Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writer's Notes: S.H.O.O.T. First #4

All good things must come to an end, and S.H.O.O.T. First (Book 1!) did on January 15th with the release of issue #4. Before I get into the writer’s notes, I need to thank my incredible co-creator Nicolas Daniel Selma for bringing this world to life, and our colorist and letterer Marlac and Amanda Aguilar Selma. More than any other medium, a comic is only as good as it looks, and these guys made the comic look amazing.

I also need to thank the two people whose faith in this project kept it going for years and through difficult times. First, my wife Brooke, who read my initial concept and said “This could be something.” And my editor Dave Marshall, who’s shepherded this project through different phases, different teams and different fortunes, never losing faith that this was a comic that Dark Horse should be publishing. Plus, of course, Dave’s keen editorial eye made it a better story and made me a better writer. I’m endlessly indebted to both of them.

And now, after the jump, if you’ve been with us the whole way…here’s how we wrapped things up.


1. I love that this issue starts with a flashback to a truly tender moment between our main protagonist and antagonist. It gives us a moment of calm before the storm, but it also tells us that Mrs. Brookstone wasn’t always this battle-hardened person—circumstances have made her like this. What she is, above all, is a mother who wants to protect her child, and that’s the throughline from the flashback to when we jump to the present.

This issue originally started with a thrilling (hopefully) chase sequence of S.H.O.O.T.’s plane approaching their headquarters then being attacked by the Angel and Demon and having to make a crazy crash-landing straight through the building edifice into the base. But, as you may have notice, this issue is crazy over-stuffed to begin with. And since we didn’t gain anything from that sequence other than some additional action, it got cut in the outlining process.

2. One last chance to call Robot “our robot.”

3-4. These poor S.H.A.R.D. guys. Their weapons are, by definition, less effective than S.H.O.O.T. weapons. I’d like to think Seth didn’t necessarily know he was leaving them to the slaughter, since at this point they didn’t know how powerful the attackers were.

The main difference between the final issue in the original outline and the printed version is that originally, S.H.A.R.D. was going to come under attack by a group of Swiss Elite guards, basically the Vatican equivalent of stormtroopers. And THEN, some of those guys were going to turn out to be angels and demons in disguise, and they were going to transform and…oh, it’s very complicated.

As I mentioned last issue, Dave suggested that the demon should be Mr. Brookstone, and then everything fell into place. One Angel, one Demon, both of whom we’d met before. Much simpler and more effective.

5. If you listened to my interview with Keith Chow on the Nerds of Color podcast Hard N.O.C. Life, you know that I started to feel a little uncomfortable with our traitor being the Asian guy well after the issue was in the can. But I also mentioned that Kenshin’s story wasn’t over. He’s the guy who said “They told me no one would be hurt” and means it. So here we see the beginning of his redemption arc, and it starts with punching a dude in the face.

6. Nana Anne saying “Thank you, Robot” is a reference to my friend Jeremy Bent’s improv troupe Thank You, Robot. I didn’t set out to reference them, but the situation in the script made it irresistible.

7. I mentioned in the writer’s notes to issue 1 that, in the initial outline to the series, I referred to the pre-S.H.O.O.T. Infidel as “the Translator” so much that I ended up thinking, “This is a Chekov’s gun! His character climax has to have to do with translation!” And for a while in the outline, it did. (He was going to overhear the Angel and the Demon talking in Latin, or something, and glean valuable information. It was stupid.)

Once I realized that was stupid, Infidel still needed a character arc. He was, after all, one of the main focal points of the series. So I decided to make his journey the journey towards humanism, towards trusting in humanity’s potential rather than in gods who may not be there. Look, clearly trusting other people is not always the right decision. But Infidel trusts in the potential of humanity, which means that there’s the potential that Kenshin is telling the truth.

I think that’s a fitting journey for Infidel, who’s cast around for something to believe in throughout the series. So now he’s had his character climax on page 7, leaving the rest of the issue for some other folks to take the spotlight.

8. One of the criticisms I’ve read about this issue is that the revelations fly so fast and furious that it can be hard to feel their impact. That may be true. Maybe this was one revelation too far. But, to me, it’s an important one.

This scene was one of the last things added into the outline. Originally, S.H.O.O.T. First #1 was going to come out in January 2013, before we hit some scheduling snags. And then in December of 2012 the Newtown shootings happened.

