank that year. My friends still haven’t told me how they pulled it off. (I’m the guy on the right here: http://www.superheronation.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/headerjanuary63.jpg ). My main writing experience is in nonfiction (mainly government communications and copywriting/advertising).

What do you write?

Mainly nonfiction, articles about how to write better novels and comic books. In terms of fiction, I’m working on a comic book series titled The Taxman Must Die. It’s a wacky mix of an office comedy and a national security thriller. Two unlikely secret agents– an accountant and a mutant alligator–have to save the world. From themselves, mostly. (If you’re interested, you can see five illustrated sample pages here).

Why do you write?

I like interacting with readers. Compliments are nice, questions are better and witty insults are the best. I once did a writing contest to gently discourage would-be screenwriters from asking me for writing advice. (I do comic books and novels, not TV/movie scripts). So I asked my readers to fill in the blank: “Asking B. Mac for screenplay writing advice is like _________________.” My favorite response was “Asking B. Mac for screenplay writing advice is like having Michael Bay direct Titanic, the butler did it and was darn sexy while doing it, but it isn’t right for you because the butler was a robot…in disguise! Boom! Explodey!”

I would be immensely pleased if my fiction had enough readers that I could write it full-time. Right now, it’s just a hobby. However, I am not under any delusion that it will happen quickly. It usually takes years of practice to get professionally published and years more to build up an audience large enough to write full-time.

How do you write?

In nonfiction:

I usually start with a request from a reader on my website, a Google search to my website or an idea or concern based on a story I’m reviewing. For example, one Google search that showed up on my Analytics account last week how to introduce a new character. I thought that was an interesting idea, so I decided to write an article about How to Introduce Major Characters. To fill out my articles, I brainstorm a list of ideas of problems that I’ve seen authors run into. For example, when it comes to introducing characters, I’ve read many stories where authors introduce characters with no connection to what has been going on in the story, drown readers in meaningless visual details rather than develop interesting information about the character, introduce too many characters at once, etc. I finish the article by offering possible solutions to each problem and examples of published stories that I think handled the issue really well.

In fiction: I’ll sit down for a certain period of time (usually 30-60 minutes) and keep writing until I have a page or two ready. If I’m truly stuck, I’ll post what I have so far and ask my beta-reviewers for possible suggestions about where I could go from here. As soon as I have a first draft ready... ...I start rewriting savagely. I try to write the first draft longer than I will eventually need so that I have room to cut scenes that I later decide are not quite at the same level as the rest of the work. My philosophy is that you’re not actually writing a comedy unless you’ve removed scenes because they’re not funny enough. I ask my reviewers what they think of the rewritten draft--is it easy to read? Fun? Coherent? Then I’ll rewrite until I’m confident that it’s ready to go. Submit to publishers. If I get published, celebrate. Otherwise, return to step 3.

How much does your Taxman comic draw from your life?

Subconsciously, perhaps. For example, it’s about a white-collar nerd (an accountant/IRS agent) thrown onto a super-SWAT team where everybody else is far more badass than he is, even the receptionist. I can sort of relate to that, having been probably the least competent cadet in the history of Air Force ROTC. Also, I was a communications intern for the EPA, which rivals the IRS as the least badass police agency in the world. (To be fair, though, both have armed field-agents and have lost agents in the line of duty).

I think I’m also subconsciously drawing on my dissatisfaction with Superman.

The Superman universe bends over backwards to make his life as easy as possible. For example, he’s an alien that not only looks like a human but an exceedingly attractive human. He doesn’t have a personality (besides being perfect). His superpowers tend to be ridiculous (like going back in time by flying around the world really fast or induce amnesia with a kiss). Also, he’s vastly more powerful than most of his nemeses, particularly the cinematic versions of Lex Luthor. He talks about morals and ethics but acts like an ass. For example, he was a star football player, which is sort of a dick thing if you have a competitive advantage far beyond illegal steroids.

I notice that my other main character, Agent Orange, is very much an anti-Superman.

He’s not an alien, but he is a mutant alligator that looks, ahem, like a mutant alligator. (American alligator!) I feel his personality and voice are lively. He is an extremely scholarly jingo dedicated to the pursuit of badassery. (For example, he whips out The Compendium of the American Alligator: A Treatise on Awesomeness to explain the key differences between American alligators and their various nemeses). Besides incredible athleticism, his only superpower is the ability to turn off the lights for three seconds, courtesy of a billion-dollar defense research project that fell, ahem, seriously short of expectations.

When I first found your blog, I read it disingenuously. I was waiting for you to screw up. How could a guy who has made no super hero comics tell me how to write super hero comics? I was all set to feed my ego by correcting your misguided mistakes. But I couldn’t, because your blog is damn good. How did you get the cajones to do offer advice on a topic that you have no 'PROOF that you know anything about?

