Valiant Comics just does things differently from every other publisher out there in the comics market today. Where Marvel and DC present shared universes featuring characters who never really change, and Image presents characters who show their creators’ unique approaches, Valiant treads a middle ground. They present complex, flawed but fascinating heroes who grow from their experiences via an auteurist approach to creativity. The writer and artist are at the center of the Valiant Universe, in a way they seldom are at most other publishers.
That approach helps explain why someone like Academy Award-nominated writer Eric Heisserer will be writing this summer’s new Secret Weapons series from Valiant. Heisserer certainly isn’t hurting for work — his Arrival was critically acclaimed, and (as you’ll read below) his work on the forthcoming Harbinger film sounds quite intriguing. But he’s motivated by his passion for the characters and by the chance to play with the characters in a welcoming line of series.
I had the chance to speak with Eric last week at Emerald City Comic Con. His passion for Livewire and the rest of the Valiant Universe was clear in every word he shared about the characters.
Click here to download an mp3 of this interview.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Tell me about your new Valiant series Secret Weapons. That series name that has a long and storied history at Valiant.
Eric Heisserer: The new Secret Weapons appropriates the title from the days of old but I fashioned it into something new. At the center of it is Livewire, who’s in an interesting place in the mythology of the Valiant Universe right now. She’s a character that’s near and dear to me. I have a particular fondness for her, especially her moral code and her good heart. Considering all that she’s been through, other characters would be disillusioned and broken by now. She isn’t.
In Secret Weapons she discovers that Harada has a reject bin of psiots, of people that he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on in expensive surgery. They survive. They become active. And they have powers he deems useless. He puts them at a place called The Willows, which is a nickname from days of old for a kind of orphanage for unwanted children. He keeps him there. He can’t bring himself to completely do away with them because he’s invested so much money. Maybe one day he will need them. But of course there is a leak. Information gets out. Now Livewire finds that they’re being hunted.
It’s about a character who becomes a surrogate mother sort of by accident.
CB: Secret Weapons takes in the misfit hero theme which is always so resonant. So many of us comic readers, especially, feel like misfits, feel like we’re outsiders. Do you find the characters in The Willows resonate with you?
Heisserer: Very much. They come easy to me.
I grew up with really crippling asthma in Oklahoma and what that does when the one social activity for kids is sports is that you’re completely outcast. It reminds me of the troubles I went through when I was trying to figure out what my place was.
CB: One of the things that people love about the Valiant universe is the theme of people bouncing back. Part of the reason people love Faith so much, for example, is that she just takes what comes and it doesn’t destroy her personality at all. I could tell that’s something that really has resonance with Livewire, too.
Heisserer: It does. It really does. There’s a humanity to her that I’m compelled by.
CB: You seem to really enjoy writing strong female characters. I think of Arrival. The film features a strong woman who’s also had her share major struggles in her life.
Heisserer: They’re just more interesting to me. They’re more fascinating. I don’t quite understand how women like that manages to survive, let alone thrive in this world. And I guess I continue writing them because I’m trying to figure that out.
CB: How do you explore a character like that when you’re writing them? How do you build them in a way that makes sure they’re realistic and strong?
Heisserer: I’m fortunate enough to be married to someone like that. I continue to compare characters in fiction to moments that I’ve seen that my wife has gone through. So I have that to look at. And then, by and large, it’s really about asking a lot of questions of the character, exploring a number of reactions, and picking the one that’s most interesting.
CB: That’s interesting: you ask a lot of questions of the character. Do you actually find yourself interrogating them?
Heisserer: Yeah. In fact, it’s a writing exercise I do typically at the start of every day. I pick a character, then I actually throw them in an interrogation and I have someone question them.
CB: Huh. Is this a technique you learned in writing school or that you picked up yourself?
Heisserer: I’m an autodidact. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t go to school. So I built all this as a way of self-training.
CB: Very interesting. I talk to a lot of writers. I haven’t heard anyone with that particular approach.
Heisserer: There are other exercises that I do when I have writer’s block. I have a whole binder full of prompts to force me to get to the core of the characters. Because no one else is going to make you do it. That’s the thing about the writer’s life is that you have to have self-discipline. Otherwise you’ll never get paid.
CB: You’ve obviously been able to work through it well enough. You’ve carved out a very nice living from writing.
Heisserer: I’ve gotten on the other side of it now. It’s not nearly the paper tiger that it was. I fought it for a while.
CB: I write some fiction too and it can be tough. You write yourself into corners, you know, and you can’t quite figure out the right approach.
Heisserer: I’ve been there too, where I’m like, ‘The villain is too smart. This is over now and our character is dead.’ I put him in a situation where nobody’s going to win or whatever the case may be. The exercise is I use for that one is I try to write the whole comic story from another character’s POV. Follow them, find out where they’ve been. That helps in forming a scene if I actually need them.
CB: One of the things we talked about in the pre-interview is the difference in writing for film versus writing for comics. How do you find writing comics different?
Heisserer: I’d say it’s purer because the movie industry is a behemoth. You’re talking millions of dollars being invested in a project. Hundreds of opinions form the final film. You have a lot on the line and it takes a long while. You end up with a story by committee whether you want it or not. The beauty with comics — and also the risk — is it is a far smaller number of voices. It’s the writer and the artist and to a lesser extent the editor, who typically is the silent partner, if you’ve got a good enough team. Whatever you put out is the author’s intent. You have to be able to defend that, of course. You have no one to hide behind, or no one to blame but yourselves, which I find refreshing because I’ve found in film too many times I’ve been blamed for other people’s decisions.
I remember I got a piece of hate e-mail from a fan who saw the prequel to The Thing and said it was utter crap and that I should be ashamed of myself. All the CGI was terrible. And I’m, like, I just wrote the script!
