Hi Kurt, thanks for joining me.
First of all, congratulations, as #26 of the current Astro City series marked 20 years since we first entered AC's city limits. In fact, when I was reading through Life in the Big City a few weeks ago, I couldn't help but laugh when at the end of the book you note the constant back-and-forth faxing that would take place between you, Brent & Alex.
Presumably your fax machine is a bit less active and I was wondering, for better or worse, what else has changed in the past 20 years?
Yes, the fax machine went to the great technology-recycling facility in the sky some years ago — or else it’s hiding somewhere in the garage of basement with other clutter. Its place of pride is occupied by a sleek, modern-looking scanner/printer/copier. Sorry, fax machine! It was very nice working with you all those years!
Beyond that, though, it’s surprising how much hasn’t changed. We still back-and-forth sketches among Brent, Alex and me, but we do it by e-mail now. And I e-mail the scripts instead of FedExing them. But for me, I still talk to Brent, Alex and others (John Roshell, Molly Mahan, Alex Sinclair and others) by phone, still type my scripts on a keyboard…
Brent now draws the book digitally, which is probably the biggest change. He’s described it as finally having a drawing tool that does what his brain wants it to instead of what his wrist can approximate. And I write in FinalDraft instead of Microsoft Word, which is much easier and more convenient for formatting.
But most of it fits the same pattern. I’ll write a script, talking to Brent and Alex along the way if I need to bounce ideas off them or we need to get character designs going. Brent does page roughs, and we talk them over to make sure the storytelling is as strong as we can make it. Then he does the final art. It goes to the colorist, I rewrite the script to fit what he’s drawn better, and that goes to JG and Comicraft, and it all gets brought together at the end, with a gorgeous cover by Alex. Even on the book collections, while we may be delivering sketchbook material to JG differently, the back-and-forth of designing it is eternal. Nothing beats talking stuff through.
Of course, twenty years ago we were at Image and my wife Ann was trying to keep us all on schedule, and today we’ve been through Image, Homage, Wildstorm and now Vertigo, and chased off a clutch of editors along the way, so now it’s Molly Mahan who tears her hair out trying to keep us on schedule (and managing it, for the most part!).
But wandering around the house thinking about characters, outlining on yellow legal pads, banging away at a (more modern) keyboard, talking on the phone (an iPhone now), it’s using a few new tools for a time-tested process…
Wow, that sounds like an amazingly collaborative process.
Early on in your run on the Avengers we get a few issues with the Squadron Supreme which, first of all, just made me curious, was this an editorial-driven inclusion? Or is the SS something you personally wanted to include?
Whenever possible, I try to work closely with the rest of the creative team, so we’re all pulling together to make the books the best we can, rather than just doing our parts of it separately. Going over layouts with Brent or with Ben Dewey on AUTUMNLANDS, and getting input from Ben, Brent, Alex, whoever, it makes the end result feel more like it’s one united vision, I think.
We changed the script in AUTUMNLANDS 1 because of stuff Jordie Bellaire noticed. I love that. I want everyone to feel like they’re part of making the whole book better, instead of feeling like they’re walled off in a pigeonhole.
It’s more work that way, but it’s also more fun, if you’re working with people who get into that approach.
My idea. I’ve always liked the Squadron Supreme, and I first encountered them when George was drawing AVENGERS back in the 1970s. So it seemed appropriate to bring them back while George was on the book then. And it was fun to have them accuse the Avengers of being fakes.
The Squadron's guest appearance actually highlighted for me the difference between analogue vs. homage. Are there characters in Astro City who you use one way or the other?
I've seen attempts online to compare AC's trinity, of Samaritan, Winged Victory and The Confessor, to DC's Big Three, and there is definitely something familiar about the Furst Family and another famous FF team, but that's about it as far as even anything close to analogues go.
I don’t try to use anyone in ASTRO CITY as an analogue. There are people in the audience who see every character we introduce as a stand-in for someone else, but that’s not really how we approach it. I wanted archetypes, character who it’s easy to understand from a distance, because we’d see the heroes in the background a lot. But I didn’t so much want “a Superman character” or a “Batman character,” so much as I wanted “a noble savior type” or “a nighttime vigilante type.”
Batman’s the primo example of that kind of character in comics, but there are lots of them, even pulp characters that predate Batman and influenced him, like The Shadow. So with the Confessor, I’m not trying to tell Batman stories — I literally can’t tell the same kinds of stories with the Confessor as I can with Batman, due to the Confessor being, well, who he is. But I want to explore the idea of the scary vigilante hero from a different angle, so the Confessor lets me do that.
So the Confessor is like Batman in a general way, like many characters are like Batman. But he’s got a different name, costume, powers, personality, history, origin, motivation…he’s not avenging his parents or spending his days as a wealthy young man about town, he doesn’t have a butler or a mansion, etc. etc. Superman’s a savior-type and so is Samaritan, but once again, aside from the different name and appearance, they have different powers, histories and motivations. It just wouldn’t be possible to do the story we did in ASTRO CITY 1 with Superman, because Superman’s got Lois and Jimmy and other facets to his life that vent the pressure.
