Talking Comics with Tim | Aubrey Sitterson
Former Marvel editor Aubrey Sitterson has made the leap to the wonderful world of freelance writing. To mark this critical career jump, Sitterson stopped by Talking Comics with Tim to discuss his transition from editor to writer, as well as his current and upcoming projects — namely the Gear Monkey tale (by Sitterson with art by Nate Lovett) that appears in DoubleFeature Comics‘ digital release Fantasy Double Feature #3, and Redakai (for Viz Media). I was interested to learn why Sitterson lettered his own Gear Monkey tale, as well as to discuss his love of wrestling.
Tim O’Shea: You started out in the industry on the editorial side, but am I correct in assuming it was always in hopes of pursuing a full-time writing career?
Aubrey Sitterson: You’re ab-so-lutely correct, sir. While I really enjoyed my time editing comics, the goal has always been to transition into a comics writer. It was all part of my devious master plan to start at Marvel as an intern in college, get hired as an Assistant Editor, stick my finger in as many pies as I could, learn at the knee of two of comics’ best editors (Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso) then strike out on my own in pursuit of Complete and Utter Comics Domination. I’m still working on that last part.
You have had the opportunity to edit a diverse range of talent — including a stint editing Kick-Ass 2 for a while, as well as some of Robert Kirkman’s books. Were those experiences that helped inform you as a writer?
Editing comics at Marvel and Image gave me the opportunity to work closely with dozens of amazingly talented individuals — some of the absolute best in the industry, in fact — so I like to hope that I learned something from the experience. Working directly under both Axel Alonso and Tom Brevoort was an amazing experience for me, as they’re both (obviously) incredible editors, but (again obviously) boast very different skillsets and focuses. On top of that, a large part of my daily life was spent reading work from folks like Robert Kirkman, Mark Millar, Jason Aaron, Matt Fraction, Rick Remender and more, so I got intimately acquainted with what goes into a good comic script.
Of all my experiences editing comics, however, I think the thing that has helped me the most is time spent with artists, whether they’re pencilers, inkers, colorists, painters or some combination of the above. Being that I don’t have an artistic background myself and even my stick figures have bad anatomy, I learned a ton from by just asking artists questions about their process and the work they do. I still can’t draw stick figure feet, but at least I understand what goes into illustrating a comic script — something I try and keep in mind whenever I’m writing.
What’s been the most intimidating aspect of stepping away from editorial and into the freelance world?
Right now I’m actually working as a community manager at THQ for WWE Games, but I just started the gig last month, so the pressures of being a full-time freelancer are still fresh in my mind, if maybe not as urgent as they once were. Obviously there are the big freelancer concerns: Finding clients, making sure they pay on time, affording health insurance, not playing Skyrim all day because you can, etc.
But specific to comics, it was a weird thing going from a “Aubrey Sitterson, editor at Marvel Comics” to “Aubrey Sitterson, guy who wrote a Superboy story you probably didn’t read.” Just by being an editor at Marvel or DC, you get a lot of juice, but the vast, vast majority of that evaporates pretty quickly once people get wise to the fact that you can’t get them paying jobs drawing Spider-Man any more. That, coupled with Marvel’s kinda-sorta ban on former editors writing for them made it a pretty sobering experience moving into the freelance world. I’m not going to lie and say anything crazy like, “It’s actually HARDER for former editors to get their foot back in the door!” but I think some people, including the Sitterson of 2008 kind of underestimate how difficult it still is.
Not to put you on the spot, but as a creative person in 2012, seeing the cautionary tales of creators that fall on hard times and need help from Hero Initiative, why does it still appeal to you to write comics?
Quit putting me on the spot!
Not to minimize the numerous absolutely horrible tales of creator abuse in the comics community, but I think you hit the nail on the head in your question: They’re cautionary tales. Don’t do work-for-hire exclusively, own your own shit, make getting health and life insurance a priority and perhaps most importantly, don’t expect a humongous corporation to ever, EVER act in your best interests, unless they just so happen to briefly align with their quarterly projections.
It’s still a tough business, man — no doubt about that — but I go into it with eyes wide open, knowing that I need to diversify and hustle like crazy if I want to make a go of it. Yeah, stuff can still go bad – just like in any industry — but you minimize your chances of that happening when you are aware of the risks and take steps to avoid them.
So, why does it appeal to me to write comics? First off, I love the medium, for both its strengths and its limitations, the latter of which force you as a writer to work harder to make your story work, which oftentimes, results in a stronger finished product than if you were given complete freedom with your story. Additionally, no other medium can compete with the speed and freedom that comics gives you. You can solicit a product in Diamond and have it in comic stores across the country in three months. That’s INSANE. And even when you’re working on a top tier title at Marvel or DC, there are typically less than a dozen or even ten people who have any kind of input or contribution – if you’re doing a book at Image, it’s just whoever the creators are. Combine that with the fact that a creator-owned comic can be profitable only selling 10k or so – less if you’re going digital – and it’s pretty clear that the Cult of Comics gives its adherents far more freedom to tell their stories than any other medium this side of posting slash fiction on web forums.
The comics industry is not crawling with kid-friendly comics (sure there are more than there have been in past years), but how important was it for you (as you began your freelance pursuits) to tell some kid-friendly comics?
Truthfully? I didn’t really set out intending to tell specifically kid-friendly stories. I have a volume of Redakai coming out later this year from Viz, and being that it’s based on an extremely popular kids cartoon, it’s necessarily pretty kid-focused. Once I got into the story, though, I really enjoyed writing for that younger audience, trying to make things accessible and understandable, but also building a strong emotional and thematic core was a real blast, and was my first real exposure to the joys of creating for a younger audience.
