Comic Book’s Unsung Heroes: An Interview with – David Michelinie!
If someone asked you who wrote the Iron Man story “Demon in a Bottle” or the first appearance of Venom in Amazing Spider-Man, would you know? OK, how about the Avengers story “The Yesterday Quest/Nights of Wundagore” or the Marvel Graphic Novel’s “Emperor Doom” and “Revenge of The Living Monolith“? Are you getting the point? Some creators, for one reason or another, get their share of credit or even more than they deserve, and some seem to get very little. David Michelinie is one of those guys that I feel gets nowhere near the credit he deserves. Just look at that list of stories above, and tell me I’m lying.
Michelinie also had a creative hand in the weddings of Superman and Lois Lane and Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson! So again, I ask, why not give this guy more credit? A quick look at any number of websites shows he has the “street cred”, so let’s stop overlooking a guy that wrote over one hundred Spider-Man stories, Action Comics, Daredevil, Jonah Hex, Swamp Thing, and so on!
I had the awesome opportunity to ask David a few question about his work over the years, and here’s what he had to say!
Billy: It seems that you really enjoyed developing the brotherly relationship between Wonder Man and the Beast. Was that something you wanted to stress/drive home with the readers?
David: There’s tremendous pressure, peril, and grief, in the life of a superhero. And this was especially true with Simon Williams, who at the time was uncomfortable and insecure in his role as Wonder Man. So I wanted to lighten things up a bit, and teaming him with the upbeat Beast seemed like a good thing for both of them. Everyone needs a friend.
Billy: The revelation of Wanda and Pietro’s lineage was a long time coming, no doubt. Did you guys (You, Gruenwald, Shooter, & Grant) script/write the story as if Django Maximoff was going to be revealed as their father or was it a ruse from the get-go?
David: I really don’t remember much regarding how all that came about. I do know that Mark Gruenwald was a big factor in generating that story line, since he knew a lot more about the Avengers’ background and history than I did.
Billy: The Avengers title was in a bit of a flux when you came on board, as Jim Shooter had written the book for a while, but I think he was transitioning to EIC, correct? Was that why the book was kind of bounced around for a spell before you were the regular writer?
David: I think Jim was reluctant to give up the Avengers- he really cared about that book and enjoyed writing it. But the reality of running a major company while trying to be a full-time writer on the side finally got to him. I scripted several issues using Jim’s plots, and I think that convinced him that I would make an acceptable replacement, so I got the job.
Billy: Transitioning to your Marvel Graphic Novels (#17 & 27); First, in the forward to MGN #17 “Revenge of the Living Monolith”, you credit Jim Owsley (Christopher Priest) for the concept of the story. It’s obvious that the two of you wanted to move that character (the Monolith) away from being just another cookie-cutter villain, and by the books end, most readers probably feel sorry for him, as opposed to thinking he’s the cold-blooded killer type. Do you feel that as a team, you guys hit the mark as fa r as making it believable? And if there’s anything you could go back and change, would you?
David: Anytime I’m assigned to write a character I try to do something new with them, something that shows a different aspect of their personality or perhaps some event in their past that has factored into their development, but of which the reader is not yet aware. And while it’s true that there are some purely evil people in this world (I’ve worked for some of them!), villains seem much more interesting if there’s something in their history that makes them sympathetic. I think what was presented as Ahmet’s (The Living Monolith) background was believable, but the final judges of that would be the readers. Second answer: Since I don’t have a time machine, I rarely think about going back and changing things.
Billy: The concept of MGN #27 “Emperor Doom” gives us a tale of a time when Doom was more of a manipulator than he is now. Was that something you thought Doom was more about as a character?
David: I loved writing Dr. Doom. He was brilliant, focused, and determined and thoroughly convinced that he was justified in his deeds and viewpoints. If manipulation was what it took to achieve his goal, then manipulation would be his tool. And he was very, very good at it.
Billy: There’s a very powerful scene in this book (still speaking on Emperor Doom), where Doom proves to the Purple Man that his will can resist his powers of persuasion, and that moment solidified Doom as one of Marvel’s greatest characters. Was that something that was part of the initial script or added later ( I guess what I mean is, was that something you always wanted to do with Doom)?
