Brian Wood is one of the bestselling writers in comics these days, and also one of the hardest-working. The creator of such series as DMZ, The Massive and Rebels along with the forthcoming Briggs Land and the new series Black Road, Wood is well known for his thoughtful world-building and his complex characters. I had the chance to speak with him in June 2016.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Briggs Land takes on material that seems especially pertinent with the way the current Presidential election is going. What should we expect from this series, and do you see it as similar to some of your comics like DMZ and Rebels that take political events as a starting point for the story?
Brian Wood: I place Briggs Land right into the unofficial progression of my socio-political comics, starting with Channel Zero, then DMZ, then The Massive… maybe Rebels belongs there too… and now Briggs Land. And if there ever was a ‘sequel’ to DMZ, this would be it. I often use the phrase “a rural DMZ” to describe the book to friends.
Put simply, this is a crime book set within America’s most secretive secessionist community, housing all manner of anti-government militia, fundamentalists, sovereigns, and domestic terrorists. It’s set in the wilds of New York State, and for a hundred and fifty years the Briggs family has controlled the land and lived more or less in peace. Twenty years ago its leader was put in jail for attempting to assassinate the President, and since then the land has degraded from a mostly peaceful refuge to a corrupt hotbed of crime and extremism.
Grace Briggs, the matriarch, is forced to step in and take control of the Land, and it’s at this point we enter the story. Grace has three adult sons, and tradition dictates they take over before Grace does, purely because of gender. A couple of ATF agents are sniffing around, keeping an eye on things as the state ponders a possible eminent domain grab on the land. And her incarcerated husband is not going to let Grace’s treachery stand, despite his being in prison. If this sounds like a lot of balls in the air, it is, and it’s all down to Grace to keep it under control. She sees the land as it once was, before extremist politics were introduced, and she thinks she can fix it.
So, like DMZ, this is the setting and the framework, and if my story ideas notebook is an indication, there is an unlimited amount of stories that can be told here, including some interesting ‘ripped from the headlines’ ones, like riffing off Jade Helm, off the Bundy standoff, off the current Presidential election, and also climate change. Right now I’m plotting out an idea where one of those hundred-year-storms rips up the land and FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers wants in.
This is a big project. Grace Briggs is a terrific lead, and the rest of the cast is deep and diverse. And I think the fact I was able to get AMC interested in hiring me to adapt this into a TV show – even before it was a comic, when it was just a pitch – speaks to the strength of the idea.
CB: Starve has its own different sort of socio-political elements. With that series ending, do you feel you accomplished what you hoped from the series? Did anything surprise you as you wrote the last few chapters?
Wood: I love Starve, deeply and profoundly, and it came out to be everything that I personally wanted it to be. It’s an oddball book to be sure, one of those titles that made no sense to anyone I described it to in advance. I pitched that book for years, to Vertigo, to Oni, to Dark Horse, and mostly what I got back was puzzlement. So I kept it in my files and waited for something to happen to give me reason to haul it back out again. And that thing was Daniel Zezelj asking to see some ideas for books we could do together. Starve was what he chose.
So once I had the first issue drawn and lettered, THEN people got it, and we ended up going with Image since we seemed to be able to produce the book on our own with a minimum about of trouble and/or issues requiring a formal editor. I’m not sure the book found its proper audience at all – like I said it’s an oddball book and I don’t think that I’m personally a good fit for Image, but I could not be more proud of that book.
In the end, what I felt the book was really about, if I had to name just one thing, is the father-adult daughter relationship, and the lessons Gavin Cruikshank learns along the way about ego and celebrity and maturity. The cooking stuff is crucial, and the social-political stuff is also important, and resonates, but it’s not the thing that got me personally jazzed to put pen to paper for the last ten months. The family drama did.
So I think it fits into a certain type of ‘cult’ or ‘sleeper’ category in my library, along with titles like Supermarket and The Couriers, that were perhaps underwhelming in terms of sales, but really loved by their base. And I like that… obviously sales and money are good, but in the case of these books that I am also a hardcore fan of, I’d rather be loved by a loyal few if that love is this strong, you know?