Gear Monkey is kind of a different case, however, as when Nate Lovett and I were developing the character and story, I don’t think we ever explicitly stated who our demographic would be, and honestly, I hadn’t even thought about it as “kid-friendly” until you brought it up. To turn the tables around, I’m wondering what makes it read as a “kid-friendly” book to you? Is it just that there’s no objectionable content? The fact that it’s got a monkey-boy in it? The art? [Interviewer note: It was a mixture of the non-objectionable content and the art, which struck me as infectious and kid friendly.]
How long has a character like Gear Monkey been rolling around in your head? When did you realize you wanted to letter the story?
Gear Monkey has been bouncing around in my brain since Nate told me about him! That’s right, while I certainly played my part midwifing, Nate not only gave birth to Gem, but also provided that initial seed, and the egg that grew into the character — like some kind of weird comics hermaphrodite. Nate and I had worked together on a few pitches here and there that we could never really get any traction with, so one day he came to me with early versions of the characters that grew to become Gem and Horatio, and asked if I’d be interested in collabing on this steampunk fantasy thing he had been thinking on. I love Nate’s artwork, and think he’s a swell guy, so I jumped at the opportunity to do it.
As far as lettering goes: Frankly, I think every comics writer should spend some time lettering their own scripts. Not only does it give you a better understanding of an artistic discipline that too often goes unacknowledged, but it also helps you understand the limitations of any given comics panel. I’m slow as hell, but I really enjoy lettering my own work, as it’s a chance to make sure that my script works with the art, and the entire process has made me much more amenable to changing dialogue to fit better on the page. Yes, dialogue is important, but nowhere near as important as how a page of comics actually looks, and if a page or even just a panel are too-crowded with awkwardly fitting word balloons, the page just doesn’t look good.
Also, I’m cheap and didn’t want to pay someone to letter for us, and seeing as Nate had already penciled, inked and colored his pages, I felt bad forcing him to do anything else.
When did you realize that artist Lovett understood what kind of story you wanted to tell?
Like I mentioned, Nate and I have worked on several pitches together – and he even drew a large portion of my first Redakai story – so we both already knew that we had similar sensibilities. While coming up with the story, of which there were several drastically different drafts and versions, I was in pretty constant contact with Nate about the nature of the characters, where we saw their eventual journey taking them, and what was most important to handle, cover and address for this first look at Hor and Gem’s world.
How many hours of Redakai were viewed before you really felt like you had a grasp of the show’s continuity/dynamics/characters?
That’s a really interesting question, and something that fascinated me even as I was doing my research. When Joel Enos (my fantastic editor at Viz) originally reached out to me about the gig, straight shoot, I knew absolutely nothing about Redakai. He sent me some documents to look over, and links to videos of the show and I dove right in. Like a lot of television, both kids and adult-focused, Redakai has a pretty clear formula of how its episodes proceed. After two or three episodes, I had a pretty good handle on how the whole thing “worked,” but I kept watching because what makes the show interesting is the way it riffs on and veers off from that formula, so even once I had cracked the code, it was still rewarding to watch additional episodes.
As far as continuity, that got a little stickier. … The Redakai comics are based on the television show, but the Redakai television show is based on a card game — similar to Yu-Gi-Oh! Unfortunately, I haven’t played a collectible card game seriously since I sold off all my Vesuvan Doppelgangers for gas money in high school, so I had a lot to learn about how the powers and abilities of the Redakai kids worked. Fortunately, there was an exhaustive spreadsheet with something like eight different cross-referenced tabs that I could use to figure out which kid could summon which monster, and which powers they had, and how they interacted with other monsters/powers. It sounds rough, but as a guy who reads D&D player’s handbooks for fun, it was actually a pretty fascinating thing.
How much work went into winning the recent Skullkickers Tavern Tales Contest?
Fortunately, Jim Zub didn’t really require all that much from writing submissions – just a couple paragraphs outlining the story and page breakdowns. I was already a fan of Skullkickers and have a huge affinity for the fantasy milieu, so it was pretty easy to start brainstorming ideas. Then, after a reread of the entire run up until that point, I had the concept for my story pretty firmly in place, including grotesque violence, misunderstandings, wacky sound effects, off-color humor and more grotesque violence.
Honestly, the toughest thing about the whole process was trimming my submission down to a reasonable size. The original document I wrote – which was more or less me just vomiting the entire story up on the page – was something like 2.5 pages long, which is absolutely bonkers for a six-page story. I saw the whole thing in my head so clearly, and I wanted to retain all those details for when it came time to write the script, but as a former editor, I knew that Zub would have absolutely zero desire to read something that long. So, the task became trimming my plot vomit down to a reasonable length while retaining what made me like the story so much.
You are a fan/pundit of WWE- – over the years have you been able to cajole some of your fellow WWE fans to check our comics work?
That’s the plan, Timbo! My Twitter followership is a weird mix of comics and wrestling people, and I’m pretty sure most of my comics friends are furious whenever Monday Night Raw or a Pay-Per-View starts up, just as my wrestling-focused buds’ eyes glaze over when I start yammering about an old Kirby panel I like. There are a ton of similarities between comics and wrestling – even beyond the obvious “soap opera for boys” thing – so I’m hoping I can start to see some kind of crossover effect. In fact, I’m working on a project right now that if done properly, is going to hit both audiences right where they live. How’s that for a tease?
Anything you’d like or say or questions you’d like to ask the Robot 6 readers?
Question-wise, I’ve just got one: What kind of wrestling-focused comic would you read?