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interview: mark waid

Alan David Doane: I want to get into Empire, but first, why don't you tell us how you got started writing comics?

Mark Waid: Well, started reading them in 1966 when Adam West came on my TV, and never stopped reading comics, even after I discovered girls. I've been reading them all my life, and collecting them all my life, and then in the mid-80s, went to work on staff at DC Comics. Worked on staff as an editor for a couple of years and that led to a freelance career that's been just the greatest job that you can imagine.

ADD: It has had its ups and downs in a couple of areas, and I'd like to discuss that, because I think it kind of keys into the creation of Gorilla Comics.

MW: Sure.

ADD: I did an interview a couple of weeks ago with Kurt Busiek, where we talked a little bit about your experiences with Captain America, which he seemed to feel was a large part of why Gorilla Comics came about. Would you like to talk a little bit about that?

MW: (Laughs) I would say that's an enormous part of what happened.

ADD: You had written Captain America a few years ago, with an artist named Ron Garney. In fact, that probably was the first work of yours that I was aware of, I thought that was just really, really terrific work being done there...

MW: Thank you.

ADD: And then, why don't you tell us, you're there, you're writing that first run of Captain America, and tell us what happened from there.

MW: Well, after we had--and I hesitate to say this, because I don't want to sound like I'm patting myself on the back, but--after we had tripled sales...and I give most of the credit to Ron Garney, he's a terrific artist--at that time, Marvel decided to farm out a lot of its work to another in-house studio to produce, sort of like Disney going to Miramax and using them as a development studio or what have you. And so the books were taken away from us. They did really well under that new arrangement, but that new arrangement only lasted a year. And then when they came back to us...the advantage we had the first time around was that we were a dark horse. That Captain America had not been doing well in sales for a while.

And I had sort of acquired the reputation as a series doctor, if you will. A character doctor to come in on some of the characters that aren't doing as well and get them back to the basics and get them back in shape. So the first time out, we were...under the radar, if you will. But the second time out, we were very high profile going back into it. And unfortunately, high profile means high attention and it also means a lot of noodling from the powers that be.

These characters, don't get me wrong, they're company-owned characters, they're corporate-owned characters, this is like the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the Michelin Man are really, and...it's their sandbox to play in. I understand that I'm playing with their toys when I'm playing, and ultimately I don't own the characters, so...I grant them that. However, there was just a great deal of editorial interference, there was a lot of second-guessing and triple-guessing of everything that Ron and I wanted to do and it just eventually drove us into the brinks of insanity. And it just eventually left me not wanting to stay with the book, because I wasn't being allowed to write stories at all, I was having stories dictated to me.

ADD: It's, I think, illustrative of the power of the editors at the comics companies that somebody like Kurt Busiek, I think, has had what appears to be a very good relationship with his editor on Avengers, and I don't think there's been any indication of the kind of things you went through...is it really that much power in the hands of the individual editors, or do you think it comes from higher up?

MW: Completely, in the individual editors and from the higher-ups. Absolutely. Again, they own the characters, they're very protective of the characters, and I salute that, and I understand that. You don't want somebody coming around doing a Superman story that is gonna get a bunch of negative press and negative attention because it's about subject matter that's not suitable for the target audience or what have you. But, that was never the case here. Kurt's had a better relationship than I have only because he's worked with fewer editors, I think, so statistically (laughs) he wins.

And there are some good editors out there, Kurt's got one of the very best ones when he's working with Avengers, a fellow named Tom Brevoort over at Marvel, who is one of the very best. But for every Tom Brevoort, there's a bunch of guys who said, and this is an exact quote from a Marvel editor, and this is the thing that drove me off the brink: "We see writer-driven comics as an experiment that's failed." Well, first off, I'm not sure that it was ever an experiment. I don't know that Stan Lee when he was creating Spider-Man and the Hulk was thinking about writer-driven comics as an experiment, and secondly, you know, they were never writer-driven. How did they fail? You kept telling me what you wanted me to do and you never let me drive the car, so don't blame me when we got in a wreck.

ADD: It's an interesting thought, too, you know--I think that experiment has been going on since the first comic book was ever written.

