It’s hard to summarize Mark Waid’s career except to say hyperbolically – though not inaccurately – that he is one of the most successful and influential writers of North American comics of his generation, and on a short list of the great superhero writers of all time. He wrote Kingdom Come, one of the major comics’ series of the 1990’s, Superman: Birthright, which redefined the character in a way that the subsequent films and TV shows have borrowed from, and in his long run on The Flash he introduced concepts (The Speed Force) and characters (Bart Allen, Savitar) that have continued to shape the comics, films and TV series. He’s written major runs of Avengers, Black Widow, Captain America, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes, and Spider-Man along with hundreds of other comics that ranged from creator owned takes on superheroes (Empire, Irredeemable, Incorruptible) to playing with classic characters (Princess Leia, The Rocketeer, The Green Hornet) to famously redefining Archie. Along the way he was one of the founders of Gorilla Comics, worked at Crossgen, and was Editor in Chief of Boom, after starting his comics career as an editor at DC. Of course along the way he’s also written in other genres, experimented with different forms, and written and edited webcomics on Thrillbent.
Waid’s work has been so impactful because doesn’t write plot heavy stories like the Claremont-McGregor generation of comics writers, he’s never written decompressed stories, but instead has been a writer focused on character. While not every Waid comic is the ideal first issue for a new reader, when taking over a series, he finds ways to do that while acknowledging decades of continuity, but never being beholden to it. He is also masterful at writing for artists, and during his career has collaborated with a number of artists on different projects and at different companies including Chris Samnee (The Rocketeer, Daredevil), Humberto Ramos (Impulse, Champions), Barry Kitson (Empire, Doctor Strange), Lenil Francis Yu (Superman: Birthright, Indestructible Hulk), Paul Azaceta (Potter’s Field, The Amazing Spider-Man), Peter Krause (Irredeemable, Insufferable, Archie 1941), and the late Mike Wieringo (The Flash, Fantastic Four).
This year he’s taken on two new challenges. At Marvel Waid is writing The History of the Marvel Universe, and at Humanoids he’s co-writing Ignited, where he’s also the Director of Creative Development helping to over see the company’s H1 imprint. His other current and upcoming projects include Invisible Woman (Marvel), Noah Zark (Ahoy), and Archie: 1955(Archie). I’ve been a reader and fan of Waid’s since the 1990’s when I bought The Flash and Impulse every month and I talked with him recently about the advice he got from Dick Giordano, writing the superhuman condition, and letting go.
Alex Dueben: Mark, you have always had this reputation as someone with a deep encyclopedic knowledge of comics, but I’ve always thought of you first and foremost as a writer focused on character.
Mark Waid: Thank you. Yes, I know a lot of history. Not only about the characters but about the companies and the creators themselves. Do I fall back on that at conventions and panels? Sure. It’s a fun party trick. But that’s not why I got into writing and it’s not what I enjoy about writing. It really is about, to me, taking these characters and concepts that have been around – in a lot of cases before I was even born – and dusting them off and seeing what you can do with them through a contemporary lens.
The marketing line when you took over say, Daredevil or Hulk in recent years was “a whole new direction” – which is what companies always say – but you reshaped those series in a way that really drew on the characters.
I don’t really have any interest in doing a series of stories about why this or that thing happened in 1975. It’s not a matter of picking up bits and pieces of continuity. It’s about going back and looking at original author intent and acknowledging in a lot of these cases – whether it’s Archie, whether it’s Daredevil, whether it’s Doctor Strange – that there are reasons that these characters have survived forty-fifty-sixty-seventy years when so many pop culture characters like, I don’t know, Krazy Kat and Andy Panda have vanished. If you think you know as a creator what those X factors are that have kept these characters alive, you’re arrogant. [laughs] If we knew what the X factors were to create characters that last one hundred years, we’d all be doing it! With that in mind, I tend to skew towards original author intent. I tend to approach all the material with a sense of humility that I’m dealing with pop culture icons that have been around before I was born and are certainly going to outlive me. There’s a sort of Hippocratic oath I’ve taken to it, do no harm. Mess around in the toybox all you want, but at the end of the day realize that you as a writer and your input are not more important than the original authors.
