Well, here we go with part two of the interview. In this segment, Steven and I discuss more of his Marvel work, then on to his time at DC comics, Dark Horse Comics, and finally his work in the film industry! Huzzah!
Billy: Can you talk about some of your early work for Marvel Comics (Avengers, Defenders, Hulk, Marvel Fanfare, Moon Knight, Marvel Two-in-One, etc.)?
Steven: Well, you know… my early Marvel stuff was largely junk. I didn’t set out to make it that, I don’t think I did badly considering I didn’t know what I was doing, but looking back I’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment. You have to understand the corporate comics system. It didn’t really matter what your interests were. Your interests & ambitions for the medium were of very little interest to the companies, in most cases. Writers were expected to be able to write anything they were assigned, regardless of content, whether Spider-Man, Tomb Of Dracula, Shogun Warrior, Millie The Model, didn’t matter. Aesthetic considerations beyond the needs of any individual story were pretty much dismissed as fanboy shit, the mark of an amateur. It was very curious. I wasn’t assigned any regular books, though I did end up with little runs here & there. Those were mostly incidental to the process. All my work was pickup work. After disastrous publishing schedule screw-ups all through the ‘70s, where scores of comics either went to the printer late – the company paid penalties when that happened – or had reprints instead of original material, editors piled up inventory material for every comic. That was my bread & butter. It was a matter of scraping up any work I could get. Some promised story the regular writer doesn’t want to deal with? I’m your man. Need an issue of Tarzan you no longer have the rights to publish transformed into an issue of Battlestar Galactica? No problem. It was a crash course in being “a professional.” There’s a line in Citizen Kane where someone scornfully asks Kane what he knows about running a newspaper. “I don’t know anything about running a newspaper,” he answers. “I just try everything I can think of.” That was pretty much my approach. You learn to bury your own ambition for the most part & keep your eyes open for possibilities. It doesn’t matter what you want to do, you have to take that desire & put it behind material you really couldn’t care less about but that’s what you have to work with. It’s not as soul-draining as it sounds, or doesn’t have to be. Even then I looked on it as an apprenticeship, & learned to approach stories as a series of problems to be solved, which isn’t a bad approach to take. In some ways it helped bring my ambitions into focus. The downside was it was growing up in public. People end up with an image of you that’s hard to shake.
Billy: What was it like jumping from Marvel to DC in that era and jumping back and forth between the two companies?
Steven: I didn’t really do that. I’d tried getting work from DC several times from the moment I got to NYC but just couldn’t crack that nut. Marvel in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s frowned on that anyway. There were a couple Marvel editors who kept clandestinely mentioning the hush-hush “secret” that Marvel was about to buy DC, which in those days was doing miserably enough to keep the story frightening credible, & those who stayed loyal to Marvel would have first dibs on assignments after the buyout, while those who jumped beforehand would be frozen out of the business. It was always bulls**t, I think pretty much everyone knew it. But threats like those were common behind the scenes. I was once out to lunch with Archie Goodwin, in the early days of his Epic tenure, & came back to find a very big name of that era shaking angrily at the Xerox machine, which was in the hallway outside the Epic offices. I asked if something was wrong, & they told me they’d also been at lunch, with a very big name in the company, who informed them of the pecking order for Marvel assignments: 1) Those on the Marvel staff. 2) Those with exclusive Marvel contracts. 3) Those who weren’t exclusive to Marvel but worked exclusively for them anyway. 4) (said with great hostility) The “scum” who’ll work for anybody. It was laughed off immediately, but the talent in question knew they were the target, since they were doing a couple things for DC. This was after Marv & George had jumped & gotten one of DC’s feet out of the grave with New Teen Titans. DC very easily could’ve died if not for that book.
But DC remained out of my reach throughout the ‘80s. It was other places like First Comics that I branched into, writing toy comics for Mattel after I moved to Los Angeles, things like that. I was a freelancer. Marvel never treated me as anything but a freelancer. If they wanted me exclusive they never made any more to assure it & for the most part they probably didn’t want me at all. I just never had the right attitude for Marvel. Or DC. DC seemed to think I was very difficult to work with. Despite rivalries between companies, all the editors talked, & it wasn’t uncommon for them to spread bulls**t about freelancers among each other, something that was a major problem for a lot of comics talent. It was fairly easy to get frozen out by misinformation. Since I never really felt in that never bothered me much, but there were a couple of opportunities I would’ve liked to have been able to capitalize on. C. 1984 Paul Smith & I made a pitch to take over Green Lantern. I think Marv was writing it at the time, & leaving. Paul & I both loved the character from childhood & had compatible takes, & they took a meeting with us, without mentioning it had already been assigned to Len Wein & Dave Gibbons. They were mostly interested in stealing Paul from Marvel, which didn’t happen for another few years. But that’s what comics were like in the ‘80s.
But sometime in ’92, editor Jonathan Peterson called me out of the blue. He liked my Punisher stuff, & was hitting a deadline snafu on Deathstroke, which he edited. He needed an issue that took place in between the issues on either side, which presented a continuing storyline with only a few minutes passing between them. Of course I did it. He then asked me write a run on Deathstroke to spell Marv Wolfman, who was having deadline problems. I got along with Jonathan beautifully, at DC & later on after he had jumped to Wildstorm. Editors jumped a lot in the ‘90s, much more than in the ‘80s. Andy Helfer invited Mike Zeck & I to do a story for Legends Of The Dark Knight, which passed to Archie Goodwin. Archie & I had known each other for years at that point & got on great. Michael Golden took me on a de facto staff writer during his brief editorial stint; I must’ve written a couple dozen issues of things – revamps of The Web for the dying !mpact line, The Shadow Strikes, a solo book of the character Salvo from Thriller, I know there were other things but I forget what – that were all killed the second he quit, & never saw print. But I got paid for them. I’d worked with Dan Thorsland at Dark Horse, so when he jumped to DC I ended up working with him. Same kind of deal at Marvel. Editors would ask you to do stuff. Don Daley was trying to boost the Punisher books & asked me back to the character. A woman named Hildy Mesnik who I knew from Los Angeles became a Marvel editor & wanted me to write for her. I did a stunt job for Danny Fingeroth, & ended up doing a run on Spectacular Spider-Man. That was the ‘90s. It wasn’t about the companies at that point, it was about the editors. You formed relationships, & jumped around with them. The downside of that was when they left their jobs, increasingly frequent during the contraction, you ended up high & dry. New editors were strongly encouraged to “make their mark” on books, usually interpreted as dumping everyone previously associated with it. But that’s always a risk of freelancing.
