LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES
AICN Comics Shoot the Messenger:
Q&A with Mark Waid!
27 April 2009
» SEE ALSO: Legion Publications
Hey folks, Ambush Bug here. Friend of the @$$Holes Bill Mitchell was able to have a sit down with Writer-of-Just-About-Everything Mark Waid about his long history in comics. Let’s jump right into this very cool interview.
Bill Mitchell (BM): What's your earliest memory of comics? Does one book from your childhood stand out in particular?
MARK WAID (MW): Yeah. It's hanging in a frame right now above my desk so I can look up at it and be reminded what a great job I have every time I get frustrated and ponder a new career selling corn dogs. It's BATMAN #180, the first issue of BATMAN my dad ever saw after the Adam West TV series debuted. He brought it home for me from the local U-Tote-M, the convenience store of choice in the racially incorrect Deep South of 1966. I was only three years old at the time, but I was precocious and learning to read at a super-early age and was captivated. I probably also learned that American Indians still worshipped totem poles. Don't ever take to heart anything taught to you at the place you bought Pixy Stix.
After that, it was just a non-stop four-color cascade for the rest of my life. When we lived in Birmingham, my dad would take me downtown to a place I came to know as the Radio Newsstand. I'm sure it wasn't actually named that; more likely, it just had a sign out front that had the word "radio" on it, but I was five, and anyway, I didn't much care what was on the outside. It was what was inside that mattered: a giant wall of comics on wall racks that stretched from floor to ceiling. If I could walk back into that place tomorrow just like it was then, I would gladly give up a year of my life, but I have no idea where that place was and no way to find it again. And it's almost certainly a strip mall by now, anyway.
And I never, ever stopped buying comics. Not once I got into high school, not once I discovered girls, never.
BM: Did you know early in life that you would be involved in comics? Or did you aspire to become something entirely different?
MW: I had a few dream careers when I was a kid, but oddly, only the wildest ones involved creating comics; that seemed too unattainable a goal. Yes, I yearned more than anything to grow up making a living in comics somehow. But I learned early on that I didn't have the patience to learn how to draw, and I wasn't much for telling stories, either, so it never once occurred to me that I'd grow up to write fiction. I wanted to be a disc jockey (and was, in college). Or, later, a journalist once I discovered that I had a talent for writing. So I went to VCU in Richmond, one of the best journalism schools in the nation, and it dawned on me in about the first week and a half that I'd never, ever have what it takes to stand in front of a grieving widow and stick a microphone into her face. Consequently, I changed majors every three days before I finally settled on English with a minor in Physics. And I'm still to this day three credits short of a degree--damn you, German 101. I sure hope that doesn't cut into my future prospects. Aren't you glad you asked.
I did know this, though, from the time I was a senior in high school: whatever I did with my life, it had to have Superman in it. (Maybe Clark Kent is why I drifted towards journalism.) I've written about this at length on my blog (markwaid.com), so I won't rehash the whole story, but the short version is that seeing Superman: The Movie changed my life in a fundamental and profound way and gave me a North Star that I've followed ever since.
BM: The Million Dollar Question: How did Mark Waid make his break into comics?
MW: The Million Word Answer: Writer Devin Grayson had a great quote. She said, "Breaking into comics is like breaking into a high-tech military compound. The first thing they do after discovering you got in is go seal up your entrance so no one can ever break in that way again." Still assuming I would never actually write comics stories, I fell back on my nonfiction skills and began writing for comics trade publications like AMAZING HEROES (the Wizard Magazine of the 1980s). That opened doors for me at DC Comics, where I got to know a lot of the editors, albeit as a reporter rather than as a prospective freelancer.
Then, in 1984, a DC editor named Sal Amendola was sent to major cities across the U.S. to give little seminars about DC in order to find new talent. I was living in Dallas at the time, went to see Amendola, and got a chance to talk to him afterwards. He was very kind and patient, and as luck would have it, I got my big break in large part because I thought to ask a question that no one else in any seminar had yet asked. He was encouraging us to send in story pitches, and I wanted to know which character no one was trying to write for. He thought about it for a second, laughed, and then said, "You know, of all the pitches I've gotten so far, no one's pitched a Superman story. Everyone wants to write Batman. Nobody's tried for Superman. And the editor, Julie Schwartz, is actively looking for eight-page stories."
Now, I knew of Julie and had spoken to him several times at length for AMAZING HEROES, so that was lucky break number two. Sal gave me the confidence to make an appointment to pitch directly to him--I was shortly going to be in New York for the first time in my life (lucky break number three), and I thought long and hard about what to pitch. Since I'd read Julie-edited stories all my life (Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League), I knew Julie liked high-concept stories with a strong narrative hook or gimmick. (Note to beginners: do this kind of homework when you pitch.) I offered him an eight-pager in which Superman goes to his Arctic Fortress only to find that it's been stripped bare--someone has burgled the joint, but who and why?
It wasn't WATCHMEN, it wasn't PROUST, but Julie nonetheless bought the story on the spot and that remains the greatest day of my professional life, maybe my entire adult life.
