By Grabthar’s Hammer: An Interview with Erik Burnham
Last year I wrote about my favorite science-fiction parodies of all time, and Galaxy Quest was a shoo in. It’s one of the few movies that can watch all the time and not get tired of it. One day while looking up something unrelated I stumbled across an article about the upcoming Galaxy Quest comic that would be a direct sequel to the film. Needless to say, when I found out that a sequel was coming in the form of a comic book, I was absolutely stoked. This week alone I have referenced the movie with two separate Twitterers; one of them a local sports talk radio host who referenced the Omega-13 on air, and the other was Erik Burnham, writer of Galaxy Quest: the Journey Continues.
I reached out to Galaxy Quest: the Journey Continues writer Erik Burnham for an interview, and he kindly obliged. Check out our conversation below!
4LN: How did you initially get your start in the comic book industry?
Erik Burnham: This’ll be a long one!! I’ve been drawing (in general, and also comic strips for my own amusement) since elementary school – and writing (stage and screenplays, prose stories and fanfic, as well as radio bits when I worked in that industry.) That’s what set me up.
In 2000, I lost my job in radio and started hanging around more on message boards. Alvaro’s Comic Boards and Chuck Dixon’s Dixonverse, which emerged originally from the CB Birds of Prey board. There were people I liked talking with, and they posted on both boards. I met even more people through them, and I had a lot of time to network with no job.
One night, a chunk of us were on the old AOL IM (remember that, kids?) and talking comics. Usually we talked about stuff we liked, but tonight, it was all grousing. Not liking this publisher’s event or that comic’s run… the same old topics fans always gripe about when they get in a complaining mood. But then someone asked “Could we do better?” And we decided to put our money where our mouths were. That was December, 2001.
In August of 2002, we had an 80 page anthology. Cover by Steve Lieber. Intro by Denny O’Neil. A western by Chuck, and a bunch of first-timers doing their own thing.
My entry was a comedy, featuring Nick Landime (even his name is a pun!) Nick was received okay, but since he wasn’t a superhero, he wasn’t the star of the book. But I kept doing Nick stories anyway when the Shooting Star Comics Anthology (as we called it) morphed into a quarterly, published by the fledgling Shooting Star Comics. The antho ran six issues, and I did something in each of those. (Nick appeared in four issues of the six issue run, as well as in two convention specials and his own one-shot, Nick Landime vs. the World Crime League – a story I’m proud of, and art I’m kind of bummed over. I drew it during a December while working retail, and brother, does it ever show! But I digress….)
The other thing Shooting Star did was publish Tom Waltz’s Children of the Grave as a miniseries. This lead to Tom seeing Nick (and it fit his sense of humor – he dug it!)
When Tom Waltz became an editor at IDW… he gave me a chance to pitch. In this case, a horror story for the Gene Simmons anthology. After that, he gave me a shot on a miniseries about a “fighting monster” toy launch – Nanovor. This went over well, too, so he called and asked if I liked the A-Team…
That got me to do two issues of the A-TEAM War Stories with Chuck Dixon. (Chuck wrote two, I wrote two. I got Murdock and BA.) Chuck and I had so much fun working together we did a Simpsons story for Bongo.
Doing all that lead up to my big break. Since I’d heard IDW had Ghostbusters, I had been asking to pitch. Tom gave me my shot by offering me the two issue INFESTATION tie-in, part of IDW’s first event.
It went over well. So well, in fact, that I was asked to pitch a Ghostbusters ongoing.
And everything else flowed from that.
(Don’t give me that look – I TOLD YOU it’d be a long one!)
4LN: Are there any specific writers that you especially admired who influenced you early on?
EB: Oh yeah. I was (and am) a voracious reader, and it’s all grist for the mill. But to keep this answer shorter than the last one, I’ll stick to comic book influences while I was growing up. Folks like Stan Lee (a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #19 is one of the first comics I clearly remember reading.) JM DeMatteis (I envy his skill at going from comedy to drama), Gerry Conway, Peter David, Chuck Dixon, Mark Waid, Chris Claremont and John Byrne… a lot of the usual suspects, and a lot of Spidey writers. Most of my heaviest comics buying was when they were at gas stations (I’ve never lived near a comic shop!)
Since I’ve started writing, any writer who can write stuff that’s fun grabs my attention. Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows was a favorite for that. Jeff Parker is another guy that consistently is where I want to be.
And dear God, I almost forgot Dwayne McDuffie and would never have forgiven myself. He wrote everything so well, and created my favorite concept ever: DAMAGE CONTROL. It is to my eternal regret I never got to tell him so in person at the one con we both were present at!
4LN: Your “comicography” is full of nerd pop culture icons – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, X-files, with a couple crossovers thrown in for good measure – and now you are working on another nerd classic (one of my favorites), Galaxy Quest. How would you say pop culture has impacted you as a comic writer?
EB: It has helped me pay my bills for years, now…
But seriously, it’s a wonderful thing to get a chance to be a small part of these things that are responsible for so many good memories for so many people.
Better, to hear I’m doing it right more often than not.
And sometimes I hear from folks who tell me that something I wrote made them feel better or moved them in some way. That’s a hell of an impact. Pop culture has given me a chance to help entertain or even comfort folks.
I don’t want to come off as pretentious, and I know it does, but it means a lot to me to be able to brighten someone’s day.
Plus, those paid bills are sweet.