There’s room for a bunch of different interpretations. I think I’m unfairly typed as someone who writes light, bright shiny old fashioned material. I don’t think that’s true at all. What is probably more accurate to say is that I’m not cynical and I don’t have much use for cynicism. In my work or, frankly, in the world. These characters to a large part were created to be inspirational and heroic. I would argue that the things that happen to Daredevil during my run were just as dark and just as awful and just as bleak as anything that previous writers have put him through, it’s just they were drawn by the brilliant Chris Samnee, so they look lighter. But also it was more about how the character deals with these dark, horrible circumstances. That was the difference.
It’s not about the plot, but how the character relates to the plot.
Exactly. Again I’m also not in any way shape or form saying that all comics or all superhero comics should be bright, shiny relics of the past. There’s room for variation. Frank Miller’s Daredevil was pretty dark. Brian Bendis’ Daredevil was pretty dark. It didn’t make them bad comics, it just made them something that is not in my wheelhouse as a writer and therefore that’s not how I approached the material.
Right now one of your current books is The History of the Marvel Universe, which is a different project because it’s less character based.
I’m working my ass off to shoot more character into it. [laughs] As happy as I am with the way The History of the Marvel Universe is playing out and as beautiful looking as it is, it’s an assignment. It’s not me coming to the table going, I have this deep burning dream to reunite all this continuity and tell the grand sweeping history of the Marvel Universe. It is, hey Mark, you know more about this shit than anybody else we can think of. [laughs] Here’s an outline, do you want to take a swing at it? Then it becomes a matter of trying as best as I can with 120 pages to cover 80 years worth of comics history, and as I say, find some way to cram some heart and character into it as opposed to just being a 120 page wikipedia entry.
When Marvel or whoever approaches you like that, I’m sure being a freelancer you’re thinking “yes” before they finish asking, but is the appeal for you the challenge of it?
Yes. It’s something I haven’t tackled before. Doctor Strange was a prime example of that. I have no background with magical characters. I am a science boy through and through. Always have been. I was a physics minor in college. I never read much of Doctor Strange comparative to other DC or Marvel characters. I was asked to do it and the reason I said yes was because it was something I hadn’t tackled before. That’s an interesting challenge to me. I don’t think I really succeeded in that the goals I set out to meet. I deliberately used a narrative device in Doctor Strange – evocative third person narration – which is not done very often in comics these days. I hadn’t done that before and I thought it was an interesting approach. No one’s doing that so let’s try it. Well, no one’s doing that because it’s really, really hard. [laughs] I realized about three issues in that it was unsustainable and it’s just not in my skillset, so when I lucked onto an elegant way to phase it out cleanly, I did. That’s an example of what I’m saying. I’m always interested in trying new things, trying new challenges, looking for brand new ways to tell stories. I like taking chances. Most of the time I hit the ball, but sometimes I don’t and I learn from that.
As far as The History of the Marvel Universe, we are seeing books like that or X-Men Grand Design, and it feels like a different approach that I haven’t seen in superhero comics before. Is this something we haven't seen before that doesn't really have a precedent? Do you think it requires decades of continuity and stories to know the characters so that we care about a story told in this way?
Something like this has half a precedent, if you will. It is, at its base, similar to The History of the DC Universe from 1986 – illustrated text. To me, though, it has a different look to it. Javier Rodriguez is using more design tricks than George Perez did, which I didn't think was possible. Moreover, an invaluable part of the series, and something that DC's didn't have, is the heavy-text-with-occasional-clip-art Annotations Section put together by Marvel's Research Team. It takes a lot of the burden off of me with the main narrative, which is essentially a survey course. There's no time or space to get into minutia in my section, and I don't feel pressured to worry about cramming in a reference to every last little moment in Marvel history. The Annotations carry that water.
It shouldn't require decades of continuity to know the characters so we can care, no. And to that point, as much information as there is in this series, there's absolutely nothing in it that you absolutely have to know in order to read next month's issue of Thor, or whatever. Nor should there be. This series is backstory. It's for that demographic between "casual curious reader" and "hardcore Wednesday warrior" – it gives context to the Marvel Universe's major events for those who are curious to do some deep diving. I suppose it could look like daunting reading, but there is an audience for it. When I was 14, my family moved from Alabama to Virginia, which necessitated a multi-day car trip. My father bought for me a copy of The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes Featuring Batman, a 400-page cross-referenced book that, in text form, synopsized every Batman story told up until then-recently, and I devoured that thing. I read it from cover to cover, from Abdullah the magician to Zur-En-Ahrr, and I don't know that I've ever been happier in my life than I was while immersed in that thing. Forty-plus years on, there are still others like me out there. I hope they enjoy this.
