An Interview with Bryan Q. MillerA column article, The Squeaky Wheel by: Kyrax2
After attending WonderCon, I caught up with Bryan Q. Miller, writer on the popular Smallville television series and the recent run of Batgirl starring Stephanie Brown. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about how he got into writing comics and his upcoming project, the Smallville, Season 11 comic.
Kyrax2: Let's start with the same question you've probably already gotten a hundred times. When and how did you get into comic books?
BQM: As far as reading, I didn't really have exposure to all that many while I was growing up. Right around the time the Secret Wars bendy action figures came out (which I THINK was around the time the squeeze-the-legs Super Friends/Super Powers figures were available), I recall having a few handfuls of comics. There was a Hulk and Batman vs. Joker and Eclipso thing I re-read over and over. Then, maybe some Sinister Six Spidey stuff in middle school. Honestly, I was more exposed to Marvel and DC properties through toys and television. The X-Men cartoon and Batman: the Animated Series were a very large part of my formative years. After college, when I moved out to LA, I got a job working at a bookstore, which is really when I started consuming comics regularly, from both sides of the "aisle".
Regarding the writing of comics, I had gotten into TV writing first. While I was on Smallville, I met Geoff Johns, who pointed me in the right direction to get my foot in the door with DC.
Kyrax2: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? How did you pursue it?
I had written some short stories in high school and started a novella in college, but my focus at the time was on Journalism and Television Production. Once I moved to LA, I got the bug to start writing again, and went to grad school for screenwriting. In hindsight, anything I wrote before five years ago is dreadful, but its heart is in the right place. You learn as you go.
Kyrax2: Writing for a popular TV series like Smallville sounds like a dream job for an aspiring writer. How did you break in?
As part of my requirements for graduating grad school, it was necessary to get an internship. A friend let me know that Tollin/Robbins (one of the companies behind Smallville, One Tree Hill, and a host of other shows and movies) was looking for interns to place on shows. I went through the interview process, and landed a spot with them. Initially, they wanted to place me on a reality show they had in the works. Given the nature of my study at school, I asked to be placed instead on one of their scripted shows, like Smallville. They were awesome enough to not laugh in my face and humored me. I was very fortunate to land in a writer's room that was very open to instruction and inclusion. A few years of unpaid interning later, and I was hired as their Writers' Assistant. During my year as official assistant, I applied and was accepted into the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop, which helped me get the final bit of professional polish I needed to be staffed up onto the show proper the following season. And... here we are!
Kyrax2: I've heard that you're the one who approached DC about writing for them (rather than the other way around). What made you decide to pitch a Stephanie Brown story? Were you a fan of the character, and if so, why?
BQM: Initially, I approached them about writing anything and everything. There was a spot open in a Superman 80-page giant that I pitched for, but it fell through. A few months later, I got a call about doing a fill-in arc on Teen Titans. My work on those scripts got me onto the radar of the Bat desk. When they asked if I'd be interested in pitching them a take on a Batgirl ongoing, the parameters were already set that it had to feature Steph under Babs' tutelage. I had always been a fan of Steph, and saw a great deal of "Fresh start" potential for her. Despite what she's been through, when approached properly, Steph's insanely relatable. And Babs was just coming off of some rough stuff in her "Cure" mini and the dissolution of the Birds, so she was always in a good place to have her life turned around a little bit.
Kyrax2: Based on my own (admittedly biased) experienced, it seemed like Stephanie Brown was quite popular amongst DC fans, especially Batgirl Stephanie. Did the fan response to the character surprise you?
BQM: I knew Steph had (and still has) a loyal fan base. I also knew it was going to take a little bit of doing to win them over and have them warm up to the mild recalibration I did on her personality and skill set. it took a few issues, but I think her first encounter with Damian really helped sell people on what Steph as Batgirl was all about. And I'm nothing but grateful to everyone who stayed for the rest of the run, and even more grateful to those who joined late and caught up.
Kyrax2: On a related note, some have said that Batgirl must have been doing poorly, else it wouldn't have been canceled in favor of bringing Barbara back. I'm wondering whether the book's monthly sales met your hopes and expectations? Were you pleased? Disappointed?
BQM: Numbers were never a factor in the whats and whys of the stories I was telling. So, as far as hopes and expectations go, I'm glad that the number of people who liked the book and stayed with the book liked the book and stayed with it. I'm certainly not an expert on sales, to be sure. We definitely had a dedicated, hardcore base for the book, issue after issue.
Kyrax2: G. Willow Wilson recently commented in a blog post: "I have written for the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly, the latter of which has some of the most intellectually rigorous standards in the periodical news industry, and I am here to tell you that that was easier than breaking into the comics industry. Easier by far." I'm wondering how this compares to your experience. Did you feel it was harder to break into the comics industry or the television industry?
BQM: With regards to both TV and comics, there are literally thousands of people clamoring over a handful of jobs. I've been terribly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on a number of occasions, in both cases. Most of the work is being prepared. Having samples ready to go. Multiple samples, different genres. You need to be as much of a Swiss Army knife as you can. The other part is knowing people... networking. Connections can sometimes be more important than talent. Not always, but it does happen. Specifically regarding comics, I'd say it's probably harder getting in now than it was three years ago. The larger challenge, in my opinion, is staying in once you break in. Same for TV.
Kyrax2: Is writing comics very different from writing for television? Is one more intense than the other? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
BQM: I approach both in exactly the same way. Much to my editor's chagrin, my outlines are just like the ones I do for TV and features. Insanely detailed, to the point of being bad prose. I'm a measure twice, cut once kind of guy. With TV, money, runtime and producability are your big limitations. With comics, those things still exist, just in different forms. Money is replaced by page space. Producability is replaced by what your art team can and can't make. Runtime = page count. I do find TV to be much more collaborative - especially if you're on a show that operates a healthy room. Breaking story with other human beings (I find), is far less lonely than and far more productive than breaking alone. The life of a comic writer can very easily become a solitary one.
Kyrax2: Congratulations on being asked to write the eleventh "season" of Smallville! I must confess, though; I stopped watching the show after season two. How hard will it be for me, or even for someone who's never seen the show, to understand what's going on in the comic? Will it be accessible to new readers, or will they be completely confused?
BQM: It's okay. Lots of folks did. I highly and selfishly encourage you to catch up on at least the last three years of the show... when I was writing on it! And, regarding accessibility, I think your mileage will vary. I'm trying to not take too much for granted, regarding plot points that depend on prior episodes and series mythology. It's a delicate balance. Sometimes it might work, sometimes it might not. You don't want to exclude new folk, but you also don't want to bore die-hards with info they already know. We'll have some manner of episode guide in the back of the printed issues that will help orient readers to the series as a whole.
Kyrax2: Why do you think Warner Brothers and DC chose you to write Smallville season eleven? What do you think you bring to the table that makes you the right person to be writing this particular comic?
BQM: I asked! That's my serious answer. I asked a few months before the show ended if they were interested. At the time, they weren't. A few months later, they were, and so I got a call back. I certainly think it helps that I'd done 2 years of work for them at that point, and also had/have a deep, intimate knowledge of the source material. Aside from that, I respect the show. I love the show. It's been a huge part of my life for the last five (almost six) years now. And I love the characters and relationships that made the show special. Hopefully, that all translates into the finished product.
Thank you so much for speaking with me, Bryan, and best of luck on your new project!