Kurt Busiek: Marathon Man

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Apr 27 2009 at 12:01am

Posted in General News,Interviews

Trinity Comic BookWinner of multiple Harvey and Eisner awards, Kurt Busiek is one of the most prolific writers in comics. After making a big splash with Marvels, his limited series that deconstructed the history of Marvel’s superheroes from the perspective of the common man, Busiek has gone on to touch almost every corner of the Marvel and DC universes, as well as relaunch Dark Horse Comics’ Conan series.

Now, of course, you know him for Trinity, DC’s ambitious weekly series that ends its year-long run May 27. I had the great good fortune to speak with Busiek at this year’s Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, and of course, old-school comics geek that I am, my first question references events that happened more than 20 years ago. Enjoy! Thank you so much for meeting with me. So, you’re the guy who brought Jean Grey back to life!

Kurt Busiek: Sort of! It was an odd and tortuous process. Before Jean Grey died, a couple of friends and I learned what was going to happen through the grapevine, and we didn’t like the idea at all. We were all fans of the original five X-Men. So we spent the evening coming up with ways to bring Jean back to life. We had also heard about Jim Shooter’s rule, which was that she couldn’t come back unless she was found not guilty of genocide, so we covered that, too.  We weren’t making any serious plans–we did this for fun and out of fannish indignation.

A couple of years later, after I’d broken in, I attended my first convention as a pro, in Ithaca, New York, and I stayed at Roger Stern’s house. And we were talking about how much we liked the new X-Men, and he said, “It’s just a pity there’s no way to bring Jean Grey back,” and I said, “Sure there’s a way, there’s always a way.”

Roger brought up Jim Shooter’s rule, and I said, “I know about the rule, and this is how I’d get around it,” and I told him the story I had come up with, and he said, “That’s really good, that’s quite clever. That would work, that would get around the rule.” So as far as I knew, that was the last of it. But sometime later, Roger was talking to John Byrne, and he said, “Oh by the way, a guy I know came up with a way to bring Jean Grey back.” And John said, “No, no, there isn’t any way.” And Roger outlined my idea, and John thought it was pretty good.

So when X-Factor started, Bob Layton was planning on including the original four X-Men plus Dazzler. But then, John called up Bob Layton and said, “Hey Bob, do you want Jean back? Because I have a way!” And Bob said, “That sounds good!” And they pitched it to the editor, Jim Shooter, and it all got approved.  It was set up to be a crossover between the Avengers by Roger, the Fantastic Four by John, and X-Factor by Bob.

At the time, I was working in the production department as the assistant editor of Marvel Age Magazine, and Bob Layton, who I’d never met before, comes up behind me and says, “I hear you’re the guy I have to thank for having Jean Grey back.” And I hadn’t talked about any of this for probably three years at this point, so my reaction was “Huh?” So Bob explained it to me.

We arranged that I got a credit in the issue of the Fantastic Four where Jean Grey was brought back, and I got paid for the plot contribution. But the original stuff, my part of it, was just fannish conversation. So, I get the benefit of–hey, if you like the fact that Jean Grey came back, then it was my idea. If you don’t like the fact that Jean Grey came back, it wasn’t my fault. I’m in a win-win situation either way, because I didn’t pitch it, I didn’t approve it, I just talked about my ideas with friends. We didn’t have the Internet back then, but this is the sort of thing fans talk about on the Internet these days too.

The ironic part of all of this is, here I was working on Marvel Age Magazine, and the conceit we came up with to promote X-Factor and the secret reveal was, we did straight interviews with everyone, with John, with Roger, with Bob, and then I put black tape over every spot that was about the return of Jean–those were the secret, redacted parts. So, all of them said, “Hey, this is Kurt’s idea”–and I covered it up, to make sure no one would know! So where did the idea for Trinity come from?

KB: The idea for Trinity came from sort of a creative heat. I’d pitched a completely different idea starring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but that was really the only connection. My idea was, an inexpensive package, maybe a buck, for seven pages of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and then promotional stuff on what was coming out from DC Comics the next week. So you go into the comic book store, and this comic would cost like a buck, and you get your Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman chapter, plus you also get previews about what’s coming out next week, and checklists and things like that.

