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A Denny O’Neil and Matt Fraction Conversation

THE NEXT GENERATION

KV: Looking at the current aesthetic state of comics as it’s been shaped by members of the previous generations such as Denny O’Neil, do you feel a need to shake things up and take it in a different direction, or do you feel a responsibility to live up to and carry on previous traditions, or some combination?

MF: My first Iron Man arc was about kids with backpacks blowing up cities. I’ve written about alcoholics in downward spirals; the cultural, racial, sexual  — tolerance of sexual preference and everything else. I feel an obligation — I’m acutely aware of the shoulders I’m standing on, and I feel an obligation to honor that.

From The Immortal Iron Fist #12: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven (February 2008), written by Fraction and drawn by David Aja.

I write the X-Men and there are gay kids with quivering voices and smiles at every show who find whatever it is they need to find somewhere in X-Men somehow — that book is so much about outcasts and misfits — they’ll find something in that book and it means the world to them. Something about that book in particular strikes people who have been prejudiced against, or judged, or shunned. People who feel like outcasts read that book and it means something. It makes them feel like they’re not alone and I think if you meet these kids, it shows. To carry on — just a sense of social consciousness, a political consciousness, Goddamn it, of what’s right in the world.

However small it is. For 22 pages where people wear ridiculous costumes and shoot beams from their face is some kind of fraudulence. I think these things can be more than 22-page fight scenes—and I’m a guy who likes 22-page fight scenes. I might’ve come for the steak, but I stay for the sizzle. And especially stuff like Denny’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow stuff, first or not, I definitely feel an obligation to carry on those traditions, because these things can be more than what they are. And if you can take something as ultimately frivolous in the cosmic scale of things in the universe and what’s important; people being born and dying and everything else that’s gonna happen today — if one gay kid in Shawnee Mission, Kan., reads an X-Men comic and feels for a second like maybe they’re not entirely alone in the world, that’s amazing. I’ll take it. Whatever size victory that is, I will take.

From "No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!" In Green Lantern #76 (April 1970), written by O'Neil and drawn by Adams.

DO: The other advantage of doing the socially relevant so-called stuff is, like Herman Melville said, “To write a mighty book, you must have a mighty theme.” What I found was: Writing about real stuff that really concerned me brought out my craft. If you’re writing a story about is Lois Lane gonna figure out that Superman is Clark Kent, it’s really hard to get involved in that on anything other than a craft level. And I’m not gonna put down craftsmanship; it is a noble enough thing to have made a table that you can pound on and it doesn’t fall down. But occasionally, we might have an assignment that engages some other parts of ourselves, and those tend to be the good stories. I think you have to be professional enough to make the good table. You’re not gonna be inspired 20 times a year.

SCRIPTING

DO: Matt, are you guys still doing Marvel style, or full script?

MF: I do full script. There are guys I know who do Marvel style, but I think they tend to be viewed a bit like lobster boys, or men with flippers. They’re certainly unique in their freakishness. I don’t know if it’s coming from a film culture and just having thought in storyboard for so long, but I wouldn’t even know how to go about working in Marvel style. I do a full script and it tends to  — I’ve started to fold index cards into my process. This has been exciting. The last couple months I’ve started to use index cards more and more. Very messy.

DO: Do you talk the story out with the editor before you script?

MF: Yeah, but it’s that butterfly. Like, “Uhh, I kind of know the beginning, maybe a middle beat, and an ending.” I sort of know who he’s gonna fight, what we’re gonna get, and what the hook is. Starting very broad and then narrowing in, moment to moment. These index cards are really helping [laughs]. I have a three-by-five-foot corkboard and a lot of index cards. That’s gonna really make a difference. I’m gonna really turn the corner this year, I can feel it.

DO: The thing I miss most is editors who want to do that. That’s pretty much the way I most successfully worked: exactly what you described. I know where it’s going, I know one or two of the set pieces, and I either know or will pay attention to when the time comes, what pulls them into the story. I’m not going to open on five pages of talking heads if it’s an action story.

