Interview: Comics writer and editor D.J. Kirkbride

As someone who loves stories, I’m always fascinated to hear from people who create them and find out a little bit about their process. So I’m really excited to start this series of interviews. I’m going to be interviewing people in the writing, film, and comic book industries and talking to them about what they do, and how they craft their stories. Kicking it off is an awesome guy by the name of D.J. Kirkbride. I’ve had the opportunity to meet D.J. and he’s incredibly nice. I can’t thank him enough for being willing to let me bug him. I hope you enjoy the interview and learn something.

Here’s a little bit about D.J., taken from his website.

D.J. Kirkbride’s writing has appeared in Image Comics’ Harvey and Eisner Award-winning POPGUN anthologies, which he also co-edited. He’s edited the graphic novels THE NEW BRIGHTON ARCHEOLOGICAL SOCIETY and AQUA LEUNG as well as the comic book KILL ALL PARENTS. He’s currently the script editor for the acclaimed webcomic SPY6TEEN. His short prose story “Married Life” appeared in the zombie anthology THE DEAD WALK AGAIN and he’s written essays, reviews, interviews, columns, stories, and, um, ninja poetry for such websites as MCSWEENEYS.NET, TWOHEADEDCAT.COM, TLCHICKEN.COM, and THEFOOTNOTE.NET (which he co-created and co-edited).

First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Let’s start with a couple (hopefully) easy ones.

Is D.J. short for anything? Or is that a trade secret?

The “D” is for “Denis” and the “J” is for “John.” I’m a junior, so everyone called me “D.J.” so as not to get me confused with my dad, I guess. Honestly, my lack of mustache should’ve done the job just fine.

Favorite comic book character and/or superhero?

Superman is my favorite comic book character, superhero, and… fictional creation, to be honest. I like him better than most real things, too.

It’s really refreshing to hear you say that. Batman is my number 1, but Supes is definitely number 2. Most people seem to dismiss Superman as a character without any depth because he’s so powerful. I can see that to a certain degree, but if they read ALL-STAR SUPERMAN or A SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS, just to name a few, I bet they’d have a different idea of the character’s complexity. So what’s your favorite Superman storyline?

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, it kind of makes me sad that people dismiss Superman. The reason I often hear, other than being too powerful is that his motivation is silly. That always gives me pause. To help because you can is silly? Just wanting to do the right thing because you have a conscience isn’t plausible? Bums me out. Because of that, I do kinda think Batman has had more truly awesome stories overall, but Superman is great. I love ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. It’s a great “last Superman” story. I love how calm and collected he is throughout most of it, and the end gives me chills. I also really like SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT. It’s a great origin story that takes bits of pretty much all of them, I think. I just read the first issue of the new ACTION COMICS, and that’s looks to be a pretty cool and different take on Superman.

I completely agree with you about the motivation thing. Favorite comic book and/or superhero movie?

Again, gotta go with Superman. I love the 1978 movie with Christopher Reeve. The first two as one big movie, really — just great stuff.

Those are fantastic movies. I actually really enjoyed Superman Returns as well. Any thoughts on Man of Steel, the new Superman film coming out? (For those who don’t know, 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder is directing and Henry Cavill is staring as Superman. The film will be out in 2013)

I like parts of SUPERMAN RETURNS but feel it’s way duller than it should’ve been. Hearts were in the right places, but it missed the mark overall. I have high hopes for MAN OF STEEL… but I don’t know why. Well, 300 is ridiculous but fun for what it is, and WATCHMEN is actually a pretty good adaptation of that impossible to film comic. But SUCKER PUNCH killed part of my soul. Fingers crossed with MAN OF STEEL. I really hope it’s awesome, because we haven’t gotten a truly awesome new Superman movie since 1980.

Fingers crossed for it. It helps, in my mind at least, that Christopher Nolan is involved.

Favorite book, comic or otherwise?

I have so many, and they change from time to time. Michael Allred’s various MADMAN comics are always favorites. As for prose, I really love THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. Those are the two that first popped into my head, so despite that fact that loads of other titles are now, I’m going to stick with those.

Both of those are great. I love Mike Allred’s stuff. Are you satisfied with the answer of “42”?

Allred is one of my heroes, and I love “42.” I don’t wear hats much, but years ago I found a ballcap with “42” on it, and it was pretty cool. What the heck did I do with that… ?

How did you get interested in comic books? Do you remember the first comic book you owned?

I always loved superheroes. My dad bought comics as a kid, and I think I inherited the love there. That SUPERMAN movie, again, was a huge part of my childhood, as were all the various SUPER FRIENDS cartoons.

When did you start writing? Was there a point when you realized you wanted to pursue it?

In elementary school, maybe fifth grade or so, our class had to write a short story of at least two pages. I did three for four, and everyone asked me why… It was just fun. I kept doing more and more, writing stories starring me and my friends and doing little drawings for them. I was hooked!