I find that, especially at Valiant, whatever subjects I want to tackle with it, they’re completely open to it. They embrace it. And honestly, people before me have already helped forge that path in the wilderness. The reason I got attracted to write the Harbinger film in the first place was Josh Dysart’s work on the comics. A lot of trailblazers have allowed me to carve out a little niche for Secret Weapons.
CB: That’s the genius of the revival of the Valiant Universe. It’s a shared universe but also a place where creators are able to bring these really smart and interesting ideas to their stories. Kindt with Ninjak, for example. I’m a big fan of Bloodshot Reborn. They’re weird and interesting and very creative.
Heisserer: And not at all what you’d expect from the covers. You feel like you can figure this out, but by page three you’re like, what is happening?
CB: You’re used to working at a high level as a film writer. What attracts you to writing comics, because for a lot of people it’s frankly a little step down? At least in terms of like your financial upside.
Heisserer: I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing this for the love. And because Valiant, more than any other comics publisher I’ve found, gives you that space and says swing as big as you want. Tell the story that’s most personal to you and we’ll find a way to make it epic at the same time.
CB: Were you a fan of the original Valiant series?
Heisserer: I spent my money in the ‘90s on a little bit of Archer & Armstrong and X-O Manowar. I was not aware back then that Harbinger existed so I didn’t pay much attention to Livewire back then. These are all characters that suddenly popped to the foreground in the reboot.
CB: I’m writing a history of comics from the 1990s for TwoMorrows Publishing. I’ve become a big fan of that original stuff. It’s very different but still got the same auteur type approach.
Heisserer: It does. It does. There’s always something really poignant out of it. Maybe it’s a line of dialogue somewhere on a random panel, and you’re ‘like oh my god’.
CB: So how did you approach writing the movies, then?
Heisserer: Whelp, a lot of trial and error because you have to find the path to telling a comic book story that does not feel derivative of Marvel or DC, so it feels like it’s very much its own thing. At its core it still has to be a character story. The comic book aspect of it can be in support of that but isn’t driving the narrative. Because at the core, all these characters are essentially human. You find the humanity in them first. You find the story you’re going to tell with them. And after many drafts I learned that what Harbinger wanted to be was almost like the David Bowie of comic book movies.
You can tell it’s weird and it’s not like other rock performers who came up before it. It has a punk sensibility. And there’s the charisma and magnetism about the characters that I don’t experience with some of the other heroes.
CB: Hmm… the David Bowie of comic book movies, with a punk sensibility and more just more energy on the screen or more intensity.
Heisserer: Slightly anarchistic. Legion shows the way that you can do things differently. [Series creator] Noah Hawley is another brilliant creator who knows how to combine the X-Men with a David Lynch sensibility.
CB: It shows the malleability of the format. You can do a lot of things with it. Anything else you can tease about the movie?
Heisserer: Aumm… not yet. I don’t think I’d get in trouble with guys at Valiant but I know Sony would call me on Monday.
CB: How has working on the movies informed your work on the comics?
Heisserer: What I got most from working on the movies was — especially with Livewire — like a long laundry list of really cool shit I wanted to do that we just didn’t have the bandwidth for in the film. I went back to Dinesh [Shamdasani, CEO and Chief Creative Officer at Valiant] and Warren [Simons, editor-in-chief at Valiant]. I said here’s my idea for how we can really embrace her use of her abilities and show an aspect to her that characters or readers haven’t seen before. To that end, I think if you read Secret Weapons #1, there might be a reaction that it’s like Neil Gaiman’s version of Livewire.
I’m reluctant to compare myself to Neil Gaiman. It’s just I wrote a film adaptation of Sandman before I realized it can’t work as a film and needs to be a series. I worked close enough with him that I think a little of that rubbed off on me.
CB: That must have been an amazing challenge. There are some scenes in Sandman that are resonant but so much of Sandman is its literary aspects.
Heisserer: It is; it works very well as a literary work. I don’t shy away from something that functions so well as a literary work that transfers. It’s like Stories of Your Life, the Ted Chiang story. It’s very much a literary experience and I had to find out how to make it into Arrival. I had some ideas on how to make Sandman a cinematic experience that still tied into all that. But then I just ran out of runway. I needed ten hours instead of two.
CB: Do you dream of bringing it to one of the streaming services?
Heisserer: I did my best to get as far as I could and then I was told you’re not a TV guy. We’re having to fire you from it. I said I totally understand.
CB: I’ve got to ask what it was like getting nominated for an Oscar.
Heisserer: My wife made sure I was awake at five in the morning, when they do the announcements, so we were watching on a phone together. We didn’t realize that it would be an alphabetical listing so Arrival was the first in my category. By the time they were announcing the second or third nominee, the phone rang. It was my manager who was just, like, freaking out. It was a great moment.
That was really great. And just to be in the same room and on the same list with so many amazing writers. That’s the best part. I tell you what what I love and I talked about this on Twitter one time. The thing I love the absolute most is that Ted’s book of short stories cracked The New York Times bestseller list two years after they were published. Which means that people saw the film and went and sought out the stories. That’s the best win for me.
CB: I gotta ask you how it felt in the theatre when the Oscars fiasco happened.
Heisserer: Oh, I got to tell you it was weird because at first we thought maybe this was a Jimmy Kimmel prank. And then we realized it was true. Then the mood shifted drastically. Bradford Young, the cinematographer on Arrival, started cheering in the aisle, jumping up and down. He’s a big fan of Moonlight, as am I. I looked over and I spotted, at the end of my aisle, Samuel Jackson took off his glasses and wiped a tear from his face. I thought, “that’s the memory I’m going to keep.”