Greg Pak (pronounced Pock) is an accomplished film director and comic writer with acclaimed runs on The Incredible Hulk, Hercules, and Action Comics, among others. In his ten years as a published comic writer, Pak has written tragedy, comedy, and high drama, he’s shaped the births of some of Marvel’s most dangerous villains, written DC’s flagship title, and even shown the world a gay, gubernatorial Wolverine!
In short, he’s a pretty impressive guy and it’s no surprise that he’s in high demand at the moment. Pak currently writes Superman in DC’s Action Comics and Batman/Superman, a revived Turok: Dinosaur Hunter for Dynamite, and is set to launch the first ever Storm series from Marvel next month.
I managed to talk to Mr. Pak at Special Edition: NYC. As you might guess, he was very busy but he absolutely insisted on giving thoughtful and intelligent answers to every one of my questions. I really appreciate him taking the time to talk to us and, if you do too, maybe you should pre-order Storm #1 at your local comic shop as the window to do is rapidly closing.
WCBR: My first question is, just kind of generally, what’s your writing process like? Do you have a particular way you like to work?
Greg Pak: Well, that’s a big question. I mean, a typical thing for a work-for-hire project is an editor will call me up and say “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this” or “We’re looking at doing something with this character” and I’ll be invited to pitch something. And so I come up with some ideas and I try to come up with three or four, y’know, good solid hooky ideas.
I’m not going into huge detail with these at this point in time because if I say “Aw, I wanna do something where- all about fighting giant penguins” and they say “oh, you know what, our big summer event for 2015 is fighting giant penguins” I don’t wanna have spent ten days working on my perfect giant penguin story before I know what the lay of the land is, so I, y’know, I try to come up with a bunch of ideas and sometimes I just write those down, sometimes I talk to the editor verbally. If I’m writing those down, I’m trying not to spend more than a couple paragraphs on each one, sometimes just a paragraph or a few lines, just to get the lay of the land. And then if some of those work or if they like those then I’ll write more.
Eventually, when I get the job, I will write out a description of where I think a particular story arc is going. Say if it’s a three issue story arc, I’m writing a few paragraphs to just describe the whole story and how it breaks down in the issues. And we’ll go back and forth with the editor about that and then eventually I’ll do an outline for the first issue, I’ll break it down page by page, and then I’ll write the full script. And at every stage my preference is to share that with the editor and to get feedback before I proceed to the next stage because it’s much easier to tweak things when you’re at the outline stage than when you’re at the full-script stage. So, y’know, sometimes writers are like, “Oh, if I show it, it’s just gonna get all ripped up”. You know what, but I’d rather get it all ripped up right here than later, so that’s kind of the way I work. And that’s kind of the deal.
Some books I write plot first, meaning I’m just doing a page by page outline, breaking them down by panels, but I’m not including all the dialogue yet. I’m doing that with Action Comics right now. And then that goes to the artist, in this case Aaron Kuder, who does layouts, and then we get on the phone for an hour and it’s awesome and we talk through the whole book page by page and panel by panel, and then he draws it and I do the dialogue while I’m looking at the finished art. And that’s a great way to work if you’ve got an artist who likes to work that way. Just getting on the phone and talking through the whole thing is great, because that way each of you knows exactly what’s going on emotionally and you just settle things and figure stuff out on the fly in a way that can be hard to do when you’re on e-mail. At the same time, some artists would just rather have the full script and so most of the scripts I do are full script; for most of my career that’s the way I’ve worked, full-script. I mean Action Comics is the only book that I’ve consistently done plot first and felt like it really worked, so I think that you kind of have to have a special writer/artist relationship for plot-first to work.
Very cool. Thank you for that, that was a great answer. You really went through the whole thing.
So, I was curioius, I’ve recently jumped onto Turok and have really been enjoying it.
Turok’s big thing is “alone is good.” That’s his mantra for the moment and at the end of last issue we saw him actually leaving. And, if I saw the solicit correctly, there’s talk that he might actually go hang out with Mongols.