But by the ‘90s I’d realized my best chance for economic survival was being published by as many companies as possible. I was writing for a lot more companies than Marvel & DC, both of which were (fortunately for me) becoming much less important to my career.
Billy: Can you talk a little bit about your work for Dark Horse Comics?
Steven: I kind of sideways my way into Dark Horse. In 1989 I ran into Bill Marks, publisher of Vortex Comics out of Canada, at a retailer’s convention in Madison, one of the few times I’d been back there since I left. At that point he was flush off the mad success of Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss &, knowing Howard & I hung out a lot in Los Angeles & I guess knew I had an interest in crime material, asked if I had any good crime comics ideas, because he wanted to publish more of them. I didn’t, but concocted on the spot the single best pitch I’ve ever done. Verbatim: “A crime story… set in 1963, & starring the man who really killed John Kennedy.” Turned out he was a Kennedy assassination fanatic, & he bought it on the spot. This became Badlands. Bill published the first issue but had overextended with too many projects & quit publishing. By that point I’d written the whole thing – it might’ve been the fastest, easiest job I ever did, it just flowed like the rushing waters, it was practically automatic writing – & I really liked it, still list it as arguably my best work, so I surveyed the landscape for a new publisher, figured Dark Horse was the best bet & sent it cold to Mike Richardson.
He liked it. I took the opportunity to pitch another idea. When I was writing for Jonathan at DC, he encouraged me to come up with revamps for fallow old DC properties. I developed a pretty political take on the ‘40s character Americommando, whose name I love. It’s such a great & such a stupid name at the same time. That went nowhere, so I massaged it into a new property I named Patriot X & pitched to Mike. Mike liked the idea but was unnerved by it too, since he & part of the Dark Horse staff had been secretly spent a couple of years developing a superhero universe, & one of their central characters was a vigilante named X who had a couple of characteristics in common with Patriot X. I think he was a little nervous I’d think they had ripped me off, though I assured him I never thought that the case. So he offered me the scripting chores to X & agreed to publish Patriot X if I renamed it to avoid conflicts. It came out as Enemy (issue #1 image below), edited by Bob Schreck, who’s been a very good friend ever since. Dan Thorsland edited X & also became a good friend, & kept working with me when he jumped to DC a couple of years later.
At the time Dark Horse was trying to expand into movies, only to find that no one in Hollywood took you seriously as a film company until you’d made a film. Any film, doesn’t really matter, you just have to prove you can produce a film. Mike Richardson had hooked up with a very well-known producer named Larry Gordon. Larry had a little horror picture already in the can, & decided to jump-start Dark Horse Productions by putting their name on it. It was a perfectly ghastly thing called Dr. Giggles. Due to circumstances, Mike needed a comics adaptation of it yesterday, right about the time we were talking projects. While I had never done a film adaptation prior to that, I had done several issues of First Comics’ Classics Illustrated revival. So, more for professional lubricant than anything else, I signed on to do the Dr. Giggles comic. I guess that went well enough they started asking me to do other adaptations, like Alien 3 & Robocop 3. Because I’ve ended up doing quite a bit of Robocop over the years, a lot of people think I have strong affection for the material, but it was all just assignments. I always tried to do as good a job as I could, but movies are other people’s projects. While there are things I’m a big fan of, I tend to save my affections for my own creations.
Funny story related to them, though. I was on a panel at a Portland Con discussing adapting movies to comics with John Arcudi, who did a lot of adapted/expanded movie comics for Dark Horse. I mentioned in passing I’d gotten a phone call from Fred Dekker, director of Robocop 3, to tell me how much he liked the adaptation. John caught me on the floor later & asked if that story was true. When I said it was, he got very depressed, because no one ever called him with a similar message. I asked if he put his phone number on his scripts. He said no. I told him he might want to try that, it increases the odds dramatically.
Enemy didn’t sell at all, but it did end up being bought & made into a TV pilot by Fox c. 1996. I think it was the first thing David Goyer, who wrote the pilot, got a producer credit on. I’m told for a while it was on the fall schedule, though ultimately it wasn’t, & though it went nowhere it opened up doors for Dark Horse, so the project was probably a net win for them. Mike recently asked me to revive it, so we’re probably doing a new Enemy series next year. It’s only 22 years later…
Billy: Two series that you had stories in that I think never get enough play are Marvel Fanfare (#52-54) and Nightstalkers (#12-15). Your thoughts on them?
