A Masterclass in Writing with Henry Vogel

Article by CnS Comics Team.

Meet Henry

We had the chance to sit down with the legendary Henry Vogel. He has been a part of the comic industry for over four decades. Henry has a wealth of knowledge and experience and we were lucky enough to have him share those gems with us.

Henry Vogel

Q&A with Henry

For people who may not know you, tell us about who Henry Vogel is. What is Henry Vogel’s origin story?

Fair warning, this won’t be a short answer.

I was born in a different age – 1957 – and grew up in Clemson, SC. My father was on the Clemson faculty, so I developed a strong connection to the university. This is important, later.

I rarely read comic books as a child. When I did, it was usually from neighborhood friend’s collection he inherited from his older brothers. Every so often, we’d spend an afternoon sitting around on the floor in his room reading comics. I recall plenty of war comics, along with a smaller number of superheroes. The only superhero I specifically remember reading from his collection was Daredevil (this is also important, later). I also had a copy of the first issue of Thunder Agents that I bought from a friend. God only knows what happened to that comic.

What I did read was science fiction. Like many science fiction fans of the time, I desperately wanted to write the stuff. I tried my hand at writing Star Trek fanfic (a word I didn’t know at the time), and mostly just wished I knew where writers got their ideas. As with most wannabe writers, I hated it when writers said, “Ideas are easy.” (Now, I say the same thing when asked about ideas.)

I entered college at Clemson in 1975, still dreaming of a writing career, and not having read a comic book in seven or eight years. But two months later, I stumbled across the first two trade paperback books I’d ever seen – Origin of Marvels Comics and Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, both by Stan Lee. In a time when a paperback book cost $1.25, they were an incredibly expensive $6.95. I almost walked right by them, but Son of Origins had my old friend Daredevil on the cover. I picked it, flipped through it, and the combination of Stan Lee’s personable writing style and color art worked its magic on me. I bought it, read the book overnight, and bought Origins the next day. Just like that, I was a comic book fan.

I still wanted to write, but the deeper I dove into comic book fandom the more I wanted to write comics. The tipping point might have been when I got my then-girlfriend into comics, which she enjoyed far more than science fiction. Yes, I married her. Yes, we’re still together.

After dropping out of college for a short while, I returned in 1981. Fellow comic book fan David Willis started at Clemson the same year. We met when he posted fliers around campus about starting a comic book club. A few months later, I told him about a team of superheroes I’d created and really wanted to write. But I figured it would take around $2000 ($6300, today) to get started, and I didn’t have anything close to that kind of money. Unexpectedly, David said, “I’ve got $2000.” We released our first issue five months later.

I skipped over a brief foray into editing a science fiction magazine with a different friend. Eternity Science Fiction folded after only two issues, but it gave me just enough familiarity with printing and publishing to believe I knew what I was doing when we started the comic book.

X-Thieves Cover
X-Thieves written by Henry Vogel

In 1984, you became the first comic book professional online. Tell us how that happened. What was your experience like with comics and the internet?

Between my first time dropping out of Clemson and my second, and final time dropping out, I landed a part time job working at one of Clemson’s remote computer centers. At the time, the Apple ][+ was the most advanced personal computer available, so the remote centers connected to the university’s mainframe. That job gave me access to the Usenet, from which the Internet eventually emerged. At the time, you either paid a huge sum of money or had a connection through work or school. Everything was text, and it literally took overnight for my posts to appear on the group rec.arts.comics. Any replies to my messages took equally as long to show up.

Because of the cost of a connection, very few people had access to the Usenet. But that was one time being a broke college student worked out for me. I had a free connection and plenty of time while working to read and respond to discussions.

I remember the group being a lot like a big club, filled with mostly young adults who shared a love of comic books. I was a heavy contributor to the group for about a year and a half, and even used a few usernames from it in my books. I don’t remember any flame wars, but maybe that’s just time dulling my memory. I didn’t take part in any, at least. When I dropped out of Clemson for the second time, I lost my access to the Usenet. A friend who worked for a now-defunct computer company (DEC, aka Digital Equipment Corporation) let me connect from her computer, but eventually that became more work than it was worth. I was offline by 1987.

