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Behind The Page: Sean McKeever

Behind The Page: Sean McKeever
by Vaneta Rogers – posted 08-29-2007 – courtesy of http://www.newsarama.com


Some people never grow out of the baby face.

With Sean McKeever, the key to that youthful look is the round cheeks. And the tight-lipped, mischievous grin. And the blue eyes. And the fair complexion.

But oddly enough, with him, it’s also the stories.

Within the words the writer uses to script his comic books is an understanding of the part of a person that is forever young — the inner childlike voice we all have that questions life and death, dreams about our future and approaches new challenges with both self-doubt and a sense of wonder.

That talent of his to write this youthful voice almost became an obstacle in his career as McKeever was, for many years, labeled as a writer of “teen books.” It’s a label the writer always said he didn’t mind — after all, at least he was known in the comic book industry as doing something well, even if it meant his opportunities usually leaned in one fairly limited direction.

Yet his abilities haven’t been overlooked. In 2005, he won an Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. And his knack for writing young characters landed him the critically acclaimed ongoing series that was most often associated with his name — Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.

And now, as the 35-year-old has become a DC exclusive writer, readers are seeing a lot more of McKeever’s name. Not only is he one of the writers of DC’s weekly series Countdown, but he’s been named the ongoing writer on both Birds of Prey, which he’ll take over in December, and Teen Titans, one of DC’s best-selling team titles.

As his first installment of Teen Titans comes out today in an oversized issue that both commemorates the past and leads into a new roster for the team, Newsarama sat down with Sean Kelley McKeever, taking a look Behind the Page at the road this baby-faced guy took to get here, and where he and his characters are going next.

Newsarama: The beginning for any good interview of a comic book writer is — when did you start loving comics?

Sean McKeever: I started reading comic books before I knew how to read. As my parents tell me, I was three years old, and we went into the pharmacy in Muskego, Wisconsin, and I saw this red and blue exciting image. And I went over and grabbed it and wanted it. It was a Spider-Man comic, but I didn’t know what it was. I just thought it was really cool looking. I couldn’t tell you what issue it was, but it was in the late 140’s — either 148 or 149, which was toward the end of the original Clone Saga. And so, my parents bought it for me. And I don’t think it had to make any sense to me back then. But they would buy me comics, and I’d look at the comics over and over and my parents would read them to me. And the idea of reading them myself is what got me to learn how to read at an early age.

NRAMA: I remember us talking one time about when you were a kid, and you made little comic books as Christmas presents.

SM: Yeah. I did. That was in second grade. When I was in third grade, I used to write plays that I would direct and star in with the class. I had to write individual copies of the script, and then we’d do it for the whole class. And one of them was an idea based on an issue of Marvel Team-Up. It was Spider-Man and Daredevil vs. Electro. That was also an issue I used to make those little comic books, but I replaced Daredevil with Snoopy. It was Spider-Man and Snoopy vs. Electro.

NRAMA: And you gave them to your family members?

SM: Yeah. I didn’t have money, so I decided I would make these comics as presents. It was one piece of paper, and I basically folded them into fourths. I don’t remember what they looked like on the inside. But I did four of them — four different comics — one for my dad, one for my mom, one for my brother, one for my sister. So yeah, those were my first comic creations.

NRAMA: Did you have any idea, that early, that you could do this as a career? Was that what you wanted to be when you grew up?

SM: Not consciously. Not until middle school. But in middle school, I wanted to be a comic book writer — and artist, actually. I was a pretty good artist in grade school, but so much enters your life in middle school, like a social life and girls and stuff like that, that I let the art part slide. I think if I had kept it up, I could be an artist/writer today.

NRAMA: Your parents owned a hardware store when you were growing up, right? The store played a big part in your life.

SM: Yeah. My parents opened the store in ’79. We had lived in a suburb of Milwaukee, then we moved up to Eagle River, and my dad opened a hardware store there. I was around seven years old. And I spent a lot of time in the store, because the store was actually in town. And the town was maybe two miles square. So I would walk to the hardware store after school rather than take the bus home. And eventually, they started putting me to work. So I grew up in a retail environment.

NRAMA: And at what point did you start selling comics out of the store?