Suddenly, everyone with a soul started thinking about our culture of violence, and what we do to contribute to or perpetuate it. And I had to stop myself and think, if it hadn’t been for a scheduling snag, I’d have a comic coming out in a few weeks where the heroes solve all of their problems with guns, and it’s not questioned within the story.

Now, clearly the guns function as a metaphor. But that excuse can only go so far. So I decided to rethink the role of the guns in the story. And rather than strip them out entirely (a tough sell when the book is still called S.H.O.O.T. First), I decided to fight metaphor with metaphor. I decided that the guns do something to your “soul,” and that the team would find out about this in the final issue. It colors our perception of Byron, who’s been using them long enough to have noticed the difference, but it also sets the team up with a tough choice.

It may not counteract the act of putting out an action comic with cool guns, but hopefully at least it provides a thoughtful counterpoint. In real life I hate guns. Hate hate hate. I don’t want to contribute to a culture that glorifies them.

This was a change that also provided me with a new ending that I’d been searching for, but I’ll get to that later.

9. One of the benefits of Mr. Brookstone as the antagonist. When she sees him, it’s not “Oh my god, an Outside Actor!” It’s “Oh my god…Cal?” She knows this guy and she knows what it’s like, and it makes it more effective that she’s scared.

10. Of course Byron would take on an Angel and Demon alone, and of course Bett, no matter their issues at the moment, would try to save him.

I spent a while trying to get Bett’s moment of “prayer” just right. In the outline when she asks for a sign and doesn’t get it, she says, “All right. Guess I’m taking this one on faith, then.” But that wasn’t right. Bett doesn’t have faith in the Folklorics. She has faith in herself. So when she says, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll figure something out,” it’s trusting herself, not any outside force.  I think that’s the climactic moment for her character—she’s been jerked around, and last issue she found out something that might have made her trust in the Folklorics again, if she wanted. But when she lost her faith initially, she found faith in herself, and that’s powerful enough to withstand the new information.

11-12. That visual of the Folklorics coming through the tear and attacking the Angel and the Demon is worth the price of admission, don’t you think?

13. The idea of using Brookstone’s false outer room as a choke point is part of my obsessive Chekov’s gun-checking as well. There’s an in-story reason why she’d have the outer room, which was why it was there originally. But as long as it’s there, why not make it earn its keep and have another function later in the story?

Infidel’s line about it having a veranda was one of the last bits of dialogue I added after I saw Nico’s art. The acting he was doing in the background was so great.

14. Poor Fairy Queen. Like Kenshin, she did something shitty but she got her shot at redemption.

Also, pissed off Angel is pretty scary. This is the beginning of him becoming seriously unhinged over the rest of the issue. I think that’s what happens when you’re convinced you’re right and pesky people just won’t fall in line for some reason.

15. Here’s Kenshin’s big redemptive moment. But before it happens, I have to do a little bit of housekeeping and explain why Kenshin’s gun was able to light up when his mental energy wasn’t correct for it! Fortunately, I think I was able to make it sound like something he’d say in the heat of the moment. In my opinion, at least. He dies with his scope off.

16-17. Here’s another big twist that came to me in the shower!

Robot was initially intended to be a robot. For a little while I thought maybe he’d be a dude in a robot suit, but I was pretty sure he’d be a robot. Then one day in the shower, I had a vision of Robot sacrificing himself and revealing a hidden pair of Angel wings, and Infidel saying, “You’re not a robot at all, are you?” AND I LOVED IT.

I loved it because from Robot’s very first appearance (created before I had this idea), you’re told, “This is Robot…our robot.” It’s a joke because it’s such a self-apparent fact. BUT HE’S NOT A ROBOT.

To play fair with the audience, this is teased in little ways before this moment. The Angel that becomes Robot says in issue 1 “You start…by cutting me open.” Not by killing me. Then Seth refers to his sacrifice. But now we know, of course, that his sacrifice was not giving up his life…not yet. It was giving up what he was to become something new.

And then, in the final moments of his life, he reclaims a little bit of that identity to save his friends from one of his own kind. Love the way Nico and Marlac render it in blue flame. This is one of my favorite moments.

Mrs. Brookstone is right, of course. Seth has been keeping a ton of secrets from the team. I don’t see him as a bad guy, necessarily, but I see him as someone who’s not afraid to manipulate people to achieve the ends that he sees as important.

Let it be noted that, of all the characters, I’m culturally most similar to bearded, Jewish-American Seth Hersch. And I made him the biggest asshole.

