Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Wayback Machine: The Pulse Interview with Stefan Petrucha

This interview is an article I did more than 10 years ago
for The Pulse, a comics news and features magazine.


A Walk on the Weird Side with Stefan Petrucha
By Sean Taylor, special to The Pulse

He’s perhaps one of the most famous comic book writers whose name you mispronounce.

 Stefan Petrucha (Steh-fahn Peh-trook-ah) has been the writer behind two of the creepiest comic book adaptations of sci-fi and horror television series in the history of the medium. For longer than any comic book should be allowed the spot, his X-Files #1 (with artist Charles Adlard) was the most sought-after back issue in comic shops and online. He’s been involved in comics publishing as a writer in both the indy and mainstream scene. But not only that, he’s also a published novelist, and is most recently the creative voice behind a new Dr. Who-based novel series.

 For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, that’s who Stefan Petrucha is, and he was kind enough to spare a little time to talk with the Pulse about what’s been going on in his world.

 Pulse: So, you’re written for some of the world’s most popular characters, from Mulder and Scully to the cast from Doctor Who. What’s it like to have the futures of such well-known and well-loved characters at your fingertips?

 Stefan Petrucha: To clarify, Time Hunter isn’t a Doctor Who novel, it’s a spin-off series. Telos Publishing did a very successful series of novellas starring the good doctor, but Time Hunter begins where those end. The Time Hunter story gets its start in The Cabinet of Light, which does feature Doctor Who. It also introduces the time-hopping escapades of Honoré Lechasseur, an African American vet who stayed in London after WW II, and Emily Blandish, who appeared mysteriously in town one evening, wearing what everyone took to be her pajamas. Lechasseur’s a “spiv” -- a black market operate, which was most of London’s economy at the time. It also turns out he’s “time sensitive” -- he can see the past, present and future. Doctor Who puts him in touch with Emily, who is a “time jumper.” He finds coordinates, she takes them there. The Time Hunter series itself, The Winning Side, and now my own Tunnel at the End of the Light, feature the ongoing adventures of Honoré and Emily. And it’s a genre-hopping hoot if I do say so myself!

 Pulse: How did Time Hunter your gig come about?

 SP: Publisher David J. Howe reviewed and enjoyed one of my White Wolf stories. He was also familiar with my X-Files comic work, and asked if I was interested in pitching. Their proposal for the series struck me as
exciting and a lot of fun. After we batted around a synopsis a bit, I was on my way.

 The only problem was all the ‘Americanisms’ I wound up using, you know, being American, which they had to carefully cut out. I did have a lot of help from London resident Lesley Logan, my sister-in-law, who helped me out with selecting the appropriate neighborhoods for the various scenes. I think in the end it worked out pretty well.

 Pulse: Can you share a few examples of some of those ‘Americanisms’?

 SP: Oh, it was mostly spelling, like color/colour, realized/realised, candy/confectionary that sort of thing.

 Pulse: How is working on novels different than working on comic books?

 SP: Primarily one doesn’t have any pictures to rely on to tell the story. In the full comic book script, the writer pretty much describes all the pictures, and you can do that with some evocative flair, to get the artist in the mood, etc. but it’s not the same.

 Comic book production is also much more a partnership between the artists and writer, and you have to have a good match to do your best work. In novels, while the editor is certainly a partner of sorts, and incredibly invaluable, the writer is obviously more center stage. For me, there’s a terrific satisfaction in having a product that’s complete when I’m finished working on it -- something that I can’t say about screenplays or comics.

 Pulse: How is what you do for both mediums similar?

 SP: On the level of plot, characterization, themes, and so on -- all the structural elements are basically the same. Comics and film are inherently more ‘surface’ mediums, in the sense that they can more naturally show you what they mean, whereas novels and prose more quickly lend themselves to the internal, more naturally reflecting the inner workings of characters.

 Pulse: As a novel writer and a comic book writer, why do you think there is such a disconnect between readers of the two art forms, whether in reality or just the perception?

 SP: I think people in this country simply don’t read comics the way they do in much of the rest of the world, a state of affairs that, I think, can be traced back to Seduction of the Innocents and Frederic Wertham, which stigmatized the media not only as something that was directed toward children, but also as something ‘dirty.’

 I think they recovered a bit as a mass medium with a wider audience with Spider-Man in the sixties, but these days, they’re too expensive and too self-reflective. When they were cheap, they were a real “peoples” medium -- much the same way the Internet may be today.

 Pulse: While we’re discussing comics, how did you newest project for Shooting Star Comics come about?

 SP: “Roses Bedight” was a story I originally pitched to 2000 AD -- and honestly, I couldn’t believe they didn’t like it. Not edgy enough, or some such. But it stayed in the back of my head as something I wanted to do for the longest time, so you and I met at DragonCon, it seemed a natural opportunity to tell the tale.

 Pulse: How would you say the project has been influenced or inspired by other sci-fi that has gone before?

 SP: It’s a commentary on the over-consumptive society -- where everything exists to satisfy some personal urge -- starring the all-consuming parent and helpless child.

 Pulse: What would you say makes it different and new?

 SP: Technology simply brings that to a point where people can stay children all their lives, and have no need for the responsibilities of parenthood, which many happily drop with the same heedlessness with which one cuts down the rain forest to make more cattle for fast food hamburgers. I think that sort of social commentary runs through the best of science fiction, troped, of course, with fancy gadgets and wonderfully rendered dystopian backgrounds.

 Pulse: Why did you decide to release this story through Shooting Star Comics?

 SP: What I’d seen of the early issues gave me a great feeling about the company, so it seemed like a no-brainer. And I’m thrilled to be working with new artist Jeziel [Martinez Sanchez]. I think his art’s terrific, perfect for the story.

