Alan David Doane: Could you tell us a little about how you started writing comic books?
Kurt Busiek: I was not a major comic book reader when I was a kid, but when I was in junior high school, I started picking up comic books for some unknown reason, and started getting into Marvel Comics on a regular basis. And shortly thereafter I realized it would probably be fun to write 'em and people got paid to do this and actually did it for a living and that sounded like a great job, so, for the next few years I did all I could to learn how to write comics.
Mostly a friend and I, I wrote comics and he drew them, and by the time we'd gotten 60 pages of stuff done, we'd progressed from absolutely, horribly awful to having some idea of craft and storytelling and pacing. So when I was finishing up college, I wrote some sample scripts and sent them to DC Comics, and the editors there liked them enough to give me a shot at writing a Green lantern backup story, and that was my first professional sale. And from there, I sold a script to Marvel for a Power-Man/Iron Fist fill-in that would up being the first issue of a 12-issue run, and that was my first ongoing series, and I just kept going from there.
ADD: You first rose to prominence in the minds of most readers with Marvels with Alex Ross...
KB: Yup, that was only 11 years after I broke in...
ADD: An overnight sensation. Tell us a little bit about what it was like going from working regularly but I guess not really being as well-known as you are at this point, to having that success with Marvels, what was the transition like there?
KB: Well, it was a very odd transition, because while we were working on Marvels, of course, we had no inkling that it was gonna be a big success. We were convinced that people were really only gonna buy issue #2, because it had the X-Men in it. But we were just doing this project the way we wanted to do it because we thought it was a good story and we would have fun doing it. So, during the whole process of working on the book, which was a very work-intensive, research-intensive book.
I was making very little money and taking forever to turn out scripts, and even after we were done when the book was coming out, it was a year before any royalties came in, so with all the great reviews and all of the rewards and such that we were winning, it was still a time of economic struggle. And even after it came out, I wasn't all of a sudden deluged with offers of more work. There was actually very little, because most editors looked at Marvels and said "Yeah, that was really good, but the book I'm editing isn't that kind of book." And they jumped to the conclusion that that was all I could write. It wasn't until a few years later that I started getting so many offers of work that I was turning stuff down. That was very pleasant, but it was just a larger version of the same process I'd been undergoing for the last ten years, which was keep working, keep doing stuff you enjoy doing, keep trying to do the best you can, and I was simply doing it on bigger characters.
ADD: I would assume you were relatively certain that the Marvels-type story wasn't the only sort of tale that you had to tell. How did you develop the writing skills to be able to handle the wide variety of different storytelling techniques that you've used on titles as diverse as Marvel's Avengers or the Ninjak series?
KB: I am simply interested in comics as a storytelling form, and I've never been one of those guys who wants to write the same kind of thing over and over again. I didn't get into comics because I had one particular kind of story I wanted to tell. I got into comics because I love the comics form, and I want to do all kinds of things with it. So during the period before Marvels that I was struggling to do anything I could, I wrote everything from humor stories, to horror stories to superhero stories to Mickey Mouse stories, and that gave me a nice practical education in writing a lot of different varieties of material.
But I've also always read a lot of different varieties of material and been very interested in doing lots of different kinds of stuff. The sort of human interest of Leonard Starr's On Stage or the high adventure of Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. I've always wanted to do that sort of thing so I've always studied that along with whatever I was working on at the time. And the more chances I got to do something different, something that stretched craft in different ways, the more fun it was, so I would actually seek out that sort of thing.
ADD: I'm gonna guess that you would agree with me that the wider the variety of diversity of the types of stories that are seen in comics, the more likely the artform is to thrive, wouldn't you say?
KB: I certainly hope so. Right now we're stuck in kind of a holding pattern, where the wider variety of diversity you've got doesn't actually have a way to connect to readers who are interested in it. But that's something that we need to work on and hopefully we'll find a solution for it.
ADD: I know that one of your very longtime friends is Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics and he also released just recently Reinventing Comics. I'm gonna assume you've probably read that?
KB: Actually, no. I read the first draft of Reinventing Comics and had some lengthy conversations with Scott about how to rework it, much as we did with Understanding Comics. But I haven't seen the final version, it just came out this week, and I'm kind of hoping for a free copy.
ADD: One of the things he goes into, he gives sort of, a treatise I guess, on the possible futures of the artform, obviously diversity being a key role in that. I'm wondering if the two of you, as lifelong friends, if you see yourselves as working two different corners of trying to save comics.
KB: We certainly started out that way. Scott was the hometown friend who drew the comics that I wrote when we were practicing how to create comics. When we both broke in to the comics field, Scott was very determined to stay independent, never do anything that he didn't own, never do anything he didn't have complete control over. While I was doing work-for-hire for the major companies working on characters I enjoyed reading about when I was a teenager. And Scott occasionally referred to us as Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. But then the year that Marvels was winning all the awards was also the year that Understanding Comics was winning all the awards too.
Luckily we were rarely in the same category. And we felt like God had simply looked down on us after 20 years of argument and said "You're both right, now shut up and move on!" And shortly thereafter I was doing creator-owned work and Scott was writing Superman Adventures. So I don't know that we're still working different sides of the same street, as it were. We're both interested in finding new ways for comics to reach new audiences and we have different ideas, not necessarily on how that can be accomplished, but on where in that process we each want to work. I'm a passionate supporter of the idea that trade paperbacks being sold in bookstores and on the Internet and outside comic book stores, in places where people who don't already read comics might see them, is a great way to attract new readers. And Scott, of course, is very, very tied up in the idea of comics on the Internet, which I also think is a great way to reach out to new readers, but it's a difficult economic model right now.
ADD: He makes a pretty good case in the latter part of Reinventing Comics for methods in which comics could be read over the Internet, and he does concede, I think, that the technology isn't quite in place yet to make it completely practical, but that the likelihood is that in another year or two we're gonna be able to see the types of things that he's sort of predicting.
