The Writers of Angel & Faith and Spike Compare Notes
DHC: Christos, your Angel & Faith series has been received quite well among Buffy fans. What do you think is the key element in telling a story in the Buffyverse?
CG: I think the key element is getting the characters right. They have to sound, act, and feel like the characters people remember. You accomplish that the same way you do when writing for a TV show and trying to get the “voice” of the show right: you immerse yourself in what’s come before until it becomes second nature to you what these characters would do and say in a given situation. The great thing about Joss, though, is that keeping the characters consistent with the way they’ve been portrayed before doesn’t mean they can’t change. They absolutely can—his characters always do, even the likes of Harmony, which is why they’re never boring. But the change has to be earned. You can’t suddenly decide you’re going to do something different without a reason. If you want Andrew to become a gun-toting vigilante, you’ll have to do the work of getting him there, and you have to realize he’s probably going to start keeping a war journal like the Punisher. You can’t just have him become a vigilante for some random reason like a bat flying in his window…Actually, now that I think about it, that probably would inspire Andrew to become a vigilante.
Victor, being that you’re a newcomer to the Buffyverse (like I was not long ago), what have you found to be the biggest challenge as a writer…both in general and specifically in terms of writing Spike?
VG: Honestly, I’m a longtime fan of the show and the Buffyverse, so I kind of felt like I already had those voices in my head and had a good sense of who the characters are and how they act. So I think the challenge for me was not to freeze up from being starstruck. When I was offered the gig my first thought was “This is awesome!” And then a second later I thought, “Holy crap, I’m writing Spike. The Spike,” and that suddenly seemed like a lot of responsibility. So I guess part of the challenge was to get my inner fan under control and be professional. And going in with confidence is good, but so is listening to the editors and being part of a team.
I do have one advantage (I think. Maybe not?), in that I’m writing a five-issue mini, so the scope of the project seems more easily in control. Christos, with an ongoing, how far ahead do you have to look? Is it easier because you have room to maneuver or more difficult, with more stuff to juggle and coordinate?
CG: Angel & Faith Season 9 is twenty-five issues. It’s a bit like plotting out a season of a TV show…You have individual stories, but there’s an ultimate goal you’re building toward. So while individual stories have their own arcs—Drusilla returns, etc.—they all need to move a step closer to the ultimate goal question of whether Giles can be resurrected. It’s a bit easier to me than just an open-ended ongoing, because you’re heading toward an endpoint, but there’s plenty of room to breathe and maneuver.
Back to you, given that Spike in the Buffy book is defined a lot by his relationship to Buffy, how are you approaching him standing on his own in the mini?
VG: That’s sort of one of the big questions. What exactly does Spike do without Buffy in his life? Can he stand on his own? And while Buffy is not in the book in a literal way, her memory looms large over everything in Spike’s life. How and if Spike can move on is what people will be reading to find out. Spike is what he is in a large way because of Buffy. That can’t be undone. The only thing that remains to see is the manner in which Spike chooses to move on…if he can.
You mentioned plotting a season of a TV show earlier. I think folks would be interested in hearing the differences in scripting a TV show and a comic book. Specifically, are there things that are easier to accomplish in a comic book? Limitations?
CG: Comics are much easier because you don’t have to worry about budget or logistics. You can have things blow up. You can have helicopters and tigers and dinosaurs and flying saucers and all-out brawls. You don’t have to worry about schedules, weather, or losing a location at the last minute. You can literally do anything, whereas in TV you have many, many more restrictions. In a lot of TV shows, dialogue is king; the scenery and action are almost incidental. In comics, the visuals are everything. Why have two people talking about their relationship in a coffee shop when they could be doing it on Mars? “Show, don’t tell” is a lot easier when you have so many more ways to show. The limitation in comics is that you don’t have real people acting out the emotions. In TV you can accomplish a lot with a look or tone of voice. Very talented artists, like Rebekah Isaacs, who I am privileged to have on Angel & Faith, can still pull off a lot on the page, but it’s not the same as a moving, breathing, speaking actor. So you have to find ways to get things across without having people go, “I’m really angry at you right now!” But on balance, I think comics win every time. Another difference is that in comics the page is the unit of storytelling (and more and more the screen), whereas in TV it’s the scene. But a lot of the rules are the same: get in as late as you can and out as early as you can; try to end with something that propels the audience into the next one.
As a novelist, how is the transition? In film school I spoke to a novelist who was studying screenwriting and said she thought she’d have an advantage going into it, but came to feel like it was a disadvantage because she had to unlearn the rules of prose. But you seem to have made the transition pretty naturally. How did that happen?
VG: I think I was fortunate in that I was already experimenting with screenwriting, which helped me make the transition. Also, my novels are generally very cinematic, so I like to think visually. From there it was just a good thing that veteran editors had the patience to hone whatever raw talent happened to be there in the direction of comic book scripting. Even a short, pulpy novel is a big, sprawling animal when compared to a twenty-two-page comic book script. I was always a fan of economy, but writing with economy in mind was a skill I really had to double down on for comics.
Getting back to the Buffyverse, Spike is more or less (sorta kinda) considered a “good guy,” but he started as a villain. Faith is a similar sort of character, having plenty of “bad guy” experience in her past. What is it like to write her? What’s the most fun, and what are the special challenges?
