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CR Sunday Interview: Ed Brubaker
posted June 24, 2012



imageI've known Ed Brubaker for almost two decades now, and have had the pleasure of tracking his career from his member as a key player in Seattle's post-alternative scene of the mid- to late-1990s to his place today now as one of North America's top mainstream and independent comic book writers, with film and television work soon to follow. This week sees the publication of both the first trade paperback collection of Fatale and its latest serial comic book issue. Fatale is the latest of Brubaker's collaborations with the talented artist Sean Phillips, and mixes horror with a more typical Brubaker preoccupation: noir. I very much like the Brubaker/Phillips comics and Brubaker's work more generally, up to and including his superhero comics Captain America (just concluding) and Winter Soldier (just getting started). I think this latest project in particular is extremely well-conceived and smartly presented in a market that sometimes just tosses work out there. I hope you'll give Fatale a try.

In the following conversation, Brubaker and I talk about new projects and old ones and engage some of the creator's rights issues on everyone's mind right now. I am deeply grateful that Brubaker chose to speak with on some of those issues in a forthright manner. These are contentious items for which one imagines there's all sorts of potential downside. It's also extremely difficult to talk about a set of issues so rife with landmines of misunderstanding and which folks have been talking about at much greater length over a three-month period. I think he handled it with aplomb. I learned a lot from what Brubaker had to say. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageTOM SPURGEON: It's my understanding that the book is coming out this week, that we're going to see the first collection of Fatale.

ED BRUBAKER: The trade comes out on the 27th. We're doing a special midnight release thing at Meltdown on the 26th.

SPURGEON: Let me ask you about that, the way you know when your book is dropping. You're doing a store event in support of it, and you're doing a bunch of targeted press including talking to me. Is how you approach a release like this, is that reflective of what you've learned over the years in terms of all the books you've had out? Are you able to apply lessons learned in terms of how you put a book out now?

BRUBAKER: I think it's a combination of my experience and Image's experiences. Image has been really successful with Walking Dead and Chew -- probably several other series, Morning Glories -- where with an ongoing series they'll put a collection of the first arc out the same day as the first issue of the next arc. That to me always seemed like, "I don't want to make retailers angry by not giving them enough time to sell the previous arc's single issues." But I talked to [Image Publisher] Eric Stephenson about it, and he was like, "Look, all of these issues are going out of of print immediately; we're back in second, third and fourth printings. This trade will be the thing that people want when issue #6 comes out. They'll help sell each other." That's what they've seen with their books, so I'm trusting that they know what they're doing. They seem to know what they're doing so far.

As far as my experience, me and Sean have sort of independently been doing our thing for six or seven years now. You have to do a bit of press when you announce the book. At that point I try to tell as little about the book as humanly possible. You want to excite people about the idea. That's why we do those sort of "movie trailers on paper" rather than showing a bunch of pages from the book. I want to tease people on the idea and what it might be.

So that's been our way of announcing projects since Criminal. Then a month before the book actually comes out, you want to tell people more about it and release more artwork before the final order cutoff for all the retailers. Then when the book is out, you sort of pray that people will write about it and review it, that word of mouth will get around or that your friends will twitter about it. [laughs] Wil Wheaton and Warren Ellis, these guys that have a reach I don't have.

I always like to read interviews with authors when their books are coming out. I kind of model that on the way standard book publishing has gone. Image will help me. I work in tandem with them. They'll help set up stuff.


SPURGEON: How important is it to you to nail that first trade, particularly in terms of the overall success of a project? Is that as key a moment as I'm guessing in getting a series over -- that in order to be a perennial, the first trade has to hit pretty hard?

BRUBAKER: I don't know, actually. [laughs] I kind of always do this stuff instinctively. I want to make sure they're good no matter what they are. This one is weird because it's the first of three. But it's meant to be a self-contained thing that builds what comes next.

It's a struggle, too, to fit as much in. Originally it was going to be four-issue arcs. We do 24-25 pages an issue, so I thought we could do three four-issue arcs and this could be a 12-issue project. I got halfway through issue #2 and I felt completely pressed for space to tell the story. There are so many characters in it, and it goes in so many different directions. I realized that, "Wait, there's nobody telling me that this thing has to be 12 issues other than me. I'm going to add one issue to the first arc." I'm considering adding even more to the second arc, because I like the epic-ness of it. I don't want to have to skimp on anything.


SPURGEON: You mentioned the artist Sean Phillips and how long you've been working together. How is it working with him now as opposed to at the beginning of the creative relationship, when there was perhaps a feeling-out process? Is it different when you have a long relationship with an artist? Is there a shorthand, or a greater sense of comfort, or can you write more to him? How is it working on something like this with someone with whom you're that comfortable?

BRUBAKER: It's like any long-term relationship. Sean and I have been working together 12 or 13 years pretty steadily.

