James Tynion IV‘s keyboard must be burning from how many comics he’s busy writing. The screenwriter, who became a well-known name with his work for DC Comics, is the creator of highly successful titles such as Something Is Killing the Children, The Department of Truth and The Nice House on the Lake.
He is also one of the writers involved by Substack in an ambitious comic book project published through newsletters, through which Tynion publishes titles such as Blue Book, The Closet and True Weird.
Something Is Killing the Children, created with Italian artist Werther Dell’Edera, published by BOOM! Studios and translated in Italy by Edizioni BD, is perhaps his most flagrant success. When we talk, it’s ten in the morning in New York and Tynion is sipping what looks like coffee from a mug – a Batman mug, of course.
Are you a morning person?
No, I’m definitely a night owl. I work late into the night most nights, so I’m just getting up right now.
You write a lot of books. Are you able to change gears from project to project quickly?
I do shift gears pretty quickly from one project to another. Normally, I break down my day into two solid work periods. I have my morning-early afternoon, and then I have my afternoon-evening. I’m normally working on two separate projects during those times. In one of them I might end up just writing e-mails, but I’m always making some sort of headway through different scripts. Today I have to finish Something is Killing the Children.
Since you have more things going on at the same time, do you ever get an idea that is too similar to another that you came up with for another series?
I had more issues with that when I was working on superheroes. And it was always action beats. I would come up with one action beat in one issue and then I would see how it would work on another series I was working on at the same time, and on a third series I was working on at the same time. Now, each of my series, which have a common horror/thriller vibe, is expressed in a different enough way that when I have an idea for Something Is Killing the Children it would be very difficult for me to reconfigure that idea for The Department of Truth or The Nice House on the Lake. The books feel different enough for me that when I have an idea for one of my books I know where to put that idea.
And when you were writing superheroes did you happen to have ideas that you thought were too good to be wasted on that series and were better kept for your personal works?
There have been a couple of moments when that happened, but I usually try to believe that I’ll always have a better idea tomorrow. The script that’s in front of me at any given point is the most important thing I’m working on. I’m the sort of person that might have an idea of what happens 10 issues in the future on a book like Something Is Killing the Children but if all of a sudden I have a better idea for the issue sitting right in front of me even if it blows up what I’m gonna be doing 10 issues from now I will make the best decision for the issue sitting in front of me today. That feels like the right way to approach it, at least for me.
Was it always like that from the beginning of your career?
In the beginning of my career, I would definitely hold on to good ideas that I wanted to save for down the line. But the thing that kept happening, especially while I was working on DC superhero comics, is I would be like oh if I do this small thing right here I might be able to do this other thing in ten issues but then DC would change their editorial mandates of what you could do and then all of a sudden I would never get to the good idea. It was one of those things where I just kept sacrificing what would have made a better comic in the moment for the better idea down the line. And once I let go of that, I think that was the moment that my work in general really started improving and when I started seeing much more success in the comics field.
You openly spoke about the highs and lows of the editorial process, especially at DC Comics. In general, and since you worked with lots of publishers, what are the pros and cons of the process?
The nice thing at this point in my career is I can pick the editors I work with. Now that I’m at this point in my career I’m working with editors who I love and who I know do the hard work to make my comics better. In my ten years working in comics I definitely worked with a lot of editors who I might love as human beings but as editors they would drive me crazy. It’s like any situation where you have tension with your boss, it makes work stressful when you have something in mind that you feel will make a comic work really well but there’s somebody who doesn’t believe in the final destination that you believe in. I know where I’m headed and I want an editor that helps guide me there, especially when I don’t realize that I’m stepping off the path, but in superhero comics the issue that always happened, especially because everybody is a fan, was that… If I had an idea of this is where I wanna take the character, the editor might have a very different idea of where they would take the character if they were writing the book and then they try to guide you toward their path. And that’s always where I butted head against those editors.
