For non-comic book readers that are just into movies or new comic book readers that haven’t yet traversed backwards in time to discover what laid the foundation for what is now, you might not know the name Steven Grant. The hardcore, old fuddy-duddy (you know, like the comic book guy from the Simpsons) types like myself know him for the fill-ins he was constantly asked to do on books like Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One, The Avengers, and so on. Or quite possibly his work on The Punisher or a couple of titles at DC comics in the 1990’s. Either way, you need to know his name and his work, because he’s a good guy, and has taken on just about every genre in comics and got the job done!
I had the opportunity (quite frankly I had some dirt on Steven, so he had no choice…just kidding!) to talk with Steven about his career in comics, and beyond! Some of the great relationships he has with other creators, and even working for Jim Steranko! Yep, this guy has done it all, and is still producing work to this day! Get ready, because this one is awesome!
Billy: Can you talk about your early days as a writer, and if the comic book medium was even a thought? Also, if you were a reader in your youth, can you talk about what titles you were hooked on?
Steven: Until my late teens comics were always on my mind. The first one I ever remember seeing was a Dell Lone Ranger – Tom Gill must’ve been the artist – at the barber shop my dad took me too. I was tremendously unimpressed. I was four or five. A couple of years later I was laid out with one of the childhood diseases that put you down for a week – measles, mumps or chicken pox, I forget which one. This was still back when TVs were too big to move from room to room, so my dad decided I could use some entertainment & bought me an All-Star Western, from DC Comics. I think it was #116 Image below, cover by Gil Kane), whichever one had the first adventure of Super-Chief. The book had a lot more long-range influence on me than I knew at the time. It was my first exposure to my all-time favorite comics artist, Gil Kane, who I was much later fortunate enough to work with & become good friends with. Which was really kind of weird, considering I was 7 when I first saw his work.
But what really influenced me was a full-page house ad for Justice League Of America 5, “When Gravity Went Wild.” It screamed in huge letters JUST IMAGINE! The mightiest heroes of our time, then listed Superman! Batman! Flash! Green Lantern! etc. etc. have banded together… I had never heard of any of them, the whole thing was completely outside any frame of reference I had, but I saw that ad and I HAD to get that book. I remember being on tenterhooks for the remainder of the week, and the instant I was able I got down to the local Rennebohm’s (drugstore), where they sold comics out of a slot machine that was sort of a glass-enclosed spinner rack – this was when comics were still a dime – and the next issue was already out. I bought that instead. It was years before I finally read #5.
It was intriguing. The next comic I bought was maybe the most famous DC Silver Age comic there is, The Flash 123, the one that brought back the Golden Age Flash and introduced the parallel Earth concept that has tortured the DC Universe ever since. But it was cool. Had a brief bought with Superman & Batman after that, in Worlds Finest 130 & an old-school Detective Comics whose number I don’t remember, but found the Julie Schwarz books more interesting. Comics distribution was really iffy, so you could go ages without running across two consecutive issues of a comic then. I got JLA #7 then didn’t see another issue until #12, I think, whichever one introduced Dr. Light (image below). It was all very new & strange. Then I found Green Lantern #9, which introduced the Green Lanterns Of The Universe & maybe the Guardians – it was the first time Hal Jordan goes to Oa – & it was like someone switched the volume up to 11. After that, I pretty much read every Julie Schwartz comic I could get my hands on, and a lot of other DC Comics besides. Oddly, I was particularly fond of Sugar & Spike. Anything Gil or Carmine drew I wanted. JLA, of course. For a superhero fan that was the motherlode.
I didn’t read Marvel at first. I remember seeing Fantastic Four #10 at a Red Owl supermarket while waiting for my mother to finish shopping. I thought it was ugly as sin (sorry, Kirby fans) & immediately considered Marvel comics second-rate. Until I ran into Amazing Spider-Man with #9, introducing Electro. Besides Ditko’s art being fascinatingly weird in a way I couldn’t get out of my head, Electro starts out as a telephone company lineman. My dad was a telephone company lineman, & even though Electro was the villain there was something oddly vindicating about the confluence. DC Comics were fully of things completely outside my experience but this was like something colliding with my actual life in a way I’d never thought about. I instantly became a huge Ditko fan, but, again, read all the Marvels I could get my hands on.