SPURGEON: Wow. Okay.

BRUBAKER: We've had breaks, but mostly I've done 10 or 12 comics a year with Sean for a decade now. It's weird. Every now and then I look at my bookshelf and I see all these books we've done together and I flip through them and I'm like, "Wow, that was amazing." Whenever anyone asks me if Sean's available for anything, I'm like, "Shut up!" I jealously hoard Sean, but I also probably take him for granted half the time. [laughs]

SPURGEON: Is there something he does that you wish more people appreciated? Do we take Sean for granted?

BRUBAKER: I think he's an incredibly strong storyteller. I think sometimes people lump him into a certain category that I don't think he's actually in. Artists that do this stiff, photo-y kind of stuff. Sean's stuff... what distinguishes him from a lot of those photo reference-y guys is that there's a looser artistic sensibility to what he does.

You can empathize with characters that Sean draws. For a lot of artists are in that same school of drawing, you can't empathize with the characters. There are a lot of artists I really like that I look at their stuff and I feel nothing for their characters. You know?

imageAnd Sean's design sense is amazing. His covers... every now and then we'll go back and forth on a cover sketch. He'll send me the little color roughs and we'll go back and forth and we'll get to the one where we're like "Oh yeah. That." We were going back and forth on the last cover he did for a while. It wasn't clicking for some reason. I wasn't giving him the right sort of feedback on it. We do these covers before the issues are written usually, and I have only a vague idea of what's going to be in the issue. He drew this one and I'm like, "That's really good, but what if we cropped it closer?" And he just sort of did that. "Oh yeah, that's it." And the next day he sends the inked and painted version of it and it's like the best cover he's ever done. [laughter]

SPURGEON: One basic design choice that links all of the book I wanted to ask you about, a choice I think is really smart and sharp-looking, is the use of the white background and lettering and borders. I think that really distinguishes the comics.

BRUBAKER: That's all Sean. At first when we started talking about the idea he started sending me various cover design ideas. They all had that white border around the edge and logo in white. He really wanted it to look like an old magazine from the '30s or '50s. He was finding these old photos of pin-up girls and putting that design around these old black and white photos, showing me the basic idea. We're always trying to make sure our book looks different than everything else on the market.

I always say I want to work with Sean for the rest of my creative life. It's just such a simpatico relationship in my mind. I'd love to get to a point where our books were selling well enough that I only ever had to work with Sean. It'd be a lot easier to only have to write one comic a month. [laughter]

SPURGEON: You have a really well-established pedigree with the crime material, which is an element of Fatale, but maybe less so with the series' horror aspects.

BRUBAKER: Oh, yeah. I've written maybe one thing that would be considered any kind of horror at all.

SPURGEON: Has that been difficult at all, bringing in this rich tradition that's not one with which you have worked a lot?

BRUBAKER: [laughs] It is. It's different. i>Noir and crime stuff there's such an inevitability to your stories once people see how the groundwork is set. I wanted to do something that wouldn't do that. There's inevitability to certain things in the story, but you don't necessarily know what the fuck was going to happen next. I wanted to challenge myself to sort of not know. Can I do this for sure? Am I going to fail dramatically? Some of my favorite books that other people have done I think the writers and artists would consider well-intentioned failure. So I figured it was smarter to do something I'm unsure of and fail as opposed to coasting on what I know I can do.


SPURGEON: Was there any way the genres fit together that pleased you? Do you think you've been successful in adding that element of uncertainty?

BRUBAKER: It's so hard to say you're happy with it while you're still working on it. We're only about a third of the way through the story at this point, so it's hard for me to judge. I think the way we've done it so far has worked. Certainly writers I respect have told me so far they like it, and that makes me happy. But I don't know how good I am at it yet. I do notice that I have to, when I'm working on my outlines go, "Oh yeah. Horror stuff, too." [laughter]

I write so much through character. The second arc is already one of the strangest things I've ever written, and I think that's partly because I got a lot of establishing stuff done in the first arc. Establish the world and the rules of the story a little bit. Now with the second arc I get to play around with my own obsessions like growing up in the '70s. '70s Hollywood is really an interesting time for Hollywood, and America generally. Moving towards punk rock. Reagan's coming. The Manson Family had happened. Son Of Sam. That's a horrific time for America just in terms of our culture. I think a lot more of my real-world research comes out in that aspect, even though I'm fictionalizing everything.

And the nice thing is, much like noir, good horror comes from following characters through a story. They really do fit.


SPURGEON: The structure with the different time periods. I thought that contributed directly to the mood of it, even the horror aspect of it. There was the difficulty of putting the information together over different periods of time -- I thought that was an aid, the structure you chose?

