Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with three artists and one writer, who all work on titles for DC Comics, about their collaboration on the page and their friendship off of it. They discuss how working in comics can be isolating, how rare it is to meet your collaborators, and how their friendship helps them take risks in their work.
Mitch Gerads, 40, a comic-book artist who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and has worked on titles including The Sheriff of Babylon, Batman, Mister Miracle, Heroes in Crisis, and Strange Adventures
Tom King, 43, an author and comic-book writer who lives in Washington, D.C., and has worked on titles including The Vision, The Sheriff of Babylon, Batman, Mister Miracle, Heroes in Crisis, and Strange Adventures
Clay Mann, 40, a comic-book artist who lives in Ponce Inlet, Florida, and has worked on titles including Batman, X-Men, and Heroes in Crisis
Evan “Doc” Shaner, 36, a comic-book artist who lives in Grandville, Michigan, and has worked on titles including Strange Adventures, Future Quest, Man of Steel, and Supergirl
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Tell me how you met and became friends. Did you know one another’s work before you met?
Mitch Gerads: I’ve known Doc the longest, since 2009, from Twitter. Then we met in person at the Wizard World Chicago [convention], and that’s where our friendship began.
Tom King: I was a fanboy for Doc and Mitch before I knew them. I followed them online and loved their art from back in the day. I don’t think I ever waited in line to see them—hopefully I didn’t embarrass myself like that—but I knew them first as a fan. Clay’s art I really didn’t care for, so I never had that problem.
No, I met Clay at a convention after I became a professional. I met all these guys professionally first.
Beck: In comics, it seems like it’s pretty rare that one person would be both writing and illustrating. Is that fair to say?
Tom: Yeah. Probably 10 percent of the industry does that and 90 percent does it the other way.
Beck: So most of the time you’re really relying on this relationship between writer and artist. What is that relationship like in your experience?
Mitch: It’s rare that legitimate friendships come out of the working relationship. Usually it’s a job. You get paired, you do a thing, and then you get paired with another person and do another thing. Tom and I just worked so well together that we started declaring ourselves a unit.
Tom: Historically in comics you hear more about writers and artists who eventually ended up hating each other. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had a huge disagreement. A lot just don’t know each other—probably 70 percent of writers and artists never meet or even talk to one another.
Mitch: Without conventions, I doubt a lot of people would meet each other in this industry.
Beck: Normally, would your workflow be: Send the script, do the art, with not a lot of back-and-forth or collaboration?
Tom: It depends. A comic-book script isn’t like a Hollywood script. The best way to describe it is as a letter you write to your artist. That person reads your letter and interprets it into a comic book. You can write a letter in different ways. With people you don’t know, maybe you’re more strict. With friends, you do get a language between the two of you.
I did a whole project with a guy named Barnaby Bagenda whom I’ve never talked to or emailed. I’ve never seen him in person. I wouldn’t know him if he walked down the street. Then there are these three guys who I talk to every single day about everything that goes on in my life.
Beck: How did your working relationship develop into a friendship?
Evan “Doc” Shaner: Mitch and Tom have been working together for so long. I’ve known them for a long time, but I’ve only worked with them for the last year or two. It was like walking into a working friendship that was already there.
Clay Mann: Mitch definitely came with Tom.
Mitch: Tom and I got paired together by an editor to do a book called The Sheriff of Babylon. We gelled really well while we were making that, and realized we gelled together as friends too. He writes things that I want to draw. When you’re working on a creative project, a lot of yourself comes out, so when two creative minds meet, it creates something more than just work.
Tom: We all got more successful together. We live in a weird liminal space between normal people and celebrities. We’re nowhere near celebrities, but we sometimes have to do things like this interview, and it’s weird. Going through that together bonds you.
Beck: How is the collaboration different when it is with a friend than when it’s with someone you have never met? Do you think that that affects the work in some way?
Clay: In the beginning, I cared more about what I was doing for Tom than for normal writers.
Tom: Where is he going, “in the beginning”?
Clay: It’s weirdly turned 180 degrees. Now I’ll go my own way more. I have 180-ed from caring way too much to thinking I have leeway because he’s someone I know.
Mitch: It makes total sense. In a different type of working relationship, you have to consider that email you’re about to send: Is it going to make me look stupid? Is it going to tick them off? Whereas with this group, I can throw out a random idea that might or might not be good, without worry of any sort of repercussion.
Doc: Before working on Strange Adventures with Tom and Mitch, I was hopping from one book to another and working with a number of different writers. Coming on to Strange Adventures was a revelation in terms of feeling comfortable and stretching to do different things. Before, especially if it was a writer I didn’t know very well, I played everything very safe and for the most part stuck to the script that was given to me.