I read most comics, really. Notable exceptions were Dell Comics, which generally struck me as drab, and Harvey Comics. I didn’t like the Saturday morning cartoons, I didn’t like the comics. I know I read a few romance comics here & there, but not a lot of them. Classics Illustrated generally bored the hell out of me, it was like they went out of their way to avoid being exciting. I was Catholic, so saw a lot of Treasure Chest comics but I don’t remember a damn thing about any of them. Another company desperate to keep your temperature down.
This continued for most of my youth. I read a lot, collected a lot of comics. Green Lantern & Amazing Spider-Man were always the biggest ones for me, but I went through a lot of phases. But from 6 or 7 on, I was reading everything. I’d started reading novels and fairly lengthy non-fiction, stuff not aimed at kids, when I was 6. Comics were just part of the mix. By my early teens I’d fallen into coming up with characters & plots of my own, I was always interested in story mechanics & such even when I didn’t know it, & I did think about writing comics then. By the time I got done with college I wasn’t all that interested anymore. Of course, that’s when I ended up in comics.
The other huge influence was in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, when underground comix hit. People largely dismiss them as a failure these days, but they forget that prior to the Supreme Court obscenity decision that pretty much shut them down, they were phenomenally successful. Sales on Those Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers by 1970 left Amazing Spider-Man sales in the dust. They were an enormous breath of fresh air: sex, drugs, politics, surrealism, all kinds of material straight comics wouldn’t go near. They forced tons of changes. The Comics Code would never have started crumbling had it not been for the underground books forcing straight comics to try to keep up in the feeble ways open to them. Had the political climate not become extremely hostile to their survival, I believe they’d have put straight comics out of business by the late ‘70s. Prior to them there was already an air of rebellion brewing in comics, a shift from the repetition of corporate comics formula by things like Wally Wood’s Witzend, Gil Kane’s His Name Is… Savage, Ditko’s Mr. A stuff. Material that was near & dear to creators’ hearts. Much more irreverence, in keeping with the rising tide of discontent with many things we were previously expected to just accept about life in America. Around the same time, a number of fanzines like Graphic Story Magazine & Spa Fon shifted from the superhero worship that epitomized ‘60s fandom to a much more critical aesthetic approach I found really bracing. Undergrounds took it all up a few notches. I never lost my interest in corporate comics, but my interests in them shifted from generalities to specifics, to the work of certain writers & artists, & especially to newer concepts & styles that were clearly closer to the talents’ hearts. Once the undergrounds were buried under, the stress on corporate comics was somewhat lifted & they quickly backtracked to things they were more comfortable with, mostly soft superhero comics. By the mid-70s, comics were screamingly bland & programmatic, with a few exceptions. But even then the effects of undergrounds lingered. They spawned the “ground-level” comics like Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach, & several self-publishing efforts. By the end of the ‘70s, you have things like Eclipse Comics & Dave Sim’s Cerebus eating at the edges of straight comics, & though no one in New York saw them as any kind of threat, their influence was strongly felt on the ‘80s. But the late ‘60s/early ‘70s was an extremely interesting time for comics that’s very hard to explain now. Things were going on very little since has come anywhere near approaching.
Billy: I’d love for you to talk about some of your relationships/influences in the industry throughout the years, specifically guys like Roger Stern, Jim Steranko, Gil Kane, Greg Laroque, Mike Zeck, Warren Ellis, etc.?
