Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 26, 2011

CR Holiday Interview #7 -- Jeff Parker

imageI've known Jeff Parker for years as a friendly, engaging convention presence and skilled writer of the most mainstream of mainstream comics. He entered into the funnybook business as an artist during the tail end of the 1990s sales surge, performing work for take-you-back publishing names like Caliber and Malibu. Parker re-emerged in 2003 with the self-published stand-alone graphic novel Interman. It was stylishly designed and executed, and I remember Parker from that period mostly for the work he did on-line writing about then-mysterious elements of self-directed bookstore distribution.

Jeff has since gone on to success as a writer for Marvel properties, including lengthy runs on X-Men: First Class (a rare X-Men book in its ability to garner buzz in an era where the luster has faded a bit from that once-dominant market force), Agents Of Atlas (one of the five best titles of the post-bankruptcy era), and currently Thunderbolts and whichever of the Hulk comics is anchored by the red version (spoiler for lapsed fans: there's a red version of the Hulk now). He has also made honorable work of his own creation or co-creation, such as the late-period Wildstorm project Mysterius The Unfathomable (with Tom Fowler), the ongoing webcomic Bucko (with Erika Moen) and the claustrophobic Underground (with Steve Lieber).

Parker is in many ways the living embodiment of Marvel's deep writing bench from the last decade, a period where the publisher has been the mainstream's dominant player and not by a small margin. It's hard not to like him or fail to wish him well. I was thankful that the busy creator agreed to talk to me, if only to get what I assume will be reputation-destroying dirt on Parker's frequent convention running mate and occasional collaborator Lieber. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: I don't know all that much about your early background. I assume that you had some experience with comics and superhero comics growing up, although I could be terribly wrong. What about your comics-reading past lives most directly in your writing experiences now?

imageJEFF PARKER: I learned to read on comics -- my dad owned Chuck's Curb Market (the Chuck was his dad) and when I wasn't doing my chores like racking bottles and sweeping the parking lot, I was camped on the Coca Cola cooler by the spinner rack reading everything there was. My earliest loves were the Fawcett Dennis the Menace comics, and I read tons of all the Harvey Comics -- which thanks to the Dark Horse compilations, my kids are enjoying now. And of course I read all the superhero stuff. Whatever distributor my dad bought from mostly carried DC, so those were the heroes I was most familiar with. I'd also read the Warren Magazines like The Spirit and Vampirella. I didn't think of the books as being on any hierarchy, I guess since they were all available to me they were all "comics" and more or less equal in my eyes. Colleen Coover and I have this discussion a lot; she always saw it the same way. Batman wasn't any more legitimate than Hot Stuff; they were just either good stories or they weren't.

SPURGEON:So it's the ecumenicism of your early comics reading experiences that sticks with you?

PARKER: I think so. I think it's why I can enjoy making comics aimed at children and tawdry adult stuff like Bucko equally. My comfort zone is nice and broad.

SPURGEON: Is it fair to say you first found some work in the mid-1990s with people like Caliber and Malibu and then didn't work for a significant after that? Why such a brief early period in comics? That was an interesting time for comics generally; what stands out about those experiences now?

SPURGEON: I did some no-pay work for Caliber, like most everyone has to. Free work, I mean, starting out. I was still in college at the time. Shortly after that I joined Artamus Studios in NC, with Mike Wieringo, Chuck Wojtkiewicz, Richard Case and others, and I kept drawing sample pages and putting them in everyone's Fed-Ex shipments so their editors might take a look while getting the pages they were actually waiting on. I got a couple of Wonder Woman fill-ins, as that was the book where DC tended to try new artists out. It sold the same no matter who drew it, so it was perfect for that. Some Fantastic Four samples stuck in inker John Lowe's box landed at the right time on Hank Kanalz' desk at Malibu when he needed an artist.

imageI had a productive but short run at Malibu drawing Solitaire and other stories for them, and had sold some that I wrote and was going to draw as well -- then "Marvelcution" happened, if you remember that. It's when Marvel bought the company and shut it down. They played hardball with competition in the '90s! Because the books were all still selling well, the companies would never cancel books selling that much now.

That's was my first experience with making real, livable steady wages in comics. I was getting used to that! And then poof. From that point I would pick up an issue or short piece here and there, I couldn't find much. The comics industry's famous bubble had burst from speculators leaving the market, and it was shrinking fast -- not unlike it's doing now. My most regular work in the mid-'90s was drawing stories in the Paradox line's Big Book Of... series. I liked that because I like doing research-based material, and editor Jim Higgins kept trying to get something going with me in the other books his office worked on, mostly the Elsewords titles.

But ultimately Andy Helfer would always shoot down my pitches, saying they were too complicated. And they kind of were. I was not good at the art of the pitch then; I couldn't keep anything short with a strong hook -- even if I had one. I kept writing these sprawling outlines and pitches because I liked figuring everything out to the ending so I wouldn't screw myself with a half-baked idea. What I didn't understand was that you can write all that, but then start over with a simple, boiled-down summary that invokes and teases all the possibilities; let their imaginations contribute so they get excited.