KB: I certainly hope so. The idea of solving the problem of micro-payments has been a year away for about five years now. And I keep hearing that it's solved, but it doesn't yet seem to be operating the way people like Scott envision it operating. I'm sure we'll get there. I guess my approach is that until we're there, I'm perfectly happy pursuing other avenues, and Scott is practically Messianic about the Internet, and he would like to push it along just as fast as possible. I'm content to let him push it along as fast as possible and I'll push the trade paperbacks too.
ADD: I completely agree with you that an affordable and economic solution in terms of trade paperbacks is a great idea. I've got two small children, they're four and six, and I've talked about this before in other interviews. I have a real hard time paying three or four bucks for a flimsy pamphlet that I'm gonna hand to them that I know is gonna be corn flakes the next day. I'm sure you're probably aware Marvel announced the last week or so the digest format that they're gonna be releasing...?
KB: Backpack Marvels, yes. I think it's a great idea. It's actually an adaptation of something that Marvel's Spanish licensed publisher is doing. They have a series of digest-sized reprints called Bibliotecha Marvels. Each of which collects about seven issues of classic Marvel material in black and white. And every time somebody from Marvel has gone over to Spain for a convention, they tend to come back with a couple of these things going "Look, look, these are really neat!" Enough people have done that now so at Marvel they said "Why don't we do this?" (Laughs) "This is a really nice package, we can do it inexpensively, and it's a great way to make available a package that offers value for money."
Marvel's been having good success with the Essentials trade paperbacks, which is another package that's designed to offer value for money; to break out of the cycle of two dollars for a comic book, or pretty much two dollars times however many comic books are in a trade paperback. The Backpack Marvels, if they work, they're 150 pages of material for six or seven dollars, so in size and shape and price and length, they're not terribly dissimilar from a paperback book. So they're much more in a category that non-comic book readers are used to.
ADD: You mention, too, the distribution issue. As I say, I've got two small children and I frequent shops, so they're exposed to them on a regular basis. But I find when I have had the opportunity to pass out comics (to kids), they devour them. I think the artform is naturally attractive to young readers.
KB: I agree. We give away comics instead of candy for Halloween. And every year we have kids coming to our house and they're delighted to get comics because they don't ordinarily see them and we have people who come back every year, "This is it! This is the house where they give away the comics!" You know, they'd rather have a comic book than another candy bar. But they don't see comic books for sale anywhere, so how are they gonna be turned into regular comic book readers?
ADD: I guess one of my fears for the future of comics, really, is we may have already lost a generation of readers.
KB: I actually think that might be a good thing. We lost a generation of readers after a long process of a downward slide that narrowed the readership further and further. And then, with the creation of the direct market, we found a way to serve the existing readers very well, but not bring in new readers in any great quantity at all. And that actually gives us, in terms of the wider audience it practically gives us virgin territory. We're not trying to convince those readers that comics are more than just superheroes because they don't think of comics as anything. And if we present something that they're interested in, that looks like fun to them, they'll enjoy it without a preconception that comic books have to be Spider-Man or Superman, because they don't know that.
ADD: Did you read Fortune and Glory, the Brian Michael Bendis book?
KB: I've read, I think, the first two issues of it. The third one is kicking around the house somewhere, but it disappeared into the files before I read it.
ADD: See, I have a real hard time believing that when that's collected in trade paperback, that if they stick that in the Hollywood, the performing arts section of bookstores, that it's not just gonna do blocKBuster business. Because it's a terrific read. But it gets between a Superman and Incredible Hulk graphic novel, it's gonna die.
KB: Right. The question is, where does this stuff get racked? If something like Maus got racked in history or biography or Judaica, where it did really well--but if it got stuck in humor or graphic novels, nobody who was interested in it would really see it. But things are changing there, too. Back in 1985, when Dark Knight and Watchmen were coming out, the big complaint about getting comics into bookstores was they all got racked in humor. Now it's 15 years later and the big complaint is that they all get racked into the graphic novel section in the science fiction area. Well, at least we got a section.
ADD: I guess that's a step up.
KB: Once we produce more books, keep more in print and have more diverse material available, then we'll need more than a section. But it's all a case of building the critical mass that gets us moved on to the next step.
ADD: Tell us where Gorilla Comics came from.
KB: Actually, Gorilla Comics started with a conversation between me and Mark Waid. Mark was frustrated with working with work-for-hire editors who'd been changing his work for the worse, and he wanted to find a solution. At the same time, I was looking at my current Marvel contract coming to an end shortly, and i was itching to do more creator-owned stuff, more stuff that I had greater control over. So I was facing the problems that, if I'd put another creator-owned book out, Astro City had done quite well, I was happy with that--but, every time you put out a creator owned book, you're putting out one book in a sea of 750-1000 books that come out that month.
And it's very hard to get people to notice it. And I suggested to Mark that, if he wanted to do creator owned work and I wanted to do creator owned work, if we did it together, then the news story that hits is "Waid and Busiek Form New Imprint." And that would get more play and more notice and give us a better chance of having our stuff reach readers who'd give it a try. And of course the natural next step was, "If two is good, more is better!' So we decided that, if the two of us were gonna do this, why don't we get other people to do it and make an even bigger splash. So we contacted other creators we thought would be interested doing something like Gorilla, and they were, and so we got going.
ADD: You mention, and I hate to tell tales out of school here, Mark Waid was originally supposed to do this interview with us--
KB: That bastard!