MW: Yeah, exactly, Superman was a writer-driven comic, so apparently that's an experiment that's failed too. I don't know, it was an extremely ill-chosen quote by an extremely young, wet-behind-the-ears editor and like I said, there's a lot of good ones out there, I don't want to sound like Mr. Negativity. It was just, it was about time for me anyway to move on and start doing things that were more under my control and things that were creator-owned properties, as opposed to corporate-owned properties. Things that I could manipulate without having to worry about the licensing of a beach towel or whether some upcoming TV show spin-off is gonna impact what I want to do and so forth.

ADD: So how much time was there between your leaving Captain America the second time, and you and Kurt and whoever else getting together and saying "Hey, you know what, let's do it ourselves?"

MW: About an hour and a half (laughs). Really, just no time at all. Frankly, I can't even swear that there wasn't some overlap there, but we'd been talking for a while. Kurt and I've been talking for years about putting together an anthology book or line or something that plays to both our strengths and gives us a chance to kind of run free, and the conversation just turned back to that after the latest round of banging my head against the wall with Marvel. So, that's how long that lasted. And I tell ya, it's been the most creatively liberating experience of my life.

ADD: Let's talk a little bit about Empire, your new book with artist Barry Kitson--maybe you want to describe what it is about Empire that makes it different from the run of the mill superhero comic book.

MW: Well, in broad strokes, it's essentially "What if the bad guys won?" It is the Sopranos with capes if you will. It is a world in which one of these gargantuan world-beaters that has always fought Superman or Batman, those type of guys, has finally won. Has finally conquered the world. But now he realizes he doesn't want the job anymore. And that's his terrible secret. It sounds funny, but it's a horrible, Shakespearean tragedy. Here's a guy, named Golgoth, a character of my own creation with Barry, who has managed in a despotic fashion, Hitler cubed if you will, to have conquered the world. The problem is, he had a ten-year plan, and he knew what his ten-year plan was, and about eight years into his plan he knew two things. He knew first off that there was no way he wasn't gonna win.

And the other thing he knew was that he didn't want the job anymore. Because he realizes that, once you're king, you've still gotta keep the trains running on time. You still have to watch your back, you have to watch your back more than ever. Everybody's out after you. There's your advisers, who are sharpening their knives to stick in your back, there's freedom fighters out there--there's...it's just a continual, it's no longer acquiring, it's a matter of now you've got it, what do you do with it?

ADD: I have a friend who read the book that feels one of your biggest influences was The Prince, Machiavelli's--

MW: Oh, by far, yes.

ADD: Tell us what you got out of that to put into Empire.

MW: Machiavelli was a successful, and then later failed and exiled European strategist, in general. He literally wrote the book. He outlined in no uncertain terms, "Here's a gameplan for taking over the world. Here's a gameplan for beating your enemies and when you win, here's what you do, and here's how you maintain your rule," and so forth and so on. Now, the advantage that Machiavelli had that Golgoth didn't is that Machiavelli never won (laughs). He never swept the gameboard and then realized "Oh, man, what do I do now?"

ADD: So how different is it, trying to write a book that's filled with nothing but bad guys, from handling somebody like Captain America or the Flash?

MW: On the one hand, it is drastically different, because I do tend to lean toward characters that are brighter and shinier and happier. That's a reflection of my own life, frankly. I grew up reading comics all my life, this is all I ever wanted to do was be involved in comics, and my job is like the best day of summer vacation. I just get up in the morning, I think about comics all day, and I go to bed.

And I tend to be attracted to superheroes who do the same thing. They get up in the morning, and they don't have mundane jobs to worry about, they're just out there, righting wrongs and fighting the good fight. And then they go to bed and get up the next morning. I'm attracted to guys like that, and have been writing characters like that all my life. This was just a chance for me to exercise some new muscles. I knew I needed to--there's a writer named Denny O'Neil, who's been writing Batman comics for 30 years, been editing Batman comics for quite a while. He is as much responsible for the look of Batman, and what people know of Batman in the last 30 years as anybody. And Denny's advice to me long ago was, "Every four or five years, as a writer, you've gotta reach into your bag of tricks, and throw out 70 percent of it." Even if it still works, you've just got to go in there and just gut your bags, and force yourself to learn new tools, otherwise you'll never grow as a writer, you'll never change.

