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.
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