September 23, 2008

Full Q&A with Greg Rucka on Queen & Country, other stuff

Ok, so this is kind of long--I could have trimmed it more, but if you're a fan of Greg Rucka, you know he has a lot of interesting things to say. If you missed the Publishers Weekly story this interview was for, it's here.

Otherwise, enjoy! Queen & Country Definitive Edition: Volume 3 is in stores tomorrow October 8th now, apparently.

After the third volume of the Definitive Edition comes out, there will be one more volume, correct? Are there plans for Queen & Country after that?

GR: Yeah, and I’ll really be getting my hands dirty with the fourth one. If I can find the time I’d really like to do some interviews with the different artists that have been involved (including Steve Rolston, Jason Alexander and Carla Speed McNeil). It will be the last one for this iteration of Q&C. There is the intent to do what we’ve been referring to as Volume 2 of the series starting probably late 2010. It’s one of those things that I really want to do, and there’s simply a question of the time to do it. There’s an artist in particular who’s indicated a desire to work on it, and she and I have a handshaking agreement that she will be the one to draw that arc, but she has rendered herself exclusive to DC at the moment. That will influence it as well, because I really don’t want to throw her under the bus, for lack of a better phrase.

After reading both the comic series and the Queen & Country novels, I have to ask, how the hell do you learn all this stuff? The stories are incredibly detailed, and it seems like you would have to be on the inside of espionage, or have a very diligent imagination, to come up with some of it.

GR: I think it’s a lifelong healthy obsession with spy stories. When I was young, and I mean young, I picked up books at the library like “How to become a spy,” and it seemed like a viable career. But I don’t think I have what le Carré would refer to as the "intestinal fortitude" for it. I can’t remember which of the le Carré books it is, I want to say it’s one of the (character George) Smiley books, one of the early ones, there’s a description of George leaving his townhouse, the instinctive check of the street--he’s in London, and the narrative talks about the fact that he’s not so much expecting trouble but there’s always that ever-present lurking fear that somebody from the past is one day going to come walking by, looking to settle a piece of history. Between that and another le Carré description of George when he’s in Germany, those panicked moments when you’re finally able to fall asleep and then you wake up and those first few seconds thinking “Am I alone? Or is this going to be the worst day of my life?"

I also remember being very young and seeing (1965 James Bond film) Thunderball on TV, I think I was in a hotel in Washington, DC, and I didn’t know what the hell I was seeing, all I knew is that there were sharks and a motorcycle.

So it all sort of conflated, and I entered the world of espionage—it was opened to me by Bond, which I suppose is true for a lot of people in my generation, certainly for a lot of guys in my generation, that was the entrée. But I was fortunate in high school to have this one instructor, and amongst the things he taught aside from Latin and European History, he did a class on film that some of us took. And at that time, the (le Carré adaptation) mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People with Alec Guiness had come to the US, and I’m not sure what engaged me with that material directly, because I was really quite young, I think 14, but he really encouraged that and told me you gotta read the books. And I did and that really pulled the curtain back. Because on one extreme you have Bond-- well actually these days on one extreme you have Austin Powers--and sort of from Powers you go to Dean Martin, but then you slide into Bond, and then as the scale moves farther to the right you have these le Carré adaptations, which in many ways are tragically tragically dull, because they’re so cerebral. And then, finally, I encountered this show called The Sandbaggers created by Ian Mackintosh, and that to me, that was Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets, saying here is how you marry the two.

