SPEAKING WITH… STEVEN GRANT! PART ONE

I’ve already read the following interview and I promise you are in for a special treat. I’m well known for having a memory that goes back to some time after lunch and definitely a few hours before dinner, and though I’ve known Steven Grant for a few decades, off the top I couldn’t tell you exactly when it was we met (though Steven will, below). I do remember him walking the halls at Marvel, and though I don’t remember “blowing him off,” as he says below, I don’t doubt I did. I believed then and now in perseverance and never giving up your goals no matter what any fool tells you. Especially me. A writer or artist who surrenders his or her future the first time someone says “No,” simply doesn’t want it enough.

Steven has written a ton of books and for most every publisher. But it took writing The Punisher to finally make his name. From that point Steven became one of the regulars. His writing is personal and eclectic. Unlike many writers who began in the ‘70s, he ‘made it’ by mostly creating his own characters and books.

From the very beginning, Steven has been one of the more opinionated writers I’ve known. He brings as great a passion to his thoughts and he does his writing, and whether I agree with him or not (more often than not I do) he brings up subjects others simply don’t think about.

If you’re the kind who loves the Directors/Writers commentaries on DVDs where they get into the nitty-gritty of things and explain how and why they did what they did, then be prepared for a special treat. 

Marv Wolfman: WHAT TRAINING DID YOU HAVE TO BECOME A WRITER? HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

Steven Grant: I sort of broke into the business by accident. It wasn't actually intentional. While in high school I'd wanted to write comics, college had shifted my ambitions about some, and though I'd written some of what was then called "ground level comics" for fly by night companies like Windy City Comics and Power Comics (my first paid gig was a "Nightwitch" story for them that, as I recall, was rewritten horribly from my probably horrible original, and the name on it was "Grant Stevens," which I don't think was my idea), and had done a couple things for Mike Friedrich's Star*Reach Comix, on getting out of college I started working as a rock-and-film critic for papers in Madison WI (where I grew up).

I'd stayed in touch with comics through fandom, particularly the CPL Gang in Indiana -- we used to meet at small conventions in Chicago -- and they kept pushing me to try to get into comics. In fact, in 1976 at Duffy Vohland's urging I pitched some things to some Marvel editor-in-chief... Wolf Marvman or something like that... and he blew me out of the water. (Two of the things -- a Punisher mini-series and a "Black Knight in the Crusades" mini I later did for Marvel anyway. Not that there was any bad blood; I honestly didn't expect to get accepted, but doing the pitch routine was an interesting glimpse at Marvel's inner workings.)

Anyway, I was a professional critic in 1978 when CPL ganger Roger Stern became a Marvel editor. I would stay with Sterno when I visited NYC, which was once or twice a year, and I called to ask if it was okay to come in around Easter of '78. Roger, who had inherited a number of desperately late books, asked when I'd be coming in. Sunday, I said. Good, he replied, be ready to write an issue of MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE on Monday. And I did, and that was that. It was an amusing experience and not one I took terribly seriously -- until the paycheck came in. At which point I realized I had my foot in the door of something that could possibly enable me to make a decent living doing something I liked. The "something I liked" part has turned out to be a vast understatement, and I wish the "make a decent living" part had been less sporadic.

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

SG: Financially, it'd have to be the PUNISHER RETURN TO BIG NOTHING graphic novel and the LIFE OF POPE JOHN PAUL II one-shot, and the abortive EDGE series at Bravura/Malibu, which I was paid through the nose for. I have a nasty tendency to look at a lot of my work as experiments, so I'm probably not the best suited to decide which were and weren't artistically successful. I like my own creations best: WHISPER, BADLANDS, ENEMY, DAMNED. Pretty much any work I do with Mike Zeck comes out better than I could have imagined. I loved CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN with John Paul Leon, the issues of X that Doug Mahnke and Matt Haley drew. There was an issue of MARVEL FEATURE that starred The Black Knight (the Crusades story) that John Buscema drew, one of the best jobs he'd done in years to that point, and that came out almost exactly as I'd conceived it almost ten years earlier. I think probably my most successful work, artistically and financially, will be the next one I do, but I always think that.