How did you end up working at Humanoids?
One of my closest friends is Jud Meyers who was working as the Marketing and Sales Rep and has since gone onto IDW. He recommended me as a writer to Humanoids for one of their books. They told me the concept which was, and I’m paraphrasing, what if the Marjory Stoneman Douglas kids got superpowers and were able to push back against the assholes who make gun violence a reality in this world. I was on that like black on a bowling ball. That’s something that I’m very passionate about. I did say however, that given the reality that we want to deal with, I wanted to write it in partnership with someone who doesn’t look like me. Someone with a younger voice. Not just another white guy. They teamed me up with Kwanza Osajyefo and I came in with some strong ideas, but what blossomed out of that once work commenced were some lunches with Fabrice Giger, who is the biggest of the big kahunas there. We got to talking about creativity and what’s working in the market, what’s not working in the market. He hired me to be a consultant, essentially, to help them break into the American market, which was a new thing for them. Having done literally everything in comics from writing and editing and publishing to owning a store to everything short of putting the staples in the comics, I felt like I had something to bring to the table and so did they.
You’re the Director of Creative Development and practically speaking, what does that mean?
It is half-abstract, half-practical. It is looking at all incoming pitches and projects and giving notes and thoughts. It’s recruiting talent. It’s calling in favors from established talent that I’ve known for years. It’s also helping them set a tone for their American material. The biggest, most fulfilling part of it though really is working with new pitches, working with newer writers because they have interesting stories to tell and my job is not to get them to tell my version of their story or dictate what their story is, my job is to show them through craft how best to tell their story.
I think that’s something you’ve been trying to do for a while now. First at Crossgen–though you may have blocked those years out–
[laughs] I try.
But there and at Boom and with Thrillbent, you want to work with other writers and creators and even if you aren’t the editor you want to collaborate with and mentor people.
There’s no better way to learn. I’m not coming down the mountaintop with stone tablets going, [saying] "you have to listen to me now because I’m old and have been around forever". There is no better way to realize exactly what your skillset is and exactly how you go about doing things than to have to explain it somebody else. To be able to put into words the things that I do that are part of my craft that are instinctual is invaluable. It helps me to zero in on the stuff that works, the stuff that doesn’t work, the stuff that used to work but doesn’t work anymore. Beyond that it’s also a matter of they have voices that aren’t mine so let’s work together. Let me hear what you have to say.
I have been extraordinary lucky. No one gets a career like mine. I have not had to pick up the phone in thirty-five years. I’m not saying that as a humblebrag, I’m saying that with all humility and astounding wonderment. People ask me all the time how do you survive that long? I have no idea. But if I had to guess, I think one of the things that helps is, for the love of god, accept and embrace the fact that the medium is always changing and morphing and advancing and you’d better keep up. You better listen and pay attention and read the stuff that’s out there. Frankly you can count the number of superhero comics I’ve been reading in the last ten years on the fingers of one hand. The stuff that appeals to me more is the guys who break storytelling like the Hernandez Brothers and Chris Ware. Watching people reinvent the medium – that’s what gets me charged. There’s nothing that gets me more excited on a day of scripting than seeing or figuring out some tiny little bit of craft or some way of telling a story that no one’s ever done before. Even if it’s one panel or one image. That makes me happy.
When you were starting out especially who were the editors or mentors you had who shaped how you work and helped you find your voice?
Dick Giordano. Full stop. My biggest influence ever.
Let me back up and say, I never really wanted to be a writer. I had no ambition of being a writer growing up. I knew how to put words together. I had written for school newspapers and I knew how to write nonfiction, but I had no aspiration of being a writer. I didn’t think you could possibly come up with ideas three times a month. [laughs] I didn’t think that was within my grasp. Going to work at DC as an editor was my goal. I wanted to be involved on some level in the crafting of these comics without having to do any actual typing. That’s what led me to the job. Working with Dick Giordano and having him mentor me – and just listening to everything out of his mouth about his career approach – informed everything I know about how to deal with the freelance life and informed a great deal of my attitude about how you go about doing the work.
