Who is Charles Soule? That’s a hard question to answer, because Charles is many things: musician, lawyer, husband, father, novelist, and (most recently) comic book writer. I sat down with Charles to discuss his origins in comics, his hectic six-book-a-month schedule, and to find how he’s still able to find time to practice law and sleep.
Nerdist: Thanks for doing this. I want to start by walking through how you got your foot in the proverbial door. We’ve known each other at least ten years, if not more. When we met you were lawyering it up and working on an anthology book. Remember?
CS: Yes. it was for the Bendis board.
N: Yes! Okay, so let’s start there. Talk about that and how it all —
CS: How did it all happen? Right, well, the first thing I should say is I have not stopping lawyering; In fact, I was doing that just before this interview. The comics did sort of come out of lawyering, because back in the day, before law school, I was a musician. I was in a ton of different bands, and was really thinking that’s where I’d spend the rest of my life working. And then I ended up getting into law school. I got into a very good school and I was swayed by parental arguments that it was idiotic not to do that and have it in my back pocket if I needed it. Then when I was graduating, I thought hard about the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to be in a band, or bands, the same way I used to be. Because you can’t just miss a court appearance for a gig at happy hour. So I thought, what can I do that’s a creative outlet but isn’t so time dependent? So I started writing novels, and I ended up writing two.
N: How old were you at this point?
CS: Probably mid-twenties.
N: First you wrote a novel called Land of Ten Thousand Things, which I read and loved when we first met. I knew then that you were the real deal. That book was awesome.
CS: Thanks, man. So, yeah, I wrote that, and then I wrote a book called The Oracle Year. I think they’re both good books. The tricky part with that is you can write a great book, but then getting published is a very difficult proposition in fiction. I think it always has been, it was then, and I think it certainly is now.
N: But have you considered, especially recently, self-publishing and using the fanbase you’ve built in comics to sell the books?
CS: Yeah. it’s something I think about a lot now, because I do have a fan base, but part of me thinks these books- it’s not like they will expire- so I want to try and land a larger publisher. I also would like to do a new pass on each. The newest one, in terms of when it was last edited, is probably six years old. So I am really thinking about it, but it’s a matter of finding the time to give each novel a new polish. I think my writing has changed, my sensibilities have changed and I think my skill level has changed. I want to have the novels reflect that, but my time these days is pretty tight.
N: Six books a month will do that, but before we get there, let’s keep going with your history. You wrote the two novels and couldn’t get them published?
CS: Yeah. It wasn’t some life-changing million dollar advance situation, so I started to think, “My God, I don’t want to keep spending two years writing a novel and then I can’t get it out to the public.” So I started to think about what else I could write, and I’ve always been a fan of comics. Plus, at the time, I had just gotten back into reading books like Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man, which kind of pulled me back in. So I was a big Bendis fan back then; he had and still has a very active message board. While there I met a community of people talking about comics. Someone had posted a thread suggesting we do a big anthology book that would have been short stories from all the creative people on the board. It evolved over time and we got some pretty big names involved and then it all fell apart at the last minute. BUT… a lot of the stories were already finished, and I just fell in love with the whole process of making comics, the skill of the artists and how quick it was compared to writing a novel. Plus, the reaction to my stuff was good, even back then, so I was encouraged to do more. So I came up with a story that ended up being Strongman. In 2007, Slave Labor Graphics picks up Strongman for publication. Then they released it about a year and a half later. That was my first graphic novel — it’s this little action-adventure crime book with an old Mexican wrestler as the hero.
N: You and I met through the Bendis board; I was lettering a few of those short stories in the anthology, and we got friendly from working together on that. Then I remember reading both the novels at some point and really liking them. I don’t remember why, I’m sure you do, but for whatever reason I didn’t letter Strongman for you. Then when you wrote the sequel, I lettered that. Although recently you had me reletter the entire book for digital release (The pages posted in this article are from the re-lettered version of Strongman). Is that available yet?
