October 6, 2011

Interview with Comics Writer BRANDON THOMAS

Brandon Thomas: Manipulating Time


If you haven't heard of Brandon Thomas, then it's time you took note. Recently, the talented Mr. Thomas was announced as the scribe of the new Voltron series for Dynamite, as well as a mini-series spinning out of Project Superpowers. Last month, I had the good fortune to review the collection of his creator owned comic, The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury about which I could not say enough good things.

Recently, Mr. Thomas was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him about his background and his influences, as well as some of the nuts and bolts behind the creation of Miranda Mercury.

Daniel Elkin: For those who are not familiar with you and your work, could you tell our readers a little bit about your background, where you grew up, what were you like as a kid?

Brandon Thomas: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and spent my childhood completely obsessed with the Star Wars trilogy, cartoons and baseball. I started "writing" around eight or nine years old, plotting out these little in-between episodes of my favorite shows, and all throughout school I was that kid who would take a minimum page count for any short story assignment and obliterate it with relative ease. Also, my most important possession at that time was probably my library card. I still remember how amazed I was when they told me there was no limit to the amount of books you could check out at once. Comics didn't get into the mix until I was 12, but when they did, they quickly went to the front of that aforementioned list.

Elkin: How did you end up choosing creating comics as a career?

Thomas: My father took me to my first comics shop in 1992, and it was all downhill from there. For years, we'd take monthly trips back there and I'd spent almost an hour in the store picking up any and every comic that I wanted. And despite spending a ton of time writing short stories and the like, it never occurred to me that writing comics was a real option, and I was confident that I was headed for a career writing adventure novels. Until I went to a panel at a Chicago con that writer Chuck Dixon was giving called "The Ten Commandments of Comic Book Writing." I know it sounds overly dramatic, but that hour changed my life and set me on the long, winding path to becoming a comic book writer.

Elkin: In terms of creating comics, who would you cite as your influences and what have you taken from them in your own work?

Thomas: You know, hard to say exactly what I've absorbed into my own work, except for the very obvious Star Wars homages all over everything. Past that, other writers from a variety of mediums that have inspired me -- Chuck Dixon, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Chris Carter, Joss Whedon, Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Joe Casey, Mark Millar, Christopher Priest, Dwayne McDuffie, J.J Abrams -- I could go on forever. Anything good has become some sort of inspiration over the years.

Elkin: Let's talk about Miranda Mercury. Is she based on any real people in your life, and what do you hope readers see in her as a character?

Thomas: Not directly based, but there are pieces of my mother, grandmother and one of my cousins in there. What I hope people see in her is a determination and a willingness to defy conventional wisdom, to accomplish things that people claim are impossible. Miranda is certainly not perfect by any means, but she is relentless in doing everything she can to succeed despite her imperfections and insecurities. Since she's the latest in a long line of famous adventurers, she has a huge chip on her shoulder, and even amongst her own family, she wants to be considered the best, the strongest, the smartest, etc. Miranda Mercury needs to be great and she doesn't ever feel the need to apologize for that need.

Elkin: It's my understanding that, from concept to production, there were a number of hurdles you had to overcome. Could you tell me a little about that ordeal?

Thomas: I will do my best not to turn this into a comprehensive list of complaints, but nothing about making this book went according to plan. It took some doing to find a publisher that believed in us and the project, and Archaia's restructuring was a setback that a lot of creators had to deal with and led to a couple changes on the creative end. There was the new colorist that we signed from a very public talent search who pretended for several weeks that he was working on pages when he actually wasn't. Oh yeah, and artist Lee Ferguson discovered that his house was filled with toxic drywall and that the fumes were making both him and his family physically ill. So, there were a number of small things, but I'm sure most projects out there have to cross a number of hurdles along the way.

Elkin: In my review of the book, I focused a lot on the way you play with time as a concept, making it an important part of the overall narrative structure of Volume One. Thematically, what is it about time that you were hoping to explore in Miranda Mercury?

Thomas: Well, I think the manipulation of time is something that comics excels at and we definitely wanted to use that to our advantage as often as possible. And with this idea of keeping every story self-contained to 23 (or so) pages, that also ensured that we'd have to do some interesting things with time just to get these stories to fit into their frames.

One of the big things that I'm always trying to get better at are my transitions between scenes, and I think there is some stuff that worked all right and some things that didn't. But a ton of the stuff we did -- starting the issues on the cover, the numbering gag -- was all about cheating time and coming up with interesting ways to begin stories and finding different ways to cut in and out of them.

But manipulating time is going to be a common theme for us, and there's a story coming in Volume Two that'll make the stuff we've done here feel like some pretty remedial stuff. Playing with time automatically presents another set of challenges, but, if we can get it right, it gives the book and the character a more unique feel and lives up to the notion that anything can happen in a Miranda Mercury story.

Elkin: What was your thought process behind the choices you made in numbering the episodes in the manner you did?