Steven: (Roger Stern): Roger & I go back to the mid-‘70s, in Chicago. I grew up in Madison, WI. He grew up in Noblesville IN, near Indianapolis. He’d met Bob Layton, who was publishing a fanzine called CPL at the time. Contemporary Pictorial Literature. C. 1972, a Madison friend named Bruce Ayres (who later founded Capital City Comics, one of the first comics-only shops in the Midwest, which ended up having a big effect on the Midwestern comics scene) & I published a couple of issues of a fanzine called The Vault Of Mindless Fellowship, a line stolen from the Firesign Theater. Basically forgettable & with very little circulation, it somehow got known. Meanwhile, I’d connected with Denis Kitchen & had prepared an underground comic right at the moment the Supreme Court issued the 1973 obscenity ruling that pretty much killed underground commix, because it meant they’d have to fight obscenity lawsuits in every single jurisdiction, an economically prohibitive prospect. In fact, I was in Denis’ Milwaukee office when the ruling came down. Anyway, at the downtown YMCA in Chicago every month, there was a one day Sunday comics convention/swap meet. I went down there with Bruce, who was by then starting up a back issue business, & Roger came up from Indianapolis with Bob. The lynchpin was a Chicago guy named George Breo who was trying to start a publishing company called Windy City Comics. I approached him with the dead Kitchen Sink book. George was getting art from some guy up in the Canadian wilderness named John Byrne, so, in hopes of getting us to create something for him, he hooked me up with John & I corresponded with him for several years. John, as it happened, also contributed to CPL, & told me I should look up Roger at the next show I went to. I did. We hit it off pretty much right away. Bob too. Corresponded with Roger after that too, & started writing for CPL & it’s eventual short-lived sister magazine Charlton Bullseye.
Other CPL contributors like Tony Isabella, Roger Slifer & Duffy Vohland had already made the shift to pro. I think Bob was next, moving to Connecticut as art assistant for both Wally Wood & Dick Giordano. I know he was trying to keep the fanzines going, but realistically one just can’t, short of massive doses of amphetamines. Roger then got hired to be an assistant editor at Marvel & moved to New York. I found this intriguing, not because I especially wanted to write comics at that point – Roger & I mutually agreed I probably did not have the right mindset by that point to write Marvel comics in particular – but because I wanted to get the hell out of Madison. I started going to New York two or three times a year for a week or so, & Roger was kind enough to let me crash on his couch when I did. That’s what you did in those days, because nobody had any money. In April 1978, my then-girlfriend was going to New York over Easter to apply for a job, so I took the opportunity to go with. Fortunately by then Roger, who’d been promoted to editor under the newly born Shooter regime, had moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, making the prospect a lot more fun. I called Roger to ask if his couch with free. He said, “When do you get here?” I said, “Late Sunday night.” He said, “Be ready to write a Marvel Two-In-One (#52, 1979, image below- cover by Pérez and Sinnott) on Monday morning.” He’d been assigned the book, which was so late he was willing to get stories from anywhere available. Had I at that point been dreaming of writing for Marvel Comics, Marvel Two-In-One wouldn’t have been what I’d been dreaming of. But I thought it would be an interesting experience, so of course I did it. Because – by total coincidence – I shared a named with Moon Knight, I decided to use him (someone else I had NO interest in, name aside) & wanted to narrate it first person. The oddness of it appealed to me. It was passable but that’s the best I’m willing to say about it – my part, not the art – & thought not a lot about it after I did it. Until I got the check. It occurred to me that, even though I got the basest base rate available, it was still more money than I was making otherwise. So I decided maybe I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
After moving to New York, though, I ended up crashing on Roger’s couch for eight straight months until I could finally find an apartment. It was a very bad rental market, I couldn’t even get really bad apartments. Eventually it strained our relationship, but Roger was always very gracious about it & there were a lot of ideas we chatted out there that eventually ended up in Marvel Comics. Forgive me if I decline to name any for political reasons. But Roger was always great. I probably owe my career to him more than anyone else, but anyone who hates my work, please don’t hold it against him. Everyone makes mistakes.