Steven: The Black Knight story in Marvel Fanfare I have a great fondness for. As I mentioned it was, with the Punisher, among the first things I ever pitched to Marvel. It was a real longshot storyline, spinning off a Defenders story Steve Englehart had done that basically stranded Dane Whitman, the modern Black Knight, in the body of his 12th C. ancestor, fighting alongside Richard Lionheart in the Crusades. Steve had left us with a real “Gosh, golly, this swashbuckling era of heroism is where I belong!” ending, which I found pretty laughable. I’d read up on the Crusades a lot, & while we maintain this fiction about lords, ladies & chivalry, it’s hard to find a more soul crushing period for western civilization. The underlying theme of the series pitch was the fierce discrepancy between Dane Whitman’s fantasy of the era & its harsh reality. Al Milgrom cottoned to that, likening it to how wonderful it would be to live in the 1890s where you could buy a whole schooner of beer for a nickel… but who had a nickel? That was it exactly. The first issue of the three done was the Buscema one. John’s pencils were fantastic on it. This was ’79 or ’80 & by that point Conan had settled into something of a sameness from story to story, & he was thrilled to work in a similar but different milieu. It has much more of a Prince Valiant/Arabian Nights feel to it than his Conan stuff, & he put a lot more into the linework. This was a huge deal for me at that stage of the career, one of my first real chances to play with the big kids. The story was actually a true story from the Crusades, with the fantasy elements of the Black Knight tossed in. Richard Lionheart had captured a walled city – Acre or Tyre, I forget which, one of those – & sent an emissary to Saladin, commander of the Arab troops & one of the renowned knights of the era, a supposed paragon of chivalry. Richard & Saladin are sort of the yin & yang of Crusade-era chivalry, though both were capable of some pretty severe things. Richard made a peace offer to Saladin that had a deadline to it, & if Saladin’s positive response wasn’t delivered by deadline, Richard promised to burn the city to the ground with all the inhabitants sealed inside. Saladin agreed to the terms, but the emissary got lost going back, so Richard burned the city & its citizens to ash. Not a high spot for chivalry. In my story the Black Knight is the emissary, waylaid by the legendary semi-historical figured Hassan ibn Sabbah, the Old Man Of The Mountains, leader of the Hashashin, whence we get the term assassin. The Hashashin really did terrorize the region around that time. The Black Knight finally makes it back only to learn his boyhood hero, Richard, has without remorse, regret or hesitation done this horrific thing, & it’s such a rude awakening to him, & his latter day 20th century sensibilities, that he’s forced to desert. I had about a six year storyline worked out that would’ve taken him around most of Eurasia, colliding with a lot of history & legend, like the Prester John myth that had already been introduced in Marvel, & to eventually end up off Ireland on the Island Of Avalon, helping defend the doomed island from the onslaught of the Fomor, essentially the Titans of Irish myth. This became the Avengers story, with my way to time travel him back to the 20th century… where his body had been turned to stone & then to rubble. He did it the hard way: he slept for 800 years. It was a lot of fun, & very indicative of the kind of material I was already veering toward even then. But it went into the drawer, until Al fished it out in the mid-90s & got the other two stories of the arc drawn & all of them published in Marvel Fanfare. Just one of a million lost opportunities, but that’s often the path of the business: for every opportunity you get there are dozens you lose out on. There’s a couplet at the end of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that goes “But if thou wouldst cast all away in vain, I know not but ‘t’will make me dream again.” That’s really the way you have to approach these things.
Nightstalkers. Kind of a mess, from my perspective. First of all, it had created & written by my friend Dan Chichester, who didn’t know he was being taken off the book. Hildy Mesnik, who I’d worked with at the short lived TSR-West Comics in Los Angeles, had come on as editor, & really wanted me to take it over, but I was forbidden from telling Dan until Marvel talked to him. It was uncomfortable. I’m not really a horror comic guy, not even a horror hero guy, but I liked working with Hildy & at the time I thought Ron Garney was supposed to be drawing it. But Ron wasn’t drawing it. So I do two stories with Hildy, when all of a sudden Marvel tells Hildy, who was also editing Barbie Comics, that she could either edit Barbie OR horror comics, but not both. They didn’t want to risk the markets colliding. Hildy very apologetically called me to say she was going with the Barbie books because that’s what she really wanted to do. I completely understood but it kicked a peg out from under Nightstalkers for me. Then Bobbie Chase’s office decided on a big crossover event that would draw all the horror hero books like Ghost Rider & Nightstalkers into a Midnight Sons trade dress/franchise. By that point, being swamped with work for the first time in my career, I’d already decided something had to give & it would have to be Nightstalkers, but I hung through the two months of that, & while I was working on my last issue I told them it was my last issue. It was nothing personal, just a matter of priorities, but they didn’t seem to take it well. Things got kind of weird at Marvel for a while after that, spilling into other books. But, honestly, my leaving wasn’t an indictment of the concept or anything. It just wasn’t the right fit for me. The only idea I really had for any future stories was to have Hannibal King defeat Dracula at last & become King Of The Vampires.
Billy: Can you speak a bit about your Manhunter and Challengers of the Unknown runs. Can you also talk a little bit about taking over the direction of books/characters that have such a lengthy history.
Steven: I can’t say their lengthy history mattered much to me. They were ground level revamps so that was mostly irrelevant, unless editors or fans made a big issue of it. I was familiar with all the originals, of course, but concerning myself with them wasn’t something I was hired for.
For the most part, both Manhunter & COTU were books I made the creative decisions on. There was very little editorial interference on either. So I feel very proprietary toward both, something that’s really pretty stupid to do with corporate comics. Both, along with Fate, have essentially been written out of continuity.
When Archie Goodwin moved over to DC, he was pretty much told to develop his own line. I forget whether I approached him or he approached me, but I had an idea for Manhunter I wanted to try. He didn’t like it. At all. But! For very good reason, Archie was extremely proud of the Manhunter strip he had done with Walt Simonson in the ‘70s, really the first intentional mini-series done by a major comics company. Of course, since it was deservedly loved by many, many writers would approach him to say “Archie, I really love your Manhunter series,” &, because nobody in comics can ever leave well enough alone, they’d always follow up with, “I’ve got a great idea for bringing him back.” What never crossed their minds was that Archie didn’t WANT his Manhunter brought back. It didn’t end the way it did by accident. What he wanted was a new Manhunter, to effectively take reviving his off the table.
