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Between the Panels: Writer Karla Pacheco on Mind Melding with an Artist, Gleeful Nihilism, and the Worst Song Ever

“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.

While no two ways into comics are exactly the same, it may be hard to find another creator who got in after trying her hand at poetry, songwriting, comedy writing, and being a DJ. But that’s exactly the road Karla Pacheco followed. While she may have arrived on a lark, she’s made the most of every opportunity since then to present familiar characters in her bold, singular voice.

First, the particulars…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer

Your home base: Pacific Northwest

Social Media

Instagram: @thekarlapacheco

Twitter: @thekarlapacheco

Other sites where you can be found: ComiXology

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: As someone who’s written in various media, what does working in comics give you that you don’t get from other forms of writing?

Karla Pacheco: I’ll get all misty-eyed on this one. I started out as a comedy writer; I was always a huge fan of comics but never really considered that for myself. Just on a lark at one point, I did this little, goofy comic, and it immediately felt like coming home. What I love about writing comics is, I always feel like I’m in The Matrix — solving this problem, setting this thing up, seeing all the little things no one else will be able to see for weeks or months or maybe ever. But I know they’re there. There are so many things you can do with comics that you can’t do with any other medium. Writing for the artist, really collaborating, is so exciting to me. I love solving the problems, getting to make characters my own, getting to create scripts that artists are excited about. That’s why I’m so passionate about it.

When people joke about what’s the message you send to let others know you’ve been abducted, mine has always been, “So, I’ve been working on my novel…”

KS: You said you wrote your first comic script on a lark. Were you a big reader growing up?

KP: A bit. I grew up in a very strict evangelical household, so I had a lot of the religious Archie comics — Veronica coming to Jesus, things like that. It was a huge gap from those to many, many years later when I think the first books I picked up were Watchmen and Transmetropolitan. Reading those as an adult was like, Ohhhh, this is some good sh-t.

KS: Comics were off your radar completely before you found those?

KP: I actually got into webcomics way earlier than that. There are a lot of webcomics I’ve been reading religiously for the past 15 years. Questionable Content. Dr. McNinja. Achewood. Every morning, you wake up and go through your list. Those had more influence on my writing voice early on, and then eventually I got back into traditional floppies.

KS: This would’ve been late ’90s? Early 2000s?

KP: Yeah, early 2000s. Then, a little bit after that for traditional comics. I always gravitated toward the comedy, or as I call it “the comedy that’ll rip your heart out.” I loved Christopher Hastings’ Deadpool, Dan Slott’s She-Hulk. Even before I started thinking of doing it myself, that was the kind of stuff that [planted] the seed. This is the kind of comedy I write, maybe there’s a place for me.

KS: Is there a story that stands out as being particularly impactful for you? Something that really got under your skin as a reader?

KP: Honestly, it was Transmetropolitan, which is conflicting now. That and Nextwave were the biggest “deep under the skin” for me. It’s hard. It sucks when someone’s art was so important to you, to have those good feelings taken away. It doesn’t diminish the influence they had on me, but it makes me sad so many people were hurt along the way. Obviously, I’m not the first person to deal with art vs. the artist and the struggles therein — we all have to figure out how to deal with that. There are books I love, movies I love, comics that were infinitely important to who I became as a writer… all by people who turned out to be sh-theels.

We’re all going to end up with shoes of clay, but, hopefully, we don’t hurt anyone else when those shoes dissolve.

BTP KP Bettie 024

KS: To fully separate art from artist if we can, what was it about Transmet that so resonated? It was obviously way different than most of the comics you’d read to that point.

KP: Definitely the Hunter S. Thompson vibe. Also the strong, crazy women. That just hit with me — I honestly love a lot of the female characters Warren Ellis wrote.

KS: Let’s transition from those influences to you as a budding writer. Talk about what you’d consider the first serious writing you remember doing. Something that felt like a big deal to you at the time, whatever age that was.

KP: I was a huge Lucy Maud Montgomery fan… Anne of Green Gables, Rilla of Ingleside, all the books. One of her characters wrote a poem called something like “Wild Grapes,” but it’s never shown in the book. So, sixth grade Karla, for a poetry assignment, wrote a poem called “Wild Grapes.” Afterwards, the teacher pulls me aside and asks, “Did you have help on this? Did you take this from somewhere?” I admitted I stole the title. She had me bring the book in to show her, and then she sat there quietly before saying she was going to submit it as the school’s submission for a poetry contest. And I won.

