Ed Brubaker is one of the biggest names in comics, having written hugely popular characters at DC and Marvel (Batman, Captain America, The X-Men) while building an extensive library of creator-owned titles. He’s also been actively pursuing projects in TV and film during that time, which landed him a supervising producer position on the HBO series Westworld. The show debuts in the same month Image Comics releases the deluxe hardcover edition of The Fade Out, Brubaker’s Eisner Award-winning crime noir miniseries set during the early days of the Hollywood blacklist, written while he was working on Westworld. The A.V. Club talked to Brubaker about delving into Hollywood’s past and present, how The Fade Out’s subject matter speaks to the current entertainment industry, and what he’s doing differently for his latest project with The Fade Out’s art team, Kill Or Be Killed.
The A.V. Club: What inspired you to want to tell the story of The Fade Out? How long had it been rattling in your head before you actually brought it to the page?
Ed Brubaker: The initial idea was something that I thought about when I was probably in my late 20s, 20 years ago, just reading a lot about that era of Hollywood. My uncle, John Paxton, wrote Murder, My Sweet, and Crossfire, and On The Beach, and The Wild One, and two of his friends—his best friend was Adrian Scott, and the director he worked with all the time was Eddie Dmytryk—they were both two of the Hollywood Ten. This was a story that I had grown up hearing about, the Hollywood blacklist. As I got older and into crime novels, I just kept thinking it would be cool to do a pulp story about Hollywood during that time period. Then my career happened, and it just kind of went away into the background.
When I started publishing stuff, very few people would publish a crime comic, and certainly selling them on something about old Hollywood did not seem like something many comic book publishers would be interested in. So it was always just a back-burner thing, that I thought, “Well, maybe if I get to a level where I can do whatever I want someday, then I’ll do that.” Every now and then I would think about it and try to figure out how I would tell that story, what would the structure be, what would the ambition of it be. And the more that I continually read books about Hollywood, and behind the scenes Hollywood, and biographies of people, and all that stuff, I just kept filling in my mental notebook for a while. And then probably about halfway through Fatale, I was like, “I think this is going to be the next thing.” And then I started legitimately taking notes and buying a bunch more research books and really just devoting all my attention to figuring out what it was going to be exactly, and how much of the scope of the world I would actually be able to fit into the story.
AVC: It was great reading The Fade Out while discovering Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, which is like reading a different book about Hollywood with every episode. It was disturbing how much of The Fade Out is pulled from reality. There’s such a history of sexism, racism, homophobia, pedophilia. All of this stuff is in the bones of Hollywood, and it’s really unsettling.
EB: Yeah, that was when I realized that it needed to be an epic, and not just like a four, five-issue story that was about this one guy. It needed to be about everything. It is a mystery, but on another level, to me, it’s like, Raymond Chandler always said who did it was always the least important part of a good mystery story. It’s about the exploration of the world. Around issue two, I got a ton of emails from readers pointing me to You Must Remember This, which I hadn’t actually heard of, even though I kind of know Karina a little bit. I met her at a party at a friend’s house. We have a ton of mutual friends. Then I just devoured that podcast, and I was so angry that I didn’t know that it existed, or that she was even an old Hollywood expert. I spent so many hours reading all the same books that she did, and I was like, I could have just listened to this!
AVC: When it came to incorporating the real-life scandals, how did you pick what you were going to include in there from this huge history of options available to you?
EB: Well, I knew that the story would be about the three main characters of the story. You have Gil and Charlie: the blacklisted screenwriter, and the screenwriter with writer’s block who was fronting for the blacklisted screenwriter. I knew that their tragic friendship was going to drive a lot of the narrative, and I knew that Valeria, the dead movie star, was going to be a really important character, even though she was dead on page one. I knew that her story would be one of the things that we learn throughout the novel, her background and her history. And you start thinking, what is her history? I decided she would be one of those kids who wanted to be in Our Gang or something like that. In my version for the book, The Krazy Kids. She was a background character there. She was one of those actors who had been around moviemaking since she was a little kid in the early days of film.