Jim Steranko: I wouldn’t really say I have a relationship with Jim. I doubt he knows who I am. I met him exactly twice, once in 1971 at the first con I ever attended, a Seuling July 4th Con. He ran an all-night seminar on writing comics that I eagerly paid $25 for; I think I still have the syllabus from the seminar somewhere. It was very good, but he spoke to me once during it & unfortunately I’d developed raging laryngitis and breathing felt like a flame thrower was burning through my throat, so I couldn’t really answer him & he moved on. He probably thought I was a shy little starstruck fanboy, which probably wasn’t far from the truth anyway. The second time we didn’t speak. It was at some other convention around 4:30AM. I was on my way to my room, the elevator door opened, and Steranko barreled out past me. He didn’t look at me, but he seemed bushed. Does that count as a meeting? But in 1980 he needed someone to take over writing the comics news section in Mediascene (or was it still Comicscene then?) & someone, I never knew who, recommended he contact me. So the phantom phone call came in, & there’s Steranko asking me to work for him. It was like getting a phone call from the President. You just say yes, sir, whatever you need, sir. Of course, as usual, I needed the money too. I did that for half a year or so. He decided to eliminate comics coverage sometime in ’81, but that was okay with me. Writing comics news gets pretty damn boring pretty quickly, & at that point there wasn’t a lot different going on. A couple of years later, things started exploding. I did talk to him on the phone fairly regularly; I ended up being who told him John Lennon had been murdered, & that hit him very hard. But I haven’t spoken to him since. He was always very nice to me, but it was employer-employee. I do regret I couldn’t finesse it into some other gig, but I can honestly say there was a time when Jim Steranko took my calls.
Mike Zeck: I’d say Mike’s probably one of my best friends in comics, but we really didn’t know each other before The Punisher. I’d first pitched that story to Marvel in 1976. It was another convention, over Christmas-New Year’s Week in New York City. Bob Layton found out I was going, & said I should stay with CPL alumnus Duffy Vohland, though I had never met him. Bob set it up. Duffy was immediately welcoming, more than happy to let me stay. He was great. But it came with a condition. He worked in production at Marvel, & he wanted me to pitch comics to Marvel. My interest was low at the time, but he insisted so I said okay. On his advice, I looked for characters I liked that they weren’t doing any specific with at the time, so one day while he was at work I sat in his kitchen typing up proposals for The Punisher, The Black Knight & I forget what the third one was. Marv Wolfman was editor-in-chief at the time – he doesn’t remember this at all, but why should he? – & since it was the dead week where very few people came in, I ended up in his office, again from Duffy’s machinations, the next day. Marv pretty much read them over, then told me they weren’t looking for anything then. It didn’t break my heart. Not sure what I’d have done had he accepted them. Duffy was disappointed, of course. I had a good time at the con & went home.
But I liked the Punisher & Black Knight stories, & when I started working for Marvel a couple of years later I tried pitching them again. The Black Knight, set at the time of the Crusades, I sold to Al Milgrom’s office almost instantly, though it ultimately didn’t see print until Marvel Fanfare #52-54 sometime in the ‘90s, & the intended conclusion to the whole long series pitch saw print in rather masticated form in Avengers 225-6. But the Punisher I couldn’t sell to anyone. No one wanted anything to do with it. I don’t recall whether I’d met Mike or not, but we’d previously worked together on Marvel Team-Up 94 & I really liked his work. It just felt like a good match. He was in demand, being the main artist on Secret Wars. Someone told me he’d finished that & hadn’t taken on any assignments yet, so, since I wasn’t completely unknown to him, I called to ask if he’d be willing to do a Punisher mini-series with me. As it happened, he & inker John Beatty were right at that moment in his TV room discussing what they should do next, & The Punisher had come up just before I called. We talked it over at considerable length & realized that we both pretty much wanted to go in the same direction with the character. At that time editorial policy was pitting the Marvel editorial offices against each other, with the concept they should be rivals with their own talent stables, & having Top Talent in your stable increased your stature with the company. Mike, coming off the company’s biggest book, was one of the Toppest Talents they had at that moment. I know Carl Potts, the editor we took it to, was interested in building an adventure line & had a fondness for the character, but I believe the prospect of Mike in his stable was the irresistible one. Carl still had to champion the series to get it accepted. I know he was told okay, but it was on his head. No one at Marvel besides Carl had any faith in the project.