Don’t recall exactly why I tapped into Wild Huntsman mythology for the book, but it was a chance to invent my own mythology. I was trying a lot of different things in that run. I have a special fondness for issues 1 & 5, but the whole series was a chance to run with whatever oddball idea I could come up with. I knew it probably wouldn’t last long. Response wasn’t especially good. On the one hand, you had the fans of John Ostrander’s previous Manhunter series pissed off that we were supplanting that. Poor Vince Giarrano, our artist, had come off several years struggling to get work from editors all over the place who kept telling him if he wanted work he had to learn how to draw like Rob Liefeld. So he did, just in time for Image to cool & the backlash against Rob heat up. This isn’t a criticism of Rob, I like Rob, have absolutely nothing against him, but we got a lot of complaints that the book looked like a Liefeld knockoff. People complained the costume was too much like the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter’s. The character was something of an unhero – he wasn’t an anti-hero per se but being a superhero wasn’t his ambition in life, even after he got his powers; I’d probably have been better off going a more traditional routes of either squarejaw or psychopath. And I was experimenting a little with narrative, something that’s always guaranteed to win over lots of readers. DC also hooked the book into their Zero Hour mini-series, even though the two had nothing to do with each other, & fans were abreacting to the by then common practice of companies using big events to shove a whole new raft of books down their throats. Of the seven or eight books that were launched in conjunction with Zero Hour, only Starman made any headway. Unfortunately I ended up connected with two of the others. Pretty much by that point a new ethic had taken hold of fandom, where rather than instead of going out of their way to check out new books they went out of their way to find excuses not to even look at them. It wasn’t just Manhunter. It was pretty much everything. There are a lot of things I maybe should’ve done differently but I don’t know that anything would’ve changed anything. At least I can look back & say I like it. I can’t do that with all my work.
COTU was another mostly ignored series, but maybe my favorite of all my corporate comics save my Punisher stuff with Mike. First, John Paul Leon, a massively underrated talent who should be feted in the business far & wide, was wonderful to work with. Just gorgeous art. A lot of complaints right off the bat for this one too. Kirby & old school DC fans were outraged we switched to a whole new cast, & we got complaints that we were being disgustingly PC by including a women, an African-American & an Asian-American on the team. People complained it was like a pitch for a TV show. They weren’t incorrect. It was. It originated about a year earlier when Jenette Kahn, who’d been publisher at DC, was trying to segue into Hollywood, before the company’s current run there. Hollywood was X-Files nutty at the time, & Jenette had the sense COTU could be a hot property, but not in its original form, which was very much a product of the 1950s. So, yeah, we made the cast more diverse. I had no problem with that then, have none with it now. The one thing I tried not to do with any of them is make them representatives for their category. Not entirely sure why DC approached me to write a bible for a TV pitch, except that they didn’t want to spend the money a screenwriter would cost, Enemy was then being filmed as a Fox pilot, & maybe they thought I was more involved in that than I really was. They paid me decently enough. The idea was to sell the series to TV then launch a comic. Within a few months they realized they weren’t going to be taken seriously unless a comic already existed – even then at that time being taken seriously by Hollywood was still something of a pipe dream – so they got back in touch about turning it all into a comic for them.
I had great fun with it, but again probably got a little too cute for the market. The four members of the group follow the Earth-Water-Fire-Air elemental pattern of Kirby’s originals, down to their first & last names corresponding to their elements, but I never made it more explicit than that. Even a name like Clay Brody you probably wouldn’t see that in without consulting a baby name book. DC wanted to give them superpowers, which I felt would water things down too much. I convinced them instead to let them have “affinities,” sort of more a handshake deal with their various elements than command over them. It was a very fun book to write, lots of subversive ideas, & besides John Paul we had other really good artists, like Jill Thompson & Ryan Sook. (I know I’m forgetting people, & I apologize.) I conned Mike into drawing a couple issues. We were originally given until #25 to wrap the series up, but after Mike did #18, an issue COTU themselves weren’t even in, the plug got pulled. The company simply couldn’t afford it anymore, or didn’t want to. I suspect the final sales had come in on #15, which tied in with the Millennium Giants Big Event going on in the Superman books, & there was no boost, so that was probably that. I wasn’t keen on being part of it in the first place, it was editorial fiat, & at that time DC was so paranoid about Big Secrets from their Big Events leaking out I had to practically take hostages to even get a hint about the story I was supposed to be tying into. Matter of fact, I ran into my old pal Dan Jurgens at a convention, & asked him what the story was; he was writing the main Superman book at the time (but not the one controlling that particular big event) & they hadn’t told him at that point what was supposed to be happening in the story. I had to practically take hostages to get any details I could work with. I wasn’t surprised at the lack of sales boost. There was no attempt at all by the Superman office to let anyone reading the main story that the COTU tie-in even existed, though I think I was the only one of the non-Superman DC books that tied-in where the characters discovered anything that, while outside their capabilities, would allow The Real Heroes to deal with the threat. All they had to do was acknowledge it in one panel, but no. It was all very disappointing & frustrating, but not unexpected.
