When a friend approached me about the possibility of interviewing Brandon Easton about his new graphic novel, Shadowlaw, and described it as priests versus vampires, well, that was too enticing to turn down. The Catholic Church, which teaches to repress human sexuality save for procreation, and vampires, the ultimate fantasy expression of sexuality.
Shadowlaw is set in a future in which the Catholic Church is in charge of the struggle against the vampire lords. The Church creates a caste of soldiers who are at the forefront of the struggle. One of those warriors, Rictor, is our point of view character and he quickly discovers that light versus dark is a false premise and instead the struggle is far more complicated.
The story is a genre mix, which I love, combining science fiction, horror and military elements.
Easton is also a screenwriter with credits on the new ThunderCats television show and has a podcast for beginning screenwriters and comic writers. I asked Easton about the concepts behind Shadowlaw, how he broke into screenwriting and about what writers should know about breaking into the comics or screenwriting business.
GeekDad: What drew you to a story that featured the Catholic Church in a struggle with vampires?
Brandon Easton: It was an amalgamation of a variety of my creative influences as well as a kind of rumination on the nature of power, government and religion. The original concept dealt with a chase adventure through a ruined landscape. Like if you mixed Book of Eli with The Lost Boys.
Over the years, the story and world changed to fit a more cohesive theme. The funny thing is that I originally came up with the story for Shadowlaw back in 1996 before the current vampire craze in pop culture.
GD: Tell us a little about the lead hero of the story.
BE: Rictor is a man whose parents were killed by government troops during what was believed to have been a botched raid. He was eventually adopted by the Chancellor of the New Earth Alliance (NEA). In a bizarre twist, Rictor would be indoctrinated in the ways of the people who murdered his parents and later finds himself in a similar situation at the beginning of the book.
GD: What other types of monsters are represented in the story?
BE: Not really too many monsters other than the cyborg vampires – something that I don’t think has ever been seen before. One of the first artists on the series (Scott Kester) designed the mech-vampires and he went above and beyond my expectations for their look. People are going to see some stuff that has never been done before in an American comic series.
GD: This is a post-apocalyptic future where things have gone very wrong. Are you personally optimistic or pessimistic about our future?
BE: I have grown to be pragmatic. Our future is complicated. On one hand, the human race is on the verge of achieving things that would have been impossible just a generation ago (detecting earth-like worlds in space, amazing medical advances in extending lifespan and prevention of disease, information technology expanding at an exponential rate) but the day-to-day life of the average citizen on Earth isn’t so grand.
People have to decide what they are willing to tolerate and then make the move to correct their communities on the local level. That’s where positive change has to occur first. The people in power have no need to give up their position in life so the working people need to get together and start fixing their own neighborhoods and making sure their neighbors have their basic needs met. That’s how the future can be brighter.
If you examine the American collective consciousness through pop culture, you see such an uninformed and politically disconnected base of people. Worse, they are not only disconnected from the ebb and flow of government and policy, but they are disconnected from other human beings.
I feel that many folks have lost the ability to recognize and appreciate another person’s content of character. We no longer evaluate a person based on who they are but rather what they look like. Some would argue this has been the case for a while but never before has there been such a premium placed on outward appearance. We’ve got children getting unnecessary plastic surgery and older men and women injecting toxic chemicals into their faces to retard the aging process.
How can we have a future when people have lost touch with what makes them human in the first place?
GD: What do you think vampires represent in modern culture and why do they keep coming back in a new version?
BE: I believe there are many reasons for the continued existence of the vampire genre. First, it has something to do with repressed sexuality. Our society tends to be extremely puritanical with regards to personal expression of sexual desire. If it wasn’t, the adult film industry wouldn’t have been pulling in billions of dollars over the years from creepy little porno stores with covered windows. [Laughs]
Vampires are a wanton expression of sexual digestion; to envelop and absorb your sex partner. When you cut to the chase, vampires are highly sensualized beings where the viewer can project their own fetishes and fantasies. Sometimes it is explicit like in the Hammer horror films with Christopher Lee where they had long, drawn out seduction scenes or it could be something more dangerous and thrilling like Anne Rice’s Lestat stories.
I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble with some people I know because of my take on vampires and their popularity. One of the more controversial things I’ve said is that many women who are “into” vampires lack the social skills to build relationships with real men and therefore project their unrealistic ideals of romantic masculinity onto fantasy figures. However, the same can be said about every male reader of superhero comics so that’s an issue that exists in a lot of places.
GD: Switching gears, what chain of events led you to be involved in the Thundercats revamp?
BE: Following up on connections, emailing people and staying in the loop as much as possible; I met some folks through my graduate film program at Boston University back in 2000 and they were working in the animation world as writer/producers. I networked with them and eight years later – after teaching public school in NYC – I reconnected once I made the decision to really go for my dreams of being a Hollywood screenwriter.
Of course, it took two-and-a-half years before I made any steps forward in the industry. I had to find an agent, figure out how to properly market myself, produce more script and intellectual property content and find a way to stay alive despite an apartment fire and low-paying retail gigs. It was a barrel of laughs!
I eventually met up with one of the producers from WB Animation who was working on Batman: Brave and the Bold and we talked about me pitching for that series. I sent in a script and it was decided that it wasn’t a good fit for what they were doing. I felt that my big chance had been blown and that I was going to have to start over elsewhere.
A few months later, in the middle of the night, I saw the press release for the ThunderCats reboot from WB and I immediately sent the producers an email. A few days they got back to me about a potential assignment but I would have to wait for a while before they knew for sure what would happen. This was around June of 2010.