ADD: Yeah, well, what are you gonna do? I suspect it's as much my fault as it is his that he isn't on the phone right now, but we'll find out at some point...you mention the frustration that he had with his work being changed. I always felt when he came back to Captain America, the second go-round that ended not as well as one would have hoped, with Marvel editing his work in a way that he didn't agree with, I didn't understand then and I guess I don't understand now, maybe you could enlighten me as to the mindset of the company, when they have somebody who they bring in as a big name and promote it as the salvation of the title, and then go out of their way to drive them away--it seems like they do that again and again and again, it's not like it's an isolated incident. What do you think is the motivation of the company in a situation like that?
KB: I don't think that the company's motivation is actually to drive somebody away. It's more a case that they get very nervous about big projects. When Mark and Ron Garney were on Captain America the first time, Captain America hadn't been selling very well, the idea was, we want these guys to come in and boost the sales on the book, and they're good and they've got energy and they've got ideas, so let 'em do what they want. The second time they came (on the title), Captain America had just been coming back from the year of Heroes Reborn, the Rob Liefeld and subsequent creators' Captain America had sold very, very well indeed.
And Marvel was desperate not to see those books drop in sales. That if those four books came back to Marvel and didn't do phenomenally well, then it was very possible that upper management was gonna decide farming them out to popular creators and giving them control of the characters is obviously the best way to do it, and they'd lose the characters again. So they were very very cautious about Captain America and Iron Man and Avengers and Fantastic Four, and were very worried about how they could keep the sales up. And unfortunately, it's just a truism of the industry that when publishers are worried about something, they meddle. We had lengthy discussion about whether Tony Stark should have a moustache, whether he should be clean-shaven, whether he should have a goatee, because they were so nervous about whether Tony Stark with a moustache would be perceived as old-fashioned and therefore not saleable. And I for my part was concerned that a clean-shaven Tony Stark doesn't look like Tony Stark.
ADD: Well, the Young Tony was very popular.
KB: Yeah, there you go!
ADD: (Chuckles). Again, reinforcing my theory that there's no sense of history there. Not necessarily even in the sense of a respect for what went before, but also paying attention to the mistakes that went before.
KB: Actually, I think they pretty well knew those were mistakes. But I don't think that their figuring was the teenage Tony Stark was a sales failure because he didn't have a moustache, I think they thought he was a sales failure because it was a horrible idea.
ADD: To make him young and hip. Which was why they didn't want him to have a moustache, I guess that's what I'm trying to get around to.
KB: I think you're making a leap in judgement there.
KB: Certainly making him appear younger and more cutting edge, say, 32 year old, is not the same commercial process as making him 18 years old (laughs).
KB: The business with Captain America, they just wanted to make sure that Captain America was going to fit what they thought would be the most saleable approach for the character, and Mark's ideas for it didn't match that. Often, in a work-for-hire situation, normally you don't hear about what goes on between an editor and a writer because it doesn't actually cause a great deal of controversy, it's part of the process. I submit a story and the editor says "I like this, but can we change this, this and this." And it's rare that that kind of editorial control erupts into something difficult, normally it's just part of the working process. In this case and in other cases that have been notable recently, it has, but the upshot of it all is the characters belong to the company, and the editors are supposed to be the stewards and guardians of those characters.
I think that an editor who's working with a writer who isn't doing the kind of thing that that editor thinks is best for the book shouldn't actually spend too much time trying to get the writer to do something differently. At the point that it's clear that this is not something that that writer is gonna be comfortable doing, is the point at which you need another writer.
ADD: With Gorilla, is there any outside editorial force, or are you, as the writer and owner of your books completely in control?
KB: We would actually like to have an editor at Gorilla, but the structure of the company hasn't allowed it yet, because of the financial backing situation. Each of us is in editorial control of our own book. We bat ideas back and forth. So, when I'm working out a Shockrockets plot, I'll run it by Stuart Immonen, and put Stuart in the position of being the story editor, so I'm getting feedback from somebody. Mark will work out his Empire stories with Barry Kitson and occasionally he'll call me up and run an idea past me and we'll talk something through. Each of us has a sounding board, someone who will perform the function of an editor. But those sounding boards don't have control. They aren't gonna say "No, you must do it this way!"
Just like Stephen King's editors don't tell him "Steve you gotta change this chapter." If they think it doesn't work, they say "Steve, take another look at this chapter. I think you might want to do this instead." And if he agrees with them, he can do it. If he doesn't agree with them, he can leave it the same or do something else, but the editor there is working as a first reader, as a set of eyes to give a judgement on the work that the writer of the work can then react to in whatever way he feels appropriate. In work-for-hire, when the editor is the representative of the person who actually owns the material, then the editor has a lot more power, the editor can say "No, you will do it this way." And the freelancer can either do it that way, or find another job.
I don't think that that's inherently a bad way to work, I think that's really an inescapable ramification of the idea of company-owned characters. If I'm writing the Avengers, I can't suddenly decide "Yeah, I want to blow up the moon," without it affecting all the other books that the company's working on, not to mention leaving the Watcher homeless. So that's something that the company gets to decide, whether it's what they want for their universe or not. Whereas in Astro City or Shockrockets, I get to be the final authority. I get to say "We're gonna do it this way," and I don't have to worry about what effect it'll have on others. I mean, in Shockrockets I do consult with Stuart, because Stuart is co-owner and Stuart can say no to something and he and I will find a workable solution. But that's a much more collegial process than if I'm writing something for Marvel, Marvel just absolutely owns all of it and can change anything they want to change. I've been luckier than Mark has been, I haven't had many bad editorial experiences, but that doesn't mean that I'm not aware of where the power lies.
ADD: Let's talk a little bit about Shockrockets, your Gorilla title. Which came first, Gorilla or Shockrockets?
ADD: So Shockrockets was specifically created for the company?
ADD: Where did the inspiration for that come from?