The next year didn't have any days nearly that good. I pitched a thousand stories to Julie (all lame) after that, and he bought exactly one, which was (a) in retrospect, awful, and (b) rewritten from word one by Julie and his assistant, E. Nelson Bridwell, neither of whom could much improve upon its clumsiness. And that was the end of my freelance career at DC.
But the freelance trade-publication career was taking off. I was writing thousands and thousands of words a month for magazines like AMAZING HEROES, and in 1986 moved to L.A. to work at FANTAGRAPHICS as the A.H. editor. The first day was straight out of a sitcom; I was told I had to fire the guy I was replacing, who had no idea he was out. That should give you some sense of the level of professionalism at work and is a pretty big clue as to how smoothly the rest of my time there went.
After a few months, I was booted, too, and I was working as a legal secretary and praying for the Reaper's scythe when I got a call from DC E-I-C Dick Giordano to fly to New York to interview for DC editorial. He called me on April 1, 1987; hard to forget the day because I hung up on him, positive that it was some friend of mine pulling an April Fool's prank. Luckily, he called again the next day and we straightened it out.
I was hired a few months later as an editor at DC and I honestly thought to the very bottom of my soul that this would be the job I'd have for the rest of my life, and I couldn't have been happier. It was a dream come true, and I'd found my niche, I thought. Writing? For a living? Forget it. I had no knack for it. I'd much rather work WITH writers and artists, said I.
So I really thought this was my place. Unfortunately, after a couple of years, DC disagreed and sent me packing--not unjustifiably, though my bigger-picture sense tells me I did or said something way early on to make Paul Levitz think I was not worth bothering with, which is a shame. But in the two-plus years I was on staff, editing an anthology book called SECRET ORIGINS, I worked with pretty much every writer in comics and had dozens and dozens of different guys' scripts cross my desk, and you couldn't ask for a better crash-course in writing for comics. I learned more from those two years' worth of scripts than I could have gleaned in ten years on my own. While on staff, I'd written a couple of stories with my fellow editor and best friend, Brian Augustyn, and once I was freelance, he made sure I always had some bit of work--a Flash Annual here or a Justice League story there--until I found a regular berth (again, thanks to him).
BM: Some of your earliest work in writing was for Impact Comics. Were those stories you look back on fondly?
MW: Some. For the first year, I wasn't producing any real stories; I was just asked to come along and dialogue over a couple of artists who were plotting and drawing their own work. Eventually, Tom Lyle, who was doing The Comet, went on to something else, and I inherited that gig and really made it mine. That was my first ongoing assignment, and it was unbelievably exciting. I was writing a monthly book about a guy whose super-power was that he flew around town like a comet and blasted energy out of his fists, and I thought this could be Shakespearean. Ah, the folly of youth.
BM: Did you have any indication while working on them at the time that Impact was not going to survive as a line of books?
MW: No, not at the time; I mean, everyone knew Impact had been mismarketed from jump, branded as a "kids' line" right about the time when DC's core audience began to level out at its current median age of "dead." We course-corrected in year two, but it was too late by then. The books had competent art and a small but loyal following, and one of them—THE BLACK HOOD by Mark Wheatley and Rick Burchett--was way ahead of its time and genuinely great, but only as we got into Year Two and the revamp made no ripples did we begin to sense that DC was just letting the clock run out. But by that time, I'd found other assignments.
BM: FLASH is likely the book that got you early recognition, was that a character you were fond of before writing him? Did you have ideas for what you would do with the character before you landed the assignment?
MW: I was as fond of Flash as I was of any Justice Leaguer, but I had no special desire to write him above the other DC heroes, really. It was just that the assignment fell into my lap once William Messner-Loebs left. The TV show had just been cancelled and the general expectation around the offices was that it would take the comic down with it, so Augustyn (him again--the FLASH editor) gave it to me (above the loud protest of his bosses, who assured him that I'd just be writing nothing but Silver Age story retreads) and we had to figure out what to do with it.
As always with superhero comics, it goes back to character--finding or creating some sort of synthesis between the hero's personality and his powers, his interior and his exterior, if you will--and then figuring out how I can connect with them emotionally, what traits we share in common that I can explore. With Wally West, there were loads. We were both impatient ("Anything that takes longer to cook than it does to eat isn't worth bothering with"). We both acted like immature teenagers around women. We both lived almost exclusively inside our own heads--Wally, because long-distance running really is a lonely business, and me, because I'm sighted in nature less often than Bigfoot.
But most of all, what we shared was a vocation. Wally was the first super-hero sidekick in comics history to "fulfill the promise," as it were--he's the first one who grew into the mantle of his mentor. All Wally had ever wanted was to grow up to be one thing, and he made good on his dream. Boy, could I relate to that. People used to ask why I didn't give Wally a secret-identity day job; I'd tell them that Wally doesn't want to do anything BUT be the Flash.
BM: During your run on Flash you created a fan favorite with Bart Allen, Impulse. Since characters you create for Marvel and DC like Impulse belong to those companies, they can change with each new creative team that handles them. Are you at all sad to see Impulse come to the end he did? Or are you able to let go of characters? (NOTE: This interview was done before the latest FLASH: REBIRTH issue was released)
MW: You have to either be able to let go or learn to live with what feels like a chestful of broken glass. The good news is that everything in superhero comics is cyclical, so Bart'll probably be back again someday.