Oh, and also, the year earlier, I won a citywide songwriting contest for the worst song ever. [laughter] That resulted in little Karla, who cannot sing at all, having to sing a song called, “We’re Best Friends,” a capella in front of 400 people.

KS: And what town suffered this trauma?

KP: Manhattan, Kansas. “We’re best friends/We’re best friends/We’re gonna be best friends/Forever.” It was terrible. Little Karla was a talker who always had a way with words; I refer to it now as my brain just works at weird angles. So yeah, bad poetry for many years, very bad songwriting, then I somehow took a left turn into being a radio DJ. And then started writing again as a comedy writer.

KS: Did you have some kind of ultimate professional destination in mind during this time, or were you simply trying whatever different gigs appealed in the moment?

KP: I’ve basically always be dilettante. There are certain things I’m good at, and a lot of them are in fields I think most people are too afraid to take a risk on. Let’s face it, any artistic field is a huge risk. It doesn’t pay well. But I live really, really cheap. Boat living is very rustic. I think a lot of people aren’t afraid to fail, but I’m extremely not afraid to fail. [laughter]

KS: Moving to comics, where you’ve certainly done the opposite of failing, talk about your first paid gig in this field.

KP: Kathleen Wisneski at Marvel — blessings on her name — asked if I’d like to write a 10-page short for the Gwenpool Holiday Special. I’d done two Kickstarter anthologies, which were paid also, and at the same time had put out Inspector Pancakes. That was my first book and definitely set the tone for everything I’ve done, that people apparently liked.

BTP KP Gwenpool 679

KS: How did you get on Kathleen’s radar in the first place?

KP: I won’t say his name because I think he finds it annoying now [Hint: the name rhymes with “Chip Zdarsky”], but he recommended me for some comics work. Kathleen didn’t know at the time that I was already friends with Ryan North and Christopher [Hastings]. Ryan was also doing a story for the Holiday Special, and he had Fin Fang Foom in his story — except I wanted to use Fin Fang Foom in mine. So, it was great that for my very first Marvel story I got to coordinate with Ryan and Christopher what we were doing for each of our stories. I don’t think the editors knew we were doing it at the time.

[Author’s Note: Karla’s two Holiday Special compatriots are also past interview guests — click HERE for Ryan and HERE for Christopher.]

KS: You were now playing in the comics “big leagues.” Was that intimidating at all as a writer?

KP: First thought was Oh, sh-t. Next thought was that I could do a deep dive on some forgotten character, it’s gonna be amazing, I’ll get a whole series, blah blah blah. Next thought was that I don’t know if I’m ever gonna get to write a Marvel story again, so f—k it, I’m doing Punisher vs. Fin Fang Foom. And I’m putting Punisher in hot pants. [laughter] So ,“The War on Pantsgiving” ended up being amazing, and I was sure they’d never hire me again.

KS: They certainly did hire you again, which brings us to your current series: Spider-Woman. How did that character find her way to you, or vice versa?

KP: I was doing dispersed camping in the middle of the Arizona desert, up on a mountain, when I managed to get enough signal for [Marvel] to send through: “Hey, we want to bring back Spider-Woman. Do you have any interest in pitching for a new series?” So, I ran around a campfire for a littler before [nonchalantly replying], “Oh yeah, sounds delightful.” [laughter]

They said they wanted to bring her back, but they wanted to do something big and bombastic. So apparently, what I’d been doing in the shorts, with the Punisher on Fantastic Four 2099 where I murdered everyone mercilessly. I came up with a couple different ideas, knowing they were reaching out to other creators at the same time, so I went down to one of those abandoned mining towns to steal some wi-fi and send in a few pitches. I figured I’m not gonna get this, then went back to drinking Fireball by the campfire.

BTP KP Spiderwoman 0b4

KS: Is that “I’m not gonna get this, so just let it fly” thought process creatively freeing for you?

