On Panel: Joshua Williamson and Kieron Gillen on the Ways of the Event Comic

On Panel is a monthly, text-only sister series to Off Panel, my weekly comics interview podcast, in which each interview features two or more guests as I attempt to simulate the idea of a panel conversation from a conversation. By that I mean it’s a moderator – myself – guiding a free-flowing conversation between multiple panelists about a subject that unites them. It’s meant to be less of a traditional interview and more of a back-and-forth between myself and the guests or the guests themselves, as we talk about a central premise while discussing connected ideas in the process.

Event comics are curious things.

Simultaneously acting as endings for larger stories and transition points into whatever is next for a superhero universe, events can be both magical and overwhelming, depending on who you ask. That isn’t just for readers, but the creators as well. These ultra-crossovers are monstrous undertakings, in which you aren’t just telling a story, but guiding an entire universe. At least, that’s what it seemed like from the outside. I’ve always loved them, at least conceptually, but I’ve never had a good feeling for just how intense that experience must be for those bringing them to life in front of our very eyes.

Until now.

With both DC and Marvel simultaneously rolling out line-wide events built off long-running stories within their universes, I thought it was the right time to learn just what it takes to tell one of these stories. To do that, I recently had a conversation over two sessions on Zoom with the writers of those events in Joshua Williamson (Dark Crisis, an exploration of what happens after the Justice League died and what death means in the DC Universe) and Kieron Gillen (A.X.E.: Judgment Day, a showdown between the Avengers, X-Men, and Eternals). It’s a talk about what writing and leading one of these uber-stories truly entails, as Williamson and Gillen discuss their thoughts on the art of the event, what goes into connecting all of the dots, focusing your efforts, universal needs, the importance of “gets,” their approaches to these stories, and much, much more.

It’s a gigantic, entertaining conversation, and one in which this pair sheds light on how difficult (and rewarding) this task can be. I think you might enjoy it. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is not focused on plot, so spoilers are limited outside of a quick discussion about a conversation that takes place in Dark Crisis #3.

I know Josh loves events. But Kieron, do you like events, or at least the idea of them?

Kieron: Like is a strong word. I don’t like anything. (laughs) In terms of the Western comics medium, events are something that only we have. When I first saw the first Avengers movie, there was a moment when I realized, “Oh no, they’ve done a crossover. I’ve never seen this before.” And they’ve still haven’t really done an event in the way that we do events. The idea that they’re going to release three movies at once and they’ll tie into a central movie. It’s really bizarre.

On an intellectual curiosity level, it’s beyond good and evil. They exist, in which case you want to take it seriously as a form. I’ve deftly avoided the question there. But at the same time, if you go about it, you think back to some of the biggest beats of stuff I’ve liked as a kid, like hell yeah, they’re events. Original Secret Wars is probably one of my first introductions to most of Marvel, and Infinity Gauntlet gave me the rest. You can’t take that away. Talk about people who came in the noughties, Civil War was such a huge thing for Marvel in that way.

Daniel Sampere and Alejandro Sánchez’s cover to Dark Crisis #1

So, like them or hate them, it is beyond good or evil with them. They’re just what they are. (laughs)

Joshua: That’s a really good way to put it. They’re going to happen.

It’s funny. I love them and I hate them. There’s a part of me that professionally has different feelings on them than me as a fan. I’m not going to say what it was, but I found myself complaining about something that was around an event that I had just done. (laughs) It was something that I had just made the same…I’m not going to say a mistake, but I had done something that I was like, “Oh, but that’s part of what you do when you’re doing events.”

But there was a part of me that was like, “Oh, why’d they do that?” And then I realized, “Oh, well, I literally just did that.”

This is one question I had for you. When you are working on the events, do you take yourself back and think about how you were when you were young going into those events for the first time? Do you ever take a step back and come at it from the fan version versus the professional for the last 20 years version of you?