I think for a lot of writers, how they’re introduced to drama, how they’re introduced to good writing, affects them profoundly going forward. And for me that was a seminal show. In the same way I can remember episodes of Magnum P.I. with crystal clarity, I can remember certain episodes of The Sandbaggers and going "Holy Mother.” It was smart--the realization that all espionage is political, it’s something that I wasn’t able to articulate until much later, but for all the stuff that Bond had done, those stories largely ignored issues of politics--he was always fighting supervillains, a global evil organization. And the realization, I’ve said this before and had conversations with various people trying to understand the nature of Q&C, and it’s both the case in the novel and the comics, the way I explain it is that every Q&C story has to have two antagonists—the first antagonist is whoever it is that’s trying to blow up the bridge or assassinate the prime minister or steal the missile codes. But the second antagonist is always Tara’s own government, the bureaucracy. And I’ve had friends at the State Department and elsewhere explain to me that the bureaucracy cares only about its own perpetuation. It exists to ensure that it continues to exist. And I love that inherent drama, that we ask people to sacrifice so much on this altar of patriotism and defense of intangible ideals, and they’re doing it for people who will write them off at a moment’s notice if it becomes the politically viable thing to do.

Do you go to any great lengths to reflect the realities of international intelligence, or do you sort of give yourself the liberty to look at the Queen & Country universe as largely fictional?

GR: I think the Q&C universe is tied very closely to this one, and for that reason I work very hard on the verisimilitude, I want it to feel as authentic as possible. I know just enough to make me potentially dangerous. But I think I’m very good at what I refer to as logical extrapolation—if A is true and B is true, then it is logical to me that C would also be the case. It’s the logic that I think carries forward. That’s always been how I’ve approached it. Just trying to take what I’ve been able to find in research and in talking to people, and I do a lot of reading—I read those big 800-page Metrokin archives, things that really only people with a sadistic streak would take the time to read. Either that or need a good book for self-defense.

Obviously there are very real political issues in the stories—what motivates you to focus on one conflict or region vs. another?

GR: It’s almost invariably outrage. I almost always get angry about something… my wife is fond of saying that I do my best writing when I’m angry. I think that’s her shorthand for saying I do my best writing when my passion is engaged. My anger is easy to engage I suppose. You look at a novel like Private Wars (the second Queen & Country novel) for example—all of that stuff at the beginning, all that stuff about how (the Uzbek) government is propped up, that’s all researched. I couldn’t make up any of the stuff about torture, those were taken from first-hand accounts. And that just drove me crazy. And I think that novel is very much about political expediency—who is our friend now versus who is our friend tomorrow. By the same token, when I was writing (first Queen & Country novel) A Gentleman’s Game, I was looking at, you know, there’s a global war on terror—good luck. I don’t think that would work out well. And it’s a global war on terror, not on terrorism, and as a writer, that’s an interesting distinction to me. I think there’s a fundamental question posed in the novel—Tara does something, in response to an act that is reprehensible at the beginning of A Gentleman's Game, Tara does something that is equally reprehensible. And she does it at the behest of her government, but when she does it, her government says “well we didn’t mean to do it THAT way,” and she says “but you told me to kill the guy. Was I supposed to kill him nicely? It was an assassination, I did the job, you don’t now get to say I did it wrong.” And again it goes all the way back to the comics as well, you look at an arc like "Morningstar" which was the second arc we did and pre-9/11, and that was an arc entirely about what the Taliban were doing to women in Afghanistan. Seeing footage of a 14 year-old girl in a burka being shot through the head in a football stadium in downtown Kabul, as everyone in the stadium cheered. Because she had shown an ankle. And good lord. I saw red.

Since the series was running when 9/11 happened, did you struggle at all with how to incorporate the event into the clearly very relevant setting of the series?

GR: I wanted to, it was interesting--when 9/11 happened I was working with an artist named Rick Burchett on a project for DC comics, a mini-series set in the Batman corner of that universe. And he and I had a conversation about the relevance of writing Batman comics post the collapse of the towers, and we really wanted to re-evaluate and think about that, and I think a lot of people did this, but to take a harder look at what I was doing. I do believe that what I do is art, entertainment absolutely, but they’re attempts at art, they may be unsuccessful attempts but attempts nonetheless—and I remember talking to Rick and realizing that if nothing else at that time, that there were going to be soldiers on the ground very soon. We were going to have boots on the ground, asking young men and women to put themselves in harm’s way for us. And for several of them, what Batman does is going to be an important escape, they’ll want to turn to that comic book. But the comic industry as a whole responded very oddly to the event, almost immediately they were saying “we’ll do tribute books.” And I remember, I was asked three separate times to contribute a story to one and I just said “I can’t, I’m too close to it. I cannot offer anything relevant right now. I'm still reeling from it.”

