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

December 29, 2008

CR Holiday Interview #7: Kurt Busiek



Kurt Busiek's Marvels was the big comic at the time I went to work in comics. Launching the career of artist Alex Ross and instigating any number of still-ongoing trends, many have forgotten that Marvels came out just as Marvel Comics careened into a rough period marked by bankruptcy, overreaching business acquisitions and market setbacks. I have no idea if Marvel's current place in the entertainment firmament owes anything to the ability to look upon a Marvels as a testament to their characters' power and appeal during the tough times. I bet it didn't hurt. Kurt Busiek has since built an admirable mainstream comics-oriented writing career centered around his own creations (most memorably Astro City) and various high-profile runs and mainstream gigs that call on his particular set of talents (including Secret Identity and Avengers/JLA). He'll start 2009 with a big project at each major: a Marvels sequel called Eye of the Camera -- the reason I'm allowed to start this introduction with a decade-plus old comic and not have anyone mad at me -- and the current DC weekly series, a Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman adventure called Trinity. I'm told Kurt Busiek always wins arguments on the comics-related Internet, so I tried not to get him mad at me. I'm grateful to Kurt for taking this many questions and turning them around in interesting fashion in such a short time. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Kurt, one thing I always wanted to ask you about the project that put on the map: do you think that people always gave Marvels a fair reading? For example, I know that it's frequently cited as a book that has a worshipful view of superheroes, which I don't think affords it credit for the ambiguities of the relationship Phil Sheldon has with what he's seeing and experiencing. Are you happy with that book's legacy?

KURT BUSIEK: I'm pretty happy with it, yes. I don't think there's any one "fair reading," or that people are reading it wrong unless they get out of it what I intended to put into it. People bring their own perspectives and baggage and attitudes and tastes to fiction, and that's going to affect anyone's reading of anything. What you get out of a work and what I get may be different things, but that doesn't mean either one of us is wrong.

imageI don't particularly agree with the idea that Phil is "worshipful" of superheroes, though there's a part of the story where that's likely true. But it's simply part of what he goes through -- from being scared to being overawed and feeling like ordinary men don't matter, to finding his footing in a world with marvels in it, to excited to saddened to bitter to awestruck to angrily supportive to disappointed and saddened to philosophical. But a lot of what we were working with was about trying to explore what it would feel like, emotionally, to be in that world with that kind of thing happening around you -- and the perspectives we'd usually seen, at least at Marvel, were either the heroes' perspective, right up in their heads and making them seem like normal guys with feet of clay, or the idea that superheroes are scary and dangerous. So we wanted to do more than repeat that -- we did include it, but we learned more toward "super-people are impressive and awe-inspiring," because that's an idea that had been kind of lost, and it's the kind of thing I'd think about, when I was a kid walking to school and wondering, "What would it be like if Iron Man came rocketing down Massachusetts Avenue? Would the windows rattle? Would there be a backwash? What would it be like to see someone man-sized, going by fast and low, like a human missile?"

Getting that sense of wonder onto the page was a big part of Marvels. Also, of course, as a photographer Phil's looking for the memorable, the impressive, the affecting -- and he's also likely putting it all in context, thinking about the bigger picture, unlike the guy who's crabby about mutants without thinking it through, or upset that a superhero fight made him late for work, so he blames the heroes rather than thinking about where he'd be if the villains had been unopposed. Marvel has gotten a lot of mileage over the years from those crabby New Yorkers reacting in surly fashion to the superhumans among them, just as they have from the feet-of-clay approach -- but we wanted to step back and look at it from a different angle. And it's not surprising that some people read that as "Oh gee gosh they're all wonderful and we should be grateful to live in a world with the violent and destructive Hulk in it!" Which isn't Phil's attitude, but it's a cartoon of it.

Still, I like the idea that storytelling is a kind of two-part telepathy. The writing is an act of translation, of putting on paper an imperfect version of what's in the writer's brain, but that's between the writer and the page. The story happens between the page and the reader, and it's the translation that happens as what's on paper enters the reader's mind. To a lot of readers, Marvels is all about the details and history of the Marvel Universe, and they don't think anyone else can appreciate it unless they already have all that context -- and they're right that no one who doesn't already know what they do will get out of it exactly what they do. But to my mother, who knows very little about the Marvel Universe, #3 is all about the Cuban Missile Crisis, because she remembers what it was like to wonder if forces beyond her control were going to make the world end. So she doesn't see the continuity details, she sees the metaphors. And in some ways, I think readers who approach it that way may get something stronger out of it than people who catch all the references. But the continuity buff and my mother, neither of them are reading it "wrong."

In the end, I think the lasting legacy of Marvels is that it's good and interesting work, both on my part and on Alex's, so I can't complain, even about the people who hate it. We reached a lot of people that liked it and were affected by it, and are still reaching more. That's more than I ever expected, so I'm not going to crab that not everyone got it the way I wish they would. That'd be an unrealistic expectation.

I mean, seriously, Marvels won five Harvey Awards and three Eisner Awards. It would seem crass to complain about anything. Aside from, say, getting foreign royalties on time, or something like that.

SPURGEON: Artistic people that manage to be prolific over a span of several years fascinate me. How has your process changed in the years you've been writing? Is there anything different about the way you engage the screen at the start of your day now than the way you might have 15 years ago? Do you find that there are things you do better now -- or have a harder time doing -- that change the way you're able to allocate time?