BM: Did you get the chance to say everything you wanted to say with the character of the Flash during your run?
MW: Yeah. More than everything.
BM: Is he a character you'd ever want to return to?
MW: "God, no," he said, and 40,000 Flash fans exhaled in relief. No. I got conned into coming back for the 2006 relaunch, and it was a disaster from start to finish. I like the stories we told, but I radically misjudged the pulse of the audience when I decided to do a FLASH book totally unlike my last run, when 20/20 hindsight would reveal that that was exactly what the audience wanted. Plus, I took a chance with incorporating his children by hyperaccelerating their ages (because I gotta tell you, infants are really dull to write), and that backfired. Our artist pulled out well after the last possible second, we scrambled to find a replacement, I loved him, fans were indifferent, and Marvel snagged him after two issues anyway. Oh, and once I committed to the project and we'd solicited the first issue, before even one script was finished every single promise that had been made to me to get me back aboard was reneged upon, so integrity and backbone demanded I quit on principle before the first issue even came out. The only reason I stayed six was because of my loyalty to my editor, who didn't deserve to be screwed.
Oh, and also, I'd run totally out of things to say. Just ask the internet.
BM: With either Wally or Barry in the suit, or do you have a personal preference?
MW: Wally. I like Barry, and I think I've written a pretty good and very respectful Barry when I've had the chance, but I love the idea that Wally was, again, the first sidekick in history to acquire the mantle permanently. That was unique. That's a shame to lose. I'm sure Geoff Johns'll do a nice job with Barry in his FLASH: REBIRTH story, but I can't imagine what purpose Wally now has in the DCU.
BM: Your first run on CAPTAIN AMERICA with Ron Garney was well received but seemed to be cut short just as you were hitting your stride. Was it upsetting to have your run interrupted by Marvel's HEROES REBORN?
MW: Yeah, but that's comics. The only thing that really got under my skin was that the decision to hand the book off was made before we'd even begun, and we had to learn about it through the rumor mill about halfway through our run, after we'd tripled the sales (which is to say, after Ron Garney tripled sales and I was lucky enough to be along for the ride--God, that guy's good). Despite rumors, though, I was never mad at Rob Liefeld about taking it over; I knew it wasn't personal. To his credit, he asked me to dialogue over his run, but once he faxed me some pages and plot stuff and I saw where he was going, I declined. Politely, I promise.
BM: You and Ron were able to return to Captain America and even had the spin-off title SENTINEL OF LIBERTY launch. Is Steve Rogers a character you enjoyed writing?
MW: More than any other Marvel character until I got to Spider-Man, yes. When I first got the phone message that someone at Marvel wanted to talk to me about a regular series, it was too late to return the call until the next day, and I spent all night crossing my fingers and whispering, "Please let it be Captain America, please," because it was the only Marvel hero I was interested in at the time, DC boy that I was.
BM: You seemed to have a real understanding of what makes Steve Rogers tick. What do you think made him such an interesting character and not just a shield-toting Boy Scout?
MW: It was absolutely the internal conflict. Here was a guy who was ostensibly a soldier but who took orders from no one save the American people. Here was a guy who was built to embody the American Dream, but sixty years after Pearl Harbor, no one knew what the American Dream was. Run a web search on the phrase "American Dream" sometime. You'll get nine million hits, and 95% of them are for real estate. Three percent are for strippers. Everyone's definition is different; how do you serve that? We worked hard to distance Cap from being a traditional crime-fighting super-hero and have him deal more with the moral and ethical implications of the position. And, man alive, was that character created to deliver speeches, or what? I could write Presidential-gravitas speeches for that guy as a full-time job; that was the most fun part of the gig.
BM: You also did a run on KA-ZAR with Andy Kubert. How do you approach a character like Ka-Zar and make him more than just Marvel's version of Tarzan?
MW: When I said I'd follow Andy anywhere after our abortive X-MEN run and he said, "I want to do KA-ZAR," I about threw myself off a bridge. As anyone who's ever watched me meticulously vacuum and carpet-rake my Jetsons-like house would attest, I had zero, zero, zero affinity for Ka-Zar, Lord of the Savage Land Jungle. You don't hire Niles Crane to write Conan. So, again, it came back to finding some commonality. And when I studied Ka-Zar's history, I found the one thing that made him Not Tarzan--he was already an adolescent when he was first abandoned in the jungle. That meant he was old enough to remember pop music and TV and Big Macs, so what Andy and I built out of that was a Tarzan who was married to a hardcore back-to-nature jungle goddess but who secretly kept a Walkman hidden under his hammock and who drove his wife nuts when he snuck away to teach the natives how to play baseball and what the infield fly rule was. Ka-Zar was a "jungle savage" who was the articulate king of his realm but who missed civilization with a secret ache. Then, when he'd visit the city, he'd feel out of place there, too. Feeling constantly out of place, by the way: another thing he and I shared.
BM: KINGDOM COME was a mega hit to say the least. How much did you shape the series? Was it essentially Alex Ross' concept that you fleshed out?