If there was work in comics, I couldn't find it with a telescope. I worked for a while as a delivery driver, and started working on my Interman graphic novel after hours. That would interest publishers for a few months, but nothing ever developed. But I slowly kept working on it, because I wanted to create a book like the kind I wanted to read. Ultimately, I felt like comics just wasn't going to happen, I had crossed the 30 mark, and my mom needed help with bills. I wrote to Phil Crain, who used to be one of my editors at Malibu and now worked for Sony Animation, to see if they were hiring. He sent me a storyboard clean-up tryout, which is the entry point for working in TV cartoons. I jumped on it, sent it back, and they hired me to work on the Big Guy And Rusty The Boy Robot show -- that was in '99. I finally uprooted, packed everything I needed in the back of my little truck, got a camper shell for it, and headed west, sleeping in national parks most of the way.

SPURGEON: This is a very standard question, for which I apologize, but it's one of continuing interest to me. How different a writer are you for that artistic background? It's actually a pretty common thing for someone that makes a living as a mainstream comics writer, but it's hard for me to figure out any connecting thread between those that are, or, for that matter, those that aren't.

PARKER: I go into every project thinking about the final execution -- drawing is the second half of writing. I don't like writing a script without knowing who the artist is, I like to look through my collaborator's work, and ask them for a wish list of things he or she likes to draw or has always wanted a chance to draw. Often I work with artists who also write, like Kev Walker on Thunderbolts. And because he has strong opinions on what makes a good story, he'll push my scenes around, break them down differently, suggest new dialogue. Some people will change things without giving you explanations, but Kev always gives his reasoning, and makes it easy for me to amend the script for the letterer to not get lost. I think that all helps make the story take on life, become a breathing creature.

imageSome writers will try to tailor a story to the artist but typecast that creator based on what they've seen before -- not necessarily what the artist wants to be known for. I asked my editor Mark Paniccia if I could work with Tomm Coker when he gave me a western story to do in a Marvel special, because Tomm was always getting moody stories set inside brick warehouses, and he was sick of it. So I wrote a story in the outdoors with lots of horses, and he killed on it. It was beautiful.

I tend to approach every story thinking about the visual possibilities, and I just assume the character conflict/challenge will present itself next in the brainstorming. That may sound backwards to many, but I think sliding the visual aspect down the line puts you in the position of finding set pieces for your story that might be artificial. And what I want out of most comics is for them to transport me, show me something I can't see every day. Saying "Let's see Superman spend months walking around ordinary people and not interact as a modern mythical hero" sounds interesting, but when it's actually drawn, it's not. That's the kind of thing you can do as a single issue, to break up a lot of high-action stories and cleanse the palate for the next big thing.

SPURGEON: You wrote very eloquently in some different places about your experience shepherding Interman through the marketplace of its time. Does that experience continue to inform how you approach the industry, this nuts-and-bolts experience that not a lot of people have?

PARKER: Yes -- publishing your own work makes your realize the true lay of the land. You won't waste time with notions of "close-minded retailers" or "habitual readers"; you'll understand how you need to take every chance to make overtaxed buyers and sellers aware of your books. It's probably why I do way too many interviews and podcasts; you never know which thing is going to break through. And you never know which reader is going to be the one who will champion your books in forums or blogs and convince others to give it a try. Or which retailer will be the one who follows you and says, "Hey, Parker always swings for the fence and he never ships late. I'm going to offer a couple of his books to readers with a buy-back guarantee." And I've known retailers to do that; it's immensely moving to me. I'm so grateful to those people. That's what Charles Lawrence of the Nostalgia Newsstand would do for me when I was in college. He profoundly informed my tastes.

SPURGEON: It's interesting to me that you formed your answer around the direct market paradigm, because I know you also had experience with bookstore distributors. What is your sense of that market these days? Does Marvel do everything it can to maximize its bookstore saturation? Because that's not their reputation.

PARKER: Well, it's what I deal with mostly at the moment. We'll see when I have my next complete GN out, which should be next year. I don't mean to sound all on top of things, because I'm not. To me, the bookstore market is a bigger mystery than ever, as so many have gone away. Similarly, I really don't know what Marvel does to that end; I deal with completely different offices. I need to try to do more appearances at stores, but now I've got this whole family I don't like to abandon for weekends.

SPURGEON: To your point about working with artists... how much time do you have for that kind of collaborative effort the way that mainstream comics are created? How much of what you're able to do in general writing a comics title feels the impact of these very rigid and demanding publication schedules?

PARKER: You're right that there's monthly deadline pressure, but there's plenty of time for quality interaction in the process if the editor makes it possible and the creators make it clear they're open to it. Typically we keep everyone involved in a book in an e-mail loop so everyone sees each step as it comes in. Color notes are thrown back and forth, suggestions are made, and inevitably someone points out that I wrote two page tens. [Spurgeon laughs]

Once in a while some special or event book happens where you're thrown together with new people that no working rhythm has been built with, and yes, it can all get sad real fast. But luckily, that's been infrequent for me. That reminds me: I like working with someone at least a little bit before embarking on a big project with that person. I wish a warm-up or trial for new teams were possible all the time.


SPURGEON: Unpack that a little bit. With whom have you worked that you had a tryout period? How did that change what you did in the not-tryout portion of that relationship?

