In the short time since we started the Comics Spotlight blog and offering these “20 Questions With…” insights into the creative process, I most often have found myself trying to get information I didn’t know out of people I knew pretty well. That isn’t the case with Brandon Jerwa, though, who I only knew through his work.
Rather quietly, he has been moving up in the field of comic book scribes, building a reputation for creativity and reliability, two factors that don’t always dwell within the same creator. His interesting list of credits is at present spread across a field of licensed comic book properties starting with G.I. Joe and encompassing Battlestar Galactica and Highlander, with plenty of immersion in each universe. Now he has an original graphic novel (OGN), on the way from Vertigo.
So who is Brandon Jerwa and what makes him tick as a creator?
“Brandon is among the most reliable freelance writers we deal with,” said Joe Rybandt, Associate Editor of Dynamite Entertainment, which Jerwa’s Battlestar Galactica and Highlander series have called home. “Every script is solid and since we deal with him on a lot of licensed properties, any rewrite or restore is done quickly and without need for further revision. He proofs art, letters, colors, etc…. anything he can get his hands on and acts as another set of eyes which is always appreciated.”
He knows his material and does his research, Rybandt said.
“That’s the tangible, the intangible is that he’s become a close friend and he and I share more in common than you’d think from music to humor and a little of everything in-between. He’s described me like as being like a brother and I feel the same about him,” he said.
“Brandon is almost boundless in his enthusiasm and love for the work,” said Eric Trautmann, his collaborator on the upcoming Vertigo project. “He's a whirlwind of good ideas, and he's genuinely funny -- which I hesitate to admit here, because it will only encourage the bastard. He's also blazingly fast, whereas I'm a bit more deliberate and, well, slow. So when we collaborate, I often find I'm playing catch-up.”
Trautmann said Jerwa has a tremendously fertile imagination and is series about his craft.
“His commitment to the work and his love of the comics form are probably among his main strengths,” he said.
This is echoed by Elliott Serrano, the Associate Editor of ComicsWaitingRoom.com (where Jerwa contributes the regular column “Anything Goes”) and his co-writer on Xena vs. Army of Darkness II.
“Brandon brings a lot of energy to a project. Sometimes writing can be a tedious experience when you get bogged down in the minutia of putting a script together, but he knows how to keep your enthusiasm up so that the work doesn't come out flat. He's also incredibly receptive to ideas and has the rare ability to check his ego when working with a partner,” Serrano said.
In the realms of his licensed work, he takes the continuity as a challenge rather than as shackles, the way some writers appear to do. The results have been positive.
“I think Battlestar Galactica: Zarek is very strong and created a model of sorts for us that became the “origins” series, but I also think he delivered an excellent action/adventure comic, while working within thorny continuity, with his Highlander run. That remains incredibly unappreciated by the comics crowd, but the highlander folks loved it from what I understand,” Rybandt said.
There may well be the tug of more original and/or creator-owned material in Jerwa’s future, but first he has to get through the 20 Questions:
JCV: What compels you to create?
Brandon Jerwa: Wow! You go right for the throat. I love that.
The real answer is “I don’t know.” I guess if I did know the reason behind my creative drive, I might not have that drive at all. I try to avoid thinking too hard about this subject, honestly. It’s like a Russian nested doll; getting past the first question just leads to another question.
I have to wonder if it comes down to some perceived lack of aesthetic fulfillment in what the world has to offer you. If you were completely satisfied with every bit of art, music, food, writing -- or whatever -- around you, would you feel compelled to create something new? Maybe not; there are certainly people who don’t feel the need to create, or just haven’t tapped into that aspect of their personality, so there you have at least some degree of empirical evidence against creativity being an irresistible primal urge within all of us. Or maybe those people are just happy with everything they already have around them, and the rest of us are picky bastards.
All I really know about my need to create is that the act of creation itself usually quiets the constant chatter in my head, if only for a little while. My son is currently dealing with ADHD, and that’s something he definitely inherited from me. I grew up in the late 70s / early 80s, so it wasn’t quite as well-diagnosed at that time, and my tendencies got me in trouble at school and tagged me as a bit of a weirdo to some of the people around me. These attention-deficit issues are something I may have carried into adulthood, and am actively exploring even now. If I didn’t have the right creative outlets, I honestly think I’d be completely sideways by now.