BUSIEK: I think there's a lot that's different, but it's not always that easy to figure out why. During those 15 years, I got hammered pretty badly by mercury poisoning, and for a few years had a very, very hard time writing deeper, more resonant story structures -- and even straight adventure was harder than it should have been. I'd spend days at a time unable to concentrate enough to write, and when it cleared a little bit, I'd have to get as much done as quickly as possible in order to stay on schedule. I'm still recovering from that, and I still have periods where I just can't think straight, though they're less frequent and don't last as long. I'm very much looking forward to when they go away completely.

So that's a pretty big gulf to navigate. There's more, of course. 15 years ago, I'd just started to figure out how to work with something that for lack of a better term, we may as well call "theme" -- but it isn't theme, it's what Thomas McCormack talks about in his book The Fiction Editor, an overarching intent of what the writer wants to get across to the reader in a non-literal way, but his term for it is "master pre-libation," which sounds a bit porny -- and that's something I'm more comfortable with now, because I've had a lot more practice at it. And my outlines are looser, because I'm more skilled at breaking down a story visually, and don't have to do as much prep work on paper before I start typing.

That's the sort of thing that comes with experience. When I started out as a professional writer, over 25 years ago now, I had to outline everything down to the panel level, roughing out every page and knowing what dialogue beats were in every panel before I could start typing, or I wouldn't have the confidence that it all worked. And that made for kind of constrained work, since there wasn't much room in it for improvisation or discovery while doing the actual writing -- it was a very formal process. By the time I did Marvels, I was loosening up, but I was still very careful in outlining out the emotional arc of a scene or story, because that's what I was least comfortable with. During the worst of the mercury poisoning, my outlines tightened up again, though not to the same level -- because I simply couldn't keep a whole story structure in my head at any one time, and I'd lose the nuances if I didn't plan it all out. Today, I tend to break stuff down page by page, because I know how to flesh out a page, I'm confident in it. I know even at a loose stage where I'm going to need room for text and where the art's going to be carrying things and the story will be moving faster. At some points, I've simply roughed in a scene that I budget three pages for, and flesh it out while writing, because I've got the confidence to write it while it's still alive in my head. That's just what comes of practice.

But just last week, for a new project, I tightened up again, not because I didn't know what to do, but because the format I'm working in is so tightly structured that the only way to deal with it was to know ahead of time, panel by panel and beat by beat, what was going on before I sat down at the keyboard. So my outline looks a lot like it would have in 1982 -- but it's got richer thematic and emotional content.

I don't know if that answers the question. Do anything for 25 years, and you'll exercise those particular muscles a lot. You'll be able to do reflexively what you used to have to gut through, and you'll be able to take that time you've saved and use it to sweat over other aspects. I'm sure someone like Joss Whedon can break down a story into TV acts pretty easily, structuring it out so the right beats happen at the commercial breaks, and a lot of it is reflex for him because he's used to it. If I were to try that, I'd be sweating and cursing and going through multiple legal pads full of frustrated scrawls as I figured it out.

Again, I'm not sure that's an answer to the question -- you seem to be asking for examples, and I'm giving theory. But to pick a concrete example, I used to rough stories out by assuming six panels to the page unless something needed more space, and over the years I've kind of slid toward five panels per page. This is partially a reaction to the artists I work with, and getting better results when I break down a page into the same amount of story, but told through slightly larger images, and it's partly the experience of writing things like Marvels, where we did so much with visual pacing that I got very aware of what you can do with changing panel size. By the end of Marvels, I was specifying in the script whether a set of panels were all on one tier or stacked, and coding each panel [S], [H] or [V] for square, horizontal or vertical. I didn't do that with anyone but Alex, but it did make me approach writing for other artists differently.

I also worked with George Perez and Mark Bagley, who tend to break a story down into more panels than I plotted out, and with Pat Olliffe, who would break it down into fewer, without sacrificing content. From Mark and George I learned a lot about how much stuff can fit on a still-exciting page, but I'm wary of expecting others to be able to do it. From Pat, I learned a lot about how to do just as much storytelling with larger, more impactful panels.


And writing Conan was an education in making setting and atmosphere a big part of visual storytelling, and on and on. I've gotten a lot more comfortable with different narrative viewpoints, I'm better at setting a tone. Everything gives you new tools and new ideas, and makes you more assured about something or other, and it all gets added to what you can do and what comes easily and what you work hard at.

SPURGEON: Aaron Sorkin -- at least I think it was Sorkin -- once said something to the effect that the last decade had made it much more difficult to have a discussion through art about heroism. As someone for whom heroism is an obvious subject but also something you explore in a deeper, more focused way in Astro City, have you felt the influence from outside events that have challenged your treatment of that subject and those kinds of stories? Will we see any of that in this new Marvels series, or does its time period-focus sidestep that?

BUSIEK: I'd be interested to know where he said that and in what context -- in part because I'm a big Sorkin fan, and I'd like to read whatever it was, and in part because I think the post 9-11 world has been one that brings up more interesting contexts for a discussion of heroism, and I think Sorkin explored that territory pretty well in Charlie Wilson's War, which is set pre-9/11, but done post-9/11, and it has heroic things being accomplished by some seemingly unheroic people, and then having that heroic stuff sandbagged and ultimately backfiring, as the triumph isn't matched by the follow-through. So if it's more difficult, I think Sorkin was doing a pretty good job anyway.

But maybe he was saying it's harder to sell that kind of thing to skittish producers or network executives, and there are other projects that foundered because of it. Or that he had more to say with Charlie Wilson's War, but what we got was watered down. Or heck, maybe he was griping that when you have characters who are supposed to be TV comedians and they spend all their time obsessing vocally about moral and ethical and political issues, the public doesn't want to watch. I don't know. But I think that Charlie Wilson's War had more nuance to its heroics than A Few Good Men (much though I like what he did with heroism issues in that), and I'm expecting he'll have some interesting stuff to chew on in the upcoming Trial of the Chicago Seven.

