So, I was more than a little curious about the writer I’m sharing Spidey Unlimited with…
According to the solicit, the man goes by the name of Tom McLaughlin, and his story is called Preventative Medicine, with the art chores handled by Scott Kolins. I suspected there was far more to know about all this, and after asking Marvel to hook me up with the writer’s contact info, I wrote him a quick congratulatory e-mail, which after much discussion, led to this week’s piece. It started very simply mind you, all introductions and shared stories, but eventually evolved into a conversation about writing Spider-Man, addressing editorial notes, influences, Star Wars, Tarantino, X-Files, and pet peeves.
The highlights are reprinted below. Enjoy.
Brandon Thomas: Like me, you came to the attention of the Unlimited editors by putting in some time pitching for the Epic imprint. How’d you receive the invite to send them material?
Tom McLaughlin: How’d I receive an invite to write for Unlimited stuff? Got very lucky. I was never actually invited, I just sort of showed up. I knew Marvel was taking submissions for the Epic imprint (August 2003), but I wanted to get my stuff across the right desk, so I called Marvel and the operator put me through to the wrong person. It turns out they were nice and mentioned, in passing mind you, about them looking for new talent for the Spider-Man Unlimited and X-Men Unlimited books coming out in 2004. I kept it in the back of my head, but did not initially pursue it. Instead I had a Werewolf By Night script/concept I wanted Marvel to pick up…
After waiting around for someone to reject or accept the Werewolf By Night script, I decided to try writing an X-Men Unlimited script for Wolverine. Marvel was impressed, asked me to make a change or two, but in the end I guess there were too many Wolverine stories for the Unlimited series (plus he’s practically in everything anyway) so they decided against it. I came back with a Spider-Man story, and kept it simple, staying away from other characters/villains. A little over a month later, Teresa Focarile passed it onto Tom Brevoort and there you have it.
Thomas: Did Tom Brevoort send you back any notes, and was this the first time that an editor had actively responded to your work?
McLaughlin: Yes, Tom sent me notes, but they were minimal. Stuff like I used the word “damn” and he wanted another word. Nothing major.
As far as this being the first time an editor actively responded to my work – yes and no. There was some interest in the Wolverine story I wrote, and they shot me a couple of sentences worth of notes and I fixed it, then about a month later they told me they weren’t using it.
Thomas: Man, I had helluva lotta notes when my script came back, but the majority of them focused on my economy of space. One of my bigger problems that I’m really starting to get ahold of, is asking for too many panels per page, and then too much text in those panels. I have the tendency to plot everything very very densely, and I think realizing that I only had eleven pages to work with intensified that.
McLaughlin: I didn’t have problems with text on Spider-Man Unlimited, but that’s not because I’m a genius. I had the same problem you did, but on the Wolverine story I had written, they mentioned I had too much text in those particular notes. I had multiple captions in some large panels, not unlike some of the major writers we read at times, but they weren’t having it with me. So after I was told to keep the text down on one story it sort of carried over to the Spider-Man one. I’m a fast learner in that way.
Again, trying to get my Wolverine story across tables taught me a lot on how to write for Spider-Man Unlimited. I kept the text to a minimum, less talk, stayed away from most characters because I had no idea if there were other agendas for that character (like you having to switch from Venom to Vulture because of stuff going on with Venom) and kept it simple because it was only an eleven page story. As far as panels go and writing too many, I steered clear of that because I simply counted panels and their size using two or three books by different writers as an example.
Thomas: What’s your story “Preventative Medicine” about?
McLaughlin: “Preventative Medicine” isn’t really about Spider-Man, he’s sort of peripheral. It’s about the effect Spider-Man has, or rather his presence has, in the city. Basically a teenager is at a crossroads. He wants some cash to impress a pretty girl. He is about to commit a crime when Spider-Man simply swings past him on the way to God knows where. It kind of shocks him, he reflects on the possibility that if he does this act he might very well be webbed to a ceiling until the police can get him down and book him. He ends up doing the right thing. Spider-Man doesn’t even know this little drama even unfolded and how he steered the kid in the right direction.
I got the idea because I wanted to approach a Spider-Man story from a fresh angle. I felt he’s been written a thousand ways and not to repeat myself, but I wasn’t sure who I could use in terms of villains. I’d love to write a slugfest/high action type piece, but I calculated that most people probably would be writing that type of thing and I wouldn’t break out of the pile on someone’s desk with Spider-Man duking it out with Kraven.
