#FaustReturns vs. Pixar!

And now, the conclusion of How to Tell Stories the Pixar Way via Faust! 

Emma Coats recently tweeted 22 pithy Rules of Story based on her experience as a Pixar storyboard artist. To internalize Pixar’s wisdom in a personal way, I’m reviewing Faust: Love of the Damned through Emma’s craft / point of view.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

“Reality is up for grabs,” writes Balfour, scene journalist, our man on the street character in Faust. When he first writes it, it is an intellectual conceit. A clever line written by a clever man chasing the red carpet – a man who has never really lived, except inside his head. By the time Balfour and the readers reach the story’s final chapter, they have come on a long, strange and confrontational mindfreak – can they truly live these clever words now? Will it help them see the dawn beyond the final night of Creation?


Many thoughts, beliefs, passions, observations, fears, nightmares, ideals and more than a few slices of pop art reverence screamed to the surface in my collaboration with Mr. Tim Vigil over the pages and decades. But “Reality is up for grabs” sings to me tonight, badder than James Brown.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Woah, speaking of fears… losing my mental capacity before physical death has always loomed large on my lose-my-shit list. So, when John Jaspers (Patient #666) dares to cross M, he’s consigned to stew in his own acute pain and rage in incoherence in Bellevue. His dialogue hurt to write and Vigil’s images were laced with confusion, pain and fear — and I know many readers felt it, too. (Hopefully cathartically, not just ouch, like having your eyes and mouth sewn shit…)

He’ll never be normal, our psycho hero. But mental clarity will feel like a victory. If he can get there, and stay there.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Like most good comic stories, the stakes in Love of the Damned are high. Our Mephistopheles, the original bitter fallen angel, wants to Uncreate Creation, to have his revenge on his former beloved, God. He’s got a sick idea of love, to be sure.

But the funny thing about stories is, cosmically huge stakes are a given. It’s the intensely personal that matters. The small stakes are huge.

For John Jaspers, the stakes are personal – if not his soul, long ago sold, then the soul of Jade DeCamp, his psychiatrist, and an end to existential and physical death match wrestling with his father, M.

And what does the “Love” in Love of the Damned refer to, anyway? John and his doctor? John and his devil? The devil and the divine? Or…  secrets lingering in climax and aftermath, later this year.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Vigil and I did so many versions of the last 120 pages…. soon, you get to be the final arbiter. Sometimes he would challenge something I wrote – like the Devil’s Dam Claire and her filthy trash talk in untranslated German – and we would find a less distracting way to go. Sometimes I would point out something on the paneled page that could make the story work better visually – often letting me cut words that aren’t needed when the picture tells the story.

Maybe we had a few moments when we veered into fussing, but we added a short sequence to bridge two critical scenes at the last minute, for example, and that now reads as essential. And there is a page in the final issue that is in reality one of the first pages Tim ever designed and executed.

If I understand “Story is testing, not refining,” I don’t agree in this case – we did a lot of refining, especially compared to the more experimental, spontaneous Faust franchise stories we published monthly through Avatar in the 90s. “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” Emerson said that.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Nicely put. (Reminds me of Robert Mckee’s sage story decisions in Story – highly recommended.)

My partner and I hate coincidences, and try to head off temptation to use them as a crutch. Years ago we sat through a so-bad-it’s-funny horror shlocker where the antagonist met his end screaming, “Not the magic knife – It’s the only thing that can kill me!” (A clumsy way to kick a garbage script to the last page, introducing a magic knife in the final moments of the mess!)

Since then, if either Tim or I introduce coincidence, convenience or other just-too-easy plot cheats, the other will do him a favor, imitating bad acting spasms, wailing “Not the magic knife!”

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

An exercise worth trying. Next time.

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

I touched on John Jasper’s rage and anger over losing his mind, so let’s look at Jade DeCamp – a troubling character to approach because she’s counter-phobic, contradictory and in denial. She’s a healer, a psychiatrist, yet she seeks out, and becomes obsessed with damaged, dangerous people. Would she love her man if he were not a monster? How many of you can relate to that?

I can – though not to Faustian extremes. I identify with attraction to disorder and chaos. And, for most of my life, I’ve tried not to live that way. That’s Faust for you: primal therapy on paper since 1987.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Most economical? Oh, you’re funny. My Faustian partner would say, “Less is less.”

Want “Less is More?” See where we tried that in our Not For Children Children’s Book™,The Littlest Bitch.

More Pixar Faust Mash-Up

If you missed my opening salvo “How to Tell Stories the Pixar Way and #FaustReturns!,” please check this out.

Emma Coats tweeted 22 pithy Rules of Story based on her experience in the Pixar storyboard trenches; to digest this, I’m taking on Faust: Love of the Damnedthrough Emma’s POV.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Beautiful, one of my favorite rules of drama, along with “Play the Opposite.” I think of this all the time watching movies with my six-year-old daughter, who gets swept away, screaming, “Ohhhhh noooooo! LOOK OUT, PIKACHU!”