You once talked about the origin of Punchline, which was created because Harley Quinn couldn’t be used in that period. I guess sometimes good ideas are born out of those clashes.
For sure. Even just in doing tie-in issues to big event comics. There were moments where all of a sudden the plans for the event would change in this massive way because the bosses would make a decision and basically overnight me and the creators I was working with would have to re-write a week’s worth of comics before they went to the printer the next day. There was a lot of that in the first Dark Nights: Metal where we were fighting against the publisher at the time. I remember that I had stayed up all night on one script. I had to print all the pages out on the ground and rearrange them in a way that made sense and then completely re-letter it from top to bottom and it’s one of those that looking back on it, in that moment it was the most stressful week of work ever but now it’s the sort of trial by fire that does make you a better writer because all of the sudden you have to be able to rethink and recontextualize and come to a version of the comic that you know fans are going to enjoy because that’s the thing that at the end of the day is the most important thing. Now I’m very happy that I don’t have to do that! [laughs] But anytime an editor puts you in a box, having to figure out how to get out of the box makes you a better writer and, you know, I think my trials and tribulations at DC Comics over ten years helped make me into the writer I am today.
Was it common or did you just have bad luck?
It was very common at the time, especially before 2019. I was not in a position to push back when that kind of thing would happen. Once I started having more success in sales I was able to say «no, either I’m doing the way that I wanna do it or I’m not doing it», but before that point, I kind of had to listen when the bosses said «this is what we want».
The first idea of Something Is Killing the Children goes back to your college years, when you wrote a short story with that same title. Once you decided to use the title for a comic book, what was the first idea or image that came to your mind?
I tried a few times in comics to come up with a pitch for how to use that title and I would say somewhere around 2014-2015 there was a version of the idea that I had that had this young female detective character and she would carry around a stuffed octopus. That was an element that weirdly stuck around, everything else in that version of the pitch went out the window. But when I started thinking about it in 2018, in the lead-up to the version of the comic as it exists right now, it started with the idea of this tired, small woman sitting in the back row on a bus, with deep shadows under her eyes, going from small town to small town, murdering a monster and then having to get back on the bus and go to the next small town. I saw it as stand-alone stories, in a single-issue comic format, every issue was gonna tell a different story, in the classic 90s Vertigo way, where maybe Erica wasn’t gonna be the main character of the story. But once I started writing the book it really started telling me the shape that it needed to be and once Werther [Dell’Edera] joined the project… He’s the one who came up with the bandana and once that design element was set in place I could start feeling what the book wanted to be.
It’s a pretty crucial design element. How much space do you leave for the artists to contribute with their ideas?
I used to be much more of an over-planner, I would write 15 issues outline, but now when I’m developing a new comic series I wanna see the first pieces of art so I can start zeroing in on what the comic is. The book is so much better when I’m reacting to the art that’s coming in. The feel and the pacing of Something Is Killing the Children are brought to life by Werther and it tells me how to tell the story.
Did you always have the sense that comic books are mostly an artist-driven medium?
I definitely think I overvalued the role of the writer earlier in my career. I think the moment I stopped doing that I became a better writer. The second I get myself out of the picture and it’s just, ok, what is going to make this book look the best, that’s what makes a good comic. If it would have read best as a prose novel, then I should write it as a prose novel. But every idea I have is a comic idea and it’s just an excuse to reach out to an artist and be like «do you wanna build a world together».
You know the Something Is Killing the Children universe pretty well by now. After all those issues, do you write the series more easily?
At this point, it comes to me pretty easily. I have a very rough map of how I want the story to run for the next several years. So I feel very confident when I sit down to write every issue. I can move the pieces across the board pretty easily.
Do you know the ending of the story?
Yes. I know the ending of the story as it exists in my head right now. But, as I was telling you, there’s a decent chance that is gonna be very different from the one in my head right now. But it is a comfort to know where we are going. Something Is Killing the Children was initially greenlighted as a 5-issue miniseries, then we got the bump up to 15 issues, and then once we passed the 15th issue we were just an ongoing series. Now in my head, I see it as a 75-issue run, on the main title, at least for now.