But it was a book that didn’t work & play well with the DC Universe in the first place. They’re investigators of the unknown, trying to reason out problems & deal with them. The problem with doing that in the DC universe, which we discovered from scornful fanmail early on & there wasn’t much choice but to ignore the problem, is it’s a universe overrun by magic & demons & aliens & ghosts & physics-denying superscience & what have you – & the entire population there is SO exposed to this – that if you’re in the DC Universe & you’re facing, say, a plague of zombies, you’d have to be a total idiot to say, “Oh, they CAN’T be zombies. People CAN’T come back from the dead!” Of course they can, in the DC Universe. So having a team like COTU there is basically saying “Hi, we’re the kids who flunked current events class in school!” As a longtime reader, I completely understand the appeal of the shared universe concept, but as a writer I find it to be a real pain in the ass, & at a certain point excludes far more, prohibitively more than it includes, & murders lots of potentially really interesting ideas simply because they don’t fit in with whatever rigid structures have been erected in whatever little house of cards a company forces you to deal with. My rather… mirthful… view of the cluster**** the DCU had become by that point probably didn’t help. I occasionally got Dan Thorsland in trouble by doing things like the Batman guest appearance in #11-12 (another thing I had no say in, it was an order from on high, though by that point neither company got that if you guest-starred Batman or Wolverine in a book it was less an encouragement to the market to try that book than a signal it’d probably be dead soon & a waste of time to bother with) & not only not having them spooked in the slightest by Batman when he suddenly catches up with them but I wanted, when they were finally introduced to Bruce Wayne at the end of the story, to have one of them say to the others “Isn’t he Batman?” I mean, they suss out secrets & pierce illusions for a living. Why wouldn’t they know? The Batman office said absolutely no way. I did the bit anyway, but without nouns or pronouns. The others rolled their eyes & said, “Let it go.” It was characterization, dammit!
Funny story, though. Around 2000, Grant Morrison, Tom Peyer, Mark Waid & Karl Kesel concocted this goofy “Hypertime” concept, which, near as I was ever able to figure out, wasn’t a parallel world thing ala Earth-1 & Earth-2 but a way for them to have their cake & eat it too by saying that sometimes contradictory & paradoxical stories from DC continuity, like, say old Dick Sprang Batman stories with Batman traveling through space, were in continuity but then they weren’t. Schrödinger’s back issue, basically. I guess it sounded like a good idea at the time. Was Kingdom Come the big launchpad for it? I forget. But Karl, who was writing Superboy at the time, eventually revealed the real first Hypertime story. It turned out to be COTU #7-9, guesting the original Challengers before sending them off again to save reality or something like that (the story got completely away from me.) So I, apparently, am the true father of Hypertime. Who knew?
Billy: You had a run on Spectacular Spider-Man as that character was exploding, along with the industry. Can you talk about what those days were like when the industry was heading down that road to the implosion.
Steven: Business was brisk then, I’ll say that for it. Spectacular Spider-Man turned into something of a mess for me, though, due to Nightstalkers. Danny Fingeroth had asked me to do an arc in (unadjectival) Spider-Man guest-starring The Punisher, & though I’d always felt The Punisher was best served by keeping him away from the Marvel Universe & still do (I mean, let’s face it, if you’d probably lose when you faced The Rhino, that’s not really a playground your sandbox should be in) it’s not like there wasn’t a tradition there & there were some things I wanted to do. (Spider-Man at one point lectures The Punisher yet again about how naughty killing is & killing bad guys makes as bad as they are, etc., & he replies, “That’s good if you can bend steel in your hands, but what do the rest of us do?”… I have certain philosophical problems with the concept of super-powered beings as role models…) Danny liked the story, & asked if I could take over Spectacular Spider-Man. It was a curious experience. I flew to NYC for a Spider-book conference where we spent a very long day in a swank hotel divvying up supporting characters, which book got to control who. Eventually it was all settled. I fly home – I was living outside Seattle at the time – to plot my next issue, send it in… & get it bounced because a character who was put in the Spec stable is suddenly the focus of a major story arc in Web Of Spider-Man. Why didn’t they just give me the price of the plane ticket, hotel room & meals so I could go buy a new car or something if all they wanted to do was throw away money?
The first three issues, the Tombstone arc, I thought came out pretty well. Had a lovely bit with Flash Thompson in it, after Flash is injured by Tombstone & ends up in the hospital: he’s reassessing his life. Peter comes to visit, & is weirded out that Flash knows a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, he just can’t wrap his head around the idea that Flash freaking Thompson reads poetry! Flash then says, Peter, there are a lot of things you don’t know about me & you’ve never made any effort to find out. We’re not friends. We’re just guys who used to go to school together. I didn’t mean Flash thought they were enemies, though I know comics love to work that binary to death, but that there’s a lot more to being friends than what we ever saw Flash & Peter doing. In the long run I wanted them to become real friends, that was sort of the spiritual intention of my run. Never got the chance.
Like all Big Events of the day, the Midnight Sons office wanted lots of titles to tie into their Midnight Sons big event. Mark Powers was the editor of Spec, & I never really had any problems with him, but he was new in an environment putting tons of pressure on editors, especially new ones. I was asked to do a Spec tie-in with Midnight Sons, since I was already writing an involved book. I didn’t have a problem with it. Came up with a plot, ran it through all approvals, no problem. But for some reason, and as I said I lived on the opposite side of the country & had no special grasp of the internal politics of Marvel offices, the other editors pretty much snubbed the Midnight Sons event. Only one other book, I forget which, agreed to a tie-in. That was fine, it didn’t affect me at all.
Then I quit Nightstalkers. Suddenly I get a call from Mark: the Midnight Sons office had decreed that it was no longer good enough tie-ins line up with what’s happening in the major storyline that month, they had to line up with what was going on that week. Which, when you’re tying a monthly in with a weekly series, is nuts. Even more nuts is abruptly deciding to sabotage one of the only two books that even deigned to play along with you. On top of everything, it really screwed up the Spec schedule & instantly turned the book really late, something my run never recovered from. As was the case at the time, solicitations had already gone out, & changing the contents would render the book returnable, a virtually unpardonable crime from upper management’s point of view whatever the circumstance. Then editor-in-chief Tom deFalco gave Mark permission to do that, but Mark, who was also between a rock & a hard place with it, understandably didn’t want “turned books returnable” on his permanent record. That’s the kind of milieu it was behind the scenes. So Mark & I spent an afternoon cobbling together a new story that didn’t really make much sense & had a ridiculously unimpressive threat but sort of sideways but not really connected to Midnight Sons, basically just enough to keep the solicitation valid, & everyone involved rushed like mad to get it out. There was no time & no space to include any of the little bits I’d wanted in my Spider-Man stories (my own view of Spider-Man was locked in place by the Lee-Ditko issues) & by the time the two issues were done I was just tired of it. By the time we were working on the next issue, first of my last two-parter, I was getting art pages faxed to me at 1PM my time telling me I had to get half an issue scripted & back to them before 2 or we’d miss shipping. Somewhere in the few seconds between 209 & 210 Mark called to suggest maybe things weren’t working out. It wasn’t a secret. They weren’t. My enthusiasm for the book was dead & gone.
