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A Short Interview With Jeff Parker
posted August 5, 2006
 

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As he pointed out in an e-mail at the conclusion of this interview, the cartoonist and comics writer Jeff Parker is a member of my own generation of people in comics, kids born from 1965-1973 that saw the Direct Market grow into new genres and approaches just as their teenaged tastes were expanding. He is the self-publisher and author of the well-reviewed graphic novel The Interman, and has since made a move into Marvel Comics as one of their newer, promising writers. His current project for Marvel, Agents of Atlas, draws on a strange and underutilized source for the company -- its 1950s flirtation with superheroes and adventure pulp, characters and concepts probably best known for brief appearances during the decades since in a few time-travel sagas, flashback comics and a plotline or two that required a '50s pedigree. Parker hopes that if the series is successful, it may stake out an area of exploration for Marvel's comics more on the pulp adventure side of things.

Parker has also just published through his Octupus Press imprint Dear John -- The Alex Toth Doodle Book, a book reprinting some heavily-illustrated correspondence between the late, legendary cartoonist and his friend John Hitchcock. With two interesting projects hitting the market at the same time, I thought it would be a great time to interview the Portland-based Parker. I found him engaging and enthusiastic.

*****

TOM SPURGEON: Do I remember correctly that you worked with a big book distributor on The Interman?

JEFF PARKER: No, I never had a large book distributor, just Diamond, Cold Cut, the usuals. Most of my sales ended up coming from library orders through Baker and Taylor, thanks to The Interman making the ALA's Young Adult's list that year.

SPURGEON: That's what I'm thinking of.

PARKER: Unfortunately, that cut down my profit margin hugely, because I'd expected most sales to come from comic shops -- since Diamond picks up directly from my printer Quebecor, I would have done pretty well. Instead, I had to pay for most of my shipping. It seemed like not long after my book came out that you had that run of small publishers getting into the big bookstores.

SPURGEON: Would you have liked greater bookstore saturation at that point in your career?

PARKER: That would have been nice, but it also could have easily crushed me -- having to print up bookstore numbers and then getting returns or just having to wait too long for payment would have been too much for me at the time.

SPURGEON:I don't get to talk to a lot of guys that are working in mainstream comics. Can you unpack how something like Agents of Atlas develops? Is it something you pitched, that was brought to you? Was there something in your resume that made you the man for this job?

PARKER: It really begins with the Doc Samson miniseries that just came out. Marvel Editorial decided to do something with the character that would use him more in the Doc Savage-ish role he was created for, and as they often do in this case, invited several writers to submit pitches for the series. As I understand it, my "Doc Samson and the Mysteries of the Universe" pitch (and by pitch, I mean plot, series outline, and breakdown of the supporting cast, about 2-3 pages) ended up in the final three. But they wanted stand-alone stories, and despite delivering that every month for Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four at the time, I kept giving them a five-part story. The job went to Paul Di Filippo, who was giving them what the assignment asked for. I just couldn't see it any other way for whatever reason.

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Mark Paniccia liked my modern-pulp approach, though, and having rediscovered the What If...? #9 "Secret Avengers" story, he asked what kind of story I'd make with those characters. I was excited, because these characters had much more potential. Once you take 3-D Man out of the line-up, what you have are all archetypes of pulp. Spring Namora from her block of ice, and you have a super powered mermaid, too. Once I came back to him with the story arc of how that could all play out, we began the long process of proposals for everyone to see.

SPURGEON: Did you read the 1950s material in preparation for this series? I find the Atlas false-start superhero books incredibly weird. What are your impressions of the original source material and how much of it were you able to use?

PARKER: I read as much as I could afford, and mainly the reprints I could dig up. You're right, they are incredibly weird. Lots of talented creators shoehorning the types of stories they want to tell in the guise of superhero books. Which is pretty much exactly what I'm doing! I've tried to work in as much of the original stuff that made sense, and whatever was later intertwined in Marvel continuity is accounted for, too. I found I could actually use most of it to my advantage. When forced to say what's canon, I tend to veer closer to things established by Bill Everett. Some of it is pretty bizarre, but there's real manic, creative magic in his stories that gives you good stuff to work with. Obviously he was trying to imbue myth heavily in his work; he essentially makes the god Mercury into a merman and flips the word Roman around for his name. Then he tags him with the unlikely name Sub-Mariner. But it sticks! People respond to it. Similarly in our group, Marvel Boy was clearly supposed to evoke Apollo. So I'm trying to bushwhack through convoluted continuity and back to the core concepts where all the life is.

