The Ed Brubaker ‘Captain America’ Exit Interview
With the release of Captain America #19, drawn and colored by his former partners-in-crime Steve Epting and Frank D’Armata, Ed Brubaker wrapped up an eight year run on Captain America, having shepherded the character and series through a small fistful of different incarnations and titles. His run saw the return of Bucky, the death of Cap, a Civil War, and more besides. I thought it would be fun to talk to Brubaker about the end of his run and what he learned writing comics in the spotlight for eight years. On top of that, we get to break the news that Fatale, his horror series with Sean Phillips, is going from a limited to a full-blown ongoing series. After the jump: Ed Brubaker’s exit interview.
Ed Brubaker: More than anything, it was that each issue kept wanting to be longer or I kept feeling like I had more ideas and wanted to spend more time with the characters, and realized I was stopping myself from doing that with an arbitrary structure I’d imposed on myself. Fatale was originally envisioned as a novel in three parts, but I kept having ideas for side-plots and tangents or single issues, and it started to feel more like it was meant to be a more sprawling story. So I just decided to let it go until it’s finished.
But yeah, it will expand and while Jo and her curse are still the center it all swirls around, some issues will not have her in them at all. Like two of the four standalone issues from 11 to 14, are not about her. One takes place in the 1800s, and one in the Middle Ages.
CA: You spent eight years on Captain America, a longer run than most comics see these days. When you first took the job, what was your plan? How far ahead were you plotting? Did you foresee 100+ issues in your future?
EB: I hoped for two years, and planned for three, because three years was about the longest I’d stayed on any other book. My pitch document had the first 12 issues mapped out, which I mostly stuck to, actually, and then sketched out the next year in broad strokes. I never imagined I’d go even 50 issues, let alone the I think 102 issues I did, counting mini-series and one-shots and annuals.
CA: Your run on Cap was filled with men struggling to shoulder the burdens that they either accepted or were forced into. I think it’s pretty interesting that you approached the mantle of Captain America as both a gift and a curse, or if not a curse, a heavy responsibility. You got a lot of mileage out of it and maintained a high level of quality over the run, too. What is it about this take that spoke to you? Why structure a series around, for lack of a better phrase, a melancholy Captain America?
EB: That’s just how I saw him, or that’s the early Stan Lee kind of Shakespearean take on him from when he and Kirby brought him back. Marvel heroes were always tragic in some ways, and Steve was a tragic guy… lost in time, haunted by his dead friend, weighed down by going from being soldier to superhero, not sure of his place in the modern world. And yet, always knowing what the right thing to do was.
CA: Captain America, as a character and a series, has a number of different takes. I’m extremely fond of the ’70s Jack Kirby Captain America and the Falcon-era stuff, especially Bicentennial Battles. I really dig how bright and pop it turned out to be. What’s your favorite era of or take on Captain America?
EB: I think it’s pretty clear from what I did on the series, that the Steranko issues were my favorites. They had a big impact on me when I first saw them, when I was like 4 or 5. I loved that mix of espionage and superheroics he got across. And I loved the way Steve Rogers just looked haunted and tragic all the time whenever he wasn’t in action. I also really liked the WW2 stories that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did in Tales of Suspense, before the book became Captain America. There’s a lot of great stuff in the Englehart/Buscema and Stern/Byrne runs, too.
CA: There must’ve been a lot of pressure to perform once the Death of Cap went big, right? How did that change your process, beyond extending Bucky’s time at the forefront of the book? Did you find that your scripts were being scrutinized more closely, or did you get to continue working just like you did before?
EB: The only pressure I had was from myself. I just wanted to not fail at this kind of three part epic Death Of Cap story I’d mapped out. Brevoort and Marvel were just supportive. Tom’s never been heavy-handed or the type that changed things, not with me, at least. I’d tell him what was coming up, and he trusted me to do it. And Dan Buckley personally told me to take as long as I wanted and do the story exactly how I wanted to. They could see we were doing something more than just a stunt, and they nurtured that. And they were smart to, because those trades and single issues and the Death of Cap omnibus edition have made them a lot of money over the years. It was a story we were all passionate about, and it translated to the readers being passionate and talking about it, too.
CA: Eight years is forever, and you can’t come through the other side of an eight year project un-changed. Did you learn anything on Cap that has informed your creator-owned or screenwriting work?