Back on “Preventative Medicine,” I’ve always thought it to be strange how there’s so much crime in the Marvel Universe’s NYC. Everytime Spider-Man puts on his tights he’s either fighting a supervillain or some muggers. Now factor in that you’ve got Daredevil, The Avengers and other assorted heroes flying or swinging around, why would anyone commit a crime? They’re always caught by someone in spandex. I thought doing a story on a hero passing through and yet creating ripples in his wake would be original. If I just saw Captain America run past me or Spider-Man swing by I would sure reconsider any criminal actions for the moment.
Thomas: I was really having a problem figuring out something worth writing, because I wanted to do a short that really couldn’t be done with any other character but Spidey. I’ve got to admit there was a certain intimidation factor there too, because right now, you’ve got Bendis on the Ultimate book, and JMS on Amazing, and even though Unlimited really isn’t in direct competition with those titles, you don’t want to bring the bar down, you know? But I was stressing over that, and one day my boy calls and suggests doing a story that’s based around Peter’s spider-sense, and that was all the prompting I needed.
“6th” began as an examination of how aggravating it might be to have this little alarm that goes off in your head anytime you’re in danger, even if that danger isn’t necessarily life threatening. It operates on this idea that everyday life is much more dangerous than we’re even aware of, and Peter Parker is the only guy out there that really gets it. Then it mutated a bit and grafted onto this recent pre-occupation I’ve been having with “untimely” death, and how it’s anything but, if you break it all down, but hell, I’m giving it all away. “6th” is about chance, and how it relates to someone who can see it coming. Not being able to is something I’ve been personally obsessing over recently. Have you found yourself writing very personal aspects into your stories?
McLaughlin: I’d say more common sense and a degree of realism added to a fantasy story. There’s certain things going on in comics that as a reader I don’t agree with so when I write I try to put some heart and sense into it. Are there any comic writers you like particularly?
Thomas: Man, I think I’m reading just about everything. Favorite writers, in no particular order, include Bendis, Millar, Ellis, Morrison, Priest, Vaughan, Simone, Azzarello, Casey, Winick. Probably should give a special mention to Chuck Dixon, whose Ten Commandments of Comic Book Writing “seminar” started me on this path, Warren Ellis, whose style and column I was so obviously influenced by, and Mark Millar, who is somehow under the impression that I don’t suck. But you know, there’s a lotta good stuff out there, chances are I’m reading it.
McLaughlin: I think Chuck Austen is doing a good job on the Avengers. I like Millar a lot. I like Geoff Johns, but he’s hot and cold. Funny, I was a huge fan of Spider-Man growing up, but in the last three or four years I rarely buy any of his books because I felt they went down in quality (not in the art department), but the Ultimate Spider-Man book is good. Spider-Man ruled in the 80s, in my opinion.
I absolutely love the Alias book. Catwoman is pretty good. I’m one of the few people, and I do mean few people, that liked some of the Uncanny X-Men issues that had to do with the Juggernaut going straight. Him beating on the Rhino and sleeping with She-Hulk was just great and probably exactly how I would have done it, but otherwise I’m not into X-Men stuff anymore.
What are two or three comic stories that you loved as a reader, and as a writer you would have given your left arm to have written?
Thomas: Man, I’d wish I’d written a lot of this stuff, but the first story that really struck me back in the day was Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Man Without Fear. I came into the industry with Image Comics, and I think things were very much driven and directed by the top artists, where I think the scribes have recently taken control, especially in the last couple years. But that series was the first thing I remember that really really knocked me on my ass from a pure story/script point of view. It was just perfect, top to bottom. I didn’t know anything about Miller or Daredevil, but that mini just got me, you know? That John Romita Jr. art didn’t hurt either. But Man Without Fear was the hot shit.
Here’s something completely ambiguous…as a writer, what’s your secret weapon, a habit or something that you’ve found helps you to get things accomplished?
McLaughlin: What helps me get things accomplished in terms of writing? It’s a combination of the sheer enjoyment of creating and insane persistence. Once I start writing something whether it be a screenplay or comic script I usually don’t stop. I keep pretty focused to the point. I’m almost like Rain Man.
Thomas: I think we all have this “break” where the idea of telling stories becomes a reality. Mine was seeing Star Wars on VHS. When did you start writing, and why?
McLaughlin: I started writing screenplays about ten years ago. I think it had to do with Quentin Tarantino getting his big break while working at a video store, but that’s not it entirely. I really started writing because the older I got, the more dissatisfied I was with most of our entertainment, whether it be books, comics or movies. I always had some good ideas and I just thought if I applied myself I could at the very least write as good as some of the stuff out there, like your average direct to video. It took quite a while before I was any good, because like anything it takes time and practice.