The sequence with Tara at the beginning of (story arc) "Crystal Ball," which is the sequence that happens on 9/11, was the only response I felt I could validly write. Because in the world of secrets and violence for these people, that was a violence that took them by surprise and horrified them. And then what do we follow it with in that story? We follow it with business as usual. Except now business as usual with a very directed focus. Instead of going after X for whatever reason, now we’re going after X because we want to get the information on these terrorists.

Turning to the relationship between the comic series and the Queen & Country novels: From a reader’s standpoint, my experience is that the suspense aspect is very different between the two media—the comic has a lot of momentum, while the novel causes near heart attacks in certain sections with the build-up. Have you ever been writing one and kind of wishing you had the tools of the other for a particular story?

GR: That’s honestly the reason that I wanted to write the novels. While I was working on the comic series on a particular arc, I found myself at times thinking “well if I was writing this as a novel I would be able to do X, Y and Z.” But one of the things I love about comics is that as a medium you are able to do very different things—time works uniquely in a comic, in ways that it can’t work in any other entertainment medium—doesn’t work that way in a film or TV, or on the stage and certainly not in a novel. But by the same token, a novel will allow you glimpses at the inner life of a character and the exploration of those crucial details that reveal so much in a way that in a comic you can’t. So it was very much, from a very early point I knew that I would be writing Q&C novels, I knew that there would be at least one novel if not more that would allow us a more intimate view. And I think as a result of that the stories for the novels tend to be—well I think of myself as a very character-driven writer, even when writing espionage, for the purposes of whatever the plot may be, I’m more interested in how the characters interact with their goals and in that interaction how they change and how the goals obviously change. So it was always a very logical projection. And I found myself thinking during the series “would this make a better novel?” Which is not to say the ideas for Private Wars and A Gentleman's Game would both be fine comics, but they’d be very very different comics. And I really felt that for what I was trying to accomplish, they’d be better served in the context of the novels.

In terms of audiences, do you have any sense from feedback you get that your novels have helped create new comics fans?

GR: It’s vice versa. I can think of almost nobody who’s read the novels and then went and tracked down the comics. I think honestly there’s still a vast majority of readers… well there’s a few things going on, there’s always a chance that they weren’t aware of the comics. So before I indict anybody for bigotry with regards to comics, I should acknowledge that there may very well be people who read this and go “there are comics, what? There are books that precede this?” But I do think that there is a stigma attached to comics, and someone who walks in for instance to a specialty book store and someone presses into their hands A Gentleman's Game, there’s a good chance that the store is not carrying "Operation Morningstar" which was the first Q&C story. And there’s a whole divide there. Do they not carry it because they don’t know how to get it or how to stock it? Do they not carry it because they think that comics have no place in a “serious” book store? And again when we’re talking about specialty stores like that again we’re talking about the ghettoization of genre, which I also think is absurd. I’ve found though that Q&C readership from the comics almost universally went to the novels. They were very in tune that ok, there’s a novel coming. And I’ve actually gotten a few cranky letters from people who said “I loved the comics and you made me go out and buy this novel and I read it and I’m really angry that you did this in the novel! Why didn’t you do it in the comic?” But it worked better in the novel.

Now obviously the comics series came before the Queen & Country novels, but in your career, was it comics or prose that came first?