BRUBAKER: Yeah. And I kind of love the idea of immortality being a tragic horror -- that you live forever. I think that part lends itself to adding something more to the story. At the end of the first arc when the guy goes to see his father and you realize that his father is in the insane asylum because of this woman somehow. It's nice to give hints of things to come that you may or may not learn. But I'm really into the fact that it's multi-generational and that these things are all linked.


SPURGEON: There's something terrifying about something with the force of history. Something 30 years in the making, 50 years in the making seems scarier than a lost weekend. Seeing entire generations messed up by something, it adds dread.

BRUBAKER: Sure. One of my favorite things about the process of doing this book the way we are, monthly, is that the end of the prologue part of issue one when the guy is sitting there and he's had his leg chopped off and he's reading the book. Everyone assumed that the next part of the story, that took place in the '50s, was the book he was reading. I knew that everyone was going to, and I knew when they got to issue #3, the opening when you learn what the book he's reading is, that people would be like, "So wait, this is all what really happens?"

SPURGEON: One other question about the basic look of Fatale is that this comic has really worked as a serial package -- you have supplementary material in there, too, generally smart, high-quality stuff. That's something you've done for a while. Is it important that Fatale work as a serial? I know that's sort of a rote question, but I think you execute that aspect of comics publishing as well as anyone out there.

BRUBAKER: Well, that's our thing. It's not cheap to pay these guys to color and draw the comics. And I love serialized comics when they're done right. I've felt for a long time that as the price started to go up that you needed to give people extras to make them not just excited that they're getting a good comic, but that they're getting a package that's worth owning. That's been our modus operandi on our singles since Criminal started, really, because we're living in the world of the "waiting for the trade" people. Now we're even living in the world of the "waiting for the deluxe hardback edition" people. There's literally a contingent of people that say they're going to wait five years from now.


SPURGEON: Now, you told me that you're wrapping up on Captain America.

BRUBAKER: Yeah. By the time this interview comes out, I will have written my last issue.

SPURGEON: Congratulations. And that's... eight years on Cap?

BRUBAKER: A little less than eight years. I think I started in August or September of 2004 writing my first issue, which came out in November of that year.

SPURGEON: So why now?

BRUBAKER: Partly, it's the beginning a shift from work-for-hire to books I own, instead. I hit a point with the work-for-hire stuff where I was starting to feel burned out on it. Like my tank is nearing empty on superhero comics, basically. It's been a great job, and I think I found ways to bring my voice to it, but I have a lot of other things I want to do as a writer, too, so I'm going to try that for a while instead.


SPURGEON: Now are you keeping Winter Soldier?

BRUBAKER:Yeah, I am. That's going to be my only Marvel book soon. I'll do The Winter Soldier as long as it lasts... or, I'll do it for as long as I can. [Spurgeon laughs] Because I don't know if it'll last, but I'm really proud of that book and the second and third storylines on it are some of my favorite stuff I've done for Marvel, ever.

SPURGEON: What's the nature of your attachment to the Captain America comic, then? Is it just pride in a job well done? Certainly you've done well with the character in terms of when you look at all the creators that have spent time with that book your eight-year run seems like a success. And you have had success sales-wise, particularly with the "Death of Captain America" issue and some of the issues around there. So certainly you've done well with the book. Do you have a pride in the job, do you like the character, do you like the platform...?

BRUBAKER: It's a mix of stuff. There's a nostalgic aspect to it. I can vividly remember buying my first issue of Captain America when I was like four years old at the PX in Gitmo. I remember the exact issue. I still own it to this day -- not the exact copy but that issue -- I've never spent more than 20 cents. Every time I've bought it I've been able to get it at cover price.

SPURGEON: Wait, which one is it?

BRUBAKER: #156. Two Caps rushing at each other. The Cap from the '50s fighting modern Cap.

SPURGEON: So [writer Steve] Englehart, I'd guess.

BRUBAKER: It was like the third Englehart issue, I think. So there's a certain nostalgia to it. I grew up on military bases reading Captain America comics and always kind of liked Captain America regardless of the spottiness of the runs that would happen. A Captain America fan in the '70s, you had the Englehart run which was great at the time and then there were a lot of other comics and then you had the [John] Byrne and [Roger] Stern run which was great and then there was a bunch of other comics [Spurgeon laughs] and there was a [J.M.] DeMatteis run with Mike Zeck, which was pretty great for a while. That was probably the end of buying the book as a kid for me, the end of that run.

There's a certain amount of pride in wanting to follow in those guys' footsteps. And let's face it, when you're doing a book like that and you're successful, you pretty much get to do what you want. I never had anybody ever order me to do anything on Captain America. I never had to do anything I didn't want to do with that book. When you're on a character for that long, you sort of have proprietorship of it. You know that Marvel owns the character, but you lie to yourself to a certain amount that you're the one in charge. And if you lie effectively enough and do good enough stuff, you are the one in charge. [Spurgeon laughs]

That's the nature of comics. They have to come out every month. Sometimes, if you just do a good job, no one will fuck with you. [laughs] The deadline that is your enemy can also be your friend. As long as your books have to ship every month and you're doing something cool... the worst thing that ever happened to me was being told I couldn't use some character because they were in Thunderbolts or something.