I also knew from the beginning that the story would always be taking place in the late-’40s, just after the beginning of the blacklist. Because that also coincides with when the Supreme Court had passed a ruling that was the thing that ended up helping to break up the studio system, which they had been trying to do for a while. That tied in with Howard Hughes running RKO at the same time. So it was just this convergence of things that were all happening at the same time—it was the perfect place to set this story to really get into every aspect that I could explore about the business. It’s about Hollywood, and it’s about the business, but it’s about artistic compromise, and the desperation of the Gold Rush of Hollywood, and what people give up for this hope of some kind of something, to be part of this magic that is Hollywood. So it really just came from the characters. What would these characters go through? Knowing everything that I’d read about what actresses went through and what studio bosses did and what fixers did, and what Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald and all these great writers who went to Hollywood and got chewed up and spit out the other side. Everything that these people had gone through, it was easy to just follow my gut instinct on who these people were, and pick and choose the things around them that would work.
AVC: Do you see any echoes of The Fade Out’s Hollywood in the modern-day landscape of the town?
EB: It all still feels incredibly relevant to me, to the way the world is right now. When I look at the studio system, where actors were under contacts, and writers and everybody would just be under these contracts to the studio, and you would go in and they would say, “This is your next movie,” or, “This is your re-write.” It’s not like you can look at it and go, “Yeah, I don’t think this is right for me.” The studios liked that system, where a script would go through eight different writers, and actors would be sent stuff. When the actors would turn down roles, they would get punished for it. It was all about big business controlling it, and the talent being this replaceable thing. Everyone in Hollywood knows there’s a line of people around the block who happily take your job for half of what you’re getting paid to do it. And it still feels that way, in a lot of ways.
I feel like we went away from it for a long time. The political vibe of late-’40s Hollywood through the mid-’50s is something we’re seeing a lot of echoes of right now, and in a scary way, where I’m wishing for an Edward R. Murrow to stand up and start somehow calling people on stuff. But as far as the way the industry works, I feel like we’re in a place where you see companies slowly moving back to only doing their own stuff. CBS only produces shows that are owned by CBS Studios. They don’t do work with outside studios, who then get a cut of the back end. They’re all slowly trying to go back to the closest they can get to that model. There are a lot of contracts and guilds and unions and stuff now that prevents it from ever going back to that completely. I think if there’s a way that they could go back to that way of doing business, they would happily do it.
It’s a lot easier to make a living as a writer in Hollywood than it was probably 10 years ago, though there’s still just as many unemployed people in Hollywood as there ever has been, but there’s so many more avenues to sell things, because of digital, and Amazon, and Netflix, and all these different platforms. When I first started coming to Hollywood, there were like 12 places you could sell things to. Now there’s like 65 or something like that. That’s crazy and exciting in a creative way, and we’ll see where that all stands five years from now. But yeah, on the corporate side, I still see that pendulum swinging back in that other direction, which is a little not comforting, as a student of the history of the place. And then at the same time, I have had a really fine time in Hollywood. My first-hand experiences have all been pretty decent.
AVC: Why did you decide to follow-up The Fade Out with Kill Or Be Killed?
EB: Initially I was starting a different project, which I’m still going to get to at some point. Coming off The Fade Out, which is the most complex thing that I had ever done as far as, this next thing was going to be even more structurally intricate, and crazy, and hard to write. I had been thinking of the idea of Kill Or Be Killed for a couple months, and had mentioned it to a few friends, and everyone that I had told the basic idea to was really excited about it, and thought it was a way for me to get my humor into something, actually. Because most of my books aren’t—I mean, I think the Criminal books have a lot of humor in them, but a lot of people find them to be pretty dark. But I like dark humor. A lot of people seemed to think it would be a perfect left-turn for us, like it was unlike anything that we had done before.
AVC: What was the basic pitch that you were giving everybody?
EB: I don’t want to tell you because it reveals too much of the twists and turns that are coming. But the basic concept is a guy who is not a victim of crime, or a Batman or a Frank Castle or a Charles Bronson type of character—a normal, average guy who is forced into this situation where he has to find and kill bad people every month. And the idea of a serialized monthly that structurally isn’t hugely different from something like late-’60s, early-’70s Spider-Man comics. There’s not a villain of the month or any of that stuff, but it’s the ongoing adventures of this guy. I thought, if I could take some of the language of that, and put it into something that’s like a hyperactive stream-of-consciousness vigilante story, that’s also about how fucked up the world is right now, then I might have something that I haven’t seen, and that’s certainly different than anything I’ve written.
