Between the Panels: Writer Vita Ayala on Their Comics Education, a Flattering Threat from Warren Ellis, and Being Kind Instead of Being Nice

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

If you ever happened to buy comics from an employee named Vita Ayala once upon a time at New York City’s famous Forbidden Planet, it turns out you were in the presence of a future superstar. Since graduating from DC’s Talent Development Workshop, Vita has hit the comics world like a rocket from Krypton, writing for the “Big Two,” as well as IDW, Dynamite, Valiant, and more.

First, the particulars…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): I’m a writer by trade, and a BS-er by education.

Your home base: Brooklyn, New York

Social Media

Instagram: @definitelyvita

Twitter: @definitelyvita

Current project titles:

Age of X-Man: Prisoner X (Marvel)
BLACK AF: Devil’s Dye (Black Mask)
Livewire (Valiant)
Magic The Gathering: Chandra (IDW)
Marvel Action: Black Panther (IDW/Marvel)
Shuri (Marvel)
Submerged (Vault)
The Wilds (Black Mask)
Xena: Warrior Princess (Dynamite)

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp:  I like to start with the big question: Why comics? What attracts you to writing for the comics form specifically?

Vita Ayala: Comics as a medium has unique aspects, which I think any creator could go on about at length, but to me the most important thing is that it is accessible.  To me, comics is a medium that is accessible to a wider range of people, as compared to prose. As long as you are able to engage with media visually, you can engage with comics. People who don’t read as easily, or at all, people who don’t have a lot of time to devote to reading but want story in their life, people who live lives that require they move around a lot and so owning a lot of things is not plausible – comics is a great way for these people to be able to read/engage with story that is not television or video games (both of which I love, of course).

I learned to read a lot later than a lot of my peers — when I was in 5th grade — so a lot of reading was closed off to me. I was especially ashamed at the time, because my parents are HUGE readers. But I could get into comics, because they are primarily driven by the visual narrative. I have always had a very active imagination — I have been creating worlds in my head since I can remember — and comics is a tangible version of that.

KS: Was being a writer of some kind always part of your career vision, or did it develop along the way?

VA: I have been writing since I can remember. I used to do it in pictures and graffiti in my own notebooks, or with cut outs from magazines. Then, I learned how to read and incorporated words into my storytelling. I wrote compulsively all through school — elementary, middle, high school, and even college. I would sit at the back of classes in high school and just write my own stuff. In college, I was a better student, but I still cheated on my philosophy and psychology homework with writing fanfiction and developing my own universes.

KS: So, would the Vita of 10 years ago be surprised by where you are now?

VA: Vita from 10 years ago wouldn’t believe it was possible to make money from doing the thing that they love to do more than anything, no. BUT, even 10 years ago, Vita was about that hustle life, and so would absolutely try. haha.

KS: You were a comics fan who also got to work at Forbidden Planet in New York City, but do you have a memory of when you made the mental leap from fandom to “I want to try doing that?” Was it an “a-ha!” moment or more of a gradual process?

VA: There was no single “a-ha” moment, no. For a long time, I didn’t truly understand that you could be a comic WRITER if you couldn’t draw, which I cannot … It wasn’t until I first worked at Forbidden Planet, at around 19, when it dawned on me that writing could be a whole separate job! But I was still not really understanding that what I was doing in my notebooks was absolutely related to what happened on the pages of my favorite books.

KS: At what point did that change, or start to?

VA: [In] college, I started to consider that maybe I could expand from prose into comics. A buddy of mine — Michael Brambly, who writes and draws and edits and all that fun stuff — asked me to do a VERY short script for his site, and I accepted without really thinking of it. Later, when I sat down to write it, I was like, “Wait, DO I know comics? Is this a thing I can do?” It turns out that the answer was... kinda? I think the idea was solid, but I had a long way to go in terms of execution.

Flash forward to 2012-2013, when I was working at Forbidden Planet again full-time. Matthew Rosenberg, who now works for Marvel, was one of my coworkers and good friends. He would see me come in early and write, but never do anything with it. He convinced me that maybe I should give comics a shot and strongly encouraged me to pitch. I didn’t think I had what it took, but his belief in me made me take the chance.

KS: What’s the first piece of “real” writing you remember creating, comics or not? Something that felt like a serious project for you at the time — whatever age that was.