PARKER: Gabe Hardman and I worked on a "Hulk meets Frankenstein" story for our first assignment together, and that made us working together on Agents of Atlas pretty smooth because I started to realize: I can say almost anything and Hardman will somehow read my mind and get it. A big part of the job is that Vulcan mind-meld, getting the artist, writer and editor to all see the same story before it starts becoming graphics. (That nerd ref is on the house, by the way). I often work with artists from other countries, so with them I drop idioms that won't translate well, and speak very directly -- "Cyclops looks frightened. Gorilla-Man is confused and turning to look to foreground." I realized with Gabe I could refer to things like classic or obscure film and never lose him. I didn't have to overwrite a description to get what I hoped for, he's going to sell a scene as hard as he can. Also I could use understated humor like I prefer because he'll play it straight, no hamming it up. All of my jokes fall apart when the character is obviously joking. Except maybe with Spider-Man, because you can't see what his face is doing.

SPURGEON: How did you end up working for Marvel in 2005? As I recall, they put you to work on a variety of titles, including a lot of the Marvel Adventures stuff. What did they see in you as a writer, do you think?

PARKER: The main thing I believe was that I could do a story start to finish in 22 pages. I had done some work for Mark Paniccia at various companies, whereever he would end up, because he liked my art. When he came onto Marvel, he looked at a book I'd given him, a Lone Star Press comic put out by Bill Williams that had "Ape Company" in it, a short homage to Joe Kubert where apes fight in World War 2. It was a story that came to me one night and I laughed and felt compelled to get out of bed and go lay out the entire thing in my sketchbook. Then Bill was kind enough to pay me for it and run it in his book. I still have the whole thing online in a dusty corner of my webspace.

imageMark had just been placed in the Marvel Adventures office and the mandate was that continuity could not matter, all of these books had to stand alone. I think he reasoned that if I could write an entertaining 10-pager, then twice that much space should work fine, and gave me a fill-in on MA: Spider-Man. I don't know that I thought, "This is an important showcase for me." I think for once I went in thinking purely of entertaining myself, which took away any second-guessing and worked wonderfully. I wrote a story where the Human Torch and Spidey accidentally bring the Kirby monster Goom to Earth, and because of other Johnny Storm hijinks, Goom only speaks hip-hop lingo. I heard that it made all the editors in that office laugh and read several parts out loud to each other. That, for writers starting out, is a Good Sign.

Then the current writer of MA: Fantastic Four just sort of dropped off the radar, and they had to scramble to replace him. I was offered the chance to finish a script he had begun, which I did immediately. A couple of weeks later they gave me the whole book, and later that led to launching the Avengers title of that line. If I had to wring a lesson out of this, it is follow your muse -- if you're inspired to do something, do that thing even if it looks like it will not amount to much. You never know where your career tree will branch from and continue. MacKenzie Cadenhead, who I worked with on those books, went to work for Virgin which led to me talking to Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics and making "Walk-In," a sci-fi story I'm very proud of. I kept coming in to pinch-hit whenever Paniccia needed an extra Hulk book, and now I write Hulk. Also: your openings in work-for-hire books are usually created by someone else dropping the ball.

SPURGEON: Hey, I don't think I've ever talked to anyone that worked for Virgin. What was that experience like; what sticks out for you now? Did you perceive of anything that might have indicated they would be around in a drastically altered form rather than their original, coming-on-like-gangbusters conception?

PARKER: Yes, they had the classic enigmatic gameplan that never gave the key part of the equation to show where money would come from. They did almost nothing to promote their books, not even providing links to solicits so I could spread them -- they didn't think (in my opinion) the comics were important beyond being a thing to then base other media off of. I think you have to make the comics profitable as a foundation, even if you're trying to be a multimedia entity.

They would line up interviews that had nothing to do with the books. Like when I followed Andy Diggle on the Gamekeeper book, some sleazy British tabloid journo called me to talk about it, to which I could only say I never talk to Guy Ritchie, etc, before we finally got to his objective, which was asking me who would be a good choice to play the Gamekeeper in a film? I don't remember who I suggested before he asked, "What about Vinnie Jones -- he'd do, wouldn't he?" I said something like, "Oh yeah, sure; he's good," and the next week, bam: these sound-bite articles pop up everywhere VINNIE JONES EYED FOR GAMEKEEPER FRANCHISE! [Spurgeon laughs] So that's really all that mattered there, trying to make movies and stuff happen. Mackenzie and everybody else good bailed on the company, and I was soon done with my parts.

imageSPURGEON: I think they were in many way concurrent projects, so unless you correct me I'll ask about the X-Men work you did and then I'll ask you about Agents of Atlas. It seemed to me that you started to find your level with the X-Men stuff -- it did not seem the work of a newly-minted writer. Would that be a fair characterization? Was that a difficult gig on any level?

PARKER: Everyone thinks that was probably a simple job for me, and it was the toughest of all that I've done for Marvel. Because it was a "dance within the raindrops" thing where you couldn't contradict established continuity. Which is tough because there are whole decades where I never read the X-Men and had no intention of going back and reading all those books. So I tried to find things that would work, like having them run across The Lizard, my favorite Spidey menace, meeting up with Thor, and so on. Agents of Atlas stories were more complex but much easier to write because I didn't have those continuity restraints. Roger Cruz brought a lot of energy to the book, and I think we did create something that was a good entry point to the world of the X-men.