My wife and I have had a few debates about whether or not a highly creative, artistic person should be expected to have a reasonable amount of eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. Believe it or not, she actually comes down in favor of that concept, where I tend to reject it. That might be because these conversations often follow me displaying some kind of erratic or manic behavior, so I’m usually already feeling out of sorts and probably a little bit disappointed in myself.
Going deeper and further back, it may have been a byproduct of my childhood. My father was an alcoholic and he could turn pretty mean and violent towards my mother and me at times. As a result, I think I spent as much time as I could immersed in escapism: comic books, toys, drawing, writing and just basically pretending I was someone else in some other place.
Putting all of that aside, I’m pretty sure that my life path was set in stone early on. In my time, I’ve been an actor, a morning DJ, a musician and a writer. Even when I was trapped in a “normal” job, I always approached that job in some unique way; my bosses met this with either appreciation or derision. It was usually the latter, but there were times when it worked in my favor. As clichéd as it may sound, I always knew I’d end up doing something out of the ordinary.
JCV: What was the first story you can remember coming up with or actuallywriting down?
Brandon Jerwa: That’s really hard to say. I do know that I was never satisfied to just play with my Star Wars or G.I. Joe figures as the characters they were intended to be. I was perfectly happy playing in those universes, but I also had to take it further – from age four to age 12 or 13, I had this vast universe of superheroes with those action figures standing in for my original characters. This was really an extensive thing; the adventures were ongoing, had continuity, and I had notebooks full of character profiles, storyline notes and maps of my imaginary world. It was seriously on a Marvel or DC universe scale.
I also wrote and drew my own comics. I never really had any illusions about being an artist, but that didn’t stop me. Ultimately, I guess my first stabs at storytelling came in either comic book form or the acting out of that form. It was really my chosen medium from a very young age.
JCV: When did you know that you wanted to pursue writing as your career?
Brandon Jerwa: Again, I’m not exactly sure, but it was early on. When I was in the eighth grade, the Longview (Washington) Daily News interviewed me after I won the district spelling bee, and I was quoted as saying I wanted to write comic books someday.
JCV: What type of education did you have? Did you have any particular formalfocus on writing or was that something you picked up in addition to otherstudies?
Brandon Jerwa: The truth be known, I dropped out of high school. That isn’t something I’m particularly proud of, but it is what it is at this point. Again, it comes back to the attention issues, and is pretty clearly illustrated by these facts: I scored a 98 on my PSAT and missed one question on the test to get my GED. The woman running the test thought she was having a prank played on her.
When I could muster up the patience to apply myself in school, I always showed particular aptitude for drama, music and English classes. There was one teacher in particular -- the creative writing teacher, Mr. Morehead – that presumably saw some kind of potential in me. When everyone else was handed To Kill A Mockingbird to read for class, he slipped me a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and said, “You need to read this.”
He definitely understood me, and seemed to go out of his way to encourage that out-of-the-box thinking. I can’t begin to tell you how greatly he influenced me, and how thankful I am that he did. You never recognize those things when they’re actually happening.
JCV: Did your education lend itself to this pursuit or was it a hindrance to it?
Brandon Jerwa: I think I somehow managed to walk away from high school having picked up on at least some of the wisdom my teachers were trying to impart, but I do wish I could have summoned up the perseverance to make it through those four years. I know I missed out on a lot of learning there. I have no regrets, but I will acknowledge a lesson learned the hard way. JCV: What was your earliest exposure to comic books that you remember?
Brandon Jerwa: Someone else asked me this recently, and I think I eventually decided that the first comic I remember having was a Marvel Star Wars book, something in the first six issues. The book had Howard Chaykin on the art, almost definitely. Kind of ironic that my first comic would be a licensed property, isn’t it?
I’m sure Spider-Man and Batman were in there pretty early, too. I clearly remember – and in fact, still have – Spectacular Spider-Man #26 as a book that I had to have read a million times. It was Spider-Man and Daredevil versus the Masked Marauder, who had blinded Spidey. That was, what, 1979? I would have been five or six years old when that came out.
JCV: How did your reading taste in comics develop from that point?
Brandon Jerwa: Comics were a cheap, easy way to keep me occupied on long car trips and a small thing to ask for at the grocery store or gas station (remember when you could buy comics there?), so my collection really started to expand around age seven. When I was eight, my parents told me I could have two comic subscriptions; I chose The Avengers and Marvel Team-Up.
