Spandexless Talks (Digital): Dan Jolley / by Spandexless


A few weeks ago, our own Anthony Rosen took a look at the new digital-exclusive Prototype 2 tie-in comic, from Dark Horse, written by Prototype 2 writer, Dan Jolley. Today, we have Anthony's interview with Jolley on Prototype 2, comics, and writing across mediums. Prototype 2 #1-4 (of 6) are currently available for download from Dark Horse Digital with a HC collection already in the works for August. Pick them up for only 99 cents an issue and get caught up. Issue #4 came out today.

Spandexless:  You got your start as a writer in comics back in the 90s, correct?  What was your experience like, trying to break into the industry back then?

Dan Jolley:  I guess if I had to sum it up in one word, "frustrating." It wasn't quite as hard as breaking into Hollywood, where you had to be a WGA member to sell a script, but you had to sell a script to join the WGA; but it was close, because there wasn't really any set way to "break in." It was all just trial and error, feeling your way around, trying to make contacts and write good pitches and be in the right place at the right time. And I don't feel as though I really did break in until about ten years after I sold my first script. Work was off and on until then, and frequently it was a lot more off than on. I'd sell a script, then...nothing. Six months or a year later, I might sell four or five projects, and then, again...nothing. I guess it really came down to persistence. I decided to bang my head against the brick wall until the wall broke.

S:  That's an impressive level of dedication.  What was it that inspired you to get involved in comics in the first place?  Any particular writer or series that sparked that desire and dedication?

DJ:  The thing is, I've always wanted to be a writer. Basically as soon as I learned to read, or maybe even before that, when people read to me, I wanted to tell stories. And comics was the professional story-telling medium I got into first. It could have been writing for TV, or writing novels, I guess, but through a friend I met some comic book artists, and they made some introductions to editors that allowed me to get a foot in the door. So, since I had begun to make some progress in comics, and found that I had something of an aptitude for it, it just made sense to me to keep at it until I really got somewhere with it. And it wasn't until I had made a (teeny-tiny, obscure little) name for myself that I started actively trying to get into writing other kinds of media.

It doesn't really matter what medium I'm writing in, actually, as long as I get to write something. I'm not picky. Plus I've never thought of myself as a "comic book writer" or a "game writer" or whatever.  I'm just a writer, who writes different stuff in different formats.

S:  How is it that you went from writing for comics to writing for video games?

DJ:  That was a case of being in the right place at the right time. I was on a comic book panel at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, and one of the audience members came up to talk to me afterward. He told me his name was Lee Hammock, and that he worked for a video game company in North Carolina, and I said, "Y'know, I've always wanted to get into writing for video games. It seems like a solid industry." And without missing a beat, he said, "Well, I could set up an interview." So, a couple of stunned reactions later, I wound up moving to North Carolina and working for Icarus Studios for two and a half years, in the content department of their MMORPG, Fallen Earth. Thanks to contacts I made there (such as Rich Dansky, head Tom Clancy writer for Red Storm and all-around awesome human being), and contacts I made on Facebook because of the game-writing experience, I was able to branch out some more. So when I left Icarus I had a decent amount of freelance work waiting for me. I still write comics and novels and other stuff, but I'm sort of hip-deep in game writing these days.

S:  So how does writing for those separate mediums compare?  Is your creative process for writing a video game a whole different beast than writing a comic?

DJ:  Yeah, it has to be. If you're writing a novel or a comic book, your creativity is unlimited. Whatever you can describe, whatever the artist can draw, that's what you can do. Video games, on the other hand, are hugely constrained by a) production budget, b) the dev studio's technical capabilities, and c) PRODUCTION BUDGET. You can throw in a scene in a novel or a comic book set in a junkyard, and nobody says boo about it. But try to suggest a scene that doesn't fit in with what the devs can do, and you're likely to hear responses ranging from the polite, "Uh, that sounds expensive," to the less-restrained, "Are you crazy? Do you know how long it would take to create the art assets for that?" to the brief but to-the-point, "HAHAHA! No." That's why writers are so often brought aboard so late in a project. The devs have figured out what they can do, realistically, and built a system of gameplay around that, and then they get a writer to provide some story material and dialogue to tie it all together. But that's part of the job: working within constraints. Video game writers have to be able to work within whatever constraints the game has, turn in a really good story or good dialogue, and with any luck make the player unaware that there are any constraints.

S:  Speaking of constraints, you’re working with different artists for each book in this series.  Are you the type of writer that can readjust their style to suit each new artist?  Or do you have a certain approach to communicating with those artists that’s worked for you over the years?

DJ:  If I have the opportunity to communicate with the artist beforehand, I definitely do, because I want to find out stuff like, "How many panels on a page are you comfortable with?" and, "Is there any type of subject matter you're really not comfortable drawing?" Because if I find out that the artist doesn't like to draw more than four panels on a page, and hates drawing cars, I won't put in, for example, the twelve-panel one-page chase scene through the used car lot. But about half the time, you don't get to communicate with the artist at all. That can happen for a number of reasons. It could be that, because of production scheduling, you need to get the scripts done before the artist has even been chosen. It could be that the artist doesn't speak English, and only communicates through a translator. It could be that the publisher just doesn't want you to talk to the artist; some publishers are set on that, like, "You deal with the script, WE'LL deal with the artist." I've found that, in general, things turn out well when I can talk to the artist and we establish a good rapport, but things can turn out just as well when I never talk to the artist at all. Joëlle Jones drew The Girl Who Owned a City, a project I recently did for Lerner Books, and let me tell you, that book is gorgeous. And I have yet to communicate with her.