CB: You also released Black Road through Image. With this series, you’re exploring a history and world that few readers really know about. How did you create that world, and why are you writing vikings again?
Wood: Well, to be honest, it’s much, much less about history than my earlier viking series Northlanders. Black Road is pulpier, more of a thriller (in the paperback mystery sense, not the horror sense) than anything else, and I play pretty fast and loose with historical accuracy. And why not? Northlanders was this insanely high bar for that sort of thing, a series that was promoted on and therefore had to live up to this mantle of being accurate and unimpeachable. I didn’t see a need to repeat that with Black Road, and I don’t think the art team was really up for it. It’s painstaking. Garry Brown is a superb artist, but is one that excels at expression and movement, and to try and make him sit and draw and redraw period-accurate belt buckles or whatever… it’s a waste.
The world that we did create for Black Road is one set in the semi-fictional Norssk, a sort of stand-in for all of Scandinavia, and one currently suffering a brutal Christian occupation. In reality, the Christianization of the viking lands was a relatively peaceful affair. Not entirely, but more than you might imagine. For Black Road, though, I wanted the drama of a full blown, modern style occupation. Fallujah in viking times. Gaza city. This would allow our main character, Magnus, to have the job I wanted him to have, that of a fixer between the opposing sides. There is also something of an alt-history element at work, this idea of a rogue faction of the Vatican up to no good in the frozen wastelands of Norssk.
Black Road is designed to be the first in a (hopeful) series of miniseries, in the mold of crime novels. Like Jack Reacher, or Rebus, or Arkady Renko. Magnus The Black as the fixer in this war of culture and ideology. Set in viking times.
CB: You’re well known for delivering well-realized worlds, dating all the way back to the futuristic world of Supermarket, the wartime Manhattan in DMZ, even the towns in Local. How do you create these worlds? How do you know when you have “just enough” worldbuilding to make your setting feel real?
Wood: Worldbuilding is fun. It’s time consuming, but it’s crazy fun so I just jump in with both feet and do it and not analyze it that much. That said, there are a couple things I try and keep in mind as I get deeper into it. I think that even when creating a futuristic world (like Channel Zero or Supermarket), a historical world (Northlanders, Rebels, Rome West) or something in between, it’s absolutely key to give the reader multiple points of access. That means making this world familiar and real-life accessible so readers can emotionally connect and imagine themselves in it. Something like DMZ, technically set in the future, pretty much resembles modern day and the futuristic stuff only rears its head when it’s a specific story element. Northlanders doesn’t resemble most of the modern world, so I used characters to connect to modern day, giving them modern language and time-proof problems to solve. It’s 1000AD, but I still want it to be recognizable. If it’s recognizable, it’s real.
But if those things are taken care off, then you can really let it rip and have a lot of fun with this part of writing. As far as knowing when to stop, I’m not sure you ever stop, at least until the project is complete. I was expanding the world of DMZ in each and every one of its 72 issues. It’s an ongoing process, not like a videogame where to realize a complete map before placing a character into it.
Briggs Land, I have to say, is a deep, deep world, on par with DMZ. We’re a few issues into the comic already, but for the TV pilot I’m in the middle of editing the story outline document that requires quite a lot of detailing, and it’s become one of those projects that seems to go on forever. Endless details, endless story ideas.
CB: When you talk about points of access, do you also consider character points of access? Do you create characters so readers have multiple points of access to them as well?
Wood: The same thing applies to characters, yeah. It’s a little easier than with world and location because, well, obvious reasons. I always think of Tony Soprano as a perfect example of this, because if you look at him just as the mafia boss asshole, where is the point of access for the viewer? What is there for us to relate to? The first time we see him on screen he’s in his robe feeding ducks and then suffers that panic attack. Then we see his wife, his kids, his friends who love him so much, and so on, all before we get a look at any of his negative aspects. It sounds simple, and it IS simple, and all writers do it. But we can all think of a time we read a book or watched a show and the character was just a miserable prick and we couldn’t buy into it and it turned us off.