EB: I learned a lot over that time, yeah. I feel like when I started, I wasn’t that good at action scenes, and now, with the right artist, I think I’m pretty decent at them. I also learned about pacing stories and juggling wider casts of characters effectively (or hopefully, at least). But you know, you’re always learning and relearning as a writer. I just feel like over that time period, a lot of what I wanted to write about changed, which is why the shift away from superheroes.
CA: Can you speak a little about organically building stories in a shared universe? I’ve read elsewhere that Bucky was only intended to be Cap for six issues, at which point Steve would return and take over again. Instead, you ended up doing a few years with Bucky in the lead role. That sounds unplanned, but it worked out. How do you balance following your original plan and taking advantage of new developments on the fly?
EB: It was partly a situation of the book being a huge success then, and Marvel saying, “hey, if you have more story here, play it out. Don’t rush bringing back Steve” and partly that after the first few issues post-Cap Death, I realized how much fun writing the world without Cap would be. We don’t often spend enough time on ramifications in mainstream comics, so here was a place to build a whole storyline around them.
The basic plotline of the Red Skull and Lukin and the Kronas Corp were all the same as my initial plans from my pitch, I just changed the heroes plotlines, let the characters breath more, and followed them where they wanted to go. The ultimate destination was always the same, I just wasn’t entirely sure how I’d get there until Bucky became the new Cap, which wasn’t part of the original plan, either.
CA: You’ve always been highly flattering about your original Captain America collaborator, Steve Epting. What did he bring to the table that made him such a good fit for the series?
EB: Gravity. You can feel the reality in Steve’s stuff, it’s got a weight to the action scenes, and a his layouts are simply classic in his composition. Plus he’s a master of scope. You ask for a setting, and you get it. You feel how big a city is, or how fast a train is moving. Steve is awesome.
CA: Another stellar artist, John Paul Leon, drew the death of Nomad. Why was he the right choice for that story?
EB: Michael Lark was originally going to draw that, but we’d gotten behind on our first [Daredevil] issue, since it was 30 pages, so we needed to find someone else, and I wanted someone in the same basic artistic world as Michael and Steve. Someone with a style, but that felt real, too. That whole issue came up as a way to give Steve extra time during a family tragedy, and wasn’t planned originally. But when I knew we needed a one-shot story, I immediately thought to tell Nomad’s story, so we could show part of the bigger arc from a different angle. John did a fantastic job under a really short deadline, as I recall.
CA: A lot of your run involves exploring the old stuff from the comics, the stuff that’s hard to reconcile with our newer and more serious comics industry because it was too goofy, childish, or fantastic. Nomad was a gritty Lone Wolf & Cub riff, mind control is a comic book staple, Sin is as much a legacy character as anyone else, and time travel is straight out of sci-fi/fantasy. What was on your mind when you were incorporating all these subjects into the series? Were you looking to rehabilitate them, or was it purely a “I like this stuff and I’m going to use it” situation? Was there anything about Captain America’s history that you couldn’t make work?
I don’t know, I always just felt like the legacies and mind control and crazy science were just part of the superhero genre, so I just used them all, and just took them seriously. That was the only way to do it. I love fake comic book science.
CA: When Captain America relaunched in late 2011, you were working with artists like Steve McNiven and Alan Davis and colorists like Laura Martin and Justin Ponsor. The art change made the comic feel much more like a more traditional cape comic, while the Epting/Lark/D’Armata era felt much more like a rainy spy novel set in the outskirts of the Marvel Universe. I notice that the stories are still about repercussions and a little melancholy, but — and maybe this is an intangible, subjective thing — the series feels markedly different. Did you change your approach or tone when relaunching the series?
EB: Not really. That first arc was something I’d wanted to do for a while, using a sort of alternate dream universe idea, to talk about the idea of people from Cap’s era coming to our time and just being pissed at how terrible things are now. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have seen Tammany Hall in action long ago, and then to come to modern times and see how that’s our entire political system now, out in the open.
But part of what you’re talking about is because I thought I should try to find a bit of a different tone, since I knew we’d be getting new artists each arc, and that they’d be guys more used to big superhero stuff. I hadn’t done much of that kind of thing in my Cap run, so it seemed like the right thing to do. I think the same basic tone of the characters is there, though. Part of it was just not having as many pages per issue, too, so they feel a bit slim on the character beats, because you don’t want to skimp on the action. But that was when the book went to 20 pages per issue.