But one of the great things for me about writing Iron Man was for about three hours a month, just sitting in a Chinese restaurant, Second Avenue with Mark, and working the story out. People don’t seem to much want to do that anymore. For me, it was always — not only the most pleasurable part of editing —we can all do without it, but it helps. For a lot of years, my wife, Mary Fran, has been my de facto editor, in that I can walk around town with her and talk out story problems. She’s not a writer; she has a stepson and a husband who are — she’s been around this for 20 years. And sometimes just talking it out, you’ll solve your own problem, explaining it to someone else.

MF: That first time that I ever articulate something out loud is always the most revealing. The first time something makes the leap from thought to sound, I immediately see where the holes are and what doesn’t work: and I can watch people get bored. To actually speak the words out loud — and I can tell, too, if I’m nervous about talking about it, I know I don’t have the story. I know on some instinctual level, if I’m nervous about sitting down for dinner with my wife and telling her what I’m thinking — I can tell if it’s not ready to come out of the stove. My instinct on that is somehow very, very primal and very inarticulate, but very real. I just know. It just doesn’t feel right saying the words: I know I don’t have it yet.

DO: George Lucas said, “Mythology is the end result of what has worked for a lot of different people telling the story to an audience.” Getting that immediate — the expression-on-their-face kind of feedback.

From The Five Fists of Science, 2006, written by Fraction and drawn by Steven Sanders.

MF: I’ve really come to study and embrace structure and appreciate it. I worked so instinctually and so off the top of my head. I also believe, just by osmosis, you can’t see as many movies as I’ve seen and read as many comics as I’ve read without having some kind of innate sense of narrative. You’re gonna find a beginning and a middle and an end. But embracing structure is precisely that. There’s a reason why these stories have resonated for thousands of years.

DO: Three-act structure prevails because it is the most logical way to tell a story.

MF: Right. And you can’t argue with the results.

DO: Some young people don’t seem to be able to write structured, all-in-this-issue stories. For the first 25 years of my life, every story that I experienced had a beginning, middle and end. Sure, there were continuing characters all over the place. But it was Boston Blackie solving this crime in this movie. Not Boston Blackie getting a start on solving this crime but you have to see his next movie to find out whodunit. Same way with radio shows. So I think I knew about structure before I had a vocabulary to express the concept because that’s the stories that I grew up experiencing. The major change, I think, in the last 50 years is going into a predominately serialized narrative form.

MF: Right. The DC book that you wrote about writing was great in that all of those things that were in my personal ether were being defined. “Oh, that’s what you call that — that’s how that works.” And I’ve been aware of writing a long-form structure, but I’m curious in the year going forward to start trying to see what happens — can you keep a micro and a macro structure moving at the same time? Can these eight issues form a complete experience, and how singular can each issue be? Is there a first, second and third act to each component of each beat of the greater structure? Really wonky questions that having a bulletin board full of index cards might inspire. But I find that, for me, the structure is the hard part. That’s where the real writing is. Writing my list of what has to happen on each page — that’s the tough part. Once that’s done, the scripting is very enjoyable and tends to go briskly if I’m focused and not paying attention to the ball game.

DO: TV has learned from us about structure. Seems to me, the predominant structure on narrative TV is: The protagonist has an ongoing problem. Just like Burn Notice; he’s gotta find out who sabotaged his life. But, in the meantime, he has a problem that’ll be solved in the next 50 minutes. In order to make money, or to help out his mother or something like that — he has a set of problems, he solves them, but he still doesn’t know who screwed him up and he’s gotta keep working to find that out. Almost every major television show has some of that element. They have the same problems that comic-book people do. Continuing characters. They need to figure out a way to deliver your $2.50’s worth of entertainment and still give you a reason to come back. We’ve all solved it the same way.

From Daredevil #214 (January 1985), written by O'Neil and drawn by David Mazzucchelli.

ARTISTS

KV: Where do the artists come in?

DO: [Laughs] I’m not sure, because, you know, we don’t — [Laughter.]

MF: — associate with that trash. [Laughter.]

KV: How much do you write to artists?