SM: Well, the only place I could get comics in my town, that was reliable, was the local bookstore. But as the direct market started springing up, I would realize by seeing Comics Buyers Guide, that there were comics I couldn’t get from them. And that drove me a little batty. So I think it was in seventh grade, I got an account with Westfield, a mail order company that sold the books at 25 percent off. I would actually go around and take orders from my friends at school and order for us. I did that for awhile.

Then when I was 14, I saw this four-foot magazine rack in the back of the grocery store. It was a perfectly good rack, but they were getting new racks, so they were throwing it out. And I asked my parents if I could get that and put it in the hardware store and sell comics off of it, and they said, “Sure.”

NRAMA: But it grew bigger than just that four-foot rack?

SM: Eventually, my parents expanded the store and took this one space that was 250 square feet and said I could have it to do whatever I wanted with it to sell comic books. So I built a table in the middle and had racks around it and went through a couple different redesigns over the years, but that was my space for selling comics.

NRAMA: Did the comics part of the store have a name?

SM: Comics Express. I had a sign out front with the name of the store and like a circle that was kind of half Spider-Man and half Batman. I did pretty well. It was only a town of 1,200 people. It wasn’t like I was looking to make big bucks or anything like that. At the end of the store’s lifetime, which was about 10 years, I had as many as 30 pull customers. And that’s pretty good for a town that size.

NRAMA: Were you still thinking you could write comic books even when you were doing the retail thing all those years?

SM: Yes. Absolutely. I actually put in my first pitch to Marvel when I was about 14. I had an idea for a six-page Spider-Man story, [laughs] and what I did was … I took poster board, and a ruler, and a protractor, and I drew out all the panels. And then I would describe in the panels what the dialogue was and everything. And I sent the originals in to Marvel. And then I got my first form rejection letter. Part of me thinks about the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and I imagine that in this warehouse somewhere is that pitch. [laughs]

NRAMA: In a crate marked “McKeever,” never to be seen again. You should demand they give it back.

SM: Yeah, right? I’m sure they threw it out. But I was thinking about writing comic books, obviously. I wasn’t thinking about doing it as a career. I just wanted to write comic books! It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about my future. But as I took creative writing classes in high school and college, it did develop into an interest in writing comics in general.

NRAMA: You went to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. What was your major?

SM: [laughs] Theatre. I wanted to be an actor, but I ended up dropping out. I realized how stupid and impractical that was. I just realized that was not what I wanted to do, and I just stopped going to classes and then dropped out. The only class I didn’t fail my last semester was screenwriting. That was the only class that excited me. And I realized, well, maybe I should be a writer. It just felt right, and I knew I had a voice that I wanted to get out there.

So when I dropped out of college, that’s when I really started pitching. And at the same time I was on CompuServe. And back then, it was amazing the kind of access you had. I met Paul Jenkins and Warren Ellis that way. And I remember posting back and forth with Peter David and Neil Gaiman and Walt Simonson. The fanboy-to-creator ratio on the internet back then was really low, so you could have a one-on-one with these guys, so it was great.

NRAMA: First thing you got published?

SM: Well, I should stress there were years of rejection letters and years of false starts where people came to me with new companies that went nowhere, and scripts that I wrote that went nowhere.

But the first thing I actually got published was a story idea called Targets that was about First Amendment rights. I think it was based on a presidential election speech that Bob Dole made that just scared the ____ out of me. I wrote this story, and I sent it to Paul Jenkins. And we had already roomed together in San Diego, and he was giving me a hand. And he sent it to Joe Pruett, who was the editor of Negative Burn. And he decided to publish it.

NRAMA: The first series you wrote was The Waiting Place. How did that comic come about?

SM: It was an idea that I had been running with for a couple of years. And eventually I came back to it after reading Stray Bullets and Strangers in Paradise, which made me realize that there is a market for more dramatic stuff without superheroes and that. And I thought, “I can really do this.”

NRAMA: It was Slave Labor Graphics publishing it, right? How did you hook up with them?

SM: In the summer of ’96, I was at the San Diego Comic-Con with the entire first issue of The Waiting Place. Brendon and Brian Fraim were the artists, and they did such a great job on it. And we did 50 copies, Velo-bound — a really nice presentation that I took around to publishers. That was a really disheartening experience. I’d start to give my spiel and say, “this is my book,” and they’d just throw it in a box with all these submissions that everyone was bringing to them. I was pretty certain that nothing was going to come of it.