The single best piece of advice I ever got from Dick was exactly the wrong piece of advice to give to a young assistant editor. He should never have said this. I asked him once, you worked with Neal Adams in the seventies and Neal has a reputation for being late and blowing deadlines right and left. In comics in the seventies that wasn’t such a big deal, but you were working for advertising agencies and big houses with millions of dollars on the line, how did that go? Dick just laughed and said, well, they’d lose their minds and scream and yell and be livid that Neal was holding things up and not delivering on time – but six months later they wouldn’t remember how late it was, they’d just remember how good it was. Boy, did that stick with me! Yeah, you want to be on time. Yeah, you want to be a reliable freelancer. Yeah, at base, your job as a freelancer is to solve an editor’s problems. That’s really the heart of the interaction. But at the end of the day, all you’ve got is your resume. You’ve got to be protective of your work whether it’s something you own, or something you’re just renting. You’ve got to deliver your best, and if the difference between good and great is two days, brace yourself against angry editorial blowback and just steal the two days. No one remembers that Watchmen took 18 months to come out or that some other comic they love was a week late. They just remember how solid and how good the work is today. I know a lot of creators who always hit their deadlines who can’t find work now. I’ve never, ever seen an editor hesitate to hire a stellar talent simply because they were occasionally a little late.
There are two aspects of what you’re doing at Humanoids. There’s a shared superhero universe and then unrelated monthly series and books. As part of crafting a “new, more realistic” superhero universe, you were talking about the origin of Ignited, but how do you build out from there?
You don’t start with capes. That’s one important thing. I go back and forth myself as whether I want to describe this as a superhero universe or just a universe of characters – because they’re not superheroes. None of the characters in any of the H1 books are superheroes by most metrics. But I understand why it’s a good descriptor to put on the universe of books. You start with character. I go deep. I read pieces from shooting survivors, I read books, I talked with shooting survivors. I was important for me to get this right and not be exploitative. That’s where you start and add to that the fact that you’re dealing with teenagers who are A, not going to be thinking with a hive mind, and B, not always going to make the wisest decisions. That doesn’t make them stupid or wrong, it just makes them teenagers. The idea was that they’re not always going to make the right choices or the right decisions, but they’re going to act consistently with how angry kids who don’t want to be helpless are going to act.
Having read Ignited and Omni and Strangelands, I thought of Wild Cards. George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass and everyone involved knew superheroes but they were approaching the idea as science fiction and fantasy writers and thinking about worldbuilding in that way.
Frankly, that’s a more accurate descriptor of what we’re doing.
So how was this world built?
The groundwork was already laid before I got there. Kwanza and Carla Speed McNeil and Yanick Paquette sat down with the editor Fabrice Sapolsky and built this universe and came up with characters and directions – not stories, per se, but directions. When I came aboard, a lot of those pieces were in place and some were left for me to integrate. It’s not quite how I would approach the creative process if it were me doing it from scratch. That’s not in any way denigrating the process or the people or the books--what the “H1 Architects” did was phenomenal--it’s just not the way I would approach it. So what I had to do was examine what was in place and figure out, what can I bring to it? I may be building within a partially existing structure, but I can bring craft to it as well as real passion for the material because I believe strongly in the gun-control message in the book.
Oversight is the wrong word, but are you talking and coordinating with other creators about the different books?
Yeah. My editorial point of view tends to be, hire the right people and get the fuck out of the way. That’s the goal. You’re there to bounce things off of, you’re there to answer questions, you’re there to help solve problems, but I think a heavy editorial hand is never a good idea. If you have to have a heavy editorial hand, then you hired the wrong people.
You also have backup stories in the book written by Carla Speed McNeil.
That lets Carla do what she does so well.
And they’re drawn by Meredith Laxton, who’s doing interesting work and she’s someone I didn’t know.
In a world where everyone wants to do a creator owned book that’s theirs, in a world where we cannot always match DC and Marvel page rates, we have done an exceptional job of finding talent, in large part because our freelancers know they’re not going to be nickel-and-dimed to death with continuity notes. The number one thing I look for is not style, not flash, not how well you draw – it’s, can you tell a story? Am I confused looking at your page? If I am, then I’m going to throw your page across the room and hire somebody else. Comics don’t have to be simple, don’t have to be simplistic, but they have to be clear. Stories have to have clarity – especially if you’re paying four bucks for one fourth of a story – so you sure as shit better know what’s going on, even if what’s going on is that you’re not supposed to know yet what’s going on. Visually we worry about that with story a lot. I say that as the royal “we” – comics publishers in general. Storytelling in art is waning as an art form. Frustratingly so. I can name fifty really amazing comic book artists but of those fifty, twenty of them can actually tell a story and thirty draw really pretty pictures.
