Thursday, April 02, 2009

Interview with M. Zachary Sherman - Writer of Radical Comics Shrapnel

One of the great things that has developed from this blog is the chance to interview various creators in the business and to feel a little like I have gotten in on the ground floor of a company. Radical is just a class act it is that simple and I have failed to mention the hardcover line they are doing. I have had the chance to get Caliber and Hercules in the hardcovers and they are well done (glued binding - not my favorite) but they are on oversized format and the art just jumps off the page. Also for my two cents the stories read better when read in one sitting.

This is a long preamble to this interview because Shrapnel is being promised as a triology and I really want to see this book as one hardcover. I love this story so far of Venus being the last free colony against a growing Solar System regime and Mr. Sherman is the writer of this book and was kind enough to answer some questions.

Jim: Zack, I can see from a little internet searching that you left working for George Lucas to try you hands at being a freelance writer, yet you initial background seems to be a digital artist. What is your secret origin and do you see yourself as a writer more then an artist?

Zack: Actually, I’m more machine now than man, twisted and evil. (Laughs) Sorry, bad, that was bad… No, I started in film at a very early age taking anything, any job, I could find just so I could learn the business. I remember James Cameron once saying he'd done every person’s job on a set so he could really understand what it took to make a film. I liked that dogged relentlessness he had as a filmmaker and I wanted to be like him, so I did my stint as a production person in film. I did every odd job from Production Assistant to Craft Service assistant just to get my foot in the door. But I’ve writing stories for as long as I can remember. Actually, it was my dad who recently reminded me that most of the short stories I wrote when I was a kid all seemed the start out with “In a post apocalyptic future--“ or something along those lines… I loved sci-fi books, comics and films as a kid. My dad was a huge sci-fi fan (his favorite films are Blade Runner and Alien) so he and I used to sit together and watch all the B-film sci-fi crap we could find.

Digital effects was actually a side career, one I got sucked into because of the money and the stability, but I’ve always wanted to be a creator, especially a writer.

I thought I wanted to be a director as I was growing up, but I learned pretty quickly it was really the writer who was the initial architect, the planner, of the film. He’s the flint to that tiniest spark of life that becomes an idea or concept that can grow into an amazing realized piece of art or fiction. All on a deadline, mind you! (Laughs) But yes, I always wanted to be that guy and working for someone like George Lucas really showed me that I could be. My job at ILM really pushed me towards creating my own projects, especially like “SOCOM: SEAL Team Seven.”

Jim: Shrapnel seems to be a unique project as you are listed as the scripter, but the series creators are Nick Sagan and Mark Long. How does the process work? Are they giving you a hard outline or have they given you more just broad strokes?

Zack: Working with Nick and Mark was a writer’s dream. The first time Mark and I spoke about Shrapnel, he spoke about what he wanted it all to feel like. Old battles of antiquity set on the backdrop of space and I got really excited; no one had really tried that in a comic before and being that Mark and I are both students of history, I though we gelled on that level extremely well.

It was all very lose in the beginning, and not quite a solid idea with an A to Z, but he and Nick had written the briefest of outlines. It was a good building block; the first stone cemented into the foundation.

We started with a single conference call. It took about three hours but together the three of us came up with the over-all arcing story we wanted to tell. It was at this point I actually wrote Samantha’s entire history as a person. It’s about six pages long and really detailed, from what happened to her at seven years old with her sister to her years trying out for track in high school all the way up to her commissioning ceremony as an officer and then through the debacle on Mars that led to her going Unauthorized Absence. That character breakdown really set the tone for the series.

After we agreed on Sam’s character (whose original name was Liberty, but we all thought that was wwwaaayyyy to heavy-handed), we probably had about four more three-hour long conference calls to discuss the story. As we went along, I did a bullet-point outline that ended up to be about ten pages long that plotted the entire story. As I finished each individual act in script format, we’d go through them on calls, giving us a round-table atmosphere to dissect what worked and what didn’t.