Yes. Yeah. The next arc he’s going to head west. So, Turok spent the first arc battling the crusaders who arrived on the shores of Manhattan in 1210 AD, a little earlier than in our world, but this is an alternate world with dinosaurs so things happen a little differently. And so the crusaders brought dinosaurs to the new world. And basically released them and used them as biological warfare against the Natives. And the set-up is that Turok is an exile from his tribe. His parents are/were implicated in some terrible crime in the past and they were chased out and forced to live on the margins of his society, but when the crusaders come Turok is the one who’s got the skills and the knowhow to help save the tribe. As the story ends, though, Turok is like “Peace, see y’all later” and he’s heading west because, even though he saved these folks, they don’t trust him, he doesn’t really trust them.
So he’s going to go west and he will come into contact with a threat from the other side, which is the Mongols because in 1210 Genghis Khan and his armies were doing their thing and in this world they make it across the Pacific Ocean.
The story arc is drawn by the spectacular Takeshi Miyazawa who I’ve worked with many times before; he drew my Code Monkey Save World graphic novel. And the new heroine we’re gonna meet is Altani, the captain of Genghis Khan’s Skyriders. She comes in riding a pterosaur so it’s, uh- it’s pretty awesome stuff.
Awesome. Well, that sounds like a lot of fun.
Will we be seeing more of Andar and Marion and people in the future?
We will in the future, not in this arc.
I won’t spoil too much, but, yeah, I’ve got some crazy plans for them coming up in the third arc.
So, one thing that you did that I kind of didn’t realize [was you] at the time was write Magneto: Testament. Which was a very cool and very heavy comic. And it struck me reading Turok that, while it’s different, they both deal with kind of very real issues from history.
Yeah, that’s a fair assessment.
So, I was just kind of curious, particularly with Magneto – I mean, the graphic novel that I had picked up a while back actually had a teaching guide in the back – I know you took a lot of time to really be accurate, whereas Turok is an alternate history and it’s different but still based in the real world events, what do you think is, I’m hesitant to say your responsibility, but what is your responsibility to story and to reality and to humor when you’re dealing with things like historical genocide.
Oh, yeah, that’s- no, I think that’s a great question. Yeah, Magneto: Testament is the origin story of Magneto. He’s a German Jewish kid trying to survive as the Nazis rise to power and the Final Solution and the beginning extermination of the Jews of Europe and the Romani and many other people. So, with that book I worked with editor Warren Simonsand we knew from the beginning that we were going to tell a story that was going to be as historically accurate as we could make it.
Y’know, it’s set in this comic book universe, but we wanted to be as accurate as we could. Because there’s still crazy anti-semites and- and- and morons – malicious morons – who are Holocaust revisionists running around and they’ll jump on anything that they can find to try to discount the reality of what happened. And so we wanted to try to, as much as we could with the time that we had, to make it as accurate as we could. We actually worked with- We had a historical advisor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center who was great. He read all the scripts he gave us pointers along the way to make sure that we were on target and- and I had a six foot shelf of books about the Holocaust and about very specific aspects of that history that related to the graphic novel.
That was a very intense experience, so I- I probably spent four times as much time on each of those scripts as I would for a normal script just because of the background research involved. And, yeah, there were some very specific places where we thought a lot about what it meant to be doing a fictional story using this kind of material and what our responsibilities were and I think that’s a fair word to use, y’know, absolutely. I mean, here’s one specific example, there was a point when our young hero gets tattooed as he goes into the camp and we made a conscious choice not to show the number. Because we could have figured out roughly what kind of number it would have been and how many digits it would have been, whether it had letters or numbers in all that based on the time he was entering Auschwitz, but it just felt wrong to me to show a real number because any number we would have shown would have been some real person’s number. Y’know what I mean? And that just- that would have felt completely wrong to use a real person’s number in this case. That’s a very small example of it, but there are things like that that we were thinking about all the time while working on this.
With the Turok book, I have thought a lot about and, read a lot about representation of Native Americans. I’m Asian-American. I’m half-Korean and half-white and so I’ve grown up hyperaware of the way people of color and basically anybody who’s not the quote unquote mainstream- I’ve been very aware of how people are depicted. I mean, I can remember as a kid just being outraged when I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s which is a movie I hate. I mean, I- I have a visceral dislike of it no matter how much- y’know, I know a lot of people love that movie and I totally understand that because it speaks to people for other reasons, but I cannot get past the racism of the Mickey Rooney character. I mean, it just makes me- It turns my stomach. And so I understand [that feeling] and I’ve tried to be very, y’know, to educate myself and be very aware of the different stereotypes that have been used to depict Native Americans over the years. And, just by its nature, Turok is going to fall into some of those because it is a story about a Native American warrior.
