Thursday, September 15, 2011

Q&A with Jennifer & David Skelly

I've known Jennifer Skelly for a very long time—since our days in elementary school. When I learned that she and her husband/writing partner David Skelly had a story in the recent Batman 80-Page Giant, I took the opportunity to contact them to see if they would be willing to answer a few questions about their experience. They graciously agreed to take time out of their busy schedules to respond to my questions over email:

Am I correct that this is your first published comic book work?

DS: Our first published comic was a book called Zevo-3. It was a tie-in to an animated teen superhero TV series that we worked on for Nicktoons. After we had written several episodes of the show, the producer came to us and said, "Do you guys know anything about comic books? We're thinking about promoting the show with one."

JS: Considering our closets are filled with comic boxes, not clothes, we said, "yes..."

DS: The show, Zevo-3, was produced by Skechers Entertainment. They created original characters and backstories to go along with their different lines of kids' shoes.

JS: So we wrote a comic book that went into bazillions of Skechers shoe boxes!

DS: That book was so well-received that they asked us to write comics for all the rest of their properties. (I drew the breakdowns for those as well.)

What interested you in writing for comics?

DS: They say you are what you eat, and I ate a lot of comics as a kid.

JS: *snort*

DS: I love comics. I've read them all my life. It was a huge part of my childhood. They were my escape, my refuge from the real world. I started with Golden Key and Disney comics. I loved them, and in particular, the Uncle Scrooge comics that were written and drawn by Carl Barks. Even as a four- and five-year old I could recognize the quality of his work and distinguish it from other artists'. And then some years later, I discovered people like Chris Claremont, Walt and Louise Simonson, Wendy and Richard Pini, and Bill Sienkiewicz. Their work had such a huge impact on me — and helped shape me as a storyteller.

JS: My mom collected comic books, and as a little kid I had Archie and Donald Duck... but it was in college, when I met David, that my real love affair with comics began.

DS: And our love affair...

JS: Be quiet. I'm talking now. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Growing up, I knew and loved the DC characters. I was obsessed with comic book heroes on TV and in the movies — Richard Donner's Superman, Superfriends, Wonder Woman, Kenneth Johnson's The Incredible Hulk. But I didn't read comic books! And when David introduced me to the X-Men... wow. The characters were so flawed, so real, so human (even though they are super-human). I was hooked.

DS: In high school and college I wrote and drew a comic strip that was published in various papers, including University of Michigan's campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily. It was called Backyard Infinity. That was a great training ground for me. I learned a lot about storytelling in a visual medium, and in particular I learned a lot about brevity — making a point or making a joke with some very simple drawings and a few words. In fact, for a while, I challenged myself to write my strips with five words or less.

JS: And yet we tend to go on when being interviewed...

DS: In any case, drawing those comic strips was a direct link to the work I would later do with the Jim Henson Company and Pixar Animation Studios.

JS: As for writing comic books — we love the immediacy. In TV animation, it can be months —

DS: — or in the case of films, years —

JS: — before you see your work on the screen. In comics, there's such a fast turn-around from idea to finished product.

DS: Working on a film is like telling a joke and waiting three years to see if anybody laughs.

JS: Hahaha! That's funny!

DS: That's why I love you. You laugh at my jokes right away.

How did you get the Batman gig? Did you approach DC, or did they approach you? (Or perhaps your agent sacrificed a mint-condition copy of Giant-Size X-Men #1...)

JS: No, we approached DC.

DS: We’ve always found our own writing assignments — we’re blessed with an amazing network of friends and colleagues.

JS: One of those friends, a veteran in the comic book industry, was kind enough to introduce us to some editors at DC.

DS: We corresponded with those editors for quite a long time — months — waiting for the right opportunity to come along...

JS: I think we wore them down!

DS: Editor Rachel Gluckstern read our work and contacted us. She asked us if we’d like to pitch her a few Batman short stories.

JS: And we said, “Absolutely!”

DS: We wrote a few treatments — about a half a page each — and sent them to Rachel. She picked her favorite and we were off to the races!

How does writing a comic script compare to writing a film script?

JS: In terms of storytelling — there's absolutely no difference for us. We break the story for a 10-page comic exactly the same way we do for a 90-page feature film.

DS: Every story is about transformation. How does a character change? That's what's most interesting for us as storytellers.

JS: Though there are a few differences in the way we actually write the script.

