Creative Corner // Interview with Alex Breen // Comic Book writer in Chicago, IL

In March, I had the awesome opportunity to travel up to Chicago for C2E2 and meet so many amazing people! A big reason I wanted to go was to show support to a friend of mine named Alex Breen who is an up and coming comic book writer living just outside Chicago, IL. Alex just recently published his first graphic novel called From Within that he wrote himself and C2E2 was the first show the book was debuted. Getting invited to come along and document some of that for Alex was honestly the absolute best. And so, to share alongside some of the images I took for Alex, I thought it would be fun to break down some of Alex’s story in this little interview with him. Enjoy.

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Brooke: How Long have you been Writing?

Alex: This depends a little on the medium in question. My earliest memories are from early grade school when I was trying to write and direct my own horror films. I wanted to be a film director for most of my childhood and each year I’d play around with a different idea. Though if I were honest, I was more in love with the idea of being director than putting in the work to attain it. It wasn’t till college that I turned my attention to writing comics. That would make it about 8 years now since I switched mediums… where does the time go??

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BROOKE: What got your started into it all?

College changed everything. I walked into Bellarmine University as a freshman with every intention of pursuing filmmaking. Little did I know, comics were waiting around the corner to win me over. At the time, I’d started reading some comics on the side near the tail end of high school. It started with superhero comics (Captain America, Batman, Thor, Spider-Man, etc.) but it quickly expanded into independent comics. The Crow, Incognito and Criminal in particular opened my eyes to what the medium was capable of.

Comics weren’t bound by the same budget issues as most visual mediums, long as the artist could draw it, it could happen.  On top of that, comics were more personal than film, the smaller audience size allowed the creative teams of comics the freedom to do whatever they wanted with the story and there’s an intimacy to reading a page of comic where you can blitz through a story in five minutes or you can take your time with the story to soak in the detailed artwork and assign your own voices to specific characters. Film and TV are very passive mediums by comparison, you watch it on their terms and have to go out of your way to rewind the piece in question if you feel you missed something.

Needless to say, I was hooked. Comics took over my life throughout freshman year, it was a whole new medium with hundreds of different creators and stories for me to choose from. I made it my mission to get a hold of as many stories as a broke freshman with no job could at the time. Slowly, I started to figure out which creators clicked with me the most and made a concerted effort to dive deeper into their catalogues. It was during one of those dives that I picked up a copy of the Immortal Iron Fist Omnibus by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja. I didn’t know it at the time when I bought it, but that comic changed my life.

I remember having to wait till I took a biology test before starting it, I probably finished the test around 1pm and once I opened that comic, I couldn’t put it down. Everything from the art to the characterizations and tone clicked with me on every single level. This was a 500-page comic that I put down in a single night! As I was walked back to my dorm room around 1AM, I realized reading comics was not enough for me. I needed to create my own. I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for that omnibus.

BROOKE: Omg, I love that. When I saw you at C2E2 I noticed your hoodie first thing and wondered if there was a story behind the Iron Fist merch you chose to wear. And of course it did! But also, I can really relate with pieces of your story here because I too have been almost infatuated with not only filmmaking as a potential thing to explore, but so many other things (an incalculable amount really). And as everyone knows, the photography bug is what bit me hardest and had me working the hardest with very little notice through the years. And that’s when I feel like you really found something special.

I think what is truly amazing though is the fact that not only did comic books really inspire you to read and collect as many as you could, but to actually create and add to the whole world of it all. I think it’s so hard for people sometimes to get started thinking that everything has already been done and the fact that you are pursuing forward against it all is the absolute best.

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BROOKE: What are your favorite things to write about? Do you have any current projects?

ALEX: I’m still in the process of developing a body of work so I don’t believe I’ve developed many common tropes (yet), but I do enjoy making my characters’ lives hell. Sometimes there’s a temptation to use kid gloves with the main cast, but I don’t believe in that at all. Nothing’s more satisfying to me than stacking the deck against a character and watching them either make it out by the skin of their teeth or fail. Better yet, I love when there’s a still a cost to be paid for the character to succeed and forcing them to carry those scars, whether physical or emotional/psychological, long after the wound was inflicted. Other than that, I’m barraged by so many ideas that I go wherever they take me.

