SPEAKING WITH… KURT BUSIEK

Part One

As is often the refrain here, I hardly ever remember where I met someone. People tend to cross paths a million times before you get to place them in context. I know I dealt with Kurt several times before I ever got to know him. I certainly remember his work when I was writing a book at Eclipse that I took on for all the wrong reasons. I had originally suggested Crisis on Infinite Earths because I loved DC Comics and had long wanted to fix what I felt were problems that, at the time, were preventing DC from reaching a wider audience. When I took on Total Eclipse, which was Eclipse’s attempt at shoving their universe together, I did it as a favor. I didn’t know or care about the Eclipse universe (aside from selected books which I really did like) and I didn’t have a specific story to tell as I had with Crisis. But I was asked by people I couldn’t say no to, and I did the job. The book was, as is the cliché, a job of work.

I was asked to take Kurt’s Elcipse series and somehow incorporate it into my larger story. I did my best, but my heart wasn’t in it for any number of reasons. Total Eclipse came out, sold two copies, and vanished. I tried to do as good a job as I could, and for all I know the two people who bought it loved it, but I’m sure I did no justice to Kurt’s or anyone else’s creations. Word of advice to everyone: Don’t take on a job that you don’t feel some passion for. It’s not worth it. Trust me.
I read Kurt’s subsequent work on and off for a few years and was impressed by the ideas but not the writing. He was at that early point in his career that you can tell he was feeling his way through the craft, and if he turned one way he’d be a footnote in comics’ history, but if he turned the other way…

Well, Kurt turned the other way. Big time! Suddenly, the thing happened. It happens to many of us. You are doing your work and then SHAZAM hits you with that lightning bolt and what was just professional (or less) becomes really, really great. I loved Marvels! Thunderbolts! His SpiderMan retro-continuity stories really felt like they belonged back in the 60s, only they had stories that actually made sense (hey! I loved Spidey back when it started, but read those stories again and tell me if you can track any issue’s plot. I dare you). And, of course, I absolutely loved Astro City. Kurt did something with Marvels that he further developed in Astro City that really impressed me. He found a new approach to writing super-hero stories. Not only that, but it worked. Worked wonders.

Kurt is also one of those guys who is willing to roll up his sleeves and do work if it gets a project done. Just ask anyone on a certain professional’s only list serve if anything would ever get done if Kurt didn’t take charge.

I sent my questionnaire to Kurt and, as usual with Kurt, his answers were so thorough and incisive that I am going to break them into three parts. So sit back and enjoy.

But first, to set the stage:

Kurt Busiek was born in Boston MA in 1960. He's been a professional comic book writer since three days before his college graduation, in 1982. Since that time, he's written POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, RED TORNADO, LEGEND OF WONDER WOMAN, WHAT IF, VAMPIRELLA, and many more. He's best known for the award-winning ASTRO CITY, MARVELS and AVENGERS, as well as THUNDERBOLTS, UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN and others. He currently writes ASTRO CITY, THE POWER COMPANY and the upcoming ARROWSMITH (with Carlos Pacheco), and is working on the long-awaited JLA/AVENGERS crossover.

MARV WOLFMAN: How did you break into the business?

KURT BUSIEK: The short answer: I submitted some scripts to DC, and they liked them enough for one editor to offer me an assignment. The long answer:

I've wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember -- but I always found the prospect of writing an entire novel or an entire screenplay, only to find out that I sucked, to be intimidating. So I'd start writing stuff and not get very far into it. I stumbled into the idea of writing comics -- I hadn't read them on a regular basis until I was 14, and sometime early on, I realized that real people wrote and drew these things, and they made a living doing it.

That seemed like a lot of fun to me, and besides, they were only 17 pages long! If I sucked at it, I'd find out really soon! So I browbeat my pal Scott McCloud into doing comics with me. We set out to write and draw a 16-page story about ten Marvel superheroes wailing the crap out of each other at our high school. I don't know why we picked that
length, but our plans were far more grandiose than the space we'd allotted to squeeze them into -- what we produced was a plotless, extended free-for-all that took three years to do and ran for sixty pages before we brought it to a close by having the few characters the were still conscious abruptly decide not to fight any more.

