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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Breaking In As A Writer

When Doris Lessing was told she won the Nobel Prize for her novels, her response? "I couldn't care less."

I love her for that. I love anyone that acknowledges how arbitrary and silly and snobby the literature crowd can be. Indeed, my goal has always been to take the barriers down and to let everyone in -- treating everyone -- and all genres (including snob lit, thrillers, and comics) -- equally. And that's why I love this story below.

I remember when Geoff told me it right after it happened. And I remember saying, "Good for you for taking care of the new guy." I tried very much the same this past summer, and I know my guy will be there soon. So to all the writers out there, I believe.

From Newsarama:

by Vaneta Rogers

When the solicitation was first released for this week's Tales of the Sinestro Corps: Superman-Prime #1, the response to the writers listed for the comic was pretty universal. "Who is Sterling Gates?"

The unknown writer was listed as a co-writer on the comic along with Geoff Johns because Gates penned the issue's back-up story, a Tales of the Sinestro Corps installment titled, "Fear is a Baby's Cry!" Everyone knew who Johns was, but nobody had heard the name Sterling Gates before.

Then when we interviewed Johns on Newsarama a few weeks ago about the Sinestro Corps War, the writer kept bringing up this guy Sterling Gates again, even mentioning his work on an upcoming Secret Files issue, which sure enough had Gates listed as a co-writer again. And the questions about the mysterious writer continued.

Now it's time to put the mystery to rest. Newsarama tracked down Gates and found out that his story is one most fans will envy terribly, yet one that anyone who's been to a comic convention can completely identify with. Much like the story told in our recent interview with Matt Yocum, another unknown writer given a chance over at Marvel after literally buying time with Joe Quesada, Gates has a unique story of being "discovered" by a generous comics creator – this one involving a drunk friend, an ice cream sundae and a few awkward encounters with Geoff Johns.

Newsarama: When people saw the solicitation, you know what they said. "Who the hell is Sterling Gates?"

Sterling Gates: [laughs] That was my favorite internet post of all time.

NRAMA: You saw that one too, huh?

SG: I did. I did.

NRAMA: Have you written any comics before? Or are you completely new to the industry?

SG: I did some self-published work in college. Some autobiographical, slice-of-life kind of stuff that I wrote and drew – but this is my first foray into the "big leagues" of comicdom.

NRAMA: But you grew up around comics, right?

SG: Sure. My dad owned a comic book store in Tulsa, Okla., called Sooner Books and Comics, which was this really, really tiny used book store, but we had a big comics section. We owned that for over 10 years, and we finally closed in 1998. And so, yeah, comics were always sort of there and a part of my life from about age 7 onward. They were just around our house everywhere. We had a garage full of comics for as long as I could remember and I would sit and read them for hours, then sneak them under the covers and read them in bed.

And when I got to college, I started working part-time at my local comics store, Speeding Bullet Books and Comics in Norman, Okla.

NRAMA: When you went to college at University of Oklahoma, what was it you wanted to do?

SG: I earned a degree in Fine Arts with a specialization in film and television production. That said, my professors used to get really annoyed because everything I did, I wanted to relate to comics somehow. Like my capstone thesis wasn't about film or television so much as about sequential art theory and relating time theory in comics to our training in film and television. I must've referenced Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics a hundred times in that paper! [laughs]

NRAMA: So you got out of college with this degree, and you ended up in L.A., right?

SG: Well, I worked a little for the Oklahoma Film and Music Commission for about six months and for Speeding Bullet on the weekends, and then one day, some friends and I were talking over dinner, and I said, "So, we've all graduated. What are we going to do with our lives?" And nobody had a good answer. And I said, "Well, I'm going to fly to L.A. next week and get us a lease and we're moving." Then, over Christmas break we said goodbye to everyone we knew, 'cause no one thought they'd see us ever again. Like, I really think everyone thought L.A . was like the 'Welcome to the Jungle' video, and we'd all get off the bus and be robbed and murdered right there on the street. [laughs]

So on New Year's Day 2006, we packed up a U-Haul and we started going west.

NRAMA: But you had no job.

SG: I had nothing. Nothing. I had three months rent, a degree and a prayer. I was going to take over the world!

And then I moved out here and completely shut down for about six weeks. [laughs] Horrible depression. It was just such a culture shock. I just sat on the couch and watched Gilmore Girls reruns for six weeks. And then my friend called and said, "I'm going to go up to San Francisco to WonderCon. Want to come?"

NRAMA: Ah... here comes the story.

SG: You know where this is going. [laughs]

NRAMA: You met somebody in the comics industry that gave you a chance. How did it happen?

SG: On Saturday night at the con, my friend and I went out to dinner, and he tried to sort of hit on our waitress. And she totally rejected him -- rightfully so, I might add. And we went to this bar to console him. We get pretty liquored up, there was a lot of consoling to be done, and go back to the hotel. In the lobby were Geoff Johns and Steve Wacker. They were leaving the hotel as we were coming in. And my friend had a conniption and freaked, freaked out. He's a huge Geoff Johns fan. And he started literally singing praises to him. The Marriott lobby there is this huge echoing structure, so every word he said, I think everyone in every room could hear. It was really, really embarrassing.