MF: I do that all the time. Every script I write is very much tailored for whoever it is I’m writing for, very very very much so. And I always like to ask, “What do you wanna draw? What are you into and I’ll try and work it out.” It just seems complementary. You’re the guy who’s gonna take a month drawing this thing, you wanna draw a jet, lemme give you a jet. If I can make it happen, I’ll do my best. But each artist is different. Even in the same book, I’ve got two, sometimes three different guys doing X-Men stuff, and depending on who I’m writing it for, it’s a different style of script.

DO: That’s very interesting. Back when I started — and here I go [feigns old man voice] “My 70 years to heaven are comin’ up, got-dangit.” But we mostly didn’t know the artists. You may have had an idea. But like, Green Lantern/Green Arrow: I didn’t know that Neal was gonna do that first issue. So I came up pretty early on with the concept of an artist-proof script, and then I abandoned it later. But I remember one Western I did for Charlton: “A man called Lobo is leaping over the boulder, a gun in both hands, shooting the weapons from his blah-blah!” And what I got was a medium close-up of a guy sort of holding a six-gun next to his ear. [Fraction laughs.] And I later found out, this particular artist — if it didn’t exist in his swipe file, it didn’t exist in his world. It was a violation of technique that DC also did a lot, which is to say in a caption, “Leaping over the boulder with his six-guns blazing ...” In good comic-book technique, the copy should never repeat the visual information.

MF: A trick I picked up from reading Frank Miller scripts from when I believe you were editing him, was: He tended to always start his panel caps sometimes with a general noun and a verb. “He weeps,” and then there’d be whatever else. And a couple of collaborators of mine have always said that the first sentence of my script is for them, and everything else that comes after is for me. Which is true, that’s very much how I try to write. The first line is just to get the physical action down, and then I’ll kind of drift off into whatever else I see in my head and they can take it or leave it.

DO: And, if you’re lucky, the artist will pay some attention to that, and sometimes they don’t. One of my ex-freelancers has a horror story of working Marvel-style with a given publisher, and he gets the artwork back and one of the three main characters is nowhere present in the story. [Fraction laughs.] So he asks about this and is told, “Well, the artist doesn’t like that character.”

And in one of Doug Moench’s many stories, the McGuffin in the story is a red car. It was very essential that the red car be in the shot. He gets the art, and there’s no red car. There was a building, empty street, building. He calls the artist, “Where’s the red car?”

“Oh, it’s behind the building.”

So that’s the kind of thing that sometimes made you — if I had any hair left, I would pull it out.

MF: I have a friend that wrote a story of some sort featuring some character, and then when the art came in, suddenly there were dinosaurs in the background [O’Neil laughs.] And when asked of his editor, “What the hell is up with the dinosaurs,” he was told, “Oh, yeah, the guy really likes dinosaurs.” But we’re late, so fix it in lettering.

DO: Some editors don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s about story. Otherwise, it’s a collection of drawings. And half the responsibility for the narrative — at least half — falls to the artist. So when Stan devised the Marvel method, well, he was working with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Those guys were very experienced and consummate visual storytellers. But if a guy is 20 minutes out of art school and thinks that superhero comics are just about mesomorphs in capes crashing things, and that’s 18 of your 22 pages, you have a real challenge as a writer. For a long time, Marvel style was prevalent. People now tell me that it has gone full-script.

MF: Like I said, I’ve never worked that way.

DO: It depends. There’s maybe a half a dozen artists that I would certainly be happy to work Marvel style with. But mostly no, if only because when I’m finished with the job I don’t want to think about it anymore. And I don’t want to wait for somebody to do his job before I can do mine. A lot of practical considerations come in.

MF: Then would you go back and polish lettering once art came in? Re-tweak dialogue around finished art?

DO: Not only do I not do that, I never look at published work. Ever.

MF: Really? I’ve worked with a couple colorists who have worked so subtly that the printed work never translates — I never know what it’s gonna look like on my screen until it comes out. So I’ve looked at things for that. But I always tend to do a lettering pass, once the art comes back, just to make sure everything still works and reads right and makes sense.