But over those 60 pages, we figured out a lot about how to write and draw comics. The first few pages are seriously awful, but by the end, we had a much better idea of what we were doing, craftwise. And we'd both gotten hooked by the form, and wanted to pursue it as a career -- me as a writer, Scott as an artist (and eventually, as an all-round cartoonist). So I took all the college courses I could think of that I thought might be helpful -- everything from creative writing and playwriting to comparative mythology and magazine publishing. But the most useful thing I did was study
and practice -- reading comics, analyzing comics, and above all making comics.

Scott and I produced a couple hundred pages of comics collaboratively, I did a few with other artists, and also wrote and drew a few of my own, discovering that I was very interested in visual storytelling, but not remotely interested in drawing backgrounds. I also wrote lots of letters to comic books, wrote reviews and other articles for fanzines, worked as an assistant editor and production guy on a few trade magazines, including COMICS FEATURE, and in general did whatever I could to
be a part of the industry. In my senior year of college, I was taking that magazine publishing class,
and for a term paper, we had to interview the publisher of a mass-market magazine -- mass-market defined by a certain circulation level.

Well, I talked the professor into letting me interview Dick Giordano, on the grounds that for ad sales purposes, DC lumped all its magazine circulations together,which put it comfortably over whatever the limit was. I'm not sure how I got around the fact that Dick was editor in chief at DC at the time, and not the publisher, but I managed. So over Thanksgiving break, I took the bus to New York City, stayed in a fleabag Times Square hotel (I had no idea what I was doing) and interviewed Dick for my term paper. At the end of the interview, I told him I was hoping to become a comics writer after graduation, and Dick very kindly invited me to submit some sample scripts to him directly.

Back at school, I spent Spring break writing those sample scripts -- a “Flash” script, a "Supergirl" script (during the period she was a soap opera actress), a "Superman: The In-Between Years" tale of Clark Kent's college days (which had been running as a backup at the time) and a BRAVE & BOLD teaming Batman and Green Lantern. I sent them in to Dick, and waiting for a response. Every now and then, I'd call DC and talk to Pat Bastienne, who would tell me Dick hadn't had time to read them yet. I probably leaned too much on the fact that they were requested samples, but I kept calling every few weeks, and eventually Dick passed the script out to the editors of the series for which they were written, and I made appointments to see those editors after the end of the semester.

Julie Schwartz had had Nelson Bridwell read the two Super-scripts, and Nelson pronounced them perfectly professional and publishable. Unfortunately, right around that time, the Supergirl series in SUPERMAN FAMILY had been scrapped in favor of a new ongoing SUPERGIRL book, and she wasn't a soap opera actress any more. And the "Superman: The In-Between Years" backup had been canceled. But Julie invited me to pitch him SUPERBOY ideas. I pitched him about 30, and he didn't like any of them, and instead gave me a brief plot outline to turn into a script on spec. I did, and didn't do it very well. Julie didn't like it, and that was the end of that particular path.

Ernie Colon, the editor of FLASH, didn't need any FLASH fill-ins, but liked my sample enough to invite me to pitch "Tales of the Green Lantern Corps" backups. I pitched him 18 of them, and he liked one enough to assign me to write it. That was my first sale -- "The Price You Pay," in GREEN LANTERN #162. Unfortunately, the second script I did for Ernie didn't go so well -- he assigned me to write a slapstick-humor GLC backup that was all done in pantomime. I wasn't anywhere near good enough to pull that off, and it showed -- and the resultant story was bad enough so that I didn't get any more offers from Ernie, or anyone else at DC, for a while.

Luckily, I was already writing for Marvel by then. On the strength of having that one GLC assignment, I sent a POWER MAN/IRON FIST fill-in plot outline to Denny O'Neil, including with it a note saying that I was already writing professionally for DC. For all of seven pages, but I didn't mention that part. I had noticed that in the wake of Jo Duffy's departure as regular writer from PM/IF, a new writer was supposed to come aboard, but month after month, what came out was single-issue fill-ins written by the book's editor, Denny O'Neil. I thought he might be open to a fill-in by someone else while he got the new writer up and running, so I sent a pitch.

