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Comics and Big Ideas: An Interview with Nathan Edmondson

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
You haven’t heard of Nathan Edmonson yet, but you probably will soon. Nathan has a slew of interesting projects to be released in 2009 through a number of major publishers, including Olympus at Image Comics with Christian Ward; also Jump Jet James with Jon Lam; Faolean with Shepherd Hendrix, and several others. Nathan is an ambitious writer, who loves to tackle big themes. This interview touches on some of the themes he loves to explore.

Jason Sacks: What is it like working in an industry you know very little about?

Nathan Edmondson: I don’t really know. I’m kinda new to all this… [laughs]

I used to think myself unique for coming into comics as someone who knew, well, nothing about it except that Wolverine had claws and Spider-Man did some cool stuff between buildings. That’s about all I thought about comics though. I was interested in writing novels…screenplays.

But I’ve realized since that I was prejudiced even then; comics have way more to offer to someone like me -- who isn’t so interested in company owned characters -- and my attraction to the genre now has little to do with company owned characters, but far more to do with the art form as an expression of ideas. Batman and Superman are cooler than I thought, and there are plenty of creators who know as little as I do about the Green Lantern’s origins.

I feel that I do have an edge in the industry, being an outsider coming in, but it’s an edge only for what I want to do. Mark Millar told me he doesn’t burden himself with character histories -- he writes stories and applies them to the universe he’s working in. And he has a history of knowing some things about superheroes in ways that few others do. That works great for him -- obviously.

Me, I like coming in and discussing things in my writing that interest me outside of comics. Not just “what would this superhero do?” but exploring an area of science, literature, mythology, etc. Things I talk my girlfriend’s ear off about, and she’s much happier if I just write them down. It’s the same I do when writing prose, but here there’s more action. And I can explore a lot of ideas, too.

JS: What do you like most about working in comics?

NE: What I love about comics is working with artists. I’m very picky about who I want to work with because I’m very picky about art in general. My undergrad degree is in art history, and I’m a bit of an artist myself, and more than that, a real art lover. I’ve traveled all over Europe and the U.S. looking for certain paintings, sketching Bernini’s statues, and staring transfixed in front of Durer’s plates. It’s thrilling for me to have artists I like -- and truly admire -- alive, talking to me, and illustrating my ideas. It’s incredibly fulfilling. With each artist I’m working with, I ask for at least one original piece, not just as a memento to the project, but because I truly adore their work. I’m sure I don’t deserve to be working with the artists I’m working with. It’s like Christmas for me every time Christian [Ward] sends me new pages for Olympus, or Greg Scott’s Reckoning design sketches. I love it.

And let’s face it; comics are all about the artist. They are what separate this genre from other forms of literature. Plus, with all of my artists and collaborative writers, I’ve built lasting friendships, and there’s something quite valuable to that, of course.

JS: What’s your creative process?

NE: I’m still figuring it out, as far as comics go. I have lots of ideas, coming from everywhere. I can say I really like collaborating. With Faolean, something I’m doing with the phenomenally talented Shepherd Hendrix, we had an initial idea, but scrapped it and bounced emails back and forth for a few months until we had a totally new story worked out, and then I scripted it. It was real collaboration -- and my ideas were shaped as much by his as his were by mine.

I do something similar with Tony [Harris] while co-writing Reckoning, but it was more face-to-face and the idea was initially his, so I was refining something someone had already sculpted part-way.

As far as writing, I can tell you something funny about that. In the about to be released -- or depending on when you put this article about, the recently released -- Ex Machina #41 has me on the cover looking over Brian Vaughan’s shoulder while he works. It’s an inside joke. I’m the new guy, of course, coming in behind the titans of the industry like him, but I actually based my first script ever off of Machina #29. I got to read Brian’s script and learned to format mine based on that. I had no idea how to do it until then. I still use the same header for each script that he used at the top of his.

But as far as how I work, I have ideas, I jot them down, refine, take notes, and eventually outline, then write, and then rewrite. But I’m always looking for new ways to work with someone, or new methods to try. I like to continue to learn how to write, and each new thing I try ends up a fun experiment. One of my real joys, too, is sitting down with smart creative people and just making up stories.

JS: Where do you see your writing taking you in five years? Ten years?