David: I love that scene (image below); very powerful, very character-defining. And it was indeed part of the original plot. And as much as I’d like to take full credit for it, I honestly don’t remember if it was my idea or something suggested by Jim Shooter in our plot conferences.
Billy: Speaking on both of those graphic novels, were the artistic teams already in place when you signed on, or was it a process?
David: The plots were completed, and then the art teams were determined. And I have to say that Bob Hall, Marc Silvestri, and Geof Isherwood all did wonderful jobs.
Billy: Moving on to Spider-Man now; Can you talk about the move to that title as the regular writer, and what it meant to you?
David: I assume you’re talking about “Amazing”, yes? Spider-Man was my favorite superhero of all time, so when Jim Owsley picked me to write Web of Spider-Man it was a genuine thrill. Getting to play with ones favorite character is probably every writers dream, but how often does that dream come true? So when I was switched over to Amazing Spider-Man, the original Spidey title and the book that got me back into reading comics when I was in college, it was very sweet icing on an already delicious cake.
Billy: You took the symbiote from being a vehicle for Spider-Man, and turned it (basically) into his mortal enemy. Was that decision an editorial thing, or a plan concocted by the creative team (You, Mcfarlane, etc.)?
David: It was actually something that I came up with on my own. Whenever I got a chance to write a new (for me) character, I tried to figure out what makes that character unique and then I exploit it. In Peter Parker’s case, his early warning Spider-sense stood out as something unmatched in the Marvel Universe. It has saved his life countless times by warning him of danger before he could be harmed. So I wondered…what would happen if there was a villain that didn’t trigger that Spider-sense? It had already been established, in the Secret Wars story line, that the alien symbiote which had been Spider-Man’s living costume for a while didn’t activate his Spider-sense. And since Spider-Man had cast the symbiote aside, the creature was likely feeling hurt and angry about that rejection. So attaching the symbiote to a host who shared a similar hatred for the wall-crawler seemed like it would make for an interesting-and very dangerous-spider-foe. My initial origin featured a woman as the host, and I started setting the character up in a couple of teaser scenes in Web of Spider-Man, where both Peter Parker and Spider-Man had been thrown into danger by some mysterious entity that didn’t trigger the spider-sense. Then when I was switched over to Amazing Spider-Man, editor Jim Salicrup suggested introducing a new character in issue #300. He liked my symbiote idea but wanted the host to be a man. So since that really didn’t negate what I wanted to explore – I altered the origin for the plot of Amazing Spider-Man #300, and Venom was born.
Billy: You basically wrote one hundred issues of Spidey, yet most people seem to never give you the credit you deserve. Does that bother you now or did it then? And if so, how can you turn a blind eye to it and just keep pushing forward?
David: I had the honor- or curse – of working with some very popular artists on that book: Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Mark Bagley. And I think that’s what most people remember about those issues. What they don’t often realize is that while sales rose during Todd’s run, they continued to rise with Erik and got even higher with Mark. And I have to believe that part of that was due to the fact that the characters and stories maintained a consistency: people who bought the books to read them got characters that acted and spoke the same way issue after issue, and the stories maintained a certain level of quality that readers could count on every month. People may not think of that in hindsight, and my work may be less remembered than the art, but those are stories I was very happy with, and I’m proud to have my name on them.
Billy: In issue #298, Todd McFarlane was brought in to pencil on Spidey. Was he someone you knew previously and asked for or did he lobby for the assignment?
David: I had seen some of Todd’s work for DC, but I didn’t know him or anything about him. The editor suggested Todd, I said OK, and magic happened.
Billy: Can you talk for a bit about working with editor Jim Salicrup? I’ve heard he is one of the nicest guys around the biz.
David: My definition of a good editor is one who pays attention but keeps a loose rein, one who doesn’t try to put his/her own personal stamp on everything that crosses their desk. And Jim was like that. I would give him a synopsis of what I wanted to do over the next 3-4 issues, he’d read it and make suggestions and requests, then he’d pretty much leave me alone to write the plots and scripts. I like to think that was because he trusted me as a writer. But what whatever the reason, it gave me a great deal of freedom and that allowed me to retain my enthusiasm and, I believe, made my work better.