That’s how she deals.

I tell my daughter the movie wouldn’t be satisfying if the characters were always comfortable. Make them as flesh-caught-in-a-zipper uncomfortable as they can possibly be, you got real live primal campfire storytelling.

And I keep it in mind in my stories: in Faust, our man on the street, the journalist Balfour, gets challenged to the extreme when his greatest strength, his considerable intellect, is useless against primal magic. Nothing he knows will save him, and the souls of millions that have been accidentally left to his shepherding. His only hope in the end will be what he can believe and the guts to follow through on that. To say nothing of our tragic protagonist, John Jaspers, who gains inhuman power, but loses his life, soul and sanity. (But he does get to do a bad ass Godfather of Soul…)

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Another smart suggestion and an approach I trust, too. Tim Vigil and I knew the core of our story ending long ago, though I’d be lying if I said we knew exactly what long, strange plot path we would take to get there. The original big-bang ending was written in 1996, but that final chapter, then called Faust Act 12, grew exponentially to be published as Acts 12-15. Tim drew the original version of the tale’s ultimate page decades, but the scenes/images/dialogue leading up to that were some of the last changes we worked through, both encouraging each other to make the story, both words and pictures, earn its own conclusion, with all the diverse characters and conflicts coming to the right resolution. That’s where the storyteller’s work resides, most times, and why so many plots that begin well drag a bit, sometimes even getting completely lost, between the middle and…

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.


Did I tell you Tim Vigil and I are working on a children’s book?

We also have lots of Faustian sorts of ideas, sure, we’ll get to those, too, but WTF, see Rule #6, who dares, wins.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

Now you tell me, Pixar.

Actually this is good. I don’t think I ever got “stuck” on Faust. Don’t think my partner did either.

I think we broke through stuck organically and unconsciously in our many plot conversations, via phone, in NY, in California, at Comic Con breakfasts, even getting lost in the Black Forest in Germany on that signing tour. We might both hear each other’s ideas and say, yes, okay, but what if…  and then throw each other in new directions. This is the advantage of working very closely, owning something together, no editor, and doing it yourself.

I’m thinking that Emma’s rules are stronger on “what makes a good story” than process. But let’s press on.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

Writers — and illustrators — instinctively rip apart stories to reverse engineer their own. So the first half of this is a gimme, Emma. More process.

It’s the second part is more interesting. So, without veering into total self-indulgence (stop laughing, I mean it) what part of me did I learn from the Love of the Damned series, two different film productions, and a handful of spinoffs?

I learn that I live where genres blend, something I also could have learned, later, from The Littlest Bitch, A Not for Children Children’s Book(TM) and Nightvision, A Goth/Sexual mini-series. I live where genres collide, crash, co-mingle and mutate.

As for Faust, it’s obviously a horror comic. And it has ll the visual tropes and a good deal of the pacing and diction of a super-hero comic. But the cops in the story act like its a crime drama. And Dr. Jade DeCamp sees it all as a psychological thriller, rich with twisted sexual repression, extreme denial and the violence that stems from it, primal awakenings. And then if you’re M, well, you see it as the oldest story at mankind’s campfire — about a man with the hubris to sell his soul to a devil, then try to win it back.

I can use that.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

Right. I sometimes don’t let myself speak a word about a project until I have started to get it into the computer. Even if you ask me for a three minute verbal pitch or a one page treatment, I’m going to spend some time with my ass in the writing chair, even if no one but me reads what I write. It’s almost like my instinct is to put the energy into the writing…  as if talking might burn it, producing nothing but air. Which is about as useful as Emma’s “never sharing it with anyone.”

Even a miss of an idea can in turn inspire a dead hit.

With a collaborator I really trust, I’ll throw out spontaneous ideas in conference, like musical improvisation. But they are all rooted in work that was done in the chair, the scales and chords. I don’t seem to get tired of the jazz metaphor and I’ve gone through several chairs.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

I always defied self-censorship, even in my earliest play writing, as inauthentic, as pandering, as a lie. I sometimes surprised myself by how far from self-censoring I was able to go to ensure Faust was true to Faust.

And I like people to like me as much as you do, maybe even more than you do. And it’s a lonely kind of victory when a girl you really want to be with won’t talk to you because you won’t change what you write — but don’t feel sorry for me, I met a much better girl who gets it.

Not sure this is what Emma was talking about, here. She may have been thinking more about characters, plot points, etc. Yeah, it’s good advice there, too.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

If Pixar movies don’t suck it’s because of cultural wisdom like this, and the ability of its talent to put it to work. And just as no one ever accused us of failing to reach for over the top, all our characters are verbal about opinions. I let our Mephistophelian father figure laugh at our tragic protagonist’s righteousness, saying, “When man makes holy war, the devil wins.”