I wanted to sober him up, so we walked over to Mel's Diner around the corner. We get there and Geoff and Steve are there, and they recognize us from the hotel from five minutes prior. So that was really awkward.

NRAMA: They were waiting for their table, right?

SG: Yeah. They were waiting outside, and we kind of awkwardly struck up a conversation. And they politely answered our questions and asked us a few back. I told them about how I just moved to L.A., and it turned out that Geoff and I shopped at the same comics shop, DJ's Universal, so we talked about that. We said our "good-byes" and our "nice-to-meet-you's" and then the host sat them, and then came back and sat us at the table literally right next to theirs. A table maybe five inches from their table. And we kind of all looked at each other and I thought, "Can this get more awkward? I doubt it."

But then it did, because Cody, my fantastically drunk friend, every couple seconds, would shield his face from their view with his menu and whisper to me, "Sterling! It's Geoff Johns!!"

NRAMA: They probably thought you were stalkers! [laughs]

SG: Well, yeah! [laughs] I'm surprised they didn't file restraining orders right then and there. And so we went through this whole dinner, and I finally told my friend not to say anything to them and for us to just get out of there because it was so weird. So, the waitress came with our check, and feeling like I should kind of make up for my friend, I got Geoff and Steve's check. I didn't tell them, I just grabbed their check and went out and paid it.

I came back and said, "Guys, it was awesome to meet you. Sorry about my drunk friend. I paid for your dinner. I'll see you at the con tomorrow. Have a great night." And literally, without missing a beat, Geoff looks up from his sundae and says, "Do you want a job?" And Wacker goes, "…What?" And Geoff had Steve give me his card, and told me to email Steve my resume.

NRAMA: That seems like an awfully nice way to respond to an awkward situation! So he knew you were looking for a job?

SG: Yeah, we had kind of loosely chatted about the fact that I'd moved to L.A. and had this degree and didn't have a job yet. I think he kind of, in the back of his head, knew I was looking. But it was pure luck. I emailed in my resume, and I got a call the next week from Blade: The Series. They were hiring for a production assistant for the writers room, and I think Geoff just thought, I'll see if this kid can make the interview. And I went in and interviewed with the entire writing staff, all at once, like a huge roundtable interview.

And I got the job.

NRAMA: You got a job in television because you stalked Geoff Johns at a comics convention. [laughs]

SG: [laughs] Oh, come on. I think stalking is too hard a word. It was just accidentally running into him over and over and over.

NRAMA: It was fate.

SG: Yeah! It was the fickle finger of fate!

NRAMA: So what does a writer's room production assistant do?

SG: Anything anyone asks! I would get the most random requests. My basic duties were making sure everyone had food, and I did script distribution and, you know, stocking basic office things. I drove back and forth to New Line's Television Department all the time. One day I had to find Dodge Chargers on the Internet for Blade to wreck. The next I had to research everything I could about Baron Blood.

NRAMA: For this you went to college, right?

SG: I think everyone, especially in this town, has to start somewhere, and it's always on the bottom rung.

NRAMA: Wait. This all sounds oddly familiar. This story. You know that, right?

SG: Uh... you mean Geoff and [Richard] Donner?

NRAMA: Yeah, because this is Geoff's story you're telling. He took off to L.A. with a group of friends after graduating from college with a film degree. He had no job and too little money. He lucked out getting a job as a P.A. and ended up as Donner's assistant. Then ended up writing comics. Same story. And now you're Geoff's assistant and writing comics. You became Geoff's assistant when Blade ended, right?

SG: Yeah, after Blade was unceremoniously canceled. At the end of the first season, we knew it wasn't coming back. Geoff had written a movie called Naughty or Nice with Matt Senreich from Robot Chicken, and they were interested in producing that film. Once they started moving on it, and once Seth [Green] got involved, things really started to go. Geoff called me on a Sunday and said, "Look, I don't know what you're doing post-Blade, but I need an assistant for this movie. Come on and do that." How do you say no to Geoff Johns? So that's where I am today!

NRAMA: OK, let's fast forward to this comic that just came out this week. How did you go from, "I majored in film and television, I'm working in film and television, so I'm going to pitch to DC." How did that happen?

SG: I really wanted to be a television writer when I moved out. And working in the writer's room on Blade, I was talking a lot about ideas I had, not just for Blade but all sorts of other shows. So Geoff knew I was interested in writing.

One day, we were talking about comics, and I said, "You know, I used to write comics in college." I hadn't told him that ever before, because when you're around Geoff Johns, you don't just blurt out, "Hey! You write comics! I've written some, too!" But he said, "Really? Can I read some?" And I gave a little nervous laugh and said, "Um, sure, you can read my comics…Geoff…Johns…" [laughs]

I had a couple up on the internet and I sent those to him. And he gave them a read and said they were really great. He asked if I wanted to write comics, and I said I would love to write comics. I would kill to write comics! And that was over a year ago, and nothing seemed to come of it. I thought it was just an idle conversation. I figured I'd just still pursue writing TV and feature scripts and that was fine.