MW: Depends on who you ask. The very basic core of it all--an Armageddon-level war of ideology between DC's heroes--was Alex's, as was framing the story through the eyes of the Spectre and through Alex's father, a real-life minister. And more, much more. Alex came to the table with the initial spark and a giant folder full of sketches and notions, and we spent dozens and dozens of hours (including one marathon weekend where I flew out to Chicago) trying to hammer it all into a story. Weirdly enough, I--the barely spiritual guy, not the guy whose dad was a preacher, go figure--was the one who brought in all the heavy Biblical elements. But I'd always been captivated (and more than a little creeped out) by the Book of Revelation. And I don't think Alex would disagree that I found critical roles for Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, neither of whom were players in his original concept. It was essentially my task to take the pieces and fragments Alex had in mind, find a theme and define the conflict, and turn his pieces into a cohesive story. But they were magnificent pieces. The reality is that you could probably have taken me out of KINGDOM COME and still had a big-deal series, but you couldn't have taken Alex out of it and had an event that big. But that doesn't lessen my pride in what we did manage to accomplish in terms of defining DC's big characters.
BM: KINGDOM COME really drove home how the "dark era" of comics had made the heroes seem less heroic and they had become dangerously close to being as dangerous as the villains they fought. Did you personally feel that comics were taking that path?
MW: Absolutely. What's the matter? Was I not ham-fisted enough about making that point? How is that possible?
BM: There seemed to be tension between yourself and Alex Ross when it came to KINGDOM COME. Were there creative conflicts regarding the book?
MW: Yeah, but there always will be when you've got two guys swinging for the fences on a dream project. Both Alex and I love the DC characters probably more than life itself, but I can be irritatingly dogmatic sometimes about how I see them, and we probably had far more screaming matches about, say, the relative merits of the Martian Manhunter as a character than normal adults really ought to.
And I don't think either of us is totally satisfied with the climax of the story to this day. Alex wanted everyone dead except Superman, and there's absolutely a poignancy and impact to that, a bookend sense to the fact that Superman was the first and he should be the last. I, on the other hand, wanted Superman to save the day with a clear victory because I needed him to have redemption. And we ended up with a sloppy compromise because Alex and I never agreed on Superman's characterization; Alex sees him as Clark first and Superman second, and I take the opposite tack. For right or wrong, I fought hardest against Superman being unable to save anyone at the end because that would have meant that every single decision Superman made in our story, from start to finish, would have been the wrong choice, and I don't think he's capable of that.
Alex's vision was neither a better nor worse ending, just a different one, and one I couldn't get ahold of. Maybe--probably--there's a story to be had there, but I couldn't find it. My perspective was that Superman had really only made one bad choice, the one that instigated the entire plot, and even then he made it out of misguided humility. He decided to retire because he felt, particularly after the death of Lois, that the world he'd adopted no longer wanted him, that he had no place here. And because of the humility that is so fundamental to his character, he never realized the chain reaction his retirement would create--that every other hero would say, "Superman was the best of us all. If he couldn't hack it, why should I even bother getting out of bed?"
BM: Was THE KINGDOM your chance to have your singular vision shown in the world you helped create?
MW: Eventually. It was also my chance to disappoint thousands of readers hungry for a sequel. Double victory! Alex came up with the name, but early on, we divided on story. He wanted to co-write but not draw or paint, which was fine, but he had grand cosmic visions of Old Gods and New Gods and stuff I tried and failed to find any emotional connection with. So DC greenlit two projects--KINGDOM, headed up by me, and whatever Ross wanted to do with artist Gene Ha, and I can honestly say I've no idea why that never saw print, except that Alex was lucky or smart or both, because he let me be the one to prove that readers were not eager for continuing that world, at least at the time. But, Jesus God, whether you like the two bookends or not, I got to do five (if I do say so myself) really good comics in the middle, and OFFSPRING is to this day one of the best stories I ever wrote (thank you, artist Frank Quitely).
BM: You re-launched X-O MANOWAR for Acclaim Comics. Do you enjoying reinventing characters? Did you think the character needed a revamping or would you have been happy to have worked on the character regardless?
MW: I had no feel for the original character, so when Augustyn and I were asked to relaunch it using just the name, we had a blast. There are good, clever action pieces in each of those issues, and I got the chance to refine my Snarky, Effete Super-Genius Character that, apparently, I am incapable of not shoehorning into everything I write.
BM: You went on to write both the regular JLA series as well as Year One with “The Tower of Babel” storyline really hitting big for fans. Was that particular story something you'd had in your head prior to doing JLA? It just seems like a natural plan for Batman to have and may have worked just as well in his own title.
MW: The opening--Bruce Wayne discovering that someone had actually robbed his parents' graves and stolen the bodies--was an idea I'd had for years and I would actually open every new Batman comic for a long time muttering a silent prayer than no one had beat me to it. The notion that Batman had a bunch of secret anti-JLA protocols in place was something I'd carried over from my hour and a half writing X-Men, when I tried to establish that Professor X had the same kind of secret "if he goes nuts, do this" plans against all his students, but that concept failed to take hold. And Grant Morrison had alluded to similar protocols in his JLA run, so I just ran with it. You can always do a lot worse than to take a cue from Grant.
BM: You wrote two GATECRASHER series for Black Bull. Was that a series you were approached with or did they ask you to create a property for them?