Billy: With McFarlane’s departure in issue #324, Erik Larsen was brought in for the pencils. It was a seamless move from an artistic standpoint, but was it from a collaborative angle?
David: Not really. Erik hates me and my work, though I have absolutely no idea why. When Jim Salicrup suggested Erik and showed me some of his work, I thought it was a bit cartoony but was distinctive, and a distinctive look was something our readers had become accustomed to with Todd. So I said OK. Then during our run together, Erik wrote a letter to Wizard Magazine in which he called me a “clown” and called my work “stupid”. I later heard from more than one person that he was going around at conventions saying that Marvel didn’t have any good writers – when at the time the only Marvel writer he was working with was me. Like I said, I haven’t a clue as to why Erik has this seething dislike for me, but even if I felt the same way about him or his work I’d never say so in print or in public. But perhaps my idea of professional behavior has become outdated.
Billy: You had a hand in the two biggest weddings in comic book history (Spider-Man & Superman). Can you talk about what that was like?
David: When asked to write the Spider-Man wedding, I didn’t want to do the usual super-villains-crash-the-ceremony-and-fight-the-super-hero-guests bit. So I came up with a different angle that focused more on the human side of the situation, that dealt with Peter Parker’s worries and self-doubts about whether he was doing the right thing: if he was going to be putting Mary Jane in danger, if he could still be a good husband while running off to fight bad guys all the time, etc. Jim Shooter read it, said he understood what I was trying to do but that this was going to be read by a lot of people who didn’t normally read comics, and he thought Marvel needed a simpler, more standard story that “civilians” could relate to. So I turned the plotting over to him and just scripted over his story. Many years later Jim was quoted in an interview as saying that my original plot was “inappropriate” and “lame”, a quite different-and much harsher-assessment than he’d used when talking to me personally. It was very disappointing, since in the past Jim had been someone who took the high road, who treated individuals with courtesy and respect. But I guess people change. As for the Superman wedding, I was delighted to be a part of it in a small way. I was actually given some pages of a story Curt Swan had drawn many years previously for a story that was never published. I modified that story to fit the wedding continuity and wrote dialogue to match. I’d loved Curt’s Superman stories when I was a kid, and it was a genuine honor to script over his artwork, even if it was a posthumous collaboration.
Billy: To wrap up, can you give some insight on your early years at DC writing horror stories?
David: In 1973 DC started something they called an apprenticeship program, where they’d hire would-be writers or artists to work at the DC offices while they learned their trade. It didn’t go far (I think the only person they actually hired through that program was Martin Pasko), but I sent in a sample script that, for some reason, ended up on editor Joe Orlando’s slush pile (unsolicited manuscripts). Joe’s assistant at the time, writer Michael Fleisher, read the script and sent me a note saying that I showed promise but they couldn’t work with anyone outside of the immediate New York City area. Two weeks later I had closed out my commercial writing obligations in Kentucky and had moved to New York, where I knocked on DC’s door and said “well, here I am!” I think Joe and Michael were a bit stunned, but they pretty much had to give me a chance. I worked with Michael on my first four scripts for “House of Mystery” and its kindred. Michael was not a subtle critic and actually called some of my work ” a piece of crap” while I sat on the other side of his desk. Severe, yes, but very motivating. Through massive rewriting, and by heeding Michael’s editorial advice, I was ready to work directly with Joe when Michael left his staff position to write the Little Orphan Annie newspaper strip. Michael and I ended up being good friends for many years, and I credit his uncompromising criticism with my eventual ability to write professional comic book stories.
I’d like to thank David for agreeing to be interviewed and for being very candid. Definitely take a look at the body of work that this man has put forth. I think you’ll have a new (or hopefully renewed) appreciation for his contributions to the industry! Once again, thank you David!
Be on the look out for more interviews with other creators from the best comic books in the history of the medium in the near future!