SPURGEON: Monsters. [Brubaker laughs]

BRUBAKER: So there's a certain amount of that. Honestly, it was to the point I'd take on other projects here and there, like Secret Avengers, and I'd get three or four issues in and I'd be like, "What am I doing? Why am I doing this? This is so not in my wheelhouse."

It's just kind of funny: writing Cap became second nature to me. And I think about 90 percent of the stuff I did I would hold up to any other comics that were coming out.

SPURGEON: What do you like about it? What do you think is laudatory? Are you in that place where you can say, "I did that, and I did that very well."

BRUBAKER: I think I got to tell a long story. In the early days, I got to create a big soap opera about Steve Rogers and Bucky and Sharon Carter and keep this thrilling adventure ride going. And each arc bled into the next. Then we did the "Death of Cap" thing and I go to really do an 18-part story that still didn't end with Cap coming back to life yet. [laughs] I got to do some stuff that was really challenging. I got work with some great artists. Steve Epting, he probably drew 35 issues of my run in the early days. I think we developed a really great collaboration. And I always liked that kind of epic storytelling.

"The Death of Captain America" turned out to be the best thing that happened to the book in ways because everything we were able to do after that, because the main character wasn't in the book, was so much more interesting than when he was in the book. It was a total curveball and you didn't know what was going to come next. There was a lot of fun to be had in it, and at the same time it was driven by these characters that were characters I had an attachment to from childhood.


SPURGEON: When I read a bunch of your Captain Americas recently, I was surprised how somber it was. [Brubaker laughs] I don't mean that it was depressing or sad, I mean serious and sober... kind of moody, which is weird for a big, bright comic book character like that. How did you get there? When you write Captain America, do you end up thinking about America all the time?

BRUBAKER: You think about it a lot more than you should. [laughter]

SPURGEON: So did you feel like America needs to be depicted with a frowny-face for a while? This would be one of those downer BBC series if it were on TV, Ed. It's not a happy place, Cap's corner of the super-universe.

BRUBAKER: That is the tone I wanted to bring to it, that kind of 24 meets Tom Clancy aspect. That really for me came from those Englehart issues and the Steranko issues. Captain America in those comics was always doing the right thing and it was always costing him. He carries the weight of a country on his shoulders.

imageSPURGEON: Don't they team you up with a writer to transition out of these titles? Like baton pass it to them?

BRUBAKER: That's not on purpose for this one. That was a situation with scheduling. Marvel is trying to do this thing now that with some of their better-selling books they want to get out more copies per year than 12. They want to get out 15 or 18 issues. Amazing Spider-Man's been doing more than one a month for a while now; someone I know does Uncanny X-Men or one of those books, and that comes out 18 times a year.

I couldn't keep up with that schedule, honestly. I knew I was getting to the end of my run. I wanted to wrap up my run earlier. And [Marvel Senior Vice President Of Publishing] Tom [Brevoort] was like, "Well, you're going to leave a bunch of plot lines dangling... do you want to go out like that? It'll seem like you threw up your hands and said 'I can't keep up with this schedule.'" I was like, "No, I don't want to go out that way." So we brought in Cullen Bunn to write an arc with me. I gave him a list of a bunch of stuff. "Here's all the dangling plot threads and here's where we need them all to be by the time I get to my last issue." And then we figured out a storyline together.

It's strange. I did all these issues as an uninterrupted run. Then there's four issues co-written by someone. Then there's a last issue. [laughs] It's a little odd.

SPURGEON: Hey, they usually bring in a second showrunner on the last couple seasons of hit TV shows, right?

BRUBAKER: He's the John Wells of my West Wing. [laughter] It's not a hostile thing, certainly. I was involved in choosing him and stuff. It was just down to I was doing two monthly books at Marvel both of which needed multiple issues per month because of the way the scheduling had gotten. And I was writing a screenplay at the same time that was due. I was like, "My screenplay is due in three weeks. And I have all of these comics to write. There's no way this will happen without me dying." I didn't want to die. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Tell me this. You've worked this specific period for Marvel. I don't follow the mainstream books as closely as I would if this were the main focus of the site. It seems to me, though, that this period has been distinguished by a pretty deep writer's bench for Marvel. There are a lot of you guys that are talented, that are working on those books for Marvel.