That’s always a challenge. There are so many talented artists we love. You wrote The Rocketeer. Dave Stevens was a fabulous artist, but he wasn’t a great storyteller.
God bless him. But yeah, exactly. Here’s the thing, you’ve got to be able to tell a story. You’ve got to be able to do so in a visually interesting way. The first question I ask of any pitch that comes across my desk is, why is this a comic? You would be staggered by the number of pitches that get round-filed just off that question alone. It’s horrifying. I don’t mean that people have to wear costumes. I don’t mean that people have to punch stuff. There are things that this medium can do that are unique to this medium. You will never ever get landmark work, and important work, out of a comic unless it is a story that can only be told in this medium.
There are exceptions, but they are unicorns. Preacher is a great example. On paper if you pitched me Preacher I would have turned it down. because frankly, there’s nothing there that you can’t do on TV. As we’re seeing. And I would have been an idiot. That’s an exception, based purely on craft. If Joe New Guy had been drawing it, it would have been cancelled by issue #12 and probably deservedly so – Garth’s scripts were brilliant, but they required an artist who could give the mundane character and make it riveting.
Comics has always been the bastard stepchild of the arts for so long and now it’s been discovered as a great way to utilize and monetize and other verbs. You aren’t the only ones creating a new superhero universe.
It’s certainly all the rage.
You’ve done this to a degree over the years. Empire was its own thing. Irredeemable and Incorruptible were their own thing. Something like this and collaborating with others to this extent is something you haven’t done before. How do you see this as different from other efforts and different from Marvel and DC and those universes?
I tend to be at loggerheads with companies sometimes – even some of the ones I work with. Not on a personal level but from the attitude of, for the love of god, I’ve seen this forty times and I know it works, but I don’t want to do this because I’ve seen it forty times. With that in mind, I’m not sure I can tell you perfectly how to build a universe, but I can tell you how to not build one. Giant event books and linewide crossovers that require you to have read everything else that the publisher is publishing unfortunately seems to be a winning formula on a financial level – but on a creative, aesthetic level, it’s horrific. And it’s repetitive. And it’s old hat. We have a readership now that is so anesthetized to that that it is eye rolling. It’s not exciting at all.
The first way you build your universe is to come up with a common background and then let these books exist on their own so that readers don’t feel compelled or mandated to buy anything else in order to read these books. I remember when comics were fifty cents or seventy cents and I loved crossovers that introduced me to other characters and books, but we don’t live in a world anymore where wandering around like that is economically feasible. We live in a world where our audience is no longer exclusively superhero fans and between that and the cover prices, our audience for the most part--certainly readers not necessarily seeking superhero fantasy--just want to go and pick up a comic book that they enjoy reading and not feel like they have to join a secret society to glean everything they’re going to get out of it. All that said, I just made universe-building sound easy. In fact it is incredibly difficult to do. Partly because you’re going against the inertia of “yes, but crossovers work” says the guy who counts the money. I know the H1 line is probably barreling towards a year end where we want to do something that is reflective of what’s happening in the entire universe we’re building and not just the individual books. But we’re moving heaven and earth to find a way to do it that is not what you’ve seen before. Boy, that sounds like the most empty puffery in the world. “Not like anything you’ve seen before” – when it always is. But I’m being sincere when I say that I’m obsessed with cracking this code and finding some way of giving the bean counters what they need and giving the audience what they want and giving me what works aesthetically all at the same time. It’s not easy to do.
Mark, you’ve always had this reputation for not mincing words. But you and I are cis white men and we deal with a lot less on social media just for existing than a lot of our friends and colleagues and family members who are women and queer and nonbinary and people of color. It's easy to say, run a blockchain and then go back to living your life, but really, it’s not that easy. You’re dealing with a lawsuit right now and I know you can’t talk about a lot of the details, but day to day, how has the lawsuit and the response to it changed your life?