And this was about the time that I realized I needed to start stretching some new muscles. This gives me a chance, with Empire, to write a little more soap opera. It gives me a chance to write slightly deeper, more troubled characters. And to really get deeper into what makes people tick.

ADD: The standout strength of the first issue, which just knocked my socks off, was not the physical power of the villain, Golgoth, but rather the interpersonal relationships between he and his adviser, and his daughter--it's really compelling stuff.

MW: Well, thank you. The trick is, before people read the first issue, everybody was all over me saying, "If they're all about villains, how come I'm gonna come back month after month because I don't like any of these people?" Well, you know, I like Tony Soprano (laughs), you know. He's a mobster. It's not what they do, it's how they perceive themselves. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, "I'm a villain, I'm a bad guy." Everybody from the heinous creep in the world to Mother Teresa, all of them wake up in the morning and think, "You know, basically I'm a pretty good guy. Just doin' what I gotta do to survive."

ADD: The old "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" thing.

MW: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah. You know, who calls themselves "The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants." "I'm an evil mutant, are you an evil mutant?" "I'm a member of the Secret Society of Super-Villains." I don't get up in the morning and think "I'm a super-villain." Just a guy, doin' my stuff, doin' what I gotta do to get by in the world. And Golgoth and his people are very much like that. They certainly don't perceive themselves as super-villains. I mean, frankly, they brought a certain measure of order to the world. It's under an iron fist, but you take the good with the bad (chuckles).

ADD: This series isn't the first one you've done with artist Barry Kitson...

MW: Barry's terrific. Barry is, I can't--there's not enough good words to say about Barry's work. The storytelling is clean, it's linear, it's not these funky panel layouts where you look at a comic book page and you have no idea what it is you're supposed to read first, or who's speaking next, or--any of that nonsense. It doesn't look like a comic book from your childhood, but it is not any harder to read than the stuff you grew up reading as a kid or the stuff that you grew up reading in the Sunday comics in the newspapers.

Which is one of my big complaints about comics today, it's like you need a Rosetta Stone. If you haven't been reading comics forever, I challenge anybody to pick up an issue of X-Men out of the blue who hasn't read comics in 20 years and try to even figure out in what order you're supposed to look at the pictures!

ADD: I've been reading 'em for almost 30 years, Mark, and I still can't figure that one out.

MW: Exactly. So, Barry's terrific. He's moody, he's expressive, and in his artwork he is too. Just kidding.

ADD: (Laughs) How does the collaboration between the two of you work, are you handing him a full script that he's working from, or do you work out the stories together?

MW: We work out the stories together pretty much. I come up with the basic goals and ideas and drives of the characters and then we just call each other and knock ideas back and forth, so in that sense it's a very collaborative process. At which point then I write up a plot, essentially a full script without finished dialogue. Rough dialogue in it, but not finished dialogue. And at that point, Barry will draw up the pages and I will go back and lay in finished dialogue, and make adjustments based on any changes he may have wanted to make, and looking at characters' expressions and seeing if I can get better words out of them, now that I can see exactly what it is they look like they're saying, that sort of thing.

ADD: One of the surprise things that happened with Gorilla was, initially you and the other Gorilla founders had worked out a financing deal with an Internet web site, and that deal fell through. How much have you had to scramble to adjust for that loss in forming Gorilla?

MW: I won't lie and say we didn't have to scramble, but we were a little prepared. First off, we walked away from them instead of vice-versa. They were having a hard time securing the financing that they were talking about as fast as they had hoped. And a lot of our solicitations and projections and budgets were based on numbers that just didn't come about in terms of what they were able to provide fast enough. So for about a three-day weekend, we had a chance to get out of jail free. We turned to each other, all of us, and said, we could just pull the plug at this point, and I think most people would forgive us, that stuff just didn't work out.