You’ve been a comic book writer and a novelist. Tell us about the unique challenges of both mediums. Which is your favorite?

I wrote comics in what was called “Marvel Style” back then. That meant I wrote a plot, usually no more than four pages long, and sent that to the artist. When the artist had at least six penciled pages, he sent the artwork to me. I made full-sized photocopies of the artwork, and then wrote the script directly on the photocopies. After editing, I transcribed the script and bundled everything off to the letterer.

I went into that detail because it the process was so different from the full scripts almost everyone writes these days. No part of my original writing process took all that long for me. I worked out the flow of the plot, then expanded that into the written plot. That rarely took more than three hours from start to finish. Scripting six or seven pages took about the same amount of time. For someone like me, who was great at starting things but wasn’t always so great at completing them, that writing process was a God send for me. I could always see the end of my current writing project from the start. Plus, I could concentrate on the action during the plotting phase, and then deal with the dialogue once I saw what the artist had given me to work with.

Perhaps that’s why I’m not a huge fan of full scripts. I understand why publishers prefer them, but I like the old Marvel Style better.

Writing novels should be different than the Marvel Style of writing comics. And it is because I have to write dialogue along with the action. Plus, I can’t rely on an artist to provide the visuals for the read. Since I still have that short attention span, I had to develop a way to trick myself into writing a complete novel. The trick is I write episodically, with each day’s writing amounting to one or two complete scenes. My goal isn’t writing a novel, it’s completing the day’s episode. I can still envision what may happen farther into the book, but the episode approach tricks my brain into ignoring the huge task of writing an entire novel.

Can you tell us about your experience with indie comics?

Wow, that’s an open-ended question! I could write all day just responding to this question. Instead, I’ll say it was exhilarating, fun, exciting, challenging, and frustrating. I met many great people during that time, from fans to other indie comics pros to Marvel and DC regulars. It always surprised me when most of them knew my name and had even read my work.

The frustration came from dealing with distributors and struggling against retailer overreactions to problems with other indie books. Again, I could spend a long time writing about that, especially the black & white boom, glut and the predicable bust that followed. I can’t tell you how much I envy today’s indie creators and their ability to market and sell directly to readers.

You’re making something of a comeback, right? Tell us about your return to the comic industry, what’s changed? Is it better or worse in your eyes?

I currently waiting for edits on the scripts for a three-issue story I wrote for a new publishing company. They haven’t published anything yet, but they have some interesting projects coming soon, including an incredibly exciting one that I can’t talk about yet.

What’s changed is that everyone writes full scripts, of which I’m not a huge fan. Again, I understand why they do that, but it took longer to write a 24-page full script than it would have taken me to complete the same 24 page story using Marvel Style. Part of the reason full scripts are so big is because publishers aren’t limited to artists living in the U.S. I believe the publisher has Brazilian artists lined up to create the art for the book, which wasn’t an option for most creators back in the 1980s.

The other different is the audience’s taste is far broader than it was forty years ago. Or maybe it’s just that creators aren’t restricted to producing what retailers will stock. With print-on-demand and web comics and crowd funding, it’s possible for a creator to find a niche large enough to support their work, but too small for a retailer to bother with. It’s really opened up the market.

What was the first comic you remember reading and loving, was it an inspiration for you?

I pretty much covered that in the first question. I credit Son of Origins of Marvel Comics and its predecessor for the inspiration. Beyond that, credit goes to the guys working at Marvel and DC in the 1970s for producing comics that were fun reads.

As a pioneer of internet comics, and a longtime comic industry guy, what is the best advice to break into the comic industry?

People ask me this question from time to time, and I’m the worst person associated with the field to ask. I mean, I broke into comics by picking the lock on the industry’s back door and letting myself in. By the time others realized I hadn’t come in through the front door, it was too late to kick me out. But there’s no reason others can’t do the same thing I did.

What you really need is the desire to make comics and the willingness to put yourself out there. And a team of people to do the things you can’t do. Unless you can do it all by yourself, in which case we all hate you. (Not true. Or, not entirely true.)

