Monday, October 17, 2011

Questions 44 Jeremy Barlow

Jeremy Barlow is a writer and freelance editor based in Portland, Oregon.  We worked at Dark Horse Comics as an associate editor from 2001 to 2008.  He is currently working on Kult, Dethlok and recently wrote a short story for Savage Sword of Conan.   He has written several Star Wars and Star Wars the Clone Wars books.   Also, Barlow wrote a number of stories under the pseudonym "Thomas Andrews". 

Check out some of his online work:

Doug Dorr:   What projects are you working on currently?
Right now I have several original, creator-owned projects in varying states of progress -- a 1950s horror story; a heady '60s super spy adventure; a 70s sci-fi sex comedy; and a complex, Metabaron-esque science-fiction epic about the end of the universe. And I have Western kicking around in there somewhere, too.

As for paying work, I just finished writing a four-issue horror series called KULT for Dark Horse Comics, and I'm chronicling the continuing adventures of The Sonora Kid, an obscure Western character in Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword anthology. Also for Dark Horse.

DD:   What is your artistic Process?
In the past, I'd start with my theme -- find whatever specific statement I wanted to make about whatever character or situation I was dealt -- and build out from there. I'd try to boil it all down to a sentence or two, something like "that which you fear the most becomes the only thing that can save your life," and then I'd take a long walk and figure out how to put my characters through an ordeal that expressed that idea in a way that clearly drove it home.

It's based on the way you're taught to construct a thesis argument in college, which worked very well for me in school, but I'm learning that that method doesn't always make for good storytelling. Having a solid, clearly defined theme is great for building your story's roadmap, which then helps you plan out all of the twists and to know exactly how everything's going to end up (which is important), but it also stifles the spontaneity.

Once a story starts rolling it often takes on a life of its own, pulling in directions you don't anticipate. If that happens when you're nailed down to a theme-specific, detailed outline, you have to yank the reins, which denies yourself -- and your characters -- the freedom to breath and let your world develop organically. Drama needs structure, but structure isn't drama.

I'm only recently coming to grips with this, after so many years of pounding my fist on the desk and declaring theme trumps all! Though, with few exceptions, I find my work to date to be generally unsatisfying and failing in areas where I know I'm strong, so I'm reexamining the way I approach my craft. Taking it apart and putting it back together in a way that better showcases my personality and perspective. 

So I don't know what my process entails right now, or where this path is leading me, other than it feels like I'm on a better road now. Theme and structure are still important, but not if they're strangling a story's emotional honesty. And I've been very guilty of doing that.

DD:    When you are writing, what is your process working with the artist?
It depends on the project. On most work-for-hire gigs, I have almost zero contact with the artist -- I write my scripts and either see the finished pages as a courtesy just as they're going to the printer, or I see the story for the first time when the book hits the rack. Some editors are good about showing me pages in the thumbnail and pencil stage and letting me have some feedback, and I really appreciate that. It'd be nice to change or move or rewrite dialogue after the pages are done, but with production schedules being as tight as they are, that's an unaffordable luxury.

Lately I've been paired with artists for whom English is not their primary language, and that's presented some interesting challenges. In those instances I have to be careful not to include American vernacular or idioms, and to be very clear and literal in what I'm describing. Which is fine, but my natural writing style is more relaxed and conversational, and I prefer to have a dialogue with my collaborators rather than issue marching orders, and I'll catch myself slipping.

Original, creator-owned material is a whole different ballgame. I'm fortunate to share a studio with my most recent collaborators -- Dustin Weaver and Ben Bates. Dustin and I produced a short western story for Image Comics' Outlaw Territory anthology which was released earlier this year. That started with "let's do a western together" and the process was very organic -- we both came in with ideas and characters and situations we wanted to use, and over the course of several, beer-fueled meetings we crafted our world. From there, I just had to write it all down and make it flow into our allotted page-count. By my usual standards that script was sparse; it was shorthand for a story we both knew by heart.

Ben Bates and I recently did a short story together called "The Stain", which was a script I'd written before I met Ben. Even though the story was already laid-out in type, Ben and I talked extensively about its execution and he brought a lot of himself to it and really elevated the final work.