KB: I had been talking to Stuart Immonen about doing work together. We already had a project we wanted to do, but we didn't want to do it as the Gorilla launch book. And that's Superstar, which we'll be doing next year. So we were going to create something together that we were gonna do as our first book for Gorilla, I just asked him, "Stuart, if you could draw anything at all, what would you most like to draw?" And he immediately answered "Big machines." For some reason, he'd been reading some old 1960s drag racing comics and was really enjoying the hardware and the focus on the vehicle, and I like that approach too, and so we started talking about what was the appeal of technology and machinery, and we spun out an idea about a teenager picking through a dump full of ordinary trash but also alien technology, and picking out stuff that he could make his flying motorcycle even cooler with.
That would be a kind of interesting introduction to a world where technology is kind of more advanced but still has that clunky, garage, do it yourself feel that is so much fun about the drag racing comics that Stuart had been reading. From there, we built on outward, if that's our introduction, what's the world like? Where does this technology come from that's in the dump, why was it there? And we came up with the idea that there was this war, and there was this technological defense team that had saved the earth and was now protecting the earth. And once we got to that point, we kind of went back into some earlier ideas that I'd had. At one point, I played around with the idea of pitching DC on a new Blackhawk series, based on my perception that the Blackhawks are pretty cool, as long as it's World War II. Because World War II airplanes are really neat. But in the modern day, airplanes are a little old fashioned. Comics and science fiction hardware has gone so far beyond even the cool jet, that the Blackhawks always seem a little old-fashioned. And if, instead of having airplanes, a new generation of Blackhawks had these cool science-fictional, anime-mangaesque aerial fighter craft, then that might touch the same chord of "Hey, that's cool," that back in the 40s the airplanes did.
One the one hand, I thought this would be kind of a neat idea, and on the other hand I never really pitched it because, I'm an old-fashioned guy, I like the Blackhawks in planes. And the Blackhawks in cool manga ships didn't quite feel right to me. So I just shelved the idea. But once Stuart and I were talking about a global defense force, of some sort of cool alien technology and human technology hybrid, I said "Hey, there was this idea I came up with a few years back, what if we do something like that?" And so, that became the Shockrockets. And certainly there are other influences there, there are similarities to the Thunderbirds there, there was a Japanese anime show that I used to watch back in the 70s called Starvengers, there was another team of crack pilots in cool ships, although if I'm remembering correctly I'm pretty sure the Starvengers, their ships linked up and became a giant robot in true Japanese cartoon tradition.
ADD: Well, you can't go wrong there.
KB: Yeah, and we didn't want the Shockrockets to do that, but we were drawing from a lot of different places, and it seems that my youthful reading of the works of Robert Heinlein had some effect too, because once the first issue came out we just started hearing from people left and right saying "This is like Heinlein in comics form! This is like Heinlein!" And it wasn't anything conscious.
ADD: There's a lot worse things you could hear, too.
KB: Oh, absolutely (laughs). Absolutely, I'm not objecting at all.
ADD: As I say, it's a very appealing story, and it also--the lead character is somebody who I think young readers will be able to sort of invest themselves in, in a way that some of the early Image Comics--while I think the younger readers were going "Wow, look at the pictures, they're really cool," there was nobody likeable or sympathetic at all in the books. And I think why, in the long term, in my opinion, those books won't be remembered as art.
KB: In creating Alejandro, we had started out with that image of that kid in the costume, we knew we had a kid, and we knew it would make a good emotional road into the series, if he's an outsider joining the Shockrockets team. And that way we're seeing it through his eyes, because he's new to it, and we're new to it, too, as an audience, then we're gonna perceive it better through his eyes than through the eyes of somebody experienced, somebody who takes it all for granted. I'm a firm believer that if a story doesn't have a human core, if a story doesn't have something that can hook into human emotions and human experience and make you go "Yeah, I know what that feels like," then it's not really gonna work as a story. So, Alejandro just seemed like the best way to do that. We ended up making him a little on the surly and bitter side, largely because I'd just been writing Justice in the Avengers and there was a considerable amount of fan reaction that didn't like the fact that he was so gosh-wow about the Avengers.
ADD: And yet, who wouldn't be in that kind of situation?
KB: Yeah, well, that was my theory. This was a guy who'd been doing a very good job working with people who he considered his peers, who had now just been given his dream. And it's not that the people in the Avengers are better people than the people in the New Warriors, but, if he's working alongside Namorita, it's like, yeah, she's a girl about his own age, there's no threat there. There's no, "Gee, do I measure up?" It's different when you're standing next to Thor. And ever since you've been a young kid, Thor has been one of your idols, and I think that's gonna rock you back on your heels. But still, I didn't want to do that sort of thing again, so we made the determination that Alejandro was not going to be somebody who was gosh-wow impressed with the Shockrockets. Instead he was envious of them. He was somebody who lived a life of privation and hardship, and looked on the Shockrockets as the lucky stiffs who got all the good food, who got all the comfortable beds, and had the kind of easy life he wishes he had. So yeah, he's in some awe of them, but that awe translates as a certain level of bitterness and cynicism, and of course he's dumped into the team and finds out it's very, very different from anything he'd expected. Which, again, it rocked him back on his heels in a different way. And that became a very interesting character to write. He's not the nicest guy on the planet. He's not an unsympathetic guy, but he's not a clean-cut straight shooter.
ADD: You mention Justice--it seems like when that plot was resolved, it was something you had been working to right from his introduction in to the team. And one of the things that I've noticed in going back and rereading your Avengers run is that, it seems like you and George have pretty well worked things out far in advance before we end up seeing them a lot of the times. Is that how you generally work, have you got things usually plotted out far in advance?