NE: A dangerous question! I’m happy it’s gotten me where I am. I’ve learned a thing or two about making my own plans -- and learned to lay myself at the foot of the altar, as they say. I hope that I’ll have the discipline to continue doing what I do -- and do it well -- for five, ten years, and longer. I may turn my attention more toward novels at some point, but if I do, I’m sure I’ll never be far from comics. It’s too much fun! I’m working on a screenplay now, and I have several in tow, and I hope to have success in that avenue but I wouldn’t be satisfied just writing screenplays. I would like to dip into film, if only a little. One way or another, words on paper will always be the most potent of creative outlets for me.

To answer the question: I didn’t know five years ago that I’d be at all involved in comics, so I don’t claim to know where I’ll be five from now.

JS: What’s the most difficult thing about writing comics?

NE: For me, I’d have to say stepping away from the ideas and stories I’m excited about, and making sure it all means something. It’s easy to write a sequence of scenes, create a character, or describe a vision. But to make that mean something more than just a moment, a person, an image -- that’s where the great writers are separated from the rest. At the end of each day, I want to be on the loftier side of that fine line.

JS: What do you dislike most about comics?

NE: Ask me in a bar sometime -- after you buy me a drink.

JS: You have a pretty complex and interesting day job in which you travel around the world. How does your travel influence your view of comics?

NE: As a matter of fact, I’ve recently “retired” from my position (as Director of International Programs at the Leadership Institute) to write full time. But certainly, the question still applies.

I’ve been traveling abroad much of my life, as my father led study abroad groups and brought one of us kids along each time. My thinking and education has always been influenced by direct exposure to a variety of foreign cultures, as has my writing. I’ve been influenced both directly -- that is, by learning languages, history, art, politics and customs which I can incorporate into stories or articles or characters -- and also indirectly, that is, by having my ability to think rationally, logically, and creatively influenced by exposure to a variety of different experiences and ways of thinking.

Those dynamics apply of course to my reading and writing comics. Travel is an education, and despite what Rousseau says, gaining knowledge is inherently beneficial.

JS: Since you have a little bit of an outside perspective, how do you think American comics reflect our cultural values?

NE: I think, more so than film, the comics medium reflects the values of the comics medium, and not the country as a whole. That is, if you were to take a poll among comic readers, and compare it to a substantive poll from the rest of the country, you’d find significant differences between them. Readership among comics is unique, and its demographic more isolated than that of other entertainment mediums, certainly when compared to the movie-going Americans, even the television-watching Americans.

Comics do, however, continue, like any pop-culture medium, to reflect some of our values; our pleasures, fears, and general knowledge as a population. It’s always been interesting to me that classic superheroes often reflect the technological or scientific fears of their day (Gamma Radiation, Mutation…).

In summary I’d have to say that it seems to me that creators in comics speak their mind, and aren’t driven as much by the values of the Nation as much as, say, filmmakers, who in general have to sell their stuff to as wide an audience as possible -- families, old, young, conservative, liberal.

Perhaps comics would expand readership if editors -- like producers -- pushed for ideas with wider appeal. Perhaps it would lose some of its integrity and betray its nature in doing so, also.

JS: Can you talk more about why you see comics as a medium for expression of ideas and how you see ideas reflected through comics?

NE: Any art form is an expression of ideas, I should say first. I suppose I meant that statement as more of a personal one -- when I approach a book, I’m driven by a multitude of elements, from actions to jokes to puzzles to scenery. But forefront on my mind is always an idea -- a central theme, a message that my stories are constructed around, or that grows in the plot like ivy through brick. I think that the strongest works of art convey a message, and more, a principle. A good illustration of this is in fantasy -- metaphorical storytelling is what sets GREAT fantasy apart from just GOOD fantasy. It is why Lord of the Rings is superior to so many others of the same genre.

JS: What comics express ideas well, in your opinion?

NE: I mentioned Alan Moore before, and I think he’s a fantastic example of thematic comic storytelling. Each of his books has an identifiable message or messages, if they are subtly inlayed. He thinks and writes on multiple levels, as many do, but always has a foundational message, which many do not. Alan is not a transparent writer.

Stan Lee is a writer who wrote with message more than metaphor. I remember reading where Tolkien criticized C.S. Lewis for the Narnia books, saying that they were “too transparent”, the messages too obvious. Lee is "guilty" of this, though I'm not sure I agree it's necessarily a bad thing. There is much to be gained from Lee's writing. In a basic way, message versus metaphor is the difference between telling someone how to live righteously, and showing them.