CS: Okay, so I lettered Strongman #1 myself, foolishly. I look back on it now and I should not have done that. I think at the time, the idea was, I could save myself a couple bucks in production of the book, and you letter a lot of my work these days, so you know that I can get extremely persnickety about changes and rewrites. I just knew that since it was my first book I would want to ability to tweak it until the very last moment, so I lettered it myself. I shouldn’t have done it, though. Strongman #1 and Strongman #2 didn’t end up coming out through SLG, which is a shame. So what I’ve decided to do in the meantime is use Comixology’s creator-owned submission system to get both volumes out. So that has been approved and the software guys over there are working on it to get it formatted however they need for their apps. Once that’s finished, though, Strongman #1 and Strongman #2 will both be available on Comixology for people to buy and read.
N: Awesome! That’s fantastic.
CS: Let’s hope people think so. Also, as you mentioned, you completely re-lettered Strongman 1, so it will look actually good for a change, as opposed to mine, which looked terrible.
N: Moving chronologically, you put out Strongman, you write Strongman #2, and then your third series 27 gets picked up by Image. Where does the seed of that idea come from?
CS: Well, the premise of 27 is that there is this “27 Club,” which is that all these rock musicians have died at the age of 27: Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison… there’s a whole long list. So the hook is you have a famous rock-star guitarist who gets hit by the same curse and has to survive until he turns 28. It’s sort of a supernatural rock-n-roll thing. I wanted to play with the mythologies of rock-n-roll and the fact that these people are revered as almost religious icons when they’re alive, and certainly once they’re dead. I also wanted to put in some of my own background as a musician, because I have played many, many shows in my day – I was never as famous as the character in the book, but I know what it’s like to feel the rush of all that. They say, write what you know. That was something I did know and could write. So I did. And then it got picked up by Image. I think that’s one of the best thing a young creator can do. If your goal is to write superhero comics, getting something published by Image is a great gateway into that world.
N: You say “write what you know,” but the first graphic novel was Strongman, which is about a luchador. You’re not a luchador…
CS: As far as you know.
N: Fair enough.
CS: To answer your question, though, Strongman came about because I had a premise. I wrote it incredibly quickly. It all just sort of happened. I had it, and the script was done. It seemed like a great premise to work with, and I didn’t have the 27 idea at the time. That came later. Maybe if I had, I might’ve started with that, but I can’t second guess the way things went, because it all worked out.
N: It worked out for the best, I’d say. Does having Image publish your book give you a stamp of approval? Does it legitimize your work enough to get DC and Marvel to perk up and take a look?
CS: I think that’s true to a certain degree. I think there are other ways to do it too. This is a bit of a generalization, but I feel like you need to have a hit creator-owned book at an Oni, Archaia or Dark Horse or you need to have an Image book to get Marvel or DC to take a serious look at you. No publisher is going to put out a shitty book, but I think Image has a certain heat on it that it’s the “in” place to be. Plus, at Image, there is no one to help you. If you’re putting a book out on time and hitting deadlines and it looks good, that’s all the creative team, which suggests you can handle some of the pro-deadline stuff at the bigger two. Again, though, this is all very, very generalized. There are plenty of other ways to break-in. Lots of talented guys got in and never published an Image book.
N: Of course. I think it’s fair to say this path is yours, and so your advice comes from what you’ve experienced.
N: So the first DC book you get is Swamp Thing. Then, suddenly, you’re on Thunderbolts, Red Lanterns, and Superman/Wonder Woman. That’s got to be an insane experience, but also I’d imagine a lot of pressure. How’re you handling it? What’s it been like?
CS: It’s been incredible. All of a sudden, I’ve been provided with an audience. The nice thing is that I had the audience almost from the start, because you’re working with established characters. On Swampy, I was following an endless parade of some of the best writers in the comics world. So that means people will always be kind of interested in what happens with Swamp Thing, if only because I’m standing on the shoulders of all those that came before me.
N: Well, that’s where I imagine this could end up being a stressful gig. Especially with a book starring both Wonder Woman and Superman.
