Former UI Visiting Professor Finds Success in Freelance Writing

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Benjamin Percy, a visiting professor at the University of Iowa in 2011, has written comics, articles, novels, movies, novels, and even a writer’s craft book. He is best known for his work with the Marvel comic series Wolverine, where he turned the character into a household name. The movie he wrote, summer, a drama film about a group of girls and their last summer before college – which Percy wrote in an effort to provide a Goonies-like movie for his daughter – was released earlier this year.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

DI: How do you find your busy schedule considering that you are working on all these different projects? What is your secret to success?

Benjamin Percy: I’m very good at compartmentalizing my days. I will plan ahead and my plan often has to do with deadlines chasing me. I’ll plan ahead what I’m going to do tomorrow and tonight. I’ll say, ‘OK, from 7:30 to noon, I’m going to dive deep into this novel. I’ll walk the dog and have lunch, and from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., when the kids come home from school, I’ll work on this comic script.

Illustration by Molly Milder.

It doesn’t always work that way – I might spend four days finding the plot for a novel, then one day working on a movie script, and another day working on an article. But usually having everything planned out in my mind allows me to prepare for the work I need to do and plan accordingly, and get into the mindset hours or days before I press the keyboard. It also helps prevent writer’s block and what if I ever get stuck on something that always happens if I get stuck on character or work my way through a tough plot point. I can always walk away from this project and go work on one of the other projects waiting on my desk, then I can come back to the other thing later with a fresh perspective and renewed enthusiasm.

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DI: How do you think writing comics influenced your novel writing style?

Percy: Well, it certainly made me more effective as a novelist.

Photo added by Benjamin Percy.

I mentioned before that the comics are 20 pages with five to seven scenes. And you always know as a novelist that you’re supposed to do more than one thing at a time, ideally you should be contributing characterization, plot and theme, all at the same time, but you have 300 pages or you have 400 pages and sometimes you can be a little lenient after that but the comics don’t allow that – you have to get things done and get them done [done] rapidly. That’s why, for example, if there’s a fight scene, the heroes and villains also talk all the time, because we’re driving the plot forward, but we can also contribute to the theme and characterization through the narration, or via the dialogue that is happening at that moment. So they made me more efficient. They also clarified things for me. If you think the comics are very explosive and sort of Technicolor, they bring everything to the surface in a very obvious way. And then you can take some of those things and apply them more suddenly to other forms of writing. An example of this is well, the wicked. If you look at the way villains operate in comics, they’re always an externalization with an internal wound in, say, the protagonist and the hero. So, let’s talk about it through the prism of the best rogues gallery there is, Batman’s. Batman’s main injury is when he was little, he went to the theater with his parents, and they took a shortcut back home through the alley, and they were attacked by a thief, and Martha’s pearl necklace Wayne was ripped from his neck. Thomas Wayne tried to intervene, shots were fired, they died. Little Bruce Wayne is left sobbing in this rain-patterned alley, and in that moment giving birth to Batman, and Batman tries to restore law and order to the chaos of Gotham City.

Photo added by Benjamin Percy.

Chaos is embodied at this time in the alley. So there’s the Joker, on the right, who captures that chaos better than anyone, but if you look at other characters that Batman might encounter, look at how they explore other things that go on inside the other flaws of the same characters. For example, if you have a story about Dr. Freeze, it should be about the emotional coldness of Bruce Wayne. If you have a story about Two-Face, it should be about the question, “Is Bruce Wayne the man and Batman the mask, or are Batman Batman and Bruce Wayne the mask?” If you’re writing a scarecrow story, it should be a fear story. The way these characters, Batman and Scarecrow, wield that Batman takes the fear of his childhood, and he weaponizes it against others for the good of the city. Scarecrow also suffered as a child – his father was a mad scientist who experimented on him with fear serums – but Scarecrow as an adult again weaponizes fear, but he does it with bad intention as a kind of mirror dark by Bruce Wayne.

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DI: I’ve heard it said before that to be successful in creative writing, you have to have an entrepreneurial spirit. Would you say that’s true?

Percy: I’m constantly thinking about where I’m going to invest my time. In order to tell the most sounding stories artistically of course, but also to keep my career on an upward trajectory. So what I tend to do is have a mix of low risk and high risk projects going. In the same way, and I know that sounds a bit crude, but in the same way you look at an investment portfolio. So I will have comics, for example, which are very reliable for me. I know I have so many problems, and I’m under contract for a year, and then they bring in a steady but rather small amount of money compared to higher risk projects, like a TV pitch or a movie script that I actually write.

Illustration by Molly Milder.

The odds are much smaller that this movie pitch or TV pitch will work, but if they do, the money I’d make with it eclipses the money I’d make for the comics, and kind of, again, to compare it to an investment portfolio — you have your investments that are more conservative, and they’re just going to grow steadily. Then you have, you know, the “stock market” which is much more volatile than mutual funds. You can have big wins there, or you can have big losses. I always try to balance the two in a safe and risky way. And a lot of things didn’t work out, but a lot of things did, and I continued to steadily build myself a creative life, which was also thankfully lucrative.

DI: So, just comparing collaborative projects to independent projects, what do you think is the difference between the two responsibilities and how you approach them?

Percy: Comics are a collaborative medium. I’m the writer, but there’s also an artist and there’s also a colorist and there’s also a letterer, and that letterer takes the script and puts the sound effects, and puts the words in the narrative captions and the dialog bubbles. So it’s a team effort and, especially with the artist, I can develop a very close relationship. We sometimes text or talk on the phone every day. We both try hard to tell the best story possible, and it’s really exciting. It’s really energizing, but I’m glad to have the new part of my life as well, which is much slower and more marathon and airtight, a solitary pursuit, but I like having both in my life. because they force me to use different parts of my brain, and they balance each other out. Too much time alone and in the dark is not good for anyone. So when I’m working in comics, or when I’m working in television or film, that exercise and that collaboration can really open up a lot of doors in your mind that you wouldn’t be able to access if you were going it alone.

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