The First Family — I really looked for a name that wasn’t “F.F.,” but damn, it just fit — were inspired as much by the Fondas and the Forsythe Saga as by the Fantastic Four (the literal seed of the team was the question “If Bridget Fonda grew up in a family of superheroes instead of actors, what would she think about it? How would she feel?”), and there’s certainly FF influence there, but the point was to explore the idea of a multi-generational “hero family” rather than specifically analogue to the FF.
I want to explore the core ideas, that can be found as the basis of multiple expressions of those ideas, not to copy specifics. So I want each character to be an individual, and not be someone who could simply be swapped out for a DC or Marvel character with no changes.
All that being said, are you ever tempted to use the Astro City canvas as an opportunity to spin your own take on a classic character?
Not unless I’ve turned that take into something different, something that couldn’t be done with that classic character.
Winged Victory was born out of ideas I had for Wonder Woman, but in building on those ideas I threw out the specifics of Wonder woman — the isolated island, the Amazons, the origin and mission and all that — and built a new character around the idea of a strongly feminist hero who teaches defense skills to women, someone whose message is “You can stand up for yourself. Here, I’ll show you how.”
That’s not Wonder Woman — Wonder Woman aims to inspire, but she’s an outsider, someone who looks at our world and thinks it’s messed up, while Winged Victory is someone who grew up in this world, is shaped by it, is empowered by a lot of other women who are rooted in this world and their experiences. Different approach, different mission.
There are other characters who I’ve built around ideas I had for an existing book but didn’t get to use there — Alex brought in the idea of the Crossbreed, but I combined it with an idea I’d thought of for an X-Men character who’d be the flip side of Rev. Stryker, who believed that mutant powers were a gift from God, for instance. Or, more directly, our recent issue with Starbright was a rewrite and expansion of a Superboy sample script I wrote back in 1982, so the core characters are based on Superboy and Luthor. But they’re not me trying to do “my take” on Superboy or Luthor, they’re me trying to take a relationship like that and go somewhere else with it, somewhere new and different.
If I really wanted to do something about, say, the Flash, I’d pitch a Flash project. But if I had ideas that I wanted to use in ASTRO CITY, I’d want to strip it down to whatever core I was most passionate about and rebuild it into something else. Just mentioning that, there’s a Flash project I wanted to do years ago, all about the Flash being a guy who grew up in a very small town and lived in the ‘burbs, but who as a hero was on the cutting edge of the future, caught between this bucolic, pastoral background and the future-shock of Central City and the Rogues. I never went anywhere with it, because DC was engaged in making the Flash darker and his background nastier at the time, so I figured they wouldn’t be interested in a series rooted in the idea that this guy had a happy childhood.
If I wanted to use the stuff I came up with for that in ASTRO CITY, I wouldn’t just do it with MPH because he’s a speedster. That wouldn’t even work, because MPH is a city kid. I’d strip it down and make up a character with that kind of background, crank up the future-shock aspects to make it really contrast, and put a hero in between those two extremes who might not even be a super-speedster. Because it’d about the themes, the ideas, the story, not about the Flash. Throw away everything that isn’t necessary to telling that story, and build new stuff around that core.
Long story short, I want to tell ASTRO CITY stories, not use ASTRO CITY to tell stories that could have appeared elsewhere.
With that in mind, do you have a pitch for a character/story that you've been turned down on that really eats at you?
And what is that process like as a creator, does it hurt to be rejected at the pitch level?
The process can vary a lot. What I never liked doing was what gets referred to as a “bake-off,” where they solicit 4 or 5 pitches from writers and pick the best one. I can understand why they do it — it speeds up the process — but if you’ve, say, worked out a story for a DOC SAMSON mini-series, and it gets rejected not because it’s bad, but because they got multiple good pitches and they can only buy one, then you’re likely left with a pitch that you can’t exactly use anywhere else. Sometimes they pay for them, to ameliorate that, but I’d rather have the freedom to do my story than to have a few bucks but the ideas are then owned by a company that doesn’t want to use them.
[And as it happens, I do have a pitch for a DOC SAMSON mini that didn’t get bought, and it’s not a story for the ages or anything, but there was a secondary character in it that I may retool and use in ASTRO CITY, because I like that guy’s story and think it’d be fun to tell, even if it doesn’t involve Doc Samson any more. That’s the benefit of retaining ownership if they don’t buy it.]
When I did UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN, in fact, that was nearly a bake-off. They’d asked a couple of other writers, who turned them down, and they asked me to take part in a bake-off. I didn’t want to, so I said I’d come up with a pitch quickly if they’d let me pitch solo, but if it was a bake-off, I didn’t want to play. That worked out pretty well. I’d hate to have come up with a dozen stories for teen Spider-Man and have nowhere to use them.
Anyway, I don’t think there are rejected pitches that eat at me, particularly. They probably annoyed me back in the 1980s, when I needed the money, but still it’s part of the process. What really annoyed me was when an editor asked me for a pitch, I sent it in, and he never responded. Wouldn’t return phone calls or e-mails, just complete silence. I’d rather be told “no” than that.
But these days, I don’t really pitch stuff that can’t be used elsewhere — I have a project I’m working on now that I pitched to a couple of different editors and they dismissed it out of hand. When I ran it by Eric Stephenson at Image, though, his reaction was “Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?! Let’s do this!”
So better it find a home somewhere someone’s enthusiastic about it rather than one where they don’t much care for it.
Kurt, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciated the conversation.
My pleasure, Ari. It was fun.