Writing by committee is hard, but both Nick and Mark made it easy for me. Basically, they left me alone to create, came in at strategic points and made me look at the script from varying angles until it was crystal from all sides.

Jim: Where you part of the team pitching the project or did Radical find you?

Zack: Actually, neither. Mark and I met at a Comic Con when he sauntered up to the Image booth and picked up a copy of my creator-owned graphic novel, “SOCOM: SEAL Team Seven.” He was so impressed with it he flew me up to Zombie Studios a week later and signed me not only to write Shrapnel, but optioned the rights to ST7 to make a video game out of it!

I got to writing and the process began. A year later, at another Comic Con, I actually introduced Mark to the guys at Imaginary Friends Studios through a comic book writer friend of mine, the extremely talented Andrew Dabb, who was working with them on something of his own. Mark hired them on the spot to do it because it was always his intention to have that type concept-artist style to it.

I believe the Radical team came later as Mark went to Hollywood with this kick-ass new book, unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and began pitching it. Needless to say, Radical has done an amazing job with it and I couldn’t be happier.

Jim: Breaking in as a writer often seems to be the hardest thing to do, how did you break-in?

Zack: It was pretty actually hard... I’ll give the condensed version, if I can…

It started with me trying to write a script for Nightwing as a sample for Bob Shreck, whom I met at a WonderCon in 2000. He graciously redline edited it and mailed it back to me which inspired me to try even harder. But it was after meeting publisher Larry Young at the Isotope comic book store, run by the immensely awesome James Sime, that I was convinced to write my own project to prove to the industry I could do it.

Well, unfortunately the book wasn’t the right fit for AiT/Planet Lar, but it soon found its way to Image and became SOCOM: SEAL Team Seven. It’s essentially the US Navy SEAL vs. the Underwater Kingdom of Atlantis. I hired my own artist and art directed the book on my own time at night after working 12 hour days at ILM on crap like “Van Helsing.” If that film doesn’t inspire you to want to create something better, then you’re done for! (laughs) When the book finally came out, Roberto de la Torre (who drew it magnificently I might add) was snatched up by Marvel exclusively. He actually took the book to his editor who contacted me and, in turn, introduced me to Andy Schmidt.

That was the beginning, essentially. In a very large nutshell, anyway… But it's more than that. It's not an overnight thing. What if I had gotten the edits back from Bob (Shreck) and I'd given up? No to “write” is a verb. A verb is an action word and writing is an action. Not something you talk about doing. Writers need to just do it. The more you talk about an idea you want to do, the more power you take away from it. You no longer yearn to tell it on paper because you’ve done it all with yer mouth. Shut yer pie hole and put it on paper! (Laughs) I’m guilty as charged of this as well. It’s hard, to write, to stare at the blank page and say, “today I must be a creative genius!” Well, you really don’t. You just need to get something, anything, on paper you can rework into genius later. David Parks, an old screenwriter friend of mine, used to say “throw out the first thing you put on paper, ‘cuz it’ll be crap anyway.” 9 out of 10 times, he right.

Jim: What part of Shrapnel Aristeia Rising do you feel you have contributed to the most? (Your military background seems to be in play).

Zack: Sure, I can draw from my military career to put a sense of reality these characters into the daily operations, but I think it’s the strength of character I’ve tried to instill in these people I’m most proud of. Sure, the action is pretty intense and the sci-fi is hard-core, just the way I like it, but I really feel that if you don’t have a strong sense of who your characters are and where they’re going, you get lost pretty quickly. Readers are pretty savvy and I think they know when you’re faking it. I like to think that’s my greatest contribution to the series as a whole; characters that will endure the new arcs and versions of Shrapnel. Especially Samantha.

Jim: Shrapnel is advertised as part one of a three part series. Are the other two parts already set or are sales a determining factor?

Zack: Unfortunately, I don’t have any insight on those upcoming projects, sorry.