Every creative endeavor has risks. You must be willing to face those risks, take those chances, and have skin thick enough to turn aside those people who will dislike your work. If you can do that, you can learn the rest.

What are your honest opinions on today’s comics?

I rarely read books from the big publishers anymore because so many of the people producing them seem more interested in preaching than creating entertaining stories. The thing is, it’s possible to produce socially relevant comics and tell a good story at the same time. From the ‘60s forward, the field had plenty of that, but those creators understood that they had to tell a good story, too. Too often these days, if you open a new comic, you’re hit with a wall of word balloons filled with an info dump about whatever cause the author is passionate about. Too often a character’s identity – be it sexual or ethnic – becomes their entire personality, and it seeps into everything the character says and does.

I have friends and relatives across the spectrum of identities, and none of them act like the cardboard activists I’ve seen in some comic books. The stupid part of all the preaching is that the creators intentionally alienate the people they should want reading their work. There is no point to message that doesn’t reach those who most need to read it.

On the other hand, I’ve backed plenty of fun, entertaining crowd-funded books. The worst of those are okay, and the best are a lot of fun. Some of them feature the character taking a political stance on some topic, but it only comes up when appropriate for the story and they don’t hammer you with it in every scene.

From long online experience, I know there are people who will swear this means I’m saying comics should never tackle social issues. That’s false. Tackle away. But if you want people to read your comic, weave the message into the story so it arises naturally. If your comic is the message with story tacked on, your comic will mostly sell to people who already agree with you. I wrote books that tackled issues, but the story always came first.

Which of your books is most likely to make one cry? Make one feel happy, laugh—which of your books would you say will make your reader question everything?

For comic books, I’d say Southern Knights #26 (happy, perhaps laugh, maybe think) and #27 (cry, make you think) are the most likely to cover all those bases. But for straight laughter, I’d say just about any book in the X-Thieves series.

For novels, I’d say the ending of The Counterfeit Captain is most likely to make the reader cry. I’d like to think any of my novels will make any reader who enjoys a good adventure story happy. They’re all laced with humor, though I don’t think much of of it is really laugh out loud funny. Readers are more likely to smile to themselves and move on with the story.

What are the main aspects to have a cohesive story?

A character has a problem and takes action to solve it. It doesn’t matter whether those actions change the character, or they force change on the character’s world. I suppose you can have a story where events crash over a passive character, but I can’t imagine enjoying such a story.

Who is the best character you’ve created and what inspired you to create that character?

That’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child! I’m still temped to pick Dragon/Mark Dagon from the Southern Knights, because he was different from every other superhero character I knew of. He was certainly a favorite among my readers. But I’m also tempted to pick Glen and Elise from my book The Lost Planet, because they have interesting character arcs and change quite a bit from where they started.

What is your favorite comic story arc you’ve written?

I have to go with the 10-issue Serpent subplot that ran from Southern Knights #4 through #13. It was only the main story for issues #12 and #13, but I had a lot of fun weaving it into all the stories leading up to that two-issue story. What I found most interesting were the people who picked up the clues I sprinkled through those issues and guessed the big reveal, and the people who were caught completely unaware. It led to some interesting fan letters, too.

Southern Knights

What are the pros and cons of being in the comic industry?

From a writer’s point of view, the con is being the word-guy in an art-based medium. It’s been a while since I flipped through a recent edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, but they always credit the artist when an issue or short series of issues are worth more than the issues before and after it. Sometimes that’s valid. But just as often, the same artist credited in the Guide for the higher price is the same one who drew the issues before and after. In those cases, the difference is the story. But you’ll never find the writer credited for it in the Guide.

On a similar note, I remember a job interview back in the ‘80s where the interviewer asked me about my working drawing comics. I gave my usual correction, “I can’t even draw stick figures well. No, I write comics.” The guy looked at me for five seconds, then said, “Huh. I didn’t know anybody wrote those.” I wanted the job, so I didn’t ask if he thought the words just magically appeared on the page. The saddest thing is that sort of thing happened to me all the time. I would say, “I write comics,” and someone would immediately ask, “So you draw comics?”