Some writer's don't make their messages, or metaphors complex enough, either. A reader should see how the message that he is reading can function in a complex world, and can speak to its deepest crevasses, tallest peaks. Metaphor speaks to you when you're not listening, and it teaches you when you don't realize you're being taught.

JS: What do you see as the key for expressing complex ideas in comics form?

NE: Subtlety is primarily important. Unless the audience agrees with you wholeheartedly, you won’t convince anyone of anything with blatant propaganda. A writer’s -- and an artist’s -- messages should reveal themselves in reflection of the strength of the tale, and should not be revealed by the words or pictures at first glance.

JS: People tend to think of big ideas as being presented in prose fiction; what about presenting big ideas in comics form intrigues you?

NE: There is an inherent limitation to comics in this regard. Huge ideas do deserve and require the amount of time and verbiage that only the pure written word can offer. But that’s okay -- you go to books for that. You go to comics for something else.
Comics have the unique ability to take the big ideas and put them into play, to see how they might work in the real, or the completely fantastic realm. In comics, the interactions, consequences and effects occur rapidly, making them like a set of aquariums in which we set a variety of ecosystems, and see how they interact at once. Prose inclines an author to focus more patiently on a single idea.

Those that go to comics looking for the “big answers” will, however, be left wanting. They need to read the literature, the great books. Comics are primarily a form of entertainment. But, when skill and intelligence are applied to it, it can bring with it interesting and important discussions. And, like all art, it can be revelatory.

JS: It's a very cool story that you have a cameo on the cover of Ex Machina #41; how does it feel to be immortalized on the cover of a comic?

NE: Strangely, it will only get better -- I’m “cast” as the lead in Harris’s next series, W_______ S_______. So that will be tons of fun. If I hadn’t just gotten engaged, it’d be a great way to pick up girls (hey, baby, I’m a comic superhero). Okay, not all girls.

JS: How has Vaughan's work on Ex Machina affected your approach to the artform? That's certainly a comic of ideas; can readers get a sense of your approach to comics from that series?

NE: Machina definitely is a comic of ideas, but it’s not so much a comic of metaphor, as I mentioned above. He’s got a real timeline, borrows from the real world, and discusses real subjects. The underlying themes are not universal moral ones, but rather contemporary and political.

Wisely, I think, Vaughn has limited his discussions to the subject of the series, and hasn’t gone off in distracting tangents. I think to get the real effect and power of Machina, readers will have to look back at the complete 50 issues. Vaughn is incredibly talented in bringing things to a close, and showing you how, all along, there was something beneath the surface. There may be a greater theme and message waiting for us. I for one am excited to see what’s coming.

Machina was the first comic I was really introduced to in my adult life, and I have learned from it in several ways. One is in the mechanics -- uses of cliffhangers, dialogue pacing, panel size, etc. Another is in character development. I’ve also gained something from seeing the ideas he’s chosen to write about, and how they’ve sold.

JS: Who are your main influences as a writer?

NE: I have very few in comics, I’ll tell you that, but not because they’re not good, just because I don’t know a lot of them, and haven’t read most. I really do admire Alan Moore, and Brian Vaughan keeps me reading his stuff. I see really great things in some others; Glen Brunswick, for example, is phenomenal at writing witty dialogue. Wish I could do what he does.

But my real influences come from books. Michael Crichton is my number one influence. He got me into writing more than anyone else. I’ve learned a lot from my dad, too. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, C.S. Lewis, Augustine, the Greek writers, Peter Kreeft -- all have influenced me; anything in the Great Books canon, as well. And then there’s Aaron Sorkin, Philip K. Dick, folks like that.

JS: You said that Michael Crichton is your biggest influence. What about his work influences you?

NE: Primarily, Crichton has made me want to work harder, constantly. I see in his writing that which sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries, and I want that. Part of it is genius imagination, part is learning from and drawing upon other writers (he drew much from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Much of Crichton’s strength, uniqueness, and quality come from grounding his fiction in fact. His books are phenomenally researched, and this more than anything sets them apart from other novelists. Firstly a scientist, Crichton was no stranger to sitting and studying, or going out and doing primary research.

Crichton was also a prophet of sorts; he saw the technological dangers, or potential threats that were brewing in science and government and technology, and warned us about them.
I’m drawn to be as erudite and as well researched as he was. Reading a Crichton book is like reading both an exciting story and a textbook at the same time. I want people to learn something from my writing, too.

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