KB: Not really plotted out far in advance, whenever we start something rolling we know where it's going. For instance, with Justice we knew that he was going to have a difficult time fitting in to the Avengers because he was starstruck. And eventually he would have to get over that in a story where he would see that the Avengers have, without denigrating them as heroes, that they have frailties and feet of clay just like he does. And at the same time we knew we were gonna be contrasting this with Firestar, Justice's fiancée, who joined the Avengers without really wanting to, without being terribly impressed with the Avengers, because this wasn't what she wanted to do with her life, and the Avengers made things so much better for her, that she embraced the dream that Justice was struggling with, and that because she didn't have that awestruck attitude he did, she didn't have any impediment to working well in the team. So we knew that there was gonna be a little problem with the fact that he wanted to be an Avenger and she didn't, and she early on turned out to be a much better Avenger than he did, because she had a different set of expectations.
So we knew that we were gonna be playing that out and resolving it, but we didn't know precisely how we were gonna be doing it. We just knew that we needed to hit certain beats along the way. Just as, for instance, in the latest issue, we bring back a surprise character that people perhaps weren't expecting to see, and we know where we're going with that. Several times in the last few weeks, in conversations with Tom Brevoort, I've revised how all the various beats of the Yellowjacket plotline are going to play out. I know what those beats are, I know where we're going with it. But when George decided to leave thew book and we needed to bring in a new artist, we changed around our plans for what the storylines are gonna be, so all the running plot threads, Yellowjacket, the Triune Understanding, the Vision, things like that, kind of got braided differently, to play out in the new material. So it's not a case of having everything plotted out in advance and knowing mathematically that "At this point we'll do this and at this point we'll do this," it's more like knowing, "We do this, and the next step is this," and once we get to that next step, however it comes up naturally, the next step after that is this, and we'll build to a resolution that's this. But the context for each of those beats will be worked out as we go along.
ADD: You've got some flexibility built into the process there.
ADD: You've probably got one of the most prominent online presences of anyone in the creative community in comics...
KB: Probably, yes.
ADD: I was quite surprised after reading that Avengers issue to see that there was some confusion in the minds of the readers over who exactly Yellowjacket was there at the end--obviously you're not gonna give anything away here, but my impression, immediately, I felt that it was because of the way that he was drawn, was that this is the Yellowjacket who we last saw in Avengers Forever. Am I wrong in thinking that this is what we were supposed to think?
ADD: Or, say no more and that will tell me that maybe it is supposed to be vague.
KB: It's not so much supposed to be vague--I'm a little amused at the idea that many people have decided that this Yellowjacket much be plucked out of time because of the costume he is wearing. If this was some sort of new manifestation of Yellowjacket, why couldn't he wear whatever costume he wanted to wear? In any case, you will be learning more as we go along. Really, the intent of the end of Avengers #30 was to make people go, "Whoa, hey, how does that work?!"
ADD: It really came out of left field. My personal bet was that that was Captain America hiding in the shadows. I guess most people thought it was the Living Lightning, and it turned out to be probably one of my all time favourite characters, simply by dint of the fact that my all-time favourite Avengers issue was #161, where Yellowjacket had been manipulated into taking on his Ant-Man persona again. And it's a blast to see George drawing Yellowjacket again.
KB: I've had a great time, because, I think the Yellowjacket costume is one of the best costumes in comics, I think it looks great.
ADD: Was that John Buscema that originally designed that?
KB: Yes, or at least, John was the first artist to draw it. I don't know if Roy Thomas sketched it out, or John worked it up, or what. But it was first drawn by John Buscema. And unfortunately, Yellowjacket--the identity Hank (Pym) has been in when he's had breakdowns, at such momentous occasions, that it just doesn't seem logical that Hank Pym would willingly become Yellowjacket again. So that's a difficulty because, it's a great costume, it's a cool name, I'd certainly like to use it, but it's not the kind of thing where Hank's gonna wake up one day and say "Hey, I think I'll put on my Yellowjacket costume, after all, the memories I associate with that are so damn good." So I started looking around for other ways to deal with it. And the first of those was, when we did Avengers Forever, I realized we could pull Yellowjacket from just before Avengers #60, and that would get my favourite Yellowjacket, because much as I like the Yellowjacket costume, I like the one without the goggles better. And I like the attitude, and kind of--
ADD: The leering?
KB: --Smirkiness of the character in those two issues he's just a real sparkplug. So we put him in Avengers Forever and Carlos Pacheco went to town drawing him. He had him always chewing gum, and leering at people, and he just really channeled the John Buscema body language from those first couple of issues and presented the character in a very vibrant way, much more of a distinctive personality from normal Hank. And people really liked that, so we found a way to do some more with it. And I won't say what that is, but it allows us to have not only Yellowjacket, but somebody who's very much like my favourite Yellowjacket, the arrogant glory-hound Yellowjacket, running around in the book at the same time as we've got Hank Pym.
ADD: It's interesting, when we talk about Marvel and the Avengers, you obviously, for all the great creator-owned work you've been doing recently, you obviously still have a great knowledge of and affection for the Marvel universe, and you're certainly in, maybe not a unique, but an unusual situation in terms of writing not only one of Marvel's top titles, but also being able to do Astro City, which is being published by DC, and Shockrockets coming through Image. Is this something you envision being able to do for a long time, working for the three biggest comic companies?
KB: Well, it certainly hasn't seemed to be a problem so far. Nobody at Marvel wants me to stop doing Astro City, because Astro City is one of the books that made my name as big as it is, and that helps them sell Avengers. Nobody at DC wants to really see me stop doing Avengers because Avengers is a very high profile book and that helps sell Astro City. I'm sure that if I went over to DC and did a high profile book for them instead of Avengers, they'd be just as happy with that, maybe a little happier, but in the meantime nobody wants to be a hardass about, nobody wants to say "No, you cannot do that if you are going to do this." Because comics have changed since the days when publishers wanted to be in complete control of freelancers. Right now, Avengers is an important Marvel book. But there have been a lot of years where Avengers hasn't been selling all that well.