It's changed everything, frankly. On the one hand, refusing to buckle in the face of a meritless nuisance suit designed to keep me from speaking out against what I perceive to be bullying behavior is a badge of honor. On the other hand, a lawsuit is like my tinnitus; sometimes it's barely humming in the background, sometimes at random moments it gets loud as hell, but it's always ringing. Like a chronic illness, a lawsuit becomes a part of your everyday life. And because the wheels of justice grind slowly, it will be some time yet before it's officially thrown out, so it ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. The hardest part of dealing with it, surprisingly, is the constant undercurrent of anger I have to manage daily over how the legal system allows nuisance suits like this to even exist and how many hundreds of hours of work and of my life it's already cost me, how much pointless time and energy it's demanded of the people who support me emotionally or financially in this fight. But that's as much as I'll complain about it in public, because as you suggested, all the dozens of people who originally asked me – and those who continue to ask me – to use my platform to speak out on their behalf, which is how we got here? Those people deal with far worse vitriol every fucking day, to a degree I can only imagine, so who am I to bitch? Rather than whine, I'll just keep putting my platform to use. That's not fucking "white knighting," as the pathetic trolls put it – there are far easier and less expensive ways to look like a good guy, trust me – it's just being a moral human. If I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I can help take on bullies and draw their fire, I truly believe it's my societal obligation to do so. At their best, human beings are kind and empathic. At your best, you know it's right to support someone in legitimate need if for no other reason that at some point you're going to need the same from someone else. With one bad day, I could be out of work and shaking a tin cup while sporting a “Help me, I created Impulse” sign around my neck. What right would I have to ask for aid at my lowest if I weren't willing to lend it at my highest?
Besides having less time to write or just live, has it changed how you use social media and interact with fans? Has all this changed you and your thinking about comics and the community?
The lawsuit certainly changed the way I use social media to interact. Twitter initially – and, in short order, Facebook and Instagram – became unusable because all my social media accounts became magnets for alt-right incels and bigots who'd clutter up any post I'd make with--no exaggeration--hundreds and hundreds of vile, hateful comments that would curdle milk. Delete, delete, delete, block, block, oh, fuck it, just walk away. Yes, I realize that about 70% of them were coming from shadow accounts created just to troll and harass, but it got to the point where it just wasn't worth lending them the space. I'd post, say, a funny old Jimmy Olsen panel to Instagram and hundreds of vermin would leave sick comments. My family doesn't need to see that shit. And that's a legitimate loss--everyone knows that in this day and age, self-marketing through social media is important to your business.
But the good news is, with those accounts closed, I have a lot more time to read.
Has it changed my thinking about comics and the community? Not really. Yeah, I'm a lot more guarded about doing random interviews at cons for fear they're ambushes from MRA YouTubers, but on the whole, the public support I've gotten as regards the suit is stupendously humbling, and I can never stop being grateful for that.
I think of Wally West as "your" character, even though he's not. I'm sure I'm not alone in this regard. He played a role in the latest DC big miniseries in a way that’s bothered a lot of readers and fans. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but do you pay attention to characters you've written and feel some attachment years later?
I read the story you're referencing. And, yeah, I will admit that the Wally parts of it kind of made me wince. A younger Mark Waid would have actually been angry about Wally's heel-turn into a villain – not for committing accidental manslaughter, but for trying to cover it up – not only because that's not “my” Wally, but because it seems to me to be an ill fit to use a character like that who has for longer than I've been alive symbolized joy and hope and promise to sell a message of the horrors of PTSD. However – HOWEVER – I've said for decades that if you're working on these heroes, they're not yours, and the likelihood of the writer who follows you dropping a safe onto everything you built is quite high. It's rarely done with rancor or out of spite, it's just that the guy who picks up the baton has a different agenda than you did. When I did Superman: Birthright, I dropped a safe on everything Dan Jurgens had done, and the only part of that I regret is when I sat down with him at a convention and tried to sell him on why the changes I was making were good changes, hoping he'd be impressed and oblivious to whatever he might have been feeling as he listened to me brag about sweeping his work into the trash. I’ve no doubt that I sounded like an asshole, and I cringe when I look back.