Fast forward two months later, and I get a message on my machine from Dan Vado from Slave Labor Graphics, and he says, “Yeah, I read your first issue of The Waiting Place, and I want to read the second one, so I guess I’ll publish it.”

NRAMA: You must have just gone nuts over the news.

SM: I was bouncing off the walls. I was so excited.

The first issue came out in April of ’97, and I moved to Columbus [Ohio] in May of ’97. I left Wisconsin because — well, if you read The Waiting Place, you know why I left Wisconsin — if you understand the vibe of it.

NRAMA: I’ve read it. You left because you felt like your hometown was pretty much a dead-end town.

SM: Yeah, my only outlet was the internet. And growing up in Milwaukee, I knew there was a whole world out there, and I wasn’t a part of it. It drove me nuts.

NRAMA: And you walked away from the family business.

SM: Yeah, and my parents were interested in me actually taking over the business, and that freaked me out. That’s something else you see in The Waiting Place.

NRAMA: Who are you in The Waiting Place? The obvious character is Jeffry because his parents own a store, but I think you’re more like Scott.

SM: Yeah, I’m a little bit of Scott; I’m a little bit of Jeffry. Well, obviously with the earlier stuff you write, you draw a lot more from your personal life than you do later. But there was still a lot that was fictionalized.

NRAMA: Did you have an Ami, the girl that Scott pines over?

SM: Yyyeah…. That was fairly strongly drawn from reality.

NRAMA: [laughs] You’re turning red.

SM: That was my high school sweetheart. And when I left for college, we broke up. And just like Scott, I wasn’t a year into being in college when I called her up drunk one night and I found out she wasn’t living at home anymore — she was living with a guy. And she wound up marrying the guy, who was a police officer who I knew, so that was a lot like it was in the book. But I never had a problem with him like there is in the book.

NRAMA: Wait, but your Ami didn’t get killed like the Ami in the book, did she?

SM: [laughs] Well, no. She actually got divorced in ’96, and we went out to dinner. And I told her she was going to be a character in the book. And I said, “I hope you don’t mind, but you’re going to die.” [laughs] She got a laugh out of it. So I kind of got closure through writing about it, and I got closure through seeing her again. ‘Cause when you have a high school sweetheart like that, you end up comparing everyone to her. And I did that for a long time, until that night.

NRAMA: Where were we? Oh, you moved to Columbus. And this would have been about the end of the first year of The Waiting Place. Were you still pitching to other companies?

SM: Oh, yeah. I had been pitching for years. It seemed like an eternity. And once The Waiting Place came out, I got all kinds of press about it. There were a lot of pros who were giving me support and talking about the book online, and I can’t thank them enough for that. But I couldn’t get any traction from it. I kept pitching at Marvel and was getting nowhere at all.

NRAMA: Reading The Waiting Place, I could actually see you grow as a writer and I could see the beginnings of your style, especially in the second season of the comic when you were working with Mike Norton on art. You can see your style develop. Did you see a difference in your approach to writing before and after The Waiting Place?

SM: Well, somewhere in there, I realized that the type of comic books I wanted to write before The Waiting Place were not the kind of comics I wanted to write anymore. They weren’t the kind of Spider-Man stories I wanted to tell anymore. It changed my entire outlook on why I write. Before, I wanted to write just because I wanted to write Spider-Man or I wanted to write X-Men. And now it was: I want to write X-Men because I have this to say about it. Or I want to write Spider-Man because I have this to say about it.

I understood that I needed to come from the point of view of the characters first, and let the plot come from that. Or if you go to the plot, bring the character into it and make it character-first as much as you can.

NRAMA: You know, that begs the question. How would you describe your style?

SM: Oh, wow. I don’t know if I can answer that. I’m too close to it.

NRAMA: Aw, come on. Not even a brief description?

SM: That’s a better thing for other people to describe than me.

NRAMA: OK, then let’s get back to the story of your career. How did you get your first Marvel work?

SM: That was thanks to the timely intervention of Paul Jenkins, once more. He was writing Hulk and Spider-Man, and he talked to his editors. The first one he talked to was Tom Brevoort, who already knew of The Waiting Place and knew about me. And Paul told him I’d been trying to get work at Marvel, and Paul says he said, “Oh really? I didn’t know that.”