18. Here’s the endgame. Let it be shown that we’ve had huge character moments for every other member of the team so far this issue…so that leaves our main character. This is it for Mrs. Brookstone. This is the climax of the entire series.

Another great thing about that page 1 flashback when you hold it up to this sequence is that it proves what a liar the Demon is. Mrs. Brookstone clearly wasn’t a stone cold bitch.  This guy’s just trying to hurt her by being a jerk about it. We also get a bit more of a sense of why Ray is important – it’s not so easy to create an Outside Actor-human hybrid, to the point where that was this guy’s entire job for hundreds of years!

You may also have noticed that we get one of the biggest revelations of the entire series here—Mrs. Brookstone’s first name! Let me tell you…that was a hard one. I tend to name characters instinctually. All of the characters in S.H.O.O.T. First were named based on basically the first thing that popped into my head. (An exception would be Kenshin, who I wanted to name after a Japanese word for “truth.”)

But having lived with Mrs. Brookstone as Mrs. Brookstone for so long, finding a first name that fit her was really tough. As I recall, it took me most of a bus ride home (so, over an hour) before I came up with Nelly. I think it really works for her.


19. It all comes down to this. Issue 1 started with a question, and a conversation deferred. This, to me, is what the series is all about.

I'll freely admit: putting this out there, when it's so nakedly and obviously me putting my own beliefs into the mouths of my characters, made me nervous. But fortunately, people seem to be digging it so far.

The reviews for issue 4 have been very positive. The least positive review we got was from Comic Book Resources, but the reviewer (Marykate Jasper) so nailed what I was going for in this sequence that I'd like to quote it at length:

When [Mrs. Brookstone] finally tells her son what she really believes about the afterlife, it's stirring and highly satisfying. It was also refreshing to see an atheist unabashedly and passionately defend her views, rather than apologetically explain them (since the latter scenario is so much more prevalent in mass media). This series presents atheism as a celebration of a certain set of values, rather than merely a repudiation of religion's values. The positivism makes the secular themes feel less like a tired attempt at blasphemy and more like a modern affirmation of nonbelievers and the awesome things they can achieve.
 That's exactly what I was going for, and I'm glad to see it came across.

20. Of course, a huge speech in the middle of your climax doesn't so any good unless it affects the action, so here we see it gave Ray the strength to take control of what made him special and use it to his advantage, for once. He's kind of killing his dad, but, as he said, he doesn't really think of this creature as his father. Let's chalk this up to as happy an ending as we could have asked for.

21. Okay, remember how I said that making the decision to change how the gun works affected my ending? Originally, the book was going to end with Mrs. Brookstone quitting the team to try to give Ray a chance at a normal life (we would have seen the Christmas tree she's talking about here), then Infidel taking over as team leader of the new, more militarized S.H.O.O.T. But it didn't sit right with me. 

But having the team find out the effect of the guns made me realize that there's no way most of them would have stuck around S.H.O.O.T. after that. So that pointed me in the direction of a new ending - one where the team splits off into two teams, diametrically opposed to each other, and inevitably heading towards a conflict. That's a richer and more interesting ending to me. 

Only one problem - I have no idea what happens next.

That's okay, though! I started S.H.O.O.T. First with a question with no answer: what's our reason for living if there's no god, no afterlife, etc.? So I'll start S.H.O.O.T. First volume 2, if and when I do, with a question with no answer as well. It's more important to me that the ending serves the characters and the needs of the story than that it returns us to a regular status quo so that I can quickly and easily do another story just like the first one.

If and when we see S.H.A.R.D. again, will they have Dietrich, the not-vampire with snazzy pants, as part of their team? Quite possibly! We'll have to see.

I feel like a lot of the way I wrote the book was influenced by my earliest exposure to comics—namely early '90s X-Men stories—and ending the book with the team split in two and with everyone getting new haircuts and new outfits definitely holds true to that!

22. And this is the way the book was always intended to end: with S.H.O.O.T. set on a collision course with the Outside Actor home planet. Will they reach it? When? I don't know yet. I look forward to finding out!

And that's that! Until March, when our three-part story in Dark Horse Presents launches. Called Bett and Byron, it examines their relationship and how these best of friends could end up on opposite sides by the end of this series. Part 1 takes place 10 years before issue 1, part 2 takes place between issues 1 and 2, and part 3 takes place in between pages 20 and 21 of issue 4. We've got the whole creative team back, so I hope you guys enjoyed it.

If you read our book, I can't begin to thank you enough. Just know that it means a lot to me.

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