Beck: Do you have in mind an example of a risk that you wanted to take or something creative you wanted to try that you might not have done in another relationship?
Clay: I have an example where Tom didn’t listen to his friend.
Tom: What did I do?
Clay: I said to Tom, “I don’t think this is going to fly,” but he was like, “People will love it.” It was Harley Quinn defeating the Trinity [of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman].
Tom: That didn’t work. I should have listened to you.
[Another example of how our relationship affects the work] is I know at least a little bit what’s hard to draw and what’s not. Maybe I have something in my head that took me two seconds to come up with and it’s going to take them a week to draw. It can be an asshole move, especially if you know the guys and you’re like, Oh man, his wife wants to go on vacation next week.
On the other side, when Mitch signed up for Mister Miracle, I was like, “I want to do this all as nine-panel grids.” That’s something I would never do with other artists, because it’s really hard, but I thought, Maybe Mitch will forgive me for doing this to him.
Beck: Mitch, have you forgiven him?
Mitch: Oh yeah. It was actually a lot of fun. Now I’ve developed this weird affinity for them, but they still take forever.
Tom: The three artists you’re looking at are literally the best at what they do. This is an art form that tons of people attempt, and this is the very top of the pyramid. So it’s not hard to write for them. I asked halfway through the last project we did, “Why don’t you guys ever tell me that what I wrote doesn’t work and you want to draw something else?” They said, “Oh, we just draw; we don’t even ask.” I was not disappointed or mad at that answer. I was like, Thank God, they have my back.
Beck: What do you think are one another’s greatest storytelling strengths?
Mitch: I think Clay is the best Batman and Catwoman and Joker artist in the game right now.
Clay: I think Mitch is amazing at false compliments.
Mitch: In our friendship, Clay is a good counterbalance to positivity.
Clay: I'm rude, negative, and sarcastic.
Mitch: He’s the Raphael of the group. He’s rude, but cool.
Clay: This is going to sound like it’s not a compliment, but Tom’s scripts, in a 20-page book, feel like they go on forever. There’s a lot going on. Someone make that sound smarter for me?
Mitch: I know what you mean. Tom considers every panel on every page. You get a really good, meaty book out of Tom’s work.
Doc: When I didn’t know Tom very well, I got a script of his, and I texted Mitch right after I read it, “Hey Tom’s actually good.” I’ve drawn a few books where Character A goes from here to here, fights somebody along the way, and that’s the whole issue. That can be fun, but it can also be very dry. Tom’s books are actually trying to say something. So many comics aren’t.
Beck: Outside of work, what is your friendship like?
Clay: Some artists don’t have a life outside of comics and I’m one of them, so I only see these guys at cons.
Mitch: Tom is actually the godfather of my son.
Tom: Oh crap. I’ve got to get a Christmas present.
Throughout the pandemic we’ve had a running group text that goes 24/7; that has kept me sane. It’s been my crutch.
Mitch: Recently it’s been more work-related, but for a long time there we didn’t really talk about work at all. It was mostly nonsense.
The nature of the job is we’re all stuck in our offices talking to no one but our pets. So it’s nice to connect with actual humans.
Beck: What have you learned from this friendship?
Tom: I learned I should trust Clay about Harley Quinn.
I have learned that jobs will come and go, but the friendships are more important. When I’m talking to an editor, whatever makes these guys’ lives the best is what I want to happen. That sounds corny, but it’s also professionally beneficial. The editor always wants things to be done faster. But if you give these guys room, you’re going to get the best work.
Mitch: Good comics can be made, but you need some sort of special mind meld in order to create great comics.
Doc: This job can be really, really lonely. I don’t know about the other guys, but I’ve gone through stretches where I don’t talk to anybody while I’m working. Having any kind of shared experience with people in this job is so helpful for mental health alone.
Beck: Do you think this isolation of artists and writers is to the detriment of the quality of the comics industry?
Clay: I think it’s a detriment to people.
Doc: It can be really harmful for folks to spend this much time alone. And then when you have an entire industry of people who work by themselves, you get a lot of weirdos who make terrible stuff.
Mitch: On the flip side, I can’t imagine anything more terrifying than if everyone who worked at DC Comics was all in a big warehouse cubicle system.
Clay: If these people didn’t talk to me, I would disappear. I’m just not the type of person who reaches out. So it’s nice to have a couple friends to share this stuff with.
If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at email@example.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique
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