But that’s what the ‘90s were like. A lot of different tails wagged the dog. Sales were so good there was a sense the audience would buy anything, which was true until it wasn’t, & when it wasn’t it really wasn’t. When sales were good marketing depts., which basically were doing jack to promote anything that didn’t already sell because they didn’t want to risk looking like failures, took credit for the sales. The X-Men franchise at that point was basically a license to print money, the smell of the ink dragged millions into comics shops, & Marvel’s marketing dept. would routinely piss the hell out of editorial by claiming to management, which always holds creative suspect anyway, the name of the company doesn’t matter, the books sold because of the brilliant marketing. But books that failed were always blamed on bad editorial. As I understand it, the Clone Saga that almost killed off the Spider-Man franchise was originally only a few issues long. But when marketing saw the response they ordered it continued indefinitely. They saw it as a golden goose. Which it was but you can only drag things out so long before everyone gets sick of them, a lesson no one ever seems to learn. And the whole company tanked as a result of that & some other very, very bad decisions born of greed & stupidity. I was going to say almost, but, no, Marvel did die. The company that’s Marvel now isn’t the same company that was Marvel then, & I don’t mean that figuratively.
Billy: Can you give an overview of 2 Guns, as to how you came up with the idea, the great reception it had, and also the transition to the big screen? I know many times things are optioned, but never see the light of day. Can you talk about the sheer ecstasy it must have been to see that happen?
Steven: It’s hard to explain, but sheer ecstasy wasn’t exactly it. From the outside it looks like things happen in a hurry, but from my side of things it was a couple decades or thereabouts of slow crawl. There’s a point at which things all become weirdly surreal; it quickly feels like it’s happening to someone else. But once it hits there’s an underlying giddiness that never goes away. It probably helps when you like the film that generated out of your work. It’s not really fair, or accurate, to view the movie as your work, though; it’s “their” work. I tend to view my part of it as having tipped over the first domino, not that I’m not proud of the result. It was an idea that came to me somewhere in the mid-‘90s, I just got a comical notion of a gang of mobsters completely composed of undercover cops all trying to bust each other because all of them thought all the others were mobsters. It was a screwball comedy. 2 Guns is still a screwball comedy as far as I’m concerned. A deadpan one. I tried selling it as a comic on & off for most of the ‘90s, anytime anyone asked me to pitch a new book, but no nibbles. Crime comics remain a very tough sell, for various reasons. There came a lull in work, so I had some time & this one idea – by then I’d whittled it down to two cops, for focus more than anything, working for different agencies & unaware they were both agents – that I really liked, so I just wrote it. I was the client. Figured maybe if someone read it, they’d want to publish it. Didn’t work that way, at least for awhile. Eventually I just showed it around to friends for their amusement. One of those friends was Ross Richie, at that point just some guy who used to work for Malibu Comics. I actually pitched it a couple times in pitch meetings I had in Hollywood. No interest there either. By then it was around 2000. Around 2004, 2005 Ross started talking about this comics company he wanted to start. Given the market at the time I thought he was nuts. Around 2006, when he’d gotten underway enough, he asked if he could have 2 Guns. I figured what the hell, though at the time there was pretty much nothing in it for me except the story would finally get out, which on a tiny handful of projects is more than enough. He had spent much of the prior decade working in Hollywood, & had made lots of connections & learned a lot about the business, & did have a vision of Boom! as both an outlet for “personal visions” & something that could generate movie projects, & he didn’t see those two things as mutually exclusive. He loved the story – I don’t think 2 Guns has ever had a bigger fan than Ross – but he did also see it as studio bait, though that certainly wasn’t my experience to that point. The comic came out in 2007, the collection shortly after that – another book that was largely ignored on the stands but that wasn’t unexpected – & the trade the following year, I think, & then it kind of went nuclear. I know it ended up in a bidding war, which Universal won. And after that, it still took years to reach the screen. I think the option deal had been made on it by 2009, but it went through several cast & major crew changes, a couple different screenplays, & didn’t start filming until right before 4th of July 2012. Came out in August 2013. Came close to having the plug pulled two or three times along the way, for some of the stupidest reasons imaginable, but when people are weighing whether to spend tens of millions of dollars on something, it doesn’t take a lot to convince them not to.
By the end of this process, ecstasy wasn’t exactly the result. It was more like relief. Not that it was over, but that it resulted in something I liked.
Billy: I’m a huge classic cinema fan (horror and sci-fi), can you talk about some of your favorite films/actors.