Jim: What is your writing process? Are you doing full scripts? Do you give the panel breakdown to the artist?

Zack: I’m a panel-to-panel scripter. I’m a pretty visual writer that likes to give the artist enough to work with, but not enough to take him out of the creative process. The penciler isn’t just an art-monkey, he’s a big part of the cinematography, the feeling you’re trying to convey. But I have a specific vision, not unlike like a director, and I consider the penciler/inkers to be the cinematographers.

Jim: This project (like many from Radical) feels like it could be developed for other entertainment medium, specifically a video game. Is Shrapnel being developed for other outlets and are you involved?

Zack: There has been talk of a feature film and video game adaptations or prequels and we’ll have to see what my involvement would be. I’d love to be involved and Mark and I have spoken to that fact, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Jim: You have already had a shot at working for the big two and I assume you would like the opportunity again. If you had your pick what character would you like to write for Marvel or DC and why?

Zack: Actually, I’ve never written for DC and would absolutely love to. I’ve always been more of a DC follower than Marvel; it’s just what I grew up with as a kid. Superman would be a dream to write for, but having been a huge Dick Grayson fan as a kid, Nightwing would be the one I’d love to tackle. That book was like the FBI going after “The Godfather” all done in tights… That book was perfect in every way… Specifically the way Dixon flowed Dick Grayson from sidekick into his own man with those first 50 issues, wow, fantastic stuff there… That would be awesome, but Superman would be a dream come true.

But then there’s really great stuff coming out of Marvel, as well! Brubaker’s Cap run and Iron Fist stories are brilliant and are some of the best comics one could ever hope to read! Just the way he’s able to make you care about second-tier characters is amazing! By wrapping you up in their own lives and stories, he really makes you feel for them in ways we never did before. We mourn with them, grow with them and become a part of their lives. Awesome work.

Both companies have their strengths and their weaknesses but either way you slice it, they both put out some great stuff I would love to be a part of.

Jim: All writers seem to have a few ideas in their back pocket, are you working on any creator owned ideas and / or other projects that you can talk about?

Zack: I do indeed! As a matter of fact, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new project called "America’s Army: The Graphic Novel" that will coincide with the release of the new 3.0 version of the game. We’re doing a companion piece that follows the continuity of the game’s story, but I’m actually able to create all new characters for the comic portion, so that’s awesome check that out at and click on the AA3 link at the top of the page. Mike Penick and James Brown have done an awesome job on that one. Also, I’ve co-written a book with a great writer named Tom Martinek called "Harry Walton: Henchman for Hire" which showcases the humorous turmoil-ridden life an every day henchman for super villains has to deal with. Art by Matt Hebb. Look for both of those really soon and check out a preview of them on my website,
Jim: Happy Belated Birthday. So what do you do when not creating comics?

Zack: Thanks! I’m actually part owner in a new software company called JAZ Games. It was formed specifically to create games and applications for the iPhone. We have three apps/games right now in the store, “Sounds of Adventure” (a fun sound fx game with great sounds and graphics), Know it All (a trivia game with sweet multi-player) and a credit card authorization application (so anyone anywhere can accept credit cards where they have a cell signal). Check us out on the iTunes store under JAZ Games.
Besides that, I game on the XBOX and the PS3 (Call of Duty, Mass Effect those types of games), exercise, watch a bunch of movies, but mostly I read. A good writer learns from reading other writer’s words. And not just the kinds that appear in word balloons, either! Everything from Philip K. Dick to Dan Brown, read it all. It’s important to see how others craft their characters, situations and to learn from them. But mostly I practice my craft. Talent is only part of the equation. The only way for a good writer to become a great writer it to write.

THANKS Zack. I think it was a great interview, but that is because of the answers. I love doing these interviews, but they always cost me money as now I have to find Zack's Socom: Seal Team Seven graphic novel.

Also I love the fact that Zack outlined who Samantha was in such great detail. For me having a detailed back story makes the character seem real as they react to what is happenning to the, in the story.

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