And I think Bill Willingham's saying some interesting things in Fables, these days, showing a devastating victory and the aftermath that comes beyond the triumph -- that feels inspired by current events, though I'm sure Bill will have his own spin on things, making it involving fiction and not mere editorializing.

I'd assume my own writing has been affected in some way, but probably subconsciously, for the most part. And I won't be able to articulate it, whatever it is, until I can look back with greater perspective. I did address 9/11 in an Astro City short that was in DC's 9/11 benefit book, though I didn't refer to those events directly -- just a story about heroism and sacrifice. The only clear and direct effect it had on something I was writing was that at the time we were in the middle of the Kang War story in Avengers, and had it all set up for Kang to kill almost everyone in Washington DC in a brutal act that brought the world to the point of surrender. And of course we immediately thought, "Urk! Can we do that? Will that be seen as a reference, even though we had it planned earlier?" And after a bit of dithering, we decided to go ahead with it, but the one change we made was to have Kang want the Avengers to sign the surrender, because they're the ones he feels are his true foes. We just didn't want to show the President of the United States surrendering to an enemy who attacked a major US city, not at that point in time. And later in the story, we had President Bush around, and he was kind of stirring and patriotic and brave. And I've got very little use for Bush, not then and not now, but I wasn't going to make the President look like a clown at that point in our history, regardless of whether I liked him or not.

A little while later, in The Order, Jo Duffy wrote Bush as kind of a clown, with some satirical dialogue, and I was co-writing with her. I didn't rework her jabs because I thought that I shouldn't overrule her on it, even if I wouldn't have done it myself. And we were a bit more removed from the event, so it felt more permissible.

But aside from a greater sensitivity to the effects of demolishing buildings with people in them, something I don't often do anyway -- I usually go smaller or much bigger -- and having a greater awareness of what a big showy violent act means to the people around it, I'm not sure my work has been all that consciously affected. I rarely write overtly political fiction, and even when I do use political stuff, it's generally to see what it makes the characters do rather than to serve as a statement. I did pitch an idea for a Sub-Mariner series, about factions within the government and big oil companies making out Namor to be a terrorist who has to be ousted from the throne of Atlantis so they could conquer it themselves and get at the oil underneath it and turn the whole place into a third-world sweatshop for high-pressure factory work -- but that wasn't because I wanted to make a point about Iraq, it was because I think it would make for a fascinating crucible for fictional adventures and drama, whether it bears resemblance to anything in the real world or not. Conspiracy theories can be cool building blocks for stories even if they have little basis in fact, just like the Bermuda Triangle and vampires and Madame Blavatsky can be fun to play with whether you believe in them or not.

But that's not what you were asking about. If any of this works its way into Eye of the Camera, it was likely on an unconscious level.


SPURGEON: Kurt, you co-created Thunderbolts, which I believe is one of the longest-running comics at Marvel that didn't come straight from the 1960s Marvel glory days. What do you think about that project has made it so sturdy? Is it just conceptually solid? Is it particularly mutable? Has it just been lucky with creators? Marvel's track record in that area is dismal.

BUSIEK: I guess it counts as long-running if you skip over the fact that it was canceled at #75, then brought back in a mini-series and then relaunched. But heck, I'll take it. Other than X-spinoffs and The Punisher, I think we've outlasted everything else that isn't a Silver Age book, though I may be forgetting something.

Anyway, I think all of your suggestions are correct, to one degree or another. It is a pretty solid concept -- back when I was first starting out on the series, Mark Gruenwald made a point of telling me he thought it was a terrific idea, because it built something new that wasn't an imitation of something else but was still rooted in Marvel history and Marvel concepts. It's an idea that works well in the Marvel Universe, and adds something new to it.

That said, it's also very mutable -- when we started, what I thought was its greatest strength was that the reader didn't know what would happen next, because the characters didn't fall into a traditional heroic pattern. So they were villains in disguise, and then villains trying to redeem themselves -- except Moonstone was clearly not reformed, she was still keeping up the pose, and Atlas was trying to be a hero just because his friends were and he's a follower, and Zemo was still out there, and -- you simply couldn't predict which way they were going to jump next, they didn't have a well-worn rut. They were able to do the unexpected, when more conventional heroes can't, because the heroes have a pattern, an expectation of how heroes act, and the T-Bolts all had different drives and motivations that were more about their inner conflicts than about a devotion to doing good deeds. And I have to say, I loved having Moonstone in there. Where Zemo was an outright villain, and Abe and Melissa were dawningly heroic, she was a manipulative snake, messing with everything to get an advantage. It was like having Loki on the Avengers, or a classic soap opera "bitch" in the middle of things, scheming and out for herself. In any other team, the audience wold be itching to see her exposed and kicked out, but in the T-Bolts, she fit just fine, as just one of the factors pulling things in odd directions.

So we went through several different directions for the team, when Mark and I were doing it, with what felt like a major change every year. And Fabian took it off in new directions, and Warren Ellis reworked it into something else, but it's still playing with the idea of villains-as-heroes, which means it's still not going to be fully predictable.