I'm leveraging your question to make this point: as I’ve gotten older, I’ve spent more time defining and sometimes redefining my own personal relationship to these characters I love. And, yes, even as I say that – talking about having a personal investment in superheroes – I can hear the collective eyerolling of a thousand jaded Comics Journal readers, to whom I say, “everyone gets to worship at the church of their choice, step off.” My passion for these characters, as ridiculous as it can sound to the cynical, comes from a very, very honest and deeply rooted place. I've told this story before in depth, but the short version is that when I was a clinically depressed, borderline suicidal teenager, Superman quite literally saved my life. I desperately, desperately needed there to be someone in it who I believed cared about me and who could see me, and even though I knew he wasn't real – I wasn't insane – that's what Superman became for me. Consequently, for decades afterward, I would get very protective of Superman's classic interpretation, and defensive when people would mock my passion because it was that passion that kept me alive as a kid.
That said, however, as all these comic book characters appear more and more in different interpretations in various media, I've come to accept that every version is transitory. Interpretations come and go. Mine isn't the “correct” one, it just is one. And that is a very, very long-winded way of answering your question: I've learned to manage my attachments. In Wally's case, it's actually a little easier to do so because he was off the map for nearly ten years, and when he came “back to life,” that absence had leeched all the sentiment out of me. I don’t think Wally's treatment in Heroes in Crisis is at all consistent with my interpretation of the Flash, but so what? My time as his steward has come and gone. Evidently Tom King has a much different take on him, and I respect that – Tom's just trying to tell the myth of the Flash as he sees it, and if that involves dropping a safe, well, Superman: Birthright. In the macro, it continues to frustrate me as a still-occasional reader that there's this constant effort to crowbar a completely wrongheaded darkness and cynicism into the DC universe – these characters weren't built to preach cynicism – but I get why Tom made the choices he did, why he thinks it made a good story, and as someone who knows him and considers him a friend, I salute his creative integrity. Meanwhile, if I really want to reconnect with Wally West, there's fifty-five years of back issues I can dive through.
Every now and again there’s a shift in how comics get told. In the past decade new characters like Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl and Miles Morales have popped up and I love the characters and I love the creators, but they feel more akin to New Teen Titans or Wally West and Kyle Rayner taking over than a shift about how to tell stories like what we’ve been talking about.
Right, because that’s not about how you tell a story, it’s about what you can do with these characters and jazz things up. I say that with an asterisk, which is that while the storytelling in New Teen Titans was not revolutionary – although it was great – it took balls to be the first guys to do a comic like “A Day in the Lives...” It was just talky talky talk and no villains and nobody had to punch anything. We take that completely for granted these days since that seems to be every third comic, but that was a ballsy move. Every comic that you’ve read since that is a personal story rather than "I have to go fight the baddie" owes something to that. That said, as regards the bigger picture, I totally agree with you. Successes like Ms. Marvel are not about new ways of approaching the medium, they’re about how we bring legitimately fresh plot or character to the stories themselves.
Maybe that’s a good segue to bring up Archie. I know you got flack from some quarters about that job.
They can climb a rope. [laughs]
[laughs] When it was announced, I thought it was the gig you should have gotten twenty years earlier based on your work on Impulse. Which I don’t think you get enough credit for and which I think has mostly been forgotten.
Yes! Thank you. It kills me. It’s one of the best things I ever did, and it languishes in the back issue bins.
And yet cosplayers still run around like Impulse all the time. Here’s what happens when you write against the grain. Here’s what happens is when your attitude as a mainstream writer is to swim in the opposite direction of the current: Your book becomes a midlist book at best. But ten-twenty years later, that stuff is still in print when a lot of the other stuff around it is not in print. Impulse didn’t sell very well back in the day, but digital sells well. The Flash sold mediocre back in the day, but today I’m looking at a Mark Waid-branded line of trade paperbacks which I’m thrilled about. Almost everything I’ve ever done of any perceived significance is still in print. I’m trying to find a way to say this so it doesn’t sound like I’m breaking my arm trying to pat myself on the back, but the paradox is that the stuff I write doesn’t always seem to be terribly popular as I’m writing it. The stuff I tend to write often gains its popularity with some distance given to it. I’ve made my peace with this despite it meaning there’ll be another twenty years of royalty checks left uncashed after I die.
Some of the success of Impulse was you and Humberto Ramos collaborating. We haven’t mentioned a lot of the artists you’ve collaborated with, but you’ve worked with a lot of artists over time on multiple projects and you always seem to do a good job of writing for individual artists.
Well, yeah. It’s a collaborative medium.
With Impulse, Ramos was starting out, but I think you were able to show off his work better than a lot of his later collaborators were able to. And I could say the same about a number of your collaborations.