But Mike & I hit it off. We’ve been good friends ever since, though, since we live on opposite sides of the country we don’t see each other much. We stay in touch, though. I’d like to have done a lot more work with him, but that’s comics. I’m glad for as much as we did. He’s semi-retired now but I’d work with him on anything (cover below by Zeck and Beatty).
Gil Kane: Let me start by saying I grew up idolizing Gil Kane. Everything about his work appealed to me from jump. He was one of the first artists whose name I knew & the first whose work I collected. His famous Alter Ego interview really started me thinking about comics aesthetically, really for the first time. His Name Is… Savage was a huge influence on my approach to The Punisher. When I became friends with Howard Chaykin, it fascinated me that he had been Gil’s assistant & knew him well. But I never met him. Several times Al Milgrom asked me to do stories specifically for Gil to draw, but they always ended up being drawn by someone else. At one point, when I first moved to Los Angeles, I discovered I lived half a block from Gil’s apartment. Several times when I walked past I thought about ringing his doorbell & introducing myself, but I just couldn’t picture how to pull that off without seeming like a stalker. I know I’m not fond of people ringing my doorbell & introducing themselves.
By ’93 it turned out he & I shared a lawyer, Harris Miller, in the days when comics sold well enough that talent could afford a lawyer. Harris put together a deal with Malibu Comics for a creator-owned/creator-controlled (supposedly; it didn’t work out that way) line, Bravura Comics, & Harris, knowing my fondness for Gil’s work, suggested we do a superhero comic together. So I finally met Gil Kane. He was reluctant, at first, until he realized I was not only very conversant with his art but with his commentary. That’s when I stopped being just another pretty face as far as he was concerned. And we very quickly became very good friends. After that we spoke at least once a week for the rest of his life. Again, I’d have liked to have worked with him a lot more, but it was an era where it was very hard to sell anything, when the market was spasming through severe contractions. I still got a lot of stuff I love out of it. He was a fabulous font of behind the scenes stories throughout comics history, & I learned tons from him. I wish I’d kept records of all the stories he told me, but Howard has assured me he did, so maybe there’s a book on the horizon someday. But Gil was wonderful; he was like getting a second father.
Greg LaRocque: I don’t know Greg at all. I never met him that I remember. He’s a guy who ended up drawing a lot of the stories I wrote for Marvel in the early ‘80s, but I almost never knew who’d be drawing stories when I wrote them. It almost never worked that way if you weren’t on a regular book, &, as above, often when you were told someone would be drawing a story someone else ended up drawing it. It was out of my control. The only times I specifically remember being told an artist would be drawing a story & they drew it were two Shroud stories I wrote for Steve Ditko (another dream come true) & a 4 page Moon Knight story for Kevin Nowlan to draw. Other than that… it could’ve been Greg, it could’ve been Sal Buscema, it could’ve been any artist off the street they wanted to try out. Most of the artists I wrote for I never met. Most of the artists I met I never wrote for.
Warren Ellis: I don’t quite remember how I met Warren. I know it was online, probably through Compuserve, which was a big comics community gathering place in the ‘90s, but however it happened one of us dropped an email to the other & we just got along. Warren, of course, was Mr. Online in the ‘90s & a decent chunk of C21D1. I don’t think any comics talent has ever more effectively mobilized the Internet to his advantage, & he did a huge service to comics doing it. He doesn’t get anywhere near enough credit for it. It has become popular in a lot of circles to crab about him, but Warren’s such a brilliant writer. What appealed to me a lot about his work was how disinterested he was, still is, in creating traditional comics, even while he gleefully & often cold-bloodedly milks comics traditions. Around ’96, we tried to get a line of crime comics off the ground, it was something both of us were very interested in though we had somewhat different approaches, which was fine. The idea was both of us would do two books each. Again, it was during the big contraction, no one wanted to take a risk on crime comics. I only met him in person once, at a San Diego Con, but we stayed in pretty close touch for a long time. Not so much anymore, but we still talk now & then. I still look forward to whatever he produces. He’s one of the very few people whose work I’ll go out of my way for. He puts on a good show of being a surly bastard, but he’s quite a lovely, generous man. He’ll threaten to have me killed now for saying that.