And when you look at the creators -- or at least, the writers -- it's been me, and then Fabian Nicieza, John Arcudi, me and Fabian again, Fabian solo again, Warren Ellis and now Andy Diggle. That's five guys, and a pretty strong set of writers. And there's been fill-in stuff by Joe Casey, Roger Stern and Christos Gage, which is a pretty strong list, too. So I definitely think the book's been fortunate in its writers, and in having Tom Brevoort as editor for so long.

The series was canceled at a time when they threw out the core concept and made it into something completely different, back when John Arcudi was writing it. I think what he did was pretty good, but it wasn't the Thunderbolts, so the existing audience bailed because it wasn't what they wanted and new people didn't pick it up because they didn't know it was a new thing. But when we brought the team back back, it did well enough to relaunch an ongoing series and has been around ever since. It feels good to see that happening -- particularly since at the start of the series, there were people saying it wouldn't last eight issues. Then that it wouldn't last 12. Then 25. Then 50. And in the end, what killed it was abandoning the series concept, and what brought it back was reverting to the concept. So there's vindication in that. The concept's been proven pretty solid.

I haven't been paying attention to it lately -- I find it hard to read any series I wrote for a long period, because I think like the puppeteer, not like the audience -- but I was delighted to notice that Andy Diggle's put the Headsman on the team. I used enough ill-explored second-tier villains in the book that I think it's only fitting that he's now using an ill-explored second (or lower!) tier guy that I made up...


SPURGEON: I wondered out loud on the site the other week about why people didn't discuss KBAC with the same fervor they did eight to ten years ago. The work seems the same to me. I had one letter writer that suggested that maybe it doesn't come out with the same consistency and marketplace force that is used to. That's the book with your name on it; is it still the same priority that it was at one time? How does it currently fit into your overall career?

BUSIEK: Astro City is still very much a priority, but after years of driving ourselves bananas trying and failing to make it come out on schedule, we finally relaxed and said, "We'll just keep doing it, and bring it out whenever there's enough to bring out." So I make sure Brent [Anderson] always has stuff to draw, and he draws at his most comfortable speed, doing side projects when he needs a break, and when an arc or special is complete, it'll be scheduled and come out. We could theoretically have new issues out now -- Brent will finish The Dark Age Book Three next week, I think -- but it wasn't until the book was ready to be scheduled that anyone talked to Alex about doing the covers, and he was booked up far enough so that he couldn't do them 'til January at the earliest. And we don't want to solicit the book without Alex's covers -- they're Alex Ross covers, for Pete's sake. So we'd rather accommodate everyone's schedules than rush and squeeze.

Next time, Scott Peterson will doubtless get the covers into Alex's queue earlier in the process, but for the moment, we'll deal with everyone's schedule with the idea that we want everyone to be comfortable and happy, and do the book on the schedule it can be done best on.

But you're right that it doesn't have the buzz it used to, and I think the schedule is part of that. I also think part of it is that the book's been around for over ten years now, and it's not seen as something fresh and new, like it was in the early days. That's both because (a) people have gotten used to it, and so it's "here's Astro City again," more than "Hey! New hot thing!" and (b), it turns out that Marvels and Astro City were pretty influential, and over the last decade-plus, that influence has spread. When we started out, the kind of story we did was one you saw in Astro City and that's it. Now there's Powers and there was Gotham Central, and Sleeper and there's Incognito and Welcome to Tranquility and Noble Causes and more.

And I'm not saying that Brian or Ed or Gail or Jay or the others are doing what they do because they're imitating what we did -- Ed, in particular, is bringing a noir-pulp sensibility to superheroes, and he came by that all on his own -- but it may be that we made the market more welcoming of stories set in a superhero milieu that aren't about the heroes, or perhaps aren't about the adventures. There's a lot out there that's exploring similar territory to what Astro City explores, and that makes us less unique, too. That's something I think about from time to time -- I started Astro City in part because it was different, and there wasn't any other place I could do that kind of story. If what we do has become more commonplace, is it time to find a new approach? Or to pack it in, job well done? Or if we did find a new approach, would it be Astro City any more, or would it be better off in a different setting, a different context?

At least so far, I've got a batch more stories to tell, so even if we're not generating huge buzz with each new issue, I'm happy to be continuing. The book collections still sell steadily, so people are still discovering the series. So as long as we have stories to tell and like the experience, why stop?
Come to think of it, the books are probably another factor. As we pick up new readers via the book collections, many of them probably wait for the book collections to buy it, so they're not following the comics. And others may have switched over to trades due to the schedule.

imageAnother factor to consider is, maybe the stories aren't as good as they used to be, or the audience has had their fill of it. Or they like the impact of the single-issue stories better, and we've been in the middle of a long epic -- we got great reactions to the Samaritan special and the Beautie special.

So I don't know what it is, but I'm not all that interested in trying to puff things up and make everything a big hot project -- they're great when they come along, but I'd rather do what I'm most interested in, as long as there's an audience to support it. Astro City fits both of those just fine, so it'll stay part of my career even as other projects come and go. As Joe Field has said, it's better to be cool than hot, it's more comfortable and it lasts longer.

SPURGEON: I was surprised to see the announcement for Marvels: Eye of the Camera in that what I thought was going to be the basic structure of a Marvels sequel you used in a KBAC series. At the same time, you seem to be very excited in press talking about how this new Marvels work has allowed you to return to the Phil Sheldon character. What is it about that character that you find compelling or useful or truthful in terms of what you want to convey? His vocation? His identity as a World War II-era adult?

