A talented writer and artist, Jason Franks is the energetic force behind comic series such as McBlack and Left Hand Path, as well as the novel Bloody Waters (which I am halfway through at-time-of-writing and absolutely loving). I’ve been lucky enough to pre-read the first two chapters of next year’s release: Shadowmancy which kicks butt…and I’m doubly lucky to belong to the same writing group as Jason.
I caught up with him recently and pitched five questions and a statement his way …
1. Can you tell us something of your creative process: what happens between the genesis pool of ideas and completed, polished projects?
Usually, an idea will roll around in my head for a while before I start writing. Unless I’m working on a commissioned project with a deadline, this process will usually continue for months, or even years. I let my subconscious do most of the work at this stage. Mass accumulates–more ideas adhere to initial thought–until there’s a story there. Then, suddenly, I need to get it out. I guess it’s like a kidney stone in that regard.
The joy is all in the first draft, for me. I like to write my way into the characters and settings and they often surprise me. I do not generally outline my stories, but I do almost always know where they’re going and I just strike out towards the destination.
Then, the long hard slug of editing and polishing. I’ve completed some of my more recent stories in four or five drafts, but I’ve been known to do 15 or 20 before I am satisfied. I am currently looking for ways to streamline this part of the process.
2. Apart from the pictures, what’s different about writing for comic/graphic novel and writing pure prose (short story or novel)?
It’s a very different discipline. You can’t really say ‘apart from the pictures’ because 90% of a comicbook IS the pictures. Even if you’re not drawing them yourself, you need to communicate to the artist how to visually tell the story–how to break it up into images. As a comics writer you may or may not contribute to page composition but you will usually control pagination and panel density, and those are they key elements in pacing. Learning to pace a comic with a fixed pagecount is very different from learning to pace a prose story.
Comic script has that increased overhead and requires more planning, but you don’t have to worry as much about polish–so long as your descriptions are clear to the artist your script does not have to be beautifully written. Copy that will appear on the comics page is only a tiny fraction of the writing. With prose every word needs to be perfect, which for me requires a lot more editing. Usually I will nail a comic script on the second pass.
Also, comics works tend to be shorter. You will usually have a limitation in the amount of page real estate available and that limits he amount of story you can tell. Detail belongs in the artwork.
3. McBlack remains your most popular comic work: what’s it about and what’s the inspiration for it?
McBlack concerns the metafictional adventures of Whiteface McBlack, a freelance thug. McBlack will take on any kind of dirty job: detection, skip tracing, sabotage, arson, murder–provided it promises the opportunity to shoot some dudes or blow up some stuff. This is me smashing genres together to see what breaks. In the first book, McBlack is hired by a dame to find her missing husband. He’s assigned the role of a Phillip Marlowe (hero of The Maltese Falcon), but his behaviour is closer to that of Angel Eyes (the villain from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). You’re expecting a noir mystery, but instead McBlack rides the story roughshod over tropes more familiar to the SF, fantasy, horror and western genres.
What was the inspiration? Well, I noticed how many independent comics writers go directly to The Maltese Falcon when they need a plot (“It’s the Maltese Falcon–but Marlowe is a Samurai!” “It’s the Maltese Falcon–but Marlowe is a Talking Cauliflower!”) and I decided I was sick of it–so I guess this was me over-reacting to that. (“It’s the Maltese Falcon–but Marlowe is a bodiless murderer with a grudge against the Fourth Wall!”).
The colour one-shot stories are discrete missions, in which McBlack takes on different modes of storytelling (video games; dreams) and different tools employed in comics (voice-over captions; thought balloons).
Lady McBlack, the new series, is a continuation of the main story–this time looking at romance in these genre stories. (Yes, really!)
4. How much of your own interests and experiences are in Bloody Waters? (My son has a guitar with a Floyd Rose Tremolo, btw, just like Clarice).
Well, I guess it’s fairly obvious that I’m a music nerd. I play the guitar–badly–but I’ve never been in a rock band. I’m interested in writing music, but I completely lack the desire to perform in front of an audience.
I’ve never tried to summon the devil, but I do have a particular interest in villain characters and Old Scratch is pretty much the logical endpoint of that line of inquiry, so he turns up quite a lot in my fiction.
I did play trumpet in various high school bands, so a lot of that stuff comes from life. I’ve spent a lot of time hanging around in guitar shops and reading guitar magazines and I know a bunch of people who have and do play in legitimate rock bands, so hopefully my descriptions of the gear and the music is reasonably accurate.
Aside from that, I guess you can see a bit of the creative artists’s wish fulfillment in there. I wish I was as good a writer as Clarice is a musician. I wish I had the kind of career she does. I wish I was as talented and driven and confident. I also wish I was as laid-back and patient and pleasant as Johnny. There’s a bit of me in all of the principle characters–and that most certainly includes Satan.
5. What can we look forward to in next year’s novel Shadowmancy (and what’s the title about anyway)?
Shadowmancy began as comic serial which was to run in my regretfully short-lived Terra Magazine. It’s a ‘dark urban fantasy’ about a damaged boy who is enrolled in a magicians’ Academy after his disgraced father is kicked off the faculty. It’s more Ursula Le Guin than Harry Potter–by way of Cormac McCarthy, maybe. This is not a book full of whimsical hijinks; it’s about damaged families and institutional power and coming of age and… well, it’s about magic. I wanted to take a deep dive into the discipline of a magician. The story is written in the first person, by a protagonist who has some pretty heavy duty baggage, so there’s a lot more introspection than spellcasting. I want to give the reader a taste of what it feels like to have power, but to yet be powerless. It’s not for children. I hope it’s not boring.
The title refers to magic that is based on the manipulation of shadows–literally, metaphorically, and all of the Jungian stuff in between.
Statement: “It’s impossible to make a living as a writer in this day and age.”
I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult. During the years in which I was pitching Bloody Waters I noticed more doors in traditional publishing closing than opening and I think that continues to be the case as the big five struggle to come to terms with the evolving market. There are more opportunities than ever to get work out there, via small press and self-publishing, but that also means there’s more competition. I hope it is still possible to make a living as a writer and I wish I could–but I am certainly not at that point yet.