DS: A comic book script is like personal letter to the artists. Even with artists that we never meet, we feel there's a kind of intimate collaboration. There are so many people involved in the production of a television show or film, but in its purest form, a comic book is made by a very small group of people.

Tell me more about breaking your Batman/Catwoman story. Where did the idea come from? Why did you decide to do it as a 'silent' story?

DS: Larry Hama's wordless story, "Silent Interlude," for G.I. Joe #21 really made an impression on me as a kid. I've always remembered that, and thought it would be a fun challenge to write a script with no words — and no sound effects.

JS: Film and TV are a visual medium, and for us, the acid test to know whether or not a story works is by turning the sound off. Do the images alone convey the story?

DS: Alfred Hitchcock said dialogue should be one of the many background noises in a film. We adhere to that when we're writing a script for film or television, and we feel the same about writing a script for comics. How can we keep the exposition to a minimum, and still tell a compelling, emotional story? That's the challenge.

JS: Partners and lovers have a short-hand that they use to communicate: half-sentences, looks, gestures —

DS: — and Batman and Catwoman have such a long history — they don't necessarily need to speak with one another to convey a variety of feelings. This felt like the perfect opportunity to tell a story with no words.

Did you know ahead of time who your artists were going to be? Did you have any direct communication with the artists, or was it all through the script and the editor?

DS: For this story, we didn't know who the artists would be. And because of that, we knew the script had to convey as much as possible. But we're always careful to leave room for the artists' interpretations. This is a collaborative medium, and everyone involved in the process brings their own point of view and artistry. The result is inevitably even better than what we'd imagined!

JS: This is the editor's show. For the Batman 80-Page Giant, Rachel Gluckstern was responsible for hiring us, and finding just the right artists for our story.

DS: The editor is like the producer of a film. They're responsible for deciding which stories will be made, putting the team together, and making sure it gets done on schedule and on budget.

I've often said that everyone has at least one Batman story in them; was this your definitive Batman story, or would you want to work again with the character?

DS: We have countless Batman stories we'd like to tell! We hope this is the first of many.

The two of you together teach a workshop on improv for writers; how did your improv talents come into play in writing this story? (I have visions of the two of you acting out the plot in your living room, with your son looking on with bewilderment...!)

JS: Well... we didn’t act out THIS script in front of him...

DS: Yeah, it’s kind of all sex and violence. He's only two.

JS: Improv, for us, is a way of life. Which was made especially clear to us after we had a kid.

DS: Being willing to play, being flexible, being open to new ideas — that’s what improv is all about.

JS: And that informs everything we do — including our writing. We let the characters talk to us. We write from their point of view. And we let them lead us down unexpected paths.

DS: There’s an improv game called “New Choice.” It’s one of our favorites. Whether we’re on stage performing, or at our laptops writing — we make an “offer” (a character does or says something in the context of the scene) and someone else yells, “new choice!” at which point we have to immediately — without thinking — rewind to the last action or line and redo it.

JS: And then we have to justify that new information. It’s the ultimate test of flexibility.

DS: So we play a lot of New Choice when we’re writing. We push each other to come up with something else, something better, something unexpected (but still truthful).

JS: We’re constantly asking ourselves, can that line of dialogue be funnier? More dramatic? Can this scene be more emotional? And the answer is almost always “yes.”

Why Batman? What interests you in Batman as a character?

JS: Oh! Me first! I've loved the Batman family of characters since I was a kid. I was Batgirl for Halloween in Kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade.

DS: Did you wear the same costume every year?

JS: Yes. I grew slowly. Anyway... I watched the 60's TV show religiously (and screamed in joy when Batgirl's motorcycle drove into the opening credits). And then, years later, Tim Burton's Batman rocked my world.

DS: For me, Batman is cathartic. He's the antithesis to the work I've done with Sesame Street or the Toy Story characters. Bruce Wayne is so screwed up. So tormented. So dark. And I can relate with that on a deep level.

JS: (He says while wearing a Muppet T-shirt.)

DS: I'm not saying I don't love that stuff, too! But reading — and now writing — Batman stories is a great way for me to exorcise those dark demons inside.

JS: Is that "exorcise" or "exercise?"

DS: C'mon. I'm being serious.

JS: Me too. I'm serious. See? I have Batman and Catwoman Lego figures on my desk.