But then, once Sinestro Corps really started taking off, I really got inspired by it and wrote up a pitch for five or six different Sinestro Corps members' stories and brought them in to work. And I said, "I know this is really weird, but can you read these?" He read them and said, "These are awesome. Let me send these in to [editor] Eddie Berganza and we'll see if maybe we can get some of these stories told." So, a whirlwind trip later, and my first story hits this week.

NRAMA: Let's talk about the story. It's about Kryb. She was first seen in the pages of the Sinestro Corps Special. Why did you pick her?

SG: Ethan [Van Sciver]'s designs are incredible. He is a genius, especially with his designs for the Sinestro Corps and all the different aliens and creatures. They're incredible. I started looking at that spread in the middle of Sinestro Corps Special #1, and I realized that the one that instantly visually scared the crap out of me was Kryb. Her collection of babies is one of the scariest things I can think of, because where did they all come from? Where do you find that many babies? And so I started thinking about that, and the things that frighten me. One of the most visceral basic threats, I think, and one of our biggest fears is the threat to family. So it clicked. Kryb targets certain, special children across the galaxy and uses them to instill great fear in their parents.

NRAMA: It's a really creepy read. You have a very twisted mind.

SG: Thanks. Wait, is that a compliment? [laughs]

NRAMA: And on your first published work at DC, you got to work with Jerry Ordway! How was that?

SG: Jerry's amazing. I really think he's one of the best pencillers of all time. He's so good. When I found out he was doing my story, I really freaked out. You know that scene at the end of 40 Year Old Virgin where everyone's singing 'Aquarius' and dancing and stuff? That's what I did. [laughs] I was really, really psyched.

NRAMA: Going forward, are you writing more things? Are we going to see your name again?

SG: The next thing, and I think it's hitting stands December 19th, is the Green Lantern/Sinestro Corps Secret Files that Geoff and I are co-writing. For all accounts and purposes, it's a Who's Who of all the Green Lanterns -- even all the dead ones. And we cover all of the Sinestro Corps, too. So it's like 250 guys in a 54-page comic, which is the most bang for your buck you can possibly get.

Also in that Secret Files is a Tales of the Green Lantern Corps story I wrote revealing the origin of the Green Lantern crypt-keeper, Morro. Joe Prado did some wonderful art for it, just did a bang-up job on it.

And I'd also like to take a quick second here and thank Eddie Berganza and Adam Schlagman, who've been working extra hard putting together this Green Lantern Secret Files. Those guys are fantastic, and I really appreciate their efforts to get it made. Oh, and a super special thanks to Eddie Berganza, for giving me a chance to tell Kryb's story. Eddie rules. Period. [laughs]

NRAMA: What does your family think of this?

SG: I called my mom way, way early in the process and told her I was going to be doing some comics stuff. She said, "Oh, that's amazing. Your father would be so proud of you, God rest his soul." But I didn't tell her anything after that because I knew it would be a much bigger impact if one day she opened the door to a Fed Ex box full of comics with my name on them. And so, I've neglected to tell her anything at all about it. So, no one tell her. [laughs] Anyone reading this, please don't tell my mom until after Superman-Prime #1 hits the stands and I have a chance to send it to her.

NRAMA: So she'll see it Thursday?

SG: Yeah, I'm going to overnight it to her, so she'll get it Thursday morning.

NRAMA: With all the experience of being around writers at Blade and working with Geoff, do you think you've grown as a writer?

SG: Absolutely! We had some of the best writers in television on Blade. Dan Truly, David Goyer. Some very, very talented guys to be around and learn from. And Geoff's been very interested in seeing me grow as a writer. I kind of wonder if he sees -- especially given the parallels between how we got our start-- a little of himself in me. Not that I would ever claim to be as good a writer as Geoff! The man's legendary. [laughs] But, I think Geoff really cares about fostering good writers and hopefully, knock on wood, he sees a good one in me and would like to see me continue to grow.

NRAMA: There really are way too many similarities in your stories.

SG: The creepy thing is, I found out about Jerry Ordway, and I went into Geoff's office, and I said, "I got Jerry Ordway on 'Baby's Cry'!!" And he said, "Wow, Jerry Ordway gave me my start in comics, too." Little did anyone know, but the first thing Geoff ever had published was a Jerry Ordway interview he did for Comic Shop News. And he said, "It's kind of come full circle. That's so weird." And he's right, it's bizarre.

But you know, it's also very cool. It's really, as someone who's living this life, it's odd to see parallels between what's happening to me and what happened to someone whose work I really admire and respect. And I think, as both my and Geoff's cases show, you really have to make that decision to take the plunge and follow a dream. It might not always work out exactly how you thought it would, but hey, seeing just how it works out is half the adventure!


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