Barbara Randall Kesel Interview

I was recently able to interview Barbara Randall Kesel, writer of IDW and Gold Eagle’s upcoming Rogue Angel: Teller of Tall Tales. After reading the advanced copy, I was excited to learn more about the new comic adaptation and the writer talented herself!

SciFiChick: As the first female writer for Rogue Angel, what do you hope to bring to the series?

Barbara Randall Kesel: Hmmm… never thought of myself as the “first female writer,” but I guess I am! I don’t approach projects that way. While I AM female, and that certainly colors everything I do, including scripting, it’s not something I consciously focus on incorporating. I’m not writing Rogue Angel as a “woman writer”, I’m writing it as ME, the writer. What I bring to this particular (or any) character is my talent, my skills, my observations, and my enjoyment of complicated characterization. Maybe I have some additional insights into BEING female, but what I hope I bring to every series is a fierce respect for even the “one-line” background characters, male or female.

Where I DO turn vigilant is characters, all around, but especially the women. So often female characters are given short shrift in the character department in comics, or are rendered disposable, and I’ll grouse about that, but it’s not about the writers being male or female: it’s about the writers building well-rounded characters (and not having that just mean ginormous boobs on the girls!)

SFC: The Rogue Angel characters have been established in books for over a year now. Will there be any changes to the series or characters?

BRK: Each novel introduces (and often kills off) a supporting cast of characters, and some even manage to survive for more than one book. We have a couple of new characters being introduced in RA:TOTT, and we’ll see a couple who are familiar from the book series, but they aren’t changed for their comics appearances (except to be VISIBLE) from who they are in the books. There are some adaptations that call for rethinking the source material for the new medium, but this one fell right into place without a lot of modification.

SFC: In your own words, can you give us a brief synopsis of Teller of Tall Tales?

BRK: Annja Creed comes to Virginia City, Nevada, at the request of her friend Rashmi, who is researching the role of people of color in the Old West. Rasmhi’s interested in the results of a dig in the basement of the Raven’s Wing tavern where a manuscript by a man named James Ikeba, rumored to be Mark Twain’s collaborator on Huck Finn, is supposedly hidden. What they find is trouble.

SFC: Was it easier going in with characters already established and not having to create Annja from scratch? Do you feel very limited to what you can do with her?

BRK: When you do work-for-hire, what you get are parameters: stories you can or can’t use, characters you can or can’t kill, etc. I think those who claim that these parameters are limitations to their creativity don’t actually have much. (Creativity, that is.) There’s always room to explore in some previously untouched direction, and there’s the fun of serving up the familiar, but trying to twist it a little. I find that writing for a world somebody else has created isn’t harder or easier than making it up myself, but it’s a profoundly different process: I’m coming at it more analytically: making lists of facts and noting common phrases and actions. Then I sit around daydreaming up something new and cool that fits that world.

SFC: Are you on a strict schedule for writing new Rogue Angel issues?

BRK: It’s pretty much your standard issue script-a-month schedule. Nothing fancy. It’s full-script style, which means I write character, page and panel descriptions then include all the dialogue and caption information. I do about five story pages a day, which might be as many as ten script pages. Sometimes a deadline means I have to do more, but five’s my comfortable constant speed.

SFC: What is your process for writing comics? How much do you interact with the artists?

BRK: I have a different process for every project I work on, which means I have a lot of file folders in my office with everything from scraps of envelopes with scribbled bits of dialogue to fully-researched fact lists. This particular story came together in one mad rush of typing after a day spent poking around on the internet for factoids about Virginia City.
I was thinking of visiting my brother in Nevada, which led to poking around for facts about the mines in Virginia City: ghosts and legends and such. That led me to the quick-draw folks, a site about trail bike courtesy in town, a piece on a proposed dig at the Boston Tavern, and the website for the Territorial Enterprise. So my haunted mine story mutated into a forgotten Twain manuscript until I realized I didn’t want to try to write like Samuel Clemens, so I added somebody else, then stirred in racial tensions and topped that off by giving Annja a foil character from India. Once Rashmi showed up, she just ran with the Mark Twain aspect and didn’t let go. I did something very unusual on this story: I submitted a six-page pitch (normally I try to limit it to two) because all the detail is what built the story. They still read it all, and gave me the thumbs-up.

As for working with artists, I like to know who I’m writing for, because I want to write to their storytelling strengths, but I’m not one of those writers who writes by conference call. While I have always asked the artists on series what they’d like to draw, the script is my artistic contribution, and I prefer to write that myself.

SFC: Tell us a bit about yourself and your experience in writing.

BRK: I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. That included comics, but I never had a steady supply or source to the point where I’d call myself exclusively a fan of comics: I was a fan of STORIES, from Bullfinch to Bullwinkle. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. When I got my first job, (“Pomona Public Library, Circulation Desk, this is Barbara, how may I help you?”) I had access to my first comics store, Pfeiffers’ Books and ‘Tiques, and got very interested in the superhero comics. Now, I was planning a future as a playwright, and I got my job at DC because I wrote to Dick Giordano outlining all the ways they could use theater techniques to make their characters less two-dimensional, so I ended up working for DC Comics. Then came Oregon and Dark Horse, then Florida and CrossGen, with freelancing in between, which is where I am now.

I’m one of the few comics writers I know who doesn’t have an English or Journalism degree: prose is still a sort of mystery to me. I’m happy in all forms of scriptwriting, but not as comfortable when paragraphs and adjectives are involved.

SFC: What’s next for you, after Teller of Tall Tales? Are you currently working on any other series?

BRK: I’m working on the second volume of Legends of the Dark Crystal for Tokyopop, an adaptation of the upcoming animated film Igor for IDW, two new series for The Pack, and possibly a second Annja mini-series, and lots of creator-owned stuff that’s waiting for time.

SFC: What inspires you?

BRK: Everything! Art, architecture, sea life, birds, strangers who appear to have interesting stories, things that have happened in the lives of me or my friends, books, movies, my deadlines!

SFC: Who are some of your favorite authors? What books/comics do you love?

BRK: Right now, it’s not so much favorite authors as favorite subjects: I’m going through a global economics/cogitation phase when I’m not reading reference books for upcoming projects. The last books I read were “Emergence” by Steven Johnson and “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.” I’m reading Tim Severin’s “The Brendan Voyage” now. The behavior of slime molds in “Emergence” led to an idea for how to construct the first Skeksis scene of Dark Crystal II chapter one, and who knows where the others will lead.

I read everything I can get my mitts on. Authors I collect to read again include Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle (who created lots of cross-book continuity! Loved that!), Harlan Ellison, Alan Moore, Agatha Christie, Los Bros Hernandez, Lois Duncan, Edward Eager, and lots more that aren’t popping into my head just this second.

SFC: Which is your favorite comic book character and why? Is it one that you’ve created?

BRK: Sephie, from Meridian, takes the top spot on the list of characters I’ve created, but my childhood favorite was Phantom Girl from the Legion of Super-Heroes. I loved the Legion (around the first Shooter era) because there wasn’t just THE girl, there were enough to have personalities. There’s a scene in one where she reaches inside a robot to mess with its wiring or whatever, and I though it was just SO COOL of a power. With Sephie, she’s one of my best successes because she resonated with so many people. She’s as human as I could make her, both brave and flawed.

SFC: What do you do when you’re not writing? In your spare time?

BRK: Lately, my hobby is waiting for repairmen to show up. It’s been a bad year for breakage.

SFC: Thanks for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

BRK: Nope, just hope people like the series.

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