But, we had already promised some books to fans, we already promised that they'd be getting books, and it didn't seem right to let them down, it didn't seem right to go pout there and do all this ballyhoo, all this publicity, and then let it fall through. So, we marshaled our forces, we dug into our own pockets, we took out loans against our houses, or whatever, and we literally put our money where our mouths are.

ADD: One of the models of going and striking out on your own, would be looking at what happened with Image Comics when those guys broke away from Marvel and started their own company. That had to be something you were thinking about somewhere along the line, especially considering you're working with Image to a certain extent. What do you hope to do differently from what the original Image partners did?

MW: You're right, it's a very fair comparison, the only real difference is that those guys were millionaires when they did it!

ADD: Oh, come on Mark, don't hold out on us.

MW: We're living check to check. But still. The only thing we plan to do differently is--well, actually, we don't plan to do anything differently in the great scheme of things. We're all interested in doing the same thing, which is getting good comic books out there to people who want to read 'em.

ADD: How soon do you think it's gonna be before we see sort of Gorilla expansion, are you guys going to be very conservative in terms of your next moves? What's the plan?

MW: We have to be relatively conservative. There are a couple of factors. One is, as I say, we're digging into our own pockets to publish, and they're not deep pockets, believe me. And also we're up against The Summer of X-Men. Retailers only have a certain number of dollars they can spend every month on product, and in July and August, clearly they're gonna be ordering a lot more X-Men books than anything else they order and that's gonna affect the orders on all the other books in the industry. So it's not like we're launching at the optimum time to expand. I think it's best to play it cool for a little while, get out there, make sure we're on pretty steady ground and then you'll see wave two.

ADD: A lot of people seem to think the X-Men movie, if it's a big success, at the very least will be the salvation of Marvel and possibly, at best the salvation of the industry of comics in general. How big an impact do you think it can have, if this movie really knocks one out of the park?

MW: Well, you know, again, Mr. Negativity, that's me. Let's go back 11 years to Batman, 1989. That was one of the biggest movies of all time. And...

ADD: And here we are a decade later.

MW: Here we are a decade later. And I don't see comics on every corner newsstand anymore. The industry's hurting, and I think that any exposure helps. I think Marvel has a program where they're actually giving free comic books to people who actually see the movie, which is terrific, a great idea. Will that draw them into comic book stores? Will that make a new generation of readers out of them? We can hope so, but...

ADD: Let's hope they pick some X-Men comics that you can <i>read</i>.

MW: (Laughs) exactly. Let's hope that happens. Nothing would be better for the industry than that. But, I just--I worry it's gonna be a short term bump and then we're gonna be back where we are. Like, again, the Batman movie was one of the biggest movies of all time, and as I say, it didn't exactly change the face of the industry.

ADD: One of the other things you're doing is JLA for DC. What made you want to take on the challenge of writing arguably DC's biggest book?

MW: First off, the appeal of the characters. I get to play with all the toys here. I get to play with Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and Flash, and Green Lantern and Aquaman and whoever else I want to into the team. That was the appeal. The pressure was enormous. Grant Morrison's not only a good friend of mine, but one of the best writers in the industry, certainly a better writer than I am. And the stuff was just mind-blowing. He catapulted that book to the top of the sales chart. Not only is it DC's best-selling book, it's DC's best-selling book by a factor of about three. To follow that act, that's tough. But--DC twisted my arm, which was flattering and pleasant, and I decided to take the plunge. And the good news is that, we didn't hit the iceberg the moment I took on the book. We managed to keep sales steady for whatever reason, and I'm just grateful for that.

ADD: It can't hurt, too, that you've got one of the best art teams in comics about to come onto the title.

MW: Oh, my God, I mean, we've had a fella named Howard Porter been drawing the book for years and years, and he's terrific. I love Howard's work and he's doing the work of his career on--(laughs)--but it's also the work of the end of his career because he's actually decided to leave comics for a little while, which is unfortunate. But, waiting in the wings are Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary, and Laura DePuy, who is a colorist. And they are the team that transformed a comic book called The Authority, another, one of the Wildstorm books that DC's publishing, into a huge success. I'm here to tell ya, their notion of the Justice League is just gonna make you weep--(chuckles)--it's just beautiful.

