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ZADZOOKS: Interview with Joshua Ortega

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2008

This is the 61st in an infinite series profiling members of the comic-book industry. This month we crack the cranium of writer Joshua Ortega and ask him to ...

Give us a piece of your mind

Known for his science-fiction novel "Frequencies," Mr. Ortega also has written for such comic book series as Spider-Man Unlimited, Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer, Star Wars Tales and Star Trek: The Manga.

Now he can boast being the story architect for one of the hottest video games of the year, Microsoft's Gears of War 2 for the Xbox 360. And he even provides the prose for DC Comic's Gears of War comic book.

Official title: In one word, writer.

Age: 34

Educational background: University of Washington in Seattle, though I never took any writing classes and actually didn't graduate. I've always been more of a "fly or die" kind of guy who likes to just get in there and do something rather than learning about it forever. I got paid for my first writing gig when I was 19 and pretty much knew what I wanted to do from that point on.

Favorite childhood memories: Reading comics with my dad, watching movies with my mom, playing Atari 2600 at my uncle's house, camping with the family and the big Ortega family reunions.

First comic book ever read: First one that really made an impression on me was the reprint of Silver Surfer No. 1 that ran in Fantasy Masterpieces in the late 1970s. That was a great book, had a lot of meaning and metaphor (most of which I didn't really get until I was older), and the art by John Buscema was fantastic.

First video game ever played: It was probably something at a pizza parlor or restaurant, maybe Galaga or Pac-Man? Could have even been Space Invaders.

Your influences? The main one is Philip K. Dick. In comics, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. In film, George Lucas, Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter and Woody Allen.

What was your first comic book assignment? I briefly tried to break into the biz in the 1990s, but it was a bad time to make a name, right around the comic speculator bust. I instead wrote my first novel, "Frequencies," and that's what paved the way. An editor at DC Comics liked the novel, and he gave me my first paid gig on a Batman story. Soon after, Marvel asked me to do Spider-Man and Dark Horse asked me to do Star Wars, and the rest is history, as they say.

How did you get involved with Gears of War 2? My comics and my novel definitely paved the way for that gig, one thing always leads to the next, right? Also, Cliff Bleszinksi [creator of Gears of War] and I both really hit it off the first time we met and expressed interest in working together on something at some point.

Any pressure knowing the future of the Gears of War franchise was partially riding on your story? Oh yeah, for sure. And that first draft came in hot, and we also had to take into account the voice-over sessions, which I co-directed in Burbank. I spent as much time writing Gears 2 as I did my first novel. So hopefully that says something about the work that goes into writing a blockbuster video game.

Does the graphic violence of the game bother you and does your story justify it? Yeah, I would definitely say that the campaign/story mode of the game justifies the violence. It's a heavy, emotional story at times, and it helps you understand the stakes and why the war is so costly for humanity.

Why pick up the Gears of War comic book series? So you can find out what happened in the six months in between Gears 1 and Gears 2. It's essentially the prequel to the sequel. Also, you'll meet the first new Gear ever introduced outside of the games, Jace Stratton, and he makes a very quick cameo in Gears 2. Also, you have some amazing art by Liam Sharp.

Any new projects?I have an upcoming Battlestar Galactica: Cylon War, which is co-written with Eric Nylund (of Halo novels fame) and will tie-in to the last season of "BSG" in January.

What is the current state of the comic book industry? Talentwise, tons of amazing people are working in the industry. There are some cool things being done by the mainstream companies, but I think others are kind of pandering to the existing fan base too much. The indie comic scene is also quite vibrant right now, and they're often sold more to the literary/bookstore crowd, which I think is great. It gets the medium in front of people who may have never seen it (or ever taken it seriously).

Is Hollywood corrupting or helping the comic book and video game industries? Helping, definitely. Traditionally, sales on high-profile movies based on other media bring sales back to the original property. It's not always been the case with comics, but that again speaks to the need for comic companies to reach out to a more mainstream audience. There's no reason that an Iron Man movie shouldn't lead to some more sales of the Iron Man comic.

Any tips for new writers? Publish work, first and foremost. ... It's always a step, publishers want to see published work. Also, make sure to get out and network, meet people, other artists, etc. Rarely do you get a good gig without knowing someone. And always remember: It only takes 10 years to become an overnight success story.

Favorite image? A beautiful woman. Lots of favorite images, but hey, that's one I'll always stand by.

Favorite word? Epic.

Besides this interview, what's the stupidest thing you ever did? How about looking back while I was racing another kid on a bike, not seeing the pothole in front of me, hitting it with my front tire, flying over the handlebars, using my chin as landing gear, knocking it out of place, and getting a nice-sized piece of gravel bloodily embedded into my chin.

Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times' Community pages (www.washingtontimes.com/communities/zadzooks).