SPURGEON: Do you have any insight as to why those characters didn't get all the way over the way that other early-era Marvel characters did? Why was it more effective in its later incarnation?

PARKER: I don't want to commit comics heresy here, but I don't think Jack and Stan related to teens as much as they could say, ex-fighter pilots in terms of characterization. And gods, of course. It was easy to see why they wanted it to take off: make this mutant thing work and we never have to come up with bizarre incidents for origins again. As I kept examining it, I wished more and more they had made Angel a girl so you had more possibilities other than everyone fawning over Jean Grey. And Jean could have a buddy -- which I eventually did with Scarlet Witch when Colleen Coover started doing shorts for the book. Honestly I feel they had some good stuff that just needed more fleshing out, but they were doing so many books at that point that X-Men was last at the end of the day.

Then in the next incarnation, [Len] Wein comes in making everyone just angry as hell at each other, I wonder if that was because Dave Cockrum was drawing angry faces and Len had to make the dialogue match up -- and that was what the readership was ready for. Bickering teams that didn't feel like the stoic old Justice League Moose Lodge. Also, Dave's costume looks were really wowing the fans; they loved drawing all of these Legion heroes and mutants he was designing. Then it got more soap operatic, which fits a concept set around a school. I think the thing that may have kept Marvel trying to arrange the puzzle and make it work was simply the cool name. "X-Men! It's a great title and we have to make it work!"

imageSPURGEON: Are you far enough away from Agents Of Atlas to kind of walk us through why that series is no longer with us? Because it seems like it had a pretty remarkable run for that kind of off-brand property. Is it frustrating to work on a title like that in these very stratified, sales-rigid times? I imagine there can't be much hope that something like that will stick around in perpetuity.

PARKER: Yeah, and I still don't get what makes it off-brand, but I usually followed creators on titles once I hit a certain age. I never understood when I would read a fan discussing why we'd have a talking gorilla. Why is that more silly or left field than a guy who sticks to walls or an orange rock man? We had more high concept story and big action scenes than most Marvel or DC books, and top level artists and colorists. The Fantastic Four also seemed kind of weird when it debuted, as did Spider-Man and Hulk. If you don't try something different every now and then, you'll never find out what might work.

Yes, it was frustrating in the sense that if this book had come out in the late '80s when it looked like the market was open to comics tackling everything, it would probably have become an institution. But we still got away with a lot of entertaining stories, so I see it as a win.

SPURGEON: From your perspective, what does Marvel get out of working with a property like that? Is it just out of an ethos of managing certain properties, being good caretakers of the overall library, maybe, or hoping that lightning catches in the bottle... ?

PARKER: Sometimes editors and creators have to try to indulge their own tastes and whims, or what's the point of working in escapist stuff like this? Mark Paniccia really loved the book, as did I and most every artist who worked on it, from Leonard Kirk to Carlo Pagulayan to Gabe Hardman. Also many people at the offices were fans and wanted to see it exist. It's the ideal way to do it -- let's create this thing and try to figure out how it can make money, instead of, "Hey, I bet this will make money." As you know, it's not the usual way it goes.

SPURGEON: You were talking last night -- last night as we're having this exchange, which would be several days now -- on Twitter about layering into your work certain kinds of structural or thematic conceits, like showing the number three in various ways around the Agents Of Atlas character 3-D Man. Can you give a couple of specific examples of that kind of thing, either with Agents of Atlas or another title? Do you feel that readers can sense that kind of effort when it's done right, or is that something solely for your enjoyment?

PARKER: Yes, we kept putting threes around 3-D Man, details you'd probably never notice: like he drives a Maserati because it has the trident badge. He subtly shapes his own reality.

imageThere are lots of rules imposed on characters, though most are about keeping them being themselves. Not just so they sound right, but because they need to shape the plots in the way only that character can. Venus is always relentlessly sweet and very pure, even when she's making everyone want to have sex which, as a siren, is what she does. To her sex is natural and healthy and everyone should have plenty of it, and because we don't show it as dirty we never caught flack for objectifying characters. When Atlas probably showed more near-nudity than any other Big Two book rated T-Plus. She always affects the story by trying to stop fights, which seems like a no-no in an action-adventure book.

I also have this meta approach that probably only makes sense to me, but it helps me keep characters on point, like the way I see Luke Cage in Thunderbolts. To me, Luke understands on some level that he's rooted in blaxploitation movies of the '70s and has a very dry sense of humor about it -- not to the extent that he knows he's a character in fiction, but it's a practice that keeps him feeling like Luke Cage when I write him, though he never says "Sweet Christmas" or wears chains and a tiara.

I think anyone who writes a lot and wants to keep the inspiration coming has to develop arcane systems that wouldn't make a lot of sense explained to a fiction writing class. Another of my things is to actively work in whatever bits of culture or environment that are present in my life at the time of each piece. Like a recent issue of Thunderbolts had Centurius and Troll adopting an on-the-nose, teacher-pupil relationship from My Fair Lady, which is on often in my house as my kids like musicals. Similarly in Atlas I used the Maria in the Convent setup from Sound of Music for Venus' origin. I make a woman prisoner say an Aziz Ansari joke to Luke Cage about licking a tattoo.