CS: One hundred percent. Although I’m like that with anything I do. I don’t ever want to be known as a hack or someone who just churns shit out. Particularly with Superman/Wonder Woman, because there is a lot of attention on it, there’s a strong vocal minority who want it to fail… you’re dealing with that. Then also I feel like I have my own personal responsibility to these characters, who I’ve loved since I’ve been… well, alive, basically. Finally, there’s the responsibility to DC, who gave me this gig early in my career, which was a gigantic leap of faith on their part, too. So, yeah… all that adds up.
N: Is it the same for Superman/Wonder Woman as it is for a book like Thunderbolts?
CS: Absolutely. The book is the book. My name is on it, and I don’t want people to be able to say, down the road, oh Thunderbolts was Charles phoning it in. I work very hard to put my best into each of my projects.
N: Thunderbolts is my favorite book of yours right now. You originally took over the book for Daniel Way, midway through his run. What was that like? How much of what you’re currently doing was laid out for you by Way?
CS: I had 11 issues to work off of when I started writing 12. The expectation when I wrote 12 and 13 was that I would only write those two issues and someone else would come in to take over the book. So those, I had a bit of a road map for, but only in very broad strokes. For example, issue 13 was about Mercy. Marvel had said to me that they wanted to expand a bit on Mercy’s back story, but left it up to me to work out how to do that. That was the guidance I got. When it came time for what’s after those, they asked me for my take on the book. That’s when I came up with the idea that the Thunderbolts would be, basically, the selfish Avengers. The team is Red Hulk, Venom, Mercy, Punisher, Deadpool, and Red Leader, who is the old Hulk villain the Leader but he’s red. So that was the team. A bunch of antihero… dicks, basically. None of them really like each other, none of them have anything in common except they are all good at killing people. So I was like, “Why would this team ever work together?” That is where I needed to start. The premise I came up with is that they’re all selfish. They each want something personal done, but they need a team to accomplish their individual goals. So Red Hulk, who is Thunderbolt Ross, has them clean up one of his old messes, and then they all draw names out of a hat to see who gets the next mission up. We’ve already done Punisher. I’m still working out how we see the rest of their personal missions play out, but I have a pretty good idea where it’s all going.
N: With all these company owned books, you’ve still found time to launch a creator-owned book, Letter 44. The first issue sold out the print run. Are you looking to do more creator-owned work, or is your schedule kind of jammed at this point?
CS: My goal right now is to do a lot of work-for-hire work and do it really well. I figure I can build a bigger audience, continue to make a name for myself at Marvel and DC, and for now, Letter 44 can be the primary creator-owned work. It’s actually a very hard book to write. I’ve been writing full six-issue arcs all at once, and then turning in those full books. It’s very complex plotting, because there are multiple stories happening both on Earth and in space. That said, writing them in chunks has actually given me the free time to think about other stuff as each Letter 44 arc moves into production. So I’ve got some stuff in the drawer that I’ve been trying to work out, other half-written ideas that I’ve been culling together. Basically, at some point… maybe 2015 or so, I’ll shift back to more creator-owned work and less of the work-for-hire.
N: Well it sounds like you have more than enough to keep you busy until then. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Anything else to plug?
CS: Letter 44. Lots of cool stuff happening in that series. I would love people to keep checking that out. The first printing of issue 1 has sold out, but the second printing of issue one, with a cover by Javier Pulido, is out on November 27th at the same time as issue 2. So you can check both of those out then. Beyond that, if you’re a superhero guy, check out Swamp Thing, Red Lanterns, Thunderbolts, Superman/Wonder Woman, and in February you can check out She-Hulk from Marvel. Kind of crazy to say, but there is something with my name on it every week on the stands. It’s a pretty amazing and wonderful thing to be happening.
Amazing and wonderful, indeed. What did you think of Soule’s story? Are you reading one of his books? Looking forward to picking something up? Voice your opinion in the comments below.