Howard Chaykin: I met Howard in ’73, I think it was, I believe at a convention in Toronto. He’d recently broken pro with things like Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser & Ironwolf, & was, I thought, the most interesting talent among a large crop flooding in at that time. I was very young, much too ambitious & naïve enough to think all I really needed was big dreams so I approached him out of the blue with the idea of adapting Dashiell Hammett stories into comics. Howard was very enthusiastic about that, had a notion of doing them in the “illustrated story” style pioneered by EC in their dying days, but, of course, I was never able to get permission from the Hammett estate so it was a DOA notion. But he was very friendly, & went on with his career. To his credit, I didn’t see him again for at least a couple of years but when I did he remembered me, & I think the next time I saw him after that was at San Diego in 1978, shortly after I’d made my first Marvel sale but before I moved to NYC, & he treated me like we’d been good pals all our lives. Once I moved to NYC later that year, we started going out for lunch fairly regularly. I will never say a bad word about Howard. He’s great, very quirky sense of humor, & a much more serious guy than he often comes off. No idea, really, why we got along, though I vaguely recall him saying something smart-assed to me & I smart-assed him back & he liked that, but that may be self-aggrandization substituting for memory. I do believe he’s arguably the most underrated influence on comics in the last 35 years; he blazed a LOT of trails. I certainly owe him a lot professionally. First Comics kept me alive for years, & it was Howard’s American Flagg! that really established them; losing him later was a loss, both in public relations & creatively, the company never recovered from. His Black Kiss at Vortex Comics led directly to Badlands, & Badlands became my entry to Dark Horse. There were other things in my career that sort of spun off from Howard’s; how things ended up for me would’ve been a lot different had he not been there. I don’t regret much but one of my professional regrets was that I couldn’t do better with American Flagg! when it descended to me, & while we’re still friendly I regret we haven’t kept in very close touch over the last couple decades, but it was a lot easier when we lived in Manhattan & Los Angeles at the same times. When he’s your friend he’s a great friend, & a challenge to keep up with intellectually. VERY smart guy. From my perspective, Howard’s work deserves all the praise in the world. What I’d really love to see is someone with money giving him carte blanche to produce whatever he wants instead of forcing him to tie into existing stuff the way he has in recent times. Pretty sure he still harbors ideas that can knock our socks off.
Archie Goodwin: Archie was great. I was never all that close to Archie – we didn’t hang out after hours or anything like that – but he was another generous guy, always very happy to let me hang around the Epic offices & kibitz. Had a series I was going to do for Epic but I couldn’t get an artist for it. I knew him a little but started working with him when he decided to introduce various columns into Epic magazine. Someone, I’ve no idea who, suggested me for a column on games. I was woefully ill-equipped & uninspired for it, but, as was frequently the case in those days, I did it because I needed the money. I haven’t read those columns in years but I’m sure they’re mostly gibberish. But I got along with Archie fine. Archie was very funny, very friendly. I wish I could say I was an exception but there were very few people Archie didn’t get along with. Of course I was familiar with his work, from the Warren magazines & his ‘70s DC work, especially Manhunter & the war books. Really, anyone who wants to write comics should study his work; it’s right up there alongside Harvey Kurtzman’s for mastery & precision. I wish my work was half as good as Archie’s. Again, he always liked me & I’ve no idea why but when he went over to DC in the ‘90s he started courting me to write for his books. I’ll say one thing about Archie: I only saw him get mad once. Know how in cartoons a character will get really angry & the sky will suddenly fill with thick black thunderclouds & lightning flashes all around as big booms roar? That’s what it was like. It made you very eager to make sure it was never you he was mad at. In that regard he might have been the single most terrifying person I’ve ever met. Thankfully I never experienced it directly.
