Hardboiled Superstars Ed Brubaker & Megan Abbott Discuss Comic Conventions, Criminals & Hollywood

Comics Features Ed Brubaker & Megan Abbott
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Hardboiled Superstars Ed Brubaker & Megan Abbott Discuss Comic Conventions, Criminals & Hollywood

Over the years, Paste Comics has had the privilege of playing fly-on-the-wall to a handful of truly impressive creator chats: Bitch Planet co-creator Kelly Sue DeConnick and The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood; Hellboy mastermind Mike Mignola and international art legend Geof Darrow; Punisher scribes and punks-made-good Rick Remender and Matthew Rosenberg; and more. With just over 24 hours left on the clock for Paste Comics as its own section, we had to add just one more to the list: crime/noir superstars Ed Brubaker and Megan Abbott, who chatted over email and were kind enough to let us host the result.

Brubaker has a decades-long career in comics under his belt, pivoting from respected runs on titles like Catwoman and Captain America to his highly acclaimed original work, most of it with artist Sean Phillips at Image Comics. From Criminal to Incognito, Fatale, The Fade Out, Kill or Be Killed and back to Criminal, Brubaker and Phillips have established themselves as the names in crime comics. Brubaker has followed his noir sensibilities to Hollywood, contributing to HBO’s Westworld and teaming up with director Nicolas Winding Refn for Too Old to Die Young at Amazon.

While Abbott has contributed only a few times to the world of comics, her name is all but synonymous with modern hardboiled crime. Lending a much-needed female perspective to a genre infamous for flattening women to dames, broads or dead bodies, Abbott has won or been nominated for the Hammett Prize, the Shirley Jackson Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the International Thriller Writers Award and multiple Edgar awards. Abbott also contributed to HBO’s acclaimed The Deuce, and is hard at work adapting two of her novels for film and television.

Paste readers can follow along with their chat below, and can find ample examples of both Brubaker’s and Abbott’s work at their local comic and book stores.

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Bad Weekend Cover Art by Sean Phillips

Ed Brubaker: So, my new book takes place over a weekend Comic Convention—a sort of stand-in for the big Comic-Con down in San Diego every summer. I moved to San Diego as a kid, so I’ve been attending that convention on-and-off since I was like 8 years old.

But if I’m remembering right, isn’t your mother a crime writer, too? Did you guys go to Bouchercon or other shows like that growing up?

Megan Abbott: My mom’s a writer, but she didn’t really start focusing on crime stories until about the time my first novel came out in 2005. So we went to our first Bouchercon together. It was a big turning point in my life, actually. I’d never met so many people all in one place that loved the same dark, strange and wonderful stuff. The conversations I had that weekend—about Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, about obscure B-noirs, about lost Cornell Woolrich novels, etc.—well, I still remember them. They opened my door to even more writers—Manchette, Goodis, Willeford…

But Bouchercon is a fraction of the size of Comic-Con, which is so dazzling in its scope and scale. What was it like as a kid?

Brubaker: Well, compared to what it is now, it was tiny. They held it at the El Cortez hotel in downtown San Diego, and there was a big dealers room, with booths filled with old comics and boxes and boxes of back issues from all over the country. I remember the first thing we did was my dad took me to a panel where Bob Kane was drawing Batman on a big overhead projector, and took questions from the audience. My mind was totally blown—I think I was eight.

And I just watched it grow and grow, into a thing that is only about half about comics anymore. But in those early years, I’d haunt the artists’ tables and watch them do sketches for the fans all day long, and eavesdrop. Some of the artists from the ‘40s and ‘50s were still around then, and you’d see them giving advice to younger artists just breaking in, or talking shit about some editor they hated back in the day. They’d pull out original art they’d bought, to show each other, and I’d just be this little kid trying to blend into the background and absorb it all. They were all just grinding it out, trying to make some extra money because comics has never paid that well for most freelancers, but to me it was like I was standing next to legends.

And if I never heard of someone that they were talking about—Like Alex Toth, who is one of the best artists ever, but you’d most likely know for creating Space Ghost—then I’d wander down the dealers-room aisles trying to find comics drawn by them.

Abbott: Were there any special encounters you remember?

Brubaker: The one that always comes to mind first—I had a long talk with Archie Goodwin, who was one of the best writers and editors in the industry, and he gave me writing advice that I’ve always remembered. He said that there were only five stories in the world, and that it was how you told them that made them interesting. It made me start looking at structure more, and become more inventive with how I wanted to tell stories, even when I was just a teenager doing mini-comics.