My parents divorced that same year, and it was a very rough situation. My mother was given custody and my father visitation, so there was a lot of back-and-forth movement for me. My father was overcompensating by buying me piles of toys and comics, although it was impossible for me to see that at the time; all I knew is that I always had plenty of new G.I. Joe figures and comics to help me escape from the reality of what was going on around me.
Speaking of G.I. Joe, I recently remembered something pretty brutal from my childhood in regards to that first issue. I’ve never spoken about this with anyone besides my wife, but I guess we’re here in the moment, so brace yourself for some honesty:
I clearly remember buying Marvel’s gigantic G.I. Joe #1 at my local Alco store (in Junction City, Kansas) and being completely blown away by it. I must have read that book a hundred times in the first month of owning it. I had totally connected with that world and those characters.
My mother and I were in our apartment – it was right after school – and I know that she had been arguing with my father over the phone a little earlier. Well, he showed up unannounced and managed to get inside the apartment. I was sitting in the living room, trying to block out the yelling and arguing. Soon enough, things turned violent.
I can still hear the sounds in my memory if I try. I was nine years old, and all I could do was sit there, sobbing, re-reading this comic and praying that Snake-Eyes or Hawk would come and fix this problem. It’s a horribly visceral memory, and probably speaks volumes to the deep bond I have with G.I. Joe; it was a literal lifeline for me.
From there, I just dove right in to comics completely. Batman, Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Marvel Team-Up, Justice League, Rom, Firestorm, you name it. Captain Carrot!
I almost totally abandoned comic collecting in the mid-90s, but the X-Men eventually sucked me back in. These days, I’m a trade paperback guy; I just don’t have the patience or space to follow the monthlies.
JCV: Did you keep reading other material, too, or did you pretty much center just on the four-color world?
Brandon Jerwa: Oh, I kept reading “real” books as well, and I could read quite a bit above my grade level, probably due to starting so early with comics. Here we are again with Star Wars; I read the novelization of the first movie when I was six, helped in large part by the fact that I knew the story, I’m sure. I would later tear through all the Han Solo novels.
I was a big fan of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series (something I have now passed on to my son) and whatever book was making the rounds among my friends. One of my favorites was The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which I didn’t know was a series until a couple of years ago, again in the process of sharing it with my son. Later on, I got into the work of a teen suspense writer named Jay Bennett, which led me to Stephen King (as will happen in high school). I also fell madly in love with 1984 and Animal Farm.
JCV: What was the path that led you to writing for Dynamite? How did you get to this point?
Brandon Jerwa: I made it into comics on what was literally my first attempt, working on G.I. Joe for Devil’s Due (See? Full circle here!), so my introduction to the industry came in the form of “lucky fan gets big break” stories (I’m pretty sure Wizard actually used that as a headline for an article). That’s completely understandable, of course – no reason to think I was sticking around – but I think it created a misconception that I was just a fanboy who managed to get his little story published, you know?
Three years later, I had proven myself by moving from a Joe anthology book to taking over the main series for 20 issues and writing three ancillary mini-series to boot. Eventually, Devil’s Due wanted to clear the decks and re-launch the franchise to boost sales, so after Snake-Eyes: Declassified wrapped up, I was out of work. I could now officially claim to be a writer, but I had only ever worked on G.I. Joe.
Of course, I had been casting my line out to see if any other publishers took the bait. Marvel would talk to me, but we’d never get anywhere; DC and Dark Horse wouldn’t even open up a conversation. IDW would correspond with me, but nothing ever materialized there. I was involved with Speakeasy and came very close to releasing the first issue of a super-hero magician series called The Last Bastion, as part of a shared universe with Dan Jolley and Marie Croall. As we all know, Speakeasy imploded dramatically and our books never came out. This was a blessing in disguise, of course, but it was hard to see that at the time.
Needless to say, I was starting to think I was done. I’d had my moment in the sun and now it was time to go find a real job.
Then came Dynamite. They were still new on the block at that point, and I knocked on their door immediately following the news that they had obtained the Battlestar Galactica license. The first TV mini-series had completely rocked my world, and I just had to take a swipe at being involved with the comic. To my shock, they were extremely receptive and liked my work. Unfortunately, they had already committed to a Greg Pak-written Galactica series, so that was off the table. They said they were considering some spin-offs if Pak’s book was a success, so the chance might come around again. We had some talks back and forth, and they eventually asked if I would pitch a Highlander series.