Thomas: It was something that we came up with very early on, and though it started as a bit of a gimmick, it became a huge part of exactly how we were able to tell our stories. This notion that Miranda was a character who had already existed somewhere else out there completely changed our thinking and gave us a larger canvass to work with. Being able to access three very distinct time periods from Miranda's life in the same larger narrative has been essential, and it really gives the book and the character a different feel.

It's one thing to just tell you that Miranda is the product of this heroic legacy that's been changing the galaxy for decades now, but being able to jump around in time allows us to actually show some of that, as well as the past experiences that are informing the present day stories. And it's now part of the fabric of the series, so expect more of that in future volumes.

Elkin: Can you talk a little bit about how you plotted out Episode #297 (in which the manipulation of time is the central feature)?

Thomas: The upside-down sequence was something that was planned from the beginning and was in the original proposal that was sent out all over the world. I've seriously been chewing my fingernails for years now, thinking someone else was going to do something similar before we could actually get the book out. I even had nightmares about that section printing incorrectly and it was the very first thing I flipped to once getting my hands on an official copy of the book. But it was an idea that I thought was perfect for us, and the really tricky part came after we decided that it would also reverse the storytelling and have the story run from right to left for ten or so pages.

So I wrote it like a typical script, with the flip fully in mind, and then made some adjusting while I finished doing my research on exactly how that would affect the storytelling. Then, I started removing panels for the missing time elements, making sure that when we did it, you immediately got the impression something had been ripped away. We wanted things not to make sense with those panels missing so, again, we played with a couple options before we thought it was right.

That hard cut between pages five and six was one of my favorite bits, and going with an OGN format allowed us to insert the two blank pages. For a while, they were just two blanks, but Archaia was concerned that retailers would think it was a mistake and potentially return the book, so we had the empty panels drawn in late in the game. But after I saw it, it was one of those things I was mad at myself for not having thought of in the first place.

Elkin: Family also seems to play an important role in the book. What does the concept of family mean to you, and how do you think your thoughts about it manifest themselves in your writing?

Thomas: Unfortunately, I didn't have the greatest family situation growing up, so I think it's started showing up in my work. After I got over a brief period of writing these sprawling six-issue epics where I was trying to recapture the same tone and vibe of The Authority and Morrison's JLA, my focus started getting smaller. Writing interpersonal relationships became more interesting to me, and if things didn't revolve around an actual family, it was a surrogate family, or a close friendship, etc., and I think this will be the case going forward.

When we started work on Miranda, the relationship between M and Jack was definitely important, but not as important as it was by the end of Volume One, and in the stories coming next. With all of the crazy stuff going on around them, their partnership serves as an anchor, and it'll be fun when things start to shift there, which in turn alters the kind of bigger stories we tell. But everything spins out of Miranda and Jack and figuring out if their partnership can survive what's already happened, and what's going to happen.

Elkin: What was the biggest challenge you had in the actual writing of The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury and how did you overcome it?

Thomas: Every script came with its own challenges really, and my goal with any script is to make a different mistake every time, figure it out for the next one, rinse, repeat, etc. But really, as tough as the almost endless delays and setbacks were, without them I think I'd have made a lot more mistakes and the final product would've suffered as a result. I needed more time with the material, whether I realized it then or not. And, by that same token, things that I didn't feel worked as successfully in the first volume will be cleaned up in the second. Over the years, I've slowly learned that you have to accept the process of getting better and a lot of it involves a ton of rewriting and the ability to make the adjustments that'll help you improve that much faster.

Elkin: Overall, what do you feel is the message of The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury?

Thomas: Never give up. Don't take "no" for an answer. Nothing is impossible. Persistence overcomes resistance. Do not surrender your dreams to anybody. So on and so forth.

Elkin: What's next for Brandon Thomas and will there be more Adventures of Miranda Mercury?

Thomas: Yep, I'm happy to announce that I'm already working on new Miranda scripts, and Lee and I are putting many of the things we've been talking about for years in motion. There are also some steps we'll be taking internally to insure it doesn't take us another several years to get the next volume out to everybody. All I'm prepared to give away in terms of what this next arc will actually be about is the official title of Volume Two -- "At What Cost." Past that, I should be quiet, because we've got some really cool stuff planned and some surprising developments for both Miranda and Jack going forward.

In addition, I'm working on a couple projects for Dynamite, one of them the previously announced Voltron, and the other an unannounced mini spinning out of the next volume of Project Superpowers. I'm going to be pitching some more things in the coming weeks, so I'm hoping these are only the first of many things to be coming out in 2012. There are also a couple creator-owned things that I'm going to start developing too as I push to have a ton of material drop in the next year and get myself a little more entrenched in the marketplace.

Elkin: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers that we haven't already covered?

Thomas: Just that we want to thank everyone that's picked up a copy of the book and/or encouraged others to do the same. We always knew that this book was going to face a bit of an uphill battle, but people have really gotten behind it and helped us spread the word. We've been able to come out the gates really strong and we're incredibly appreciative of all the people that contributed to the momentum we'll be taking into the rest of the year. I'm already writing new scripts, and Lee and I are putting together an official schedule for Volume Two, so this is only the beginning!

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