The high-concept pitch was always it’s a twist on the vigilante thing. The idea of someone forced to go out and find bad people and kill them, how does that affect you? Obviously, no one wants to go out and kill people, but if you feel like you have to do it, or you’re going to die? If a demon is telling you, “If you don’t do this, then I’m going to take your life from you,” and you really believe that, then after the first few people, do you start feeling like maybe you’re contributing to society in a good way? Because you’re killing bad people, is there a ripple affect somehow? Or are the people that you’re killing insignificant, and you need to try to find people who taking off the map will have a bigger impact on the world? It seemed like an interesting area to explore, an interesting character to write about, and would allow me to tap in to my own—I vividly remember being in my mid- to late-20s. That part of life is very emotional, and exciting, and dramatic in a way that your late 40s are not. That’s different and dramatic in other ways, but I wanted to tap into that angry youth vibe that I remember feeling at that time, instead of my angry middle-aged vibe that I’ve been churning out for a few years.
AVC: Is it liberating jumping from a period book to something that’s set in modern times? Or does that give you a different challenge?
EB: Yeah, it’s actually a different challenge. We wanted to set it somewhere different, too. A lot of the stuff that we’ve done is West Coast noir crime stuff, and Sean [Phillips] ends up just having to do a ton of research. We did so much research on The Fade Out, to the point of hiring a research assistant to help us compile stuff so that we could make sure that when we show Chavez Ravine, it looks exactly like Chavez Ravine did. To some degree, I want to get the locations right. There’s a scene at Coney Island in the next [Kill Or Be Killed], and I wanted to make sure that Sean got the geography of the place correct. The fact that we did something that’s so heavily researched has made me more obsessed with making sure that what we do doesn’t just look generic now.
AVC: Were there any other conscious choices to change the visual aesthetic for Kill Or Be Killed?
EB: Sean did for sure. I came up with the idea at some point during the first issue of doing those pages that are like splash pages with text running down the side, which you’ve seen in European comics, and I think Frank Miller did it in Sin City sometimes. It was something I’d never tried before, and I wanted to do it in a way to free up the narrative from necessarily having to tie in with every moment of the pictures. And then Sean, when we were first talking about the design of the book, sent over his idea for having every page be a full-page bleed. He’s still using the three-tier structure that we’ve been using since we started Criminal, but he’s experimenting a bit more with how he handles the page.
For him, that was because he really wanted the pages to feel a little bit more claustrophobic. If you don’t have that empty white space around everything, the border of the page, then it feels like you’re a little claustrophobic. Our main character is a guy who’s on edge, and you’re really in his head and seeing the world through his eyes, so it felt like an interesting way for him to do it. I thought The Fade Out was the best-looking thing he’d ever drawn, and then I started getting these pages, and I was like, what is happening? How is this possible that he keeps getting better? And then Bettie [Breitweiser] turns in the colors, and they’re ever better than what she did in The Fade Out, and I’m like, how is this possible?
AVC: I’m sure that Sean doing a lot of the art digitally now has got to make the process a lot faster, too.
EB: The digital stuff is interesting. In some ways, it slowed him down, and in other ways, it sped him up. I think it’s now about the same as his speed. He draws bigger on the digital stuff, because you can zoom in and there’s no page size, necessarily. He started doing it with The Fade Out, and I was really against it at first, and it slowed him down a bunch. But then I saw the results, and was like, “Oh, shit. This is exactly what I’ve been dreaming the way this book will look.” This hyper-detailed recreation of Hollywood. He never really penciled anyway, he always just did roughs and would go straight to the ink for the actual drawing, and now he’s able to do something that’s closer to layout or pencils before he does the finished ink stuff, because it’s all digital.
AVC: How has comics prepared you for working in Hollywood?