The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve written a ton of books for Dynamite, including Highlander and plenty of Battlestar Galactica. As of this writing, I’m not sure what my next project is for them, but I’m sure it’s right around the corner. I really love my Dynamite work; I get to play in some great sandboxes, and you really couldn’t ask for a better editor than Joe Rybandt. This may seem like a novel concept, but he actually takes pride in being an editor, rather than living out his secret dreams as a writer by rewriting your script after you’ve turned it in. Last of a dying breed, that one.
JCV: What is your average day like, if you even have such a thing?
Brandon Jerwa: At the moment, my wife is recovering from a nasty car accident, so she’s working from home and I’m called into duty as a nurse and manservant a little more than usual. Ultimately, it doesn’t change the schedule that much, so let’s just pretend that it’s a normal day…
I wake up at 6:50, get the kid out of bed and feed him some breakfast. We’ve been watching one episode of The Twilight Zone every morning before school lately, which is fun. So, he takes off for the bus at 8 A.M. sharp, at which time I’ll sit down and putter - surf for an hour and then dive into some kind of work. I’m prone to distraction, so I can be diverted at any time! I’m usually listening to either Howard Stern on Sirius or watching TV through all of this.
After lunch, I tend to do things around the house: laundry, dishes, whatever, with intermittent periods of writing, answering interview questions, updating the website, and so on.
Occasionally, I’ll grab a one-hour nap before my son gets home at around 3:40. From there, it’s dinner, homework, TV, and a 2-mile evening walk. My bedtime varies between 12-2 AM depending on how tired I am. I will occasionally stay up and work, but I rarely, if ever, work on weekends. I tend to treat this like a “day job” just to keep some semblance of order.
JCV: When you’re writing a story that is going to be longer than one issue, like a mini-series , do you plot the whole story in the same level of detail before you start or script or do you concentrate more on the first issue and then refine the plot as you go?
Brandon Jerwa: When you’re dealing with licensed properties, you’re usually expected to outline the broad strokes from start to finish. I usually create a pretty thorough outline that has the key bullet points, but leave myself some space in every issue to play around when I’m actually scripting. It’s really created a good habitual working method for me; I outline everything now, even my own personal projects. The end result is a better story, in my opinion.
JCV: Licensed properties usually come with another level of approvals, but they also have pretty well established worlds. How does that help you as a writer?
Brandon Jerwa: I don’t know if other writers look at established continuity as some kind of invisible cage, but I really like having something to expand upon. My best ideas are usually the ones attached to some larger picture, be it the existing lore of a particular franchise or the process of collaborating with other writers, like Eric Trautmann and Elliott Serrano. If I could make a living solely as a co-writer, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
JCV: Some of the properties you’ve worked on have continuity that is a bit looser, but the current version of Battlestar Galactica has some of the tightest continuity on television (I wrote 24, so trust me when I say I know tight continuity!). How did you figure out where and when in the overall story to set your tales? What were the challenges you faced doing this series?
Brandon Jerwa: With Galactica, I’ve really been fortunate enough to be able to pick and choose what I do. The Zarek book was offered to me as part of a list of potential ideas, but the others were things that I conceived on my end and pitched to Dynamite.
As for the challenges, I think the main thing – especially when you’re doing prequel stories, or something set in the middle of the bigger continuity – is creating some sense of genuine tension. You know Starbuck’s not going to die, so it’s hard to make the reader feel concerned for her welfare. I’ve had to learn how to use these stories to shed more light on the characters, as we know them, without adding some big new revelation or ratcheting up artificial “high stakes” situations.
JCV: Is writing Battlestar Galactica something that requires you to be a fan of the show in order to get the world and the details, or is it more just a practice of your craft as a writer?
Brandon Jerwa: I’m not sure, because I was definitely a fan when I got the gig! On the other hand, I was not altogether familiar with the big picture of Highlander when I took that job. I’d only seen the movies, so I had to have a giant study session with the TV series, as I’d never watched it.
I don’t think it’s a universal law that the writer of a particular property has to be a hardcore fan, but it certainly helps. There’s something to be said for enthusiasm at the starting line.
JCV: It would seem that Highlander is on the other end of the spectrum. Between the various movies and the TV show, there are all sorts of contradictions in supposedly major plot elements. Did that make it easier or more difficult to stake out your own version of the story? What were the upsides and downsides there?