Denny liked it enough to ask me to write it up as a full script on spec. I did, and he bought it, so I pitched another. He bought that, so I pitched a two-parter. And the new writer that was scheduled to do the book apparently never turned anything in, because I wound up writing the book for a year.
That was breaking in -- judging from other writers' stories, I think I broke in pretty easily. I had trouble staying in, though. I didn't pick up any more work at Marvel beyond POWER MAN/IRON FIST, so when I was fired from that book as part of an attempt to bring in a whole new creative team and get the sales up, I had no work. So I headed back in to New York (by this time, I was back living in Syracuse, where I'd gone to college, and where scripting one monthly book for $30 a page was enough to pay the rent and buy food) and slept on a friend's couch while I stumped around for more work.

I wound up writing some more Green Lantern Corps backups, this time for Len Wein, as well as a JLA fill-in, also for Len, and a RED TORNADO mini-series. Over at Marvel, I lucked into a job as freelance assistant editor on MARVEL AGE MAGAZINE, and did that for something more than a year. At that point, I had enough work -- a mini-series for Denny at Marvel and two minis for Alan Gold at DC, both approved and ready to go -- so that I quit my MARVEL AGE job and got my roommate hired to replace me. Whereupon Denny left Marvel for DC, and Alan quit comics entirely, and all three projects died and I had no work again. Things went along like that for about ten years.

By 1990, I was supporting myself as a freelance writer, and by 1993, I did MARVELS. But I really
didn't feel like I'd "broken in" in a way that stuck until after MARVELS came out.

MW: WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL WORKS, AND WHY?

KB: I'd have to say MARVELS and ASTRO CITY would top the list -- AVENGERS and
THUNDERBOLTS have certainly done well for me as well, but if there's anything I'm known for more than anything else, it's those two. As for why -- I think it's the happy coincidence of my own interests and audiences tastes. Right from the time I started reading superhero comics, I was interested in the question of what else happens in those worlds, what's life like between the adventures, or for the incidental characters.

I got a chance to tell a couple of those stories as backups, here and there, and then in MARVELS got to do a full-blown epic of sorts of what it's like to live in such a world. MARVELS turned out to be the perfect project at the perfect time -- Alex's stunning artwork got readers to pick it up, while the stories gave them something they weren't expecting, something they couldn't get anywhere else. And they liked it.

Apparently, we brought the experience of that world, that context, to life in a way that hadn't really been done before -- giving the heroes feet of clay was of course the Marvel revolution, but we put them back as figures of wonder, without losing a sense of humanity. We didn't do it out of calculation -- it's simply where Alex's and my interests crossed, where we thought we had a good story to tell. And now we're coming up on the tenth anniversary of the series, and it's still in print, still working for new readers. ASTRO CITY both predates MARVELS and grew out of MARVELS, in that I'd been wanting to tell that kind of story for a long time, and had lists of character springboards and story ideas, but never thought I'd seriously get to do it in a big way.

The success of MARVELS, though, gave me a reputation for being good at that sort of thing, and the commercial clout to do a series that didn't look commercial on the face of it. And again, it worked -- even without the Marvel characters to give it immediate familiarity. I had a larger, less-known canvas, so the appeal of different perspectives on the superhero milieu got to combine with exploration of this new and complex world that got broader and deeper every issue. But again, it's a case of me doing what I'm drawn to, and being lucky enough that it's something the audience wants, as well. Plus, of course, the fabulous art by Brent and Alex's covers don't hurt a bit.

MW: KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHICH OF YOUR MORE FAMOUS WORKS WOULD YOU REDO IF YOU COULD. WHY AND HOW?

KB: None of them. That's not because I don't think they could be improved -- the first year of AVENGERS is way too cramped, and I really punted the "Courts of Kosmos" story in THUNDERBOLTS #13-14, to pick two of many examples -- but I'd rather leave them as they are and do better next time. I'd rather focus on creating the next story rather than polishing one that's already done, whatever its strengths or weaknesses.

MW: DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN YOU CREATE A STORY?