This stuff could be in-jokes, except I go to the point of including it in daily process. The Life Model Decoys in Hulk are described as 200, 700 and 900 series by MODOK: a reference to old models of Volvos, which I like to work on. By doing this constantly, it keeps me taking in details around me differently -- it's all story material. And my hope is that it keeps me from falling into routine. I never, though, refer to the culture directly, like name-dropping a band or movie -- I don't think I do, anyway. That feels forced and doesn't work; it always reminds me of Batman referring to a Janis Joplin album and impressing Robin in a '60s issue of Detective.

SPURGEON: A couple of follow-ups spring to mind there. First, you mentioned Venus and sex. How much are sex and sexual motivation available to you as a writer on Marvel's books right now?

PARKER: You know, I don't get a lot of notes on the sex stuff. I think if anything, I'm the one who errs on the side of prudishness. On books where I've been teamed with European artists, and I know it sounds like generalization, but many of them go into Milo Manara territory when drawing the women and I've sent lots of "reign it in!" notes.

SPURGEON: Why do you have that impulse, do you think? Is it just that you want to be mindful of female readers? Is it something about the juvenile nature of the genre? There's occasionally a lot of focused attention on female readers and whether or not superhero material in general is a friendly place for those readers. I know we're walking in The Land Of Broad Generalizations to even talk about this, but how sensitive are you in general to gender-based criticisms of your work and superhero comics generally?

PARKER: I don't mind someone thinking the women characters are hot, but I generally don't want them vogueing and acting like scenery instead of being characters. Not objects. Feedback from female readers suggests that I'm on the right track, but it's likely due to working around a lot of women cartoonists at Periscope more than me having magnificent judgment.


SPURGEON: Another follow-up. When you're talking about some of the ways you try to keep the work fresh and interesting to you, how not to fall into certain bad habits, it makes me wonder how you approach telling these kinds of story more generally -- what is your particular enthusiasm for a story in Thunderbolts or for your version of Hulk? Is it an intellectual exercise for you: telling the best kind of story of its type you can? Do you find the process enjoyable divorced from the material you're doing? Do you find specific value in the thematic or metaphorical power these characters can have? Where do your specific creative interests align with books like the ones you're doing now? What intrigues you about working with this kind of material?

PARKER: When these books are working at their best, it's because the tone is right. When I began Thunderbolts, it kind of was an intellectual exercise, how I could make the kind of stories that the book was expected to -- the artist and I didn't synch up well. He was in this photo-realistic vein that the book had gradually gone to, and didn't do much in the way of the emotive acting I was calling for because I wanted this dark comedy tone. Since I tend to go to artist's strengths, I backed off of what I wanted and did what worked with the drawing. I think it worked, but it didn't have a particularly strong voice.

Then Kev Walker was placed on the book and I had more say in the cast, and boom. Kev was a 180 for the art and with his Jamie-Hewlett-Meets-Mike Mignola style he pushed every moment. Now I could not only do the dark comedy, I needed to go even further with it to match Kev. Instantly the book found it's strong voice -- as Kev has said, the concept as we do it works when it's skating the edge of absolute ridiculousness. That tone wouldn't work for everything, but it fits a group of comic book supervillains to a tee.

No matter the tone, though, I firmly believe in that approach of walking the edge of ridiculous or ludicrous for key story beats. If you don't, if you play it safe, you just won't create anything memorable. But the tone you establish is what backs you up on those chances you take, allows them to be pulled off.


SPURGEON: This may dovetail a little too close into that last question, but it occurs to me you're working on two of Marvel's rarer commodities: post-1980 concepts that have hit for the company. Do you have any sense what others enjoy about the two titles you're working on, why they work when so many other characters and concepts they've introduced fail to catch hold?

PARKER: I constantly try to figure why Thunderbolts gets that pass it does where it's okay to not have headliners. It's like the readership came to a formal accord in Geneva and said "Okay, on this one book, you can have B-listers. But we will not tolerate it elsewhere." But maybe it's as simple as being the place you don't have to wait so long for favorite villains to cycle back through, you can go get their version of things regularly.

Red Hulk got onto the radar in a way that's hard to do now because previous writer Jeph Loeb knows how to make people mad, and that was exactly what got them to turn out for the book. And you know, it was still the thing [Walt] Simonson lured readers into Thor with when they saw Beta Ray Bill smashing Thor's logo and jacking his book. "They can't get away with this! I better start buying this title and keep an eye on it!" The Red Hulk was rampaging through, disrespecting the other big heroes, and got loud attention. Then Loeb and Ed McGuinness had the character finally get beaten by classic Hulk, his big fall.

When I came on, my assessment was that the dynamic couldn't continue like that to sustain the character and I wanted to explore a man who has lost his old life and is gradually learning that's it not all over for him. But he's got to reap the whirlwind of all the sins he sowed. And of course there must be big sci-fi and lots of fighting because this book is called Hulk. Big moments and quiet personal ones all together, and it worked because artist Gabe Hardman can sell all of that, his drawing makes it believable.

My tiny attention span also works for me on this stuff, because unless something's going down, I lose interest. I'm very big on the Raymond Chandler rule of if it starts getting too quiet, someone needs to come charging in with a gun.