SPURGEON: Mainstream comic books exist in a very conservative, top-heavy market driven by events. What are your best hopes for a book like Agents of Atlas in terms of sales and exposure? Do you get any impression from Marvel what their hopes are in doing a book like that? Is it about reinvigorating properties or something strategic or is there some sort of direct artistic aim in doing books like this?

PARKER: This got through solely because several editors and executives liked the story proposal. It doesn't use Wolverine or Spider-Man doing a walk-on, so as pragmatic as they are about wanting guaranteed sales, we were very fortunate.

They have different advertising budgets for books and as you might guess, we do not have Astonishing X-Men or New Avengers money to use. Still, that doesn't put a limit on me putting an inordinate amount of time into the scripts, and Leonard Kirk's latest artwork is equal to or better than anything else Marvel is publishing now.

Our best hope is word of mouth, especially right now when a big crossover event like Civil War is happening. But if it does catch on and readers respond, then we could proceed to my pipe dream of carving out a new section of the Marvel Universe where you can tell different kinds of stories. Still escapist fiction, but at least expanding the genres and characters you can use.

SPURGEON: Unlike previous treatments of that era's material, I would think that the political and social situations that drive a lot of those concepts must seem like they come from a different world by now. It's been hard enough for Marvel to keep vibrant their 1960s characters when they're informed by those times; is this harder with 1950s comics?

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PARKER: They're kind of a clean slate because most readers don't have their childhoods all tied up with them and have no preconceptions of what a "correct" Atlas story is. Most of the characters have progressed from the Atlas years, except for team leader Jimmy Woo. He's our touchstone for the 1950s. Everyone assumes that using The Yellow Claw in the story might border on the offensive, but the original stories actually didn't make him the cartoonish menace you'd expect, beyond that annoying name. And thanks to Al Feldstein, you had a Chinese-American leading man, which was pretty forward for the '50s. As artist Leonard Kirk has worked them out, they have a very classic look. The fact that the team is already dated will keep them from being further dated, like say an early '90s hero team where the guys all have ponytails.

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As for the tone of the Atlas-era stories, they were pretty harsh. The book that The Human Robot first appeared in, Menace #11, is kind of famous for having the ghoul's hands on the cover bending a man's head back completely.

SPURGEON: Once you got into writing the characters and working with Leonard Kirk, did Agents of Atlas surprise you on any level? Did it go off in any unexpected directions?

PARKER: I always kind of draw the pages in my head, so I'm usually surprised when an artist sets things up differently than I would. Like, I tend to think in terms of wide horizontal panels. Leonard has really clicked with the spirit of the story, and that brings collaboration to a level you just can't guarantee. I'd credit the intuition of editor Mark Paniccia for putting us together. That's probably the greatest influence an editor has in comics, and he or she only has a brief window in which to make that call. It's pretty painful to see a creative team that just butt heads because they're so mismatched. In a case like the Atlas book, we get to just build on what the other is doing, and you end up with a satisfying, layered story. To my mind, Leonard embraces what I think is cool about comics. He sees the retro influence as an asset, and brings it together with the modern elements so you get verisimilitude. And the acting and personality he brings to characters is just dead on. It's all about suspension of disbelief and making readers not think about the fact they're holding a book, but rather getting lost in the story.

SPURGEON: Do you have any comics writing heroes?

PARKER: I have to say Alan Moore though everyone does, but I feel they take the wrong lessons away from him. After he made his Tunguska Event-like impact on comics, many writers took the message that they had to write mind-blowing reversals and work heavy subject matter into what was previously juvenile material. But it seems to me that all he's ever cared about is what would be the most entertaining for the given book, and not nearly as self-conscious as those that followed him. My favorite example of that is the two-part Superman finale they had him do, where you can tell they thought he was going to send up all the Weisenger-era history as ridiculous clutter, and he instead used it all to such meaningful effect that it left the version that followed looking like a hollow imitation.

Kurtzman's MAD work was a big influence on me too. I think even the most deadly serious stories need humor in them, and humor is much harder to pull off well. Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates is my all-time favorite adventure work, as it also has a lot of humanity in it. Carl Barks was probably most influential for priming my whole sense of escapism. I love Herge's Tintin too, but I didn't have that around as a kid. Thank goodness I did have plenty of Uncle Scrooge at my disposal.

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SPURGEON: Tell me about the Dear John -- The Alex Toth Doodle Book and your involvement.