The pro side of comics is that it can be an incredibly fun industry to work in. I loved being part of a team producing the best comic possible. That’s one of the things I really liked about writing Marvel style. I can’t count the number of times the completed artwork inspired me to write far better scripts than I would have writing a full script. Attending conventions was also a team event, with all of us sitting together at a table, meeting fans, joking around, and generally have a lot of fun.

In contrast, writing novels (or full-script comics) is a mostly solo endeavor. Sure, I don’t have to depend on anyone else to get my work done. But I don’t have anyone else inspiring me to heights I wouldn’t have reached by myself, either.

If you had the chance to have one of your characters do a crossover with any comic universe which one, would it be?

I think the comic universe would be the Girl Genius universe, from Phil and Kaja Foglio. It’s such a madcap, swashbuckling fun setting that I’d love collaborating on a story set in it. As for the character, I’d have to go with Kristin from the Southern Knights. She has such a fun-loving, devil-may-care attitude that I think she’d fit right in. Plus, all the mad science in Girl Genius could easily produce devices or constructs that could challenge Kristin’s strength.

What are the main challenges of being a writer?

From time to time, writing is just plain drudgery. No matter how much you love writing, there are days you don’t want to sit down at a keyboard and write. You’d rather go for a walk, catch a movie, read a book, and do just about anything besides write. In other words, writing is like any other job in the world. Sometimes you have to do it, whether you want to or not.

If your comic universe gets selected for a big budget film, what studio would you want to work with?

Is Studio Ghibli an option? I think they show respect for their own work and, when that work is based on an outside property, respect the source material. I’m not saying they slavishly duplicate the source material, but the changes they introduce “fit” that material.

Who is your favorite comic book writer of all time?

That is an incredibly difficult question to answer. I’ve read so many comics written by so many talented writers that I’d never be able to narrow the list to just one. From the aforementioned Foglio’s work on Girl Genius to Bill Willingham’s work on Fables to the Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest to Jeff Smith’s Bone to Chris Claremont’s New X-Men to Frank Miller’s Daredevil to… You get the idea. But if I absolutely had to give a single name, I have to go back to Son of Origins of Marvel Comics and Stan Lee. Without that book and his writing within, I might never have gotten into comics.

What are your thoughts on Manga? Does its storytelling differentiate from comic storytelling?

The short answer is that I like some Manga, and don’t like others, just as I like some comics, and dislike others. In the broadest strokes, Manga and comics are the same art form, in that they both combine art and words to produce something greater than the individual parts. But American storytelling structure and tropes are different from Japanese storytelling structure and tropes.

An example of the different tropes is readily noticeable in the different ways American and Japanese stories treat the smart kid in school. In American stories, he’s almost always the nerd, a strange-looking, socially and physically inept guy with weird interests and an unhealthy fixation on the prettiest girl in school. At best, the nerd is a sidekick to the better-looking, confident, and athletic hero. In Japan, the smart kid in school trope is the top student, who is athletic, confident, good-looking, and respected as much for his intellectual achievements as for his athletic ones.

From a writer’s point of view, reading stories from outside your culture can not only help improve your own writing, it can also improve your understanding of other cultures. At this moment, the most easily accessible window into another culture is Manga (and anime). And I think that’s a good thing.

Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

Most people have dreams that they never pursue. They decide the dream is impractical or aren’t willing to put the time and effort into making those dreams come true. Not even when they were young enough to take the risk. They’re the people who tell you, “I always want to,” followed by, “But I never did.” They say that in a wistful tone, shake their head, and go back to their practical world.

I will never be that person. I’m writing this on my 65th birthday, and I know I will never look back on my life and wonder, “What if?” I took chances. I lost time and money. I gained lifelong friends and precious memories. And then I did it all over again when I started writing science fiction novels.

It’s never too late to take a chance. It’s never too late to try something new. You just have to make up your mind and do it.

Didn’t get enough Henry?

Make sure you visit his website for more! henryvogelwrites.com

The Crusaders cover
The Crusaders written by Henry Vogel

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