Storytelling to Success

Scott Morse talks to John Freeman about Soulwind, the story that launched his comics career, and how creating graphic tales is a very distinct form of storytelling...

Both an acclaimed graphic novelist and filmmaker at Pixar, Scott Morse is best known for writing and drawing stories that span several genres, tales that have often experimented with the comics form. He’s created stories such as Volcanic Revolver, Ancient Joe, The Barefoot Serpent, the Magic Pickle chapter book series, and, most recently, Dugout: The Zombie Steals Home, published by Scholastic.

But it’s Soulwind, first published in 1997, now appearing in SHIFT, that put him on the map as a comics creator. A story told across a wise and surprising canvas that Scott started work on long before it was published more widely by Image Comics, I wondered how he would pitched it now as concept to new readers?

“Soulwind, as a story, concerns the decay, rebirth, and evolution of the Earth’s “soul”, embodied in the forms of dysfunctional long-lost gods and a newly-enlightened ‘chosen one’, he tells me. “It’s understandably high-concept, and honestly, served as a self-imposed exercise to grow as a storyteller, to see if I could juggle big concepts through smaller characters.

It’s certainly a story really plays with form, deliberately throwing the reader straight into the narrative and leaving them to work out what’s going on. Was it, I wondered, a conscious decision on Scott’s part to take no prisoners and experiment?

“Absolutely,” Scott confirms. “I come from a discipline of storytelling that thrives on ‘arriving late and leaving early’ from story moments. I’ve discovered that audiences appreciate the engagement of being active participants in the story they’re experiencing. Given the chance, they’ll work harder to engage and pay attention if they arrive mid-conversation in an idea.

“The idea of discovering story as it unfolds is important to me,” he continues. “Not pandering, not holding the audience’s hand upon entry, can be rewarding for the audience because they invest. It allows the audience to solve a puzzle that’s unfolding around them, as opposed to just being fed story points.

So would he say that Soulwind is character or story driven?

“That’s an interesting question,” Scott muses. “I try to derive plot from character - ideally, a strong character can be put in any situation and still be interesting, whether they’re buying groceries or saving the world. In the case of Soulwind, though, I think story came first. The concept is so big that I needed to craft characters that would be interesting enough to unlock the concept of the bigger story one piece at a time, to serve specific jobs that would unlock specific story elements and help you journey from point to point.

“The trick, though, was to attempt to humanise those characters so they felt real enough to believe and follow,” he expands. “I think, as the story unfolds, certain characters do engage on a more emotional level, but initially, it was about propelling the bigger idea. As I learned over these 500+ pages, real story only resonates if you feel for the characters involved, and I think, or at least hope, that some of the key characters became more alive as I became more adept as a storyteller.

“I’ll be honest - I task myself with being a perpetual student, so I hope that every project I take on serves as a learning experience to help the betterment of the next thing down the line. Soulwind was, at its core, devised as an exercise to learn some things I knew I didn’t know, but in the process of ‘doing’.

Given this, did the story change in any significant way in the telling, perhaps in response to reader feedback or did, I wonder, Scott stick to a plan, or because a character started fighting for extra “airtime”?

“The story was mapped out pretty early on. I only took advice and ideas from people I sought it from, honestly. The experiment of crafting this thing was purposefully put on my own shoulders to either succeed or fail on my own merits. Film and television are team efforts, and that’s my day job. Comics can be a singular effort, and I wanted to treat Soulwind as a venue to see what I could do as a singular voice.”

“As far as characters fighting for airtime goes, or trying to please fans with characters they wanted more of, I really tried to steer clear of those ideas,” reveals. “The characters served in the way the story needed them to. If I’d simply just kept doing stories with Nick as a kid, and Poke, they would have outstayed their welcome and become situational characters as opposed to ‘chosen’ characters thrust into a quest.”

Alongside Scott’s comics writing, he’s also highly regarded for his work in animation – but although he’s quick to point out he’s not an animator, I wondered if his work in that field, in that medium, impacted the way he tell stories in comics - and vice versa?

