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Oct/Nov 2008 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with CJ Hurtt

by Alan C. Baird


CJ Hurtt is a short story and comic book writer based in Las Vegas. He claims that the city devours more and more of his soul, each day. He's a founding member of HorrorLibrary.net and is a former Senior Editor for Dark Recesses. CJ's work has appeared in Lighthouse Magazine, Pindeldyboz and Word Riot. He lives with his wife (writer Mary Madewell) and their three destructive cats. CJ recently took a few minutes off from helping his wife prepare for the birth of their first child to chat with me.

 

ACB     How many comics have you written?

CJH     I've written three comic books that have been published. I also had a four-page comic story published in an anthology a few years ago. I have a dozen or so pitches plugging up some poor bastard's slush pile.

ACB     What does a pitch for a comic book look like?

CJH     I usually hire an artist for a few sample pages. We put something together, and I send it out with a cover letter, a synopsis of the work, why I think the book will sell, and who will buy it. If the publisher picks it up, the artist and I come to some sort of agreement between ourselves and we finish the comic book. But if the publisher passes, I'm off to the next idea. It's kind of a shotgun submission method, so I'm just hoping I don't shoot myself in the foot.

ACB     Do you prefer the term "comic books" or "graphic novels"? What's the difference?

CJH     I guess the main difference is whether you want to be known as a nerd or a pretentious nerd. I use "comic books" because, to me, that's what they are. Some people like "graphic novels" because it conveys the fact that comics can be a serious artistic medium. Also, the term better applies to long-form works like A History of Violence rather than, say, the regular monthly 22-page superhero story. The choice of terms is pretty irrelevant to me. Even a graphic novel like From Hell, one of my favorites, was originally serialized.

I guess that's not fair. A lot of books are published as one long story rather than as individual issues. I don't know. People can get too hung up on stuff like this. It's hairsplitting. The only thing that matters is whether or not the work is good.

ACB     How did you get into writing comic books?

CJH     To be honest, I kind of blundered into it. I have always loved the medium and wanted to give it a go. I'm not interested in limiting myself to one area of writing; I'm a panwordist. Is that a word? I don't really have any formal writing training unless you count a Writing 121 class that I took in school. But after I had made a few short prose story sales, my confidence was boosted enough to try comics. I had no clue about formats, how to find an artist, how to submit a proposal, or anything useful at all. I groped around blindly and tried to find some info online. I'm a slow learner, so it took a while. I've been to some conventions, shook a few hands, and met some other people who write comics. I pick the brains of whomever will talk and just try not to screw it up too much.

ACB     What conventions do you recommend for aspiring comic book writers?

CJH     If writers want to be able to actually talk with an editor, they should try some of the smaller conventions that come to their local areas. But huge conventions like the San Diego Comic-Con can be counterproductive. There are like 100,000 attendees, so trying to get things done is nearly impossible. These mega-conventions may be all right for some, but not for me. The first time I went, I stupidly thought I'd be able to do some business. I look back at that thought and laugh.

ACB     Do you always work with the same artist?

CJH     Nope. Different artists have different styles and schedules. It takes an artist a lot longer to draw a story than it does for a writer to write it. If you have a lot of pitches that you want to get out, you'll need to deal with more than just one guy. Also, your go-to guy might be busy with his own work. Finally, you might have someone who's good at horror, but not so good at, say, more cartoony stuff. If you're lucky enough to work at a place like Marvel or DC, the publisher will pair you up with an artist. But when you're working on your own stuff, you have to assemble your own team. There's a certain garage-band element to this kind of thing that's pretty amazing when it works. It can also blow up in your face. Keeps me on my toes.

ACB     Does the comic always follow your story exactly, or do the artist's drawings affect the development of your story?

CJH     I listen to the artist when it comes to layout, camera angles, and actions. I see my job as plot and dialogue. The artist is the expert on visual storytelling. But sometimes an artist has a really good idea when it comes to my end of things and vice versa. It's always a collaboration. If we're both firing on all cylinders, we'll manage to inspire each other. Every now and then, I'll stick to my guns on something, but I'm usually open to suggestions. I once saw a sign that read: "Your title is bullshit. Anyone can have a great idea."