SPURGEON: It sounds like a lot of what you're getting back from your work comes down to feel -- how you think you've engaged the artist, for instance. Can you name a couple of things you've done the last, say, five years where you really felt you'd done a good job, that the work achieved what you wanted it to achieve? For that matter, how much do you reflect on older work at all?

PARKER: I've finally worked with two old friends who are both heavy-hitters in the world of visual storytelling, Steve Lieber and Tom Fowler. And of course with both I worried that I might strain friendships by jumping into a direct professional role with them, but it didn't, both resulted in all of us making books we were insanely proud of. Steve and I indulged our love of naturalistic adventure material with Underground, which required a lot of research and let us touch on some very human interaction along with it.

Tom and I created Mysterius The Unfathomable as one of the last books Wildstorm put out, thanks to Ben Abernathy inviting us to do something we wanted. Like Underground, it's an art tour de force, but more in the direction of Jack Davis. And I was able to explore having an unlikable, nearly amoral protagonist because being interesting is really what counts with characters. In both books we did a lot of collaboration and back and forth, and came out with nuanced stories that worked on multiple levels. That is really the kind of experience I have always hoped for with making comics. Now if I can just make it wildly successful on the money end...

SPURGEON: I haven't heard a whole lot from Marvel's creators in this very tumultuous year, either on the slide the wider industry experienced in the year's first half, or DC's New 52 rally and how that might be a game-changer, or your own company's cutbacks. I suspect you have to tread carefully talking about that stuff at all, but I wondered if I could get you to speak on this: how positive are you about the arc of your mainstream writing career? How satisfied are you with the way things are, both for yourself and your peers generally? Is comics a good place to work?

PARKER: It's pretty tumultuous, as you say, and I'd be lying if I depicted myself as cool and calm about it. I just hope I've built up enough of a loyal readership at this point that they'll advocate for me and support my projects. I wish I could assure everyone that this mainstream ship is going to keep steaming on, but I only have so much control over that. As for output on my part, though, I'm extremely positive. I feel like the sheer number of works under my belt have given me a confidence to craft bigger things, and ideas are coming to me every day. And more original properties are on the way, like a book that Oni will be putting out next year.

SPURGEON: How much common ground do you have with your writing peers? Does that extend to creators of generations past? Do you feel part of a continuity, considering the kind of work you do?

PARKER: It's weird, sometimes I feel surprised that I do this for a living, like I'm from some other industry or background entirely and am looking at the comics scene remotely. Then other days, usually in the middle of writing or drawing, I feel like Milton Caniff and E.C. Segar or Wally Wood were not-so distant relatives of mine, and I'm stepping on their shoulders and bracing my own for other cartoonists coming up.

I love talking with peers on-line via Twitter -- the limited space available it makes it easy to stay short and not disrupt work life, and I see that I have lots in common with artists who work in completely different ends of the medium. I'm glad comics folk have embraced it; it's a great equalizer, properly used. It's cut the largely perceived divide between indie and mainstream material down to the mere crack it really is.

SPURGEON: Do you find that you share common ground with other comics-makers on various industry issues? The conventional wisdom is that the current group of creators of which you're a member is both highly mercenary and in many basic ways largely satisfied with the current business landscape as it pertains to creators. Is that a fair assessment? Do you feel like a group like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is specifically important to what it is you do? Are there other issues in which you're personally invested?

PARKER: Really -- that's the perception?

SPURGEON: I think so.

PARKER: I think creators are more worried than ever and want change, and feel nearly powerless to do much about it. It seems to me that many comics people sympathize with the Occupy movement, as I do. Almost no publishers currently invite artists to create new properties that they don't at least have media rights to for a while. The biggest companies are really concerned with their trademarks now that they're subsidiaries, and when there's less opportunity for creating original material, we're all more expendable. If my peers and I seem highly mercenary, it's probably because everybody is as we head to this event horizon where comics either becomes less relevant or makes a sustaining breakthrough.

Maybe you're getting that take from a lot of people putting up a brave face in tough times? Because this is still the entertainment industry, and one of the main rules of survival is never show weakness. And yet I still see creators bare that chest when they don't have to, letting the world know that things are dire. Which usually leads to things becoming really dire, because nothing scares away business faster than looking like you need help. It's a sad fact, but I've seen little to contradict it. Sometimes I message people and advise them to take down needy posts, and try to explain it. You might get a lot of supportive comments, but you won't get work.

The Legal Defense Fund... Historically, the CBLDF has been more focused on trying to hold the line of censorship at the retail level. That is important to what I do, if further along on the line. Obviously the other topic of the day is digital distribution, which I don't want to hear anyone expound on much more at this point, much less myself. But to not slip away scott free, I will say that I don't think it will work until we make 22-page units available at the .99 cent price, and not categorize books by publisher, which makes no sense to anyone outside the comics world.

imageSPURGEON: You mentioned this in oblique fashion early on, but how important has it been for you to work at Periscope, and have the continuing exposure it provides to other comics-makers? In general, do you still feel like you're adding to your skill set, that you're still influenced by other artists despite being a working professional? Can you talk about one thing you feel is different about your work now than, say, two years ago and where that change came from?