GR: I was a novelist first. I actually had published my first three novels before I had my first comic out. I was very much working in both media at the same time. I’d always wanted to write comics. I had come in writing private eye novels, and thought "perhaps I will grow up one day and write espionage," which sounds terribly pejorative, but it’s not intended to be, it’s more to say that I would branch out, but I was very taken by the idea of the American private eye, and I was all ready to write serious scholarly works on the subject. But I would go to the San Diego Comic Con before it was this enormous beast of a show and definitely try to get myself in front of editors, and I’d wave my books at them and say "look look, I’m for real, people paid me to write these,” and almost universally they’d say “go away kid you’re bothering me.” But I was fortunate that a friend from high school was working at DC, and that friend put the novels in front of his boss, and she in turn really championed me coming into the medium and put my work in front of various editors, and one of those editors was a guy named Bob Schreck who was, along with Joe Nozemack, at that time founding Oni press. And I met with them separately at a San Diego con and they asked me if I wanted to do my novels as a comic, and I said “no, no that would be ridiculous, those are novels, and I have an idea for a comic—it’s a murder mystery set in Antarctica. It’s one woman and 2000 guys.” And they immediately saw what I saw, which is that that was a very visual idea, and the 500 words it would take me to describe how utterly cold and dry and miserable it is in Antarctica, as opposed to one really well-done panel by the artist Steve Lieber, the obvious choice was to go with Steve. And that sort of brought me in. And once Whiteout was done, this same woman Patty Jeres at DC put me in front of Denny O’Neil who at that time oversaw all the Bat books, and Denny is legendary in comics, I met with him briefly and he said why don’t you write me a story, and I wrote him a short literally on the flight back to Oregon. And the next thing I know they’re giving me work, and giving me a lot of work. The first thing I wrote for them was a short story called "Two Down," which was the first meeting of Renee Montoya and Two Face.

I’m sure this is a cliché of a question for you at this point, but I can’t not address it because of my personal experience with your work—you have a reputation for writing some of the strongest, most complex female protagonists in comics—can you point to any specific reasons for this, do you have any particular role models that have helped shape your approach, degree of empathy, what have you?

GR: I feel like every answer I give is at the same time redundant and also vaguely different. The honest truth is that I’ve always self-identified more as a woman, and I don’t know why that is, I mean this is from a guy who shaves his head and has a beard and goatee and earrings and tattoos and is very manly—motorcycles, cigars, beer! I think on one level it’s that. My mom was and is to this day, we’re very close, she had a profound influence me on a writer and as a reader. I’m fortunate to be married to a wonderful woman and wonderful writer (Jennifer Van Meter) and she’s always been a great resource for me, staying on the straight and narrow, keeping me focused. There’s an evolution, I can point to certain moments. For instance when I started doing Whiteout, one of the things I wanted to play with was this idea of homoerotic tension that I kept seeing in all these buddy cop movies. Like John Woo movies—there would be these huge gun fights and then these two men would stand there covered in blood, gasping for breath, and they’d look meaningfully at each other and then they’d start shooting people again, or each other. And I’d always be like “just kiss him!” And it felt to me that there was legitimacy in exploring a buddy cop theme between two women.

So that was one thing, and then the second thing that happened specifically with Whiteout, was coming across the statistic that in Antarctica it’s something like one woman to every 300 men in the summer season, and in the winter it’s like one to 2000. I’ve always had an interest in gender politics and issues of sexuality, and that really struck me as a great lens, and backdrop for this issue of sexism. But when I wrote the character of Carrie who’s the main character in that story, it was a character I was actually transplanting from another work. She appeared in a stage play that I’d written, so I felt that I knew her very completely, but for whatever reason, as much as there was a subtextual issue of gender throughout Whiteout, it was not one that I felt that I had to particularly educate myself to write for or from. And then I wrote the fourth Kodiak novel, which isn’t actually a Kodiak novel it’s a Bridgett Logan novel, Shooting at Midnight, and for that one, I spent a lot of time talking with Jen and another friend named Daria—and it was really important for me, I knew I was going to write this novel from that point of view, it’s going to be a first-person narrative from this Bronx Irish Catholic girl, which is about as far from my experience as it could be, and on top of that one that had a history with drug abuse. I spent a lot of time talking with Jen and Daria about perception, and those key details, the things they noticed and that they talked about. We’d play 20 questions, and Daria would say “ok what does Bridgett think about this,” and I’d say something and she’d say “ok, but why?” And I remember Daria saying “does she get cramps?” and realizing that we were talking about her menstrual cycle, and I said “well I hadn’t thought about it,” and she said “well I get horrible cramps, I get cramps so bad that one day out of the month I wish I was dead.” And honestly that was this huge revelatory moment for me, because you know it’s easy to talk the talk—I’m not going to write a character who’s a guy with breasts. I want to write an honestly a female experience as I can. But that was honestly what said to me “don’t fool yourself.” I think that did really raise the blinds in a way, and I think it made me a better writer across the board, not just in terms of writing female characters but all characters. And in terms of logic, what was fair, what were the things that I needed to be asking myself about these characters as I write.