Brandon Jerwa: The main thing I’ve learned about the hardcore Highlander fans is this: you cannot please all of them, no matter how hard you try. There are so many contradictory views of the continuity, which movies and developments from the TV shows are canonical and which are not, etc…and trying to make every fan happy is a trip down the road of madness. There’s a fine line between respecting the franchise and pandering to the people who love it most, and I just can’t play that game.
At the end of the day, I just sit down and try to give my best to each story. I’ve developed a real affection for Highlander, and I think the fans have, for the most part, accepted me as part of the creative family. You can’t ask for much more than that.
JCV: In your experience, do you have to be in a particular mood to write a particular series or is it just a matter of focusing on the deadline and getting it done?
Brandon Jerwa: Obviously, there will be times when it’s just not going to happen, and that’s simply beyond anyone’s control. Those days are few and far between for me, but like I said, I approach it like a day job, and I think that’s worked out fairly well for me. My output has been pretty constant for the last couple of years – I’ve had at least one book on the stands every month, sometimes as many as three – so I’ve had to adopt a sort of factory mentality, keeping a constant rotation. I try to avoid jumping between scripts if I can help it, though; I’d much rather stay focused on one issue at a time.
I know that some writers will just sit down and write a four-issue arc in one long sweep, but I don’t do that; I like to see the art for the first issue before I start scripting the second. A good artist can really inspire the story, and I think it’s great to play to those strengths when you can.
JCV: Some creators can have TV or radio or other distractions on while they work, while others can’t work that way at all. Where do you fall in that spectrum, and why?
Brandon Jerwa: It’s funny, but I can’t really listen to music when I work. I’ve been a musician since I was about 15, and for a long time the rock star dream was my big focus. Maybe it’s because my brain is really open to being immersed in music, but I find it distracting to mix my media like that. I’ll occasionally pop in a music DVD while I’m writing, but 90% of the time, my work accompaniment is Howard Stern followed by a movie or TV show. I have to have the TV on while I’m working, but I tend to favor things that I can absorb without completely investing myself in. Lots of lightweight documentaries, director’s commentary tracks, things like that. Sometimes I’ll watch Highlander or Galactica when I’m writing them, just to keep that headspace, but it’s not an absolute necessity.
I find that it’s helpful to have human voices and conversation going on around me to make dialogue and character interactions seem natural when I’m writing them. That’s one thing I really try to focus on – does it sound real? Does it feel like something you and I might say to one another in that situation?
JCV: What is your work area like? Neat and tidy? Cluttered? Well lit? Dark?
Brandon Jerwa: My wife and I bought a new house in September, and it has a room at the back of the house that we intended to use as an office. A little over a month after we moved in, Jess was in a nasty car accident and ended up with a bunch of broken bones. So now it’s March, and we’re still surrounded by boxes. The office holds the largest amount of these, so my current workspace is the couch with my laptop in front of me on a laptop stand on the coffee table. Jess is still working from home while she heals, so she’s five feet away on the loveseat, her laptop in front of her as well. It’s actually a really great system for us, and since I usually work when the house is empty, I can’t see locking myself away in the office once things get back to normal. I like it right here!
JCV: What’s the best advice you ever got as a writer and what advice would you pass on to new writers?
Brandon Jerwa: Best advice? I’m not sure. I’ve learned a lot about this job from a lot of good people, and I’ve had to learn some things on my own. I guess my advice to new writers would be this: always be professional and courteous. Don’t get discouraged. Practice your craft and don’t try too hard to speak with someone else’s voice. You will find your own if you’re patient enough to discover it.
Oh, and it will be truly horrible at times. Terrifying and uncertain. You might think that you’ve had a curse laid upon your head. And who knows? Maybe you have.
JCV: What do you have coming up in the near future?
Brandon Jerwa: If I’m being honest, I’m at a bit of a crossroads right now. I’m currently doing rewrites on the second act of the Vertigo original co-written by Eric Trautmann and myself, but beyond that I have literally no clue what I’m doing. I had as many projects fall apart in 2008 as I had on the stands, so there’s proof positive that you can’t take anything for granted in this industry. Obviously, I’m hoping the Vertigo book will open some new doors at DC and elsewhere, but who knows? I’m staying focused on the task at hand and hoping for the best. It’s all you can do, really.