If I’m not mistaken, Sandman was a 75-issue run.
Oh, yeah. That was always the dream. When I started writing comics, everyone told me that the age of the long-running creator-owned comic was over, that you could not get a 75-issue run of a series. But I knew that the comics I grew up loving were these long series and when I have ideas, they are for long series.
The idea of a shorter, 12-issue series, doesn’t intrigue you?
The 12-issue maxi-series feel like a novel to me, a self-contained universe. I always loved the comics that felt like serialized epics, the ones where you could go down weird rabbit holes. In Y: The Last Man you spend a few issues with a traveling troupe of actors and those stories help build out the world of the comic in a way that I love so much. When you have something extraordinary structured that comes to an ending and ties up all loose ends the journey of it becomes less exciting to me. Part of the reason that I’m working on so many series that are long-form series is that the comics that did that in the past are the ones I love the most and I’m trying to capture that magic.
I read that when you were a kid you mostly read DC Comics books, what made you like them better than the Marvel ones?
A lot of it came down to access. I was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and my mom lived in an apartment building right across the street from a large chain bookstore, called Borders Group, which is now closed. I didn’t have a local comic shop, so my only accesses to comics were the ones that were kept in stock at the local bookstore, and, for whatever reason, in the American market, Marvel has always been terrible at keeping its books in print. You would go there and there would be a volume 7 and a volume 14 and there wouldn’t even be a way to order volume 1. But I would go there and there would be all of the Vertigo books, every volume of Sandman, constantly restocked, the classic Batman stories… So I read every single comic on those shelves during my formative years. Between ten and fifteen I slowly read all of those books. And then when I was sixteen I got a car and I was able to get access to comic shops. But I did start picking up Marvel books with the subscription services but they would randomly not send the middle issue… Anyhow, I think the mythic quality of DC spoke to me. It felt a little more magical. Marvel has always been a little more grounded and more in the real world and because of that, I don’t get lost in it as much. The one exception is the X-Men comics. The X-Men comics I have always been fascinated in and I get lost in it plenty. Aside from Spider-Man and the X-Men most of my appreciation for the Marvel characters came to me later in life. Now I would say the Fantastic Four are some of my favorite comic characters ever, but when I was fifteen I don’t think I’d ever sat down and read a Fantastic Four comic.
Nowadays do you still read superheroes and mainstream comics?
I read a lot of comics, from every corner of the comics business. I have the new Nick Drnaso right here, I’ve got a bunch of YA books, superhero stuff, black and white horror comics, and then I keep trying to go back and find all these 1980s horror anthologies. I think comics are the coolest medium that exists I love looking at different approaches to comic art. I’m now exploring some Hollywood stuff and it feels very restrained and restricted in a way that comics feel completely unrestrained and you can do so many different things in comics that I can’t imagine ever leaving this medium.
What’s the comic book you’ve re-read the most?
Oh, boy… [long pause] Kingdom Come would be up there. It was one of the first volumes I picked up when I was about twelve years old at that Borders bookstore. I have a copy of the book on the shelf where the cover is falling off because I read it so many times. Aside from that… Some many Batman comics. I’ve read Long Halloween and Dark Victory a million times. And then Sandman, Planetary and Bone. I try to re-read each of those every couple of years because I think they’re three of the best comics ever made by any human. I’m always revisiting the books that I love. Right now I’m re-reading through a lot of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong and there’s so much joy in those books.
Something Is Killing the Children, The Woods and some of your other books have the same feel: rural horror and young protagonists. Did you develop a preference for this mix of ingredients when you were a kid or did you discover it later on in life?