Steven: Oh, you know. Orson Welles, Nic Roeg. The usual. When I was younger I used to focus on particular actors & see everything they did – Malcolm McDowell, Oliver Reed, Donald Sutherland, James Coburn, Michael Caine – but it didn’t take all that long to realize even your favorite actors end up in a lot of movies that aren’t worth wasting time on. So I kind of weaned myself off thinking in terms of favorite actors. There are still actors whose films I’ll check out if I run across the DVDs at the library or like that, but they’re mostly dead actors: Dean Martin, Coburn, James Garner, Robert Mitchum. It’s kind of the same problem with directors these days: when all the films are either Hollywood Blockbusters or indie films, it’s hard to get interested in particular directors’ work. Especially since the indie film scene has largely turned into tryout reels for Hollywood. There’s kind of a deep interchangeability of most things these days, stylistically. There are a handful of modern directors whose work really appeals to me – Christopher Nolan, John Dahl, Guy Ritchie, Kenneth Branagh – who still go in for idiosyncratic styles & material, though Nolan & Ritchie, I can’t say most of their bigger budget stuff does a lot for me. For instance, I could live without Nolan’s superhero stuff, except for arguably The Dark Knight, which was pretty much gibberish but at least it was captivating gibberish, but put Memento, Inception or The Prestige in the player & I’m there. Many of the directors I’d call great aren’t even talked about anymore – Richard Lester, Sam Fuller, Peter Watkins, Nicolas Roeg, Jean-Luc Godard, Alex Cox, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Verhoeven, Ken Russell, Alex Cox, Alain Resnais – & the ones that are like Sergio Leone & Orson Welles (who directed the best A picture – Citizen Kane – & the best B picture – Touch Of Evil – ever made, as well as the greatest Shakespeare film, Chimes At Midnight, & in some ways the best documentary, F For Fake – so I’d probably have to claim he was the best, though through the magic of selective criteria you can make that argument for just about anyone) are so standard listing them sounds like you’re trying to score points.
Some actors & directors will still predispose me toward a film. If Guy Pearce or Bill Paxton are in something or Kenneth Branagh or Guy Ritchie direct something I’ll pay a little closer attention, but it still might not translate into watching. At best these days actors & directors are just road markers but it’s not like by following specific ones you’re likely to end up at films you like. Ultimately I think you get to the point where the only thing that really matters is how good the individual films are. The pedigree is an indicator, but a highly fallible one, esp. these days. But that has really always been the case. Ken Russell created works of brilliance, & quite a few stinking dungheaps. You have to pick your shots.
Billy: Can you talk about having to put out some fires throughout the years? Case in point, when Steve Gerber was fired and you had to finish off the Omega the Unknown story in the Defenders. I know after he was fired he was interviewed and stated that he wouldn’t be a marching boy, so to speak (regarding Howard the Duck), and he was then fired. How tough is that sort of situation?
Steven: At the time I didn’t think about it a lot. Most tend not to when they start. Partly it’s ego, partly it’s necessity; when you’re struggling to get work, not to mention eat at least semi-regularly, while living as a homeless freelance writer in the (then) most expensive city in the country if not on Earth, turning down work for any reason other than overwork doesn’t get you very far, & even overwork is frequently not a good excuse, because you can always sleep when you’re unemployed again. The particulars of Steve’s situation weren’t very well-known at that time, it’s not like comics news had the immediate depth of coverage it gets today. (I should probably say breadth of coverage; for the most part, it still doesn’t get much deeper regurgitating press releases in most cases.) The creator-owned thing was mainly an issue insofar as creating & owning your own characters was the great goal. Omega was a weird case. Steve was writing Defenders when Omega’s comic bit the dust, & he said in the last Omega letter column – at that point a book’s writer often wrote the letters page as well; by the time I got there they were farming many of them out & I ended up doing many for a year or so, itself a weird experience – the series would be wrapped up in a future issue of Defenders. Then he broke with Marvel completely over Howard The Duck. For the next couple years, virtually the only letters The Defenders got were demands for the Omega conclusion. Omega fans were few but loud, rabid even, & everyone at Marvel knew it was a minefield waiting to happen. Ed Hannigan, then the regular Defenders writer, wanted nothing to do with it. I was expendable cannon fodder hanging around Al Milgrom’s office, & he explained the situation & asked if I’d wrap it up, to get it the hell off their plates once & for all, any way I chose, as long as it was scorched earth by the end of Omega with no possibility of resurrecting him. They just wanted to be able to move on. I figured, sure, what the hell. This was very early on in my career, I was also writing film & music criticism, various essays & things, like I’d been doing in Madison but now on a wider stage, comics were just one part of what I was scrambling to do, & I wasn’t thinking in terms of a long career in the field or that 35 years later I’d be asked questions about it. I didn’t have the slightest doubt Marvel owned the character & could do what they wanted with it. As I later learned the legalities of the situation in the ‘70s & earlier were a bit more nebulous than I then believed, because then we only had what we were told to go on & companies were more than happy to state point blank they owned everything when that was arguably only their legal fantasy. By the ‘80s Marvel & DC had gotten much more diligent with their paperwork, leading to a lot of talent really pissing me off in that era, because they’d sign paperwork saying the company owned everything but after they’d leave those characters they’d complain bitterly about what the company did to “their” characters. But you sell your character outright to a company, it’s not your character anymore. You’ve given up the right to complain, especially when half of your own output for that company consisted of making dogs’ dinners of other people’s creations. At this point you have to pretty much expect that any character you create for Marvel or DC, they’ll gut like a dead fish after you walk away from it, if they don’t insist you do it for them. It’s just the nature of the beast now.
I certainly wasn’t trying to disrespect Steve with Omega. Quite the opposite. It seemed to me, rereading the Omega run, that it was all leading to a fairly obvious conclusion. Steve’s comics were renowned for that sick twist that you really didn’t see coming, so that’s what I thought I’d try, to emulate Steve in that way. Nowadays I think there’s something to be said for audiences getting the payoff they’d been led to anticipate; that can be far more satisfying than any swerve. But then I started by trying to figure out reversals. My first thought with Omega, who was left as dead at the end of his last issue was: what if he’s just dead? And it kind of moved on from that. I wrangled a second issue from the story, probably could’ve used three. Steve had left a lot of unexplained dangling threads, so it got pretty cramped. Ed tried to cap it all off by giving the actual Omega corpse a Viking funeral in the sun in his first issue back. Me, I wasn’t trying to disrespect Steve’s work or the character, I was just trying to come up with something unexpected from it within the parameters I was given. It certainly made me hated by a small group for a while. There were also people who thought I was Steve writing under a pseudonym, especially since Gerber had given Steve Rogers the middle name of Grant during his Captain America run in honor of some childhood friend of his, but I don’t know how anyone at the time who could read could possibly mistake those issues for his work. He was a much better writer than I was.