Back in the ’70s they used to have this feature called the Daily Planet, which would give you promo blurbs and checklists and things like that, and when I was a fan, I would always use that. You’d see it and think, “Let’s see, Batman is teaming up with Scalphunter. Do I want to buy that? Well, no I don’t, but at least I thought about it.” So I thought this would be a good thing for the DC line, and I pitched that idea, and people were interested, but it changed and grew and mutated, and turned into what we wound up doing. So I have to say that the idea came from us changing the original idea and modifying it. It didn’t arrive clean–it arrived in bits and pieces. In Trinity, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have become godlike–representatives of different archetypes. It seems like with a lot of the superhero things you do, like Marvels, that you’re interested in not just what superheroes can do, but what they represent to people. Is that something you consciously focus on?

KB: I like superheroes as metaphor, I like them as the big idea. So, if all [the story] is about is what’s their personality, what’s the plot, to me, that’s thriller writing. To me, that’s science fiction, and you’re simply moving characters around on an artificial chessboard, maintaining the reality of an artificial world. I’m much more interested in the superhero story as fairytale, as a place where ideas bigger than an individual sort of clash in symbolic ways.

I think superheroes have more in common with movie musicals than they do with straight science fiction. The song in a movie musical is the point where the conflict, or the romance, or the situation becomes symbolic enough that you can sing a song about it, and by the time the song is over, the plot has moved in a different direction. That’s what a good fight scene in a superhero comic is about. It leads things to a point where things become symbolic in a way where you can have these metaphors clash with each other, and once they’ve done that, things are going in a different directions. It’s my particular way of looking at it. So how does that compare to when you’re working on a non-superhero title, like Conan?

KB: There aren’t as many metaphors in Conan. Conan is built around the idea that Conan is the incorruptible, uncivilized man, dealing with a society that is in decay, it’s corrupted, and the leaders of that society abuse and manipulate the people they have power over. It’s very much a metaphor for distrust of the government during the Great Depression, which is when the character was created. But it also worked in the anti-Vietnam ’60s when Conan became popular in paperback, in the Watergate ’70s, which is when it became popular in comics, and you can see why it would be popular in the last couple of years–it’s a very versatile metaphor. Conan stories are built around that very strong idea.

Superhero stories are built around different metaphors: here’s a character who’s a metaphor of adolescence, and here’s a character who’s a metaphor for patriotism, and they’re going to fight! Superheroes are like metaphor soup, and Conan is a fantasy series built around one central, strong metaphor. I’m saying a lot of this off the top of my head, because if you really could analyze it out all that clearly, boil it down to something that basic, then writing these stories wouldn’t be hard to do. And it is. So it’s less a matter of “What’s the metaphor formula?” and more a matter of, “What does playing with the metaphor feel like? Where does it lead you?” Take what I’m saying and treat it strictly logically–what, symbols of adolescence and patriotism fighting?–and there are 16 ways to say, “That doesn’t make any sense, dude.” But the answer is, if it comes out with good stories, then it makes sense. Other people can do things in a different way that makes sense to them, and if it comes out with a good story, then it’s good for them. So, with a weekly series, what was the workload like? Was it a lot heavier than usual, or do you usually work on multiple books at a time?

KB: It’s definitely heavier than usual, and it’s not just the heaviness of it, it’s the relentlessness. Because we did the book plot style, which was really the only way to do it between me and Fabian Nicieza, that meant that there were four deadlines every week: the plot for the feature, the script for the feature, and then the plot for the co-feature and the script for the co-feature. So every five working days, there were four deadlines.

With a monthly title, if you’re sick that week, it’s not such a big deal–you can be gone for a week and get better, and then work the next week and catch back up. With this, it’s a relentless treadmill. If the plot’s not ready, the whole freight train starts to derail. If you’re sick, doesn’t matter. If your basement flooded, if you’ve got jury duty, doesn’t matter. Write something!

Among the creative team there were a number of time-consuming disasters, from moving house to chronic illnesses, but with the weekly schedule the pace was relentless and unforgiving. Everybody worked broken at some point or another, just because you’ve gotta get it done. Still, in some ways, it was a liberating experience. With the equivalent of four monthly books, there were all these plotlines and characters outlined, we know where we’re going. The part of your brain that’s fleshing out the outline is very active. However, I was still coming up with other ideas, so when it was time to talk to DC about what I was going to do after Trinity, I had 26 pages of notes, stuff that I had come up with during that static period.