MW: It was created totally by committee, meaning it's a miracle it was any good at all, but Wizard publisher Gareb Shamus and our mutual pal Jimmy Palmiotti (writer/artist) approached me about coming up with a science-fiction concept. The three of us, plus Gareb's financial guy Fred Pierce and the criminally underrated artist Amanda Connor sat in the gardens behind the New York Public Library for many afternoons throwing ideas back and forth, and we finally kinda-sorta landed on a secret squad of tech-heavy operatives who were guarding us from unknown alien invasions by having its top agent leap through random interdimensional portals like Navy SEALS--but it didn't gel until Amanda came up with the name "Gatecrasher." That series really ought to be in print somewhere. It's very funny; Jimmy as a writer is a sensational collaborator. You wouldn't think of him as a writer so much as a day player in GOODFELLAS--he really is Central Casting, Brooklyn--but he's amazingly inventive. Go read JONAH HEX from DC, right now. He co-writes that book, and it's one of the best monthlies out there.
BM: EMPIRE was a great take on the super-villain. Are there plans to return to this series in the future?
MW: Sketchy ones, but co-creator and artist Barry Kitson and I both have to end up at the same company for a while first--and Barry's still in the middle of his Marvel exclusive. But someday....
BM: Is writing a series that centers around the villain more enjoyable?
MW: No. Writing villains is immeasurably more difficult for me than is writing heroes. I just did it--well, do it, when you factor in Irredeemable--as a deliberate attempt to make myself work different muscles in hopes that I'll stretch.
BM: You joined Crossgen around 2001, taking the reigns on a couple of titles and launching several new ones. What was that experience like?
MW: Like being first mate on the Pequod.
BM: Was there anything that could have been done differently that would have avoided Crossgen closing shop?
MW: No. The roots of failure were too deep. Every single cultist--crap, crap, I meant "creator," sorry, my bad--every single creator under that roof was astoundingly talented, and I admired them, every one. Most of them had--have--more talent than I can adequately describe. But their talent was in service to the vision of two teenage Zelazny fans (CrossGen owner Mark Alessi and his cousin, Gina) who'd grown up to win the lottery and start a vanity publishing company based on some Byzantine, uber-complex invented mythology that no one ever fully understood, except it had something to do with yin-yang sigils. Good books, though.
BM: Did Crossgen owner Mark Alessi have much of a role driving the creative aspects of the company? Or did he give the creators free reign with their books?
MW: If you listen closely when you ask that, you can hear the collective howl of laughter of every writer and artist who ever worked at Crossgen. Alessi was a spoiled eight-year-old with a checkbook, and he was the biggest bully I've ever met in my life--and, coming from a lifelong comic book geek, that's one hell of an indictment. I could make a fortune charging his employees for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome therapy. He would, and I'm not joking, make (admittedly spineless) grown men stand in the corner when they displeased him. I'm sure some of them still wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night hollering "Sir, yes, Sir!" His idea of creative guidance was to; quite literally, scream until he was red in the face that there wasn't enough detail on the page and that he wanted to see every single blade of grass, Goddamnit! He'd punish guys who drew perfectly well without his help by focusing on some detail or another on one of 22 pages--some face that somehow wasn't exactly what he saw in his head, whatever the hell that was--by berating them at the top of his lungs and then sending them home for the day, "and don't come back until you can draw it right!" That, people, is art directing at its finest. Despite his inappropriate behavior, which was deservedly notorious, there were some damn good Crossgen books put out--but I swear to you, none of them were issued by Crossgen so much as escaped FROM Crossgen.
Ask anyone. The guy was a character. He had an eye for talent, and he was an effective salesman. And I think that, at heart, he sincerely believed in the concept of Might For Right at one time. When I first interviewed there, he showed me his prize possession, one he'd obtained at some millionaires' auction or another: the actual bow that Errol Flynn used in The Adventures of Robin Hood. I loved that because even though it was just a movie prop, the bow symbolized a certain commitment to justice that we seemed to share. Later, of course, I had to resist the urge to break it over his thick head.
BM: You returned to Marvel with a run on FANTASTIC FOUR. How do you approach a title with so much history? Is it difficult to make a title like FF accessible for new readers?
MW: Not as long as new readers have families. That's the key to relating to the FF--they're a family. As for the history, I knew the important stuff, and my editor--Tom Brevoort, the best editor in comics--knows Marvel like I know DC and kept me honest.
BM: There was a bump in the road so to speak during your run on FF that almost led to a premature end to your work.
MW: That's a very politic way of putting it.
BM: What exactly was the catalyst for your near departure from the series?
MW: The publisher hated what I was doing, which was not something I'd never knowingly experienced before. Bill Jemas, along with Joe Quesada, gets and deserves all the credit in the world for making Marvel Comics vital again for the 21st century. And Joe was always very supportive, is very supportive, of my work. Bill, on the other hand, handed down marching orders pretty much out of the blue to Brevoort that he didn't like our direction, and he dictated to Tom a whole new concept for the FF--which was to take the "Fantastic" totally out of the series. First off, said Bill, the whole family had to move to the suburbs. Immediately. No explanation necessary. Reed was to be a wacky, scatterbrained inventor who kept coming up with cool stuff (like "waterless fish tanks," whatever those were) that had no commercial applicability, meaning the family was living check-to-check. Ben was working construction. Johnny was a fireman, and--and this is the best one, please sit down for this--Sue was a beleaguered secretary who would go invisible every time her boss was looking for her. No, no, no, not a super-spy; that would make too much sense. No, a secretary. Oh, and their "super-villain arch-enemy" was the suspicious neighbor next door who thought there was something weird about these people. Gladys Kravitz.
