Fred Van Lente and Cullen Bunn are two of the most interesting, and prolific, authors working in comics today. They’re also both working in prose and I talked to them at MCM London about the differences between the two fields, getting their start and what they’re working on right now.
On Getting Into The Industry
Cullen started writing prose, because he knew the process and lacked the contacts to get into comics. He got that by managing a comic store and had comic artist Bryan Hurtt, who he’d go on to work with on horror western The Sixth Gun as a co-worker. The pair teamed up and they were able to pitch together.
Cullen emphasised it’s very difficult to get into comics unless you have an artist to pitch with.
Fred backed this up, although took a different route to the industry. He studied film, HATED it, and from there joined the local comic book club. Again, that was where he met comic artists and was able to team up with them, especially artist Steve Ellis (Currently working on The Only Living Boy).
On The Differences Between Working on Creator Owned Comics Versus Creator-Owned
Cullen emphasised that you have to treat both with the same respect. That being said, the clear difference is that on a creator owned book you work for yourself while on company owned books there are corporate interests with a vested interest in the characters.
Cullen mentioned his favorite ever editorial note was when he’d written a book where Batman hadn’t saved for a few days. The note was ‘Batman ALWAYS shaves’. Ridiculous as that is, he said it helped teach him that the skill set on corporate books is to not lose your cool over notes that may be the opposite of what you want.
Fred reiterated this. He also said that the good thing and the bad thing about creator owned books is ultimately the same; that there is no one above you on the food chain so all the responsibility ultimately falls on you.
On Moving From Prose To Panels
Cullen talked about his horror series, Harrow County, and how it started life as an online serial. This was pre-Patreon and with no way to promote it, the project died on the vine. Years later, when talking to Tyler Oakley, the artist on the book, Cullen sent the first chapters of the novel across to the artist. He liked it and the project was born.
He also talked about how the first four issues of the comic go far beyond the the first few chapters of the novel. In fact, the series is eight collections in and counting.
On Compression And Decompression In Comics Storytelling
Fred recommended anyone wanting to learn how to tell comic stories should start out writing short stories as that forces you to compress your work. This has led him to be a very taut, compressed writer which, when writing Action Philosophers, came in very handy.
However, it actually caused some issues with Ten Dead Comedians, his first novel, where his editor encouraged him to write more.
Fred also talked about how its still a learning process, and how he still has to force himself to be more descriptive.
Cullen talked about how the interesting thing about the pacing differences is how limited comics are. Issues in an arc, pages in an issue and panels on a page are all very restrictive. Cullen recommended that anyone wanting to do this should outline extensively as that’s something he’s found really helps.
Cullen also said he tries to keep in mind that a comic page can have; a lot of action, a lot of panels or a lot of dialogue. You can have two of those three things but you can’t have all three.
On The Challenges Of Moving From Collaborating With An Art Team To Writing Alone
Fred mentioned that he relishes the challenge of working those creative muscles and that it took something of a run up. Cullen and Fred both talked about the comfort of writing a page and knowing that a page will come to life through that. Both talked about how they liked having a partner in that respect.
On Current Prose Projects
Cullen has a prose anthology collecting some of his earliest work out, called A Passage In Black. Collecting work published over 20 years, it’s just the first of a pair of volumes that will collect his short horror work. It also ignited his interested in prose again and has led him to returning to the online serial model he experimented with years ago. He’s also received several anthology invitations which hes working on now.
Fred talked about The Con Artist, his new novel. Set at a San Diego Comic Con, it follows a comic artist who is accused of murder at the show and has until the end of the convention to find out the truth. It’s illustrated by comics artist Tom Fowler which include excerpts from the hero’s sketchbook that contain clues to the killer. The book is available at the show, at Booth 420, for 10 pounds throughout the show.
How To Write Both Prose And Comics
Both recommended focusing on one until you’ve gained traction, because that will lead to success in the other. Both also recommended reading existing comic scripts as a means of learning the form. Cullen based his on Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country scripts while Fred’s script template is used by Jim Zub, a writer who has a huge archive of advice on how to write comics.
Fred is working on a comic history of Basketball, is writing for Valiant and is writing Weapon X for Marvel. Cullen has Bone Parish, a horror comic coming from Boom!, Cold Spots, a gothic ghost story from Image and Shadowcage, the Patreon serial. He also has a Marvel book he can’t talk about yet.