I think a lot of it does come from my life. When I was five years old my family moved from New York City to Milwaukee, so suddenly being around really deep dark forest was something that was new to me. I was more fascinated by it than, I think, a lot of my classmates, people who’d grown up around it their entire life. I found the woods very frighting, but also mysterious. Beyond that, I used to be terrified by horror movies and horror comics or novels, even through high school I was the person who, if my friends were watching The Ring, would have stayed home that night. It wasn’t until I was in college that I forced myself out of pure curiosity to watch those movies. I started realizing that the versions of so many horror stories that lived in my head were much scarier than the ones that were happening on the screen.
What made you fall in love with that genre?
The books and movies that spoke to me the most were the ones that captured that young fear that I remember so palpably when I was five to ten years old. Two of my favorite Stephen King books are It and Pet Sematary, I think they are his two scariest books, part of it is that the human part of each books is so human, and seeing these horrible things happening to these children in both stories… There is an emotional power to it that is rarely captured that well, maybe because there is a taboo against putting kids in danger. I remember being a scared kid and I’m able to put myself in the shoes of a very frightened kid and tell those stories.
You spoke about Something Is Killing the Children as a «study about the millennial experience». It seems to me that the entertainment world, in general, is not truly telling stories about the younger generations.
I completely agree with that. Even now, I think a lot of movie studios and streaming platforms don’t feel like actually tapping into the experiences of both the millennial generation and generation z. Part of it is that the experience of those generations is a much bleaker experience than the people with money are comfortable with telling. Right at the heart of Something Is Killing the Children is something that I think is very common in both generations: we’ve lost faith in our institutions and we can see how our institutions are so broken. With Erica, you have this character that in my head is my age, early 30s… And she’s basically grown up in a world where she works as a part of this organization designed to help children and the organization is no longer helping children is it concerned with internal politics and keeping secrets and all she wants to do is actually help children and she is trying to fight against the system that was designed to do what she wants to do. And now that system is trying to kill her. All of the things that we were grown up with and promised about what our country was and what our country could be are still the things that so many of me and my generation want but the people in charge don’t want to do that and this is like you told us to hold important in our heart and now you’re saying no. That tension is incredibly powerful. But it doesn’t end with “and then all the generations got along forever and ever” so the folks holding the purse strings don’t really tell those stories.
Erica was actually born on your same date – as her driving license tells us in the third issue.
Yeah, and then there’s the little chubby kid with glasses and a Batman t-shirt named James… I’m just following the footsteps of Stephen King. All the main characters of his best novels are versions of himself, emotionally stunted writers that are obviously mirrors of him. That’s 100% of what I’m doing.
In one of your last newsletter you wrote that the digital release of one of your comic books isn’t the real release. The real release is the physical one. Why do you think the real comic book is still the best reading experience of your work?
There are types of comics that are very well suited to live in the digital space. I grew up reading webcomics in the late 90s. There are people whose work I follow to this date that I started reading when I was in middle school. A comic like xkcd, you wanna read it online. It feels like an online thing. But the sort of comics that I write feels like books. And the physicality of books is deeply important. You know, I read a lot on my iPad. But when I really want to engage with a book I need the physical artifact to sit down with. That’s what makes a comic a comic. That’s why I make comics. I wanna hold it in my hands. I love playing around and trying new distribution tools, but the next round of comic books that I’ll release will be released in print first because I feel there’s an excitement to reading something for the first time as a complete object.
You left Batman to concentrate on your Substack projects. Others were able to play in both fields at the same time, like Chip Zdarsky. Did you make that decision based purely on scheduling conflicts or were there other reasons at stake?