ACB     Do you suggest specific drawings, or just dialogue?

CJH     I make suggestions for layouts and angles, but that's all they are: suggestions. I'm mostly just trying to convey to the artist what I'm shooting for. The main goal is whatever gets the effect that the story needs. Dialogue is a bit different. I'm very particular about that. The plot and dialogue are usually all me. Like I said, I'm open to suggestions, but I'm pickier about the actual words than I am about the pictures.

ACB     A very small number of your words appear in any given comic. Is that frustrating to you, as a writer? Do you write a lot more words in descriptions, pitches, etc., that never show up in the finished product?

CJH     I'm sure plenty of people would say that the less of me there is in a book, the better. But those people would be jerks. Seriously, I don't mind that very few of my words end up on any particular page. I write the plot, the panel layout, and the dialogue. Even though there's quite a bit of back-and-forth between me and the artist when it comes to layout, the story is all mine. I guess it's somewhat like screenwriting, in that regard. I also write the pitches and all sorts of little notes and backstories about the characters that may or may not make their way into the books.

ACB     Can you give us a few lines from one of your comics?

CJH     I write in a script format that's similar to screenplays, so I'm not sure how this will translate. Here we go, though. This is a sample from Sweet Marie, the story that I wrote for HOPE New Orleans:

Panel 3. The man has stopped and is watching Laveau weep.

CAPTION: Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.

Panel 4. The man walks toward her. She is more transparent.

CAPTION: Visitors to her tomb mark it with Xs and ask her to grant wishes.

Panel 5. The man is standing where the voodoo queen was. She's gone now. He's alone and the expression on his face should show exactly how alone he feels.

CAPTION: But who is going to grant hers?

ACB     What was your first comic book publication?

CJH     I met UK artist Bong Abad in the midst of my online treks and showed him a script that I was writing called Mortality Bus Stop and Grille. It was a three-part series centering on the adventures of Henry Schmidt, a hard-drinking private investigator who specialized in supernatural cases. Bong said he'd like to draw it—if we dropped the "e" at the end of Grille. We pitched it to a few places and got rejected. I wasn't about to give up, so I published the book myself. By now, it's out of print and hopefully long forgotten. I mean, it was a solid effort, but in retrospect, it fell short of the mark. I was just learning the form, and I was sloppy. It wasn't a bad book, but it was certainly a "first" book, you know? It left the reading public slightly underwhelmed. Or maybe just whelmed.

ACB     HOPE: New Orleans came next, right?

CJH     Yes. Ronin Studios announced their project to help the victims of Katrina. The anthology's theme was the indomitable spirit of New Orleans, and they had lined up a few big names (David Mack, Russell Lissau, etc). I wrote a four-page script that drew parallels between Marie Laveau and the city's never-say-die attitude. This book helped me out a lot, since it was actually sold in stores... unlike nearly everything else I had written up to that point. It went on to get a nice blurb from Jeph Loeb and, most importantly, it raised money for a very good cause.

ACB     Where did you go from there?

CJH     I wanted to write my own series book, so I started posting calls for artists all over the Internet. About that time, I found Warren Ellis' The Engine website. It's now defunct, but it used to be a very cool online resource / message board for comic folk. I lurked there a lot and asked questions that made me look like an idiot, but eventually I learned a few things about how to move projects forward. I met Canadian artist Shawn Richter on The Engine and showed him the scripts for One Last Song. He was enthusiastic, so we put together a pitch that was picked up by Brain Scan Studios. We've been working on the series ever since.

ACB     Alienation seems to be a major theme in One Last Song. Is that drawn from your life experience, or are you targeting a certain audience?

CJH     I don't think that I feel any more or less alienated than the next guy. Of course, I have no idea who that next guy is, because I'm busy syncing my iPod and arguing with my TiVo while writing text messages. Life is much easier when you only interact with people through an electronic medium. In truth, One Last Song is for anyone who's feeling more than a little frustrated with the current state of the world. It was written out of War on Terror fatigue.

ACB     Who reads more comics, kids or adults?