And on that note, it’s time to change time zones again.

Hey, plan to be at Comic Con on Friday, July 13? Meet me here:

1:00-2:00 Horror on the Paneled Page— Some of comics’ biggest horror creators share their most frightening nightmares, talk about lines that even they won’t cross, and comment on the current horror trends in comics and other media in this in-depth discussion lead by AICN Comics/AICN Horror editor Mark L. Miller (The Jungle Book). Joshua Hale Fialkov (I, Vampire), Alan Robert (Wire Hangers), Brandon Seifert (Witch Doctor), David Quinn (Faust), Matt Pizzolo (Godkiller), and some surprise guests talk about what does and doesn’t work in horror comic books. (Room 24ABC)

It’s the Unholy 25th Anniversary of Faust; like the Facebook page for the news, thanks.

Around the Fire: Pixar’s 22 rules through Faust

This month, How to Tell Stories the Pixar Way and, in case you missed it, #FaustReturns!

Emma Coat’s recently tweeted 22 pithy Rules of Story informed by her experience in the Pixar storyboard trenches; it’s been making the rounds amongst those of us who craft corporate and/or creative fiction for a living.

Because a writer can never learn too much about what does/doesn’t resonate around the campfire…  even and especially when the primal dreaming flame is a computer tablet or a TV screen.

Given recent announcements, it’s fun to look atFaust: Love of the Damned through Emma’s POV. We’ve never met – so I have to say, I am grateful for the opportunity, and I hope she doesn’t mind.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

Well, our protagonist John Jaspers looks like Batman/Daredevil/Wolverine, but he’s anything but admirable. Bait and switch or metafiction? That tension between superhero and Heart of Darkness spawned (pun intended) the uproar the series caused when it launched in 1987. The poor, twisted fucker’s not a hero, though he certainly has elements of the tragic hero, in a Samson Agonistes or Travis Bickle sorta way.

But if there is one thing he has done since Night One, it’s try.

He’s raged against insanity, plunging into evil to fight evil. He’s been tempted to give up on himself, but he has never given up on his obsession with his doctor, Jade, or his love/hate wrestling match with the Mephistophelian father figure, M.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

I didn’t see the difference between the two when Tim Vigil and I started colliding our ideas together to create Faust, just over 25 years ago. I do now. But I am a very different person. And yet I am the same person.

After college, I slam-danced sideways from NY’s music business into independent comics and business communications in the age of Gordon Gecko in the late 80s.

Wall Street and four color fantasy did a number on me.

And vice versa.

And my obsessions, melted in with those of my visual co-creator, are raw on every page, naked. Genre-blending. Overwraught emotion. Grand Guignol. Frank Frazetta body worship. Beat crazy. Esoteric layers. Punk rock and Splatter. James Brown. American “Sex is Dirty” Hypocrisy. New York in the Party’s Over Era after the crash of ’87. Sex and sex and sex and violence and sex.

I really wasn’t thinking about what the audience wanted or needed to be interesting. (Some of you are still saying “Obviously!”)

As dark end colleague Warren Ellis realized in his forward to the Faust/777 trade paperback in 1999, part of the point was getting beyond thinking itself, into the primal, in the sense that Arthur Janov used the word in The Primal Scream. Remember, this was before Wolverine went to Hell (hmmmm, interesting concept, that) and DC superheroes routinely raped, murdered and betrayed each other as they did in the last decade. Faust, like its contemporary The Crow by James O’Barr, spoke to its time and place and carved a narrow but defined pop culture niche, predicting the future.

Their influence echoes in the darker side of comics culture today, for better (The Walking Dead) or for worse (Rapey DC).

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

See above. I had enough of theme in college. I was exploring ways to use words and pictures to feel something directly. Body and soul as well as head.

I still try to work this way, actually. Head Hand Heart, my motto.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of 
that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

Yeah, I get this. Another way to say this: if it works without the character/scene/plot point/line, cut it. And yes, we blatantly – and aggressively – ignored this wisdom in the comic, but followed it in the screenplay for the Brian Yuzna film (Filmax/Lions Gate, 2000).

Will Eisner once distilled the same advice for me, advising, “Nothing in this art form is accidental.” I remember that, and I learned so much from reading and interviewing Mr. Eisner. But no disrespect, professor, in this book, the detours and the sub-text were supposed to rise to the surface like Lovecraftian squids and take over the asylum. Though we did borrow a few visual tricks from The Spirit era, and were very playful with character names – Jade DeCamp, Beef and Hapi, Captain Mulligan – as you would have been.

Ha.  And on that note, my ride is here.

As we say in storytelling, TO BE CONTINUED

The Unholy 25th Anniversary of Faust erupts this summer. Like the Facebook page to be part of it!