Right now, Avengers is selling very well, and that's partially due to the fact that it's the Avengers, it's partially due to the fact that it's George Perez drawing it, it's partially due to the fact that it's me writing it. And nobody really wants to mess with that equation. Right now Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are doing the Punisher, and it's hugely successful. It's, in fact, more successful, sales-wise, than Preacher. and it's that combination of a well-respected creative team that's got some audience interest behind them, and a character that's got a lot of fans. The two of them together are larger than the sum of their parts, and Avengers has been benefiting from that (same scenario). So instead of Marvel getting proprietary about everything and saying "You must work only for us," Marvel wants to accommodate me and George and other creators so that we'll be happy doing books like Avengers, and they'll be able to keep that process going, of popular concepts allied to appropriate creative teams that have some fan interest behind them.
ADD: I've seen in other interviews with you where you've talked about the difference between doing a book like the Avengers, which you've talked about, maybe the skills come a little easier, than doing a book like Astro City, which I guess my take on it would be that it seems to be a more personal work for you--not that the Avengers isn't great, it is, and I enjoy it a great deal--but it seems like you've invested huge amounts of your commitment into the work that you do on Astro City. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between the two modes of writing?
KB: It's actually really just a procedural difference. The Avengers, at base, is an adventure story. The major question that needs to be answered in any Avengers story is, what happens next? And what happens next needs to be interesting and all, and the characters need to be engaged in interesting plotlines and stay in character, and that good craft stuff, but it's essentially a plot question. Who's the next villain? How are they going to react? What happens next? And those are stories that I can write--it's not a matter of easier or harder, those are stories that I can write pretty well, I think. Whereas Astro City, the stories are all about internal narrative. The stories are all about how people react to things, and what they're thinking, what they're feeling, and what changes happen in their life. Astro City, despite the fact that it has superheroes running around punching people in it, is very seldom about what happens next. It's about, "So, how do you feel about that?"
And that's a very different kind of story structure. It's a very different kind of thing to write. And the difficulty I've been having writing Astro City has to do with my chronic health problems. I have a chronic sinus infection, and when I've got that going on in my head, it's harder for me to concentrate on the kind of delicate balance that a character-based series like Astro City requires. It's not a matter of the craft of structuring out the page or pacing out the issue, it's a matter of setting up everything you need to know about the character, so that when you do start asking the "So, how do you feel about that" questions, everything is in place so that the audience can react in sympathy, or out of sympathy with the character, depending on what's needed for the story. That's a trickier piece of craft. I wouldn't say it's better or worse, it's simply a different approach. And when I'm ill, it's an approach that I am simply not capable of delivering on. When I'm dealing with a sinus infection I can sit there and spend two solid weeks working on an Astro City story and getting nowhere--and I've done it. Whereas with the Avengers, I can always fallback on "what happens next." That the themes and character ramifications and looks into the human condition are the subtext in Avengers, and they kid of happen naturally along the way. In Astro City they're the text, and I have to do them consciously. And with my health situation the way it is I can't always do that.
And I'm unwilling to write lousy issues of Astro City because I happen to be sick that week. It's a difficult situation for other people to understand, because they don't actually share the mindset I have when I'm working on different kinds of stories. I recently--well, not recently at this point, but I read an interview with Robert Towne, the screenwriter, and Towne apparently had terrific recurrent allergy problems that left him in a period of several years where he was unable to write original screenplays. He could script-doctor, he could take an existing screenplay, a structure that already existed, and rewrite it, and make a lot of money that way and exercise his craft and his creativity. But because of the way his allergies were affecting his mind, he simply couldn't structure out a new story on his own. And he said in the interview that nobody got that, and I read that and I went, "I know exactly how you feel, pal."
ADD: I bet. Do you find that the audience has been patient with you during that time?
KB: Well, they're certainly frustrated, but the difference is, there are a lot of books that are late, and there's no apparent reason those books are late except that the creators just didn't get 'em done. And when those creators are asked "Where's the book," they say "Oh, you know, we'll get to it, we'll get it finished, we're working on it. Don't bug me." And the audience gets annoyed with that.
ADD: Especially when one of those people is doing 18 other things.
KB: Um, well...
ADD: Hypothetically speaking.
KB: Yeah. But in the case of Astro City, I've always been pretty upfront about it. I don't say "Oh, we're having production difficulties." I say "I'm sick! It's my fault!" (laughs).
ADD: And again, that's pretty hard to argue with. And certainly, I don't think you're looking for sympathy, but it's an explanation, and it's certainly a reasonable one. And for my money, Astro City, I think it's worth waiting for a quality issue for you to resolve your problems than getting something that's substandard, and so far I haven't seen a substandard issue of Astro City.
KB: Well, I'd like to say the same thing. I see them from a different perspective. When I look at an issue of Astro City, I don't see a finished work, I see the struggle that went into it. And the ones that have been much more of a struggle to write, don't feel as clean to me as the ones where I was in control right from the start. So it's a frustrating experience to me too. And certainly there are readers out there who have said "Kurt says he's sick, but he's doing Avengers every month, so I'm not sure I buy it." And I just wonder, gee, Astro City wins me awards, sells real well, pays very well, stays in print forever, why would I be stupid enough not to write it, if I could? But these are guys who just can't see that distinction that writing Astro City is different from writing Avengers. Not better or worse, but different.
You know, to them, I should be able to sit down in four days and write something. Doesn't matter what it is. If it was horror, write horror. If it was a character story, write a character story. If it's an Avengers adventure, write an Avengers adventure. "It's all writing, it's all the same thing." But it isn't. It's a different approach, it's a different mindset, it's a different way of thinking. And at times it's just very, very difficult for me to deliver on the kind of mindset that Astro City requires.