Currently, I’ve released Book One of my martial arts comic, From Within, which premiered at C2E2 this year. It’s a combination of Bruce Lee flicks with an exploration of anger and how it can both be a great motivator or a destructive force, depending on how it’s wielded. Book Two is slated for release in 2020. Other than that, I have a couple of other comics I plan on developing soon. I’ll likely have more to say about them later in the year depending on which one gains traction.

BROOKE: The older I get, the more I like stories like that as well. Because for me, they really are so much more real. To see how characters react and handle different things can be rewarding to real life encounters and experiences too. And to see someone become stronger through the things they’ve endured instead of just being all powerful and magical from the start really showcases the most interesting stories. There is a lot of darker elements to life too that I feel like need to be faced more in our world and authentic, true storytelling can be it’s own sort of superpower in shining a light on all the levels of our human experiences. So turning that into raw storytelling and art is magic to me. I’m excited to see where you take the From Within story and hopefully many more in the future!

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BROOKE: What does your creative process look like? What things get you into the mode for writing?

ALEX: My process is very outline heavy. I go into a project knowing the major story beats and emotions I’m looking to hit and I build the story around giving those moments the impact they deserve. This involves breaking down each page into their core narrative function and character beat. From there, I sort through the pages to make sure everything flows the way I want, make some adjustments here and there and it’s good to go! Well… at least with the first step anyway.

The next step is to write out the panel descriptions and the dialogue. I prioritize writing through each of the panel descriptions first while my mind slowly thinks over the dialogue. I’ve found it much easier to dialogue when I know the visuals of the page and how much room I have to work with. The words and visuals need to sync up just right otherwise the reader is going to pick up on it.

More often than not, the scripting stage is where the story takes the strangest of turns. A perfectly good scene during the outline stage suddenly doesn’t click with you any longer or perhaps a character hijacks your story and takes it to a place you hadn’t accounted for. This is my favorite part of the process! It’s also a little terrifying when you’re starting out, but learn to follow your gut. If a scene doesn’t work for you, trash it and try something else. The trick is to leave room in your outline for your story to make those instinctual left turns.

After the first draft is done, I send a copy to my editor and make the necessary changes and sit on the story for a while before making one last dialogue edit, using the finished art as a reference before passing it along to my letterer.

Honestly, when it comes to “mode for writing” I don’t think about that much. I used to think about that stuff all the time but I never got much done when I was waiting for the inspiration to hit. Being creative is a muscle, it’s much easier to utilize it the more you work it out, that’s why my process is specifically built to make things as mechanical as possible so I can always work on something even if I’m not feeling 100%. I can outline literally anywhere I go, same goes for writing panel descriptions. Writing dialogue however can be a little fickle with me, which in those cases, I might throw on some instrumental music to give myself a little rhythm to play off of.

BROOKE: It’s awesome to hear about your creative process and although our modes of creativity are completely different, I’ve had to adapt a lot of that sort of mechanical nature into the way I do things too! Creativity really is just a muscle like anything else that needs to be exercised and doing little things everyday that embrace creativity just enough also keep my flow going. I love too that you keep your process fluid enough too to allow for changes to occur. Especially with writing, I feel like that might even be the most important thing to embrace. It can be so easy to get discouraged on a story or an idea when it doesn’t go exactly as planned. But embracing that mindset and letting creativity be more of a guide than a plan is the best way to go about things.

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BROOKE: Where can people find you and your work?

ALEX:Twitter is the simplest way to keep up with me @A__Breen. I’ve also caved and gotten an Instagram (alexbreencomics).  For the time being, I’m only selling copies of my comic at comic conventions. So, if you’re going to Chicago Comic Con Revolution, Heroes Con, Terrificon, Rose City Comic Con or Baltimore Comic Con, feel free to stop by and say hello! Hopefully in the next couple of months I’ll be able to roll out the comic through the digital platform Comixology, sell it to a select number of comic shops and have my own website to fulfil orders. Once I have any of those options up and running my social media followers will be the first to hear about it.

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