NRAMA: Oh, man. At this point, that Indiana Jones crate in the Marvel warehouse is filled with Sean McKeever pitches nobody got to see, huh?

SM: Yeah. [laughs] Exactly. But it turned out The Waiting Place was only selling 1,000 copies, but Tom Brevoort was one of the people buying each issue as it came out on the stand. And he liked the book. So he was interested in the idea of having me work at Marvel. And Paul was overextended and needed some help on the Hulk schedule. So they had me co-write with Paul. And that was my first Marvel work — Hulk #26.

By this time I was working as a web designer, and the good thing about that is you make enough money at it that you can work for six months, then quit and concentrate on something else for awhile. So I wound up writing four issues of the Hulk.

I thought I was “in” now, but noooo…. not quite.

NRAMA: You still had to work to get your foot in the door?

SM: Yeah. I had tons of pitches that went nowhere, and did a lot of small projects. And at this point, I started working at The Laughing Ogre, a local comics shop, part time, because I wanted to have a job where I didn’t have to feel horribly guilty about jumping ship if something came through.

NRAMA: But eventually you got Sentinel and The Inhumans.

SM: Within a week of each other, I found out I got them both, and they were going to launch within a month of each other in 2003. So I left the Ogre, and I was a full-time writer. I was so excited about that. It was huge.

And you know, to this day, The Inhumans is probably my favorite of my Marvel work. Not that I really enjoy all my work, but I’m really proud of The Inhumans.

NRAMA: But with both those series, you had to experience the feeling of having a book canceled.

SM: Two of them! I worked on those for about a year, and during that time, I got a nice apartment, and I got some nice furniture for it. And in fact, I was moving my couches I’d just bought into my apartment when I got a call from Marc Sumerak, and he told me Sentinel was canceled with #12. That didn’t come as a total surprise. But in the same phone call, he told me Inhumans was canceled. Here I went from two books to nothing. Freaked me out.

My next thing was Mystique. Then a lot of other small projects for Marvel. I was virtually working full-time for Marvel, with periods here and there where I’d have two or three months without any work that were kind of scary. When you’re working freelance, and there’s just nothing coming, and you spend all your time doing pitches, it’s scarier than when you’re trying to break in because you keep thinking, was that it? Is it over now?

NRAMA: But after a few starts and stops and a whole lot of Marvel Adventures stories and various Spider-Man stuff, you ended up with the Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane ongoing and then your fan-favorite Gravity mini-series. But you know, with those, and even with Sentinel and The Waiting Place before them, people started to think of you as a writer of teen stories. Was that something that just kind of happened, or something you started to lean toward?

SM: When I was first going into writing comic books, that was not the kind of thing I was interested in at all. I would have preferred to have gone with a more mature approach to Spider-Man, for example, and do darker stories. That was my interest. And I think you can see a certain amount of that in The Waiting Place. It has those sugary moments, but it is kind of a bleak story. So it wasn’t my natural inclination to do books like Sentinel and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, but it turns out that’s something I’m good at.

NRAMA: Is that something you enjoy?

SM: Yeah. I don’t always have to write about teens. But sometimes, writing teens, regardless of the tone — that’s something even when I’m looking to do something different, I still look to do stories using teens because it’s a Petri dish of life, you know? It’s like a moment in time when you have all these possibilities ahead of you and you don’t have it figured out. And I think that’s a way to describe a lot of adults, but with teens, it’s more pronounced. You don’t realize it as an adult, maybe, but you still do have lots of options in front of you, and you don’t have it figured out — you just think you do.

NRAMA: You said writing stories about teens is “something you’re good at.” Why is that?

SM: Did I say that? [laughs]

NRAMA: You did. And I’m not going to let you be modest. You are good at it. Why?

SM: I don’t know what it is. I have come up with all these BS answers over the years to give to interviewers. But when I really think about it, I have no idea.

NRAMA: Let’s talk about you leaving Marvel and becoming a DC exclusive. When we talked about that back when it was announced, you voiced some level of frustration about how you felt like you weren’t getting the types of projects you wanted from Marvel.