After the New Year, in early 2011, I got called into another meeting at WB Animation and that turned out to be the actual story meeting for episode #24 of the show. I was blown away.
GD: What do you think fans of the original will like about the revamp? How about newer fans — what do you think will interest them?
BE: It’s hard to say really. Some folks in my generation are notoriously nitpicky about ’80s nostalgia and modern reboots of intellectual properties from that period. Truth be told, I used to be one of those hardcore continuity geeks that would trash any attempt at rebooting series I adored as a child.
From a cursory examination of internet sentiment, it appears that many old school ThunderCats fans have enjoyed the serialized nature of the storytelling as well as the modern reinterpretation of the mythos and main cast. Of course, there are always going to be those who find something to complain about, but it looks like there is a favorable opinion out there from the children of the ’80s.
With the younger fans, they want motion, speed and cool visuals. The story has to be clear and focused because we live in an ADHD reality and there are simply too many entertainment options in the marketplace to do otherwise. The younger fans have enjoyed the series so far (based on their reviews and reactions on message boards, etc.) and I believe that the long-term consequences of the ‘Cats’ actions in this first season will pay off for younger viewers who are conditioned to follow long-form stories from watching Avatar (the Last Airbender), Naruto and DragonBall Z.
GD: What have you learned as a writer from your experience working on the show?
BE: That television is a collaborative medium beyond the writer’s room. There are many factors that go into the production of an animated series for mainstream TV.
You have to consider the intellectual property rights of the owner of the franchise as well as the whims and attitudes of toy manufacturers; you have to be careful about content since kid’s programming is scrutinized with a powerful microscope so that “objectionable” material doesn’t seep through (and the definition of “objectionable” is fast and loose – really, it has more to do with the political attitudes of the gatekeepers more than any concern over the influence on a child’s personality).
As a writer you learn that nothing you write is sacred. No matter how good you think your work is, you have to be willing to let it go. The final word on what ends up on screen is from the executive producers/story editors/show runners. Sometimes that’s a diverse bunch of people, sometimes that’s two or three folks, and sometimes that can be one guy. In the end, you could write what you believe to be a masterpiece but the final version of what you wrote might not include any of your core ideas.
I’ve learned that’s not a knock on your skills/abilities because you wouldn’t have ever been hired in the first place if the talent wasn’t there. However, there are internal and external forces at play that require lines of dialogue to be omitted, that call for sequences to require less animation (for budgetary reasons), and a host of other situations that may lead to your script being completely altered.
That was probably the most valuable and eye-opening thing I learned.
GD: In general, what inspired you to become a comics creator and screenplay author? What advice would you give others seeking the same career?
BE: I have many inspirations in film, TV, comics and literature. It would take me another hour to get through just a few of them [laughs]. If you were to pinpoint a few, I would say the works of Gene Roddenberry George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamuro Oshii, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Ridley Scott, Warren Ellis, Aaron Sorkin, ’80s afternoon and Saturday morning animation, the culture of the street/neighborhood arcades and Soul music from 1970-1989.
The best advice is to have something to show people.
Far too often I’ve met people who claim to be writers but have nothing to show for their career. No blog, no articles, no self-published work, no “officially” published work, no track record of any kind.
It is impossible to take someone seriously when there isn’t a method of determining if they have talent. If you’re a comic book artist and you don’t own a portfolio, then you’re a complete moron.
I don’t mean to seem harsh but the same thing applies to writers who have nothing written down. I wish I could say this was a small population of people, but the reality is that I’ve met thousands of aspiring writers over the years that talk a great game about getting published but spend little or no time actually writing anything.
Then the next level is to find ways to let people know you exist. It’s not easy, but it is possible to build a following through message boards, internet chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.
I see writers finish a project and then assume that editors and publishers will miraculously find them and offer them a contract. Writers have to be aggressive, vigilant and consistent in their pursuit of recognition. It takes time to develop yourself as an entity (it took me ten years and I am JUST getting through the thick outer layers of the business) and even more time for people to realize that you’re not going to waste their time.
Writers have to do research. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that writers need to do research as often as possible. What do you research? Well, 1) market trends (what’s selling, what isn’t, and where your product will fit in once you get it out there); 2) how the industry accepts new talent (do you know how to find a literary agent and why you need one? What processes exist to get you past the gatekeepers of publishing companies and Hollywood studios); 3) determining who or what your core audience is and finding ways to attract them to your product; and 4) understanding how to “brand” yourself as a franchise and using that to attract others to you.
I produce a podcast devoted to sci-fi and comic book writers called Writing for Rookies that addresses the ins and outs of the business. I set it up as a “writing 101” for those interested in comics and screenwriting but have no idea where to begin. It’s a perfect way to learn how this industry operates.
GD: What’s next on the horizon for you?
BE: I have several projects in development at this time. The first is a graphic novel property by a new media company called Lion Forge Studios. It’s a new take on Robin Hood and that should be completed in mid 2012.
My next original title is a sci-fi/fantasy epic titled Dominion’s Light and that will be in production throughout much of next year.
I am working on a book titled Writing for Rookies (based on my podcast for sci-fi and comic book writers) that explores the early part of my writing career, the mistakes I made, the issues I had with the completion of Shadowlaw and extremely clear advice for aspiring writing talent. That should be done sometime in early 2012 as well.
GD: Thanks, Brandon.
Shadowlaw will be available (and/or can be ordered) at your local comic book store. Retailers can use this code (SEP110748) to place an order. The book will be available at the end of the November on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.