Chattering with Aaron Sparrow
I really couldn’t resist the title.
Aaron Sparrow is nothing if not passionate. Twice over he’s worked to bring Darkwing Duck to comic books, and his work as a writer and professional has always seemed geared towards something I consider tremendously important – creating an accessible environment for new readers and kids. That’s no easy task in a world of crossovers, events and writing for the trade (now if only my local store could keep the book in stock!). With the release of the new Darkwing Duck trade paperback, he was able to give some of his time to talk with me about the way comics are created, his current Darkwing Duck series, and the impact both the character and comics medium had on him.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this conversation are the interviewee’s own, and should not be assumed to represent the views or opinions of the Disney Company.
Having worked so long to get this comic out there (twice!) you can easily lay claim to being one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Darkwing Duck fans around. What is it about Darkwing that you love so much?
It was just a series that really clicked, and resonated with me. I’d been a fan of the work of Carl Barks and Don Rosa, and loved the original DuckTales series in the 90’s. When Darkwing Duck came out, I’d been heavily into superhero comics for years, so in my view, it was the two great tastes that went great together.
At panels we’ve done around the country, I’ve listened to Tad Stones talk quite a bit about the “Disney heart” that sold the show… the addition of Gosalyn as Darkwing’s adopted daughter. There was something about the single parent aspect that also resonated with me, coming from a broken home. The relationship between Drake and Gosalyn is really what sets the show heads and shoulders above other cartoons at the time. I’ve seen so many fans, who say they didn’t have the ideal childhood or relationship with their parents, come up and hug Tad Stones, and tell him what that relationship meant to them while they were growing up. It’s very powerful.
What do you think makes the comic enjoyable for people who were more casual fans growing up or for people who never watched the show at all?
With the second series, we really tried to switch gears a little bit, and tell some fun, single issue stories that a casual or new fan, or especially kids, could pick up and jump into right away. It’s a lot like the format of the show, which often eschewed any kind of continuity. Our comic has continuity, and there’s different plot threads winding their way throughout, but we don’t get bogged down in it, and you can pick up an issue and read a fun adventure without feeling like “Oh no, I didn’t do the homework!” (laughs)
How does the comic differ from the show, and tying in to that, how much involvement does creator Tad Stones have in the new series?
Definitely the continuity! The show took its cue from the Golden Age of comics… stories where every issue they were coming up with some crazy idea and just running with it. “In this issue, Lois Lane gets super powers! But how?” And they’d just have her drive her car in to a magic lake. There, done, now off to the races! By the end of the issue, everything was back to normal, and we were reset for the next issue. The comics medium kind of demands a continuity… you want people coming back to read the next chapter, solve the next mystery. So there’s more connective tissue between stories. But with this second series, we’ve tried to really hone in on what made Darkwing so special, so while we have those continuing threads, the issues themselves are self-contained.
Tad has been great in offering advice, and he’s a fountain of great ideas. James and I will tell him something we’re thinking of doing, and right off of the top of his head he’ll give you five different ways to with it. We run new villains by him to get his input, and he’s always got a twist or personality wrinkle that you didn’t think of. It’s because of him that the Juggergnat [Note from interviewer: the original name for Gnatmare, introduced in Issue #4 “A Midsummer Gnat’s Spree”] has the personality he does. Tad told us to think of the actor we would cast when we create a new character, and that’ll help inform the type of character you have. So the Juggergnat, in our minds, at least, became Joe Pesci.
The original BOOM! run went almost exclusively for four issue arcs. THe current series has gone a different direction with shorter story arcs and one-shots, something that in the current comics climate doesn’t often go hand-in-hand with the continuity storytelling Darkwing has. What was the reason for this change, and how does it help you as a storyteller?
The change from a four-issue story mandate to a looser format really helps James and I tell better stories, I think; they can be as short or as long as we need them to be. “Orange is the New Purple”, for example, needed three issues to really have the best impact. If we had to have a fourth issue, we’d have been padding the story and I think it would have less impact. And although we have longer story threads that weave their way through the book, we get to do more “Done in One” stories, like retelling Fluffy’s origin, or “A Midsummer Gnat’s Spree”. It also gives new readers more points to jump on to the series… there’s continuity, but the book is very accessible.