And another time, I was at a panel once where Jack Kirby (who created or co-created most of Marvel’s early heroes including Captain America) and the editor-in-chief of Marvel both stood up in the audience and started yelling at each other about how much Kirby had been fucked over by the company over the years—Kirby’s wife Roz jumped in, too. It was amazing. My friend was sitting right between them and I looked back at him and he was just racking his head back and forth between them, looking worried they were going to come to blows.

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Bad Weekend Interior Art by Sean Phillips & Jacob Phillips

Abbott: That’s kind of amazing. A window into a whole world and its complications and costs.

Brubaker: Yeah, completely. It was all right there on public display, in a room surrounded by comics fans.

I suppose at a Bouchercon there’s no equivalent to an “artists alley” like that? Or where you walk by the table of some writer who meant the world to you as a kid, and no one is lined up to meet them? Or is that a thing?

Abbott: Bouchercon is so much smaller in scale and I’ve only been there was a published novelist, so the experience was so different. But I will never forget arriving at another crime convention in Texas, arriving late in the night and landing in the hotel lobby bar and there was James Crumley, surrounded by a coterie of adoring writers. I sat with them a long time, listening to him—just a year or two before his death—talking with an admittedly gimlet eye about publishing…but mostly talking about books. Wry, bleary and kinda great—like the Sterling Hayden character in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

That was big for me. Same for meeting George Pelecanos, who also seemed thrown off a movie set—in his case a 1950s noir. I’d always romanticized the writer figure, of course. I’ve never really lost that feeling, even as the business side has definitely made the scales fall from my eyes….and how quickly today’s starry debut novelist or one-best-seller-wonder can become tomorrow’s forgotten figure. Sometimes I feel like the metaphoric “hooker in the hotel lobby”—endurance counts most!

What about the storied behind-the-scenes convention stuff? Scandals and romances? Did you get a whiff of that?

Brubaker: And oh god, yeah, are there scandals and gossip in comics. I picked from some of it and changed the names, for Bad Weekend, but comic conventions and the industry have always had that stuff. In the ‘70s, there was a famous inker who supposedly had friends in the mob—this was when the publishing was all run out of NYC—who would either lean on editors for work, or hire hookers for them and throw big parties, to keep them happy, and that was how he got so much work. I’ve never heard from anyone who actually went to one of these parties, but I’ve heard the story a dozen times over the years, at least, and everyone is sure they really happened. And I heard things like that would go on in the early days of the convention scene, too.

And actually, in the early 2000s there was a big prostitution bust at a small convention back east. Some “models” that were actually high-priced call girls got busted working the convention bar. And the guy running the convention was arrested for a cold-case murder a few years later.

Man, I sound like Kenneth Anger now. But that same sleazy convention was where I met one of my heroes, Frank Miller, who basically became my mentor and big brother for a few years when I was breaking in. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anywhere outside conventions, and even then it’s rare.

Abbott: Yeah. I remember my legs shaking under the table when I first met James Ellroy—the biggest living influence for me—at the LA Festival of Books.

Brubaker: I think that was the same day I met you. I remember seeing him talking to you at the booth and thinking, See? Even Ellroy knows Megan is the real deal.

But hey, I wanted to ask—you and I have followed our crime writing heroes (like Ellroy and Chandler) down the path to Hollywood work, too, even after seeing what Hollywood did to all of them. I always joke that every writer comes to Hollywood thinking, I’ll be the one it’s different for. It may have beaten Dashiell Hammett, but I’ll be the one. And so I’m curious about your experiences now that you’re deeper into it. I know we were both on different HBO shows at the same time… so how has the transition been for you?

Abbott: Boy, it has been a crash course for me. At the moment, I’m in the blazing hot center of my first experience showrunning. Thankfully, I have a great, very experienced co-showrunner, Gina Fattore, but it’s been dizzying. Being on set every day, right on the battlelines, the same time as writing and doing post-production—well, often I ponder how a deeply introverted novelist prone to holing up in her apartment for days at a time ended up sitting at the monitors amid hundreds of cast and crew for 13 hours a day? That Barton Fink feeling, as they say.

Brubaker: Are you writing as much of your own stuff as you want to be?

Abbott: No, and I miss writing novels a lot. It’s the center of me. But it was hard to pass up this chance. This so-called “Peak TV” thing has created such a weird and wonderful moment for writers in Hollywood. I mean, I grew up enthralled by that world and I know you did too. Our first conversations were about movies. B-noir!

Do you think you can continue to toggle back and forth? Do you want to?

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Bad Weekend Interior Art by Sean Phillips & Jacob Phillips

Brubaker: Because I work in comics, I have to always be writing something for my artist—Sean Phillips—or we’ll fall behind schedule, so whenever I have a TV job, I have to work early mornings writing my own stuff first, or weekends to catch up. It can be tough to juggle, but I think it helps me not get too lost in the haze of notes and constant changes. Like it helps me keep in touch with whatever my “voice” is as a writer. I remember when I wrapped on Westworld, I second-guessed every idea for a while—like I had an echo of the writing room in my head that wanted to see nine different versions of every idea.