PARKER: After I put out The Interman I was back east visiting relatives and went by John Hitchcock's store, Parts Unknown. He showed me the stack of art that Alex had sent him over the years and mentioned that George Pratt was going to scan the pages and they'd probably make a spiralbound book to take to local shows. So I said "Look, I've got all these ISBNs, when you guys get it together let me know and I'll make a real book out of it." Then George got busy and the project sat around for a long time, so John asked his friend Billy Ingram to do production on it. When they sent me a galley, I solicited it right away because Alex had just had that big hospitalization and I didn't want to waste any more time. Then things started looking up and I was foolishly growing confident that I would be sending books to his care facility. At least he did get to look over a galley and give his approval.

SPURGEON: Has working on this Toth book right after his death changed the way you thought about his work at all? I always found it odd he drew so well so late in his life yet there were so few comics.

PARKER: At the tribute panel in San Diego, animator/sculptor Ruben Procopio explained to a fan why Alex didn't do any more story work in the last 20 years when he was clearly still making terrific drawings. And it's essentially that the death of his wife Guyla took the wind out of his sails. Maybe also to some extent he was like a legendary gunfighter whose reputation had grown too big -- he felt he couldn't live up his own standards. I saved a lot of the reading of the essays and postcards until the book was printed so I could enjoy it like everyone else -- after all, I sure as hell wasn't going to edit Alex Toth. But while watching the tribute panel and listening to everyone talk about what Toth would write to them, I realized that he did have a creative outlet, and the postcards were it. Kind of like screen actors who segue to stage later and have a more intimate relationship with the audience, he went from having his work on millions of TV screens to writing to almost everyone who wrote him. I'm probably the last to have that epiphany, but it just struck me then.

I'm still sure he was a genius. I'm very encouraged by the fact that though he may not have been making stories, he was still exploring his art right up until the very end. That shows that we don't have to accept stagnation, and it's still possible to grow as artists even in our twilight years. I think that's a legacy in itself.

SPURGEON: As someone who works in the same industry, does Toth's sometimes very antagonistic relationship to the industry aspects of comics have any special significance to you?

PARKER: Toth's rants about working with studios and publishers generally say all there is to say about the conflicts between sales people and creative people (and creative people and creative people!), and it never seems to change. Lots of people mimic his statements as if commercial work is a thoroughly poisoned well, but they tend to forget that he sure did a lot of it anyway. Forget even trying to track down everything he boarded and designed, just try to collect every comics story he did and see how close you get. Perfectionists complain, that's just what they do. That doesn't mean he didn't enjoy it. The lesson I get from it for myself is to try and work with what I have because those dynamics aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

The other big lesson I take away, which I think also relates to his modern influence, is that comics and animation are still character-driven media. No matter how much fans love the work of a specific creator, I think what they want most is to be lost in a story and completely believe in fictional characters for a while. Ultimately, Alex told other people's stories. There's nothing wrong with that, especially considering the levels he took those stories to, but it does limit one's influence somewhat. What gets me is that I think he was a very entertaining writer and had more publishers thought to ask him for whole stories instead of pairing him up with writers, we may have gotten all kinds of great characters and stories. At least we can be thankful that he was often paired up with good writers like Archie Goodwin.

He'll always be an artists' artist. His genius was also mainly in the storytelling, in perfect yet subtle choices. That just never gets the airplay of say, a Frazetta woman sitting on a mushroom. Also, it's very hard to imitate Toth. You can replicate his techniques, but since that's not where the real brainwork was going, you're usually going to end up with a weak shadow of what he did. There are probably artists now who are very influenced by him and approach storytelling similarly, but their rendering and execution might be so different that the connection isn't made.

SPURGEON: This may be an odd question, but a lot of people got to know you for your on-line convention reports. Why did you start doing them and what function do comics shows serve in your artistic life?

PARKER: I started doing them because Steve Lieber said people would like it if I did, and I needed a way to remind people I was alive while I was working on a graphic novel that was far away from completion. So, interesting web content. And I guess not many people were doing those reports from the perspective of being on the other side of the table. Now it seems like every creator has a column for a while, but con reports feel more immediate and they make the shows seem more fun than they are. I got kind of tired of them when people started clearly making an appearance around me just to get in the report. I felt like Johnny Carson with everyone "playing through" Bob Hope-style on my set.

As an aside, I wish we could have more shows where you get local flavor again. Every convention center looks the same and it all feels like the same unending convention. Maybe an outdoor show like Angouleme.

SPURGEON: In your Marvel writing, and this may stretch back to The Interman, too, how do you approach the strange mix of really complex detailed story work that people expect with these simpler, pulp thrills that the form seems to demand? Does working with the Atlas characters free you up from detail work?