BUSIEK: What I originally planned for a Marvels sequel did get turned into Astro City: The Dark Age, yes. I had two more series at least loosely planned -- one would have starred Charles and Royal Williams (you can even see "Charles" on line to get Phil's autograph in Marvels #4), and been about people who aren't marvels but who do get involved in what they do, rather than just being observers. And the third one would have had Marcia Hardesty, Phil's former assistant, as the viewpoint character, interviewing people who were or used to be personally involved with the marvels -- from Dorrie Evans to Jeryn Hogarth -- but we'd also be seeing someone actually progress from the world of normal people into the world of the marvels, and exploring how that changing perspective would affect them.

When things fell apart, I took Charles and Royal and their story, reworked it a lot, and turned it into an Astro City piece. Part of the Marcia Hardesty one (but not the Marcia part) just resurfaced as part of a project I may be talking to DC about after Trinity, but maybe not. It'll keep.

imageSo the Marvels sequels weren't going to be starring Phil Sheldon. I did have an idea, that I'd discussed with Alex, for a sort of "epilogue" story about Phil, where we could see him after retirement, and find out what became of his life. It was partly because we didn't want someone to bring Phil back as a crusading reporter for the Bugle, all buff and brawny and then have him get bit by a radioactive owl or something, but part of it was that I thought it was a good idea for a nice, touching, bittersweet story. So I hung onto it as a maybe-someday kind of thing.

And then Tom Brevoort called me up and suggested we do something for the tenth anniversary of Marvels, because the business people at Marvel had noticed that while there might be other books that had bigger sales at any one point, Marvels just kept selling steadily, outselling a lot of other trade paperbacks by sheer longevity. Like Watchmen -- but on a rather lower level! -- it just keeps selling, and they thought the tenth anniversary made a nice excuse to do another one and maybe have two books that sell steadily like that.

I wasn't artistically ruffled or anything -- it's not as if I hadn't been open to sequels before, and I did have this idea for a one-shot about Phil. So I described it to Tom, and we talked about it, and it kind of started growing. Not so much the original story idea getting longer -- that part's still about 30 pages long, and provides the final act of Eye of the Camera -- but it got a lead-in story, to set things up, explore Phil's attitude toward later developments at Marvel, and make it so the story stood on its own as a complete work, not just as a coda to Marvels.

So it was an idea I already had, that took a different form. As for what I like about Phil -- he's a little old one-eyed Jewish guy who wanders around the Marvel Universe going, "Say! Look at that!" and thinking a lot. I think he's a great viewpoint character -- he's so thoroughly not a superhero, but an ordinary, everyday guy, that he makes a great lens to see extraordinary events through. Phil's at least a little bit inspired by the main character in Nevil Shute's Trustee From The Toolroom, and he's also -- well, he's a little old Jewish guy who's been around the superheroes since they first showed up, which makes me think of Stan and Jack and Julie Schwartz and others. He feels like a link to the beginnings, a guy who's making a living, feeding his family, by showing us wonders and marvels, but in the midst of it all, his own tale is very human. He's not a kid, he's an older guy who's seen a lot and done a lot and he's reflective. I like that. I like working with that perspective, that sense of experience.

So the story wouldn't work with a hard-charging young twenty-something (although that's what Phil starts out as), but it works great with a guy who's old enough to have distance and perspective on what he's thinking about.

It's not so much that I find Phil inherently compelling or truthful, but that if I tell Phil's story in a truthful, honest manner, showing you what he'd feel, what he'd think, how he'd react, then the results will feel true, and make for a compelling story.

SPURGEON: Some of your bigger projects over the last few years have been done with a co-writer. You describe the experience of working with Roger Stern as very organic, to the point in one conversation that was published where neither of you were aware which one of you wrote a specific joke. Your work with Geoff Johns seemed nearly seamless, too. I'm not used to people taking on partnerships later in the writing careers -- how have these relationships had an impact on the way you write?

BUSIEK: I'm not sure I've ever taken on a co-writing job for any reason other than time pressure. No, wait -- I co-wrote a bunch of Elvira stories with Richard Howell, for Claypool Comics, and we did them that way just because it was fun to hash out a story over the phone, and I like talking about demented whirlpools of pop-culture references with Richard. And I did a collaborative Spider-Man novel with Nathan Archer, where I did most of the plotting and he did most of the writing, but that's the gig Byron Preiss offered in the first place.

But everything else -- Avengers Forever and Iron Man with Roger, Defenders with Erik Larsen, Trinity and the Superman stuff Fabian and I have done -- it's all come about because I was too overbooked or sick or whatever, and needed help. Even Superman: Up, Up And Away -- if I remember correctly, the first idea was to have one of us write it, and I didn't have the time and neither did Geoff, and Matt Idelson suggested we co-write it. And with Trinity we knew going in that there was no way I could write 22 pages a week for a whole year, plus Astro City, so we designed the project to have Fabian co-write the back chapters.

So co-writing isn't something I've actively sought out -- it's something that's happened a bunch out of necessity, and I've been lucky enough to wind up working with really good guys. I have enough of a shared sensibility with Roger, Geoff, Fabian and Erik that we can work from a position of common ground -- we're pulling in the same direction, not working at cross-purposes.