ADD: You recently attended a meeting of professionals who, I guess, for lack of a better term, hope to "save comics." What do you hope comes out of that?

MW: That I can go down to the corner and buy a comic book from my local Quik-E-Mart.

ADD: I remember doing that as a kid, and it didn't seem to be any big deal.

MW: But we're old men, Alan. Sadly, it's not going to happen overnight. Ultimately, that's what we all hope to get out of this--whatever organization grows out of our talks. Something to help promote the medium and the industry to those who either remember when comics were a dime or don't even know they're published anymore.

ADD: If you could play Golgoth for a day and rule the world, what steps would you take to improve the health of the comics industry?

MW: (Laughs) First off, I'd kill all the editors!

ADD: (Laughs).

MW: No I wouldn't, no, I wouldn't, they're fine people.

ADD: So you see editor-driven comics as an experiment that's failed.

MW: Very well put. (Pauses)...Unfortunately, there's no easy fix. We should advertise the living heck out of these comic books to people who don't read comics, but, where are you going to find that money, and where are you gonna send 'em, because there's only 3000 comic book stores in the United States, and they gotta know where they are, and they gotta find them, and they gotta be easily accessible.

ADD: What about (comics) made them so accessible in the 40s, when they were selling million and millions every month, what is different now, besides the obvious answers, the Internet, TV. Is that really all it is, or is there more to it?

MW: Unfortunately, there's a lot more to it. In 1938 when comics came out, comics cost a dime. Well, so did Time magazine, so did Life magazine, so did most magazines. So, for retailers back then, you could make the same amount of money off an issue of Action Comics as you could off of Time magazine, so they were equally as important to him. Over the years, magazine prices went up and up in the 40s and 50s, 25 cents, 50 cents, whatever. Comics decided as an industry that we were just for kids and therefore we would try to keep our prices low. And so comics were a dime until 1962. Now, the good news is, it made it easier for kids to buy them.

But the bad news is, it marginalized them for mom and pop stores all over the nation, because, "If I can sell Time magazine for a buck, why am I spending any time messing around with Batman comics that I'm selling for a dime, I'm making 1/10th the money." That was certainly the thinking. And so, over the years, we just started to fade from existence as far as the general public came to know. We've built up a distribution system within the industry that caters specifically to comic book stores, which you can find in any yellow pages across the nation. But even still, in the biggest cities in the world, you're lucky to find four or five. You've got to know where they are. We've gone from being milk, something you can find anywhere, to being model trains, where you've got to go to the model train store if you want to get one.

ADD: It's almost to the point of being Cuban cigars, just to extend the metaphor.

MW: Yeah. Unfortunately, we're really hard to find, and there's no easy fix to that.

ADD: Do you think the steps that, especially Marvel is initiating in the next few months such as the Backpack Marvels, do you think that's going to have an impact?

MW: I think so, I would hope so. One of our problems is format. Comic books are flimsy little pamphlets, they take three minutes to read, and they cost, like, three bucks. Well, for that same three bucks I can go to Blockbuster and rent a videogame for two nights. Marvel's Essential collections are doing really well in the bookstores. DC has a lot of trade paperbacks, those do really well. Frankly, that's the wave of the future, my friend. If people are gonna spend 8, 9, 10 dollars for a comic book--if they're gonna spend three dollars and get three minutes of entertainment, they're not gonna come back.

But if they spend ten bucks for one, and it's an all day sucker, something they can sit there for a couple hours and read, like a novel, give them the same amount of perceived value for it, I think they'll come back. So it's a matter of changing the formats, it's a matter of giving people more value for the dollar.

ADD: Do you see Gorilla addressing this as time goes on?

MW: As time goes on, we absolutely would love to. Everything I've said to you in the last five minutes, Kurt and I have been screaming for years. If we get in a position to be able to shake the tree a little bit, oh, by all means. Unfortunately, right off the bat we are not in that position to really challenge the status quo. But we're small and scrappy and hopefully if we eat our Wheaties and muscle train and we do everything right and think good thoughts maybe we'll be in a position to do something.




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