DO: If you go back and look at it, and something is really screwed up, there has been some horrible mistake made in the art — you’re probably not gonna be able to do anything about it. And I just want to spare myself that grief. Mary Fran, especially when I was writing a lot, read everything.  And when she just quietly left the room and turned on the computer and called up that script, I knew we were in trouble.  I knew the artist had not delivered something essential to understanding the story.  I am not bragging about what I do. If I had to be as conscientious as I ought to be, I’d get past that emotional glitch.

MF: I dunno, maybe I’d be a lot healthier and a lot happier if I didn’t.

DO: Well, Doug works Marvel-style, but what you get from him as an editor for a 22-page story is sometimes a 25-page plot with a lot of dialogue. So, I once said, “Well, while you’re at it, why don’t you go the last 25 percent of the way and then you’ll be done with it?” and his answer is: He wants to look at the art. Sometimes something the artist does will give him a great line that he wouldn’t have thought but, in any case, it’s a chance to give yourself a little insurance against the unforeseen. Doug is a better man than I.

MF: Now I just want to try writing in the Marvel style, just to see what happens. [Laughter.]

FRANK MILLER & BILL SIENKIEWICZ

DO: I think Frank went over the stuff he did with Bill Sienkiewicz, I think — I shouldn’t even mention this because I can’t swear to it —

MF: You know what? I remember reading an interview about them getting pages in on either Elektra: Assassin or the Daredevil graphic novel that they did together and there always being a heavy rewrite pass that happened once the pages came in.

DO: Yeah, Bill has the soul of a fine artist, I think. He’s done any number of pictures that I would be happy to hang on my wall.

MF: When comics stopped being a peripheral detail in my life and started to be a real going concern, Sienkiewicz was a big part of that. I wanted to be an artist and to draw and to paint and to suddenly see these beautiful painterly covers — I didn’t know he was referring to Bob Peak and Ed McGuinness and all the guys he was building off of — they just leapt off the stands. Sienkiewicz was an early obsession, I guess it would have been at 10 or 11. That guy was just breaking rules I didn’t even know existed.

DO: Yes, just really rebelled against his influences, within one year his style changed drastically. He became maybe the most interesting — certainly one of the most interesting — artists in the field.

MF: It became interesting to see how far he could push against the ceiling of just what, technically, was possible with the printing. I would love to see his work almost remastered. There are a couple of guys, actually — I’d like to see Walter Simonson’s remastered, some of Chaykin’s stuff, since these were guys really pushing against what the printing presses were capable of, what the coloring process was capable of. Maybe it’s a terrible idea, I don’t know — maybe it’s the equivalent of colorization — but I’d love to see what a digital restoration of some of that groundbreaking work would look like.

DO: I bet Chaykin would love it. Probably Walt would, too. Chaykin was my son’s first employer and I was one of Howard’s first editors.

ONLY THE LONELY

MF: Now, I have to ask this: Tell me about the coffee room.

DO: At which company?

MF: DC.

DO: Well, it’s something we miss. It was a place for freelancers to go and hang out and exchange gossip and talk shop. There was a coffee machine that gave you your 25¢ cardboard cup. They just, I guess, expanded and ran out of room, but one of the things I miss is the informality of the comic-book business. A huge number of pros would get together every Friday night and play poker, for example, until one guy got paranoid and was afraid he was giving away his ideas to the competition. So, that dampened that, but it was very informal and we weren’t taking it seriously. As a card-carrying rebel with very low self-esteem, it was almost a perfect world for me.

MF: With the conventions, Marvel has us out a couple of times a year to do these summits. You can tell the Marvel guys want to get the hell out of the office. But all the freelancers want to stay there because it’s the closest thing to a bullpen experience that any of us are ever going to have.

DO: And writers, particularly, do lead very isolated lives.

MF: The idea where there used to be a building where everybody was — writing comics was a job that required you to go somewhere.