BRUBAKER: I definitely think... they've got Jason Aaron, and Jonathan Hickman and Matt Fraction and Rick Remender. Obviously Brian Bendis, who writes so many comics I can't understand how he possibly keeps up. Kieron Gillen... all of these guys are talented guys. I'm leaving some out -- Jeff Parker. There's a lot of really good writers doing multiple books a month up there.

And it's such an interesting time in mainstream comics to me because of how in flux it feels. DC had a massive shake-up. Marvel's ramped up production on everything. It seems a little crazy sometimes. [laughs] I wonder from the outside if it looks as much like as it feels like it on the inside.

SPURGEON: Is there something you see we don't? We certainly saw the result of those changes at DC.

BRUBAKER: When I was at DC... sales weren't necessarily great, but they were fairly stable. There was a certain amount of stability. Both DC and Marvel had stability, it felt like. But two years ago there started to be what seemed like freefall for a lot of books. My personal theory -- This happened to coincide [laughs] with the books suddenly costing $3.99 as opposed to $2.99. I think that was when you started to see some books really fall. On the other side, there's the argument that the best-selling books for the past ten years have been the $3.99 books.

It's hard to say who's right or who's wrong on some of this stuff. But sales on these books were going down below what DC and Marvel would have found acceptable even a few years ago. So that stability just feels like it's missing all of a sudden.

I mean, imagine how lucky I was to write the same book for eight years. That doesn't happen a lot anymore. Brian Bendis has been writing Avengers for like nine years now. He's written more issues of Avengers than any other person. It's rarer and rarer to have these long runs on books.

imageSPURGEON: Is it that they can't do this, or that they don't do this? Does the infrastructure no longer match up with these traditional strengths? Do you have any hunch as to the cause of this discombobulation?

BRUBAKER: I can only talk for myself and my friends. Matt Fraction is one of my best friends. Brian Bendis is one of my best friends. They've both done really long runs on Iron Man and Avengers. Brian's done Ultimate Spider-Man for 12 years or something. It can happen.

I think it comes down to finding that chemistry with a character or an artist. Brian had Mark Bagley on like 120 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man. It becomes rarer and rarer to find that kind of artist. I think that's when you find that groove, when you get a regular team. If not for Epting on Captain America, I don't know that I would have been successful on that book. The ideas I brought to it, they jibed with what he wanted to draw. So finding that artist you really click with... that's why I've been going back to the same artists over and over again. Michael Lark and Sean and Steve Epting... I can't wait to work with Steve Epting again on something.

SPURGEON: It seems like in the model you're proposing, you can trace that when we were kids, and it seems like that when you were waiting for the creative teams to click there was nothing like a freefall when it didn't happen. Titles sold a certain amount automatically. You could wait for a Frank Miller to show up on Daredevil because the title was never going to sell that poorly. Now it seems unless you luck into that formula, there's a real chance that it drops all the way out of the marketplace.

BRUBAKER: And then it's gone for a few years until there's a new number one. Yeah, I miss the way it used to be. [laughter] Obviously I do because I'm obsessed with comics and nostalgia. My favorite era of mainstream comics was when every character had just one comic, or the odd character that was really popular had two. They had the same writers for years and years and years. They had the same artists for years and years and years. The occasional fill-in. These people got to tell a story. There were no events and crossovers.

SPURGEON: Now, do a lot of your peers think about this stuff, this industry in flux?

BRUBAKER: It's hard to speak for other people. I do kind of want to [Spurgeon laughs] but I don't. But I think there's a certain amount of anxiety that I didn't feel as much two or three years ago. Maybe I didn't feel it as much because I was in this rarefied air of doing some of the better-selling books at Marvel. I'm pretty well-established in the field, so maybe things felt stable to me when they didn't to people who were getting their books axed.

But I don't talk to too many people about this because I've been moving in my own direction, knowing that I was winding down the superhero work-for-hire part of my career.

SPURGEON: For you to say it like that really puts it into perspective, but this sounds like a key transitional period for you, maybe as key as they come. Can you talk about the decision to move in that direction?

BRUBAKER: It was less of a decision and more just following my instincts, trying to make sure I'm only writing things I really want to write. I used to have a lot of ideas for superhero stories, and they scratched a real old-fashioned pulp writer itch for a long time. But the past few years, I've wanted more and more to just focus on my own projects, and most of my ideas have been for new things, or things outside comics. I remember just sitting there with my Cap notebook, trying to figure out what to do after the next arc was finished, and suddenly I just was like, "I think I'm done here" and it was this huge relief. I talked to Dan Buckley at Marvel, and told him what I was thinking, and he was really supportive of me, really great about it. I mean, I know I'm still going to be doing the Winter Soldier for a while, potentially a long while, but this feels like a major change, anyway.

SPURGEON: How much do the opportunities you're seeing now in Los Angeles particularly with film work play a role in this? For that matter, how much a part of that has been your ambition all along? I know you're about as comics of a guy as they come, but I have to imagine that for a writer there's a natural desire to work in other areas, too.