My MANHUNTER series at DC was roundly loathed at the time of publication, but where I could there I tried some things with narration and storytelling that I think worked really well, and in the intervening years I've had a lot of people tell me how much they liked the series. That's the story of my professional life: when a series is being run, everyone hates it, and years after cancellation, people discover it.

What are you going to do, right? In my weekly column, PERMANENT DAMAGE (http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/?column=10) I once quoted a Leonard Cohen line: "Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another." That's what every project is line. I deal that card, that's what I'll call successful.

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

SG: Most I'm reasonably satisfied with. I've always wanted to get the WHISPER series redrawn from scratch by a single, stylish artist, which is never going to happen. Howard Chaykin told me awhile back that my style is such that I'm really at the mercy of the artists I work with, and I think that's true. My work that tends to get the best reaction is the work that's well-drawn, and I put a lot of the storytelling burden on the art because I always hated those expository comics captions that say "So-and-so strikes out, knocking the villain off his feet" when that's what's in the panel. But a lot of artists have been trained that it's all right to leave the storytelling to the writer, to make the writer come in and add the connective tissue in order to make the story make sense -- and then they don't leave any room for text to do that.

I don't like expository captions, I think they make for bad comics. As far as going in and rewriting material, I could probably do that on virtually anything I've written. I don't think about it that much, there were only one or two things I've done that I think were such disasters I wish for the opportunity to redo them. In general, I'd rather just keep moving forward to new things.

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

SG: The only audience I ever really take into consideration is the editor/publisher, where I have to. If you're writing a Spider-Man book, Spider-Man is directed at a particular audience and the editor is theoretically the representative of the audience in that situation, he's going to make sure it's material HE thinks the audience will enjoy, and to the extent you start throwing in outside elements -- like, say, pitching a Spider-Man western or a porn version of the character -- you're just asking for trouble. It's just stupidity, unless you've got a really great idea that transcends all other considerations. Otherwise, I don't really think the audience should enter into the equation.

In a perfect world, you should let the story dictate where it needs to go. To the extent you do otherwise, those are really commercial considerations, not artistic. Of course, I make commercial considerations all the time, we all do because this is a business, but it's not something I'm happy about and I try to minimize it. I just want to get stories I find interesting out there.

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

SG: I don't have a process per se. It depends on the story. If I'm doing some work for hire job I start by researching whatever character I'm supposed to be writing to see if there's some unexplored angle I can exploit; I did this on a GREEN ARROW pitch recently. If it's an idea for something original, the germ of the idea will fester in my head for awhile and bits and pieces will coalesce over time. I usually figure out a main character first, then set him into the situation to see which way he bounces and look for dramatic possibilities. In most cases the story only gets very loosely plotted out ahead of time.

I like to know how stories end, for two reasons: if you have some idea of where you're going it's usually easier to get there, and you never really know what a story's about until it's over. The ending is what reveals the point of your story. So I'll start working out the story, and figuring out where other characters have to come in to keep the story on track, to push it where you need it to go. Their role in the story defines those characters, and then they define their role. One of the great joys of this is suddenly realizing what a character's true role is, after you've introduced them. That's when they really become their own characters.

I don't want to give the impression I treat characters as plot functions, because it's a lot more complicated than that, but you can only really treat characters, in the minimal space usually allotted in comics, to the extent they intersect with the storyline. I'd actually love to do some sort of "choose your own adventure" style comic that's three dimensional where you can come across Character B or Character C in the course of a story, see them in that habitat, then follow their perpendicular character lines backwards or forwards in time to see where they came from or where they end up, and then when you follow those lines you hit Characters D, E, F, etc... and the process continues that way. I doubt anyone will ever let me do something like that, and I suspect trying it would be a route to madness, but I wouldn't mind trying someday.

Comics need more experimental forms and experimental writing; they've grown stylistically stodgy and overly familiar for the most part.

To the extent I have a formula, I realized after BADLANDS it's this: drop as many characters as workable in a story and have then revolve around each other in decaying orbits, until whoever survives ends up in the same place and the same time and they all start shooting. And whoever's the last one standing is the hero of the story. Left to my own devices, that's my natural bent. The only other writer I've ever read whose plots worked the same way was the mystery writer Eugene Izzi, who ended up killing himself. Officially, anyway.

To be continued…

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