SM: Yeah. To their credit, they did try to give me stuff. And things didn’t always work out when they tried. But at the same time, I would have liked to have been part of House of M. I would have liked to have been part of Civil War. Most of the stuff that came to me was Marvel Adventures or things of that nature. I like those things — it was a lot of fun to write those stories. But it was time to try to find something else. I needed something a bit meatier for awhile.

NRAMA: And in walks DC. You were originally brought in to be one of the writers on Countdown — that was the first thing that was offered to you, right?

SM: Correct.

NRAMA: What was your first perception of that opportunity as a writer when they made the offer to you and when you first started working on it? And what did you think it would bring to your career?

SM: Well, the first thing I thought is that it was going to be like 52, so that kind of freaked me out. But as [Mike] Marts explained it to me, we’d each be doing our own issues, and that was very appealing to me.

NRAMA: Why would it freak you out if it was like 52?

SM: Because of working on a single comic every week, and what it would do to your workload. But also from the standpoint of — I’m not a person who has done a lot of collaborating. I worked with Paul Jenkins on a few issues of the Hulk, and I think that’s pretty much it, in terms of collaborative writing. So, I wanted the opportunity to work with Paul Dini, and I thought, if I get the opportunity to craft a single issue on my own, then it’s not as collaborative as 52 would have been, and I think I can at least ease into doing something more collaborative down the line.

But at the end of the day, to me, it was just a really cool technical challenge. And I like tackling any kind of work that is a technical challenge — that’s not just doing a normal monthly comic. Like when I did the Elektra movie adaptation, or when I did Marvel Age Fantastic Four and I basically did rewrites of the first four issues of The Fantastic Four, but with fewer panels and modern sensibilities. And so this presented that sort of challenge, plus I knew it would be a big seller, and I knew it would be high profile. And I needed something high profile. I didn’t have to think about it very long before I decided to do it.

NRAMA: Why did you think you “needed” something high profile?

SM: I hadn’t had anything high profile yet. And I think there was momentum being lost from winning the Eisner a couple years prior, and that I needed to get my career moving in a forward direction rather than sitting still.

NRAMA: That seems to have happened.

SM: Now I’m on Teen Titans, which is another high profile book, and I’m on Birds of Prey, which is a long-running book, and it’s cool to have the opportunity to take over a couple books like that.

NRAMA: We had talked about this when you were announced as the next Birds of Prey writer — you got both Teen Titans and Birds of Prey offered to you at the same time, right?

SM: The same day. It was the Monday after the New York Comic Con. They brought me into the offices and they offered me both those books on the same day. I walked out of there — I was on cloud nine. I mean, that was … that was just too cool. Especially Teen Titans, because that was a book that I always thought I’d be perfect for. If you look at my resume, and all the teen characters, and all the female characters, and all the drama stuff, and the superhero stuff — it’s all of that in one book. And so I was seriously geeked.

NRAMA: Now that you’ve gotten your teeth into Teen Titans, do you still think you’re perfect for it?

SM: Yeah, I think so. I think this first arc — “The Titans of Tomorrow…Today!” — it’s pretty action heavy. There’s a lot going on. But I’m looking more forward to after that and having the opportunity to take a couple issues and explore the characters a little more. You know, I do a lot of character-driven stuff even within the action of this first arc. But there aren’t many quiet moments.

NRAMA: How many issues is this story arc?

SM: Four issues. It’s Issues #51-54.

NRAMA: So you really jump into the action.

SM: Yeah, and #50 leads into it. So #50-54 is kind of one big story, and then #55 is where we kind of … it’s where it’s more … me.

NRAMA: More “you?”

SM: Yeah … because this first story arc — the basic premise of it was brought to me as something that Geoff [Johns] wanted to write back when he was still on the book and was apparently what Adam [Beechen] was going to write when he was still on the book.

NRAMA: And Birds of Prey — have you felt that it is as perfectly suited to you?

SM: Yeah. Now. In all honesty, it wasn’t as easy to get into as Titans was. Gail has just put such an indelible stamp on it that I think I was a little intimidated, unsure of what I could contribute to the book, and in which ways I could make it different and yet appeal to the people who enjoyed Gail’s run. You know, I don’t want those guys to go running for the hills. And I want to respect what Gail’s done, ’cause I think it’s very good. So it took me a little bit longer, but once I wrote the first script, I really felt good about it. Writing Barbara Gordon in first-person narrative — I think that’s what really put me in a comfortable spot with the series. I really felt like I captured her voice well. And I felt like I could go forward. So now, I am going forward and working on the next issue.