And stories about Native Americans that are set during historical times can fall under the critique of playing into kind of a romanticized notion of Native Americans that may or may not have anything to do with the actual real lived experience of Native Americans today. And that’s a fair criticism. That kind of story is not going to break down certain kinds of stereotypes about Native Americans. At the same time, no one story can do everything. This is a story set in the past – in an alternate universe even – and so there are things it’s just, by its nature, not going to do. My job, I feel, is to, given that scenario, given the kind of story I’m telling, is to make the characters as three-dimensional as possible and also to try to depict this world in a non-stereotypical way, in the sense that like- I mean, a few things that come to mind is you’ll often see Native Americans critique stories that treat every Native American as the same: basically, every Native American in every story looks like a Plains Indian. I mean, that’s one of their critiques and that’s pretty fair. And there’s a certain stereotype about the kinds of- you basically only see one tribe and it’s always like the Sioux.
That’s the typical representation. I mean, there were hundreds of different tribes-
And they were completely different and-
Yeah, and so that’s one nuance I’ve tried to address. I mean, our story takes place in 1210, which is hundreds of years before the recorded history we have, so we don’t really have images of folks from that time period, so I kind of can’t be entirely historically accurate. But I’ve done a lot of reading about the Lenape who lived in the Manhattan area at the time. Well, they actually lived there at the time when Europeans came, y’know, that’s when we start to have records. And who knows who actually lived there three-hundred years before that. But that’s where I started from. I did a lot of research about the Lenape who lived in that area and use some of that in depicting the tribe.
There’s also the fact that Turok comes from a different tribe and that this is not a monolithic culture and that Turok’s parents are thought of differently from the other folks. And there’s another kind of “positive” stereotype of Native Americans is the sense of great spirituality-
I loved- there’s the one line where Turok finds one of Marion’s raptors and is afraid of it and she goes, “I thought you were in touch with nature?”
Yeah, exactly. Exactly ’cause, I mean, I think the positive stereotypes also deserve to be unpacked a little bit, y’know?
Also, Turok has been exiled from the tribe. He’s not part of the tribe in the same way. He doesn’t share- I mean, he knows the customs and religious beliefs but he doesn’t believe in them and that’s kind of a shocking thing to the folks who were actually part of the tribe. And so that kind of variety of experience, even within a community, is part of how I’m trying to do things in a non-stereotypical way.
Fundamentally it comes down to treating each character like an individual. To do the research and to do the mindwork to think about what it would be like to live in whatever conditions or situations you’re- you’re trying to depict. That’s what I’m trying to do.
I mean, I’ll also say in issue #5 as Turok goes westward into- I’ll just tell you. This is the big spoiler for the end of issue #5, so you may want to save this until it comes out on Wednesday, but we discover that Turok has made it all the way to the great earth mounds in Cahokia, in Southern Illinois, which are these spectacular pyramids made out of earth that were built by a Native American civilization hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And we- most folks don’t really know that much about it. We know about the pyramids in South America and Central America but right there in North America there was this huge city where thousands of people lived and Turok’s going there.
Yeah, I mean, particularly with Storm I’ve heard a lot about you considering issues of representation. Particularly being someone of mixed descent, does that affect how you write Superman who is kind of this ultimate outsider who was then kind of picked up by the mainstream as this whitebread American
Y’know it’s funny because I didn’t even really think about that until my friend Robert Wilonsky, who’s a Dallas journalist, was interviewing me about the book and he was like “Has Superman ever been written by a child of immigrants?” And I was like “I don’t- Well, I, actually-”
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I’m sure that has happened over the years, but he basically made this point too, like I’m a biracial person writing about an alien who has come to America and is- I mean, it is interesting, I honestly didn’t think about it when I started writing him, but I think it is true that as soon as I started writing him it just, like, I felt like I knew the guy, y’know what I mean, like- like under my skin there’s something about Clark and about Superman that resonates and on many different levels. I mean, people joke about Superman being the Boy Scout of the DC Universe- the big blue Boy Scout and, I mean, I was a Boy Scout.