KP: I think it’s the attitude I’ve had toward everything in my entire life. That’s the most Karla attitude: Everything ends, don’t be afraid, go nuts. But it turned out they were interested in my thoughts, which were mostly… helicopter explosions. [laughter]

KS: The character has been around since the 1970s, but you went in fresh with a brand new #1. How much did you know about the overall framework of the project before you started typing that first issue?

KP: All I knew is we were doing five issues to start. And I knew that could be all we did. Jake Thomas and Lindsey Cohick, the editors, were amazing. [Artist] Pere Perez and I hadn’t worked together at that point, but he probably knew he was in for a wild ride when the very first issue when I was like, “All right, it’s a boat filled with teenagers, dressed as every hero in the Marvel Universe.” And then he just killed it. We blew up some helicopters, we blew up a car, we blew up a car going into another boat.

Again, it comes back to: Karla never knows how much she’s getting of anything, so I don’t hold anything back. I guess I have a “gleeful nihilist” approach to writing comics.

KS: What have you learned about working with artists over your comics career? Is there anything you’d tell the Karla starting out: “Hey, don’t do X?”

KP: I can tell you that 100%, because it’s what Jeff Parker told me and it’s the most important lesson I ever learned. When I first started thinking about writing comics, I was able to go to a lot of conventions and hit panels about writing — the panels about nuts and bolts rather than how to break into comics or about worldbuilding. The best thing I heard was Jeff saying — and he hates it when I tell this — “Go to war with the army you have.” That changed my entire world; from that point I started reaching out to artists going, “What would you like to draw?” and “What can I do for you?” [Now] when I’m writing a book I try to connect with the artist as soon as I can. I have a questionnaire I send that asks not only what they like to draw but “What do you hate drawing?”, “Do you want an Alan Moore super detailed script for every panel or do you want Marvel style where I give you an outline?” That’s the biggest thing I’d say to any other writer to wants to work in comics: it’s collaborative. The artist is your co-writer; write for them. If you want to tell a story that’s entirely your own, go write a novel.

KS: How has that relationship been on Spider-Woman?

KP: Pere and I joke about having this mind meld. We both have a deep action background, so I can write for him, he can draw for me, and we know what we’re doing together. He’s a martial arts instructor and both of us are huge martial arts fans. In [issue] #11, he’s like, “I really want to do a Wing Chun knife fight.” So, I figured out a way for Jess to be eating a fancy steak dinner, leave the restaurant, come back in to grab the steak knives — including one still holding the steak — and come back out. That leads to a scene where she can have a Wing Chun knife fight, but with steak. I’m sending him pictures of steak knives online so we can figure out if the tang of the knife can catch a sword. That’s the level of trust — a happy artist makes a happy comic.

BTP KP Spiderwomanaction cd1

KS: Let’s move to some “lightning round” questions as we get toward the end. What’s a word that sums up an important trait for being successful in comics?

KP: Balls. [laughter]

KS: In addition to Spider-Woman, your other recent book is a Bettie Page series for Dynamite. Who’s a female character, fictional or real, you’d love to write?

KP: Boudica, the Celtic queen who fought off the Romans.

KS: How about a special memory from anywhere in your comics journey that still makes you smile?

KP: Punisher in hot pants. Twice.

BTP KP Punisher ee9

KS: A proud accomplishment of yours totally unrelated to what you do for a living?

KP: Well, I did win the Exxon Valdez [model] from the movie, Waterworld, fighting in the Thunderdome.

KS: A comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at as the medium at its finest?

KP: Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight. Honestly, I feel like you should read all of Achewood before you get to [that]. It changes the dialogue of how you talk; everyone I know who read Achewood, we all have a shorthand now. Chris Onstad with Achewood and Ryan [North] with Dinosaur Comics really did change a lot of dialogue and syntax for all of us online and writers of a certain age.

KS: Lastly, what do you have coming up that fans should be on the lookout for?

KP: We just announced we have a whole new arc of Spider-Woman starting with Issue 17, and it’s gonna be pretty badass!  Late this fall, my first original graphic novel, Don’t Wake Up — based on the music of Indonesian super-star Agnez Mo — will be released from Z2 Comics, and that should make my life real interesting. Plus, it’s got amazing art from Andres Labrada and Peter Ngyuen!

Kevin Sharp, Fanbase Press Contributor



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