An Interview with Matt Wagner, Part 2

Comic book writer and artist Matt Wagner talks about how Mage is like a Zen journey, why he was drawn to working with material from early Batman stories, and what makes for good comic-book storytelling.

Matt Wagner

Photo credit: Greg Preston.

Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with Matt Wagner, award-winning comic book writer and illustrator, and creator of Mage and Grendel. If you haven’t already read Part One of this interview, be sure to check it out to hear Wagner talk about the birth of Mage, and why comic book creations often look like their creators.

I recently read your Batman run — the “Dark Moon Rising” books. Could you describe where the idea for those books came from?

They’re actually based on two of my favorite Golden Age Batman stories from the late ’30s and early ’40s. They’re both pre-Robin stories — before Robin shows up. “The Mad Monk” is in Detective Comics #31 and #32. #31 you’ll recognize — it has a very famous cover; it’s a huge image of Batman looming up over a small castle in the foreground. There’s a moon behind him, and he has absolutely ginormous bat ears. In fact, when you look it up, you’ll go, “Oh, of course — that cover.” The other one, “Hugo Strange and the Monster Men,” was in Batman #1.

Part of the fun of playing with somebody else’s toys is the challenge of trying to tell a story where some of the playing pieces are already in place on the board. In the world of Grendel, in the world of Mage, I’m the absolute god. Whatever I say happens, happens, and there’s never any question. With Batman there are many other aspects to consider. [Also,] any work I’ve done for DC, I always like to work early in a character’s career because I hate the giant, extended, huge continuity crap you have to deal with in their world. And I’ve just always liked primary-motivation stories.

So I decided there was a missing link in the early Batman tales, where we needed to see his transition from Batman Year One — the Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli classic storyline where he’s fighting just thugs and mobsters — to his more established litany of costumed crazies that eventually becomes his absolute normalcy, you want to call it that [laughter]. And so I decided to take these two early stories and revamp them into a modern setting. I wanted to dig deep into the actual origins of this character.

Those early primal Batman tales are neat because the conventions that have since become established as being comic-booky were fresh and new and were based more on a pulp tradition than what we think of as comic cooks. And they were just so unfettered and raw. So I took those and tried to squeeze them into DC’s continuity and make them work.

Comics have a crucial moment where it’s interactive — where you turn the page. And therefore the comic artist has to make his work so compelling that you’ll automatically turn the page. In fact, Will Eisner used to claim that that bottom right-hand panel on page right had to be so compelling that the reader would just turn the page without thinking about it.

What’s your creative process when you’re tackling a project like this — what sort of thought bubble might we see over your head while you’re at your desk?

Well, it varies in regard to the project. I became known in the industry working my way up through the independent [comic book] publishing boom of the early-to-mid-’80s. And so my first approach to comics was doing my own thing, owning my characters, having absolute say over what happens in every regard. Eventually I got enough renown in the industry that I got many offers to come work with the bigger publishers and to play with their in-house characters.

And I get a big kick out of that. I’ve done quite a few Batman projects at this point, even two crossovers between Batman and my character Grendel…. Working on any of the characters that I don’t own, I have to be very premeditated about it. I have to come up with a story outline to get approved by the publisher, etc., etc. With Grendel it’s much less so. With Grendel, often I’m working with another artist — I don’t draw it all the time — and I’ll figure out what that artist’s strengths are and try to write a story that plays to that.

Mage is the one that stands out alone as being completely different from all those. I treat Mage like a Zen journey. I don’t write down any plots. I don’t do any thumbnails, which is a traditional way that comic book artists work, where you basically sketch out a small version of what the page will look like before you take it through to final completion.

I just sit down with blank pages of Mage and I just start drawing, and I let the story take me where it wants to go. And that’s not to say that I don’t have a few ideas about where I’d like it to go, but I try not to nail that down. I try and take it a step at a time, and so the story becomes a journey for me, almost writing me at the same time that I’m writing it.


l comicsMage and Grendel (winner of three Eisner awards) and a five-year run on Sandman Mystery Theater, as well as for recent stints onBatman and on Trinity, a three-issue miniseries featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

Matt Wagner on the Web:

There’s no script when you start?

No, I just sit there with the board and start drawing on it. I mean, you know, I don’t just start in the upper left-hand corner and go to the bottom right-hand corner. I view that two-page spread that you’re confronted with when you’re looking at a comic book and I basically break it down there on the spot.

On the other end of things, everything else I do, I work with plot and dialogue. There are basically two different scripting or writing methods in comic books: One is what’s called a “full script,” wherein the writer will describe the entire layout of the page, how many panels it has, what happens in every panel, and then he will already have the caption narration and any of the word-balloon dialogues already in the full script. So it’s very much like reading a script for a movie.

The secondary method, which became popular in the ’60s under Stan Lee and used to be known for the longest time as “the Marvel style,” was that the writer would write a plot, then the artist would draw it based on the plot. It would come back to the writer and the writer would provide the captions and dialogue after the art was finished. That second method is the way I have always worked. I’ve written, I think, two full scripts in my twenty-five years in the industry.