BRUBAKER: They definitely played a part, because the movie gig and some TV work really helped me worry less about the risks. But I've been going down to L.A. for about ten years, writing and pitching, having things almost happen. But about two years ago, I wrote a pilot for FOX, and that was kind of a turning point. Then things started happening, and eventually the movie deal for Coward went through, with me attached to write it. So all that, along with how well me and Sean are doing with Fatale, all of that played a part. But, you know, I have no desire whatsoever to leave comics. Like you said, I'm a comics guy. They're one of the constants in my life, so I'll always do comics.

SPURGEON: What does a move towards working on your own material mean in terms of where you are creatively? What satisfies you about working on the material over which you have greater control than the idea of writing where there are prescriptions and limitations? Because sometimes the freedom can be paralyzing, too.

BRUBAKER: I've got no problems with the limitations of mainstream comics, really. Limitations can help you. And it's not even really about the control, because I've always been good at lying to myself that I own Cap and Bucky. It's just literally following my creativity where it wants to go. I'm happier when I'm writing Fatale, even when I'm agonizing over every word of it, so I have to follow that path. I wish this were a more dramatic story for you, but Marvel have treated me really well over the past 8 years. I'm just ready for a change.


SPURGEON: The natural progression from us talking about you moving away from company-owned work is to engage this recent spate of creator's rights talk. You're working with a Jack Kirby character -- the original Kirby character...

BRUBAKER: Well, Joe Simon would say he co-created Captain America.

SPURGEON: He would? [laughter]

BRUBAKER: Simon might actually take full credit, depending on his mood when you asked. It's just funny that everyone refers to him as Kirby-only, when it's Simon and Kirby.

SPURGEON: My bad. The reason that Kirby gets mentioned, I think, is because talk of Kirby can pivot to the Kirby family lawsuit.


imageSPURGEON: There's been a lot of attention that's been made to Marvel's deals with various creators, and whether or not these are ethical. Do you have a perspective you want to share, as someone who's in there working on these kinds of characters? Do these issues matter to you?

BRUBAKER: They do matter to me. I also worked at DC for a long time on characters that were probably co-created by Bill Finger without him getting anything for them. You know when you work on these company-owned characters that there's a history there, a lot of it ugly and unfair to the creators. So you go in eyes wide open to that past. And that's the problem, poor treatment of creators, that's supposed to be the past, not the present.

And now with Before Watchmen you're seeing people weighing in on Alan Moore, saying he's a hypocrite. "He's mad about this, but he used to work on Swamp Thing or Superman." But if you actually read interviews with Alan Moore, he'll talk about the fact that the more work he did on that stuff, the harder a time he had with doing it. So obviously, his views evolved through his personal experience, as views tend to do.

But apparently there's some kind of moral absolutism where he's now not allowed to have an opinion. But I mean, murderers can still think murder is bad. Not really an apt comparison, I know. [laughter] But I remember I said something on Twitter -- something sort of snarky about Before Watchmen. Someone said, "Well, you're hardly in a position to judge, since you're living on Jack Kirby's stolen properties." [Spurgeon laughs] So apparently I don't get an opinion, either.

SPURGEON: Now, as I understand it, you see the Moore stuff differently because of his outright objection to exactly what is being done, in addition to how the deal was set up.

BRUBAKER: Yeah. To me, there's a difference between working on something like Watchmen, and creating characters for a company that you know are going to be owned by that company going forward. I don't recall a time when Jack Kirby was standing there saying, "They promised me I'd own The Avengers; nobody should be doing this."

What I remember, from when I was becoming aware of this stuff in the '80s, is that Jack wanted his art back and he wanted a percent of the money generated from his creations. I don't recall Jack Kirby ever suggesting that someone shouldn't do Captain America. And I can't recall Marvel Comics ever holding up the Avengers as a victory for creator's rights like DC did with Watchmen.

So I think there's a clear distinction between the Jack Kirby thing and the Alan Moore thing. And I want to be very clear, I'm not trying to diminish Jack Kirby's contributions to Marvel Comics, which are immense, or say that he shouldn't have gotten more for his creations and co-creations, because I think he should have. But I don't think the situation is the same as what's going on with Watchmen.

At the same time, I've always felt good about the fact that the credits for Captain America say, "created by Simon and Kirby" and that Marvel had settled with Simon and Kirby -- not Kirby himself, but Kirby's heirs -- over Cap. So they are getting something from the Avengers movie, because of that. But the other stuff is all tied up in that huge lawsuit, so Marvel can't even publicly discuss any of these issues.