Brevoort and I were just gobsmacked by this. Just speechless. And there was no arguing with Bill--he wanted the MUNDANE FOUR because they'd be more "relatable." BUT--he was the boss, and Marvel owns the characters, not me, so we actually took a stab at trying to give Bill what we thought he wanted without destroying the FF. We planned a story arc in which Reed had been forced to brainwash the entire family, including himself, into this basic scenario for reasons I forget. It was actually a pretty elegant workaround--I can't remember the details, but I promise it was better than it sounds--but Bill decreed that it was too little, too late (three days later was "too late") and one Friday, poor Brevoort called me to tell me that I didn't have to bother with the next script because Bill had already written it himself and had dropped it on his desk. I was fired. I had never been fired off an assignment before. I was stunned. Artist Mike Wieringo was asked if he'd stick around, but in a gesture I thanked him for till the day he died, he told Jemas to take a hike.
And before either of us had a chance to really have the news sink in, it hit the internet...and, my God, what a firestorm. Bill had a rep by that time among the fans for making bonehead plays, but this seemed to them to be the proverbial straw, and it melted the internet. Almost literally. Every major comics newssite crashed. CRASHED. As in, couldn't handle the traffic of the outraged. Newsarama was down for nearly 48 hours. It was incredible. And when these sites did limp back to life, the outpouring...I felt like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral. I couldn't believe how vocal and strident such a vast majority of people were about how much they loved what we'd been doing and how nuts Jemas was to let us go. Never before or since have I ever felt more loved and respected for what I do than I did that weekend.
Not long after--I doubt because of this, but we can dream--Bill was let go from Marvel, and Joe Q asked Mike and I to come back. I was far enough ahead on the scripts where I could just move on without a break in publishing, and Mike rejoined me ASAP. We stuck around for another year and change until Mike felt the urge to move on, at which point I left with him--he wasn't just my partner, he was one of my best friends. But we never forgot the outpouring of faith and good wishes. So, thanks, Crazy Unca Bill, wherever you are, for ginning up the love! And good luck with that waterless fish tank!
BM: You had the opportunity to give a fresh take on the origin of Superman with BIRTHRIGHT. Was this a dream project for you?
MW: Oh, how you understate.
BM: Characters like Superman often get revamped; is it disappointing knowing that your retelling will eventually be no longer the current incarnation?
MW: In Superman's case, it was pretty crushing that Leinil Yu and I did our "big, definitive take" at a time when DC continuity was as elusive as mercury in a tight fist. Nothing "definitive" that anyone was doing was taking hold. So, yeah, it's very disappointing, but I guess what I can hope for is that somewhere out there, my vision of Superman may have spoken to some teenager who'll be writing Superman ten years from now and he or she'll find some inspiration in it. And it's been a very successful project in trade paperback form--like a big-budget movie that didn't make huge box office but was a surprise DVD hit. I guess I can live with that.
BM: Was the LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES a difficult property to tackle given the numerous incarnations and histories involved with the team even though you essentially relaunched the book? Was this a book you had always had your sights on?
MW: I'd actually already written it for a while back in '94. And next to Superman, it's always been my favorite longtime DC property. Paul Levitz is the only person I'll allow is a bigger lifelong fan of the Legion than I am. I love everything about their history and know it better than I know my own family's. Problem was, that history was badly broken. CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS and the John Byrne SUPERMAN reboot and a few other storylines had really wrecked the Legion's continuity beyond repair, and no matter how fast we ran around trying to patch the raft, some other ripple in DC continuity was blowing another hole in it, to the point where Legion history seemed like nothing BUT hasty patches.
The absolute, irrefutable reality was that by the early 2000s, new-reader perception of the Legion was that it was an impenetrable read full of mismatched history that made no sense. You can argue all you like that this perception wasn't fair or accurate, if you're so inclined, but it didn't matter. That was the series' reputation, and it hardened around the characters like cement. We couldn't give that book away no matter how good it actually was. In fact, it's forgotten, but the last time it was relaunched around about 2000 (as THE LEGION by Abnett and Lanning), you could not have asked for a greater promotional push. Wizard Magazine promoted it with giveaways, and they NEVER promote DC. Ads were everywhere, retailer incentives were created...and it was still pretty well D.O.A.
So in 2005, I was asked if I wanted to come aboard, and I felt there were only two ways to go--either try to get back to Silver Age continuity, which was flatly impossible in part because of the ongoing litigation between the Siegel estate and DC over who owned Superboy--or plant a giant flag that said, "Everything starts fresh here, it's all new, it's a total reboot and we're all on the same page, readers and creators." I chose the latter path, for good or ill. Barry Kitson and I worked out their entire world, including origin material you'll never see, and (at the suggestion of writer Tom Peyer) rethought the Legion as less of a super-team and more of a political movement. And we got some mileage out of it, and I like what we did.
