Most of what we see from comic book writers and artists are what’s pristinely crafted on the pages and screens of their creations. We sat down with comic book and animation writer extraordinaire, Mairghread Scott to get an in-depth look at her creative process and what a day in the life of a comic book writer is like.
PI: Did you know that you always wanted to pursue a career in the comic book industry?
MS: I always knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write. I always wanted to write action stories and I loved superheroes, but I think it wasn’t until high school that I really kind of realized people wrote comics (if that makes any sense).
PI: Your resume is really impressive. Did you face any challenges breaking into the industry that for a long time, was kind of considered a boys’ club?
MS: I think I did. You’re never gonna know what people say about you when you’re not in the room. One of the biggest issues that women face is that people—a lot of this business and the TV business still kind of relies on the idea of someone’s gotta take a leap of faith at some point on you and they’re more likely to take a leap of faith if they know you socially or if you remind them of themselves. As women, you have to put yourself out there more. You have to sell yourself more, you have to prove that you can do it. That’s really hard because, you know, I’m a writer so I’m not really great with people.
And as a woman, I’m not really great at walking up and banging on the door and being like “LET ME IN!” You really have to go up and get aggressive and you have to sort of keep pushing, and you have to make them look at you a little more to get that leap of faith, you know? And so that’s kind of a big thing and it can be a weird thing, too.
It’s funny because I feel ever since I had my son, it’s been a lot easier on my career because it gives me something to talk about—with them, with guys—that’s like not threatening, and it gives us a common bond because a lot of higher-ups are dads. It’s like, “My kid is teething” and “Oh, I remember when my kid was teething.” I don’t want to recommend children as a career strategy—there are some significant downsides.
It’s not like people in the business are like, “Oh, women can’t write comics.” Comics get made because: “We need to think of someone to do this now, does anyone know anyone who they like? Does anyone know anyone who’s new?” And you have to be someone that someone knows.
PI: What advice would you give to women who are discouraged from pursuing their chosen field?
MS: It is your job to ask; it is their job to answer. I see a lot of women sort of self-select out of things because they assume “oh I’m not ready to be a director” or “I don’t know if I did good enough to ask for the raise” or “I really want to break into comics, but why would they pick me?” And I don’t ever hear that from guys. It’s extra important to push yourself. It’s your job to say, “I want this thing,” it’s their job to say “we don’t think you’re ready for this”.
So don’t do their job for them. You go out and ask for whatever you want and ask how you get it if you don’t know how to get it because that’s the only way anyone can say yes to you. But you get this sort of Rapunzel Syndrome, where I meet a lot of women who go “Well, I’m gonna sit over here in the corner and do really great work and someone’s gonna notice me,” and it’s like no… they’re not.
Oh and wait! There’s actually one more piece of advice and this is actually the best piece of advice: I had a lot of trouble selling myself and my husband is in marketing so he used to be like “Go talk about yourself” and I was like “I can’t talk about myself… no one wants me.” And the thing he said that finally clicked was, “The worst that can happen when you’re trying to break into a business is that they can continue to not hire you. You are already not working for them. You already do not have the thing that you want because literally, nothing worse can happen. You’re already at the bottom so the worst that can happen is that they can continue not to hire you.”
“No—you are not important enough for them to lie to you. If they say they want something else, they want something else.”
You can always tell a newbie comic book person because they’ll go and pitch an idea to an editor and the editor will be like, “you know, we can’t do that right now, but do you have anything else? We’d love to see you submit something else.” And they’re like, “Oooh no, they hate me. They hate my idea.” No—you are not important enough for them to lie to you. If they say they want something else, they want something else. Go! Go! They like you.
PI: What’s the biggest difference from working on TV as opposed to print?
MS: It really boils down to animation is about movement and comics are about finding single still images that can suggest movement or that can be strong enough on their own to wake the image. I always talk about how comics are the Haiku of animation. You really only have a few still images to try to suggest a much bigger fight or a much bigger conflict or a much bigger world. It’s actually funny because when I first started writing comics, I ran into a classic animation writer’s problem which is you’ll describe too many things happening in a panel: So someone takes a cup of coffee and walks through the door, well that’s two things so I actually had to, when I first started writing, I went and I just did control+find for every time I used the word “and” just to see if those two things actually could be drawn in one panel. You would just want to break yourself of the idea.
In animation, you know you want to see movement. You don’t just wanna see people standing and talking, and comics are better if people aren’t just standing around talking, but you really do want to find those single moments that get straightened together to make that bigger impression. It’s not fair to your artist to be like, “Green Arrow leaps and shoots five arrows and then he slips” and it’s like, well how many people am I drawing here? The other big thing is that you only really have to convince two people to do something in comics: You have to convince your artist to draw it and you have to convince your editor to make your artist draw it, whereas in television, it’s a much bigger, more drawn out process of people that put their hands on your stuff.