DO: I thought the best tool I had as an editor was — these were times far more flush than they are now — two or three times a year I could get everybody together away from Manhattan. Very often the Tarrytown retreat house, which is now very close to where I live. We would — very much like your description of working with editors — get the writers and some artists sometimes, and for three days we would talk out, “This is, in broad, general strokes, where the characters are going. These are the big events.” My assistant sometimes wanted to plot out everything and kind of micro-manage some of them. I always thought, “No, we have to know what the ballpark is, but I want to leave a lot of room inside the ballpark for people to get inspired.” That was especially necessary if we were going to do one of those monster 1100- to 2,000-page —

MF: Crossovers, yeah,

DO: Jordan Gorfinkle on a laptop computer, taking copious notes, and then poker every night. I think it was enormously useful: It was a way to build morale, but more than that, to really get on top of the work — to know where we have to go for the next six months. Now I understand that when they do that, it’s all done in the office and I attended one of those — and it’s OK, it still accomplishes things, but the vibe is considerably different.

MF: Marvel, they go to a different office space in Manhattan at a law firm. They rent a giant conference room that has one wall of dry-erase board and giant paper — some poor bastard has to run around with a Sharpie to make notes live to make sure everything is being captured. There’s a big calendar and notes are taken and collated and given out so no ideas are lost. But I love the idea — was it true that there were no editors allowed in the coffee room, that it was freelancers-only?

DO: Oh, I think they were allowed in there, it wasn’t a show-a-card-at-the-door thing, But the editors didn’t even have expense accounts. All the years I worked with those guys, nobody ever took me to lunch because they didn’t have the wherewithal to do it.

And the freelancers were not well-regarded — you know the story of the big freelancer “night of a thousand deaths”? Where Steve Skeates and I were hired away from Charlton to go to work for DC? In the arrogance and the ignorance of youth, we thought, “Well, the stuff we’ve been doing for $4 a page, they’re probably knocked-out by it, boy! They want to get us.” Although the reality — which was given to me by Paul Levitz years later — is that those guys who created the DC pantheon — the writers and the freelancers — had asked for a little help with the health insurance and the response was to dump ’em. So, Skeates and I were warm bodies who knew how to type. We had worked with Dick [Giordano] for a year each at Charlton — Dick would come into Manhattan once a week and we’d both had some experience at Marvel. But Skeates and I were hippies and did not wear jackets and ties to the office, so we were told not to walk past the big boss’ office — to go out and go the long way around — because, I dunno, maybe if he’d happened to open his door and saw somebody with long hair and tie-dye, he’d have had a coronary.

UNIONIZING

KV: Well that actually brings up the question of forming a writers’ guild and how there have been attempts in the past — and how that has never really come to fruition.

MF: That’ll never happen. Someone will always be willing to write Batman for free. You said you guys were warm bodies and you could type — there’s always going to be somebody. You sit at a bar with an editor at a show and you see 19 people come up and pitch ideas at them. If everybody writing the top 20 books all quit and demanded “Union Now – Union Forever,” those 19 guys would be getting phone calls. There will never be a union. I think things are getting better — I bet things have never been so good — but there will never be a union.

DO: That story I just told you, I was writing a piece for Superman’s 50th birthday and Paul [Levitz] told me this story and I said, “Well, you realize that I’m a journalist in this context — this is something I’m going to write and, boy, that makes the company look bad,” and he said, “It will tell everybody how far we’ve come.” It was a good answer. Does ACBA mean anything to either of you?

MF: Not to me.

DO: The Academy of Comic Book Arts, which a bunch of us started in the early ’70s and I think, initially, part of the agenda was as a bargaining body of people to talk with the publishers. But it was sabotaged almost from the first instant by the fact that one of the small publishers, Jim Warren of Creepy and Eerie, was on the board. Now, while Jim Warren was not DC or Harvey or Marvel, he was a guy who wasn’t a freelance writer or artist. We could organize giving awards once a year, but we just couldn’t ever get it together to take any meaningful action, even to investigate things like health insurance. Now I am on the board of the Hero Initiative — that’s partially to fill-in that blank. If you are a guy with five years’ experience doing comic books and the universe has treated you badly and you need some money to survive, you can apply to us. But, apart from that, we have no pensions —

MF: Yeah, there’s no 401(K), there’s no medical or dental.