Ben and I are working together on a few different things right now, using the same method as I described doing with Dustin above, and I  much prefer that process to just scripting and hoping for the best.

DD:    When you were editing what was your process working with the Creative team?
My experience was almost exclusively with licensed projects. It always came down to finding people I wanted to work with, or finding the earnest young talent out there and helping them break in. I have no patience for big egos, prima donna behavior, or lack of professionalism of any kind, especially not when there are so many gifted writers, artists, and colorists out there straining to get a foothold, so the process often began with me liking someone's published work and then tracking them down either online or at a convention to see if they were interested in doing something.

Once we were rolling, I viewed my role as project manager and creative facilitator. My job was to help the team find their story and then get out of the way and let them do it. I tried to assemble teams of like-minded people whose skills complimented each other, and then encourage an open collaboration. I like to think it worked…most of the time. I had a great relationship with almost everyone I worked with, though, and when I announced that I was leaving editing to write full time a lot of people asked me to reconsider, which was flattering.

DD:    What Comic/ Trade would you recommend?
Everyone should read Alejandro Jodorowski and Juan Gimenez's The Saga of the Metabarons; and The White Lama, also by Jodorowski and George Bess. Both of those books changed my life. Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez is consistently amazing. I also try to put the first issue of Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier into as many hands as I can. Can you beat The Losers on Dinosaur Island? No. You can't.

DD:    What Comic/ Trade would you recommend to someone new to comics?
I can't answer that without first getting to know the person and learning what interests them. The New Frontier could thrill one person and leave another cold. Better to understand your audience and adjust accordingly.

DD:    What skill would you like to learn?
I really, REALLY wish I could draw. It would make my professional life SO much easier. I love collaborating with other people, but my lack of artistic ability is a barrier to cranking out the stuff I want to do. No, actually, my reluctance to ask others for help is the true barrier. But still, if I could draw, I'd be set.

The funny thing is -- and do you ever notice when someone says something's "funny" like that, it usually isn't? -- my teenage dream was to be a comic book artist. I used to draw all the time, but I was cocky. I thought I was too talented to need any kind of training or to learn the "boring crap" like understanding perspective or how light sources work. I just wanted to draw characters shooting lightning at each other.

When I was nineteen I repeatedly submitted to a company in Salt Lake City that specialized in publishing amateur genre comics -- and I was rejected every time, always on the basis of my sub-par art skills. The editors were gracious, sending me detailed, sometimes panel by panel critiques, and encouraged me to keep sending stuff in. They also praised my writing and suggested I partner with another artist. I took that as a sign and moved my focus to writing. Alas.

DD:    What's the most important thing you've learned?
To be honest with who am I and what I have to say, to trust my own process and path, and to not fall into the trap of comparing myself to others. 

DD:    Do you have a collection?   If so, what is one of the items you're most proud of?
A comics collection? No. I have a closet full of short boxes and several shelves piling up with trade paperbacks, but I don't view that as collecting so much as compiling. There are a few comics runs I'm glad I own -- Grimjack, Starman, an almost complete set of Weird Western/Jonah Hex/Hex/ect., but everything else is just the pamphlets I've accumulated over the years that I can't get myself to recycle in case I'll need them for reference someday. I look forward to the day when I can have all of that material on a hard drive.

That said, I do collect obscure Italian Western DVDs, and I'm proud of that library. I don't care much for American westerns, but I LOVE what the Europeans did with the genre in the '60s and '70s, taking a uniquely American mythology and running through their cultural filters and producing something else entirely. Fortunately there are a few small companies out there devoted to recovering, restoring, and releasing these obscure films in short runs on DVD, and my library is up to around 60-70 movies. There's been a fantastic wave of Asian Westerns lately, too. I can't get enough.

DD:    What is your favorite genre of Comics?
I like a little bit of everything. As long as its character-driven and shows me a unique world or a fresh perspective, I'm happy. I long to find a bizarre, well-executed, straight-up western, though. None of this genre mash-up, cowboys and zombies stuff you see all the time, but where the horror instead comes from the twisted characters and the surreal settings. Solid westerns are few and far between, though…so I'll have to do it myself.

