Jeremy Barlow has written Star Wars comics, Mass Effect comics, Deathlok, and more, but this time he’s taking us out west with R.I.P.D.: City of the Damned, a prequel to the R.I.P.D. movie that will star Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds when it debuts this summer.
I spoke to Barlow about picking up where Peter Lenkov left off with R.I.P.D., what he thinks about the future of Star Wars, the possibility of more Deathlok, going freelance, and what it takes to write a comic book.
For those who aren’t familiar with Peter Lenkov’s original R.I.P.D. story, how does this pivot off of that and how does the film pivot off of City of the Damned?
Jeremy Barlow: Peter Lenkov’s first story introduced the Rest in Peace Department through protagonist Nick Cruz’ (now Nick Walker) eyes. He was a troubled Boston PD officer killed in the line of duty and recruited into the R.I.P.D. to patrol the afterlife. Nick’s senior partner is Roy Pulsipher, a gunfighter from the old west and now 100-year veteran of the force. It’s a great story, equally full of horror and heart, and it’s the basis for the upcoming film.
City of the Damned takes us back and tells the story of how Roy joined the R.I.P.D., and how the disturbing events of his first case shaped his personality. Through this we expand the R.I.P.D. universe and dig deeper into its mythology, while still keeping the terrifying/sentimental tone that Peter established.
You’ve written for pre-established voices like Star Wars before, but here you sort of get to be out front with it. How involved were the filmmakers and Lenkov in the plotting stage and did you feel like you had to speak with Ryan Reynolds or Jeff Bridges’ voice at times?
Barlow: The movie’s production was well underway when we started City of the Damned, but I was given autonomy to build the world. I pitched a prequel to give us some space, and once we had the green light, artist Tony Parker and I just went for it and didn’t hold anything back. Peter Lenkov has been involved at every step too, making sure everything lines up. He digs what we’re doing.
As for writing the characters, it was less a case of “having” to write to Bridges’ and Reynolds’ voice than “getting” to. One of the challenges of writing is creating vivid characters that speak to you, whose voices you hear in your head, and whose reactions to any situation you’d know by heart. Having those voices already in place is golden.
That said, Nick Walker (the Ryan Reynolds character) appears only in a modern-day bookend sequence in the first and final issues. Otherwise, Roy is teamed up with his own senior partner, an intense Puritan named Crispin Mather, who’s a new character. For Roy’s voice, I’ve been leaning toward a younger and more brash, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot era Bridges. Throwing him together with a stoic Solomon Kane type has been fun.
Staying with a “voice” question, we go back 100 years to the old west in City of the Damned, you’ve visited that time in your writing before with They’ll Bury You Where You Stand, what is it about that time that appeals to you as a writer?
Barlow: Hey, thanks for mentioning “TBYWYS!” (my original short story with artist Dustin Weaver, which ran in Image Comics’ Outlaw Territory vol. 2 anthology). I’m glad someone read it!
I’m not at all interested in traditional westerns, actually. In fact, I grew up hating them — the cheap sets, the overly simplistic morality, the bombastic musical scores — just not for me. The western is a purely American mythology, but by its nature it can’t escape the concepts of Manifest Destiny and the John Wayne/good guys wear white fantasy. Which just kills it dead for me.
However, I love, LOVE, European westerns from the 60s and 70s. Respect to Sergio Leone and all, but those “Man with No Name” movies don’t even scratch the surface of that genre’s greatness. The original Django’s opening credit sequence opened a trapdoor in my brain the first time I saw it, and I fell right in. Through the European filter, that American mythology becomes something else entirely. Something more honest and true, more brutal and surreal, and the visual language knocks you on your ass.
The short answer to your question is, I use this ‘wrong’ western genre for the same reasons I like writing science fiction—the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. I love creating wholly unique worlds, going places that couldn’t exist otherwise, and using familiar symbols in unfamiliar contexts.
Complete 180, more Dethklok comics or other Metalocalypse projects? Ever?
Barlow: Oh, man — I wish. I really hope so. I haven’t heard anything from Dark Horse on that front, but I get the sense that the books didn’t do as well as we hoped, so I don’t know. That was easily the best and most fun job I’ve ever had, and I could write 100 more issues of Dethklok, easily. Cut off your fingers and cross them.
You were with Dark Horse for a while and then you went freelance and you aligned with Periscope studios. What kind of advantage does joining with a collective give you in terms of booking work and what are the benefits of working freelance as opposed to having one set home?
Barlow: The networking advantages are indirect, at least for me, and I’m not sure that being a studio member has led to getting hired for something. The true benefit of joining Periscope, though, is simply spending time with like-minded and insanely talented artists and writers. It’s having a place to go and having people to interact with when the isolation of working from home is too much. It’s been a lifesaver, and Periscope is like a second family.
Writing at the studio can be challenging, depending on what I’m working on, but that’s only because the room is full of creative, really wonderful people having a great time, and who’d want to block that out?
In terms of your process, how long does it take you from first letter to last to write a script and how do you avoid distractions?