SPURGEON: Were you surprised with the Moore part of the situation, not so much that some people had principled reactions to what Moore might or might not want with these books but that there was a reaction on the level of "Screw that guy"? Because that kind of reaction surprised me. I get some of the arguments against what Moore is claiming; I may not agree with them, but I get them. The summary dismissal, though, I found dismaying. Were you surprised at all by the violence of the reaction?

BRUBAKER: Yeah, completely. Partly because even four or five years ago, Alan Moore was revered in comics, regardless of any fights he had with publishers or fallings out he'd had. He's been nominated for more awards than anyone in the history of the medium, I think. And then he gives a few cranky interviews about the mainstream comics market from the point of view of someone who clearly wasn't aware of what was going on in it, and people were suddenly like, "Fuck that guy."

I was surprised by the bloodthirstiness, and I was surprised how much I cared about the issue, too. But the PR that came out... Some of the stuff JMS was saying in preemptive defense of the project... A lot of it made me kind of vomit in my mouth. The way that fans attacked Alan Moore -- "screw him, he signed a shitty contract!" -- and the debates back and forth about how he's done the same things with League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen so he can't complain... which just... that makes no sense. An author always has the right to complain about the treatment of their work. You don't forfeit that when you write an issue of Superman. To see that reaction from the fan base was disheartening. You expect them to be on the side of the creator.

But the thing that really bugged me was when Watchmen was announced it was, coincidentally, that same summer the entire industry rallied around Jack Kirby against Marvel. It was the era of the "Creator's Rights Revolution" and DC really used Watchmen at the time. Part of the PR was that it was creator-owned, that these guys would get this property back. DC used it to position themselves against Marvel as the more creator-friendly company.

I was at the San Diego Comic-Con the year that Alan Moore was there. I saw him talk about Watchmen and what a revolutionary thing it was that they'd gotten this deal for it. Part of it felt like a promise to the industry that things were changing. That this was different. And so while the book never went out of print and they never got their ownership, I always felt that on some level Paul Levitz seemed to respect the spirit of the deal: that they had created this thing and while DC officially owned it, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had moral ownership of it, at least.

So to see this happen over the objection of the guy who wrote it, and then to see the responses, "Well, Alan Moore didn't really create those characters anyway; they're just the Charlton characters." Or "He did the same thing with Lost Girls. Would the people who created those characters be happy with the way Alan Moore treated them?" I don't think he was positioning Lost Girls as an official, in-continuity sequel to those author's books, for one, but I think two of them are on the record as saying they don't give a shit what anyone does with their characters. And clearly DC doesn't think the Watchmen characters are just the Charlton heroes, because they copyrighted and trademarked them as totally different characters.

Batman began as The Shadow but he's clearly a different character. Where a character begins doesn't take away from what they end up becoming. Creation is a process. Lots of our favorite things began as some writer doing their take on some idea or character. And you don't know until they tell you -- "yeah, this character is like Punisher crossed with Tigra but with my views on animal rights" -- just like with Watchmen it wasn't until Moore and Gibbons revealed the process, that it had begun as a pitch for the MLJ and then the Charlton heroes, that anyone made the connection.


SPURGEON: There's this assumption that corporations are going to do evil things, and we scramble to find a justification along the lines of what's allowable or arguable. We don't argue best outcomes. We argue what people can do rather than what they should do.

BRUBAKER: Yeah. You're naive if you want people to do the right thing. "Get over it, man. The Tyrell Corporation makes replicants. That's life."

SPURGEON: Which seems even odder to argue in this case because we've just gone through 25 years of this corporation not doing this.

BRUBAKER: Yeah, it looks especially bad that Watchmen was this special thing they left alone, they let it be a novel, which is what it was.

Really, though, the saddest part for me is the "fuck Alan Moore; he signed a shitty contract" thing. That's really, really sad. When JMS at the Chicago Comicon -- or wherever that was -- said, "Did Alan Moore get a shitty contract? Yes. Jack Kirby got a shitty contract, too." That really, to me, when I was reading that I was like "Holy shit." Siegel's and Shuster's and Kirby's shitty deals are now being used to defend a project as opposed to...

SPURGEON: ... indict a company.

BRUBAKER: Yeah. Usually, that would be the opposite. Are we living in opposite-land now? "So and so got a shitty contract, too, so just get over it." Like I said, the poor treatment of creators by "the Big Two" was supposed to be part of the past. They'd changed their policies to be more creator-friendly, so things like this weren't supposed to happen anymore. And yet here it is, the only time during my entire career where we've seen the writer of a book standing there saying "I don't want this thing to happen." And people are just giving him the finger.

imageSPURGEON: Do you think the situation with Steve Gerber and the Omega The Unknown property was similar?

