I’ve been a fan of Sean McKeever’s writing of teens since I was a teen. I discovered his work on Gravity, Young Inhumans, and Spider-Man, and went back to read the book that launched his career, The Waiting Place. I was disappointed to see him assigned to projects that didn’t best showcase his talent at DC, and even more so when he had to leave comics to work in another medium. But I’m thrilled he’s back now and equally excited that I got to speak to him about his fantastic new series from Skybound, Outpost Zero.
You’ve been away from comics for awhile. How have you changed, as a person and a storyteller, in that time?
Oh cool, we’re starting with an easy one!
When my last comic was published I was approaching 40 and unemployed with a condo in Ohio and bills piling up. This was in 2011 when Marvel stopped taking external pitches and canceled a bunch of books, while DC was just launching the New 52 and didn’t have any openings.
With nowhere to find work in comics, I auditioned for a job at BioWare, who I’d always admired for their D&D and Star Wars RPGs. I wound up becoming a full-time writer for them in Austin, TX.
So now in 2018, I’m back to freelance writing for comics and games, still in Austin, and, I think, a wiser person for having persevered through a harrowing time in my life in which I thought my career was over. I mean, I just have a better sense of self and I have my shit together a bit more, you know? I have an emergency savings fund and whatnot, and I’m just trying to live smarter and better.
Creatively, I think there’s something good about walking away for a bit, but holy crap have I missed writing comics. It’s second nature to me. Whether I’ve brought anything different to the table, I’m not sure. I want to be in a position to diversify my output a bit more, so maybe being away will make that easier, but in terms of approach or quality, I guess that will be for readers to judge.
What skills did you learn from working on RPGs that translates to writing comics?
The one big takeaway for me is line economy. In the games I worked on, especially with voice over, every word of dialogue costs money. And, voiced or not, there’s only so much text that can fit on the screen at once during a cinematic or in-world. I find myself writing word balloons closer to the length I’ve been writing them for the Star Wars game and the like. It’s good for readability and pace.
Everything else is so different in the story’s DNA between comics and RPGs, from visuals to characters emoting to the very purpose of the story, so when I came back to comics I had to shift gears quite a bit.
Being away from the industry for so long, I imagine you kind of had to break in all over again. How did you approach artists to work with and publishers to work for?
I’m only half joking when I say I could do a convention panel about how to break into comics a second time. That really is the case. Virtually everyone forgets you ever wrote anything and isn’t willing to take a chance. It feels weird, but the truth is you’re only ever as broken into comics as your last and next project allow.
While I was away, I did talk to artist friends about doing stuff now and then, but nothing really came of it. Well, I am doing a six-issue deal with Mike Norton for 2019 or beyond, but that came about more recently, relative to Skybound.
How did Outpost Zero come together at Skybound?
Sean Mackiewicz reached out to me about writing something for them. I guess it was almost five years ago now, wow. My first pitch was pretty dark stuff, I guess darker than what the company making The Walking Dead was looking for. I’m totally cool with it because I like to wear that like a badge of honor. But anyway, I had an itch to do horror, which was what I loved writing as a teen and even younger.
My second pitch kind of split the difference between the first pitch and what people tend to expect from me, which is the teen romance/young adult material. That pitch was Outpost Zero, which they dug.
From there I started on scripts and a story bible while still working for BioWare, eventually making the leap back to freelance. It did take us a long time to find the right artist for it, but when Alexandre Tefengki’s work hit my inbox, I gave the OK right then and there.
Outpost Zero features a large ensemble. How do you ensure that every character is given enough attention to make readers understand and care about all of them?
It’s not the easiest thing, but I enjoy it. With ensembles like in The Waiting Place or my Inhumans run, I would treat it very much like a TV show and decide who was the lead of the A story and who was the focus of the B story, if there was one, that sort of thing.
With OPZ, I’m spending much more time focused on Alea, similar to how I tackled Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. Alea’s the focus while others come in and out of her orbit, at least at first. Then we spend more time with each character and then, beyond that, the framework still continues to evolve. I’ve never done anything quite like this. It feels organic and exciting rather than mechanical and predictable and I’m loving it.
Early on Alea insists that her family’s work in Discovery matters as much or more than the effort the outpost puts into survival. What does it mean to her as a character, and you as a person, to “discover”?
For Alea, it’s really about a burning desire to know what’s out there in the universe beyond their busted little biome, even if it’s just something buried under ice a few miles outside. And that’s really the same engine driving the bigger question, which is that sort of cosmic search for meaning that’s so common among us.
I think of discovery as fuel for life. Survival is important, but all of human history shows us how discovery makes it easier to survive. And I think that’s not only true in terms of things like medicine and refrigeration, but in that drive to discover itself. It brings us purpose and meaning and direction. And those moments of discovery, which, as a writer, I have all these character epiphanies and stuff, they pack a nice little dopamine punch and make you strive for more.
What do you find interesting about that time in people’s lives where they’re in the midst of figuring out their futures?
The thing is, I think we’re all figuring that out our whole lives. Those formative years are just when it’s at its most heightened and maybe at its most absurd. I have a hard time believing people reach a point where they’re all, “Yep. That’s it. I got it all figured out, I’m set now.” Look at people who were set to retire on their IRAs a decade ago when the Great Recession hit or the arrogance-ignorance combo that let me believe I would never not have comics work.
It’s that, plus the sort of purity that comes with being at an age where you’re just starting to work this stuff out, where you’re at your most malleable and every possibility is out there. That makes young adult fiction exciting for adults, too. I think it makes it easy to root for the kids to turn out OK because in a way we’re still kind of there.
Do you ever worry about being boxed in as a writer of teenagers?
I have worried about it in the past, sure. But, you know, Skybound never asked me to write them a pitch with teenagers, and look what I did. The fact is I like writing teens. It does make it difficult, though, because I would like to write, you know, adult humans! And straight-up horror and crime noir and rated-R type stuff. I’ve had some frustration being overlooked for things I can do well because I’m seen as doing one particular type of comic, but it was also nice to be on the short list for a certain kind of job.
Do you see yourself working at Marvel or DC again in the future?
I let them know from time to time that I’m interested. That’s really all I can do.
How have comics changed since you’ve been away, and how does that affect you as someone who writes them?
From a business standpoint, the periodical has seen better days. Most comics reside in the midlist or below now, so expectations have shifted drastically. I’m really interested in how the book market is doing, where Raina Telgemeier is selling millions of copies and people I’ve never heard of in the Direct Market are super successful.
But there’s also been, as you know, this great broadening of who makes and writes comics, and it’s created an evolved and enlightened marketplace where I see books not unlike what I wrote a decade or more ago with all these amazing artists I’d love to work with! And these comics are finding a sustained and passionate audience in the DM and in bookstores, too. That’s an exciting prospect for me.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at firstname.lastname@example.org.