At Black Nerd Problems, two types of people that will always appeal to us are: 1) those that “get it” when it comes to diversity and representation in our geekdom and 2) really smart individuals. Greg Pak is both of those. As the comic book writer responsible for Batman/Superman, Action Comics’ recent resurgence, the most heralded Incredible Hulk books in the last ten years and the first ongoing series for Storm, Pak has made a huge impact in the comic book world. But as we found out, there’s still a lot more beyond comics that make him such an interesting talent.
This interview could’ve been three times as long, but not wanting to keep the man from all this good work he’s involved in, we got to talk about the politician that never was, beating down superheroes, and I even snuck in a little bit of NBA talk.
Black Nerd Problems: I normally wouldn’t start these questions like a job interview and ask you about your educational background, but I find yours specifically, to be fascinating. In addition to being a graduate from NYU for film production, you also attended Yale and are a Rhodes Scholar. While people in the comic book industry come from a very wide range of backgrounds, I can’t imagine many (in most industries) have such a prestigious educational profile. What were your professional interests while you attended college? If it didn’t involve writing in the comic book industry, what steered you in that direction?
Greg: I was a political science major in college, and immediately after graduation I went back home to Texas to work on Ann Richards’ first run for governor. I thought I was going into politics. And I loved working for Ann Richards — she was an amazing, inspiring leader whose commitment to the diverse reality of the state that she called the “New Texas” really resonated with me. But at the same time, after we won the election and I started working in her office of education policy, I gradually started to realize I wasn’t particularly… happy. The work was so important and the folks I was working with were fantastic, but I think I had other muscles I really needed to stretch. I ended up getting a Rhodes scholarship to go to Oxford to study history. And then I got the chance to start making films with a student group, and all the lights went on. I went to NYU for grad film, made a bunch of shorts and eventually directed my feature film Robot Stories. That led to a meeting with Marvel and for the last ten years I’ve been writing comics.
It may seem like a strange transition. But I started out writing stories and drawing as a kid. I loved storytelling of all kind — it was how I figured out the world. Later, I was driven to politics by an an awareness of injustice and a belief in the importance of people finding ways to understand each other better. But in the long run for me, filmmaking and writing turned out to be the best way for me to explore that drive to understand and communicate.
It is often said that due to his seemingly god-like powers and invincibility to most things, that Superman is one of the more difficult characters to write and keep interesting. You could argue to some degree that you experienced this with your (incredible) run on the Incredible Hulk as he shares some similarities with finding a way to build peril into the story of such an unstoppable force. Having written Hulk successfully before and citing your current run on Batman/Superman and Action Comics, how do you approach characters that have this almost limitless power and still make their books dramatic and endearing?
When you’re writing superheroes, you have a constant, ongoing challenge to come up with situations and villains who can actually test or threaten your heroes. That’s part of the big fun of this kind of work — having serious conversations with your collaborators about how a ghost could fight Superman, for example.
But the real trick is to always stay focused on the emotional story. The most physically invulnerable character always has a mental or emotional weakness. And one of my jobs as a writer is to ferret out my heroes’ vulnerabilities and pound them mercilessly. What can be even more fun is if you can find a way for your hero’s greatest strength to threaten his or her downfall. For example, in the Superman: Doomed storyline, Superman gets infected by the Doomsday virus, which threatens to turn him into a monstrous killing machine. Now one of Superman’s greatest strengths is that he will never, ever give up on us — he will always try to help those who need help. So he’ll fight this Doomsday virus to the end, no matter what, in order to help the people who need him. But because he won’t give up, he runs the risk of exposing the world to the Doomsday threat. That makes for great visceral danger and emotional conflict that’s been a blast to explore in the series.
While I came to your work through comic books, I assume given your background, that you have just as much passion for film-making. When you are producing a story specifically for the screen, does it draw any similarities to how you approach writing for a comic book? Are there any disciplines that you feel bleed over between the two? Do you have any aspirations of writing a big budget comic book film or have you already (we would love to break THAT news)?