 Pulse: What are your plans for the characters after their appearance in Shooting Star Comics Anthology #5? Are you planning any follow-up appearances?

 SP: No, not really. I think it’s a one-shot. It makes its point and then you move on, but who knows?

 Pulse: What’s the difference, as you’ve seen it, between working with mainstream and independent publishers?

 SP: Same old, same old. Indies give you much more freedom, the mainstream gives you much more money.

 Pulse: Let’s look back for a moment at your work on the X-Files comic book. What was the most fulfilling aspect of being the writer for one of the hottest books in the world at the time?

 SP: When we started, the show wasn’t hugely popular, it was just a small cult hit, so it was great to be a part of that upswell in popularity. It was overall terrific, I was writing stories I loved and cared a great deal about, AND they were terrifically popular. An incredible amount of contact with readers was, I think, the chief reward, next to the overall fame and fortune. The series gave me some terrific opportunities, including doing TV and radio interviews and having my work appear in TV Guide.

 Pulse: Oh yeah, I had forgotten about the TV Guide story? How’d that one come about?

 SP: I believe TV Guide actually approached Topps about the whole thing.  The fun challenge was to try to tell an X-Files story in five pages -- reduce the show andcharacters into some sort of quick formula (something Chris Carter once claimed the show didn’t have.)  It helped codify that formula for me:

Something strange happens.
Mulder says, “Hey, something strange happened!”
Scully says, “Did not!”
Then something else strange happens.  The End.

I was pretty pleased that I was able to pull it off.  That story got the single fastest approval from Fox and 1013 -- probably because it had to be so simple, by virtue of its length.  TV Guide’s done comics since, but ours was the first, and I was terribly proud to have my work in front of millions of peoples.  Didn’t hurt sales on the comic, either!

 Pulse: What were some of the hassles of writing a book about characters that were coming from such a popular TV show?

 SP: Everyone seemed to enjoy my work, except the creators of the show. As of the second issue, we were constantly butting heads. I was trying to do different things, material more appropriate to the medium, and
they were interested, naturally, more in replicating the series as much as possible. It was an increasingly painful process -- and the more popular the show became the less yielding they were. I’m happy I made it through 16 issues!

 Pulse: What did you think about the X-Files movie a few years ago and the series ending? What would you have done differently had you been writing it?

 SP: I think early on the X-files started a long spiral down. By the time they made the decision to keep the original back story going, without seemingly having a clue as to where it was headed, I think, aesthetically they were doomed, forced to make it more and more incoherent, leading to the mediocre film and the deeply embarrassing final episode.

 Since you ask, I would have run it much the way Buffy was done in her heyday, one large arc per season, surrounded by standalone stories. Each season the arc gets resolved, and you move on. For the film, I would have done a single, great standalone mystery starring Mulder and Scully, bigger budget, bigger effects, etc., but nothing whatsoever to do with the mythos.

 Pulse: If you were offered the gig again today, would you be up for it, and what would you do to make X-Files a hot comics property again?

 SP: Pretty much what I’d been doing -- exploring paranormal mysteries across the globe -- the stuff that might be real -- go back to the core believer/non-believer dialect that made the characters tick, and let Scully be right more often!

 Pulse: Let’s talk Moonstone and Kolchak. Some might say that your work on The Night Stalker isn’t far removed from your work on Mulder and Scully. Do you think your successful run on X-Files helped you land the Kolchak book because of their similar directions?

 SP: Oh sure, in fact Topps was considering a Kolchak book as a companion to the X-Files, which I was going to write -- it just never got off the ground.

 Pulse: Granted, the two are very similar, but what do you think makes the two properties different and unique?

 SP: Kolchak is more noir -- focused on his narrative voice, his moralistic, Chandler-light, worldview, where he faces the monster to save the day, but gets put down by the Man because of it. The issue isn’t whether the monster is or not, but simply that it exists. The strength of the X-Files, when it was good, was in the dialogue between Mulder and Scully about what is and isn’t real -- in other words, whether the monster is or not. There’s a lot of overlap there, and I think ultimately the differences are more about which elements are more to the fore.

 Pulse: What are your future plans for Kolchak?

 SP: Right now I’m doing an original ten-page Kolchak story for an upcoming trade paperback collection. The plot hasn’t been approved yet, so I don’t think I should discuss it here.

 Pulse: Out of all the comics work you’ve done, what have you found to be the most fulfilling?

 SP: Oh, that’s tough to say, many offer different rewards and I’ve enjoyed practically all of them. My own material is always special to me; Squalor, Meta-4, Lance Barnes, The Bandy Man -- but the X-Files and Kolchak still stand as some of the best writing I’ve done, plus they’ve had wider exposure. I also write Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics for Egmont in Denmark, and get a terrific, but completely different, kick out of them as well.

 Pulse: What’s the difference for you between working on your own concepts and working on characters that belong to other companies?

 SP: When I’m working on my own stuff, editorial feedback goes directly to the quality of the story and the characterizations. With licensing, there are all sorts of other character rules and such that must be obeyed. When you’ve got great partners, either can go well -- when you don’t, either can go badly.

 Pulse: After being in comics for so long, what haven’t you been able to do yet that you’d love to have the opportunity to do?

 SP: Earn a steady living!

 Pulse: What else should Stefan Petrucha fans be looking for in the months ahead?

 SP: Lance Barnes: Post Nuke Dick, a mini-series I did for Epic in the early 90’s, has been reassembled into a trade paperback, out this June. It has an all-new cover and a new prose story starring Lance, by yours truly. Meanwhile, Director Rick Friedberg (Spy Hard) is working like the dickens to assemble a budget for a feature film. Past that, I’m currently trucking around a paranormal novel that I’m very excited about. And, of course, I can’t wait to see how “Roses Bedight” comes out!