PI: Do you have a preference between the two?
MS: No, I like them balanced, especially because I tend to write more adult, kind of gruesome, comics so it’s a really nice balance with animation. I’ve always wondered, with my internal monologues or investigations, if I write sort of more quiet, interior stories in comics because I can’t do that in animation.
PI: What’s your process when you begin working on a new series that you haven’t written for yet?
MS: First I read as much as is relevant to the series, so I’ll ask my editor what we’re in continuity with, if this is a new thing, is there something that was written before that we really liked that tone? Or if we liked that look and I try to surround myself in what’s happening in that person’s world because comics is always—they call it the perpetual second act. You’re always picking up the baton from someone so you want to sort of get in that space. It’s a lot of reading—so much reading. It literally can be “Here’s five years of stuff.” Oh, great!
PI: And they can go in such different directions with canon.
Yeah, they go in such different directions and things get retconned. There’s just honestly inconsistencies from issue to issue because you’re all working at the same time and you’re trying to keep in touch with each other, but they don’t tend to give you the scripts of other people’s stuff. I read the next issue when everyone else reads the next issue. And editors normally do a great job, but even editors can miss a tiny one line or something else.
And because I don’t like revising—I mean I do revise, but to minimize that—I just take a lot of baby steps. So I will take that one-pager and then break it down. These are where I think the issues are and then build those out so essentially, each of those are a page long. And then I’ll take that and break that down into how many pages, you know like I’ll literally hit enter and break apart sentences where it’s like “this will be on the next page, that will be on the next page, do I have 20 pages? Alright, I do have enough space or I don’t have enough space, where am I gonna compress things?” And then I’ll actually write the script into a skeleton format and fill it with dialogue and then I do one last weird step which is when I’ll read through the script and then write it back down to a little bullet point outline, just to make sure that what I actually end up writing does lock back into what I originally intended to write—that I didn’t stray off the path.
The reason is just that when you get to issue six of the series, that’s six months since you looked at Issue One. So, if you have an outline and you solved all of your problems there—because I want to solve all of my problems at outline—there’s no question mark for me going into script because I want to go ahead and look at my outline instead of just constantly having to reread every single script and trust that okay, that is what happened. Even then you’re gonna have to take a look again, but it’s just anything to save yourself. It’s the measure twice, cut once philosophy of writing. Because all you need is one winging it issue where you didn’t do the one thing, and it just snowballs.
“I don’t have to care if Random Dude on Twitter™ likes my stuff. I need my editor, the publisher, and the comic book store who buys it to like my stuff. If you don’t like it, that’s okay, you can just not like it.”
PI: What’s the hardest part of your job?
You have an extremely limited view of your own career. It’s a really weird thing where it’s, at best case scenario, I’m fired every year or every six months. You’re always ending a project and you’re always looking for a new project—essentially always being fired and always trying to get fired. Everything kind of hinges on your reputation, and no one really tells you your reputation, so you don’t know what’s in the works—what the project needs. So, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty that you kind of have to live with, which I am not good at living with. You have to trust that there’s gonna be another project for you.
Fortunately for me, knock on wood, there always has been something else, but there might never be. Tomorrow, someone could say something or decide that they don’t want to work with me anymore, and you just don’t have any idea. You get fans that love you and you get fans that hate you, and it’s just so hard not to overemphasize the fans that hate you.
PI: Do you have any like hardcore stories about social media trolls or anything like that? Or even in real life?
MS: I did a big summer event, which was like a crossover, called First Strike—and it was mostly Transformers and G.I. Joe because those were their biggest things. It featured six different comics and I ended up teaming up with David Rodriguez, who is amazing. I just had a baby so I was like “I just had a baby, I can’t do this alone!” We teamed up and were writing it, and the first issue came out and we got all of these weird trolls who were all mad at Aubrey, who was the G.I. Joe writer. But he didn’t even write it—we can’t even get our own hate!
The only other time is that I did kind of get revenge on this other soul, subtly. Well, I didn’t get revenge but there was this one guy during the holiday special, and he always talked against me and how bad my writing was and they released the preview of like five pages of the specia,l and he was like, “See? This is how Transformers is supposed to be written—John Barber is a great writer.” Someone was like, “Mairghread Scott wrote that…” And he was like, “Wellll… I guess she didn’t suck this time.”