“Honestly, I’m not an animator,” he insists. “I do work in animation, and I can animate, though not as well as I like. Animation and live-action film are very team-driven forms with many sub-jobs. I’ve production designed and art directed, done storyboards, supervised teams doing storyboards, and helped write, as well as directed and produced. They’re all very different, but they’re all connected. I know that may sound picky about how to label someone that’s worked in animation, but I think it’s important to give credit to each job in the bigger process, as each is a very relevant art form and discipline in itself.

“The term I like to fall back on is one that I heard my pal Matt Wagner [the creator of Mage and Grendel] use in a workshop once. He claimed that he writes, and he draws, and he’s not perfect at either, but when he combines them, he becomes a more elevated storyteller. So, storyteller is really the blanket term I like. I feel like it encompasses the idea of ‘writing with visuals’ - and telling stories with more than one tool. And, what’s nice with ‘storytelling’ as a term like that, is that it can work for both comics and film/TV.

“Now, working in film and TV has indeed influenced how I tell stories in comics. They’re connected, but they aren’t ‘one for one’ siblings. Comics aren’t storyboards, or film. But they can evoke many of the same ideas and affect an audience in some similar ways. As such, I see myself drawing in cross-purpose ideas involving composition, staging, acting, and pacing.

“I tend to ‘pace’ my comics with a more cinematic approach, to try to engage a more pointed sense of linear, scenic timing,” he explains further. “I’ll draw out actions like you might in film, moment to moment, as opposed to giving ‘beats’ or more illustrative panels that meant to be ‘lived in’ for longer.

“Comics can often allow audiences to linger on specific images for longer than a story might need them to, and while that can benefit an illustration, it can do a disservice to a story,” Scott feels. “If you lose the audience on a specific image for too long because they engage with the drawing itself, it actually can distract from what the drawing might be trying to do as a story element.

“At any rate, I try to be aware of the power of whatever image is placed against other images, and what job that image needs to do, panel by panel. If it needs to evoke atmosphere and scope and wonder for a longer period, I might try to embellish more. If it needs to establish an idea and push you to the next idea, I might be more economic.

“This is something that you learn very quickly working in film/TV - an audiences’ patience can be tested by the storyteller if they’re exercising style over substance.

Were there comic creators whose work influenced his approach to telling comic stories, and is there anyone he particularly admires whose recent work has grabbed his imagination?

“The comics creators that really affected me from an early age, that stuck out as formative and educational as far as craft, were Frank Miller, David Mazzuchelli, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Katsuhiro Otomo, the Hernandez Bros., and Bill Watterson. All of them approach(ed) storytelling visually with specific ideas that made me stop and think about how they were working.

Four Color #134 Tarzan original art (Dell, 1947). Artist Jesse Marsh's jungle silhouettes create striking designs throughout the panels. Image: Heritage Auctions

“As I’ve aged and expanded my tastes, it’s funny that most of what I really enjoy is ‘classic’ work,” Scott notes. “Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, and contemporaries like Mike Mignola, Darwyn Cooke, Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean. I’ve recently been getting more into early Nick Cardy work.

“One classic artist that really intrigues me is Jesse Marsh… his early Tarzan and John Carter work.”

There are readers out there still discovering Soulwind for the first time and delighting in the story, even today. I wondered if Scott was surprised at the reaction it got, and the plaudits the story gained, including Eisner Award nominations - and still gets?

“I’m astounded, to tell you the truth,” he admits. “Getting any recognition that early in your career for your work is always a pleasant surprise and a bit overwhelming. The hard part is looking back at it as the guy who did it - there’s so much there that makes me wince a little, things I’ve learned from, that I need to remind myself that, creatively, it’s a time-capsule of where I was when I was 19 to 24 or so. But it makes me feel pretty incredible that it holds up for a lot of first-time readers and they stick with it and ride the crazy ideas until the end. So, if you’re a first-time reader, thank you for jumping on and holding on!”

As an independent creator, does he think it’s now easier or harder to promote a project - and sell it - to potential comic fans?