VA: I was part of an online virtual season for a canceled soap opera when I was in college. I wrote two episodes of the virtual season and was part of the writers’ room. It was the first time I remember feeling like I was doing something that was real, because this was something that involved more than just me sitting at my computer, scribbling alone, and being beholden to no one.

KS: You were also a student of Scott Snyder at the DC Talent Workshop. Looking back at your time there, what specifically do you think you took away from the experience?

VA: I think one of the bigger things that I got was a better understanding of the structure of superhero comics. We talked a lot about story structure in general — Scott is a professional educator, as well as a writer — which was a great refresher, but then we really got into the nitty gritty of how that translates to 20-page superhero books, for both one-shots and for larger story arcs.

We also talked a lot about telling meaningful stories with characters that had existed for such a long time. That was really interesting and actually helps a lot when approaching NEW characters, too.

KS: Some writers have a set daily (or nightly) work routine, while others are more “catch as catch can,” banging out words whenever and wherever possible. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

VA: I have a routine, for sure. I went full-time freelance about a year ago, and if I didn’t, I would never get anything done! I tend to work until either I hit 10 pages, or 3 a.m., whichever comes first. I worked the graveyard shift at a museum for about four years, doing security, and that seems to have really altered how I function as a person.

KS: How does your nuts-and-bolts writing process differ when it comes to a piece for comics as opposed to prose fiction?

VA: I do a lot more discovering when I am writing prose, and a lot more refining and tweaking when I am writing comics. For comics, I outline a lot more heavily. I am an outline person, in general, but with comics, I get into the real close view — beat by beat, scene by scene, page by page, etc. By the time I actually write the comic page, I feel like I have written the scene at least three times already, so it is not as nerve-wracking.

KS: You’ve written now for a variety of different artists. What’s something you’ve become aware of when it comes to the process of comics creation that maybe you didn’t fully understand when looking in from the outside?

VA: I have learned so much from each artist I have worked with… Each relationship is unique and wonderful.

I will say, though, that some things that have been strengthened through each project are: references are always appreciated, even if they are not ultimately used; your partner [artist] has a lot of cool ideas that are different from your own, but they are DEFINITELY the smarter of the two visually, so trust them; ALWAYS ask your partner [artist] for their input, and encourage them to question things in the script — they are an equally invested extra set of eyes, and they have to make sense of it all then translate, so they should definitely feel like you want to talk things through with them.

I modeled a lot of my scripting/interacting with artists via the script on Rosenberg. When in doubt, look to people you admire, and this served me well.

KS: In addition to your creator-owned characters, you’ve written established characters for major publishers. Is there a particular challenge that comes with the latter situation?

VA: Figuring out what of the canon is essential, and what you can gently ignore in service to the current story. haha. Context is always important, but with characters having years or decades of story behind them, not all of it can — or SHOULD — be prominent in mind when writing something. But being respectful to history makes for a better story, so it is a bit of a tightrope walk.

KS: What’s one word that sums up an important trait for being successful in this business?

VA: Kindness.  Not NICENESS — nice can be superficial and is conditional. Kindness is about that holistic care and positivity, but leaves room for being fierce and not taking any crap. Niceness is all well and good, but it isn’t rooted in anything. Comics is a collaborative medium and a small industry. You have to WANT to work with and get along with others. You have to care about the community as a whole. If you don’t, it shows.

KS: Looking back over your pro career thus far, what’s a particular moment of pride or joy that stands out, and maybe still makes you smile?

VA: Warren Ellis said that he would have to kill me in a few years to get work, which was a surreal and wonderful moment. But seriously, I think the first time I got to hold a copy of my first creator-owned book in trade is permanently etched into my mind. Seeing that beautiful, clean book with my name on the spine was like being filled with light.

KS: Would you like to give a shout-out to a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at as an example of the craft at its highest form?

VA: Strangers In Paradise by Terry Moore, Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley, and Black AF: America’s Sweetheart by Kwanza Osajyefo to name a few!

KS: Finally, can you talk a little about your most recent/upcoming project(s)?

VA: Livewire is an ongoing. Xena #5 just came out. Prisoner X [TPB collection due in September]. The Ghost-Spider Annual, which is part of the Acts Of Evil event over at Marvel. And The Wilds, a post-apocalyptic story edited by Danny Lore [TPB collection now available].

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Since the completion of this interview, our subject has had two new projects announced: James Bond 007 — co-written with Danny Lore — for Dynamite, and a new Prisoner X for Marvel. Go, Vita!]

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