Years later when I loved to Los Angeles, Steve & I started hanging out fairly frequently. He never told me what his intended finale for Omega was. Mary Skrenes might know. I think I know. At lunch one time I told him what I thought it was & watched his face drain, but no verification, so…
A few years later, Paul Smith & I were approached about doing a new Howard The Duck series. We sketched out six issues, did the first one. That was as far as it got. At that time I knew all about Steve’s claims & his lawsuit, brought it up when the offer came in & was told it was all over, they were just waiting for the papers to be signed & they wanted a new series out the instant they were, in advance of the (ultimately disastrous) Lucas film. That turned out to be a flat-out lie, but Paul & I were operating in good faith. Nowadays if a company told me that under suspicious circumstances I’d email the talent involved to get their take but then I didn’t even know anyone who knew Steve’s phone number. Despite the outcome of things, Steve probably had a case. Marvel didn’t challenge him in court, or go for a judgment, & I think they would have had they any rock solid proof against his claims. Instead their lawyers delayed him to death. That’s a popular corporate trick to crush individuals: keep things going so the plaintiff has to keep running up legal fees, & Steve’s lawyer wasn’t cheap, until they simply don’t have any more money to continue with. That’s what happened to Steve. He ultimately had to sign whatever Marvel wanted just to get out from under, & spent the rest of his life struggling out from under the debt the ordeal saddled him with. It was too bad, it helped strengthen Marvel’s claims to other properties their grip is arguably shaky on.
Billy: Finally, can you talk about your work in the Young Adult novel genre, and what you have cooking for the near future?
Steven: The young adventure things spun out from Marvel work. I ended up writing quite a few issues of Spidey Super-Stories, which had the simplest stories & motivations imaginable, & very basic dialogue & language composed mostly of very bad puns. This was done in conjunction with the Children’s Television Workshop & their Electric Co. TV show. They also published Electric Co. Magazine, featuring a four page Spidey adventure every issue. I ended up doing that as well, & frequently had to go to their offices in Lincoln Center to discuss the stories with the magazine’s editor, Pat Fortunado. We had a really good working relationship. Pat eventually moved on from that job & partnered with another woman as book packagers, & Pat asked if I were interested in writing novels for them. It was a hot market at the time. I think the original plan was all kinds of series, but their company quickly found the most eager markets were for young adult adventures. The first thing they came up with was a series called Race Against Time, about a suburban kid who’s initially resentful of being babysat by his uncle when his parents are away, but it turns out his uncle is the world’s greatest secret agent & the kid ends up having to go on missions with him but they always have to succeed & get back before the parents get home, because they don’t know any of this. I didn’t have anything to do with creating it, but I had a bad habit with these things of writing one of the early novels & inserting my own little weird innovations & interpretations – just entertaining myself, really – that they’d then replicate in the other books. The same thing happened with The Hardy Boys Casefiles, the next thing I worked on for them. That was an educational experience. Race Against Time was very early ‘80s, I think. I wrote two of those. Hardy Boys Casefiles – a modernized (for the ‘80s) version of the ‘30s classic – ran from ’83-’92 or so. I wrote seven or eight of those. It was for Bantam Books. They originally wanted an edgy “two boy war against crime” type of thing, which was right up my alley, & the first one I wrote started with a runaway Frank Hardy, hungry & homeless, joining a religious cult. That was the tone of the stuff, impinging on real world events in ways the old books didn’t. It was a bit shocking even for me. The Hardys weren’t averse to using weapons or seriously injuring bad guys. It was what the publisher asked for. That was how it started out. Before long, the Hardys’ “action van” that had secret panels in the walls lined with weapons & ammo, no longer carried those things. Originally they could use guns, knives & fists. I think knives were the first to go. Then they couldn’t carry guns, but were allowed to use guns they took away from bad guys. Then no guns at all. Eventually they weren’t even allowed to hit anyone. All you could really do was have them run around & yell “AHA!” every once in a while. I never heard that Bantam got any complaints about the material, but various advocacy groups screaming about “violence” on TV, in the movies, in children’s cartoons, in comic books, etc., particularly about supposed negative effects on children – basic Wertham crap, with about the same level of science combined with idiot assumptions behind it – & I suspect Bantam just didn’t want to risk being caught up in it. The books must’ve sold decently, though. They published them for over ten years. I’ve done a few other things over the years, but my main takeaway was that I wasn’t very interested in writing prose fiction.
Lots of things going on these days, but so much ends up being on the never-never it’s always a risk to talk about it. Paul Gulacy & I now have a non-exclusive semi-partnership to produce material. Our first project was a revival of Bill Dubay’s The Rook, from the old Warren magazines, that should appear from Dark Horse in late fall. We’re currently doing a short story for a small publisher called Advent Comics, & we’re creating original properties we’re currently shopping around. On top of that, I’m also partnered with a film produce, Shane Riches, to create new comics, film & TV properties. I’m probably reviving an old series of mine, Enemy, at Dark Horse next year, & am prepping a new series for Boom! I just finished up a crime comic for Legendary Comics called Cops For Criminals that Pete Woods is doing beautiful art for. Not sure what the release schedule is but you can keep abreast of it at www.legendary.com/comics. Have a lot of things “in development,” but, you know, Hollywood… When you’re freelance you have to just keep plugging at it…
I’d like to thank Steven for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to do this interview. He’s a scholar and a gentleman!