Who are some of your writing influences, both in comics and outside the field?

Everything I read and see and watch and hear, honestly. I can’t think of a specific influence. My frequent co-writer, Adam P. Knave, is obviously a huge influence now. I love the work of David’s Eggers and Sedaris. In comics, Grant Morrison is awesome, but I can’t say he influences me because he’s just on some higher plain of existence than I am. Adam and I are huge fans of Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL, so they’re definitely an influence. I’m really enjoying the work of Chris Roberson, especially on iZOMBIE with that Michael Allred fella again, so that’s very influential, maybe more just inspiring the imagination and fueling a sense of fun. Oh, and Steven Moffat’s DOCTOR WHO makes me so happy, and I would love for my writing to have a similar sense of wonder, cleverness, and fun.

Grant Morrison is on a higher plane than the vast majority of people. Are you excited for him to be returning to writing Superman this fall?

After reading ACTION COMICS 1, I think we’re all in for a treat. It’s going to be different, but sometimes different is good. I don’t really get the tee shirt and knee-patched jeans with the lil’ red cape look, but, man, that book’s title was accurate. Totally different feel than ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, but really fun in its own right.

Do you have any formal training in writing?

I took some creative writing classes in college, but it didn’t feel very formal or anything. It is fun to read about different theories and styles, and it’s good to get the feedback from a teacher or classroom setting… but I honestly feel like you can do all of that without paying tuition and whatnot. I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to college, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be a writer. Write and read and have conversations and experiences. Then write more. Boom, class over. Haha, I dunno. None of that really sounds like me. Not sure what happened with that answer there, but it happened!

Congratulations on the Harvey Award for POPGUN vol. 4. That’s got to be really exciting. Can you tell us a little about POPGUN, what it is, and how it came about? Also, how did you get involved with POPGUN and Image comics, which is your first comics industry work, if I’m not mistaken?

Thank you! The Harvey was very exciting. Adam, Anthony Wu, and I were really happy with the story selections we assembled (such a great list of contributors — like each POPGUN book, really), and Thomas Mauer and Jeff Powell made sure the book was put together really well… yeah, very exciting experience!

The POPGUN are big ol’ anthologies from Image Comics. Each book is a standalone collection of very eclectic comic book stories from creators new and established. No theme, just good, fun comics. Mark Andrew Smith and Joe Keatinge created the book and asked me to come on as an assistant editor for volume 1. That was the start of my comics career, and I am very lucky to have gotten in on this really cool series.

What are your duties as editor of the POPGUN anthologies?

Every book was different — every story was different actually. Some were just pitches that we could work on with the creators, and some were pretty much done. There’s lots of proofing involved, as well as just organizing everything. It was very fun, but also extremely time consuming. After volume 4 I decided to retire from the editing of these books to concentrate more on other projects. The Harvey win was a nice way to go out, as I always hope accolades like that or the Eisner for volume 3 will get more people to give these books a shot, but I do miss it sometimes. There are plans for a volume 5, and I’ve co-written a story with Adam that we’ll be pitching with great art by Robert Wilson IV and really snazzy colors from Jason Horn, so I hope to still be a part of the next volume, just on the creative side instead of the editorial. We shall see.

I’m glad to hear there will be more volumes of Popgun, but it’s a bummer you’ll be moving on. It’s cool that you’ll still be involved with it though.

I have little pangs of regret over leaving sometimes, but it’s a huge job! At least it was for me, as I get kind of meticulous and a little obsessive — and I still find things I missed or want to change when the books are printed. I have high hopes for POPGUN 5 and really do hope the story I co-wrote is in it. If it doesn’t make the cut, well, it’ll be interesting to be on the other side of that — but in the end it’s what’s best for the book. Fingers crossed!

Even today, there’s still a stigma about comic books being a kid’s medium, or that they only involve superheroes bashing things. How do you feel about that? Do you feel like it’s one of POPGUN’s goals to help educate people about the huge variety within comics?

Yeah, POPGUN is all about the variety. It’s my favorite thing about the book, really. I love kid’s comics and superheroes, but it is important to get word out that the comic book is a medium, not a genre. Just like television or movies, comics have all different kinds of stories in every genre, for all different kinds of audiences. It kind of baffles me as to why more people don’t give comics a chance. It’s one of my favorite forms of storytelling.

I totally agree. I’ve been working my way through the HELLBOY trade paperbacks, which are fantastic, and my brother-in-law was giving me a hard time for listing them as books I’d read on Goodreads. I had to put some smack down on him. And people are always surprised when I mention a movie like RED was based off a comic book. Do you see the bias toward comics changing anytime soon?