DO: And it doesn’t make any difference when you’re 25 years old, living in Queens with roommates and subsisting on pizza. When you’re 40 years old with two kids and a sick wife, it can make a huge difference.

MF: The difference between working in the mainstream and doing independent work is the difference between having a wife and a kid, and a roommate and pizza. It was great doing indy stuff for no money after-hours of my day job but, you know, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got a son, I’ve got a house. Just the needs and necessities of the real world oftentimes take precedence.

DO: Yeah, I think everybody should have that adventure of living off pizza with roommates for a few years.

MF: It’s the work I did then that got me the work I do now, without a doubt, and still informs it — it’s just the paradigm’s twisted a little bit. Like I said earlier, I’m very aware of the people whose shoulders I’m standing on right now and the work and sacrifice that happened. Things have never been better for creators in the mainstream right now and God bless the Hero Initiative for the work they do.

DO: Well, the anomaly is that, as a publishing venture, comics are not doing very well. As a venture that supplies other media, they’re incredible.

MF: We’re the leaders and loss-leaders [laughs].

DO: Yeah, and the movies are evolving in the direction of quality, I think. Iron Man was, by any criterion, a good movie. And the second Batman movie [The Dark Knight] did not end up with the good guy and the bad guy fighting, it was about redemption and having the hero run off into the night at the end, instead of emerge victorious. They’re getting more and more literate and just working better as cinema. The costume is no longer the whole trip. I think much of the medium’s history as publishing has been marginal. Well, during World War II and right after that, David Hadju’s book [The Ten-Cent Plague] indicates that they were selling millions of copies a month. Certainly, as long as I’ve been in it, we used to sell 100,000 a month, but not a million.

MF: It’s a transition period, you know? I don’t think we know where we’re headed quite yet. The formats are changing again and the fortunes will change with them.

DO: Yeah, I was about to ask you about that, Matt, do you think comic books as we know them — these magazine things — are gonna survive?

MF: I think as long as there’s printed matter in the world, whether The New York Times is the last paper standing, or Time magazine is the last magazine standing, I think as long as there’s printed material, there will be comic books. I don’t believe there’s going to be day- and date-exclusive formats anymore. I think we’re quickly coming to a point where a six-part Iron Man storyline might launch in the direct market the same day that the finished collection comes out at Barnes and Noble and that you can download it on your iPhone or what have you. I think, as new distribution channels open up, comics are going to flood in — if, for no other reason, that you can spend — soup to nuts — eight, nine, ten grand to put an issue of Batman out into the world and turn it into a billion-dollar motion picture. You can’t argue with that return on investment. I hope. That’s what I tell myself — maybe I need a Plan B.

THE BIZ

DO: I gave an interview yesterday to somebody about G.I. Joe — I edited when Larry Hama was writing it — and once a year, we had to meet the toy company and they would show us prototypes of the coming year’s worth of toys and Larry had to integrate those. Though in fairness to Hasbro, they were a joy to work with and that isn’t always the case when you have an outside client, but their attitude was, “We know how to make toys, you know how to make comic books. As long as you don’t come down to our assembly line, we’re gonna let you alone,” and they did. Larry was told, “OK, there’s going to be a G.I. Joe aircraft carrier,” and he’d have to integrate that into the comic somewhere, but they didn’t tell him how to do it.

MF: This is a collaborative medium. Your independent stuff — if you’re taking notes or things like that on work that you ostensibly own, I think that’s compromise in a way that isn’t worth considering. But mainstream superhero stuff is a very collaborative medium, whether it’s something like Iron Man where there are films happening or the toy manufacturers saying, “Hey, we’re making an aircraft carrier!” There’s an inker and a colorist and penciler, to say nothing of an editorial staff and a letterer, and God knows how many cooks are in the kitchen.

DO: Anything can serve as a springboard for a story. One of my favorite examples of that — and also favorite examples of writing to somebody else’s requirements — is The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is playing here at an outdoor Shakespeare festival. That was because Elizabeth liked Falstaff and wanted to see another Falstaff play which Shakespeare knocked out in a couple of weeks and she had it pretty soon. You were talking earlier about meeting with artists and asking what they wanted to draw, I remember one story — I can’t remember his name, proving my earlier point about names — in the hall he said, “I’d like to do a story with trains in it.” And, you know, Batman can be on a train!