And I like working with other people, talking ideas back and forth, but usually I wind up doing that with an editor or an artist. I've had some of the best writing experiences I've ever had, working with Tom Brevoort and Scott Allie as editors, or Alex, Brent and Stuart Immonen as artists. So I like that, and I value it, but I usually prefer to be the sole "writer" on the project. Maybe because that gives me final authority over the writing, and I'm control-freak enough to want that final result to be mine.

imageI did do Iron Man with Roger for a year, where he got final say -- we co-plotted and he scripted it -- but I don't feel as much like those issues are "mine" as I do with Avengers Forever, where we co-plotted and I scripted. I think they're good comics, but I'm not sunk into them as deeply, I'm more distanced from them. As for Up, Up and Away, it was a wonderful experience that mutated over the course of the project. The way we planned it, Geoff and I were going to hash the story out together, then he'd plot and I'd tweak the plot, and I'd script and he'd tweak the script. And it did begin that way. Geoff flew up to my area and stayed in my guest room for three days, as we worked out the story together, and we had a great time doing it. On that third day, he wrote up the overall outline with me looking over his shoulder and making suggestions. Then, once it was okayed, we started out on the series, and pretty quickly he got swamped with Infinite Crisis, which had its own schedule headaches. So I started doing the first-draft plots, too, with him tweaking them, and I was doing the scripts as well, and by the end he was so busy he wasn't tweaking very much. So it's very much our story, but as it goes on it's more and more my voice, doing the job of fleshing out and realizing what we'd outlined together.

The storytelling part was very much the two of us, a lot of give and take, and it was a blast. By the end of it all, I was the dominant voice by happenstance, not by design.

On some of the writing collaborations I've done, it's worked that way by design -- on Avengers Forever, Roger was a huge help, but I scripted the result, so it came out very much in my voice. Fabian and I worked that way on the Superman stuff we did together, too -- and I expect I run roughshod over him on Trinity, probably more than I should. But as long as those are the parameters going in, nobody gets bent out of shape, and I hope I'm not too much of a jerk about it. It may be that I co-write well as long as I get to be the big dog, and I wouldn't like it if it was the other way. I'm not in any real hurry to find out, I guess.

Still, it's been great hashing out stories with Roger, or with Fabian -- having another voice in the mix, another perspective, to get you to think about things you might not have considered otherwise, is very useful, whether that guy's an editor, an artist or a writer. I can definitely say that while Fabian and I have been co-writing the back half of Trinity, he's made suggestions or challenged my assumptions in ways that have made the lead half of the story better.

So I think the co-writing has made me more aware of the need for a good, sympathetic voice in some role, but my preference is still to write stuff solo. Even though working with Roger and Fabian of late has been extremely rewarding. Go figure. I might have less resistance to the idea if I was writing a screenplay or a novel, since there it feels like the give and take of collaboration would be analogous to the kind of collaboration I do with an artist on comics.

Then again, I do have a comics project in mind where another writer would be a regular part of the mix, and another idea where I've been planning to write it solo, but I keep thinking that it'd be fun to work with Fabian on it. So maybe the fact that I keep co-writing stuff and enjoying doing it is having an effect -- it's lowering my resistance to the whole idea!


SPURGEON: I told my friend Sean I'd ask you about the scene in Superman Up, Up and Away which he calls:
"one of my all-time favorite superhero moments: Superman's powers are running on fumes due to Kryptonite exposure, and he's launched himself into the air with Lex in tow. At the very moment he runs out of juice and momentum and sort of stalls in midair for a second before they start falling back to the ground, Lex takes advantage of the moment to tell Superman 'I hate you.' I thought it was a lovely, visually poetic sequence that really nailed the relationship between the two characters."
Is it possible you could talk about how such a scene comes about? How much time do you spend on crafting moments like that one?

BUSIEK: That one was serendipity, I think. It was in the story from the outline stage. When Geoff and I were coming up with the story, we got to the moment where Superman bullets through the Kryptonian craft, yanking Luthor out of it but losing his powers along the way due to the Kryptonite. So they're arrowing through the air, and they could have just fallen into the bay and on we go with the story, but that didn't feel right. It felt like there needed to be a moment there -- they're together, practically in each other's arms, hanging there in mid-air, about to slow down and fall, and neither of them have enough juice to stop them from falling. They're isolated, removed from everything else, and the main conflict's over and even if he dies here, Superman's won. Again.

I could see that moment, very cinematically, and it needed something very personal, a confession, an intimate moment between the two. What's the last thing Luthor would say to Superman as they're both about to die? What does it all come down to?

"I hate you. I really hate you." If we were going for comedy, he'd add, "I just wanted you to know that."

But that would have been too much.

So I told Geoff that, and he laughed and said that's great, so we stuck it in the outline and it made it into the final story. That's what Luthor's feeling, then and there. He's said it before, but it has more power at a point like that, when they may be about to die. He's not caught up in the moment, he's not fired up about something else. There's nothing else to do but say how he really feels. There is no deathbed rapprochement, no realization that he's been wrong. He just plain hates that Kryptonian fucker. So he says it, and it feels human and true. It's not a complicated moment, just an honest one.

So I'm glad Sean liked it. I was very happy with it myself.

But it was just a moment that happened during the plotting, and we were smart enough to hang onto it. In other stories, I can spend a ton of effort structuring things out around a particular moment -- the cliffhanger ending of the BACK IN ACTION arc, where a powerless Superman leaps into a chasm toward a power core that'll fry him in an instant unless the other heroes shut something down in seconds, and he just tells them, "I trust you to handle it" and jumps, giving them the motivation to succeed and casually putting his life in their hands -- that was what Fabian and I built the entire arc around, setting that up and making it work.

But the Luthor bit just kind of presented itself.


SPURGEON: On the Trinity project, one of the things I hear is that this is an old-fashioned comics project, that it represents a kind of storytelling and approach that doesn't resonate as much with readers now as it did 20 years ago. Do you agree that such a project skews to older fans? Do you care? Do you have a sense of an audience that's aging along with you, or one that replenishes itself?