Kieron: That’s interesting. I think the word sincerity keeps on coming to mind. One of the ways events break is that people come into them cynically. And at least a lot of what I’m trying to do in A.X.E is to buy some-

Joshua: I’m glad to hear your call it A.X.E as well, because I always call it A.X.E.

Kieron: I call it Judgment Day, but I’ve leaned into A.X.E now. I can’t win. It was pitched at Judgment Day. (laugh) And it’s like, “No, A.X.E. it”

But a certain part of the audience (being) so cynical about events means that a lot of what I’m trying to do is trying to encourage to someone, “You can believe in this.” And that people have to make the leap of faith. Even if you know things aren’t going to change or are going to change, you’ve still got to act like it’s real. You have to believe it and the characters have to believe it.

You’re talking about studying events. I remember when Thanos kills everyone in the Marvel Universe in Infinity Gauntlet and he kills them all in brutal and horrible ways. You knew they’re not going to keep these characters dead but at the same time you knew this is such an incredible moment. And both these things are true. So, there is part of me that I am thinking about, “Okay, I want to hit those beats. I want to hit these things that affected me like this.”

And then of course my writer brain and then I’m like, “Okay, how do you do that though?” And that’s the two sides of it: what moves you and then how were you moved? And they’re the two things I try to balance. What about you?

Joshua: It’s the same thing. I think that’s what a lot of what Dark Crisis ended up being about, me trying to deal with some of that stuff. I kill the Justice League in the prelude issue. And we all know that that’s not going to stick. We all know this. But you have to go into it with like-

Kieron: What?! Spoilers. (laughs)

Mark Brooks’ cover to A.X.E.: Judgment Day #1

Joshua: Yeah, spoilers. (laughs)

I have this thing I think about a lot when I’m writing, especially when I’m writing superhero books. I try to take a step back and think about how the conversations we have about superheroes, at this point, the superheroes must also be having in their world. And we were in all these summits over the years, and things would come up. And one of them was this timeline of all the characters’ histories, this big wall of a timeline.

And I was looking at it and I realized, “Oh my gosh, all of these characters have died multiple times, and some of them died really close to each other.” But almost all of them died within our ten-year time span in some ways. At some point, are they going to talk about that? When are they going to talk about, “We’ve all died,” and what does that actually mean? And do some of them believe it and some not?

So, I started really getting into that a bit and trying to find ways of looking at it from the character’s perspectives and then looking at it from the professional perspective of, “Okay, it’s an event. What are the things I need to do?” But then I take a step back and I go, “What are the things that I actually cared about before? And what do I care about now?” Working on an event, I have to slow down and look at it from all kinds of perspectives.

The fan perspective. The pro perspective. I hate to say the financial perspective, even though that is definitely a piece of this, right? But then I try to put myself in the story as one of the characters and look at it from their perspective. I try to balance all those pieces out. It’s funny, I’m sure you’ve had these moments before in writing, but the other day I was working on the couch in the living room, and I suddenly had this emotional moment with the story. I’m working on a particular scene, and I started feeling emotional about it. It just got me. And I’m like, “Okay, this scene is working.”

I think that’s what I’m always searching for at the end of the day. It’s not just the big explosions or the professional, “Oh ho ho, I figured this one out.” I try to find those emotional moments. Whenever I can find those, that’s what I try to key on. While I’m writing it, if I’m getting emotional writing it, that’s where I’m like, “Okay.” And I mean happy, sad, whatever. I try to hunt for those moments.

Kieron: When people say they’ve cried over my work, that’s normally the stuff I’ve cried over. Me getting upset is absolutely the “I’ve hit gold here, carry on digging.” And I always talk about the second I think of a story idea that upsets me, it’s like, “Okay, that one’s happening.”

Joshua: That’s what it is, right? Our job is supposed to make people react and feel engaged, and that can go with a large range. That can be happiness and sadness and anger and all of that. But if I’m getting that out of you, then I’m doing my job correctly. And I think when we bring it back around to events, I think that the biggest challenge I’ve had with this is finding quiet moments in an event.

