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Walt Simonson on Writing

Those who know me know how much I love Marvel's Thor character. Those who know me well know how much I utterly adore Walt Simonson's run with that character. It's one of the most formative reading experiences I've ever had in comics and I really loved everything about it since I was young. 

You can imagine my excitement when I was given an opportunity to speak to Mr. Simonson last year for The Huffington Post and for Big Shiny Robot!

We talked about quite a lot of things, but the interview was mainly about the re-release of his adaptation of the film Alien. Our conversation ran long though, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to talk to him about Thor (and his time on Marvel's Star Wars book.) Through that conversation, we talked a bit about writing his run on Thor and I felt like some of the things he said would be useful to you guys. It was certainly useful to me.

The first question I asked about was the ability to turn Thor into a frog and get away with it. In one of my favorite arcs of my run, Loki transforms Thor into a frog, where he becomes embroiled in high drama and epic conflict between the frogs and rats of Central Park. Eventually, he comes back to Mjolnir, which doesn't restore his human form, but instead bestows the power of Thor on his frog shape.

It's such a fun, well told story, but something that many people might scoff at.

I asked him how hard it was to get it past the editors. "It wasn’t," Simonson told me. "Honestly, that story is kind of a parody of heroic fiction in general of my own stories in some way, but it’s told completely straight, and one of the lessons I got from Stan and Jack in their comics, not only in Thor, but Fantastic Four and the other work they did, was that really in those books, in that time and place, you could do almost anything so long as you kept a straight face."

I think that's brilliant advice. I wonder if it still holds true with audiences as jaded as today's, but I find that if something is done honestly and openly, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and embrace it.

Mr. Simonson continued, "My feeling is you tell the story you want to tell, keep faith with the reader all the way through, and pretty much go anywhere you want if you can do that well. So in the Thor frog story, and in fairy tales everywhere. There’s a lot of folk and fairy tale stuff in the Malekith tales which are based, in part, on Celtic fairy stuff, so I could use any of the fairy tale stuff as grist for my mill. You go back to the Brothers Grimm, people often get changed into frogs, princes and stuff, so it was a standard trope, so I decided a frog was the way to go. About the time I did this, I was living about a block from Central Park, we were a little south of the reservoir where the action takes place, but I knew the park pretty well, and they were always putting in rat poison to kill the rats, and they were always putting up signs saying ‘rat poison, don’t let dogs eat anything’ that kind of stuff, so the background, how fantastical the story itself was, was quite real, and I think that was what gave the story a little gravity. Once again, it was set against stuff that had basis in reality, as goofy as the idea was. And of course, I went for the urban myth, which wasn’t Norse, or God knows where else, like the crocodiles in the New York sewers. Tall tales and legends of any sort, I love them, animal fables, going back to Aesop, so it seemed to work pretty well. It fit perfectly in the plot, as it was evolving at that point, with Loki, and I still am really pleased how that story worked out, especially that last issue where Thor is really the large frog, but the business with switching hammers how they all worked out, I was really pleased how that was able to turn out as a series of plot threads that all came together in the end."  

I think more than anything, what he's saying, at least to me, is that you really have to know and be familiar with the stories that came before you. Study folk and fairy tales. Study your myth. Read lots of books and become inspired by them. In the interview, he talked about the entire idea of Thor turning into a frog was initially sparked by a desire to homage Carl Barks and actually turn Thor into a duck (Barks is famous for the Disney Duck comics, Uncle Scrooge, etc.) It's not only okay to take inspiration from these other places, it's vital. But it's also important to ground that inspiration in reality. Readers have to feel what we're trying to convey, and that sense of reality is the way to do it.

Another great bit of wisdom he conveyed to me was about story arcs. In fact, this whole conversation is what sparked me to start work on some serial fiction (which is something I'm sure you'll be hearing about soon.)

His run on Thor seems like one massive story, but the way he tells it, he looked at it as much smaller story arcs with a few recurring images he knew he wanted to pay off somehow. "Another lesson I got from Stan and Jack is that I tried to break this longer Thor story down into smaller, more digestible story lines, where the Beta Ray Bill story, which was four issues long, was the longest story arc in the entire book, as far as one single story goes. I mean, Surtur ran over a number of issues, and didn’t show up, as far as making a physical appearance, as far as where you really got to see him, and even then it was these one page things, that was more than a year to get to there. But I ran short stories, the Last Viking was a story I really liked, that was three issues, and there were other stories that were only two. So, I tried to break it down, I tried to make it so each issue had its own dynamic and felt like a complete package of something, and I tried to make each little story arc its own story that was eventually furthering the Surtur stuff until he bubbled to the surface and became the focus of the next batch of stories."

It's great advice and his work on the book was gripping the whole way through. The amazing thing about Walt Simonson is his ability to match character, words, story, and visuals together, marry them into something bigger than the sum of their parts, and create something great. He truly is one of the best writer/artists in comics and has been for longer than I've been alive. It was my great honor to speak to him, and I hope this tidbit of our conversation has inspired anyone reading this as much as having the conversation with him inspired me.
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