It’s a bit of both. I write way more comics per month than most of my peers. I’m a high-output writer. And I’m working on a number of long-running creator-owned series like Something Is Killing the Children, Department of Truth, Wynd, Nice House on the Lake… So it was one of those situations where adding more to my plate like I did end up doing with the Substack grant meant something had to come off of the plate. The other thing was that working on Batman is more than just working on Batman. When you’re in the driver seat of the main Batman title you’re the head-writer of an entire line of books. You need to coordinate with the editors and the writers of all the other titles. You can push back against that but I never liked pushing back against that. If Batman was gonna be my day job I needed Batman to be my day job. It couldn’t just be the one extra thing that I did. The title is frankly too important to both DC Comics and to myself to make it the extra thing I’m doing. Plus, I had been writing Batman comics for ten years. I knew I wasn’t going to resign my DC exclusive contract and at that point, it was also a consideration of… At this moment my original comics sell very well, so if I did not sign a DC exclusive contract I wasn’t going to have the page rate on the main Batman series that would equal anywhere close to the income I would make on my creator-owned books. So, it’s a very rare position. This is only going to be true in my life for two or three years. For the rest of my life Batman would make me way more money than my creator-owned things! [laughs] For this rare moment, this was the case. And it just made more sense to me to go and really focus on building up what I’m doing in the creator-owned space. And I’m glad I did it. Also, I needed a break from superheroes. That I had been feeling growing in me for a long time. I had been doing it for ten years, I did not find it as creatively fulfilling as my creator-owned work so then the second I no longer needed to do it I didn’t feel like it was something I should keep doing. As proud as I am of all of the work I did in that space, I think a need a few years off in my own world before I go back and try to tell another superhero story.
Do you really have the sense that this happy moment of your career might not last?
Oh, I know for sure it won’t last. I don’t mean to be self-deprecating in any way. I was very lucky that I had all of these projects in motion around the same time. It takes two years to get these projects up and running. The releases of Something Is Killing the Children, Wynd, The Nice House on the Lake and The Department of Truth, all of that was in motion for a very long time and me going on Batman put a spotlight on me that allowed those books to hit a stratospheric moment and it just so happened that those books were the best books that I ever wrote so it’s just like my skills leveled up at the moment the spotlight hit me and that also happened to coincide with a moment where the collector market around variant covers went into overdrive right at the moment where it was the most beneficial to me. And so all of those things came together that I have had a few very lucky years. Now, I’m confident that as long as I continue to put out work I know that… I’m not worried about my future in comics but I also know that even Jim Lee is still Jim Lee but he’s not selling as he used to in the nineties. I know this is a moment. I’m very happy and I want to make the most out of this moment. I don’t have any fear or problem with it ending. I’m excited for the next creator to hit their big moment. Every moment the industry shifts its eye to some exciting new talent is an exciting moment and I’m excited to participate in that without anybody having to look at me. [laughs]
You’ve been a comic book writer for ten years. I don’t know if you consider the Batman backstory you co-wrote with Scott Snyder on Batman 8 your first work…
Oh yeah, I do.
Right. So, do you remember the feeling when it came out?
I do. And this year has been a full circle moment with that. The day I got the box of complementary comics (or comp box)… A bunch of comics that had my name on them! It became real once I held it in my hands. It was such an overwhelming feeling that I remember I was extremely grateful for all of the roads that had led me there. In that moment I was active on Tumblr and I sent a message to Neil Gaiman that said, basically, “Neil, I don’t know if you ever going to read this but I just want you to know that I just got a comp box and I wouldn’t be here if I had not read your works and fallen in love with the medium and I want to thank you for this”. He sent me back a short one-sentence message, “I’m so glad”, but it meant the world to me. A month ago at the Eisner Awards, I get called up on stage for the best writer award and Neil Gaiman hands me the award. It felt like, ok, decade one of my comics career has gone pretty well. These are good bookends. Now I just have to figure out what I’m going to do with the next ten years!
And when you get a comp box of the latest issue of Something Is Killing the Children, do you have the same feeling as the first time?
Oh, yeah. Every time that I get a box of comics with my name on them, it’s the coolest feeling in the world. Every time I get a page of one of my books in the e-mail, I smile. I love doing this. There is nothing that brings me more joy in life than comics.