I had quite a few influences like author Peter Straub and Frank Miller who just blew me away with his Daredevil and then soon after, Batman.
I’ve also had some minor successes like winning the 2002 Cinescape Magazine Screenplay Contest (was even in their magazine), getting optioned a few times and now Spider-Man Unlimited.
Thomas: You mentioned Tarantino as a large influence. Three favorite movies?
McLaughlin: I’m ever-changing when it comes to influences. Many movies, especially in my childhood, had a great impact on me (Raiders of The Lost Ark, Star Wars etc.), but they don’t really hold up anymore as I got older, even though they are good movies and are fun. I’m probably more into documentaries than movies of late as most stuff out really is bad. I watched movies my whole life, but in the last couple of years I’m pretty tired of watching the same old thing and as I said, as a wannabe screenwriter it drives me crazy seeing bad movie after bad movie. When I was 16, I could watch anything, now it’s definitely not the case. As far as Tarantino being an influence, I think what intrigued me the most about him was that he came from nowhere and had a passion for movies. I like his movies, but I’m not exactly a big fan.
Off the top of my head, my three favorite movies are “Three Kings,” “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” (just saw it a few months ago for the first time believe it or not) and “Jaws.” I used to love high action, but now I like great characters and a strong plot above all else.
Top 3 favorite TV shows of all time?
Thomas: Number one is easy. Gotta go with The X-Files, which was a show that was SO important to me, both as a fan and as a writer. Things fell apart near the end, but I would put the first five seasons of that show up against any other drama that dropped in the last decade. Nothing can match the feeling of discovering something just so obviously new and inventive that you just wish to create long enough to reach that level. I was probably about thirteen when the show started, and it just made every story I’d ever thought about just feel small. Which is how I felt about everything back then, honestly, but the worst thing is to see something, and think, “Man, this is crap. Even I could do better than this.” I want something that’ll make me work harder, and The X-Files did that, very early in its run. God, that was long-winded…
Two is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for a lot of the same reasons, but I didn’t catch this one until cable reruns, so I can’t claim ownership over it. But I mean it’s smart writing, and not enough people paid attention to it, for whatever reason. Buffy is so good that my mother likes it more than me.
Three is probably a split between Alias and 24. I’m in the middle of watching my season 2 episodes of Alias, and it’s embarrassingly well written, and 24 is just kinetic, just energy from start the finish. My disappointment in its third season has developed its own consciousness.
McLaughlin: What’s your biggest pet peeve in comics?
Thomas: Betraying character to service plot. You can’t really point to one aspect of a story and mark it the most important, because everything is important, but preserving the character should always come first. There’s so many believable and logical ways to propel a character through a story, that to watch someone “cheat” to move things from point A to point B makes the character look silly or contrived, and the writing look lazy. Since I mentioned it already, the current season of 24 has been making a habit of this, having to keep this plot going that’s already stretching that suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, and they pull these developments out of nowhere that makes the characters look like complete assholes. Which should only be done intentionally…
McLaughlin: If Marvel gave you the opportunity to write a book/miniseries with any of their characters, name two characters that you’d love to sink your teeth in?
Thomas: This time last year, I would’ve said Luke Cage, but right now…hmm…still Luke Cage, but I’d throw in Danny Rand too. Make it this weird superhero buddy movie. Think Lethal Weapon, expect with crazy obscure updated Marvel villains in it. Like Modok or something…
McLaughlin: I always wanted to write a good second tier hero like Black Panther or third tier one like Werewolf By Night or Moon Knight. I don’t like the direction they took Black Panther in, making him a carbon copy of Batman (rich, gadgets, attitude, etc.) and Moon Knight at one point was a solid hero and character for the Marvel Universe in the 80s. Now, he’s a complete joke. He was in a Marvel Knights issue last year and he was basically a spoiled, rich guy who couldn’t hold a candle to his team mates Daredevil and the Punisher. About ten or fifteen years ago, Moon Knight would have been beating on them both at once (slight exaggeration, but you get the picture).
Thomas: And with that lovely image, I sever this transmission and sign off for another week. Special thanks to Tom McLaughlin for dropping by, and please tell your retailer that you’d like a copy of Spider-Man Unlimited #3 (dropping on May 5th). Thank you kindly, and I’ll see you in seven short days.
By the way…if anyone is fortunate enough to attend this weekend’s Wizard World LA, the Arcade Comics booth should have the second issue of Youngblood: Genesis, with a freshly prepared script from yours truly. Couldn’t make it this round, but I’ll be back in San Diego, barring any unfortunate plane incidents.