On top of that I’m a heterosexual guy, so I think one of the reasons I write these female characters is because I’m in love with them—I like strong capable women, and I am I believe a feminist, and I think I exhibit my feminism by being as mean to my female characters as I am to my male characters. I’ve had people accuse me of sexism for that, but it seems to me that going easy on a character, especially in a drama in a kind of fiction where we define their strength by the abuse we hurl at them, that would be to me the height of sexism. Saying I’m not going to be mean to Bridgett because she’s a girl, that would be sexist. I think, you know what, we live in a sexist society, she’s dealing with bad guys, and you know what these bad guys are going to do? They’re going to cop a feel, that’s what they’re going to do. So to be honest with her and be honest with the world, they have to do that and she has to be able to roll with it. And how she deals with it tells us about her. It would be cowardly and dishonest of me to write around it.

You talk about a medium that’s really inherently sexist, simply in its portrayal of women, especially mainstream superhero comics where you know what, secondary sexual characteristics of women are very prominent. I mean show me a bulge in Superman’s shorts. But I think for me at the end of the day it ultimately comes down to character. I honestly think that writing Shooting at Midnight taught me more than anything else how to write character in every instance. Gender is an element of character because gender influences our interaction with the world, men experience the world different than women, and anyone who wants to argue that with me I always use the same example, which is that when I walk down the street alone in the morning, that’s a different experience for me than it is for a woman. And that’s a matter of fact, and societal but it’s true.

So you said you’d like to restart the Queen & Country series in a couple of years, will there be another Q&C novel any time soon?

GR: The novel I just finished, which will be out in June or July ‘09 is another Kodiak book, but the novel after that which I guess would be out in summer 2010 is going to be Q&C. Ideally, in the grand plan of the novels interacting with the comics, the novel will serve to bridge the end of the first series and where we’re going to start with the second. It’s an idea for a Tara story that I’ve had for a while. Again when we were talking about time, and the differences in what you can do in a novel versus a comic, it’s a very compressed clock for this novel in way that I think would be very difficult to execute in a comic book. What I want to do is basically set the action across 3 ½ days, in pretty much three different locations. I have Tara in location X, Crocker back in London, and a third party in location Y, and as each does what they do in their place, the others are forced to react. Again I really want that clock to be running, to see the numbers spinning. And I think that would be potentially very confusing in a comic.

What about upcoming comics? Do you have anything coming for DC after Final Crisis: Revelations?

GR: I’m doing a new DC series that will be announced hopefully in the next six weeks—it will be very clear what I’m doing. There will be two ongoings for DC. One that will be announced in the fall, one that we’ll be able to announce in early 2009.

I’ll also be doing Stumptown (for Oni) with Matthew Southworth, we’re looking to be shipping the first issue in early ’09. It’s my great big love letter to the Rockford Files. I wanted to just do a straight up private eye story.


Rob Pugh said...

Outstanding interview. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I really like Rucka.

After reading this a while ago I went out and picked up The Sandbaggers via my netflicks. After just 15 minutes I thought, "Dude! This is Q&C without Tara Chace!".

Great interview. Very good job! Just the right qustions to get a very good idea of who Rucka is as a writer and how he gets there in his work.

Thank you.


Evie said...

Thanks for the feedback guys, needless to say this interview was a distinct pleasure to do. And now I have to Netflix Sandbaggers too!