EB: Well, the good part of what comics trains you to do is it trains you—especially if you’ve worked in mainstream comics like Marvel and DC, or if you’re just doing your own independent comics but you’re doing multiple comics at the same time—it trains you to compartmentalize things and work on multiple things at the same time. And that’s a skill that is incredibly handy in Hollywood, because within the first year that you get here, you realize there’s a reason why every successful person in Hollywood has like seven or eight projects up in the air at any point. It’s like a 90 percent chance for each project that it’ll never happen. Every project has about a 10 percent chance of getting made, unless you’re like a Quentin Tarantino or somebody who just gets whatever they want to get done. But those are the rare cases.
When I first came here, I had done a couple TV pilots, and a friend of mine wanted to leave comics and come work in Hollywood, and I said, “Well, you’ve got to understand that when you sell a TV pilot, imagine if you turned in the best issue of Batman ever, and DC was like, ‘Well we love this, but we can’t publish it because we have to publish this other thing by this other person.’ There’s always room for a great issue of Batman at DC Comics, but networks have a limited amount of shows they can put on. You could do a pilot that is everyone’s favorite pilot at the network and they all say, “Yeah, but who’s going to watch this?” They’re not just judging shows on, “Is this good?” They’re judging it based on how many people will want to see this in our estimation. The odds are really long on getting anything made, so if you come from comics and you’re still making a living in comics, that really helps because you’re not desperate for someone’s permission to write for a living.
AVC: How did you get involved with Westworld?
EB: Well, I knew [creator] Jonathan Nolan a little bit, I had dinner with him once, and ran into him at breakfast when they were working on the pilot. I ran into him at breakfast, and introduced myself to his wife Lisa, who I had read her script Reminiscence, which I thought was one of the best screenplays that was on the black list that year. They were just charming, and you know, I didn’t think I was going to get offered a job on that show—certainly it wasn’t from that meeting. I had some meetings at HBO about possibly working for them or maybe doing some development there, and my agent just called one day and said, “What do you think about the idea of maybe staffing on Westworld?” At that point, I was in the early stages of starting to develop something else on my own, and I was just like, “Are you serious?”
So I went in and met, and did the whole thing. You go in, and you meet with the showrunner, and you get interviewed, and you talk about stuff. It’s kind of just chatting, basically. And then like a week later, I got the call that I was being offered a job on the show. I was lucky—I was an outside-the-box hire. Because I had done a bunch of development, and written a few movie scripts that were in various stages of maybe getting made, and had a huge comic career behind me, I was able to come in at a place where it wasn’t like I was starting at staff writer. For me, the pilot is one of the best TV pilots that’s ever been made. Probably in the top five that I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s HBO. Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, who are just amazing writers. I just wanted to learn how really great TV gets made.
AVC: What were your duties on the show?
EB: I was a supervising producer.
AVC: What does that entail?
EB: Everybody in the writing room is basically working for the showrunners. The showrunners have an idea for the show—what they want it to be. And the other writers, you pitch ideas, maybe the showrunner has an idea, and you pitch ideas toward that idea to help build it. We were all working for Jonah and Lisa and it was their show and we were all a team and they were the captains. They know every other aspect of what’s going on in the show, and they’ve earned that. They put more hours in on the show than anybody does.
AVC: What was the biggest lesson that you took away from your time on Westworld?
EB: Don’t try and do two comic books and work on a writing staff at the same time. There were so many things. I feel like in some ways, I learned a lot about approaching ideas from tons of different angles before you land on the one that you want. I learned a lot about writing faster and re-writing faster. I learned a lot about why certain things will work in a scene and certain things won’t work in a scene on television. A lot of this is stuff you have to learn through doing it to some degree, or you can learn by watching people who have done a bunch of it. I can look at someone’s first comic book script and tell them all the parts that they could leave out that would make it more effective, and you’ve got someone like Jonah or Lisa who’s had a lot of television produced.
There’s a lot that just the process teaches you. Like with comics, you can only really learn what you’re doing wrong or what works best when you see your work published. I’ve been publishing comics since my 20s, and still, when I flip through any of my new comics, I still only see the things that I wish I’d done better. But that’s how you learn, by seeing it. You can sit and write in your room all you want, but until other people see it, until you see it produced for television or film or something, you’re not 100 percent sure if what you wrote is actually going to work.