Because you have such a large cast of characters, and everyone has a voice and a purpose. If they’re there, then they have some purpose. You don’t want everyone to just always be background characters for the artist to have to spend a week drawing. You want everyone to be there for a reason.

Kieron: Put a flag in this, we’ll come back to his later. “How bad do you feel making the artist draw all this shit?” (laughs)

From Dark Crisis #1, art by Daniel Sampere and Alejandro Sánchez

Joshua: All the time. I talk to Daniel (Sampere, the artist of Dark Crisis) probably once or twice a week. We have a standing call and I write little notes in the scripts that are essentially, “I’m sorry, please don’t hate me.” But I also try to find, and this is back to the quiet thing…it’s twofold. I’m always trying to find quiet moments within explosions.

When I’m writing, I think about theater a lot and some of my favorite moments in theater is when suddenly the lights go down and it’s just two characters on the stage. They don’t need anything else. I think David, we talked before, where it’s like they don’t need props, they don’t need a big set, it’s just two actors on the stage acting their asses off. And that’s sometimes when you’re the most invested in it. And I’m always trying to find moments of that.

For the artists, I think it helps because every once in a while I’m like, “It’s just going to be two characters in a dark room for two pages. I promise you won’t have to draw a million things. ” And then I’m like, “I’m sorry, because the next page has 100 characters on it. But these two pages are going to be quiet.”

I think one of the questions I had for you is when you are working on these events, do you have a note for yourself (about that)? Or is it just conscious that you’re like, “I have to find quiet moments in this story.”

Kieron: What you’ve just described I describe as the art budget. People talk about art budget in terms of money.

Joshua: Oh yeah.

Kieron: It’s not the money. It’s about, “Can you break a human being?”

Joshua: At DC, we call them lob pages.

Kieron: Oh yeah.

Joshua: I think Greg Capullo was the person that coined that I think.

Kieron: I did an essay about this. If you remember Young Avengers, as it’s a team book…it’s obviously dense. It’s a lot of dense shit –  and then we put the villain in a dimension which is just white backgrounds. And it’s austere. And that’s very clearly like, “Okay, I’m going to kill Jamie in these pages and the other pages it’s going to look cool, but I’m cheating.”

I’m very much about the quiet moments. What I’ve actually done is tried to compress everything else. And this is the real thing I’m doing in terms of, “Okay, how can I buy the quiet moments by cutting other stuff? And what trick can I use to compress?” So, it’s when I’ve been looking at other events and comics generally it’s like, “Okay, what needs space? What is desirable in this space and what are essentially golden extras?”

Especially if people have read Immortal (X-Men) or Eternals. Yes, I do the high drama stuff. But there’s a lot of people having coffee. It’s quite important for me. It might be a difference between Marvel and DC, I think. I’ve said this before, but the idea of the guy on the street corner is important and some part of Judgment Day is just people on the street. I didn’t want to just have the world ending from the superhero’s perspective. I wanted, “Okay. What would I feel right now? Or what would my mate on the phone feel about this?”

From A.X.E.: Judgment Day #1, art by Valerio Schiti and Marte Gracia

And that’s hard in an event, just because of space. I’ve said this before, but the problem of an event is you feel like you are writing the Marvel Universe, which is a different challenge to writing one book. And in my case, I’m writing a lot of the crossovers as well. I’m writing the Eternals issues, Immortal X-Men, and some other tie-ins. I’m writing something like 18 issues in this fucking thing.

But even though this is Eternals and Avengers and X-Men, they’re the main characters, I’m still thinking, “Okay, what’s Doctor Doom doing? What are the Fantastic Four doing?” Because you are writing the whole thing. It doesn’t matter how many issues I could write, it’s the whole Marvel Universe. And then it’s like, “And how do you edit?” And this is like, “Who do you choose as your lead characters? Who are the emotional backbones here?”