It was a very creative period, even though I was mostly working on just one project. Plus, it was interesting to focus on one project that much for that length of time. It was liberating to be so focused that I didn’t have to think about other things–which let my subconscious run wild. It was grueling, to be involved for that length of time, and it was a thrill that by the time we’re done with this, we’ll have done 52 issues with two writers, and four artists. That’s amazing.

KB: That’s six guys. And with three of those artists, they have had the same inkers all the way through. We had a colorist, a letterer–well, the letterer had a little help–but it was an unbelievable amount of focus from that group, and it was a lot of fun. It sounds like a marathon.

KB: Yes it was definitely a marathon, and right now as we’re getting to the end of it, it’s the sprint part, but it was a marathon through most of it. Do you have any spoilers for the end of the story arc?

KB: We destroy the world in issue #49. Oh, okay.

KB: But that’s issue #49. So, how much longer are you exclusive with DC?

KB: I’m exclusive with DC at least until the end of this year.

Astro What’s coming up next for you?

KB: I have Astro City, and an Arrowsmith project that’s a followup to the miniseries that Carlos (Pacheco) and I did. It’s a prose novel, an Arrowsmith novel, and Carlos is going to do copious illustrations for it. I like to describe it as, it’s like Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, except, it’s not Neil and Charlie, it’s me and Carlos, and instead of Stardust it’s Arrowsmith, but other than that, it’s just like it! How about after that?

KB: Well, we’ve been talking about other stuff, some projects that got started in the past, but got put on hold, and now they’re coming off hold, but none of it’s ready to be announced yet. I am doing something called Wednesday Comics. Do you know what Wednesday Comics are? No, I don’t!

KB: After Trinity ends, there’s another weekly book. This one’s only 12 issues long, and it’s in a different format–it’s like an old, classic ’40s-style Sunday comics section. So you take the comic, and then you unfold it, and then you unfold it again, and that’s a page, one page. There are 15 series in it, each with one page a week. I’m writing the Green Lantern story, where every week, there’s one chapter on one huge page. Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred are doing Metamorpho, and Kyle Baker is doing Hawkman–it’s a whole bunch of different creators, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. So is there any character you haven’t been able to work with yet that you’d like to get your hands on?

KB: Actually, I think there are very few characters that I haven’t gotten my hands on, at this point. I did JLA Avengers, and that took care of a ton, I did the Avengers, which is a huge number of Marvel characters, and I’ve written for the Defenders, which covers a lot of the rest. I’ve written the X-Men in stories–I’ve never written the book. Same for the Fantastic Four.

In doing JLA and Trinity, I’m covering a huge amount of the DC Universe, but that’s not quite the same thing as having a run on a character. I’ve written Green Lantern stories, but with these Wednesday Comics, this is the first time I’ve been given the reins and told, “Write it your way,” as opposed to, “Your issue fits in here, so match what other people are doing.” There’s a lot of characters I’d like to do. I’d love to do the Legion sometime.

I’d like to do a run on the Fantastic Four, I’d like to do the Flash, I’d like to do Captain America–I’d like to do all of these characters that I have technically written, but in their own features on an ongoing basis. I also want to do more stuff that I create myself. So, Jean Grey is dead again. Do you have any ideas to bring her back?

KB: Hey, it’s always possible. I think I did my part for Jean once, and if people want her back, then there are certainly ways, but I’ll let other people do it. I have to admit, that, you know, much as I didn’t want to see Jean die, well, she came back and spent 15 to 20 years as a skin-tight, butt-floss, bad girl-looking sexpot character, and that’s not really Jean as I knew her. So, resurrecting a character doesn’t guarantee that you get that character back. It means the character is available to be modernized, and the modernizing they do might be a good thing and it might not be, but everyone can judge for themselves.

Our thanks again to Kurt Busiek for taking the time to speak with us! Trinity #47 is out this week, and you can find the entire Trinity series–and many of Busiek’s other works–right here on our site.

However! If you’re lucky enough to live in the Portland area, you too can have the opportunity to speak with Kurt Busiek in person. That’s right, true believers, he’s signing at the Portland Things From Another World store on Free Comic Book Day, May 2! Come on down to 4133 NE Sandy Blvd. to get free comics from dozens of publishers and meet your favorite comic book creators. Mr. Busiek will be signing from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., but I’d suggest you get there early!

  • Jason

    Wow! Thank you! I always wanted to write in my site something like that. Can I take part of your post to my blog?