Those questions sound harsh, the point I am trying to make is that I am impressed with the awesome pressure you have chosen to take on. Have you felt that pressure? Has it affected the way you write?

“Those questions sound harsh...” No, I think your question is entirely on the mark (and perfectly polite). I appreciate your honesty. I think my sparse credentials are definitely a valid concern--I myself would be wary of someone offering advice in a field in which he/she was not very experienced. Like you said, I’m not a published author, and I have only a few months of low-level comic editing experience.

I think it helps in my case that I tend to focus more on suggestions and things to think about than ironclad Orders from On High or Rules That Cannot Be Broken*.

For example, compare these ideas.

Suggestion A: “Characters with distinct personalities tend to be more interesting.” Rule B: “If you want to get published, you must write characters with distinct personalities.”

They’re similar, but Rule B is demonstrably wrong. I think most readers could come up with a few examples of characters that have been published despite having bland personalities. In contrast, very few people would disagree with Suggestion A.

From there, I think it’s really easy to share with readers some of the characterization problems I’ve made and/or encountered. For example, one problem that sometimes makes it harder to build distinct personalities is that too many characters are introduced too quickly and/or the scenes have too many characters in them, so some characters get lost in the shuffle. If you think that’s a problem for your work, you might find it helpful to consider an approach like introducing characters more gradually, reducing the number of characters in scenes (so that each characters is fighting fewer people for the audience’s attention), and/or perhaps even merging characters or deleting them altogether. Even if you don’t think that’s a problem for your work, that part of the article will still hopefully help you identify the problem if it crops up later.

*Well, I do have some ironclad rules, but they’re matters of professionalism rather than writing style. For example:

Always be upfront/honest with your teammates. Don’t be the writer that tried to renege on a contract with his freelance illustrator by claiming that he had died. (No, really). Always double-check the submissions guidelines and proofread your materials before submitting.

Your very public blog is, at least partially, a massive compilation of comic dos and don’ts. 1. Does that make you nervous about making your own comics? 2. Do you worry that you will neglect some piece of your own advice?

1. Not very. I will continue making mistakes for the remainder of my professional career. It’s part of the learning process. (My website’s tagline is “We’ve made every writing mistake so you don’t have to”-- clearly it’s hyperbolic, but I feel like I’ve benefited a lot from my mistakes. Judging by the site’s repeat traffic, my mistakes are also helping others.

2. Definitely not. I’ve got a Superhero Nation drinking game based on drinking whenever I disregard my own tips. When I do so, I try to avoid the potential problem in some other way. For example, I’d generally recommend keeping the superheroes on a team roughly as powerful as each other unless you want the most powerful one to sideline the others. But the main character in The Taxman Must Die is an accountant without superpowers, whereas everybody else is a super-SWAT officer. Admittedly, the taxman probably won’t be much help in combat, but he’s good at cracking cases, which ends up mattering more than his combat skills. (After all, real supercriminals are too smart to just shoot up a bank in broad daylight--it takes skill to find them).

When you work on your own comics, what are you good at?

I feel that my main characters are interesting and my comedy is strong.

What mistakes do you find yourself making again and again?

First, my most glaring defect is that I’m not a very productive fiction writer. I get distracted extremely easily and I end up putting things off for months. When I do write, it tends to be less coherent than I’d like.

Second, I feel like my side-characters are a bit too two-dimensional. The Wild Cards and Harry Potter series and TV shows like The Wire and Dexter develop their side-characters in such interesting ways. For example, I think most readers could name 10+ side-characters after reading the first HP book because the characters have at least one trait or memorable moment to etch them into the readers’ minds.

If you could wave a wand and wipe a stupid beginner’s mistake from the face of comics, what would it be?

Superpowers do not by themselves make a character interesting. I think the most important thing about a character is personality, preferably something that distinguishes him from other comic book protagonists. Superpowers are not a substitute for a personality. An origin story is not a substitute for a personality.

What’s the most demoralizing part about writing for you? Harsh reviews?

Hmm. Some authors have a tough time dealing with tough reviews, but I find it relatively easy.

It’s impossible to write something that will please everybody, so you will have tough reviews. Some of them will help you identify potential improvements in your work. Some of the people not pleased by your work are, for reasons beyond your control, unfriendly and insulting. I wouldn’t worry too much about them because they’re so rarely instructive or helpful. Especially if you’re a young or relatively inexperienced author, I wouldn’t get discouraged by negative feedback because getting good at anything takes practice. Keep writing and it will get better.

Counterintuitively, I find it a lot harder to deal with really positive feedback. I feel like “I loved this--when’s it coming out?” puts a lot more pressure on me than “This is awful--go die in a fire.” I have no idea when it’s coming out and it’s harder to let down a fan than a troll. (Also, I feel like the compliments remind me more of how far away I am from being published).

Thanks a lot for a really great interview, Brian. And to anyone reading this now, if you are serious about writing comics, do yourself a favor and check out his blog.