Al Milgrom: Al kept me going in the early years. He needed someone who could fill in on any book. I wasn’t the only one but he ended up using me a lot. Again, we didn’t hang out outside the office. Al had a very down-to-earth workingman’s view of the comics process, & I think working for him was very instrumental in me getting it through my head what almost no fan ever wants to believe: corporate comics are about getting the work done. He wasn’t against creativity by any means – he encouraged it where possible – but the job was the job first & a creative outlet where possible. I ended up doing peculiar & interesting things due to him. The Omega thing in The Defenders; I was given that because regular writer Ed Hannigan didn’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole. I’d already done a passable Defenders fill-in that ended up being published years & years later so Al might’ve had more confidence in me than I deserved, or I might’ve just been more disposable. Doesn’t really matter. Marvel had lost the Tarzan license, leaving the last issue, already written by Bill Mantlo & drawn by Sal Buscema, unpublished; Al was told to use it, & had me change it into an issue of Battlestar Galactica that I managed to prod into two issues, the other drawn by then regular artist Walt Simonson, the only time I worked with him. (I have a page from that story framed on my wall.) He brought me in to write a Hulk story for a guy named Joe Barney, a really good artist who worked for Continuity who could’ve been a major player had he done more, to draw for an early issue of Marvel Fanfare. Despite my personal disinterest in the Hulk, that ended up being one of my favorite stories. I have to say that while Al was always very encouraging, he really encouraged me by continuing to give me work. Eventually Marvel weeded out the fill-in issue concept (I used to joke Jim Shooter realized I was writing too many of them) & expanded the editorial staff so Al had far fewer books, all with pretty stable teams, so that professional relationship tapered off, but I’ll always view Al very fondly & I wish him nothing but good. He was the editor who used me when I really needed it.
Billy: Speaking of the Punisher/Mike Zeck time period, and specifically the angle of the mob and really no established characters save the Kingpin and Jigsaw being in the book. Can you speak of that and the idea of the “Trust?”
Steven: That all came from my original concept of The Punisher (image above is issue #2 from the 1986 limited series- cover by Zeck and Beatty), from the ’76 pitch. The Punisher is a “real world” character, he just doesn’t fit well into the Marvel Universe. Mike agreed with me, that was one of the points we synced on when we began talking about the character. When it comes down to it, he’s an ordinary guy with a few exceptional skills, he’s not a superhero. So we wanted in the mini to strip him of his corny accoutrements as much as possible. No more war wagon, no more rubber bullets. We felt the reader should feel The Punisher plays for keeps – if he isn’t playing for keeps, he’s just a joke, & the character only works if you don’t perceive him as a joke. (That was the last bit in Return To Big Nothing: “They laugh at the law. But they don’t laugh at me.” At least not for long.) We felt it upped the ante on him if he didn’t have lots of resources; it made him have to be more resourceful. The Trust was a matter of contrast. You see The Punisher going around assassinating figures he tags as detrimental to the workings of society, if you’re in one of those groups that wants to reorganize society to your own preferences & you’re not averse to a little .45 caliber surgery to achieve your ends, you’re likely to start thinking The Punisher’s on your wavelength. Thing is, though, he isn’t. So I introduced The Trust to demonstrate that. Ultimately all organizations are, for good or bad, pursuing political agendas. The Punisher isn’t. He’s fighting a war, & he’s not someone who’s interested in explaining himself or asking permission. He’s not interested in power. He’s not going to take someone’s orders on who to kill or to spare. The way The Punisher stays alive is to trust no one but himself. When he finds corruption he’s going to cut it out, if possible. Anyone else is subject to corruption; anyone else won’t see the world the way he does, they’re just interpreting it, considerably upping the chances they’re getting it wrong. The Trust, in fact, views him as little more than a useful tool to destabilize something they believe they can turn to their advantage. So they were there mainly to reinforce the idea of The Punisher as a solo act, not subject to what would theoretically be very attractive seduction, especially when they can provide him with absolutely everything he’d ever need to prosecute his “war”… except autonomy.
