Danny Strong, Frank Barbiere, and Ales Kot on Writing for Big Studios and Comics vs. Independents

At first glance, the three panelists on New York Super Week’s special edition of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast seem to exist in very separate worlds. Actor-turned-screenwriter Danny Strong, who got his start with the HBO political movies Recount and Game Change, is now adapting the third Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, for the big screen. Frank Barbiere’s Image Comics series Five Ghosts is the weirdest mash-up of historical and fictional figures. And Ales Kot has been all over Marvel’s recent comic series, including Secret Avengers and Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier (out now).

But while talking at Housing Works Bookstore about learning to write for specific mediums and the failures that got them where they are now, the three were able to share anecdotes about the difference between writing for a large movie studio or comics publisher, as opposed to more independent projects.

All three writers emphasized the importance of writing for yourself, even if that means you have (in Strong’s case) a bookshelf full of unproduced scripts or (as was the case for Kot and Barbiere) comics you never sold. “You still made a comic book,” Barbiere said of his thought process as an early-career writer. “It’s still out there.”

Five Ghosts (which just got greenlit as a TV pilot for Syfy!) demonstrates all of Barbiere’s good experiences with indie comics. At the time that he was trying to break into the business, he was a fan of Image’s emphasis on submissions; he found artists online and worked on pitches to send in.

The two things he was told not to pitch were superheroes (“If people want to read Batman, they’re going to read Batman”) and sci-fi westerns, despite the fact that that was his passion project at the time. Apparently sci-fi and western were the two least popular genres at the time—no longer, as Image currently publishes East of West.

He actually self-published (thanks to Kickstarter) Five Ghosts and brought it to NYCC in 2013, which is where someone from Image picked it up. Now he enjoys full creative control over the series. “The integral part is that you make comics,” he said. “You have to create your own product.”

Kot also has a series out with Image—Zero, which he describes as “James Bond in the 21st century, if it weren’t propaganda for the military-industrial complex.” However, working with a smaller place like Image brings its advantages and disadvantages: “I fall and rise on whatever the book makes,” he said, adding, “But the rise was nowhere near as fast as I wanted.” Partnering with Marvel gave him access to a wider range of artists, and more of a support system: “People in editorial genuinely care about what’s being put out.”

“I find it really inspiring to be given structure and form,” Barbiere said of his time also working for Marvel. He especially appreciated writing a Doctor Strange story and already having readers who knew the character and the universe. With indie comics, he explained, “You have to convince people that the characters you’re writing about are worth it.”

Strong has experienced a similar dichotomy in his screenwriting career. But whereas people will usually ask him how difficult it is to work with a big studio, he said that he appreciates having the built-in collaborators: “Your goal is for this movie to be seen by as many people as possible… A screenwriter is not in a room by themselves, working on their vision. I want [my movies] to pop, I want them to be part of the cultural conversation.”

When asked if he was intimidated to adapt Mockingjay—part of one of the biggest YA franchises, the last book, and split into two movies—Strong joked that he is “intimidated by everything… It was the same process as everything I’ve ever written.”

Once it’s uploaded, you can listen to the latest episode of the Nerdist Writers Panel here.

Natalie Zutter writes plays about superheroes and sex robots, articles about celebrity conspiracy theories, and Tumblr rants about fandom. You can find her commenting on pop culture and giggling over Internet memes on Twitter.


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