“Comics are such a crazy medium. It’s always a challenge to find an audience that will engage and support your ideas,” Scott feels. “I think the successful projects out there are the ones that pull people in with their apparent quality - strong visuals and design on covers, and carrying that through in the pages as a potential buyer flips through the book they’re picking up. Then, if the idea of the book has enough meat on the bone on a cursory glance - a good hook, something original and clever - it’ll have a better chance.

“You might think you’ve created an amazing comic - and you might have!,” he argues, “but if you don’t know how to draw people in and ‘sell’ it at a glance, you’ll cut your audience down. All of that is just built into the medium and has nothing to do with the era in which you’re creating, in my opinion.

“But with niche comic shop owners having to make choices on what they’ll order, based on the potential of maybe selling it, you’re really trying to first engage the shop owners. They’re your ally, and you should try to get into their mindset and give them tools to sell your book.

“Bigger wins seem to be happening with large-scale graphic novel publishers that have built-in distribution channels and marketing departments. Still, if you’re an individual creator, the real question to ask yourself is, ‘Who’s this intended for? What audience?’ That will tell you a lot of things right off the bat about how to market your book… or not market your book. And then, being realistic about how big that specific, unique potential market of readers currently is can be informative. An ‘all-ages’ market might potentially be a lot larger than a market targeted at fans of ‘western horror’.

“Social media is a huge book, and word of mouth in the virtual age can be an amazing thing,” Scott notes. “Find other creators that you respect, see if they’ll give your work a look, and if they like it, their word-of-mouth recommendations might help you spread your audience potential to like-minded fans.

“It’s such a puzzle, and that’s part of the reward when you do connect with that audience you’re after.”

Given his experience of the industry and the changes it’s gone through in recent years, would Scott say it’s easier or harder for a newcomer to get professionally published?

“I think being realistic and honest with yourself about what your goals are is the key,” he suggests. “Are you in comics because you love comics and will make them no matter what? Or are you in comics hoping to seek fame and fortune? That, right off the bat, will help you adjust your mindset for the long haul.

“Someone who loves the craft with work over the course of their career to hone their craft, and audiences will see that. They’ll respond to that, to the quality and the professional approach and mindset. Those readers will engage with you, and support you as the creator, as opposed to one or two issues of something you worked on. But that’s a commitment, and you need to be ready to commit on terms you’re comfortable with.

“If you want to “work in comics” on things you don’t own, like superhero books for Marvel or DC, be prepared to work hard to help someone else sell a vision that might not be your vision. But if you want to ‘work in comics’ by telling personal, authentic stories from a perspective that’s yours alone, be prepared to work and learn more about yourself and your readers. It’s a more personal conversation, and often a more trying experience to really put a piece of yourself out there, as opposed to the way you like to draw Batman or Wolverine.

“Bottom line, if you love comics, and you dedicate your attention and invest your time in putting in the work to grow as a storyteller and person, I bet you’ll see some rewards,” he feels – and clearly, very strongly.

“I’d advise sharing your work online,” he offers, “building up a community of viewers and readers on social media, and then engaging them with opportunities to purchase your work in different forms - prints, small-press books you’ve crowd-funded, etc. Your committed audience is likely to grow, and bigger publishers will want to then invest in you. And you’ll have more shots to call.”

Given all that, what one piece of advice would he offer aspiring comic creators seeking to work in the industry?

“I’d recommend asking yourself, ‘What am I trying to say, who am I trying to say it to, and am I speaking in the most clear and charming way possible?’ Then, it’s about putting in the time to experiment and committing your schedule to the work you’re going to have to do to grow.

“And please, don’t be hard on yourself,” he urges. “Give yourself room to fail, and get back up, and get back at it with the added tool of knowing what didn’t work.

“Carry a sketchbook and draw what you observe. You don’t have to show anyone, treat it like a diary if you want,” he continues. “Analyse the things you love. Learn to do some things that aren’t comics, and see what you can draw from those experiences. Pay attention to your relationships, but remember that you are a valuable part of those relationships. It could be with family, friends, people in your community, and even your relationship with world issues, your relationship with your culture and your values. Your viewpoints, even on common or broad topics that ‘have been done’, are unique… and that’s what makes them interesting: how you interpret and communicate them.”

 

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