Comic Books and Imaginary Friends: An interview with writer Benjamin Percy

May 9, 2018

After growing up in Oregon and Hawaii, Benjamin Percy is now a comic book writer and author living outside of Northfield. He met his wife, Lisa Percy, while they were both working at Glacier National Park in Montana. Ben also has two kids and a golden doodle named Chewbacca.

After teaching as a professor for a decade, Ben claims he decided to hang up his “corduroy jacket to write full-time.”

“I’ve been playing with imaginary friends ever since,” Percy said.

Percy is the author of four novels, as well as two books of short fiction and a book of essays. He writes the Green Arrow and Teen Titans series for DC Comics, and James Bond for Dynamite Entertainment. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in “Esquire,” “GQ,” “Time,” The Wall Street Journal,” “The New York Times,” and “The Paris Review.” His honors include the Whiting Award, the Plimpton Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, an NEA fellowship and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics.

With an extensive background in comic writing, Percy is now taking his talents to the digital airwaves, recently landing a position as a writer for Marvel’s “Wolverine: The Long Night” podcast.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Oregon and Hawaii. I was an undergrad at Brown University. I met my wife when we were both working at Glacier National Park in Montana. I taught as a professor for about a decade — including at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and then hung up my corduroy jacket to write full-time. I’ve been playing with my imaginary friends ever since.

Where does your passion for comic books come from?

I remember falling in love with The Hobbit in fourth grade, but prior to that, my only memory of reading comes from comic books. I treasured the spinner racks that used to be at gas stations and grocery stores and I loved to browse the comics shops. I collected everything from Spider-Man to Warlord to X-Men to Batman. So it’s a childhood dream come true to be writing for Marvel and DC now.

How and when did you become a writer?

Not sure how to answer that. I wrote my first short story in high school. It was called “Conan vs. The Skateboarders,” and — true to the title — it was about Conan fighting some skateboarders. Does that count?

What’s the process for writing a good comic book? How do you get that story to translate into animated pages? When and how did you start getting paid for it?

I sent my first pitch to DC Comics in 2009. I finally had a pitch accepted in 2014.

During that time, I probably sent them around 40 ideas. I was already established as a short story writer, magazine writer, and novelist, so I had their attention, but here was my main error: I kept pitching original ideas. I should have been working off of series that already existed. A one-issue or two-issue arc that would appear in Wonder Woman or Flash.

I met with an editor in New York (while on tour for one of my novels) and toured through the DC Offices. A few years later, he became the head of what’s known as the Bat Group (all the Gotham titles, essentially) and he approached me about a two-issue window that was available. I took a failed screenplay idea I had (that was essentially Die Hard set in an airport) and revamped it; Bruce Willis became Bruce Wayne. And wa-la, I had my Batman story. I recognized how ridiculously lucky I was, making my debut with such a marquee character. I put all of my energy into making those issues sing. And it paid off. A few months later, they asked if I’d like to take over Green Arrrow. And a few months after starting Green Arrow, they asked if I’d like to write Teen Titans as well. Now I’m working on Nightwing.

Being a comics writer is a little like being an aggressive screenwriter. I don’t simply write the dialogue and narration. I detail everything that might appear in the panel. So I might say we’re stationed in an alley, our perspective high, looking down at it from an angle. Graffiti colors the walls. Trash and puddles busy the asphalt. A dumpster is open and two eyes might be visible glowing inside it. Someone is walking toward the dumpster, a man in a hoodie. We can’t see his face, but we can tell he’s gym-built. Rain is falling hard and a single street lamp hazes through it. That kind of thing. Panel by panel, page by page.

But I am in no way dictating what the artist has to draw. I trust their vision, and if they see a way to make the story better, they should go for it. I’m witnessing every stage of development — from the drafting of the overview document to the pencils, inks, colors, and final lettering.

Is there a certain comic book, superhero, series or storyline that you draw inspiration from? Why?

As a smelly, hairy, grumpy, cigar-chomping, whiskey-swilling loner, I perhaps relate to Wolverine a little too well.

How did you become involved with the Marvel podcast “Wolverine: The Long Night,” and how is this version of storytelling different than writing the books?

Since I write comics and screenplays, I was approached. The job wasn’t mine of course. I had to put together a pitch. This amounted to a thirty-page single-spaced document that might as well have been titled, “GIVE THIS TO ME — OR ELSE!”

Writing for audio is a fun challenge. I rely so heavily on vision — obviously — when writing comics. But also in my novels. Take that sensory experience away and you have to come up with new techniques for conveying exposition and emotion and plot. Consider, for instance, the staple of every comic: the fight scene. How do you write a brawl into audio and not completely confuse your listener?

But the beats of the half-hour episodes are otherwise very similar to something you might experience when watching television. The series has a “True Detective” vibe.

What is the podcast about?

Everyone’s read the comics. Everyone’s seen the X-Men films. Wolverine has spent a lot of time in the spotlight, and I wanted to re-mystify him. So this is about the hunt for Wolverine. Two FBI agents show up in the town of Burns, Alaska, to investigate a series of murders. Every single person there has a dark secret, including Logan. It’s a thriller, a murder-mystery, with plenty of adrenaline and mayhem to keep the listener coming back week after week.

What is it like to see the stories you create come to fruition?

It’s always a thrill to see my work published or produced. Never gets old.

What advice would you offer aspiring comic book writers, comic podcasters, or just simply those interested in earning a living off of and working with comics?

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000-hour rule. If you want to become a master of something, as a pianist, a painter, a baseball player, whatever —you need to put in your 10,000 hours of practice. Read your brains out and write your brains out and draw your brains out — that’s the quick version.

What do you hope for your future with comics? Any new goals?

I have series I’d love to get a shot at, like Punisher, Daredevil, Batman, X-Men, Swamp Thing and Hellblazer. I’m also in the process of pitching some original, creator-owned ideas.

 

By Samantha Stetzer

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