CJH     There are all sorts of stats about what age group reads what, but from my experience in hanging out at comic shops, I would say that it's evenly split between early teens and people in their early thirties. People seem to jump off the comics ship in their mid-teens, when "looking cool" matters the most. They come back later, though. You can always hear somebody tell the clerk, "Man, I used to read this when I was a kid! Wow. I've been away for a while!" It's also pretty common to see parents shopping for comics with their kids, buying them their first Batman or whatever. It's also worth noting that, especially after Manga got so big, female readership of all ages went up. Reading comics has long been identified as a boy's thing, but that stereotype is finally starting to die. It turns out that girls are just as willing to look like dweebs as we are.

ACB     Did you read comics as a kid?

CJH     I was very much into Batman and Spiderman when I was a kid. Those were the superheroes that I related to most. One guy was a self-made hero (even if his money came from his family) and the other was kind of a dork who just happened to be made special by accident. I was also very much a reader of MAD and old Tales From The Crypt reprints. Man, I loved those things. But when I hit my "must look cool" age, I stopped reading them. By the time I entered college, I thought comic books lacked cultural value. Then one day my roommate, tired of my pretentious ramblings, threw a copy of Watchmen at my head and dared me to read it. And I was twelve years old again. But that may have had something to do with the speed at which the book hit my head.

ACB     How many comic books do you have around the house right now?

CJH     Oh gosh, I just sold a giant chunk of my collection and still have a few hundred graphic novels. Maybe the same amount of single issues. I'm not really a collector, because I don't keep them in plastic and wait for the day they might be worth some cash. I'm more like an out-of-control packrat.

ACB     Will you encourage your child to read comics? Your comics?

CJH     Comics? Sure. My comics? When she's older, maybe. I really have to watch that, actually. I read and write for an adult audience. Swearing, sex, killing. That's all good fun if you're old enough, but for a kid? I dunno. She can read all the children's titles that she wants, but we'll have to keep an eye on the other stuff. We don't want her to think her dad's a wacko.

ACB     What reading material is on your nightstand?

CJH     I read and re-read a lot of comics. I have spent a ton of money on the damned things! But now that the baby is almost here, I've cut way down. I also read a lot of nonfiction. Right now I'm reading Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation. She visited the sites connected to the assassinations of various American political figures. It's really good. Plays into my fascination with the morbid.

ACB     Frank Miller seems to be getting a lot of stuff made into movies these days (Sin City, 300). Do you have film aspirations for your material?

CJH     Pardon me. There's someone at the door. It must be that dump truck full of Hollywood money I've been expecting.

ACB     I'll wait.

CJH     Heh. While I would never say "no" to gobs of cash and rock star fame, I'm not really thinking in those terms right now. My main focus is still on just telling a good story and getting it into people's hands. I mean, sure, I play the same game of self-delusion that all writers play. You know that one, about how all of this typed gibberish means something and people will one day love it and worship you? It's an old favorite. It's what you pay yourself between royalty checks.

ACB     Do you write comics full time?

CJH     As much as I wish writing could pay all the bills... it just doesn't. So I do have a day job, but it's so secret that if I told you what it was, I'd have to tickle you to death.

ACB     What a way to go. You live in Las Vegas. Does the city have any effect on your choice of stories?

CJH     Not really. It does, however, affect my writing habits. The temperatures in Vegas hover just above ten thousand degrees, nearly year round. It forces you to find worthwhile indoor activities. Once you've blown all your cash at the tables, you might as well write something. The mob Vegas is long gone (although our mayor did play himself in the movie Casino). And TV shows have picked clean the bones of that clichéd gritty/glamorous dichotomy. Most locals avoid The Strip if they can. It's an interesting city, and I might write about it one day, but it isn't the place that a lot of people expect. It's more Strip Mall than Rat Pack.

ACB     What themes would you like to explore in future projects?

CJH     Has anyone ever written about man's inhumanity to man? How about a missing father figure? Death? At the moment, I'm writing a historical fiction comic. It's still in the early stages, but I think this will work. It's got bloody-mindedness, action, sex, and fancy hats.

 

Read more about CJ Hurtt.

Check out the History of Comic Books.

 

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