CG: I like writing Faith for a lot of the same reasons I like writing Angel: she is striving for redemption and to make up for past mistakes. She’s a badass but she has feelings. Having hit bottom, she has a special understanding of what it’s like to need help. The usual perks of writing flawed characters. My favorite thing is the way she takes no crap from anyone; she is the first to call BS on people, or demons, or gods. The special challenge is not to gloss over the bad things she did while still keeping her likable. Most prominently, she murdered an innocent college professor in cold blood, and even if she was less than mentally stable at the time (which is arguable either way), she is guilty and she is not being punished for it. Yeah, she did time, but not enough for first-degree murder. The fact that she got a pardon or whatever almost makes it worse, because she literally got away with murder. I try to show that this still eats at her, she knows it was wrong, and she is working to atone. But I also want it to be clear none of that makes it okay.
So how was it writing Pearl and Nash? I know I gave you a note or two…That was fun—being the pain in the ass who makes someone else do a rewrite for a change! Was it tough because there wasn’t that much source material, or did that make it easier?
VG: I love Pearl and Nash and really envy whatever extra time you get to spend writing them. I love weird, demented family relationships, and this brother/sister team fits the bill—sort of like a Tennessee Williams play with crazy demon powers. I like having room to throw my elbows around, but it’s nice to have a net under me too, and I felt I had the best of both worlds with Pearl and Nash. I had you to keep me straight if I did something out of character, but I also had a semiblank slate since there isn’t—as you pointed out—quite so much source material. I suppose most writers like the opportunity to take the ball and run. These characters have had (theoretically) a long career, so some lucky writers will have fun filling in the gaps. Maybe if I behave, I’ll get another crack at them sometime.
Christos, a question for you: You’ve been fortunate to work on a wide variety of projects. What is the single biggest difference between writing Buffyverse stories versus other stories and other characters?
CG: I’d say the biggest difference is that the Buffyverse characters and stories have been, from their inception, guided by the singular vision of their creator, Joss Whedon. Now, obviously, dozens of brilliant writers have contributed to the mythos over the years, from Jane Espenson to Tim Minear to you. But all of it—all the canon stuff, anyway—has been under the supervision and guidance of Joss, playing the role of show runner, as he continues to do with the comics to this day. That’s different from, say, Daredevil, where the swashbuckling adventurer of the Stan Lee/Gene Colan era is a different interpretation than the grim urban street knight of the Frank Miller run. Or Spider-Man, who entered adulthood under different hands than those that defined him in high school. So when you write one of those characters, the idea is to be familiar with and influenced by what came before, but also to put your own spin on it. You don’t want to alter the fundamentals of who the character is, but you can make Peter Parker a teacher, as JMS did, or a scientist-inventor, as Dan Slott has, and it’s perfectly valid. Stan’s still around, but you don’t go to him and ask if this is okay, and he has said many times he wants current creators to do their own thing. Now, with the Buffyverse characters, Joss gives you a lot of freedom to try things (if they make sense), but at the end of the day, he is approving them, and adding ideas. Or he suggested the premise—“Let’s team Angel up with Faith in London”—and you’re picking up the ball from there, coming up with specifics on how to do that. I can’t ask Bill Everett if Sub-Mariner would do thus-and-such. I can ask Joss if Giles would like the Bay City Rollers. (Cue confused looks from editors Freddye and Sierra, and Scott Allie asking me for a more contemporary reference.) So what does all that mean? Well, in some respects it’s a challenge, because the voices and portrayals of the characters are so distinctive that if you get them wrong, it’s pretty glaring, and the fan base will howl. On the other hand, it actually gives you more freedom. I know there are people who didn’t care for the events of the Twilight story line, but imagine if that had been done by writers without Joss’s involvement. There would have been guillotines being erected in the streets of Milwaukie. But because Joss was the guiding hand, and wrote the key issues himself, while there are people who may not love it, everyone accepts it as canon. As a writer, you can actually be bolder with your ideas, because if Joss signs off on it, it’s cool. That’s what makes writing these characters so unique. It almost occupies a space halfway between company-owned characters and creator-owned characters, if that makes sense.
Okay, last question for you: What music do you think Spike likes? The Clash? Spoken-word poetry? I kind of see him getting weepy over Adele…in the privacy of his own crypt, of course.
VG: Ah, I see you’ve designed a question to get me killed. Music is very personal to a lot of people, and if I get it wrong, then it’s like I’m getting Spike wrong. So I will screw my courage to the sticking place and take a stab at it. I think the Sex Pistols and the Clash are obvious picks, but obvious doesn’t mean wrong. Spike is a rebel and a bad boy and that’s his kind of music. I think Spike is likely more of a Stones guys than he is a Beatles guy. I don’t think he’d be caught dead listening to country but might make an exception for Johnny Cash. Classic college rock over Top 40. He’d tolerate a little Jane’s Addiction. And when nobody’s looking, and he’s feeling a little melancholy, he might look out the window at the rain coming down, slowly smoke a cigarette, and listen to “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues.
Christos, Angel has had his soul back quite a bit longer than Spike has. What sincere advice would Angel give Spike about coping?
CG: I’m not sure Angel would give Spike sincere advice. My take from Angel Season 5 is that it bugs him that Spike didn’t feel as much anguish for as long as Angel himself did after getting his soul back, and he feels both mistrustful and jealous of him for that. (Though deep down I think they like each other and have a bond that can only exist between two people who are the only ones on Earth like each other.) But if Angel was going to give Spike sincere advice, it would be to remember that the pain is what makes you human…what sets you apart from the monster you were before. (Now, personally, I think that’s oversimplifying it, but I think that’s what Angel would say. The man does love his pain.) To let it motivate you to do good instead of crushing you. And I think Spike would tell him to piss off.
DHC: Ha ha! Thank you both!