S:  Did you have a hand in getting this particular project off the ground?  Or were you approached later on in the process?

DJ:  I didn't have anything to do with the first Prototype game, but I did some work for Radical Entertainment on another game that ended up getting canceled. So we all knew each other, and they had seen the kind of work I did, and when the possibility for doing Prototoype 2 came up, they reached out to me to see if I'd be interested in doing the writing. At that point they had made the decision to go with a new protagonist, and had the skeleton of a story already in place, so I went up to Vancouver for a few story meetings. Over the course of about three months of meetings and emails and phone calls, we got the plot built up and straightened out, and then they turned me loose on all the scripts and dialogue.

S:  Is it weird hearing the dialogue that you worked on in the finished game?  Or is it more of an awesome sense of accomplishment?

DJ:  Most of the time--99% of the time--it is truly, wholly awesome. I do a lot of work on Transformers games, and recently I had the opportunity to attend some voice-over recording sessions in L.A., where I got to be in the studio with Peter Cullen, recording lines for Optimus Prime that I had written. I'm glad I was in the back of the room, 'cause I had such an ear-to-ear fanboy grin on my face the whole time, people might have thought I was having a seizure or something. So when Radical played some of the Prototype 2 cut-scenes for me, and I got to hear actors like the awesome Cornell Womack (the voice of James Heller) delivering lines out of my script, yeah, that was pretty damn amazing and gratifying.

The downside comes in if you've written a line that was intended to mean one thing, but then for whatever reason it's not recorded the way you wrote it. That's just frustrating as hell. But that just makes me think I could've done a better job of making the meaning clear, y'know, so it's all a learning experience.

S:  Is there an equitable sort of feeling with comics?  How have finished issues that didn't meet your expectations affected your writing in the long run?

DJ:  Well, it depends. It's actually a lot more likely for errors of this kind to find their way into comics, simply because there aren't as many eyes on the process. And it depends on what the real story is.  Like, if the artist just misunderstood something I wrote, then I just have to shrug it off and say, "Yeah, that happens." But then sometimes you get more egregious examples, such as an artist who just blatantly disregards what the script says and draws whatever he feels like drawing. ("Hmmm...the script says, 'mansion in the middle of a forest.' Screw that! I'm drawing a high-rise in Manhattan!") That gets VERY frustrating, because usually there's no time to correct the mistake, and the comic goes out with that art in it and my name slapped on top. And the truth is that that CAN affect you in the long run, because something that might have been great--or at least, in your mind when you wrote the script, it was great--comes out completely differently, you can't help but think, "Damn, that really might have been something if it had come together the way I wanted it to." But, again, that's the nature of the beast when you're working in mainstream comics, and I've been fortunate enough that the vast majority of artists I've worked with have been freaking awesome.

S:  It’s definitely a great benefit to this series to have you, the writer behind the game, taking on writing duties.  Did you have an idea of where Alex Mercer was headed after that first game, or did you only start thinking about it when you sat down to do The Anchor?

DJ:  Well, the comic mini-series was written well after the story for the game had been nailed down and set in stone, so I already knew exactly where Alex Mercer was headed. But what the comics did was give us the chance to go back into the story we'd already written and tell some untold chapters--expand on the motivations, provide more background and characterization. Make it clear why Mercer was doing what he was doing, as well as set up an even stronger connection to Sgt. James Heller, Prototype 2's new main character.

S:  I've read that Sgt. James Heller will be the center of attention in the third arc of the series, The Labyrinth. What is it that sets this new protagonist apart from Alex?

DJ:  They're just completely different characters. Before getting infected with the Blacklight Virus, Alex Mercer was sort of a pale, bookish scientist, not exactly what you'd call outgoing, and aside from his sister Dana he didn't seem to have any meaningful relationships with...well, anyone. He was obviously academically brilliant, but he had a degree of aloofness that carried right into his persona after he became the titular Prototype. James Heller, on the other hand, is a big, physically imposing, African-American soldier, with a loving family and aspirations of opening his own small business after he gets out of the service. Both men are smart, definitely, but they have different kinds of intelligence. And whereas Mercer has become a very cold, calculating, low-energy sort of character, Heller is explosive and fiery, and gives in to his emotions much more than Mercer would ever dream of.

S:  And how about the protagonists in the second arc, The Survivors?  What can you tell us about them and their situation.

DJ:  That story centers on a retired New York police detective, a grad student, and a young boy, three people who don't know each other at all but are thrown together by circumstance. It also features several cameos from new characters who will appear in Prototype 2 the game. I don't want to get into the plot too much, just 'cause I want it to unfold on its own, but the story is very much about what it means to be human--a subject that gets a good bit of scrutiny in an environment where a person's humanity is no longer a given.

Anthony Rosen prides himself on two things: his beard and his comic book collection.  He once ate a tablespoon of nutmeg on some bad advice from a friend.  He hasn’t been the same since.