I actually talk about this a bit in the Make Comics Like the Pros how-to book that I co-wrote with Fred Van Lente — the book comes out next month, so preorder it today!
Short version: film writing and comic book writing are similar in that both depend on the principles of dramatic, visual storytelling. They’re stories told through images, through scenes of people interacting. So instead of just writing, “Bruce was angry,” you see the dramatized scene of Banner Hulking out. Stories told through action. So everything I learned as a screenwriter in film school has been helpful to me as a comic book writer.
But writing for comics has its own special quirks and requirements. You’re breaking down the action panel-by-panel rather than showing continuous action in a film, so you have to think through the beats a bit more. As a writer in comics, you’re participating a bit more in the visual storytelling than the typical screenwriter for film — a comics writer usually breaks down the issue into pages and panels and thus is picking shots the way a screenwriter is generally encouraged not to do.
There are a bunch more nuances to this — so buy Make Comics Like the Pros for the full scoop!
Oh, and another shameless plug — my latest short film, Happy Fun Room, just went live on YouTube. Check it out here!
Anyone who follows you on social media knows that you have a large investment in representation and diversity politics across multiple mediums. Whether it pertains to the situation with the Washington Professional Football Team or creating more Asian or Asian American heroes in comics, you have always been vocal about these issues and challenges. How do you feel about the state of comics when it comes to representation and diversity? Do you feel there are efforts out there that are specifically good at this? Do you feel there are certain stories or characters that present opportunities to do more in this area?
I’m excited about where we are right now and where we’re going. I’ve been working in comics for ten years, and have been lucky enough to do tons of things with diverse heroes — like introducing Amadeus Cho to the Marvel Universe and writing a War Machine ongoing, and telling Magneto’s origin story. But in recent years, we’ve seen various comic book companies take even bigger steps with female-led books in particular. I’ve personally been able to write the Turok book for Dynamite, which stars a Native American hero, and of course the Storm book for Marvel. And I’ve had nothing but support from my editors at DC in developing diverse supporting casts in Action Comics and Batman/Superman. Diversity at every level will always be important to me — it’s exciting to see so many creators and companies doing so many different things right now.
I’ll also say I’m thrilled about bloggers and tweeters and critics like yourself and Nerds of Color and Black Girl Nerds. When fans and critics make noise about books, it helps the books get attention and readership and helps prove there’s an audience. That’s a huge part of the equation, and I thank you for being a part of it!
Storm #1 came out recently and we here at BNP couldn’t be happier that Storm has her own series and that you are writing it. The first issue seemed to focus heavily on Storm as the nurturing protector of humans and mutants alike. Is this a theme you thought about while developing her story? What else about Storm made you excited to write her? Can you point to a specific story or arc before that made you want to write her solo book?
I’m hugely compelled by the idea that Storm belongs to multiple communities. She’s a mutant, yes. But she’s also a woman. And a black woman from Africa. And a black woman from Africa whose father was African American and who’s now living in America. As a fictional character, she’s been an inspiration to anyone who ever felt different — she has a huge gay fanbase and she blew my mind when I was a half-Korean kid growing up in Texas. So both in the fictional world and in the real world, she’s been part of and important to many different communities — and juggling those commitments, identities, and responsibilities feels like a vital, eternally relevant and dramatic theme to explore.
Last, non-comic book related question; just a couple of guys talking sports. I know you’re a big Jeremy Lin fan. Are you more or less optimistic about his situation now that he’s been dealt to the Lakers from the Rockets where he was used so inconsistently?
I’m thrilled. Last season, Lin had a triple double off the bench, a game wherein he hit nine threes, and multiple 20+ point games. He’s capable of incredible things. Byron Scott’s said very nice things about him and I’m pretty sure that at the very least, the Lakers will give him more room to do his thing than the Rockets did.
As far as I can tell from his public statements, Lin himself seems hugely happy with the change. And that’s enough to make me grin. It’s going to be a fun season.