ADD: You talk about the feedback from the readers, and of course you're online quite a bit in terms of responding to readers in the newsgroups. How do you think the Internet has changed, if it has, your approach to the way you do your job?
KB: It's hard to say how it's changed the approach I take to my job, because the Internet started being a part of my life at the same time as I started to do a lot more mainstream, high profile work. I was introduced to the Internet while I was out in Maryland visiting my friend Lawrence Watt-Evans and doing a signing for Marvels #1 or #2, I forget which at this point. And he showed me the discussion that was going on on GEnie about it. And I thought this was great, you know, this was like getting all the mail on the comic, but getting it two months early.
So when I got home, I signed up for CompuServe and GEnie, and started reading the feedback, and I'm sure that it's had some sort of effect, but on the other hand the work that I've been doing, the kind of books I've been writing, went through a very big change over the couple of years I was ramping up on the Internet as well. But in the long run, I'd say that it's--it's a more efficient process of getting reader reaction than the old letters to the editor, but it's not all that different in terms of what effect it has on the work. if everybody's complaining about one particular character, then maybe I'll do something about that, but I would do something about that if everybody was complaining in the letters to the editor too. I like the Internet because it's kind of an instant gratification thing.
ADD: Your Marvel editor, Tom Brevoort, is also fairly prominent in some of the same newsgroups that you are...do you think that he, in his role as editor, places as much importance on the online commentary as he does on somebody who's willing to slap a stamp on an envelope and mail in a letter?
KB: Probably not. The amount of effort it takes to slap a stamp on an envelope is not very high, you know, it's not much of an effort, but it's some effort. It's more effort than it takes to type up a "Man, this sucks! It's Tuesday and you haven't fixed the problem that was there on Monday" e-mail. There's a lot of stuff that gets vented on the Internet that simply gets vented because it's easy. And the thing I was saying before, at one point Tom and I were commenting on the fact that someone would gripe about something they didn't like in Avengers, and a week later they'd gripe again about how it hadn't been fixed yet. Now, there hadn't been another issue out.
ADD: (Laughs) "I looked at that same issue and it's still there!"
KB: Yeah. And we started going, "It's Tuesday, and Simon Williams is still a jerk, it's Wednesday, and Simon Williams is still a jerk!" It's a monthly book, guys. But--these are people who get on the Internet every day. And if that's what they're feeling, they'll say it again. And then they'll say it again. And then they'll say it again. And I think it distorts the picture. It ends up looking to people who frequent that newsgroup or message board or whatever, like there's this massive crusade to stamp out whatever piece of the book that these guys don't like, and it turns out it's four or five guys, repeating the same stuff over and over and over and over.
ADD: There's maybe 250 posts a day in the Marvel newsgroup--that can't possibly represent a very big percentage of the actual people that are actually reading the Avengers.
KB: Oh, no, no. If the people who posted on the Usenet Marvel group were representative of the audience, then Untold Tales of Spider-Man would have been Marvel's best-selling title.
ADD: Okay, so we can see there is sort of a filter that you would look at before going "Oh, they don't like it, I better change this."
KB: Yeah, yeah. Also, there's times when, if people online don't like something, my reaction is "Eh, you're wrong." But if we're getting--for instance, when we introduced Triathlon, the main reaction to Triathlon was "We hate his costume." I heard that online. Came in in the mail. I heard it at conventions. It was just consistent. Everybody said it. They hated his haircut, they hated his goggles. So, we changed his costume. Took away the goggles, gave him a different haircut. That's when I started hearing from people, "Why'd you take away the goggles? The goggles were the best part!" But, something like that, we consistently heard the same message from all quarters. Much as, for instance, in Avengers #2, when the Scarlet Witch showed up in that medieval gypsy kind of costume thing, the reaction to that costume was phenomenal, everybody loved it. So a few issues later, we decided "Let's put her in that costume in the regular day. People really like it." George put it in a couple of issues earlier than I thought he was gonna put it in. I was planning to plot in a "And now she puts on the costume" (scene), and George just put it into the next issue, and I covered it in dialogue.
Since then, we have heard vehemently from people who don't like that costume, want it changed immediately, want her to go back to the original costume, want her to go back to the costume she was wearing in the Crossing, whatever--but, we only hear that from a certain number of people on the Internet. The mail that we get, most of the people who comment on the costume seem to like it. It gets good response at conventions, and even when, on one of the Avengers message boards somebody decides to do a poll about the costume, "Boy I hate this costume, doesn't everybody agree with me?" He comes out like, 4, 5, 6 to 1 in favour of the costume. So if you didn't actually weigh the various responses we get, you'd think, "Avengers fans out there just hate the costume." And it turns out that, no, there's some Avengers fans out there who hate the costume, and they're really loud. But when you actually look for people's opinions, more people like the costume than dislike it. So, sorry guys, you're loud, but--too bad.
It would be very easy to assume that the feedback you're getting on the Internet is accurate, but it would be a bad way to produce comics to continually react to that sort of thing. Ultimately, you've got to take all the feedback you get, however it comes in, and weigh it and do what you think is best. I recently did a poll on various newsgroups, asking who people out there thought were the greatest menaces in the Marvel Universe at large. I didn't tally up all the votes and decide, "They all think this guy's the best, so we'll use him." I just looked at the responses and said "These names come up a lot. Okay, I can come up with stories for a couple of them. This guy--he comes up a lot, I don't like him, so I'm not gonna use him." And I'll tell stories that will be the best stories that I can tell, but I'll be using the fan response as catalyst, not as marching orders.
ADD: George Perez is leaving the Avengers (after issue #34). I believe that you were a fan of the Avengers when he was drawing it originally during the 70s...it must be just a dream come true to be able to see your stories illustrated by this man.
KB: It has been magic. I write stories, and when they leave my keyboard, they're Kurt Busiek stories. And then when they come back in pencils, they're Avengers stories. They gotta be Avengers stories, look at 'em, George Perez drew 'em!