And then I spent two years co-writing a show with Nic Refn, which was a completely insane experience, where I was writing with someone else but it evolved into writing FOR someone else, since he was directing it and he changed what he wanted the show to be constantly. So me and my friend Halley Gross (who I brought onto the show to be our only other writer) had to chase all the changes through the scripts, and rip stuff out and sometimes throw away half an episode and write new scenes. At times I felt completely useless. But I also learned so much about production and working closely with actors and DPs, so for all the frustration of it, it was really worth the pain and long hours.

But yeah, I’m a writer, so I’m still a dreamer, and one of my big dreams has always been to have my own TV show—at least since I saw The Sopranos. Before that I thought I’d write movies maybe. So I’m still going to keep at it.

Abbott: I truly do not know how you were able to continue to write comics during such a consuming experience! And one that was so tumultuous.

Midway through this first season of Dare Me, I sometimes don’t have the mental capacity to tie my shoes. But I do know what you mean about that kind of fast writing. Even with our well-ordered plan for Dare Me’s first season, you inevitably confront the things you never have to think about in writing novels: location challenges, sick actors, weather (lightning, in particular) and most of all budget. So that triage writing—well, I guess it’s just part of it because production is such a bullet train.

Do you prefer to adapt your own work or do you find—as I know I did writing on The Deuce—there’s a freedom in working in someone else’s fictional world?

Brubaker: Adapting my own work seems to depend on the book and how long ago I wrote it, and how much I can change to make it feel new. I’m about to start adapting one of my books for TV (it hasn’t been announced yet) and I’m actually excited about it now, because the last time I tried to do that, I hadn’t written thousands of pages of screenwriting yet, and now I feel like I know the form better and how to break it a bit. I think writing on Westworld and Too Old to Die Young—like you on the Deuce—writing for other people’s goals, there was a freedom to fail there, or to learn, you know? I could learn to exist in the scene, or in a dialog polish. To try things that might not work.

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Dare Me Cover Art Courtesy Reagan Arthur Books

But for me, writing original stuff or doing a show based on a book I wrote that does new things in the television version, and isn’t just a beat-for-beat adaptation, is the goal. I’m happiest as a writer when I’m following whatever is burning to get out of my brain, and usually that isn’t someone else’s story. That said, I would have killed to work on Deadwood. Like, I would have killed that JT Leroy lady and taken her job there. (not literally). So it always depends, I guess. If Vince Gilligan asked me to work on his next show, I would not say no.

What about you, you’re doing Dare Me now—your cheerleader noir novel—expanding it into a series. Did it take you a while to figure out “the TV version” or did it just fall into place and make sense right away? Is it weird to be living in a world you wrote years ago originally?

Abbott: With Dare Me, it was in development for seven years, nearly five for TV, so it had migrated into this other beast long before we ended up getting a series order. That said, those characters and the central triangle and the intense teen friendship at the center—they’ve always remained at the core, which makes for some, well, transcendent moments.

Just a few nights ago, into the wee hours after a day of drenching rain, we shot this very simple scene that mattered so much to me on the page: our two young female leads coming upon each other while running at night. So there I was riding around in a van with one of my favorite directors, Josephine Decker, and our wildly talented DP, Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, and several of our crew members…and we watched. We watched these two talented young women running along and then together in the middle of the rain-drenched street and everything is magnificently lit to this full Gregory Crewsden effect. All the emotion was there all at once and we were all watching it unfurl together in the hushed van. It was really quite wonderful.

Have you had moments like that, where it all comes together for a moment? And becomes even bigger than you ever imagined?

Brubaker: Oh god, yeah. For sure. There is this scene in Too Old to Die Young that I wrote for Jena Malone where she tells a new and fucked-up version of an old fairy tale to a waitress at a diner. I get chills watching it. And from my episode of Westworld that I co-wrote, when I was on set, I took this drawing that Thandie Newton did of the men who come to take them underground, which Thandie actually drew herself after we all tried to get it right—and I have it framed at home because I was so overwhelmed by getting to write her scenes and just being on that set. There’s definitely something magical to that life from time-to-time, much as I probably feel more comfortable locked in my writing room.

Well, thanks for making time in your production schedule to do this, Megan. You’re the greatest, as always. I’ll talk to you soon.

Abbott: Thank you, Ed. Few things more fun than talking books and TV with you. Can’t wait for what you do next.

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Give Me Your Hand Cover Art Courtesy Little, Brown and Company

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