BUSIEK: The bigger a project gets -- a company-owned project, at least -- the less control you have over who it's aimed at. Trinity was something very, very different when I first pitched it, and it changed and grew and got reworked and all kinds of stuff, and much of what we're doing now got worked out in a conference room in New York with me, Fabian, Dan Didio, Mike Carlin, Liz Gehrlein, Ian Sattler and I think one or two other people in the room. It wasn't a matter of DC dictating to us what the story should be -- the story is very much the work of me and Fabes -- but they were all in the room reacting, as we worked things out. The disappearance of the Trinity came up because Mike was pushing me to think through the repercussions of what I'd set up, to pay it off right rather than backing away from it. Other things got added or subtracted because we had Dan and Ian right in the room, giving us instant feedback. So it starts to take on a life of its own.

I don't know that I'd say it skews to older fans. If so, it's probably because it sprawls all over the DCU, using characters and settings and history from many sources, and readers with more experience with the DCU are going to find more that's familiar in that. But I think the storytelling is pretty straightforward in a way that maybe old-school fans will like, but I think a 13-year-old would have a fine time with it too. It may be that Trinity is the choice of 40-year-old fans and 12-year-olds, and Final Crisis is what the 30-year-olds go nuts over, so we're skewing older than some but they're skewing older than what big mainstream events could be reaching. I have a hard time imagining newcomers could make heads or tails of Final Crisis -- as wild and exciting as it is, it feels like it's for people who know a lot about the characters and who they are.

Of course, people say that about Marvels, too, and I think they're wrong about that, so I could be wrong just as easily.

As to the question about whether I think the audience is aging along with us or renewing itself, I hope the answer is "Both." Comics have gotten pretty good at hanging on to readers, but it often feels like they've done so at the expense of reaching out to younger readers and bringing them in effectively. But I don't write every project for the same audience -- I didn't write Conan for the readers I'm writing Trinity for, and didn't write Shockrockets for the same people as Avengers Forever.

imageSome projects, I write for the insider -- JLA/Avengers was a project that core superhero fans had been waiting for for 20 years. It was going to be a celebration for them, for people who already like the JLA and the Avengers enough to get jazzed about the idea of them meeting. It's not intended as a starting point -- if you don't already know the books, why would you want to see them team up? It's for the guys who are already there. But Shockrockets was hopefully something that could attract newer or younger readers, at the same time as people who like good action-adventure comics could get a kick out of it. I was aware with it that it needed to be more welcoming.

Trinity's somewhere in between -- I want to make it accessible to newer readers, but also have lots going on that the older readers who know the DCU inside and out will get a kick out of. So it's aimed at longtime readers and newcomers. But I have no idea who's actually reading it, beyond what I see online. DC's certainly happy with it -- it's apparently very profitable, and selling the kind of numbers they projected it to sell, or so I'm regularly told by DC execs. And as a bonus, unlike many other DC projects, it's not a schedule nightmare -- except for those of us on the creative team, since we're killing ourselves getting it out on time. But unlike many books, we're actually making it. We just got over the holiday hump, when printing schedules get advanced a week or two to accommodate holidays, and we hit all our marks. So now we're in the final race to May and the finale.
It's exhausting, but it's a lot of fun to have this big a canvas to work with, and this many characters.

SPURGEON: Finally, I know you as someone who always seems to have a smart, general take on the history of comics as a business. Are you worried about the state of the economy? How worried should comics be, do you think? You popularized the theory over comics pricing themselves underneath the newsstands, is there a similar economic effect you see that might come into play in the months ahead?

BUSIEK: I'm worried about the economy in general terms, but I don't really know what it means for comics. I keep hearing people talk about how in troubled time, comics do great, but I don't know why they're saying that. The "troubled times" that comics have been through include the Great Depression, during which comics flourished and grew, but grew from nothing, and the recession of the 1970s, during which sales dropped and dropped and dropped, and comics lost thousands of retail outlets, and freelancers were talking about how there'd be no comics industry at all in a few years and everyone should find something else to do. And newsstand sales never recovered from that -- what saved the industry was the Direct Market, and the ability to sell more efficiently and profitably to a dedicated fan base.

So which of those scenarios are we looking at? Or is it either of them? The comics-do-great-in-troubled times mantra seems to be borrowed wholesale from the movies-do-great-in-troubled-times mantra, about how people flock to cheap entertainment when they don't have money. But I'm not even sure that holds true for movies any more. And I don't know if it was ever true for comics. Was the boom in the Thirties and Forties comics being resilient in troubled times, or simply growing in the environment they were born in? And even if the mantra was true back then, so much has changed -- in the Thirties, comics were the same price as other magazines, for 64 pages or so. In the Seventies, they were cheap by comparison to other magazines, but much shorter. Today, they're still short, but a lot more expensive. But we have new revenue streams from the book market, and maybe-kinda-sorta-someday the internet.

The big chain bookstores seem to be in trouble, and that's a big part of comics' added revenues -- but graphic novels have been growing, so do bookstores cling to that as a growth area or turn away it to concentrate on older patterns? The internet's a great way to reach potential customers, but it doesn't seem to be making comics publishers big money yet. And the Direct Market is shaky, as the big publishers compete for attention by being louder and more interconnected, something that excites a lot of existing readers but can be forbidding to newcomers. And to some existing readers, as well.

imageI've beaten the drum a lot about what went wrong for comics in the wake of World War II, but I have the advantage of decades of hindsight there. I'm not an economist and I don't think my analysis of the present market trends would be particularly credible. I can say I was beating the drum for trade paperback collections long before they were commonplace, and while I don't think publishers did them because they were listening to me, I was at least right about it being an effective plan. And I pushed for Tomb of Dracula and Godzilla and Conan to be collected, because I thought they'd do really well in bookstores, where those logos mean a lot, and that seems to have been right, too. So maybe I'm not a complete idiot.