I need to read more HELLBOY! I’ve only read the first couple of storylines, though I dig the character and enjoyed the movies overall. There are two reasons I haven’t read every issue of HELLBOY: time and money. Mainly the latter. I love it when people list comics on Goodreads — that reminds me that I need to update mine. I hope the bias towards comics changes. RED is a good example, as is GHOST WORLD. I love superheroes, but there’s way more to comics than that.

Do you prefer writing or being an editor?

I prefer writing. Editing is cool, and it’s fun to help talented creators with their stories, just giving suggestions here and there that might improve it somewhat, though all the real work is always done by the creators — and there’s this kind of nitpicky part of my brain that likes proofing and organizing, but it’s more work than fun. (Also, that sentence needs an editor. Wow.) Writing is more creative and enjoyable to me overall.

You collaborate with writer Adam P. Knave.  Can you tell me a bit about that process? Do you work on the same script at the same time, then choose the parts you like best? Or do you work on separate parts of the same script? Or is it something completely different?

The collaboration with Adam is a wacky one. He and I have both said that co-writing is tough, darn near impossible for us — but something just clicks with the two of us. Sometimes he’ll bring up an idea to me or vice versa, but a lot of the time it’s just us talking on the phone (he’s in NY, and I’m in LA) and just babbling until an idea strikes! Then we mold and shape it via emails and more talking. When it gets to the scripting phase, we go back and forth on it, so we both have a hand in the dialog and plotting… If we lived closer together, we’d probably write at the same time more, but I’m not sure that’d work any better. Right now, it’s pretty exciting. We have very different brains, so together we create stories we’d never create separately. Writing can also be lonely for me, so this way I get to chat with my pal while doing it.

How detailed are you in your scripts? Do you give the artist a lot of instruction, or just kind of turn them loose? Or does it depend on the artist?

It really does depend on the artist. Usually we’ll give pretty detailed page layouts and directions, and if the artist likes that, we’ll continue to do so. If the artist wants more free reign, we’ll go for that, too. While I love the writing, I feel the artist is king in comics, so it’s best to work with them as much as possible. I’ve had the good fortune of working with some amazing artists, and each collaboration is very rewarding in different ways.

Are there any mainstream comic characters you would love to write?

A lot of writers, especially in comics, have stories they want to tell for the characters they read and love, but not so much for me. I love Superman and Batman and Spider-Man — a lot of “man’s”… but there are not stories about them I’m dying to tell. Maybe it just doesn’t seem like the jump from reader/fan of them is possible. Having said that, if the opportunity arose, I’d definitely come up with something. It’d be amazing to write a mainstream superhero comic with Adam, really. We’ve chatted about it some… he has more ideas for them than I do, but once we get started on a story, that changes. It’s not a dream of mine for some reason, but the more I think about it, the more my brain it telling me it’d be a whole lot of fun.

I’ve heard writers say that everyone has a Batman story in them. I bet you have a Superman story floating around somewhere.

I did write a Superman and Batman story when I was in high school, and I submitted it to DC. I have a very nice rejection letter somewhere. It was a short, not a storyline. I have no idea what I thought they’d do with it. If the opportunity ever presented itself, or seemed like a possibility, I could write an awesome Batman or Superman story! It could be that I’m subconsciously not blocking those thoughts because it seems so impossible to me.

What’s your writing process, if you have a specific one? Does it usually start with a story idea, or a character, or something else? Do you outline extensively?

I really need to come up with a process. For years, it was waiting for magic ideas to enter my head, but then I realized that lead to me writing way too little for someone who claimed to want to be a writer. Sometimes there will be a project that comes up, and the guidelines for it will dictate what kind of story must be written. Character plays a huge role — a lot of time it’s a name. I’m a sucker for fun titles. My first two comic stories, in POPGUN 1 & 2, were about “Soulless, Man Without A Soul,” with an artist named Anjin Anhut. That was just a weird joke between me and my friends growing up… I don’t know why it made us laugh, but it did… then I came up with a character based upon that name.

Adam and I outline more than I do on my own. It’s important, but I also like having a vague idea and just writing, then making everything seem planned out in the revising stages.

Is there a preferred genre you like working in? (because comics ain’t no genre)

You’re right! It’s kinda silly when people say “the comic book genre.” As far as actual genres go, I love ’em all, really. Humor always plays a part, but spy adventures, fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes — it’s all good. I love reading just about every genre, and I love writing them, too.

Yeah, that drives me crazy. Kind of like Brad Bird hates when people call animation a genre.

And Brad Bird is always right! C’mon, we know he is. He even has me excited to see another MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie. I mean, I’ve seen them all, but I was never particularly excited to see them for some reason.

Brad Bird is totally always right.

What’s the hardest part about writing for you? The easiest?

Just coming up with an idea a story can be made from is hard. I throw out a lot of ideas or get in weird moods where I hate everything that pops in my brain. (This is where working with Adam really helps — in both that he’s an idea machine and in that he’s less hard on my brain than I am, which is encouraging.) Once characters are created, the easiest for me is dialog. I love it. Writing two people talking is sometimes easier for me than being part of a real life conversation.