MF: Sure! I have no wandering need for any more ego, I have plenty of ego for any three people, but I’ve been blessed and cursed with an observing ego at the same time that’s actually regulating my ability to actually enjoy myself. I’m constantly reminded and aware that, while I might be alone in a room, making the stuff up, there are nine other guys on board and there’s a constant voice in my head. I’ve written a big summer crossover thing for the X-Men and Avengers and there are a lot of crowd scenes and I felt a lot of guilt writing them because I know how tough that is to draw. But there needed to be riots and there needed to be protests because it’s a politically minded, socially relevant thing and that meant there needed to be people in the street and big fights and two huge teams. Every time I wrote it — one of the guys drawing it, I worked with before on an issue that was about a funeral where there were 30 people in a room having a — I don’t know if you were a fan of The Wire, but I did a riff on the cop funerals from The Wire where they lay the body out on the bar and everybody gets hammered, but it was 30 D-list super-villains in a room and he wrote me — this guy now drawing all these crowd scenes and fights — and said, “Our next collaboration, you have to promise me is about a polar bear in a snowstorm.” [Laughter.]

DO: Well, I occasionally used to put notes to the artists: “Sorry about this but I’m gonna give you a lot of close-ups in a few pages.”

From The Question: Welcome to Oz, 2004, written by O'Neil and drawn by Rick Magyar.

MF: Exactly: “Listen, I know this one’s all talking heads — next issue makes up for it.” But hey, a story demands what a story demands: and I’m aware that I am but one of many hands.

DO: And maybe one of those other guys has a mortgage due or something. We get really pretty good working conditions for freelance writers: You don’t have to pitch a news story or reintroduce yourself every week or every month. Once you get established, you get work. What you pay for that is that you don’t have total freedom. Working with Batman, I thought, like Eisner said about The Spirit, “This is a very good storytelling tool,” and 80 percent of people on the planet, if I want to estimate, recognize this and they’re pretty much, all of the time, staying out of my way — what a gift to a storyteller!

PLAYING FAIR

KV: Do you both feel that the industry has treated you fairly?

DO: Yeah, I think I was lucky in that, for the first 15 years or so, I did have work under the old system where you signed away everything. But now it ain’t bad: They own the characters, but I sign contracts that give me a piece of the action. If Azrael, whom they have just brought back to life — who’da thought that? — becomes a movie, I will get a chunk of money for that and, in the meantime, I don’t have to worry about maintaining copyrights. They’re reprinting a lot of stuff and every time they do, I get a check. Also, it’s kinda nice to see the best of what you’ve done as a book because it probably will last longer and your grandchildren, if any, will be able to read it. I don’t think — the stuff we talked about earlier: We need a pension system, we need healthcare if the government ends up not providing that — but in most cases —

MF: There’s a question! What’s coming first: national healthcare or a pension plan for comics? [Laughter.] What is on the slower boat?

DO: Probably national healthcare, but what do you think, Matt? Do you think we have a bad deal?

MF: You know, I knew the job was dangerous when I signed up. I think you guys — the pushes and the changes that have come about — I get a piece of the action because of what the folks that came before did. So far, I’ve been treated very fairly and I’m acutely aware of what’s going on: The contracts I read are crystal clear, a high tide raises all ships and I know very much that wasn’t always the way. I get copies of what I write and I’m treated well, I’m treated fairly and it’s not my day to run the company.

DO: For me, one of the last walls fell with getting movie money for characters they used in movies. I really questioned that that one was ever going to happen, but suddenly it is and it’s not because we had any leverage to apply to the companies.

MF: You know, I went out to Marvel West and did a week on Iron Man 2 last summer and was paid for it. They had my books there and they had printouts of the ones that hadn’t come out and they had a hard copy of scripts that hadn’t been drawn. It was clear that there was at least going to be a speck of my DNA going on over there and I was well compensated for my time and work.