But now we're back to what I was saying before--how liquid DC continuity was at the moment. While we were busting our asses to rebuild the franchise (and getting periodic fan notes from Paul Levitz, which were gold to me), a whole different editorial office was allowing Brad Meltzer to undo absolutely all our hard work for one of his JLA stories, which (he'd been told) could star the 1980s Legion, as if ours never existed. I don't blame Brad at all, but boy, was that mismanaged on all levels--because it was deliberately kept secret from us until it was on the verge of being printed. I would have JUMPED at the chance to play along somehow, thus strengthening a new Legion series that were on about issue four or five of, rather than sending a message that our Legion was just some sort of aberrant fan-fiction. (Yes, I'm still pissed.) Barry and I were dealt with in unbelievable bad faith, which I could have endured, but it wasn't just about Barry and me; it made DC as a whole just look stupid and uncoordinated, and I still love DC enough to hate when that happens.
Eventually, long after Barry and I finished our run, Superboy was returned to DC and Geoff Johns now has the opportunity to re-re-re-relaunch the Legion as its Silver Age incarnation, and more power to him. On the one hand, I wish we'd had that chance, but the timing wasn't right and it wasn't in the stars. On the other hand, I have no regrets because I have to work extra-hard sometimes to convince some readers that I'd much rather move forward than backward.
BM: Was working on a licensed title like CITY OF HEROES harder than characters from Marvel or DC given the amount of oversight that goes into properties like this from the parent company or is it about the same amount of oversight?
MW: It involved more oversight, but it was welcome; that was their world
and I was just visiting. I wish I'd conquered the series' biggest failing,
though; anyone who knows and loves an MMORPG like CoH comes to it not because
they want to learn more about the characters' backstory but because they can
invent the backstory themselves.
BM: 52 was a series that featured multiple writers on the same weekly title, of which you were one. Was that a difficult challenge?
MW: Oh, it was an unbelievable challenge. But there is not one ounce of PR or fabrication in the statement, "We loved it because all four writers respected one another immensely." Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka and I viewed one another as peers, each able to bring something unique to the process. But under the coordination of editor Steve Wacker (and later, Michael Siglain), we had two or three big in-person summits, participated in big conference calls each week, and kept in constant contact with one another throughout.
The biggest challenge was actually, wisely, kept from us by Steve. EIC Dan Didio, who first championed the concept, hated what we were doing. H-A-T-E-D 52. Would storm up and down the halls telling everyone how much he hated it. And Steve, God bless him, kept us out of the loop on that particular drama. Siglain, having less seniority, was less able to do so, and there's one issue of 52 near the end that was written almost totally by Dan and Keith Giffen because none of the writers could plot it to Dan's satisfaction. Which was and is his prerogative as EIC, but man, there's little more demoralizing than taking the ball down to the one-yard line and then being benched by the guy who kept referring to COUNTDOWN as "52 done right."
BM: Was there a certain amount of finishing other writers dangling plot threads and leaving some of your own? Or was there a definitive map of which writers did what?
MW: Some plot threads were passed like a baton more than others; I think all of us wrote John Henry Irons at one time, whereas the Montoya stuff was all Greg's because it was important it maintained a very specific voice, and the space stuff was all Grant's because none of us could figure out what the hell he was doing even though we enjoyed it greatly. Me, I get credit for Wicker Sue. Geoff and I shared Booster and probably collaborated more as a pair on different plot elements because we were the only two who lived in the same town.
But we definitely fed off one another's talent and swapped some tips and tricks, and probably permanently raised one another's game.
BM: DC was said to have given you, along with Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison, some editorial direction for the DC Universe post INFINITE CRISIS. Was there any truth to that?
MW: Nope. It almost came together, was promised to, but ultimately it was decided that my vision wasn't really in step with where the DCU was going and that my insight didn't, at this moment in time, have as much value to them as we'd originally believed it might.
BM: You joined BOOM! Studios as Editor-in-Chief as well as continuing to write. What is a typical day like for you considering the work load involved with both?
MW: It's different now than when it began nearly two years ago; now, to preserve my sanity, I've handed off much of the day-to-day to Managing Editor Matt Gagnon and editors Ian Brill and Paul Morrissey, all of whom work ridiculously hard. Dear God Almighty, did we luck into those guys. Meanwhile, writing three BOOM!s a month means I spend 80 percent of my time at the keyboard and not a whole lot at the editorial desk, though it's still up to me to chart an editorial direction for the company and fly to conventions and sit in on the board meetings and keep a general eye on what we're doing.
BM: What attracted you to BOOM! Studios?
MW: Would that all your questions were this easy. I've been friends with co-owners Ross Richie and Andrew Cosby for years and years, and they were after me for a while to jump aboard as Editor In Chief, which was flattering and appealing. I really enjoy teaching and I love working with new talent because--and I mean this honestly and truly--it's just as important to me to learn from them as it is to pass along what I know about craft.