I think his central effort to do the right thing all the time- and his struggle with that and figuring out how to do the right thing in a very complicated world, that resonates with me. I mean, I’m a sucker for those kinds of stories and- and I love the guy. So I’m sure that my personal whatever, my personal history, experiences, play into that. I’m not necessarily prepared to unpack that all the way-
But, I’m sure that’s part of it.
And I’m sure I would kick myself and my readers would kick me if I didn’t ask a quick thing about Storm.
Which is, maybe not for the entire Marvel Universe yet, but, at least among the X-Men, Storm is kind of their Superman. She’s this leader figure who doesn’t have the baggage of Cyclops or Wolverine. She’s immensely powerful and kind. What do you think are the differences of switching from this kind of metaphorical sun god to this very literal weather goddess and do you think that Storm has any of the issues that Superman has had with being kind of pinned down into these roles?
That’s a great question and I have thought about this. I mean, Storm and Superman are similar also in that, y’know, Storm is the daughter of an American journalist and an African princess, so she’s also bicultural, y’know, she’s got her foot in multiple worlds. She’s also someone who grew up without- I mean, her- she lost her parents at a very young age. And, yeah, as you say, she’s incredibly powerful. She has an instinctive and ingrained sympathy for the underdog, which comes out of her- her own experiences, I think and is also…well, and this is also true about just about every superhero, somebody who struggles to figure out how to use these ridiculous powers in the right way without hurting people. So, those are all things she has in common with Superman.
I think there’s- there’s some interesting contrast which is a lot of fun writing both these characters. I think Storm is probably, just by nature, a little more dangerous than Superman. She probably cares less about hurting the feelings of jerks, y’know what I’m saying? Like, Superman is- I mean here’s something I’ve thought about a lot: Superman is invulnerable. Essentially, I mean there’s certain things that can hurt him, but just walking down the street he has zero fear of anybody he’s going to encounter. So, he could literally turn the other cheek to everybody he meets and never hurt. And if he didn’t do that, he’d be a massive jerk. Y’know what I’m saying? It’s like if you are literally invulnerable, what kind of monster are you not to turn the other cheek at every opportunity?
Storm is, for all her power, she’s flesh and blood. Like if she’s shot with a gun she will die. I think her reactions on that level are- I think she’s more like…us, the average person, in that kind of a way. There’s a certain amount of natural self-preservation that factors into her existence. I also think that, as a person walking through life, she’s somebody who’s encountered more wretchedness than Superman has.
Superman lost his parents at a very young age, but then immediately he had the best adoptive parents you can imagine. I mean, the Kents were amazing. And they have this child who was incredibly powerful and frankly dangerous and they loved him and taught him to be a good person and believed in him and gave him this incredible support and, Storm was out- when her parents were killed she was out on the street. I mean, living as a runaway, as a homeless child street thief. And eventually she hooked up with, with a ‘tutor’ who taught her how to be a better thief and all of that but she was- But she was still-
Still a very different experience-
Yeah, exactly, and then eventually, when she sort of came of age and found her powers as a very young woman, she went out into the desert and pretended to be a goddess! Like that- there’s something about this crazy life she lived that, I mean, that’s frankly unhinged, y’know what I mean? Like that’s- that’s not what a normal person who has a strong support network and family does.
So, I think Storm has had to deal with a lot more trauma. And has just another kind of level of- I think she’s- I mean, Superman is very smart and he’s not the Boy Scout that- he’s not the stereotype of the Boy Scout, but he is a little more innocent in his heart than Storm is. I mean, Storm has this incredible capacity for empathy, but she also, I think, has a fierceness in her that’s born out of this… this life of hardship that can be dangerous in a very interesting way, so I’m having a blast writing her and I love- I love her, y’know what I mean? I love those nuances and that conflict. Y’know, that desire to help while also that while also dealing with that fierceness inside is just a great- It’s a great thing to be able to write. So, I’m having fun.
That’s great. Well, it wouldn’t be fair to you or the people who are waiting for you to keep you longer. But thank you so much for talking to us and giving us such thoughtful answers.
Oh no, great questions. And I really do appreciate it.