CB: One of my favorite series by you is The Massive. It was obviously near and dear to your heart, with your return to it for a short prequel. What about that world really spoke to you?
Wood: For me, what The Massive was all about what this idea of these characters who left behind their past lives of conflict and violence—and they all had those past lives, the core trio anyway—and reinvented themselves as positive forces for change. Then the shit hit the fan in the form of the Crash, and they find themselves having to tap back into old skillsets and old mindsets in order to survive. Try as they might, they are their pasts and how that must twist in their guts like a knife. I loved the process of writing tragic characters like that, as they desperately fight against the worst aspects of themselves. I feel like I could write that forever.
I also found myself, with The Massive, enjoying writing older characters. I have, or had, this reputation for most of my career as the guy who wrote these young, hip characters, thanks to books like Demo and DMZ and my 60+ issue run on various X-Men books. I’d been getting a little uncomfortable as I was into my 40’s and didn’t think I could keep that going for too much longer. Callum Israel, in The Massive, is fifty years old and I discovered I related to that way more than someone like Matty Roth, who’s probably 25. So now we have Gavin Cruikshank, in Starve, who’s in his 50s. Grace Briggs in Briggs Land is 50 as well. Magnus The Black in Black Road is a guy with a lot of history under his belt. It’s good for me, it’s creatively satisfying.
The return with Ninth Wave was a little different, since I really wrapped up The Massive pretty tight. But during the course of that series I was always referencing the fact that the crew has these glory days before the Crash, kicking ass and taking names, and I wanted to write a few of those stories, if only for my own satisfaction. So we did six issues, and I feel like it adds something meaningful to the overall, a sort of context. Or contrast.
CB: You once said when writing about Northlanders that you love writing about “identity, location, politics, war, people in love and lives in flux.” Do you see those as dominant themes in your writing? Do you feel your thinking about those ideas has evolved in the ten years or so since you wrote that?
Wood: Looking back, it seems pretty consistent. I’m sure details change as I age and my perspective adjusts, but these are themes that keep me mentally engaged and curious and inspired. Granted, that phrase you have in quotes covers a lot of material, but every single thing I’ve written, even the work for hire, fits neatly in that range.
I take a lot of pride in all of this. People use it to pigeon-hole me or as a way to suggest that my books feel similar or that I’m pandering, but I have only one shot at a career as a writer so I need to follow my gut and my heart.
CB: You spent a long time in work-for-hire books but now you seem pretty much embedded in your creator-owned material. Did you get what you wanted from your mainstream work, and is there any project that would tempt you back to working on superheroes again?
Wood: It’s interesting that this perception exists, the idea of my spending a long time in work for hire, but I guess it goes to illustrate how that type of work can stick in the psyche. I’m guessing the period of time you’re referring to is when I wrote The X-Men for Marvel and Conan and Star Wars for Dark Horse. That was actually a pretty compressed period of time, running from 2012-2015. Prior to that, I had spent fifteen years working almost exclusively in creator-owned comics, back when being a creator-owned guy was deeply uncool. Everyone was clamoring to get on those Marvel and DC books… THAT was the sign of success. So I gave it a shot, I wanted to see what that was like, and I did a lot of work in a pretty short amount of time.
I kept up the creator-owned stuff, though, writing The Massive, Mara, and Rebels during all of that, and now I’m back to doing mostly creator-owned, with Starve, Black Road, and Briggs Land. I have just about exactly twenty years as a comics writer, and I’m proud that the vast majority of that time was, doggedly, sticking with the creator-owned thing. Times change—I used to get teased by my peers for NOT having the sufficient chops, I’m told, to get work at Marvel and that’s why I was stuck in the supposed ghetto of creator-owned. Those peers are some of the biggest names working exclusively at Image now.
Anyway, I don’t mean to knock it. I’m glad I did all that work for Marvel, and I’m happy to do the licensed books for Dark Horse like Aliens: Defiance and Star Wars. But it’s not been my primary focus, and never has been. The books I’ll been remembered for when I’m old and gray are books like DMZ, Rebels, and Demo.