From what I understand, your writing process with James Silvani is significantly more collaborative than the typical outline-script-art you get in most writer/artist partnerships. Can you walk people through te way an issue is put together between you two?
In a lot of respects, James and I share the same brain. We find the same kinds of things funny, and we have a lot of the same influences. We start out by batting around ideas about what would make the best story, what’s funny about it, and what will be enjoyable for him to draw. Then I add fifty crowd scenes and make him work for the money! (laughs)
Once we have our basic idea of the story and the main gags we want, I’ll rough out a pagination to give me an idea of how much space I have for each sequence. I usually start from the ending, to make sure I have enough room to give it the space it needs to have the most impact, then start the script from the beginning and meet in the middle. Every few pages or so, I send it off to James to get his impression, and see if there’s anything he wants to add, or if he sees any opportunity to add a visual gag I may have missed. At various points in the script process, our editors, Janice Orlando and Jesse Post, will give us notes and suggestions. Once I wrap the first draft of the script, I send it over to my friend, Jesse Snider (a very talented writer) to give me his impressions and make sure I don’t have any major plot holes! Once I’m satisfied, James and I and editorial have a bit of a confab to make any last tweaks we think are needed, and then it’s off to our friends at Disney for approval.
Once Disney approves the script, James draws it up. Although my scripts are fairly detailed with panel breakdowns and such, James has the freedom to change them as he sees fit… after all, he’s the artist, he has to make it work visually… but even when he changes it, we never lose the necessary beats or have to scrub a joke. He’s THAT good. Once he finishes the art, I revise the script against what he’s drawn… at this point, we can often cut or shorten dialogue, because his seamless storytelling has made a line of dialogue superfluous. And then it’s off to our letterers, David C. Hopkins and Deron Bennett.
The reason I asked about the two of you specifically in that last question is because I wanted to ask this one: you have made a visible, concerted effort to credit your editors, letterer, colorist, and everyone else involved in the process. What inspired you to make that push?
Comics is an extremely collaborative process. Everyone on our team brings more to the table than their job description suggests. Every single person involved has a hand in making this comic as funny as it is, look as beautiful as it does. From people like Andrew Dalhouse and Paul Little coloring the book, to Deron’s design, to David’s lettering, to Janice’s editorial input, to Jesse’s extremely fun letter columns… Everyone on the team is responsible for the final product on the shelves, and they deserve the credit for their hard work. The comics industry doesn’t have the best track record of properly crediting people… from Bill Finger on Batman, on down the line to company’s putting out press releases that comics “journalism” site run as “stories”, that rewrite the history of who was responsible for what… so it’s something I make a concerted effort to be mindful of, and appreciative to the people who help put out this book.
Not to mention, they’re a lovable bunch of rascals and I like to brag about them every chance I get.
That does mean you’re due to talk about yourself a bit, I think. You’ve worked all over the field as a localizer for manga, editor over at BOOM! and at Ape Entertainment, writing for Darkwing Duck and How To Train Your Dragon’s comic continuations – why did you decide to become a writer, and to work in comics specifically?
I fell in love with the comics medium at a very early age. My grandmother bought me some of the early Marvel Star Wars comics (Yes, I was there at the debut of Jaxxon, the green Star Wars bunny, folks) and my great grandmother later gave me a huge box of Archie digests that a neighbor gave her. I was a Disney fan, so they would buy me copies of Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck when we went to the local market. My grandmother Joyce would even cut out “Garfield” strips from the newspaper and save them in an envelope until I visited her, and then we’d get out the glue stick and put them in this big scrapbook she’d bought me. I started drawing my own (admittedly terrible) comics in grade school, and never really stopped creating characters and stories. I later got hooked on Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe and Chris Claremont’s X-Men, and from there branched out into other Marvel and DC titles. Creating characters and stories are all I ever wanted to do growing up, and my grandparents encouraged that, instead of something potentially lucrative, like finance or dentistry. (laughs)
There’s been a lot of talk recently about how people consume comics, but the focus is very much about reader retention. What I’m curious about is what you think the comic book industry (publishers, stores, creators, whoever you’d like to talk about) can do to bring in new readers.
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? New readers; everyone talks about them, no one seems to know how to capture them. They’re like unicorns.
I mean, let’s say you’ve just gone to see the big tentpole Marvel movie, and discovered that comics are a thing that exists. You want to read more about the characters you saw on the screen? Well, first, you’ll have to know that comics are sold almost exclusively in comics specialty shops. Assuming you know that, you have to hope there’s one in your area. If lightning strikes twice and you find one, you’ll have to somehow penetrate the industry’s renumbering schemes, multiple characters with the same name, variant covers, and strangling crossover events, to get a simple Captain America comic. But wait! In order to understand what’s going on in that issue, you’ll need to buy these other two comics, and four next month because this issue ends one crossover, but next month starts a new event that will change everything you know about Captain America! And you already know very little, and are rapidly losing interest in learning more, because all you wanted was a comic book and the entire thing just seems exhausting.
I mean, you could go digital, but the only people that know ComiXology exists are people already reading comics. And that’s the problem in a nutshell, we’re mining the same audience over and over, and they’re starting to die and/or fall away.
I’ll bet we could snag a few readers if when you went to see that next big Marvel or DC movie, you got a free comic that contained an ad which directed you to the comic book shop locator service. That might work. There’s nothing more infuriating than seeing an ad for the Jessica Jones Netflix series on a comic book. You want the 20,000 people who see that to watch the show? Awesome. How about the show tell the millions of people who watch it that there’s a comic book?
A followup question, what about what fans of the medium can do to bring in more people, either to series they already enjoy or to prospective new fans?
Word of mouth is really huge. If you like a comic series, if it makes you laugh or moves you, tell people about it! We pick up new readers all the time from Darkwing fans telling friends and family about the book. We find new fans at shows, who see us sitting at our table and never knew there was a comic book. (And a lot of them are weekly comic book customers!) Word of mouth, buying copies for friends as gifts, going on message boards and telling people about the series… these are all things that help keep the books you love alive.
If you could name one particular interaction with a Darkwing Duck fan you’ve had that stands out, what would that be?
One that always kind of makes me chuckle is when fans at shows come up to the table, look at the Darkwing Duck books on ours and the Princess comics on Amy [Mebberson]’s, and ask us “How do you make this without Disney finding out?” And we gently explain that no, these aren’t bootlegs or underground comics… these are officially licensed and approved. Unfortunately, IP theft is so rampant on the internet these days, everyone assumes that everything they see is bootlegged. So I chuckle, but then I sob a little inside. (laughs)
But the best interactions are the fans that come up and tell you that the comics mean something to them, that they helped them get through some difficult time in their life. That’s really powerful and important, to know that something we made transcended simple entertainment and meant something special to someone. And it’s a two-way street, because hearing those stories help us in the dark moments when we, as creatives, cry out “What am I doing with my life?” (laughs)
What is your favorite story in the new run so far?
I’d have to say the upcoming issue 7 and 8, which at the time of this writing is called “Dawn of the Day of the Return of the Living Spud.” It started out as a simple comedy/horror pitch, filled with jokes spoofing your typical zombie movie tropes… but it mutated dramatically. It was the first story we’ve done that focused on Bushroot, and by the time I was done writing him, his character really took the story in a different direction than I had planned. Tad always says that stories need to be more than a collection of gags, they should be ABOUT something… and this story is definitely about Bushroot, his history, and how we might see him differently moving forward.
Last question: where in whatever world she’s in is Morgana?
At the end of the “Darkwing Duck: Definitively Dangerous Edition”, we definitely confirm that Morgana is still out there. Hopefully we have a long run with this series so we can properly answer this question. I’m sure Moloculo Macawber will be less than pleased with Darkwing when he realizes his daughter disappeared on DW’s watch…
You can follow Aaron Sparrow on twitter at www.twitter.com/Aaron_Sparrow, read the team’s new Darkwing Duck issues every month, and catch up on the first four issues in the new trade paperback Darkwing Duck Comics Collection Vol. 1 Orange is the New Purple.