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Between the Panels: Writers Collin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing on Bonding over Comics, Handling Licensed Characters, and Writing on the Road

“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.

To see a full list of Collin Kelly and Jackson Lazing’s writing credits, you’ll have to consult both IMDb and Comicbook DB. Their creative journey from USC to the present has seen the pair assemble an eclectic resume that includes work on a number of well-known characters and properties, along with projects that could only have sprung from the alchemy of their shared vision.  

First, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Co-Writers

Your home base: Los Angeles, CA



Current Project Titles:
gen:LOCK [DC]
Star Trek: Year Five [IDW]

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Let’s start big. Why comics? What attracts you to working in the comics form specifically?
Jackson Lanzing: Collin and I became friends over comics. We met in film school through our mutual friend David Server — who I befriended literally because I heard him say the word, “Ultimates,” on set — and we all used to pile into David’s PT Cruiser to get our books every Wednesday at Golden Apple in Hollywood. We’d read and argue and get passionate about our favorite characters, and that medium really awoke us to our own friendship. So, we have a very personal connection to comics. It’s also just one of the greatest mediums for storytelling that’s ever been invented — a wonderful mixture of visual art, written word, theatrical drama, and filmmaking that comes together to tell stories that could truly not be told anywhere else.

Collin Kelly: As a team, we were drawn to comics because of the freedom. We’re screenwriters by trade, and while we love working on that side of entertainment, you can have a very robust career and still never have anything made. Comics let us write stories — stories weirder and more wonderful than Hollywood would ever dream of green-lighting — and then within six months, they can be on the shelves. In comics, you can actually tell stories that people can READ; for a writer, that’s the first step towards happiness.

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KS: What was your very first pro writing gig?
CK: Jack and I had both done some projects separately first, but I think the first script that’d be considered “pro” was our very first together, a Samurai vs. Feral Monster movie called Sundown. It had some pretty awesome attachments, and we developed it for over a year before the project was executed at a studio level for reasons completely beyond the script. We consider that year, which happened right after graduation, to be our grad school; it was hard, but it was filled with very valuable mistakes.

JL: My first pro writing job actually came after my first pro writing sale. David Server and I, alongside artist Joe Suitor, had set up a three-issue horror superhero series called Freakshow at Ape Entertainment, a small publisher. That book took one and a half years to produce — but they happened to have the license for the DreamWorks Animation properties at the time. So, they paid me and David to write The Penguins of Madagascar, which was a bizarre job to get off of selling a horror superhero book. But it was also a great learning experience; I discovered what it meant to work with licensors, to write for kids, and to work on things you don’t own. Plus, we wrote this really funny scene with a bunch of villainous gerboas that still makes me laugh.

KS: And was there a sense of “making it” when you got that first check?
JL: Absolutely. And then, because it’s comics and you split a paycheck with your writing partner, I was broke again within a week.

KS: How did you initially end up working as a team?

CK: Almost by accident, actually. We were frenemies turned allies, with a mutual love of music, comics, and story-telling aesthetics. After graduating from USC, we took a celebration roadtrip out to Chicago to see Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, and Kanye West (who had just blown up and was coming back home for the first time). On the way out, we were brainstorming on neat new stories that could be told in samurai fiction, a shared love of ours, and pretty soon we had a concept we couldn’t put down. While Jack drove, I took notes on a thick yellow legal pad, and on our way back we stopped in a small motel outside Yellowstone; after one day of work, we had almost an entire script finished, and we knew there was something magical going on. That script became Sundown, and we’ve been being magical together ever since.

KS: Do you two have a set daily or nightly work routine these days?

CK:  I write in the mornings, when it’s quiet; I know Jack manages to get a lot of work done during the day, because he’s a multitasking wizard. Those times are for us to get our pages done for the week; then, on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, we meet up to go over each other’s work, do revisions, combine, and turn in. Any free space left is for ideation or practicing pitches, and we’ve kept that schedule for over a decade.

KS: What about music while you work?

CK: Jack, want to talk about music?

JL: Fun fact: I literally always want to talk about music. I did a stint as a low-key music journalist before committing myself to writing, and I believe very much in Phonogram’s Big Key Statement that “music is magic.” Collin and I have playlists for every book, every movie, every story we write; we use that music to make sure we’re writing in the same tone, with the same energy, and in the same feel. Sometimes, it’s a whole panoply of different songs, sometimes, it’s a band. In the case of our Vault Comics book Zojaqan, it was literally one album: The Gloaming’s eponymous debut. No matter where we’ve been individually or what’s happening in our lives, music can help reframe the moment and get us on the same page.

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KS: Let’s back up to the pre-professional years. Around what age did reading comics first become part of your lives? Did you have early favorite characters or titles?

CK: I was around 14, and there was no comic shop in my town, so I was having Captain America — the exo-suit years — sent directly to my house. It showed up bent every month, but I absolutely loved it.