BRUBAKER: You're right. He was angry about that. He said Jonathan Lethem had made an enemy for life. Jonathan Lethem called him up and talked to him about it because he didn't know Steve Gerber wanted to do more Omega. They ended up talking amicably, from what I gathered. There wasn't a big controversy over it. But yeah, you're right. Gerber is kind of the outlier of all this stuff.

The thing is, I'm glad JMS said what he did, because while it appalled me at the time, there's an inherent truth to what he said. And it actually sparked a lot of people thinking about these issues more than they were doing. I think they had written it off. "Dave Gibbons is okay with it, and Alan Moore is a cranky old man, so fuck him." Then JMS said that thing, and people started re-examining the whole thing. [laughs]

SPURGEON: Isn't that the hopeful part of this? That this is a stop-and-reconsider moment for a lot of creators and interested fans? Because you couldn't get a conversation going about creators rights a year ago. People thought that all of those issues were taken care of.

BRUBAKER: Yeah. They seemed like settled issues and now suddenly the entire industry is talking about them again.

But that all feels naïve, too. I mean, once you get established in comics, you know to create your own material and not give up ownership to a publisher. I don't know any established pro that isn't currently planning or doing a project they have complete ownership of. That's one of the reasons Sean and I started Criminal at Icon way back when, because we were at a point where we didn't need to give away anything to get it published. So it's not like comics needed this reminder, or like the next Alan Moore was waiting in line to give his next big thing to DC. You know giving away half the ownership and all the control isn't a great deal.

Something that I was thinking about was what DC could have done when the market changed and they realized Watchmen was never going to go out of print? Because they could have altered the deal if they wanted, to be more fair to Dave and Alan. I mean, the book was in profit when the single issues were coming out, so it's not like DC took some huge risk on Watchmen. Alan Moore was their best writer and it was one of their bestselling things. The trade paperback was immediately a perennial best seller. They could have said, "Okay, we've made ten times our initial investment back, so we're going to give you guys 50 percent of profits from now on." They could have said they'd keep it in print and give them control over what happens to it. And who knows, Before Watchmen might have still happened. Because Dave Gibbons signed off on it... He made that one public statement.

imageSPURGEON: No one can speak to his intention, but that was one bleak endorsement.

BRUBAKER: Well, I don't know how Dave Gibbons feels, but in my own experience, with Sleeper, you kind of get used to the fact that you don't own your work when you realize you've made a bad deal. [laughs] If I'd owned Sleeper, my whole life would be different now. Other opportunities would have opened for me long ago.

But that's all hindsight. It's really easy to look at things and say, "Wow, I should have done this; I should have done that." Whereas in '99 when Scott Dunbier asked me to create a monthly comic for WildStorm, nobody else was asking for me to create something like Sleeper. So it's easy to look back and go, "I wish I had made a different deal."

Still, Dave did give them an okay, and I think if Dave Gibbons were objecting the same way Alan Moore is, it most likely wouldn't exist. At least, I don't think so. Although, I don't know, maybe they wouldn't care? It's hard to imagine, but the whole situation is.

SPURGEON: It's hard to talk about Before Watchmen because it's an absurd thing.

BRUBAKER: It really is. I feel like this is the weirdest, most surreal thing that's happened since I've been in comics professionally.

And I want to be very clear here, too, that I have no ill will toward anybody who's working on this project. I have friends working on this and I don't begrudge any of them doing it. It's a tough industry to make a living in, and it's a pretty scary time to be a professional in this industry. And they don't have to view it the same way I do. They don't have to make a distinction between this and any other company-owned job. And I assume they knew going in that not everyone would view it the same way they do.

But what I can't get beyond is the way DC is sort of rewriting history here, and pretending like they didn't say Watchmen was this great new deal. It was supposed to be the thing that was different than Superman, different than Howard the Duck, and in the end, it wasn't at all.


* Fatale Volume One: Death Chases Me, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Image, softcover, 144 pages, APR120439, 9781607065630, 2012, $14.99.
* Fatale #6, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Image, comic book, 32 pages, 2012, $3.50.
* Ed Brubaker on Twitter


* the cover to the new trade
* a photo of Brubaker by Tom Spurgeon
* a panel from pretty early on in the new book, I think
* a couple of arresting single panels from Sean Phillips
* the cover in question
* one of the overt blendings of supernatural and crime/noir: these terrifying thugs
* two scenes where the sense of scope and time is called upon and used
* from Brubaker's Captain America
* from Brubaker's Winter Soldier
* the first issue of Captain America Brubaker bought -- he still has a copy
* issues from the runs Brubaker liked on the title as a young man
* a somber moment -- among many -- in Brubaker's Captain America run
* from one of the issues recently written in partnership with Cullen Bunn
* Steve Epting art
* a panel that harkens back to the character's origin/first appearances
* three panels from Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
* the original Omega The Unknown
* from Sleeper, not owned by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
* the latest issue; you should try it out -- things get weird (below)