PARKER: I'm probably more open to being influenced by other creators than ever. I can come in and see Jonathan Case painting a beautiful cover or Ben Dewey completing another hilarious gag panel for his Tragedy Series tumblr, and get completely inspired. It always reminds me to entertain myself first. Some recent addition like Natalie Nourigat may bring up a question about the industry and Ron Randall or Karl Kesel will give the perspective of how it was when they broke in in the '80s... and then go on to show how to ink a page like a badass. Or David Hahn will bust somebody hilariously for using a tired trope and make us all think about the mechanics of scenes.

It's about as healthy a work environment as you'll find in comics or any other field. Also, going back to my sageness about not complaining in public, it lets all of us vent about whatever is eating us at the time, get that out of the system instead of saying it somewhere so Rich Johnston will play it back at you ten years later. The studio turns big problems small, and keeps us focused on the process, and making deadlines. I wish every artist or writer who can be around people had an environment like this to work in. Of course it didn't just happen, we had plenty of email debates, meetings, good and bad choices until we finally figured how to manage and cultivate such a diverse group.

And we get the best guest stars -- at different times we've had Kate Beaton, Scott Kurtz, Kris Straub, Val Mayerik, Jen Sorensen, Cully Hamner, Carla Speed McNeil, Steve Rude, Paul Gulacy, Meredith Gran, Ellen Forney, Linda Medley, Derek Kirk Kim, Paul Chadwick, Hope Larson, Lucy Knisley... we rarely want to sit out a day because we might miss somebody great.


SPURGEON: Even though we're focusing on your mainstream work for this piece, you do have webcomics experience, most notably your current project Bucko. Let me ask you this. You and Steve Lieber had a very interesting experience with your print comic Underground -- totally creepy book, by the way, I'm still twitchy about a couple of those claustrophobic scenes -- in terms of how you approached and interacted with those that uploaded it for free on-line consumption. I read an exchange where you indicated that even though you were able to sell some books right then -- something that was widely discussed -- you were saying you didn't do what was necessary to build on that exposure. What could you have done to use that experience to sell books over the long term, and why didn't you?

PARKER: We would have needed advertising to pick up the ball from that point on, I think. And that would require money, which wasn't something we had lying around. Or, I think had it been more of a genre book, that internet attention could have been enough for the lightning-in-a-bottle reaction that turns underfunded original works into something with legs. It's hard to explain the appeal of the book in a pitch, which translates to "it's these people being chased through a cave." As you say, the key is that we went to great lengths to put the reader in that position so they can get as tangible an experience as possible while reading, at least as much as Steve and I were capable of. By nature it's not as sexy as "zombie apocalypse soap opera."

SPURGEON: One through-line to this chat, as well as some others you've done, is your desire that people follow creators rather than creations and your tendency to do so without thinking. I was actually surprised that this isn't the norm, or at least isn't common enough you wouldn't feel it necessary to comment on it, but you'd know before I would. Do you get any sense that anyone out there is following you, specifically, and if so, what they're responding to? Is there someone whose work you follow that I wouldn't believe you if you casually mentioned it over coffee?

PARKER: Not long ago at Seattle's Emerald City show a guy came up and looked thoroughly through every pile of books I had on the table, and then asked, "Is there anything else you've done? I have all of these." He had become a dedicated reader of mine, and I was kind of caught off guard by it. I've been that way to several creators over the years -- Roger Langridge has something in print? Buy. Kyle Baker? Buy. Mark Schultz, ring that up. And I was surprised to discover people doing it with me. It made me very happy, to be sure, but I was still unprepared. It's because during all those times no one is paying attention to you, you have to come up with other things to drive you, you get into this mode of thinking, "No one may ever really notice me, so it can't matter to my process." But of course it does, it's everything.

I'm having a hard time thinking of someone who'd be a surprise to you that I like. Of course I like Chris Onstad and Kate Beaton, doesn't everyone? It would be more interesting to list people whose work you'd assume I like that I don't, but there's no way I'm going to create internet drama like that. Remember in the early '00s when no one had any money for advertising so everybody kept picking online fights for free publicity? I hope that never comes back.

imageSPURGEON: [laughs] I don't know that you'd agree, but it feels to me like we could be due for some significant changes in how mainstream comics are made and oriented towards an audience, from directions discussed or perhaps not-yet-discussed. What do you foresee as specific challenges one, two, five years from now? For instance, we've just come off of a very writer-centric period, and now more people are playing with Marvel-style scripting or something similar.

PARKER: It feels like it to me, too, based purely on the cyclical nature of the industry. Some other genres have to get rolling again soon. I take every chance I'm offered to write a horror or sci-fi story, for the most part. You never know where the running vine will find the right conditions and bloom. I wish we could drop caring about continuity, but people have been saying that for 30 years or more. Superhero books work best when they accept cycles and start over more often to clean the slate.

SPURGEON: Seriously, what's wrong with Steve Lieber? That guy... I told people we'd get to the bottom of Steve Lieber in this interview, but I'm afraid that might be another 10,000 words... so I think we might have to Seal Team Six it. If you had to tell just a couple of Lieber stories, what would they be?

PARKER: Man, don't get me started on him. We don't have enough room here on the internet.