PARKER: Actually, I'm convoluting things even more with the Atlas stuff because the secret society type of story demands twists and revelations. I don't mind making plots intricate, it's keeping them streamlined and simple that's harder for me. Just as the promotional online serial-game story Temple of Atlas does, I'm trying to make use of the readerships penchant to look for clues and connections. You can really layer a story so people enjoy it on different levels. And if they just want to see a robot battle living statues, we've got that covered as well.

SPURGEON: One thing that's very different from the 1950s to now is the make-up of the comics audience. What is it that you think interests adults about this kind of material?

PARKER: I think stories of return resonate with all readers, they push their myth buttons. The preview pages may be misleading as to how the story unfolds, because though they're retro characters, we're telling it in a very modern fashion. It's interesting how we can be nostalgic for things we weren't around for, but that works on me all the time. Also Venus appears nearly nude for a while.

SPURGEON: As someone who works in a variety of places, have you found working with Marvel that they're generally an ethical, fair company to deal with? Is comics in general a good place to work?

PARKER: Marvel has been fine with me, I can't really complain. I've dealt with Hollywood studios, and compared to them, comics publishers are like dealing with the Amish. I think comics is not really much different than any other business except for having a heavy freelance aspect to it. It seems like nobody offers any better job security anymore, so comics is no sketchier than any other job.

SPURGEON: Are you a full beneficiary of the creator's rights generation or does that even enter your thoughts?

PARKER: I think what the creators did in the 70's and 80's for creator's rights is very crucial. I don't really benefit directly at the moment because I only write work for hire characters for Marvel created before I was born. And of course I did Interman myself, so no rights to lose there. Still, you shouldn't rest on others laurels -- just because Marvel, DC and Dark Horse have come to better terms in dealing with creator ownership doesn't mean newer companies will. I always suggest to people to use a lawyer when negotiating contracts with publishers. Creator's rights are ground you have to keep fighting for, because someone will always be assailing you.

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SPURGEON: What does your workday look like anymore, Jeff? Are you comics full-time? How much of that is your own work, if any?

PARKER: I have this laptop computer with me everywhere, writing constantly. If you look at my Marvel solicits you'll see that I really only have time to write Marvel comics, with the exception that I'm also writing a couple of things for Virgin coming up. I really enjoy it, as you might expect. Much of storytelling is problem-solving, and I like that aspect a lot. When I finally get ahead on my deadlines I should be able to devote more time to my own properties.

While it's currently hard to imagine existing solely on creator-owned work, I think I'll be able to devote all my drawing time to my own work, which is a nice development. I'll also be splitting the difference, such as a more down to earth adventure graphic novel I'm doing with the aforementioned Steve Lieber called Underground.

SPURGEON: Can you tell me anything about Underground at this point?

PARKER: It's a -- get ready for it -- spelunking thriller, about a park ranger named Wesley Fischer who is an avid caver. She and another ranger end up being chased through a cave system in Kentucky by some thugs who are trying to kill them. Unlike The Interman with a bunch of covert ops-type characters, this is more a story where low level criminals screw up and events start spiraling into something more dangerous, made even worse by the realities of deep caving. More in line with a story like the movie A Simple Plan. That's the kind of human level action story Lieber wanted it to be, and I think it produces more interesting results because of that. There's also an ecological message with which I'm trying to be careful to not hammer readers over the head.

SPURGEON: What about Portland as a cartooning mecca hasn't been communicated through the press?

PARKER: At Mercury Studio, we get asked this all the time for articles and we've yet to come up with a good answer as to why cartoonists keep flocking here. Beyond the natural process of artists and writers coming to visit their friends that began with Dark Horse setting up shop. It's a very bookish town, and having the country's largest bookstore is one of our claims to fame, so that might help. Whatever reason, we're starting to be successful at the studio with getting indy and mainstream creators to mix and work together. It's like an energy dynamo to have Colleen Coover and Dylan Meconis working in the same room with Matthew Clark and David Hahn. We're probably going to have to move to a bigger space before long.

*****

Dear John -- The Alex Toth Doodle Book (Octupus Press, 256 pages, $19.95, Diamond#: JUN063296, ISBN#: 0972555315) is available through Mr. Parker, or wherever books are sold.

Agents of Atlas is an honest-to-god Marvel comic book mini-series, currently in publication, and as such is available through North America's fine system of comic book shops.

Mr. Parker's web site can be found here.