DS: That is a weird non-sequitur. You and your Lego.

What would you say is your all-time favorite Batman story, and why?

JS: I'd have to go back to the movies... Batman Forever, but not the Penguin stuff — he was gross (no offense, Danny DeVito, you were supposed to be gross) — but ANY of the Catwoman/Batman stuff. The scene where they've just kicked the bleep out of each other, then have a date and start getting all touchy-feely but each is trying to keep the other from discovering their new scars. And then the scene when they're dancing and realize who each other are, and Michelle Pfeiffer says, "Does this mean we have to start fighting?" and Michael Keaton just pulls her close... makes me cry every time.

DS: My go-to is still Frank Miller's The Dark Night Returns. It's just great storytelling. Makes me cry every time.

What are some comics that you particularly enjoy? Who are the comic creators that you admire?

DS: We've both really been enjoying Brian Michael Bendis' work. His scripts for The Avengers, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Scarlet, have been particularly compelling for us.

JS: Geoff Johns' Flash and Green Lantern. Joss Whedon.

DS: Mark Millar, Frank Miller, J. Michael Straczynski. And as far as artists go, Alex Maleev, John Romita, Jr., Jim Lee, Mike Mignola...

JS: ...Frank Cho, Gurihiru's work on the Power Pack cross-over series.

DS: There are so many! And of course, the people we mentioned before — The Simonsons, Bill Sienkiewicz — were and continue to be so influential on us and on our work. We were so thrilled that Bill wanted to do the finishes on our Batman story for the 80-Page Giant!

JS: We're huge Bill Sienkiewicz fans, both professionally and personally.

DS: We're often fans of the people we're collaborating with. It's out of respect for what they've done, and who they are as human beings. And even though we may also be fans of the source material that we're helping to shepherd, we're aware that as fans, we run the risk of being too precious with the work.

JS: And the last thing we want to do is be too careful or cautious to take risks —

DS: It's our responsibility as storytellers to stay true to the tone and spirit of the source material, but also to push the boundaries.

JS: To take risks!

DS: To explore new aspects or dimensions of these characters we love. To tell stories that are relevant to today's audience, not just to rehash old material or preserve something from the past. We're not archivists, we're architects —

JS: — building on a foundation that someone else has laid.

DS: Hey, that sounds pretty good!

JS: We're passionate about what we do. We're passionate about telling great stories.

DS: And we're honored to be contributing to DC's long legacy of great storytelling.

Are there other comics characters that you would be interested writing?

JS: How much time do you have?

DS: Should I list them in alphabetical order? Seriously, there are so many. Top of my list would be more Batman... and then Spider-Man, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Superman...

JS: I see a pattern here. For me, Wonder Woman, Kitty Pryde, Dazzler, Barbara Gordon, Rachel Summers...

DS: I'd love to write a Barbara Gordon story! Let's do that! And we've always wanted to write a Cloak and Dagger story.

JS: And the New Mutants.

DS: Love Illyana Rasputin.

JS: And the Lone Ranger.

DS: Really? I didn't know that.

JS: There should always be mystery in a relationship.

Both comics and film are visual storytelling mediums. What do you see are some of the strengths and weaknesses of comics as compared to film for telling stories?

JS: They're so different. Do you like ice cream or pudding?

DS: Huh? Um. Ice cream?

JS: The experience of seeing a movie is so different than reading a comic book. As those experiences are different from playing a video game or seeing a play. But it's all storytelling. How we choose to enjoy those stories is a matter of preference that can change from person to person or day to day.

DS: That's true. Some days I prefer pudding.

What is up next for the Skellys? Any more comics gigs on the horizon? (Plug away!)

DS: We’ve got several feature films projects that we’re developing. We’ve just started pitching them to the major studios and producers in Hollywood.

JS: We’re collaborating with some of the most talented filmmakers and conceptual artists in the industry.

DS: And we’ve got a few television projects in the works as well. We've also been doing a lot script doctoring...

JS: We’re teaching an ongoing Improv for Writers workshop in Los Angeles. (

DS: And we’re continuing to write comic books! Wow! I guess we’re kind of busy... We should probably get back to work!

A big thanks to Jennifer and David for taking the time to talk with me. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @jenniferskelly and on the Web at ; and follow David on Twitter @davidlskelly and on the Web at And hopefully find their next comic book on the shelves of your local comic shop soon!

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