DO: Yeah, with Ra’s al Ghul, I was surprised. I was certain I was going to get something, but I have no complaints about the way I was treated and then I got to do the novelization and I got to be a consultant on the video game. The company had no legal obligation to do any of that.

MF: I have no complaints. I also believe very much that ownership is control and the stuff that I own, I control and that’s a very different deal and a different world. So I, at no point, went into working for hire thinking that it was anything other than work-for-hire. I knew I was a warm-bodied being that could type. I didn’t have any illusions. I left a career in advertising at a company that I co-owned, for God’s sakes.

DO: You co-owned an ad agency?

MF: We were a design and animation firm that worked for ad agencies. Why I came out here like I said, was to synthesize fine arts and film and ended up starting this company with friends and we made short films and cartoons and things. One of the most recent pieces they did was the opening credits for the last James Bond film. So it was that kinda stuff: commercials, show packages, credit sequences, beer commercials, Coke commercials, music videos and things like that. We had started it after we all left school so having understood what ownership was on that level — I really have no complaints. The artists I know have their work returned to them, the artists get their pages back. I’m aware of the shoulders I’m standing on.

DO: Do artists get their work back now?

MF: The folks that I know — there might be folks that have trouble with it with smaller publishers, but I’ve not heard anyone that I’ve worked with at Marvel complain. True, most artists work digital now, there’s very rarely actual pages sent in, but in my experience, no one that I’ve worked with has complained to me that they weren’t getting their work back from Marvel.

DO: That was a big stumbling block for decades.

MF: Yeah, and I’ve seen scripts that are written where writers will say, if it’s a page with a million people and an airplane crashing and an explosion and Captain America and Batman fighting on top of the Empire State Building all at once as every star in Heaven falls, “Now, just keep in mind while you’re drawing this, that you’re going to be able to sell it for a million dollars at a convention.” [Laughter.] And it’s true! It’s a real secondary source of income for a lot of artists.

DO: Yeah, and it damn well should be. I had 60 pages of Neal Adams artwork because they were going to throw it away and somebody in the production department said, “These are your stories, you might as well take it because otherwise, it’s going into a shredder.” The best horror story I know is Prince Valiant, Hal Foster originals, the syndicate put them on the floor during rainy weather so people wouldn’t track in the dirt.

MF: [Makes sounds of pain.] Oh, my God!

DO: But that’s what it was — nobody thought this was an art form — it was product. I think with a few exceptions, Eisner being the conspicuous one, most of the people who were working in it just thought, “Well, this is a paycheck.” Danny Fingeroth did a book called Disguised as Clark Kent about Jews in comics and, for a lot of those guys in the late ’30s, there were not very many opportunities, even the pulps didn’t seem to welcome them. So, comics were a way to put some food on the table.

MF: Yeah, they came over to the UK as ballast and they would be used in crates as padding — Alan Moore talks about that of American comics being things that were put in crates to stop things from clanking together. Maybe this takes it full-circle, but I like working in a trashy, disreputable medium.

DO: Could you imagine being an author? I’m not a big Mickey Spillane fan, but I resonate with the thing he said, “I’m not an author, I’m a writer.” When you’re doing a novel, if you allow yourself to be an English major and think, “Oh, there’s Cervantes and Dickens and Mark Twain and William Faulkner and me!” [Laughter.] You really don’t want to carry that load.

From Uncanny X-Men #510 (July 2009) written by Fraction, penciled by Greg Land, and inked by Jay Leisten.

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2 Responses to A Denny O’Neil and Matt Fraction Conversation

  1. Mike Rhode says:

    Thanks for posting this – I hadn’t seen it before.

    There’s a typo on this page I think.

    MF: But I never was because I was never a diligent bag-and-boarder. The best thing I can say about the collector mentality is that it put a friend of mine through his first semester in college. He was able to gain a speculation bubble over a two-week period and bring in enough money to…

    Should be ‘able to game’

  2. Oliver C says:

    Is Denny implying that Marie Severin had to draw that Iron Man splash page because Ditko refused to draw an inebriated Tony Stark, even when it was obviously a nightmare?!

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