See, that's what it's about. It's about teaching craft. It's about being able to explain to newcomers what's unique about the medium and how best to use its strengths and how to avoid its weaknesses, because I don't care how big your Hollywood budget is, there are still things that comics can do that no other medium will be able to do--not the least of which is hand the pace at which a story is absorbed over to the reader totally, making comics a subtly but truly interactive experience in a way not often defined.
It's about teaching tyros that comics is a visual medium, giving them some sense of how to construct each issue as something that feels satisfying in and of itself while at the same time being part of a bigger story, and instructing them on a million other hard-earned lessons about how comics works that were much more instinctual to me before I had to start articulating them. And that, in turn, benefits me and gives me a clearer vision of what it is I'm trying to do as a writer.
BOOM! is the most exciting place in comics right now, which sounds like bullshit PR jazzhands, but that's how I see it. We're being pursued by every agency and studio in town and have allied with Fox and Sony and Disney and many others on a wide array of projects--and it's always a great fit because they let us do what we do. Our partners let us produce comic books, not thinly disguised movie pitches in comics form. Everyone in this town who's dealt with us knows I hold a very hard line editorially; you can, as some have, come in with a story idea that is tailor-made for movies or TV, but if it doesn't make a good comic book first and foremost--if it's not visual, if it's not kinetic, if it doesn't take advantage of the medium, and so forth--then we pass, even if it means Andy, Ross and I leave money on the table as a point of integrity.
Plus, we're covering all distribution bases, which few companies are. We're at the vanguard of digital distribution, having been the first to release new issues through stores and on MySpace Comics simultaneously. We just cut a newsstand distribution deal to make sure the Pixar stuff gets into the hands of kids, which is gargantuan. We have a very strong bookstore deal for our trade paperbacks and collected volumes. We've just launched a cub imprint called BOOM! Kids especially for that material, and I cannot believe the hunger for THE INCREDIBLES and THE MUPPET SHOW comics--the first issues sold about 75% more than I would in my wildest dreams ever have projected, and that's the kind of development that gives heat to everything we do.
BM: You have a couple of new books launching from BOOM!, the first being IRREDEEMABLE. How did the idea for this series come to you?
MW: It's been simmering for a while. The high concept of IRREDEEMABLE is that it's the story of how the world's greatest superhero becomes the world's greatest supervillain. It doesn't happen overnight, so what are the milestones? What's the dark road? The older I get, the more fascinated I am by how hard it is sometimes to reconcile the simple moral lessons superheroes taught me as a child with the realities of adult life. If you're not emotionally well-adjusted, it's not hard to see how you could take away a warped view of their lessons--that life really is black-and-white, for instance, or that mistakes are things that only villains make, or that a healthy sense of self-interest is somehow antithetical to heroic altruism. Or that people love you not for who you really are but for what you can do for them.
The Plutonian is the series' main character. We're catching up to him at the end of his dark journey, and much of the series is told in flashbacks that show the moments of his ethical and moral erosion. Meanwhile, in present day, his former allies are scrambling madly throughout all time and space to learn his secrets--which they thought they knew but really didn't--in hopes of finding some way to stop the Plutonian before he can finish killing them. The structure is very CITIZEN KANE, if Citizen Kane were still alive and was murdering reporters with his heat vision. Art's by Peter Krause, who's phenomenal. Covers are by old friends John Cassaday, Barry Kitson, Gene Ha, Jeffrey Spokes, and others.
BM: You also have THE UNKNOWN coming soon which features a female in the lead role. Do you feel there's a lack of strong female characters in comics?
MW: Absolutely, though that's not why I put a female in the lead. I wasn't trying to serve any social agenda with that choice; I just wanted to switch up my game a little by reversing what I did in RUSE (a CrossGen book that was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche) and going with a female Master Detective and a male Watson. THE UNKNOWN is Doc Savage by way of David Lynch. Catherine Allingham is the world's greatest and best-known detective, specializing in impossible crimes, insisting that logic and science can solve everything. Her assistant, Doyle, is eager to apprentice under her, but on his first day on the job, she tells him two things: one, she has six months to live; and two, she's decided she refuses to go to her grave without first solving the greatest mystery of all--what happens when you die.
Doyle goes slackjawed. Either his new boss is delusional, or she's a genius, or both. And when they start dealing with cases that mirror Catherine's cutting-edge-science quest for the afterlife, their adventures quickly become very bizarre and very dark.
Managing Editor Matt Gagnon found a European artist named Minck Oosterveer to collaborate with me on this, and he's awesome. The work has a very slick line but it's very noir at the same time. Minck's going to be big, and I only hope that BOOM! can hold onto him as long as we can.
So I'm writing supervillains and science detectives and new adventures of THE
INCREDIBLES all at once. I don't think I've ever felt this challenged in my
entire career, but the opportunity to connect with all three of those audiences
at once is really thrilling. Exhausting, but thrilling. Plus...Incredibles,
dude. BOOM!'s licensed to do all the Pixar comics--CARS, TOY STORY, FINDING
NEMO, MONSTERS INC., and more. By day, I can get age-appropriate material into
the hands of young kids. By night, I can write about death and supervillainy.
And to think I wanted to be a disc jockey. What was I thinking?
Thanks Bill and Mark for providing this interview for our AICN readers. Special thanks to fellow @$$Hole Ryan McLelland for bringing this interview to our attention.