KB: I'm not aware of it, not consciously. I'm writing largely for myself, to suit my own sensibility of what makes a good story, and hoping that an audience will want to go where I want to lead them. What varies, and allows me to create different works for different audiences, is that my sense of
what makes a good story varies from project to project. UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN, for instance, was pitched "younger" than ASTRO CITY or even IRON MAN, but it's not because I was thinking while I was writing the series that I had to slant it for younger readers. It was simply that my conception of the series, from the editorial requirements to my desire to capture the spirit, if not the technique, of the old Lee/Ditko SPIDER-MANs, resulted in my own sense of what kind of story belonged in that book. I knew they had to be self-contained, new-reader-friendly, with even multi-chapter stories working as standalone stories in each issue. I knew we wanted a certain
bounce, a certain atmosphere. And that gave me a sense of what kind of story I would want to read in that kind of book, so I wrote to that sense -- to me as audience and first reader, if that was the kind of book I was seeking out that day.

So I guess the answer is that I'm the audience I keep in mind every time, but I like a wide enough variety of material that I select some facet of my tastes that matches the assignment and then write to that part of myself. I'm always glad -- and a little surprised -- when it turns out that the rest
of the audience likes the material, too. I suspect that if I set out to craft stories for someone else's tastes, they'd fall flat -- they always have when I've worked with an editor who wants me to follow his sensibility rather than my own.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS WHEN YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE A STORY?

KB: It varies widely. Generally, I spend a fair amount of time working out a story in my head before I commit anything to paper. Once I've done enough thinking about it, I start to jot down notes, until I know what shape the story is, how it structures out. I then rough out an outline, and fill in any gaps I haven't figured out yet. Once I have that, I'm ready to break it down into pages and start typing.
Where the process starts varies a lot, too. For an AVENGERS story, such as the "Ultron Unlimited" story, I'm often asking the question "What happens next?", either built out of the characters or the situation they were last in. For the Ultron story, I went into it knowing I wanted to do an Ultron
story, so the main questions I asked were, "What does Ultron want now? What's the next step in his personal story? He's done all these things in the past, but what has he learned from them and where would he take them?" And once I figured out that he wouldn't just want to wipe the earth clean of
humanity, but repopulate it with a family of his own creation, I could start asking the next questions -- "How would he do that? How would it bring him into conflict with the Avengers? What makes it personal to them, rather than just a job?" And the story built out of that.

At the same time, however, I had the Avengers characters in motion, here and there -- Justice had been feeling the pressure of playing in the big leagues, and was trying to hard. He'd had an enforced break from adventuring, in that he broke his leg in an earlier story, so he'd had some time to settle down, and was ready to do something crucial, something that'd save the day. Similarly, Hank Pym, who is essentially Ultron's father, was dealing with guilt feelings over his episodes of insanity in the past, and fearful that he'd succumb to them again and harm Jan again, so he was carrying around a lot of emotion that needed addressing. Both of those fed into the Ultron
story, providing important turning points for the characters and the plot -- all essentially built around finding the appropriate next dramatic step for the characters.

In ASTRO CITY, however, I don't have an ongoing narrative, so I don't have that constant "what happens next" question. So there, I start with an idea -- what's it like for a famous child in a superhero dynasty, growing up in the public eye? Can a villain who's motivated by an urge to prove something ever be satisfied with getting away with the perfect crime? -- and build my
characters and plot around serving that core idea. That's not to say it always works one way or the other -- there are stories in ASTRO CITY that have come about because I wanted to explore a character we'd seen before, so I dug into that character to see what the appropriate
next step was, and how I could find a core story idea in serving that next step, and stories in AVENGERS that are built out of a story concept more than a character progression -- but those are two of my most common starting points.

Wherever I start, though, the goal is to build a story structure that works, that feels satisfying in its sense of discovery, of resolution, or "rightness." A lot of that is instinctive, though, so I can sum it up in rules -- I just mess with it until it feels right. I sometimes think I got my sense of story from a combination of Norse myths and Andrew Lang's extensive anthologies of fairy tales, both of which I read over and over when I was pretty young, and that sense of events reaching a fitting moral ending -- not necessarily a happy ending, but an ending that either has justice to it or has a point to justice being denied -- plays a big role in what feels right to me.

***

That’s it for this week’s column. Please return next week for part two. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. See you in seven days.

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