CA: What got left on the cutting room floor? Were there any scenes or plots that you fell in love with, but just couldn’t fit into the structure of your run?
EB: Yeah, I had a whole storyline about Bucky and Cap going back in time that included Doctor Doom. It was even hinted at early on in my run. That was something that got cut for some reason, I can’t remember why now. I had this great opening for it where Steve Rogers is on the frontlines of a new world war, and gets called to the deathbed of Bucky, who is like 100 years old, and who tells him he ruined the world. It would have been awesome. Oh wait, now I remember. I axed it when I heard about Alex Ross’s Invaders/Avengers series, which was covering a bit of the same ground.
CA: What’s your writing process like? Do you use outlines, extensive notes, or some other type of prep document to keep your story straight?
EB: I outline, but not exactly scene by scene, and sometimes it’s action in bullet-point, and a lot of paragraphs about what the characters are thinking about, instead of what they’re doing. I do all this in notebooks, by hand, and then I put the scenes in the right order, and guess how many pages each one needs, and try to make that work. The things in any of my books that look the simplest, or the pages with the least word balloons or narration always take the longest to write.
CA: You’re shifting away from superheroes because what you want to write about has changed. What do you want to write about now, whether in comics, film, or elsewhere? What type of stories speak to you these days?
EB: All sorts of different things, really. I’ve always been a character-driven writer, and that goes for all my work-for-hire writing, too. I was able to do my kind of writing for a long time in that genre, but ultimately, I feel like there’s only so many in-continuity superhero stories any writer has in them.
Mostly, I just feel like I want to only write my own stuff from now on, whatever it may be. And I tend to look at each project as something with an end in mind, even if it’s a long way out sometimes. So like most things in life, it’s that eternal struggle to realize what you don’t want to do.
CA: Earlier, you said that “each issue [of Fatale] wanted to be longer.” It’s interesting that you can extend Fatale as much as you and Phillips want and as the story requires. What did you do when you hit similar situations on Captain America?
EB: Asked for more page, which I often got. I went three or four pages over on a lot of Cap issues over the years. For Fatale, we’ve always done 24 pages per issue, but we’ve gone up to 28 or 29 once so far.
CA: On a similar note, how much of what you write is planned from the beginning, and how much of it is a happy accident like you mentioned, when the story keeps writing itself?
EB: It’s always a combination. Even now, today, I’m working on an outline and I know the bulk of it, but I haven’t got the opening yet, and some parts just aren’t right. I always need about 80 percent of what I’m writing figured out in some form, usually notebook pages, that only I could make sense of, and then I’m good to run with it. But I often toss out scenes as I get to them if something else occurs that feels more right. And the endings change a lot on the way to them. The last few pages of any issue of anything are always subject to last minute changes, in my process.
CA: I want to dig into your character-driven approach a bit. Captain America had a big cast of characters beyond Steve and Bucky. How did you approach writing the Falcon, Sharon Carter, and Nick Fury? We can see how their stories progressed and eventually ended, but when you were prepping and pitching the series, what positions did you originally want them to play?
EB: Well, I always was going to have Sharon in the book, and eventually have her and Steve get back together. I wanted Falcon in the book from the start, but there was a book that launched right after mine called Captain America and the Falcon, so I had to leave him alone for the most part until it got cancelled. I know it’s mean to say it, but I was happy when that one got the ax so I could have Sam Wilson in my book. One of the things I’d dug about the Cap series when I was a kid was all the people around him. He’s an interesting character partly because of how everyone else looks at him, and you know, secret agents and social workers turned masked heroes, those are great side characters. And it was fun to bring back Bernie as Bucky’s lawyer during the trial arc. I always knew I’d be playing with a lot of those characters.
As for how I figured out how to pace their storylines around Cap’s, I think it’s all just instinct. More and more I find that writing is me just constantly having an internal argument with myself about the next few scenes I have planned, trying to poke holes in them.
CA: Did you find that members of the supporting cast began taking on a larger role or stealing the show as you were writing? Did you make any discoveries about characters that you thought you knew well?