Thank you. I say all of this with the full knowledge that I have a myriad of flaws and shortcomings with my own work, but I get frustrated with writers who get so focused on the words on the page, on the prose itself, not really thinking about, what does this artist do well? What does my collaborator want to draw? What kind of story does my partner respond to best? That’s how you get a good collaboration – the moment you don’t focus on, I’m going to write what I want to write and you’re going to draw it. That’s you treating the illustrator like an Art Robot. That’s not a partnership and you’re never going to get good work out of that.
You mentioned loving Impulse, what are your favorite works you’ve written? What feels the most personal?
The most personal? That’s a really good question. The answer may change from moment to moment but I tend to think it’s the Archie stuff, of all things. Which is not what you would expect. There’s a lot of personal stuff in Daredevil because we’re dealing with matters of clinical depression, which is something I’ve dealt with all my life and can speak to. Flash was tremendously personal, because both Wally West and I were fans-turned-pros, and I wrote him with that always in mind. On a personal level, Archie was about being able to write comedy and romance and slapstick and tragedy and drama, meaning I was able to bring all parts of my life to the book, not just my adventure-storytelling chops.
There’s an issue of Impulse I still remember where Bart tries out for the baseball team. In some ways it was the most uneventful comic DC published that year – or decade? – and I find baseball painfully boring, but I loved that issue.
When it comes to writing superheroes all I really care about is, if I were in your shoes, how would I use these powers? All I really care about is, if you were a real person with these abilities, what would your life be like on a moment to moment, day by day basis? I don’t care about punching out the Green Goblin. I really don’t. It’s the quieter moments. When I was writing Daredevil, there’s nowhere I would go where I wouldn’t think, how would Matt Mudock perceive this with his heightened senses? What would his takeaway be here? Impulse was never about supervillains. It was always about if you’re the fastest person in the world, what is the world look like to you? How do you manage when you live in molasses? How fast can you learn an instrument? What does it sound like to you when your feet are hitting the ground at ten thousand miles an hour? My friend Tom Peyer said, you write about the superhuman condition. I really like that. That sums it up pretty well.
I like “the superhuman condition” and that gets back to what I said at the start, you’re always interested in character above all. If you reshape the book and create a new direction, you go back to the character to define that.
Frankly the best characters can sustain a story where nobody has to go punch out Lex Luthor for five issues in a row. And still be visual and use the medium. I swear to god, every time I try to tell a story and come up with something, the villain’s always an afterthought. That’s not always the best way to tell a story, but that’s me--I’m more interested in finding and presenting a puzzle that has to be solved. I think that falls under the category of my shortcomings, sometimes, but at the end of the day, Doctor Strange versus Baron Mordo is not a story I’m dying to tell. I am dying to ask where Doctor Strange buys magical ingredients? Can he use the Cloak of Levitation like a hammock? What is his life like when he’s not out heroing? If he siphons magic from all around him and then he’s trapped in Midtown Manhattan, which is utterly soulless, does it sap his strength? Finding new takes on these abilities and powers is most of the time all I care about doing.
Is that one reason why Archie felt so personal? You could never take the easy way out by having a villain pop up. Your only option was to find a resolution based on character.
Exactly. There were no villains involved. There’s no villains in Archie. It’s just kids butting up against one another. And it’s authentic. Did I get all of the language right all of the time? Maybe not. But is the emotion and heart there – that’s consistent from generation to generation regardless of whether you have to go through metal detectors to go to school or not? Yeah, I’ll defend that until the day I die. As you said, I got some pushback on Archie in terms of, an old white guy is writing these teenage characters. Where did most of that pushback come from? White thirty year olds. [laughs] I will take my then-girlfriend’s teenage daughter and her friends reading the book and saying, you nailed it, over fifty internet hit pieces that say, oh look at the pitiful old man straining to write kids.
Also if we go back to Dan DeCarlo and Samm Schwartz – who were fabulous artists and storytellers – they were not up to date on teenage life and slang and what was happening in the sixties. [laughs]
No. [laughs] But that’s the secret – you boil things down to their essence. The secret is not to sweat over every single word and pray to god that kids are still using it. You’ve got to have an ear for what’s being said and a feel for it, yes. You have to expose yourself to everything you can, but at the end of the day all that truly matters in a story is emotion.