And then of course the actual weird advantage of being an event book and I’m writing tie-ins as well and go, “Okay, this plot is interesting, but also coherent and self-contained…I’ll move it to one of the tie-ins.” So, this is the really fun part where it gets unlike anything else. I feel like I’m editing on the fly and I’m pitching my own tie-ins and we have these three specials halfway through to do other stuff. And it’s like, “Oh yeah, there’s always other options here, which wouldn’t be available in any other story than an event.”

Joshua: So, you’re having a very similar experience. I was thinking about when Hickman did Secret Wars, if you only read Secret Wars, you got what you needed. But there was also something about Secret Wars where a lot of times there would be these big action moments that you would hear about or you would see one panel and then it was like, that could possibly be in one of the crossovers, or it was this awesome epic battle. You’re not going to see it anywhere else, but you know what happened and now we’re going to react to it.

Kieron: That’s how Shakespeare does it. (laughs) Remember? That’s how Shakespeare does it. He’s in good company.

Joshua: With this from the beginning, when I was working on the first issue of Infinite Frontier, a lot of that is trying to see it from the point of view of people on the street. We had just done all this stuff with the multiverse, and I wanted to look at, “If people on the street knew there was a multiverse, how would they react to it?” The first act of was to break up these pieces. But yeah, I do the same thing. I’m always trying to buy time.

So, the way I write comics is I actually do a lot of whiteboarding of the issue.

Kieron: Oh, nice.

Joshua: I go through and basically break everything up, making little notes for myself, going through one pass and then I keep on doing it over and over. There are times where I’ll go through, depending on the book, and count how many pages a character is on. Because if they’re the main character I’m like, “Okay, well, if they’ve only been on two pages, there’s a problem.” So you go back through and then I make little notes. Little red notes are me telling myself that sucks and I have to change it, but I go through and I do that.

From Dark Crisis #1, art by Daniel Sampere and Alejandro Sánchez

And that’s where I’m always trying to find out how to buy time. I know I need these big action sequences, these big moments, and these big explosions. But to me, so much of the story is about the relationship between the characters, so I need to show those things. It’s always about buying time, cutting things and being like, “Oh, that two page spread will be so cool. Either I cut it, or I have to cut something over here.”

It really is this constant battle. And then there are cheats where I’m like, “Okay, I need something for issue six and I don’t have room for it in five, but I need these characters to find this thing.” All right. Now I know the plot of one of the one shots. And then I’ll basically write up a document, and then go and talk to those writers. This week I’m talking to (some writers who are) going to write one of the one-shots. I’ll go to them and be like, “This is what you guys do well, so I’m just giving this to you and you can run. All I need you to do is make sure that one character finds that one thing. That’s what I need.”

There’s a part of comics…when it comes to compressing or decompressing, my impulse a lot of times is to try to decompress if I can. But then I’ll go back, and I’ll look at Crisis on Infinite Earths and it’s like every page has almost two scenes in it.

Kieron: Yeah.

Joshua: Every page has so much going on and you start looking at it and you’re like, “How did they do this?” And you start trying to reverse engineer it. I’m going to name drop here for a moment, I had this conversation with Grant…with Grant Morrison a few ago months ago.

Kieron: (laughs) Conversation with Grant. Grant Robinson, my local milkman. (laughs)

Joshua: (laughs)I asked Grant for advice on writing a Crisis, on writing an event and some specific things. And their advice back to me was really fascinating, very helpful and very interesting. And one of the things that they said, you know, but somebody has to say it to you anyway, is they were like, “You have all these pieces and all these things you have to do. Don’t forget yourself. Where are you in this?”

Whenever I go back and look at all the events, I go, and I look at Infinite Crisis. I go and I look at Final Crisis and Zero Hour and all these big events. And I was a consultant on Metal and Death Metal. So going and looking at those, I was involved in those. So, I have their perspective. Are you familiar with the movie Paycheck?

Kieron: No, actually.