EB: I often get accused of writing around a character, by spending most of the time with their supporting cast. I don’t think that’s true, but I can see why they say it a bit. I think the main thing I learned on Cap was that I can write a book with a very large cast in it, but for some reason I can’t write a team book. Some part of my writing brain doesn’t work in team books, but I’m fine having 8 main characters in a solo book, as long as they don’t all have to have a scene where they do something with their powers.
CA: “Noir” is always the go-to word for when people are talking about what you’re influenced by, or the mode you work in. What are your other influences, the works or authors that people never pick up on when discussing your work? You clearly have some affection for the Archie gang and Steranko, as well.
EB: Yeah, sure. I read a lot of Archie and Richie Rich and Little Dot comics growing up. The EC line, especially the work of Johnny Craig and Harvey Kurtzman. Love and Rockets was a big influence on me at one point, as was Milan Kundera’s writing, both fiction and non-fiction and Paul Auster’s. And Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip K Dick. Alan Moore is a big influence. Lots of other stuff. I think once you start finding your own voice as a writer, you stop even thinking about what influenced you, though. I will reference an EC comic once in a while, but no one really gets it anymore — the first page of Dead and the Dying is a direct lift off an old Johnny Craig splash page. But that’s just having fun.
CA: You’ve got a long history of lengthy collaborations with other artists, and even writers, considering Greg Rucka. What’s the appeal to you of these collaborative relationships? Does it open storytelling doors that may otherwise remain closed, is it just how the business goes, or something else entirely?
EB: I’m not sure. I never made a plan for it, really. Greg and I got put together by Bob Schreck to work on a Batman event, and Gotham Central grew out of our enjoying plotting out cop stories together. We just kind of got lucky, because I don’t think normally either of us really wants a writing partner. We even set up Gotham Central to be us alternating more than teaming up, so we wouldn’t step on each others toes. But I think when you find a good fit with an artist or even a co-writer, you get lucky, and for me, I’ve always just tried to hold onto those people. The artists I work with now most often are the ones I trust the most, whose artwork I love, and who seem to like drawing my stories because they keep coming back.
But these longterm collaborations really do help — I know exactly how to write for Sean Phillips and Michael Lark and Steve Epting. There’s almost a short-hand to it.
CA: You’ve got Fatale, you’ve got screenwriting projects… your peers Greg Rucka and Warren Ellis work in prose, as well. Do you have a novel in you, in addition to your comics, films, and other media work? Mulholland Books seems real friendly to comics-oriented writers these days…
EB: I’ve talked about and outlined a novel a few times, but I haven’t found the time to really pursue it, or even find out if I’d be any good at it yet. The next few years I’m going to focus on screenwriting and tv writing, and just my own comics, but you never know.
CA: I’ve seen others mention that when they’re doing work-for-hire, they’re very careful about what they contribute to the shared universe, and that they’ll occasionally keep their best ideas for their own work. Do you work similarly, or are you more of an all-in, anything goes type of guy? What was/is the appeal of work-for-hire for you?
EB: The appeal of work-for-hire is a few things — you get paid well for writing comics, and your work gets seen by a pretty wide audience that might not have ever heard of you otherwise. And sometimes, you’re a fan of the character, like I was with Cap, and you get to sort of be the caretaker of them for a while. That really meant more to me than I even realized, until I was done.
CA: You used to draw comics, including Lowlife. What’re the odds of you picking up the pencil again?
EB: I wouldn’t bet on them.
CA: What’s your favorite Cap story?
EB: Probably the Englehart/Buscema Cap from the 50s storyline. Or the Steranko Cap issues.
CA: What’s your favorite Cap story that you wrote?
EB: Parts of Winter Soldier – the first 14 issues of my run – and parts of the big Death of Cap mega-arc, probably.
CA: David Uzumeri begged me to ask this question because otherwise he’ll die or something, so: Cap Reborn ended with a flash forward to a future of a ruined city being patrolled by what look like Martian walkers. Can you tell us what was going on there, what you were building toward? Was it going to be a Killraven riff?
EB: That was actually something that Tom Brevoort asked me to put in there, to tease the future out a bit more. Originally, he was just seeing that if he stayed being Cap, he and Sharon would never have a life and family together. That was a hint at a big Marvel thing that is still to come, that I’m not doing, but that one of the people who worked on Reborn is.