Part of that, I think, is a result of the fact that I’m an artist as well as a writer. I can verbalize things in a way that I know an artist will be receptive to. Additionally, for me there’s a certain moral conundrum there. I work with other artists in order to collaborate, in order to see a bit through their eyes, to get a little flavor of the way they view the world and to let them have some play in how the story will take shape and see its final visualization. And since I’m able to draw, I feel like, well if I wanted the ironclad control of a full script, I kind of morally ought to draw it myself. So my plots tend to look like: page one, and I’ll describe what happens on page one, but I don’t break it down into panels. I might throw in a line of dialogue or a little bit of captioning here and there, but very brief — just enough to add some flavor….

When the art comes back from the artist, the way they’ve chosen to lay out the page, the way they’ve chosen to draw the individual characters, gives it a certain concrete aspect, whereas earlier it was just an abstract idea in my mind. And seeing it brought to reality like that will suggest to me narrative tone or individual character syntax. I’ll see a character’s face and I’ll say, “That character curses like this.” Or “That character gets out of bed on this side of the bed.” Or, “That character likes whiskey instead of vodka.” And so those decisions happen after it’s drawn, and I’m able to imbue a whole new life to it even at that seemingly final stage. Whereas in a lot of cases, those narrative decisions are already set in stone from the beginning in a full script.

How does this compare to your process when you’re drawing your own work?

If your readers aren’t familiar with the stages of a comic book pages’ production, there’s often a team — one is a penciler and one is an inker. The first artist, the penciler, will do the layout and the drawing. The inker then takes ink and renders the pencils into a finished, reproducible image. Most pencilers tend to pencil fairly tightly. They tend to give their lines the sort of weight and flavor that they want from the very beginning. I’m exactly the opposite because I always ink my own work. My pencils are what most people would describe as just incredibly sloppy because I want to be able to draw in the ink, too. I want to make the inking stage not just a repetitive tracing of what I had done in the pencil stage.

So the pencil stage is basically getting the pace, getting the scope of the story, getting the weight of the drawing. And then the ink is bringing the final form and the lighting and the texture to the page.

What do you think are the ingredients of good storytelling?

Well, of course storytelling in comics varies in many regards because it has to rely on a visual reality and that visual reality could be great and bombastic or very mundane and ordinary. And both [approaches] make perfectly viable comics. I think with comics, due to that visual element, there’s sometimes just a hint and sometimes a giant splash of the surreal that needs to invade comic book storytelling.

What makes a good story is something that takes you some place and teaches you something…. Certainly if they open the first page and they know where it’s going to end, then I’ve failed. At the same time I want the story to be provocative enough that they’ll be asking themselves questions about the story or remembering parts of the story after they’ve closed the book.

People are always trying to compare comics to film, and comics aren’t film. Film basically mesmerizes you, and you sit there and you absorb it in the way the director wanted you to absorb it. Comics have a crucial moment where it’s interactive — where you turn the page. And therefore the comic artist has to make his work so compelling that you’ll automatically turn the page. In fact, Will Eisner used to claim that that bottom right-hand panel on page right had to be so compelling that the reader would just turn the page without thinking about it.

Do you work on other kinds of art in between projects, or are comics your complete focus?

That’s my medium.

No fine art or anything like that on the side?

No, no fine art. I never had any aspirations beyond that. Because I never thought of comics as something less, you know? I’m fully satiated both creatively, financially, spiritually, in every regard by the act of creating comic books.

Category: Comics/Cartoons

5 comments on “An Interview with Matt Wagner, Part 2

  1. as a lifelong comic book reader, i was overjoyed to read this interview. fascinating discussion, particularly how he interacts with other artists when he is only writing, and his almost stream of conscious work on mage. comics are an amazing medium and matt rocks.

  2. I started reading Grendel back during the earliest Comico days. (A story I’d love to hear about.) Right from the start it was obvious he had major talent. I was interested to read about the Mage creation process, as both series started drifting away at the ends of their run, to the point where I was always unclear when the final issues were out. (This may have more to do with the publisher than Matt, I dunno. I am curious, though.) Great to see such a big name from comics in this series. Thanks Matt & Cecil!

  3. unlike itto and the cap’n, i didn’t see comic books during my formative years (crazy, i know, but that’s how it is when you’re raised by wolves!). but i’m getting more and more interested in them these days. the storytelling matt describes–that mix of words and images, of doing it all yourself or collaborating as fits the project–is so full of possibility. thanks to matt and cecil for this conversation.

  4. A mine of storytelling hints. He is really generous with his responses. I thought the Marvel Style was an interesting concept, and I can understand his frustration with the “continuity crap.” Hah!

  5. I met this giant one time in Dearborn, MI. and that was the only time in March 28, 1992; and showed some material & in the past I have encountered real life variations of Edsel & some of her real life counterparts had muscle cars, some of them had 1957-59 MoPar cars some had Edsel cars and some of them also used 1955-56 Mercurys & one had a 1952 Hudson Hornet Club Coupe. There are some questions that Matt never answered. What was Edsel’s real name, her birth date, and how she obtained her ’59 Edsel and later The Excalibur Bat. That’s been a mystery.
    From Mark Titan

Leave a Reply to e. Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *