Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writer's Notes: S.H.O.O.T. First #1

So, after years of effort behind the scenes, S.H.O.O.T. First #1 by myself, Nicolas Daniel Selma, Marlac and Amanda Aguilar Selma has finally been released by Dark Horse Comics. So far the reviews have been really good, and I’m excited because I think every issue is better than the last. And now, because I’ve been literally waiting for four years to talk about some of the twists in this issue, I’m going to do some Kieron Gillen-style Writer’s Notes for it. FULL SPOILERS follow, so don’t hit the jump unless you’ve already read the issue. (P.S. Read the issue)


WARNING: I also go on and on at great lengths. Deal with it.
...


1-2.
S.H.O.O.T. First first appeared in a prototype short story, The Wooden Saint, published in 2010 in MySpace Dark Horse Presents. Immediately you got to find out a bunch of stuff about the team (including a few details I couldn’t even figure out a way to work in during the mini-series, despiite having 12x the amount of pages to work with), with one exception. The narrator of that story doesn’t really know anything about Mrs. Brookstone.


So immediately, the mini-series opens up with one of the revelations about Mrs. Brookstone that the narrator wouldn’t have known - she has a son named Ray who lives with her and her mother in a secret area behind Mrs. Brookstone’s dormitory in S.H.A.R.D. headquarters. That’s revelation number one, if you’re approaching this having read the previous material. If you’re fresh to it, you might be like, “Why are we starting this action comic with some toys and a conversation about death?”


Well. The toys are a little in-joke for people who’ve followed me from ToyFare, and also a way to introduce the concept of death, because I know when I was a kid playing with action figures, I used to get really deep and emotional from the stories I was coming up with using them.


The conversation is the starting point because it’s hugely important to what this series is about to me. And it’s cut short here, but I think it’s safe to say you’ll see it resurface later on.


3.
Figuring out how to begin this series was one of the toughest things about cracking it. I did two complete versions of issue 1 in outline form, and the second one was based on extensive and fantastic notes from my fantastic editor (and S.H.O.O.T. First’s guardian angel), Dave Marshall.

Figuring out how to begin this thing was tricky because I had already written what I considered a pretty good, concise intro to all the characters in The Wooden Saint. So having to reintroduce everyone in a different way was tough to crack. Plus, I had decided I wanted to do S.H.O.O.T. First the mini-series (I believe the official name for this storyline is going to be Angels and Infidels) without narrative captions, which makes things way, way tougher. More on that later.


So the main point of difference in the first draft was that Infidel was already a member of the team. I was really trying to avoid the whole “new guy gets brought aboard and shown the ropes” thing, but here’s the thing: it’s cliche because it works. So here we’re introduced to Infidel before he’s ever met S.H.O.O.T.


Fun fact: for reasons I’m not sure of, before he takes the name Infidel I insisted on referring to him in the outline as “The Translator,” because that’s his job, see. And I referred to as “The Translator” so many times that I was like, “That has to mean something! His character climax has to involve his work as a Translator, otherwise why are we saying it so much?” Then I realized that, in the actual comic, we’re not. He only once off-handedly refers to being a translator, so it seems more like an explanation of why he speaks English than a serious part of his personal narrative. P.S., his character climax no longer involves translation.


4.
Another major change from the first draft is the monster - the Bottle Jinn didn’t exist until the second draft. Well, technically, they didn’t exist until Nicolas and Marlac brought them to life. Look at those things. They’re creepy as hell.


Being a writer is great, because you get to say things like “Each has a semi-translucent sac on its body in which it has already stashed one or two unconscious humans,” and the artists have to figure out what the hell that means. These guys did an incredible job.


So, why Bottle Jinn? Well, I wanted something from Islamnic folklore, to tie in with our introduction of Infidel. And then I wanted something to tie directly into the Apocalypse conspiracy, so we put the twist on traditional Jinn that, rather than residing in bottles, these ones ARE bottles. Blammo. Bottle Jinn.


Even after the first major revision, the first issue went through a bunch of smaller, iterative changes. And one of them was that in an earlier draft, instead of transporting the mosque to a pocket dimension, the “suicide bombing” created a field that froze it in time, so that this scene took place in a mosque that was basically being torn apart in super slow motion. This, however, proved even tougher to wrap one’s head around in an issue full of tough stuff to wrap one’s head around, so I came up with a simpler concept.


5.
Here we’re getting some important info: Infidel is heroic, the Jinn are looking for a certain type of person, and Infidel ain’t it. Then there’s a headaslpode.


6.
So here’s the big introduction of S.H.O.O.T. My formative comics reading experiences were almost entirely of the ‘90s X-Men, so I think that directly affected how I think of and write team books. And you bet your ass that means there’s gotta be a splashy image where the team shows up and looks badass.


This page begins the complicated process of trying to introduce the characters through their actions rather than explaining who they are and what they’re like. As a result we don’t get super duper deep into a few of the characters in this issue, because we’re mostly seeing them in a battle setting. But trust me when I tell you, you’ll know a lot more about everybody by the time this is through.


One of the first things you learn is that Bett and Lord Byron are a pair, a team within the team. They’ve got a lot of history together, these two.


7.
So here we learn that Mrs. Brookstone’s team persona is tough and no nonsense, and hopefully it stands in contrast to what we know is her true self, or at least her self when she’s with her family. And Kenshin is our Donatello, the science dude.


You also start getting some terminology thrown at you here. A few reviewers noted that the issue dumps you into the deep end and then circles back to explain things later. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s that it’s super lame for people to be standing around going, “Watch out! These Outside Actors can self-evolve into any form and they’ve chosen these Bottle Jinn to harvest true believers for after...” yadda yadda. No one would talk like that during a battle. So I’m throwing out morsels and hoping that they’re intriguing enough that they stick in your mind so that it makes sense when it gets explained later in a slightly more organic way.


8.
Ah the unicorn horn. I love the unicorn horn. You’re going to see more unicorn horn.


9.
Here’s another concept that’s hard to get across visually, but I think Nico did a great job and hopefully readers got it. See, the Jinn are made of fire. So the one that got stabbed by the unicorn horn had some sort of bad reaction and now is going around and absorbing the fire from its compatriots to become a bigger, meaner super-Jinn.


10.
Mrs. Brookstone notes that this has never happened before, and guess what. When I wrote that line, I had no explanation for why that was. Weird stuff happens in this world, I guess. But eventually I figured out that there was an actual reason, and you’ll find out why in issue 3.

Also, I love Robot. Nico loves Robot. I hope everyone loves Robot.


11-13.
I’m not a visual person, and action scenes are something I still feel like I’m trying to improve on. So I hope this one reads as exciting, but hey...it’s got a robot arm-wrestling a giant Jinn. That’s got to count for something, right?


14.
You could draw a great big red line between pages 13 and 14, as the book basically splits in not-quite-half here. The rest of the issue is all Infidel being recruited in S.H.A.R.D. HQ, other than our epilogues.


Remember how I said I wanted to do the series without narrative captions? Well the main difficulty with that is that all exposition must be placed in the mouths of the characters, which can result in what we in the industry call “the info-dump.” I know I’ve got an info-dump in this issue. I know it. I tried to figure out a way around it. I could not. I’m always trying to improve as a writer, so it’s important to know my shortcomings. Here’s one!


Every single person who read the script got the same question from me, often more than once: “Did it feel like too much of an info-dump? Was the exposition boring?" Everyone said no, but I was still nervous, so I did a big song and dance to keep the exposition from feeling like a bunch of people sitting at a table in a conference room getting info dumped on them. Step 1: important info is given in the introduction of our final major character, S.H.A.R.D. head Seth Hersch.


15.
Step 2: Keep them moving! It’s not a static scene if they’re doing a walk and talk!


In the first draft of the outline, there was none of this stuff about needing a certain mental energy to fire S.H.O.O.T.’s weapons, which is weird because it’s extremely central to the storyline now. But in the revision, I needed Infidel to get recruited, and so I needed a reason for Infidel to get recruited, and so I invented this. Sometimes the best ideas come because you’re trying to find a way to dance around the landmines you’ve accidentally planted. I firmly believe this.


Also, the Outside Actor concept is tricky, and based on some reviews I’m not sure if I explained it as well as I could have. I’d be happy to talk your ear off at any time about how the Outside Actors work, because I’ve thought it through extremely thoroughly.


16.
Step 3: Put a gun in someone’s hand!


17.
Step 4. Have someone turn the gun on someone else! Can you see now how this dance is done?

So here’s the other major difference from the first draft: in the first draft, I never spelled out this whole Apocalypse plan. You know, the whole reason why the team is fighting in the first place. I mean, it existed, and I knew about it, but I wasn’t going to let the reader know about it. That seemed like the comic book thing to do - to keep the big, world-threatening conspiracy in the shadows.


And then during my big pre-revision conversation with Dave, he said to me, “Yes, but why does S.H.O.O.T. fight the Outside Actors?” And I said, “Oh, it’s because they’re trying to stop...” etc. And he said, “Why aren’t we telling the reader that?” So now we’re bucking the “comic book thing” and just telling you about the big shadowy conspiracy right up front. Because the other secrets this team keeps are way more interesting anyway.


18.
Step 5: Show an angel on videotape! Again, this was something that was always part of the team’s backstory but was originally going to stay hidden. So much cooler this way. (One of the last revisions to this issue was changing this Angel’s hair from blonde to reddish. It was clear to me that this isn’t the same Angel as we see two pages later because I wrote the damn thing, but when I first read it all together I realized everyone else in the world would think they’re the same Angel.)


19.
“I think I’ve got a pretty serious head injury” is my favorite comic line of the issue.


20.
The traitor! This is something that was present in The Wooden Saint as well, so we couldn’t have a story beat where the revelation is that there’s a traitor. But neither could we leave it out entirely. Now, originally the Cardinal was going to go see the Pope, but Dave, to his credit, said he wasn’t comfortable with that. And he’s totally right, although the Pope would be totally within his rights to go after S.H.O.O.T. But by having the Cardinal report into an Angel who’s living within the Vatican...well, that makes things a lot more interesting and complex, I think. We also get a sense here about what, exactly, the traitor is selling the team out in exchange for.


I’m curious if anyone had any theories about who the traitor was after reading this issue. Because there are clues in this issue as well as in The Wooden Saint. And that’s all I’ll say for now.


21-22.
Here it is! Here’s the secret I’ve been keeping about this story since literally the first day I came up with the concept. I came up with the idea, then I sat down and starting writing out character ideas and archetypes. Every single character and name came from that first day writing session on the bus on the way home from work. And here’s what I wrote for Mrs. Brookstone:

“Rosemary (of Rosemary’s Baby) Type.”


Ray is half Outside Actor!


This is my favorite thing about the issue, and one of my favorite things about S.H.O.O.T. First in general. Ray is so, so important you guys. I hope when you read it we really got you with that final page turn. Nico and Marlac did such a spectacular job with selling this disturbing image.


So here, then, is the concept that was always baked into the series. The one I’ve waited more than four years to be able to discuss publicly at this point. And you’ll learn more about young Mr. Ray Brookstone in the very next issue.


I hope everyone enjoyed the issue, and whether you did or not, please come back for the next three. It gets so much crazier and funnier and more exciting and everything. It gets incredible.

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