Music or no music while you’re writing? If so, who?

I used to listen to music all the time, but less so recently. I don’t know why. There’s never been any specific band or singer or style of music that I thought of as “writin’ music.” Just iTunes on random or the radio.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Write! It’s so generic and what everyone says, but that’s because it’s true. As I mentioned, I used to wait for ideas to magically appear, and I wasted a lot of time. The more you write the better you get. I need to write A LOT more than I currently do. Just write, write, write. Don’t go a day without writing. (Yes, I do that, and it’s shameful.) And don’t be precious with your writing or timid to show it to others. Get it out there and get feedback and always keep working. I read you need 10,000 hours of work to become a master at something, so that’s a lot of time typing up or scribbling down words.

That’s great advice. People don’t expect to be able to draw really well without practicing, but somehow the idea is with writing you don’t have to work at it as much.

Part of me does think drawing is harder work, but maybe that’s just because it’s harder to me. In comics, it definitely is more time consuming overall. But both require discipline and hard work to do well, that’s for sure. Practice makes… better!

Tell me a little about DO YOU BELIEVE IN NINJAS, your book of, well, poems about ninjas.

Years ago, for reasons I don’t remember, I wrote a poem called “Do You Believe In Ninjas?” It amused me and my friends. This lead to more of them throughout the years. I don’t know much about poetry, nor do I know a whole lot about ninjas (aside from the fact that they’re awesome), but I’m pretty sure I’ve become an expert on both. I wrote some poems that appeared in some magazines and websites, and then Adam introduced me to this Canadian publisher called Creative Guy Publishing. They were visionary enough to want to collect all the ninja poems into a book… and then I had to write about twenty more to fill up even the slim book that it is! My amazing artist friend Chris Moreno did some terrific drawings for selected poems, and it turned out pretty swell.

What are you working on now, and what can we expect to see next from you?

Adam and I have several comics in the works. One is with an awesome artist named Robert Wilson IV and the terrific colorist Rico Renzi. It’s called LASER JOAN AND THE RAYGUNS. It’s a little JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS or BARBIE AND THE ROCKERS mixed with CHUCK and BEHIND THE MUSIC. Rock ‘n roll ladies and super spies, action and adventure!

There’s also AMELIA COLE AND THE UNKNOWN WORLD, a very fun, fantasy adventure book we’re writing. The action-packed art there is by the extremely talented Nick Brokenshire. Fun and mystery and magical shenanigans.

We also have a superhero comic with a great pencils from Robert Love and slick inks from Dana Shuartsi called NEVER ENDING and a really fun all-ages sci-fi adventure called TIM & SPACE with really fantastic art from Joe Flood. With these two, the artists involved there are rocking out other projects, but hopefully we can get our pitch and comic on those soon, too. Oh, and there is a one-shot comic we did of our stories from POPGUN’s 3 & 4 called AGENTS OF THE W.T.F. (It doesn’t mean what you think it means.) with a spectacular artist by the name of Matteo Scalera that we sold at the Baltimore Comic-Con and will be getting out to more readers one way or another soon. Once we can find a way to compete with the likes of Marvel for Matteo’s artistic affections, we’ll do more W.T.F., too.

Sounds like you’re really busy. Those projects sound very cool.

There are definitely more volumes of POPGUN on the way, right?

There is a fifth volume planned. As I said earlier, I’m not editing it, nor am I sure how much about it has been announced, so I’ll just… say… nothing other than it’ll be awesome!

Last question. Being that Superman is your favorite character, are you more of a DC guy? Or do you lean toward Marvel or Image or anybody else?

Love ’em all! Every publisher goes through phases. Both Marvel and DC have wonderful characters and creators… DC has the whole “New 52” relaunch going on that’s pretty exciting and interesting. And Image, they just have the most diversity of just about any publisher out there. Tons of great stuff! And there really are just so many great publishers out there nowadays, and to name more would mean I was leaving more out, but, caution to the wind, there’s Oni, IDW, Dark Horse, Top Shelf, Red 5, Boom!, Archaia, and loads more. Comics for everyone!

Thanks for mentioning that. I think it’s another major misconception that Marvel and DC are the only publishers out there. But I would feel pretty confident in saying that whatever genre you enjoy, there’s a comic being published in that genre.

Right on! Lots of different publishers out there. And you’re right about the variety of genres in comics. There’s something for everyone.

Anything else you’d like to add? Pearls of wisdom?

Believe in your dreams!

Thanks, Dan! What a swell bunch of questions. I really appreciate it!

Again, I want to thank D.J. for being so generous with his time. Make sure you click on some links and check his work out. You won’t be sorry you did!

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