NRAMA: OK, you say that you wanted to figure out what you could contribute to the book. What is it?

SM: One of the things you’re going to see is a lot of new faces — not necessarily in the core team, but in terms of villains. In terms of supporting cast. But my main goal starting out is to focus on the main characters, and the way I look at it is that the book is about four sisters: Oracle, Huntress, Lady Blackhawk and Misfit. Misfit is not on the team, but she’s in training. She’s an integral part of this family unit. So I go forward from that. Even though it’s about four sisters, it’s not some prime time drama or Sex in the City. It’s an espionage thriller, to me. So it’s got to be exciting, it’s got to be sleek, it’s got to be a little bit dark.

And with that, my main focus is to delve into these characters and who they are, and do stories from a character perspective. We’ll be doing more big action plots and things like that, even from the start, but at least at the beginning, they’re very strongly character-driven plots. The action that happens is because of who these people are, and the villains and everything are more personally connected to the characters.

NRAMA: OK, let’s go full circle here. When we started down this path about you becoming DC exclusive, we talked about your first perception of Countdown. But you’re more than halfway through now, right?

SM: Yep.

NRAMA: What have you gotten out of the experience so far? What have you learned? What have you taken away from it as a writer, and how do you feel about it going forward?

SM: I’m … uh … well, overall, it’s been a great experience. But that’s a really good question about what I’ve learned, because I’m sitting here thinking, and it’s not that I haven’t learned anything [laughs], but I haven’t been asked that before, so I don’t think I’ve really ever considered that.

Outside of getting a crash course on the DC Universe through the course of this book, the greatest benefit I’ve had as a writer is that I’ve learned to speak up a little bit more and be a part of these discussions of plot. Usually, when people are talking about story ideas, I just kind of clam up and I don’t want to say anything, but I’ve learned in these conference calls to have a little more initiative and put my own ideas out there, and do the back-and-forth. And if I don’t agree with something, say something about it – which doesn’t happen that much, but when we’re having our conference call, we like to bat stuff around and so I’ve gotten more comfortable with that.

And I think the other thing is that, because Paul is kind of the plot-master, my area of focus is really the storytelling. So it’s given me a great opportunity to just think about the page, and the pacing, and how to, sometimes, cram what feels like 30 pages of story into 20 pages.

NRAMA: Is that because, when you would initiate the plot, you kind of know in your head what you feel comfortable putting into 20 pages? But when someone else does it, you have to adjust?

SM: Yeah. With Countdown, I’ll look at the plot … I’ll actually print it out, and it’s broken down by scenes, and I’ll look at each scene and say, “Well, that looks like three pages, this looks like five pages, and this looks like six pages, this looks like eight pages and [laughs] suddenly, I’ve already got over 20 and I’m only halfway through.

And so you think about the economy of writing. What’s the least number of panels in which I can display this information so that it isn’t just info-dump — so that it has some nuance to it? And I think that’s an important skill when you’re writing a monthly comic, because otherwise, it can be too sprawling, and a little too decompressed. So this is a nice way for me to see how to put more story in every issue.

NRAMA: Wow, we’ve covered a lot of ground. But going forward, where does Sean McKeever want to go?

SM: Right now, this is exciting and new, and that’s important to me now. I want to keep writing comic books. I would like to maybe write a screenplay or work for TV. In terms of comics, I just want to keep writing interesting stories. When they stop being interesting, I think there’s a problem.

NRAMA: But they’re interesting now?

SM: Absolutely. It’s better than interesting, you know? I’m writing comic books for a living! That’s been my dream job since I was a teenager, and I’ve loved comics pretty much all my life. Teen Titans, Birds of Prey, Countdown … I’m having a blast with those, and I hope I get a long time to put my stamp on the two ongoings, but at the same time I can’t wait to see what the next DC project brings.

 


End of titanstower.com transmission. About this author:  Bill Walko is an author and artist and the man behind titanstower.com. He's been reading and drawing comics since he was 5 years old and hasn't stopped since. Read more from this author