JL: I read Spider-Man and Superman as a young child — The Clone Saga and Death of Superman are real staples of my childhood memory, for good and ill — but I gave up on comics around age 11 with the exception of Sandman, which my parents read. My focus turned more to movies and science fiction novels. Spielberg, Kubrick, Gibson, Stephenson — those were the big names in my household. But then I went back to my hometown at 16 and visited my local comics shop, where I found The Authority. I was absolutely floored by Ellis and Hitch, fell deep into Wildstorm, ended up at Vertigo for Transmetropolitan and Preacher, then finally fell in love with X-Men and Batman. It would take about 10 years for us to write Bruce, but I had an affinity from moment one.

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KS: Comics collaboration typically occurs among writer, artist, inker, letterer, etc. In your case, though, there are two minds at work before it ever gets to anyone else. What’s your process like when it comes to actually putting ideas together and breaking story?
JL: You ever get together with your friends and just argue about your favorite comics? Talk about what you’d do differently, or what could have happened if the character had done this instead of that? Well, that’s effectively our process. Collin and I are best friends who met doing what friends do: arguing about and discussing our favorite things, which happened in our case to be stories.

So, whenever we start on a story, the first step is to just hang out and talk — to understand what the Collin loves about the story and thus better understand how I’m approaching it. We throw a million ideas on the board — often laying out several versions of a story — until we find the thing that really grabs us. If something doesn’t excite us both, it’s not worth doing… but when it does excite us both, we know it’ll be something special.

Then, we break the written work into halves and get started. On a pitch or outline, one of us will generally take a first stab. But on a script, we always go 50/50. We outline page by page and then get the work done. Lastly, we combine, rewrite each other, talk out any issues or areas for improvement, and call it a day.

KS: Since you’ve had experience in multiple writing disciplines, how do you know when a story is more right for one format over another? What makes a new idea an obvious fit for comics instead of, say, a screenplay?
JL: There are a lot of considerations. Budget is obviously key; we could never have just outright pitched Zojaqan as a film, it would have a less-than-zero-percent chance of success. But as an OGN, with an artist of Nathan Gooden’s caliber? It’s a real thing that our fans can read. We take stories to comics when we know that filming them wouldn’t just be impractical, but it would actually hurt the story’s clarity or its impact. Often, we’ll also fall in love with a formal idea that can only be executed in comics or film or podcasts — a way of telling the story that’s native to the medium — and then really commit to that formalism as we break the story. We write the story to the medium, in other words, not the other way around.

KS: From the writer’s side of things, what’s a challenge that comes with working on licensed characters — such as Green Arrow or Star Trek — for a publisher?

CK: Are you trying to get us in trouble? [laughs] I joke.

A true challenge is that licensors are often a committee, not a person. As a writer working with a licensed property, you have to know that you are merely the last link on a chain, and every link must be serviced. While this is a challenge, it’s also genuinely one of the most interesting parts of the job; you are only a temporary curator, you are not the primary stakeholder, and while you may feel ownership of a character/story because you’ve grown up with them, your perspective is short, while the licensor’s is loooooong. Learning to tell the best story possible while also being a team player and ensuring that every link’s voice is heard; that’s the delicate dance that writers like us get to do… but luckily, we love dancing, so it fits us just fine.

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KS: Shout out a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you each look at with admiration.

CK: We are in a halcyon age of amazing comics, but I have to scream about These Savage Shores by Ram V, Sumat Kumar, and Vitorio Astone coming out of Vault Comics. It’s a period story with fantastical elements that feels incredibly grounded and real, while also being haunting, dangerous, and incredibly sexy. Sumat is new on the scene, and his work is mind-blowingly good, and no one needs to scream Ram’s praises. I believe the trade is dropping soon [November 2019], and it should be on everyone’s shelf.

JL: I recently had the pleasure of reading the first issue of Something Is Killing the Children by James Tynion IV, Werther Dell’Edera, Miquel Murerto, and Andworld Design. It’s the best goddamn single issue of horror I’ve read in years. James is a friend and a wonderful writer who I hold in high regard, but this is his best work by a mile. Pick that shit up.
KS: Finally, talk a little about your most recent or upcoming projects.

CK: Star Trek: Year Five #6 and #7 should be on comic shelves now, which is the end of Jody Houser’s two-part episode, and the start of our next! While she has the crew struggling with an unknown alien artifact that is disrupting communication on the ship, we’ll be introducing the return of a villain who, until now, has only lurked in the shadows.
You can also find our work on gen:LOCK from DC Comics, a series that builds from the Rooster Teeth animated show, now on Adult Swim. That is being released digital first on ComiXology [chapters one and two now available], then coming to physical in the weeks after.

JL: And in 2020, look out for Dark One, a 215-page fantasy graphic novel from the whole Zojaqan team and the incomparable Brandon Sanderson. That’ll be coming from Vault Comics, and it’s genuinely going to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen in fantasy comics. We’re insanely excited to share it with the world.

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