Of course, the instant Marvel “takes back” The Punisher they give him back the War Wagon, and give him a support team…
Funny bit about The Trust. That name was a last minute replacement. They were originally The Order, a bald-faced name to firmly establish what they were all about. Right before I handed in the script, news reports came out about the Feds raiding the… was it Arkansas?… compound of a violent neo-Nazis white supremacist group called… The Order. So I thought it best not to use the name.
As for the Kingpin & Jigsaw. In the prison story, we wanted him to face a character he had an established history with. Problem was… there wasn’t anyone but Jigsaw. Neither Mike nor I had any love for Jigsaw but he was all there was. Once he got out of prison, we couldn’t really ignore the Kingpin, since he was the Marvel Universe epitome of everything he was against, & we had to pay at least lip service to the Greater Marvel World. So, as with the “origin story” in the first issue, we got past that as quickly as possible. Made for a good bit, I thought.
Billy: You were also a part of Marvel’s first limited series, Contest of Champions! How did that come to pass?
Steven: Marvel had decided to do specials that tied in with the 1980 Olympics, a couple of giant format books ala Superman Vs. Spider-Man. The first was for a Hulk/Spider-Man story for the Winter Olympics. Bill Mantlo was the main writer on that but he had so much work he tapped me to co-write it with him. Al may have been behind that too, I forget. The Summer Olympics book was to be a “competition” between all sorts of international Marvel heroes. Bill was tapped to write that too, & again he tapped me, along with Mark Gruenwald, to help him with it. One problem he faced was that the international hero base in Marvel was not that broad. He needed a bunch of new characters created. I came up with the Frenchman Le Peregrine & the Aussie Talisman. I know Mark’s girlfriend came up with Sabra, Mark did Shamrock & the Arabian Knight. I forget what other characters there were. We all sat around Bill’s place for a night concocting Defensor because we had no South Americans, but that character’s conquistador motif always made me cringe; I’m not a South America expert but I doubt that’s an aspect of their history they celebrate overmuch. (Comics have always had something of a blind spot for that sort of cultural nuance.) Mark & I concocted a plot for the story, naïvely deciding it would be great to come up with new combinations rather than the really obvious battles that everyone would expect. That elicited a dull thud from Marvel editorial, & Bill replotted the entire thing & dialogued it all himself. So my real contribution to it, aside from input in the very loose structure of the story, was those two characters, plus finding the name for Defensor. I didn’t really have a lot to do with it, nor did Mark. They brought in John Romita Jr. to draw it, that might’ve been his first major job.
Then Moscow sent troops into Afghanistan. In response Jimmy Carter pulled us out of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Marvel had to bury the book. A couple of years later Marvel finally decided to dip its toe into mini-series. This was something I’d been lobbying for since I started there, as independent companies had been publishing them & I thought the format was the future of comics, not that anybody listened to me. As Marvel Super-Heroes At The 1980 Summer Olympics or whatever it was called was collecting dust in a drawer, pretty sure it was Jim Shooter who decided to split it into three issues & try out the format with what was ultimately titled Contest Of Champions. Not really to anyone’s surprise – if you saw Marvel mail much of it consisted of people just asking for every character to team with every other character, so CoC must’ve been like dying & going to heaven for a lot of people – it was very successful. Marvel kicked open the mini-series floodgates after that, & it changed the subsequent face of the business. Pretty sure CoC’s success also started Jim thinking toward Secret Wars. I’d love to take credit for it all, but I wasn’t much more than a functionary on the project.
And with that response, part one of the interview will end! Look for part two very soon, as we’ll discuss more Marvel, Steven’s work with DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and his boyhood idol, Gil Kane!
Great interview! Looking forward to part 2. 🙂
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Nice Billy D. I liked the Contest of Champions part.
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