Barlow: Too long. I used to beat myself up for being a slow writer, but I’ve accepted that it’s not so much that I’m slow as I am extremely thorough. I can write a 22-page script in about ten days, but only after I’ve already spent at least as much time working out the ideas, breaking down the dramatic beats, and solving all of the logic and consistency problems. I go on long walks daily to work things out in my head (and to convince myself that I’m not terrible at what I do).
I script using a program called Movie Magic Screenwriter, with a personally customized template. While scripting, I also have a Word doc open, which I use for general outlining and problem solving. If I get stuck, I talk it out in the Word doc until the solution presents itself, then I jump back over to the script.
My first drafts are loose and crappy. The pages are paced out with one-sentence panel descriptions and placeholder dialogue. Once that’s down I’ll expand that draft into a full script, along with reference web links for the artist, and everything. Then I’ll print that out, proof it, and use it as a reference to rewrite a third draft from scratch. Which is crazy, I know, but it gets the best results. You can stare at a thing for so long that you lose sight of it, and retyping it finds the blind spots and tightens everything up. This is time consuming, especially when I’m juggling multiple projects, but maintaining quality is worth it. The upside is that because I’m so thorough, I’m very rarely asked to do rewrites. So maybe I save a little time on the backend.
For productivity, I use a variation on the Pomodoro Technique. Which is that I have a pair of timer widgets on my Macbook’s dashboard — one set for twenty-five minutes and the other for six. While the longer one runs, I work. I focus on the task and ignore the stress and the urge to web surf. When it goes off, I take a six-minute break—no matter what. I walk around the house, drink some water, do some pushups, anything to refresh the brain. When those six minutes are up, I’m back at the desk for another twenty-five.
Before working like this, I’d lose days to anxiety. Days! I’m easily overwhelmed, and my workload this year has been crazy — if I think about everything ahead of me, I lock up and can’t get anything done. It’s a bad cycle. Breaking it down into small, timed chunks instead has worked wonders.
Advice for aspiring comic writers on how to get published?
Barlow: Get an Internet connection. Okay, that’s the smartass answer — but what I mean is that digital is as viable an option for getting your work out there as is trying to get a publisher to pay attention to you. Get online, meet some artists, and just get your stuff out there. Digital is the future — I don’t buy monthly comics anymore, I read everything on my iPad — and there’s no barrier to sharing your work with the world. If you’re good, people will pay attention. If you’re not good, keep at it and eventually you will be.
If the question you’re really asking, though, is how does an aspiring writer get to do this for a living? Again, it goes back to becoming really good at what you do — so good that someone will want to pay you to do it — and getting there takes a lot of time working and a lot patience sweating through your amateur phase. I’ve been at this for ten years, and I feel like I’m only just getting my sea legs under me.
What existing character would you like to get your hands on and what would you do with them?
Barlow: Mad Max. In a heartbeat. That character and his whole world are rich and so much fun, you could go in all kinds of directions with them. I’d put him on a ship and send him around the world, starting with Asia and the Middle East, and dig into how the rest of the world is living in the post-apocalypse. How great would that be? Wow. Okay, I have to do this, if even just for myself.
How do you feel about the upcoming Star Wars film?
Barlow: It’s exciting. I’ve written a handful of all-ages Star Wars graphic novels, and my approach was always ‘what would Pixar do?’ Meaning, how best to find the stories’ meaning and heart, and to make them ‘all-ages’ in the truest sense of the word — enjoyable to everyone, regardless of how old the reader was.
I have no inside information, but the rumors are pointing toward Disney and Lucasfilm actually kicking it over to some of the Pixar guys, and that’s fantastic. As a fan, I’m stoked, and I’m looking forward to Star Wars again in a way I haven’t been in a long, long time.
Is there a Star Wars story or character you worked on that you think would be fantastic on the big screen? Would you sell your soul to work on that movie? Keep in mind I am not the devil or an agent of, so any affirmation does not constitute a binding agreement.
Barlow: As a professional, I’m not interested in working on the movie, to be honest. I’ve said what I had to say about Star Wars, and I haven’t written anything for them in quite a while. I’m looking forward to just being a fan again, no longer seeing behind the curtain, and doing my best to stay on media blackout until the movie hits, because I like to be surprised.
That said, if I could have one of my characters built into their future plans, it’d have to be BoShek — the pilot with the sideburns who refers Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi to Han Solo in the Mos Eisley cantina. He gets three seconds of screen time, but I wrote a story setting him up as the Star Wars version of The Transporter, which was a blast. So either him, or Shon-Ju — a failed Jedi padawan turned martial artist who creates his own system of hand-to-hand Force-powered combat, and who has an enormous chip on his shoulder toward his former teachers. He has a lot of depth and potential. I say humbly.
Otherwise, yeah. I’m right in line with you guys on opening night 2015!
R.I.P.D.: City of the Damned from Barlow, Peter Lenkov, and Tony Parker debuts tomorrow (11/28). You can pick up a copy online or at your local comic book shop. For more information on Jeremy Barlow, check out his website.