What I see, in a hazy way, is comics going through the kind of transition science fiction did over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, as the pulp era ended (or slowed down a lot, at least -- Analog is still with us), and SF migrated from a short-stories-in-magazines form to a form where original novels were the vanguard. Comics have been following a roughly similar pattern, as first the most popular stuff is collected in paperback editions, and then more and more, until book editions are considered a normal part of the process, not an extra. And now we're seeing hardcovers as a growth area too. The rest of the pattern would be the magazines sales dwindling (check), people starting to wait for the book editions (check) and original book-format work becoming the primary form of release, with magazines fading to secondary. That last one hasn't really taken off for the commercial genre stuff in a big way yet, though there's been some movement in that direction, at least -- I'm happily getting books like Amulet and The Good Neighbors and Grease Monkey and such. And of course, original publication in book form is more and more the norm for indy material. The trouble there is that comics are editorially more expensive than prose, both to create and to print, which creates an economic speed-bump -- it was easy for book publishers to start doing paperback SF decades ago, because they were already doing prose fiction in book form; this was another genre, not another medium. Comics are more complicated, but we're going down that road.

That's not to say Superman is going to stop being a monthly anytime soon, or that if the comics industry becomes a books-first form, it'll even be publishing the same kind of thing as it does today -- SF certainly went through big changes over the years. But books like Good Neighbors and Amulet seem to be in a good place to create a "new mainstream," or at least to build on the success of Bone and lead to more stuff that captures the attention of young readers who don't have an interest in learning the tangled history of mainstream superheroes. I would bet that we'll see more, not less, of that kind of thing over the coming years, as we have been already. Things build to critical mass and then make big steps -- comics TPBs used to get racked in "Humor," after all. We griped about it, but eventually there were enough to have their own shelf. And then their own rack. And then their own section, which has already split into two genre classifications, Manga and Not-Manga. More critical mass will mean more divisions, since when there's enough of one kind of thing to get a sales advantage by racking it all together, it'll get its own shelf, then its own rack, then its own section...

The big question is whether the economic crisis will speed that up, as publishers grab for any advantage they can, or slow it down, as they become more conservative. If I was on top of all the latest news, I might have some guess as to which way things might jump -- Heidi MacDonald probably has thoughts on the matter -- but I've had my head down for the last year, scrambling to keep a weekly book going, so I'm not even aware enough of what's going on to do end-of-year best lists. Too much stuff is still sitting on the bookshelf in my bedroom waiting for me to get to it.

So I expect the comics business should be pretty worried, and should be prepared to react, swiftly, to whatever comes, because if it's good you want to take full advantage and if it's bad you need to be able to refocus on whatever else might be working better. I'm concerned myself, for utterly selfish reasons -- not just because I want audiences with pockets stuffed with disposable cash, but because of my own future plans. I'm deep in the trenches of Trinity, and outside of that my main projects are Astro City and Marvels, so it's almost all superhero stuff, and the bulk of it is very mainstream, sprawling, shared-universe big-icon superhero stuff. When I get out the end of Trinity, I'm pretty sure I'm going to want a change. I like variety, and when I get to be doing too much of the same stuff, I get itchy to do fantasy, horror, SF, romance, mystery, anything and everything else. So I've got a lot of stuff in mind to do after Trinity, but an awful lot of it represents a step away from the superhero mainstream, and toward creator-owned stuff, or Vertigo stuff, or ambitious projects that don't fit a category the comics industry is used to. So it would be very very nice if we were in boom times by, say, June, thank you very much.

Not that I'm expecting it, mind you. But going out into a shaky industry with unusual material -- first I've got to find editors who'd welcome it, and then I've got to find an audience to support it. The editors I'm talking to, at least so far, aren't a problem, but if things get worse, who knows? If I want to do a project that's as much Jack Vance as Jack Kirby -- and I do -- then I hope I can make it happen. If I want to do a long-form fantasy project that'd run 50 or 60 issues, or an open-ended horror-adventure series that spans four centuries of secret European history -- and again, I do -- it'd be nice to have an industry that can support it.

But hey, I live in hope. I was dumb enough to move 3000 miles away from New York without having any ongoing assignments at all. Dumb enough to do a series about second-tier villains, or a story about Marvel history at a time when conventional wisdom said nobody cared about anything more than ten years old. I did a Conan revival at Dark Horse instead of signing on to a Hawkeye series for Marvel, and a Spider-Man-in-high-school project years before anyone thought of using the word "Ultimate" as a brand name. And it seems to have worked out okay, so I'll probably keep making dumb, risky decisions and hope they work out, too.

This is kind of a downer place to end the interview, but you asked an economy question last, so I guess you've got no one to blame but yourself for a gloomy-doomy wrap-up.


* imagery from Marvels: Eye of the Camera
* page from Marvels
* panel from Conan
* the Thunderbolts reveal
* a recent Astro City cover
* from a recent Astro City special starring the character Beauty
* more Phil Sheldon, from a publicity pre-release of art on Marvels: Eye of the Camera
* a cover to Avengers Forever one of the many titles Busiek has co-written
* the two-page sequence discussed
* a panel from Trinity
* a cover from Busiek's Shockrockets series
* Busiek told them to get Godzilla back in print
* [below] a recent Astro City cover



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