Joshua: There’s a Ben Affleck movie called Paycheck. Every once in a while, I wish I could erase my mind of everything I know.

Kieron: Yeah.

Joshua: Just put me in a room where I forget that I’ve read all these events. And I know all the events really well, so it’s hard to just look at it with completely fresh eyes. I think that’s a thing that I find challenging sometimes is when I’m working on the big stories.

Oh, this is a question back to you: Do you ever find yourself, when you’re working on the event, coming across a moment and you’re like, “Either I’m repeating myself or someone did this and I have to now work around it and try to not repeat that.” There are moments where you’re using the same character but you run into that. Do you ever have that and try to work your way out?

Kieron: Actually, you were saying earlier about yourself as a reader…this is I think the closest I get as in, “That doesn’t excite me anymore therefore I’m not doing it.” And I think my to-do list was Captain America’s shield doesn’t get broken, no one picks up Thor’s hammer. The classic big character Marvel beats. “No, I’ve seen them too many times. I’m not going to do that.”

That would be it. Because if you’re doing the big popcorn, punch the air moments, let’s say Miller Moments if you will. If it doesn’t get the pop, it’s pointless, and then it’s just basically pantomime. That’s when I know if it’s tired and I think the flip of it is going back to that original question about events I liked earlier “how did this make you feel?” Then how can I make this one feel like that now?

From A.X.E.: Judgment Day #1, art by Valerio Schiti and Marte Gracia

That’s where you tweak the mix. Grant’s thing is interesting, because I’m almost finishing issue six, so I’ve almost written it all. Which is so weird that it’s almost all written and none of it has come out yet. And I’m writing what I think is the emotional core of the series. And when the characters are in extremis, and this is really…how do I put it…the me of it.

This is deeply me. What’s the point of life and are we fucked anyway? That’s where you head towards. And there’s so much about my work right now is that level of, nihilism is the wrong word, but hoping the nihilists are wrong. But at the same time, not wanting to give fake hope either. That’s very much where my heart is in terms of where we are. What the hell are we going to do about it? What speaks to you as humanity?

And I was doing that and I’m like, “Oh no.” What do we do in dark times? What is the point? And pretty much the first line in the comic is about heroism. So is a book about heroism in that way. And what does heroism even mean? And what does heroism mean in extremis?

I was writing this and, in terms of influences, I’m going to come back to (Jim) Starlin. Starlin, who’s very clearly somebody who is working for their philosophy and relationship with death and art and whatever via the medium of a big purple dude who destroys the galaxy with a finger click. And when I started hitting this kind of personal stuff, I knew I was trying to Do Starlin.

And then of course I return to your problem. This is really an emotional argument between three or four key characters. And they’re not punching each other at this moment, so how am I going to make this event feel epic. And – well, I solve that by it not being the only thing that’s going on. I’ll be cutting between that and the outside. Because there’s a lot of explosions around it, and it’s just a moment when they’re having a genuine heart to heart and they’re trying to get to this. I mean, you’ll note that’s how Return of the Jedi did it, and that’s an event, right?

This becomes, can we come to form a…not consensus, but can we actually justify something? All the way through, there is so much in the book about I have this emotional, philosophical stuff and how do you dramatize it? How do you make it explosive-y?

And to jump back to something else, because you were talking about how much was in Crisis or whatever…I’m very aware of that. And it wouldn’t work without the right artist. This is the thing about Valerio (Schiti, the line artist of A.X.E.: Judgment Day. I was writing some of these scenes thinking, “They’re going to feel cramped or this won’t have enough room to breathe.” And when they’ve come back, Valerio’s made it land.

Because if you’ve got a certain kind of artist, a certain level of detail in a panel, there is more in the panels and the panels are “bigger”, even though they’re the same size. So, if you had a more sparse artist, it feels quicker. And this is straight Understanding Comics stuff. Panels can be dense and take different times depending on what they have in there. But I’m very aware of that.

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