4LN: As fun as it must be writing about a lot of people’s favorite cartoons and movies, have you discovered anything difficult about writing them?
EB: Kind of. I mentioned how much people can attach to some characters, and nothing I do will please EVERY fan. There are readers that want a darker, more dramatic and horrifying Ghostbusters – but I take my lead from the movie, and put more weight on the comedy.
Other times, there’s the trick of balancing what I want to do with what the editors and publishers and licensors and fans all want. Balancing may be the trickiest part with all those moving parts… because everyone has concrete opinions and fans always have higher expectations.
But that’s just tricky. Difficult? That’s manual labor in extreme weather – which I’m happy to avoid.
4LN: Moving on to your upcoming series, Galaxy Quest: the Journey Continues, where did the idea for this book come from and what can fans of the movie expect?
EB: It may have been CBS that wanted it, because Galaxy Quest is still one of the favorite Trek-films-that-isn’t-a-Trek-film. Exploiting it in live action would be trickier at this point, but comics are forever.
The general idea I started with was playing it strictly as a sequel to the movie. They don’t have a ship, they’re doing their show, living their life, and years have gone by. I did mirror the film’s opening some, starting at a con (but not a mall-con!) with the group at a higher level of popularity.
The biggest thing I can say I was asked to do was give Brandon (the Justin Long character) a bigger part in the story. Easy enough to accommodate!
We’ll be seeing everybody… and the situation they get into this time is a direct result of Jason using the Omega-13 device in the movie. So rewinding time 13 seconds didn’t have consequences for MOST people. Who’s to say that was the case everywhere?
I also play with pop culture – and con culture — in similar ways to the movie.
4LN: Is there anything in particular about the movie that drew you to want to write the Journey Continues?
EB: It’s an opportunity to work on something that, like Ghostbusters, was funny because of how the characters responded to the things they face. Their reactions felt authentic.
I like that, and it’s something IDW and CBS wanted to continue in the book. Not camping it up, nor making it too serious.
And that’s fun for me!
4LN: Was it hard writing these characters that were played so well by their onscreen counterparts?
EB: No. That’s the best thing – when there is a CLEAR VOICE, when you can hear in your head how Tim Allen or Alan Rickman or Sigourney Weaver would most likely deliver a line reading, it makes it easy. The wrong words stick out like a sore thumb.
4LN: Is Guy Fleegman safe now that he has a last name?
EB: Guy is smart. Guy is gunning for his own spinoff show. Guy comes up with a plan to cover his own rear in issue #2… though he may wish he hadn’t.
4LN: What would you say to someone who is considering picking up Galaxy Quest, but hasn’t made up their mind yet?
EB: If they liked the movie, or my run on Ghostbusters, or just stories with a heftier balance of fun than doom and gloom… then I hope they’ll give it a chance.
I’ve been having fun, artists Nacho Arranz and Esther Williams have been having fun, editor Tom Waltz has been having fun… and in my experience, it’s the more the merrier.
Plus, we address cosplay. Hard hitting social commentary, AS YOU LIKE IT.
4LN: What’s the most important piece of advice you feel could benefit an aspiring comic book writer?
EB: For writing in general, I always say read as much as you can, listen to how people talk, and most importantly, finish as many things as possible. Practicing crossing the finish line is important. But that’s general writing advice.
For COMICS writers? Honestly? First, write a complete 8 page story (to get used to brevity. It’s EASY to pad stories out, so much harder to be brief) and then DRAW THAT STORY. It doesn’t need to be beautiful. It doesn’t need to be shown to another living soul. But nothing will teach you about the limits of the page faster or better than drawing out a script.
You’ll see that it’s impossible to have a BIG PANEL where a man walks through a crowded bar and sees fifteen people doing fifteen things… and then there are six more panels on the page. I’ve seen things like this! And most folks roll their eyes when it comes to writing a short piece or practicing drawing it (and making space for the word balloons.) But I tell you for a fact, this will help you improve as a comic book writer and appreciate your artists!
Lightning Round: just answer with the first thing that comes to mind.
4LN: If given the opportunity, what comic book character would you love to write?
EB: Peter Parker.
4LN: Who is an artist that you haven’t gotten a chance to work with yet, but would love to?
EB: Chris Samnee.
4LN: When you were writing Alexander Dane’s lines, did you hear Alan Rickman’s voice in your head?
EB: I heard EVERYONE’S voice in my head! But Alan Rickman’s voice is always there. Lurking. Waiting.
4LN: What was your favorite cartoon when you were a kid?
EB: Depending on the definition of kid, let me just go with Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. (Also a confession: I was terrified of the Incredible Hulk TV show.)
4LN: If you had to choose between living in the Star Wars universe and the Star Trek universe, which would you choose and why?
EB: Trek, hands down. The Star Wars universe is more dangerous. I’d probably get killed and eaten by an Ewok.
4LN: Final question: If you had to get an apartment with one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who would you choose and why?
EB: Donatello. I have a feeling he could whip up a device that gets me free cable channels. Don’t judge! We’d be movie buds.
I would like to thank Mr. Burnham for doing this interview. He is just a great guy. Make sure to head to your local comic shop and pick up IDW’s Galaxy Quest: the Journey Continues this Wednesday, January 21st!
Want more Erik Burnham? You can follow him on Twitter @erikburnham, or check out his website, burnhamania.com.
IDW was kind enough to give us a preview of Galaxy Quest: the Journey Continues, make sure to check them out below!