(Interviewer: Alex Odom, GS Editor for SPACES)
By day, Russell Lissau is a mild-mannered newspaper reporter in suburban Chicago. By night, he battles evil writing comic books including THE BATMAN STRIKES!, STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE and DAILY GRIND. He broke into comics in 2005 with the lead story in BATMAN ALLIES SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS. (A lifelong Batman fan who dressed up as the Caped Crusader as a child, he can’t believe his luck.) His most recent projects include short stories in the highly regarded independent series OMEGA COMICS PRESENTS, the self-published western ONE LAST THING and the upcoming graphic novel OLD WOUNDS.
Alex: It seems appropriate to ask, given your dual focus: do you wear glasses all of the time, or just when you’re working as a journalist?
Russell: There are times I wish I was Clark Kent and could whip off my glasses, tear off my shirt and tie and fly off to save Lois Lane, but it never seems to come true. I think my being a journalist gives me a little insight into Clark’s world, though, and that’s a big reason why the first comic book script I wrote was a Superman story. It never was published, and it’s more than a little dated now because it focuses on a photographer and what he finds in his film negatives, but it’s still a fun story.
Alex: How did you get into writing, and which came first, journalism or comics?
Russell: I started writing and drawing comics for fun when I was in grade school, as many kids do. I started working as a journalist in middle school, writing short fiction and sports stories for my school newspaper. That led to high school journalism, which was a hobby until I realized I was rather good at it and wanted to make it a career. By that time I’d stopped writing comics, but I’d never stopped reading them. And then, after years as a working journalist who had a day job at a newspaper and also was freelancing for magazines and webzines, I got the itch to write comics. That was prompted by the encouragement I received from friends I had made in the comics industry through the stories I’d written about comics for Wizard, CBR, the Daily Herald and other publications. And that eventually led to the aforementioned Superman story, which led to Batman.
Alex: How did you get the opportunity to write Batman, and what was it like to write such an iconic character?
Russell: I had become friends with writer Jeph Loeb, who at the time was working for DC on some pretty amazing projects. He was one of the chief architects of my comics career, helping and encouraging me and giving me advice. He also introduced me to one of his editors, the man then running the Superman books. The editor told me they didn’t need Superman stories right then (this was 2003 or 2004), but he asked what else I could write. I quickly said Batman, who has always been my favorite superhero. So he introduced me to one of the Batman editors, and I started pitching stories to him and writing spec scripts – sharpening my chops instead of merely throwing story ideas against a wall. Eventually, I got an assignment: The lead story in BATMAN ALLIES SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS 2005. That led to being one of the regular writers on THE BATMAN STRIKES, where I wrote six stories between issues 30 and 48. It was great to write Batman and his supporting characters, not to mention his amazing rogues gallery. I hope to return to Gotham City very soon.
Alex: Are there any other characters you’re itching to write?
Russell: That’s a long list. Who wouldn’t want to write a Wolverine story, or Spider-Man? I’ve got a pitch for a Daredevil mini-series that’s been sitting in a drawer for a while. And the Dire Wraiths, the old Marvel monsters – I love those guys.
Alex: Other than the fact that you’re writing, how much overlap you do you find between journalism and comics?
Russell: I think writing comics has made me a better journalist. Comics are told, as with most storytelling, using a three-act structure: The beginning, the middle, the end. And when I write long-form journalism pieces, I try to stick to that structure. It almost always works.
Alex: What’s your process like?
Russell: When I have a comics assignment, I generally write at night after my daughter goes to sleep. And I try to write at least two hours a night, which typically is 2-3 pages of script.
Alex: Who are your favorite illustrators, inkers, and colorists to work with?
Russell: I’ve worked with some marvelous artists. Brad Walker penciled my first Batman story, and he does this thing where the characters’ mouths are actually showing syllables in a panel. It’s incredible. Jimmy Palmiotti inked that story; I have a page of framed original art from it hanging three feet from where I’m sitting right now. Jimmy signed it and wrote “Awesome story!” in the corner. That means a lot. Christopher Jones was the regular artist on The Batman Strikes, and he was great to work with. He also taught me a lot about what to put into a script and what to leave out, the basic mechanics of writing for comics. Lately, I’ve worked extensively with mpMann on independent and self-published projects, and he’s a joy, the yin to my yang.
Alex: If you could work with any illustrator, inker, or colorist who would it be?
Russell: Tim Sale. As I said, Jeph Loeb was a mentor of sorts when I was thinking about breaking into comics. I’d gotten to know Tim and Jeph through my journalism work, and they both became friends. And I learned a ton about how a script becomes a comic book from reading their scripts and then their comic books. No kidding, I spent about a year studying the art form before I started pitching stories. And I really got to understand the language they shared and the expectations writers and artists have for each other, just from reading those scripts and comics. Back when I was pitching to DC, before I got my first gig, I wrote a Batman/Poison Ivy story that I really loved, and I sent it to Tim and asked if he’d consider being attached to the story. He graciously declined because of his workload, but he said he loved the story. And it eventually became BATMAN STRIKES #38, drawn by Christopher Jones – my favorite BATMAN STRIKES piece.
Alex: What are your top five favorite books, any genre, on your bookshelf right now?
Russell: I’m reading MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY. It’s slow reading but enjoyable. Comics wise, I’ve got WITCH DOCTOR, AMALA’S BLADE, DAREDEVIL: END OF DAYS and CHEW on my pull list. Oh, and PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. If Greg Rucka wrote the phone book, I’d read it.
Alex: Where, besides other writers, do you pull influences?
Russell: Movies, TV, real life. The usual places. About a year ago I was in the local library and saw a man wearing a suit, a long wool overcoat and leather gloves walking past me. I thought the gloves were an odd touch inside a building and I wondered why he was still wearing them. Because he’s a hitman and he’s here to kill someone, the writer part of my brain said. That flash became the self-published comic DAILY GRIND.
Alex: What advice do you have for writers trying to break into the world of comics?
Russell: When I talk at cons about writing comics and breaking in, I have a mantra: DO THE WORK. DO THE WORK. DO THE WORK. It’s easier than ever before to make comics. Go make some. Find artists and letterers and colorists and go make comics. Then get a table at conventions and sell them. If you make good comics, they’ll get noticed.
Alex: Here at SPACES, we like when areas intersect, so I thought I’d pit your inner Caped Crusader against your inner Gonzo. Frank Miller versus the late Hunter S. Thompson: who would have won in a fight, and why?
Russell: I’m a fan of both writers, but Hunter was an idol of mine going back to journalism school at Northwestern University. Not the drugs and the wild life, but the way he told a story, the way he twisted the form and mixed fact and fiction to tell the story. I was devastated by his death. That being said, Hunter was a damn good shot and Frank wouldn’t stand a chance.
Alex: What’s next for you, Russell?
Russell: I have four new comics coming out this year: a sci-fi story called STRANGER, that could be self-published; a horror tale called SWEET DREAMS, in an upcoming issue of OMEGA COMICS PRESENTS; a self-published horror tale called SURVIVAL; and a short story in STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE #3. Late this year or early next year will see the publication of my first original graphic novel, a crime thriller called OLD WOUNDS. Drawn by longtime friend and collaborator John Bivens, it will be published by POP GOES THE ICON!, the outfit that also publishes OMEGA COMICS PRESENTS. I’m incredibly proud of this book and I can’t wait for fans to read it.
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