We became friends years ago when both of us were trying to get work in the early '90s and we both cared about traditional drawing, which wasn't really in style at the time if you remember. Steve was walking around at a convention seeing who was doing what and saw a page on my table where I drew somebody's hands well, so he introduced himself. Isn't that a shitty team-up origin story? That's why bio comics don't rule the industry. There you go, Bluewater: that one's on the house. But it does remind me of a Lieber practice from a few years later.

imageIn the mid-to-late '90s at a lot of the shows you'd be trying to talk over music blasting from one of the nearby small publishers doing Bad Girl comics like London Night or Chaos!. Inevitably some young artist would drop a portfolio of horrible drawings on top of all our art and comics asking how and when he could start doing covers, etc. and Lieber began this evil routine where he'd flip through their half-drawn, indecipherable pages and look really interested. This was after years of throwing pearls before swine, giving all this hard-earned storytelling and drawing advice that they wouldn't listen to, you'd glance up and notice they're not even paying attention to you trying to break down their work and formulate strategies. So Lieber started killing double birds with single stones -- he would tap on the portfolio like someone just laid a real treasure map down in front of him, and then say in a confiding tone: "You don't don't want to waste time with me, I'm just another freelancer. You know whose going to want to see this? Chaos Comics." And then he'd point them over to the loudest table -- sometimes he'd switch it up depending on who was bothering us the most but it was usually Chaos, and the young artist would then jet over there. They almost always name-dropped Steve, which I could tell because I would keep seeing heads look up and search around with that Who The Hell Is Steve Lieber look on their faces.

That just reminded me of an actual anecdote, maybe his greatest moment at a show that I witnessed. Because this was at the time the industry was really hitting the depths, right before I went to work in animation. At a Heroes Convention in Charlotte, this one art dealer was coming around and taking advantage of all the desperate artists and buying up pages at one flat, abysmally low rate. Something like "I'll take this whole stack for ten bucks a page." It may not have even been that good, it might have been like seven bucks per. And goddamn his wretched soul, he was getting pages because people needed the money. He came up to me and laid out his sweet deal, and it's the kind of thing so incredulous I often don't have time to get mad. To make it worse he even detailed how he would later take the art and put it in a nice frame with a matte and make a real presentation out of it. Like I gave a shit how he would present the art I practically gave him and then make a thousand percent profit. Of course Steve is listening to this next to me and had gotten angry on behalf of some other artist who did sell out to him. There was no danger I would sell, and I'm pretty sure Lieber would have dived between the guys hand with money like a slow-mo bullet interception, but I just said simply, "If I sell just one of my pages for the price I have on it, then I'll get the same thing, so no thanks." He tried a little more hard sell, pointing out that the show was almost over, and so on, but I returned to the sketch I was working on.

So the dealer then moved down one space to start presenting his sack of beans to Lieber, who immediately put his hand out cop style and said very authoritatively, "Step away from my table, you bottom-feeder." Tom, it was such a magic moment. I remember Chuck Wojtkiewicz' wife Marc with her mouth agape because she had never seen Steve be anything but friendly to people at shows. The guy moved on straight away.


SPURGEON: Is there a story from this year where you thought your own contributions were particularly strong?

PARKER: I was very happy with the Omegex story in Hulk, where we examined General Ross' past. Gabe Hardman as usual sold the hell out of these moments that were pure golden age Americana and big sci-fi battle. And in the middle of these titans clashing, we have three women characters observing and influencing the whole thing, acting as The Fates. I felt we pulled of a lot of neat stuff with that.

And for that story I got to introduce Uravo, a young lady Watcher, of the bald omniscient aliens who always claim not to interfere with Marvel history. I was afraid my favorite exchange went unnoticed because it was a back up story, but bless his heart Chris Sims called out the moment where another Watcher tried to put the moves on her. Ralph Macchio suggested we take that out, but there was no way I was losing that bit, it was maybe the best thing I wrote all year.

SPURGEON: What's the last great comic that crossed your desk?

PARKER: I was pretty excited when Chris Schweizer did the Crogan's Adventures and Crogan's March books; he's a born cartoonist. The last thing I think I bought several copies of to bring in the studio was the recent Hellboy comic that Kevin Nowlan drew. Any time Nowlan does a whole issue of something, it's an event and I don't know any of my friends who don't get excited. I grabbed up several copies and brought them in because I knew everyone would want it. I was lucky to get to work with him a little on X-Men: First Class. He even inked my drawing!


* Jeff Parker On Twitter
* Parkerspace


* photo provided by Jeff Parker
* Hot Stuff is just as good as Batman
* Malibu's Solitaire
* Parker writes a western for Tomm Coker
* those Agents Of Atlas, post tryout period
* Goom smashes things, lays down rhymes
* Jean Grey needed a girlfriend, got one in Scarlet Witch
* Gorilla-Man
* Venus
* Red Hulk
* Luke Cage, Thunderbolt leader
* Mysterius cover, by Tom Fowler
* sketch by Periscope studiomate Colleen Coover for a forthcoming project
* from Underground
* from Bucko -- Parker working in another genre
* Jeff Parker with Steve Lieber
* a Watcher macking on another Watcher
* more Thunderbolts (below)



posted 9:40 am PST | Permalink

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