TalkingComics / Underdogs

#TalkingComics w/ Kevin Cullen: John Layman on Writing and Its Varied Process

This week’s interview spotlight falls directly on the writer mastermind, John Layman, who won the Eisner for Best New Series in 2010 and Best Continuing Series in 2011. With superstar titles like Batman and Chew under his belt, Layman’s definitely got some sway in the swirling, mishmash world of comic books. I talked with him recently about his process and how he manages to wrangle such manic worlds into cohesive stories.


Kevin Cullen: Hey John! So, you started with Wildstorm as an editor, but then began creating your own comics around 2002, writing creator-owned comics such as Puffed and Chew. How did the opportunity to write your own stories come about? Was getting out of the editing room a long-time-coming kind of thing or did you suddenly find yourself with a pen in hand and a story in mind?


image courtesy of

John Layman: I never wanted to be an editor. The goal was always to write comics, but I did not know how do go about it. When I, living in San Diego, saw an employment opportunity to be in comics at Jim Lee’s studio, I figured it would be a step in the right direction toward learning how to best go about writing comics. After about 5 years of editing, I really HAD figured out how to do it, and decided to make the leap to freelance writing, which is where I’d wanted to be from my earliest childhood.

KC: When it comes to sitting down and organizing your stories, do you do much planning or storyboarding for the comic’s full arc, or are you a much more impromptu writer? You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re a slower writer. Have you got the Procrastination Curse like a majority of us, or is there another reason (such as being unapologetically meticulous when constructing a scene – see Michael Moore) why you find yourself under the gun when it comes to deadlines? Also, is there a specific word processing program that you prefer to write your script with, or is Microsoft Word enough?

JL: I just use Microsoft word, and I rarely take notes, or do anything other than sit down and agonize through a story. I usually have at least one scene that I use as a starting point, but sometimes it’s the end of the issue, or even the middle. I write out of sequence. Often, at least with CHEW I have the “soap opera” and character bits done, a good third of the book finished, before I even know what the “case” is, which some would argue is the most important part of the issue.

KC: Let’s talk about working with the artist for a second. Rob Guillory’s art in Chew is brilliant, grotesque, and liver-spotted in all the best ways. When you’re writing your script, how much detail do you write into your scenes? The two of you have been working together for some time now. Do you find yourself adding fewer and fewer scene details, confident that he’s got the hang of how you want the stories to “look” or does he enjoy having a firmer description in hand when it comes to drawing them.

chew34coverJL: My scripts are VERY detailed, but I’m not a control freak. They are written with the proviso that “you are the artist and if you have a better idea how to do this visual, feel free to veto me and do your own thing.” I think flexibility on the writer’s part is VERY important. The being said, my scripts are VERY wordy and conversational, and they don’t really get shorter as we’ve gone on. They tend to clock in at 30 pages or so of text for a 20 page script. I COULD write far less, but I always feel like I am short changing both the artist and the readers when I do.

KC: Branching into the mainstream, you were the writer for the Detective Comics for a little while, then into Eternal for a few issues as well. According to what you wrote to Bleeding Cool, working on those superhero comics, while quite rewarding, was a bit taxing – especially with Chew waiting in the wings to get some attention. Going from creator-owned to heavily franchised characters is quite an exciting jump, however. Did you find your process of writing and interacting with the artists and editors much different when you had Batman on your plate than when you are writing Chew?

JL: Well, there are less worries with a company owned book. You’ve got an editor approving layouts, and cracking the whip about deadlines. On the other hand, you have input but not approval on the creative team, so it might be a colorist (or anybody!) assigned that would not be your first choice if it was up to you, and you just have to grin and bear it (or be a pain in the ass and fight it, which is not how I operate.) Company owned work comes with a guaranteed paycheck and upfront money, but there are definitely creative compromises.

KC: So now your focus is set on Chew, which is good news for cibopath fans! In regards to writing, Chew started off with a rather light-hearted, humorous tone. However, as the story progresses and as events grow darker and darker, the story still holds strong to its humorous element. How do you balance that darkness with fresh humor so effectively?

JL: I dunno. I’d argue that. The first issue is damn dark, and I don’t think there is as much overt humor in the ealier issues. At least, not the silliness that we get away with now. I always knew that CHEW was a bit of a limited “gimmick” if it was just going to be “what’s Tony going to eat this issue,” so I expanded story possibilities with a large supporting cast, and a story that is broad enough that it can support a lot of different tones, and even genres.

KC: A quick fanboy question here – Tony Chu has had to eat some utterly revolting things so far. But with the series still picking up steam, will there be anything he eats that puts the first half of Chew’s edibles to shame?

JL: Not that I can think of. More and more, what he eats is going toward character stuff, and eating to serve the story. And honestly, how do you get grosses than the threat of eating corpses and poo?

KC: Good point. Moving on to the less grotesque – many writers head off into public places to eavesdrop while others take to the internet and to libraries to find source material for their inspiration. Where do you find your greatest source of wildly original ideas? Are there any other comic book creators or comic books in general that you turn to for a pick-me-up or for a more dynamic strategy about how to tackle a scene?

JL: No, that is a pet peeve of mine. There is nothing I can’t stand more than hanging out with writers, and somebody says something clever and somebody else says “I’m gonna use that line. All my dialogue comes from my head, and solely from my head, as I am writing the story. And –I guess unlike many writers– I dialogue and pace the issue first, and THEN go back and do panel description. To me, panel description is grunt work, stuff I can do while I’m watching TV or whatever, and dialogue and pacing is the actual heavy lifting that goes into an issue.



KC: Some very common advice to writers is that they write every day, that they cut themselves off from the internet, or that they get out of their comfortable environment and head to somewhere foreign to write. Have you got a regiment that you keep which helps your process? A music playlist or some sort of activity that keeps your creativity flowing? Is there any advice that you can offer to aspiring comic book writers about writing, breaking into industries, or excellent recipes that might make the cast of Chew happy?

JL: Boy, I SHOULD cut myself off from the internet, because I f**k around on it FAR too much. But I don’t have the discipline. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop, and I tend to be more productive in the early morning. Sometimes in the VERY early morning. I listen to music, but it has to be instrumental. I can NOT listen to lyrics, because hearing words screws me up. I have a internet radio station called “SOMA Secret Agent Radio” I really like, that plays groove-y lounge type music which I find ideal for writing. I don’t really have any advice. I consider my work ethic pretty terrible, and the way I write a form of torture, so if I did have any advice it would be “find a different way. Don’t do it like me!”

 Interested in what Layman’s actual scripts look like? Comic Book Resources has you covered! Check out the full script for Chew #1 right here!

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