It’s just madness and it’s crazy and people are weird, but then you get really nice people. I don’t have to care if Random Dude on Twitter™ likes my stuff. I need my editor, the publisher, and the comic book store who buys it to like my stuff. If you don’t like it, that’s okay, you can just not like it. But then there’s also this weird thing where people think that comics are this big giant monolithic thing, and it’s like this is your job. It’s like people who yell at retail employees—dude, I’m just trying to do the best that I can. We’re all in this together. Another one will come and then they’ll retcon this away, just hang on for a minute.
“You do not have to make money on the things you love. I don’t get paid to write; I would write for free.”
PI: What advice would you give to anyone considering giving up their creative aspirations?
I would say two things: One, you do not have to make money on the things you love. I don’t get paid to write; I would write for free. I get paid to write things that people want me to write that I’m not necessarily in love with. I get paid to solve problems; I get paid to take notes; I get paid to turn this around on x date. It’s not like fan-fiction where you can say, “Ah, I’m not inspired. I’m gonna go down for six months.” That is not gonna happen.
I can’t call my boss and be like “I’m gonna introduce this whole new character and go off on my own.” In special writing, there are a lot of rules of the road. I’m just talking about writing because that’s all I know, but there’s this response that if you don’t get paid to write, you’re not a real writer or that’s not enough. That can be enough.
Getting notes is hard and you could really hit the point where you don’t love doing this anymore. If you’re just like, “I don’t like this and writing is not something I want to do for this,” then just write for fun and find another way to make money. That’s okay. But if you’re at the point tho where you really want to write and it feels like an insurmountable hill, it’s a hill that every other person has had to climb.
I’m a firm believer that you need a certain amount of talent, but not a ton of talent. And then the rest is just you need your 10,000 hours and writing is just like running, it’s just like boxing. Anyone can get up and run right now. The only difference between you and a professional marathon runner is getting up and running every damn day and trying to run in different ways. Everyone can throw a punch in a bar drunk, but the difference between that and a professional boxer is learning how to fight, taking all of those hits, and getting better. This is a distance sport. The only way to get better is to get in that ring and take those hits and keep coming back. It sucks, but it’s the only way. Inspiration will not save you in the long run; determination will.
PI: Do you have a favorite comic book character?
MS: I love Wonder Woman with a fiery passion. I really identify with Wonder Woman, but I would say as a writer, the character I admired most was Mark Waid’s Daredevil. He did a run on Daredevil that was all about Daredevil coming out of this terrible depression. He was happy, you know, he was finally happy and he was fighting to stay happy—that is so hard to write conflict with a character who’s finally just okay with himself, but it’s so important to show.
I could not wait to read the next episode because he was happy—he liked his life he wanted to be here, you know? And that was just so great because he did such an amazing job of keeping conflict and really talking about some serious things about the effects of depression in such a realistic way while still being so fun. I’m blanking on the artist… Was it Samne? The way they did [Daredevil’s] powers, like his hearing powers, was also just so cool—the way they pushed the art to make the art a critical part of the story.
PI: Stories like that are so important.
MS: Comics should be about doing things with the art that you just can’t do with the writing, and doing things with the story that you just can’t do with art alone. That was probably the best one I’ve read like singular vision.
“Inspiration will not save you in the long run; determination will.”
PI: If you could change anything about the comic book industry, what would you change?
MS: I wish we would be more honest about things. I think there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about what gets picked and why, and there’s this myth of a meritocracy and every writer always has to be a super fan of that property to do that project and you have to know everything about it to do that job. It’s like if you’re a professional writer, you’re essentially a professional enthusiast.
A writer who’s coming to a character new and fresh can bring something new or see something new in a character. I feel like there’s this idea that anyone can do it. There’s just a lot of opaque opacity in the business, and it’s very much treated like it’s not a normal business—things like paying people on time, having clear deadlines, knowing whether or not you’re gonna get something, paying people for their work at all—it’s weird. Then, you have all of the harassment stuff and the fact that you have like bar con and stuff. I get it; I get why we grew up this way, but I feel like we’re starting to fear that comics are realizing that they are a business, and we need to work with the business, and we need to be treated like professionals.
PI: If you could have any superpower what would it be and what color cape would you rock?
MS: I would not rock any cape because I would have a pair of rings, hands down. I was in New York and I was always like, “Oh, I want a teleportation ring, it would be so much faster.”
PI: So, what stone would be in your ring?
Oh, I am a mom so it’s gotta be the time stone. Also, I’m a writer so I always want the do-over. But also as a writer you’re sort of forever walking out and being like, “Damn! Now I have the perfect comeback.” I’m forever hanging up the phone and I’m like, “Damnit! One more thing!”