DD:    Do you have an Ipad?   If so what do use it for the most.
I do have an iPad, and it's used primarily for reading comics. Digital is the future of comics, and I embrace it wholeheartedly.

DD:    What is your favorite TV show/ movie?
I discovered The Prisoner at age fourteen and it changed my life. It's still my absolute favorite, but I also enjoy The Twilight Zone, and I'm loving Justified right now. We'll see if it holds up. There's almost too much good television right now -- right now I have Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Firefly, and Dr. Who (none of which I've seen) and an anime series based on the manga Monster all queued up for Netflix instant streaming…and I have no idea when I'll find the time to watch them all.

My favorite movie is The Fall.

DD:    How does the Portland comics culture shapes your work?
It's exhilarating. Nowhere else in the country can you be surrounded by so many others chasing the same dream, who challenge you to do your best work, but also support you and want to see you succeed. It's no exaggeration to say that joining Periscope Studio saved me -- my first couple of years freelancing were rough, I wasn't used to the isolation, got lost in my own head, and almost had a crisis of faith in whether I was meant to do what I wanted to do. Joining Periscope and surrounding myself with talented, good people who were struggling up the same mountain turned everything around.

DD:    What was your first comic convention?
Comic-Con International in San Diego, 1995. A group of friends and I pooled our resources and shared a cheap hotel room, all intent on 'breaking in' into the industry, but not doing much more to achieve those ends than partying all night and raising hell on the convention floor all day. From there it took me about a decade to get serious.

DD:    What is your favorite part of comic conventions?
Hanging out with the long-distance friends and colleagues that I otherwise only speak with via email.

It's also always gratifying to meet people who've read and connected with your work. Writing is a solitary exercise and it's easy to lose connection with the outside world, so it's nice to be reminded that you're not just working in a void.

DD:    If you weren’t doing comics what would you do?
Do you mean if I wasn't writing? If I weren't doing comics, I'd be working in another medium—ideally novels, but probably video games. If I weren't writing professionally, I'd be trying to make it as a musician. Or still working at an auto quick-lube. Or both.

DD:    Do you have a favorite restaurant that you would recommend?
I'm a simple guy, and if my metabolism could handle it I'd eat at Buster's Barbeque five days a week. Beau Thai and Swagat Indian Cuisine on NW 23rd are both pretty great, too.

DD:    How long have you lived in Portland, what made you choose Portland?
My wife and I moved out here from Spokane, Washington in 2001, just after getting married. She had a job offer and I knew I'd eventually be working from a laptop, so the 'where' didn't matter. Once we decided on Portland, I landed a job at Dark Horse Comics and everything unfolded from there.

DD:    What is your favorite part of Portland?
So many great things here -- the food, the people, the music, the creative community. I love it all. I hate the wet and dreary winters, though. Hate them. I grew up in a high desert climate with extreme seasons and the sun practically year round, and these constant dark skies kill me. If I could lift all of Portland and move it to Arizona or southern Utah (shaking off the hipsters along the way, of course), it'd be paradise. I'll have to settle for it being just plain awesome instead.

DD:    Where in Portland/ Oregon would you most like to visit?
I can't believe I haven't been to Crater Lake yet. I need to do something about that. I'd like to hit Ashland's Shakespeare Festival sometime, too.

DD:    Would you like to write/Illustrate for another media? Or write a character from another media, for example, Dr. Who, James Bond?  What would you explore?
I'm much more interested in creating new material than I am in extending someone else's properties. Yes, I understand the irony in making my living doing work-for-hire on existing licenses, but that's the nature of the industry right now. Discovering new music or reading a great book for the first time are wonderful feelings, and that's what I strive to deliver. Too much of contemporary popular culture, with its endless remakes and reboots, is focused on keeping a chokehold on one's childhood, and that baffles me. I loved Star Wars as much anyone, but what's next? My generation is experiencing some seriously stunted development.

That said, I'd write a Mad Max comic in a heartbeat.

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