KB: The rush of excitement at seeing George's pencils come in based on my plots has never abated.
ADD: He's leaving the title because of health concerns, and we wish him well--it does open up the question of what's going to be in the future for the Avengers. Do you see yourself sticking around for a while here?
KB: It looks like I'll be sticking around. Originally, there certainly was a temptation to say, "Well, you know, George and I will have done up through issue #34, and had a great time doing it and he's leaving, so maybe it's time for me to go as well." But on the other hand, there's also the temptation to say "What can we do next, what can we do that's exciting and different and takes the book to a whole new place with a different look and a different style and writing approach to go with that different look." So Tom Brevoort and I talked over what kind of thing we'd like to do with the Avengers post-George. I said, you know, if we could find the right artist, somebody that I would be comfortable working with, then I'll stick around.
ADD: How was Alan Davis chosen to succeed George Perez? Did he come forward or did you or (Avengers editor) Tom Brevoort go to him, or...?
KB: Tom and I talked things over and worked up a short list of who would be ideal to draw the book after George's departure (and no, I won't tell you who else was on the list). Tom called Alan, and Alan signed on.
ADD: What strengths do you think he will bring to the title?
KB: Well, the part about being a terrific artist doesn't hurt...But more specifically, Alan's not only a terrific draftsman and a powerful storyteller, he's also very good at classically-heroic characters, so Avengers should be ideal for his approach. They're big, they're bold, they're larger-than-life and they're very human -- and Alan's top-rank in all of that. I've been a fan of his since he was just starting on Captain Britain, and I saw his new costume designs in the Marvel UK offices. I've loved his work ever since, and I'm delighted to be working with him at last.
ADD: Will his style require a different approach from you than George's?
KB: Sure, I expect so. I try to write to the strengths of whatever artists I'm working with, and I'm sure I'll wind up doing things I wouldn't have done with George drawing the book, or avoiding things that I'd have tossed at George without thinking twice. But it's an organic process, and I can't analyze it out beforehand -- I'll just be visualizing Alan's work while I'm plotting, and that'll affect things. And of course, as we work together, things will change and develop through experience. But we will be taking a new direction in the book -- it'll look different, it'll feel different, so it seems like the right time to rethink the way we've been doing the book, and try to stretch some different creative muscles.
That's not to say I haven't been happy with how things are going with George -- but this is a new run, a new era, so let's do some new things. I don't want to talk about it in specifics yet, since Alan's first issue won't hit 'til January, but Tom and I have been talking about how Avengers would be if it were created today rather than in '63, and we're very strongly trying to make it a new and different book -- much of what I've done so far has been influenced by earlier eras, as we've been reestablishing what the book is all about, but I think it's now time to stake out some new territory, to take the foundations we've been reestablishing and build something new with the team's rich and solid history as a base. It'll be big, it'll be dramatic -- and it'll feature a lot of Avengers. Not an army of 'em, since Alan doesn't want to draw that and I don't want to write it, but an approach that'll let people see a lot of familiar faces, and some lesser-seen ones along with the classics.
We've got story structures that could take us past #50, and more stuff worked up we could do after that -- and it's stuff that'll involve everything from outer space to Subterranea, from intrigue to all-out war, and more beyond. We've got one hell of a roster of villains slated to appear, and plans to start of with a bang and then just keep building from there. It should be fun.
ADD: Anything different or special planned for the fill-in issues between George leaving and Alan coming aboard, ala the "Un-Avengers" issue recently?
KB: I wouldn't call 'em fill-ins, since they're integral to the book's development -- they're drawn by guest artists, but they're very much part of the ongoing Avengers saga. John Romita Jr. will draw the first post-George issue, which will be our "Maximum Security" issue, then Steve Epting will draw a two-parter that sets things up for the new series direction and features a return to Slorenia -- and then Alan will come aboard as the Avengers take a whole new approach to protecting Earth. And I'm delighted to be working with both of them -- I loved Steve's art on AVENGERS during the #300s, and I've been a Romita Jr. fan since IRON MAN. So we've got our big summer blowout with George, then the Maximum Security event, then a showdown in Slorenia that'll make the Avengers rethink their mission and how to accomplish it, and then the launch of "a whole new era of assemblin' excitement," as Stan might put it. Sounds pretty good to me -- all the more because I get to write it!
ADD: To wrap up, back to Gorilla Comics for a moment--where do you see Gorilla being a year down the line and maybe five years down the line?
KB: It's very hard to tell. A year down the line I hope those of us who are doing regular series will be rolling on with those regular series, and those of us who are doing various miniseries will be keeping up production on those. Our original plans on Gorilla have altered somewhat, because we didn't go into this looking to be self-publishers. We went into this looking to be in control of our own work. But we wanted to find a publisher or financial backer to do the administrative stuff. And we found a financial backer who, after we'd already started going, had trouble financing, and as a result we ended up self-financing the company, which puts a lot more of the administrative weight right on our shoulders. And that makes it a lot more work and a lot more time-consuming.
If a year from now we're working with a financial backer who's taken a lot of the business weight off our shoulders, I'd be happy about that, and things would develop in a very different way than if we're continuing to self-finance. If nothing else, it's really hard to publish other people's work when you're telling them "Sure, you can do something here, but you gotta pay for it." So ideally, I would love to see Gorilla become the comics imprint where I do all my creator-owned work for the rest of my career, and keep it in print and have a great time and develop ongoing working relationships with promo guys and production guys so that from project to project I know that it's going to be well-delivered.
But whether that's something that'll happen is just something we're gonna have to--we're gonna have to keep surfing on the current industry situation and see how things develop and how we can react to the various changes that come along. I don't think anybody can tell you where they're gonna be five years from now.