Holy Christmas miracle, Spider-Man! A true miracle from the Ghost of Jack Kirby! I don't believe in God but I do believe in the cigar smoking Ghost of Jack Kirby. Around Christmas, Facebook suggested that I 'friend' David Michelinie. David has written over six hundred stories - for the comic book industry. He wrote a long run on what is probably Marvel Comics' most famous title: The Amazing Spider-man. This run stretched over the time period which brought Canadian Spidey artist Todd McFarlane to fame. I was in grade nine. I had just switched over from buying comics at the convenience store to buying them at a specialty comic shop. This stretch defined Spider-Man for me. Who could not relate to him? Awkward and good hearted, he was unsure, a science nerd trying to find himself and take care of loved ones. He was practically South Asian! At this point in the run, he was no longer a university student: an adult, he was working, had moved out from Aunt May's, and married his sweetheart Mary Jane Watson.
I bought the comics for McFarlane's artwork but a happy coincidence took place. Michelinie's writing, in contrast to much else at Marvel, could be understated, humanistic, quite loving of its characters. McFarlane and others would leave Marvel, start their own ventures, and bring about the aesthetic destruction/ruin of the comic book industry. I traded the comic store for repertory cinemas and used bookstores, and developed a fair deal of self loathing for having collected Marvel comics. But I didn't forget those nice humanistic touches in Michelinie's writing. His run might have been the first time I was aware of a consistent writer behind the comic book stories I read. Not just the pictures and bombastic characters on the surface.
I hit that 'Friend' button on Facebook faster than you can say "with great power comes..."
Koom: Now, it seems like you have to be an established successful sci-fi novelist or TV writer to write for Marvel Comics or DC. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got your own start writing for Marvel Comics - the process and challenges - back in the 80s?
David: Actually, when I started writing for Marvel in 1979, I had already been writing regularly for DC Comics for five years. So I had the experience and credentials to get me in the door. Maybe it would be more informative for me to go back to the magical year of 1973 and explain how I first got into DC.
I had earned a bachelor’s degree in television and film and had spent a year writing (and doing other grunt work) for a commercial film production company in Indiana. When I quit to go freelance, I moved back with my parents in Kentucky to save money while I sought independent writing assignments. In 1973, DC Comics started what they called an apprenticeship program, intended to hire would-be writers and artists and bring them into the DC offices to do small jobs and gofer work as they learned the business. (The program didn’t last long and as I recall, only one writer was ever brought in, though he did become successful in the medium.) I sent sample stories in to DC, but those never reached the apprenticeship office. Instead, they mistakenly landed on editor Joe Orlando’s slush pile (unsolicited manuscripts). One day after lunch, Joe’s assistant editor, Michael Fleisher, had a few free moments, took the top script (mine) off the pile and read it. He sent me a response saying that my abilities showed promise, but that DC couldn’t work with anyone outside of the New York area. (This was before the era of fax machines and Internet.) He added that if I ever found myself in the Northeast, I could feel free to contact them.
Well, I’m not a terribly ambitious person, but I do believe in taking advantage of opportunities. So two weeks later I had closed out my commercial contracts, packed up my Toyota Corolla, and moved to Queens. I gave DC a call and, though they seemed surprised and a little uneasy, they felt obligated to give me a chance. Fortunately, I was able to quickly learn the unique requirements of telling a story in the comic book format, and over the next 40+ years published over 600 stories.
Koom: Were your Iron Man issues where he grapples with alcoholism a result of these 'issues' based writing influences? How did you fit in with the Marvel Bullpen of the 80s? How did you approach style and purpose during these times? Or were you just detached, treating it all as a series of professional assignments?
David: Actually, the alcohol storyline came from logically following the history of past issues and trying to think in terms of real people. When I was offered the monthly writing assignment on Iron Man, I had never read an issue of that comic. I had been more into second tier characters--Conan, Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer, etc.--than the more mainstream costumed heroes. So I read the three or four issues scheduled to come out before mine and realized that Tony Stark’s world was not a very happy place: the government was trying to regulate The Avengers, a hostile takeover of his company was being mounted, and his love life was...well, don’t get me started! It seemed to me that a real person in his situation would be desperate for some way to ease the pressure, at least for a little while. These days cocaine or designer drugs might come to mind, but Tony Stark had long been established as a playboy--and a social drinker--so in the 1980s, alcohol dependency tumbling out of control seemed a logical crutch. I shared my idea with co-plotter Bob Layton, we took it to editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and he approved it. In fact, the only condition he placed on us was, “Do it well.” Which, I hope, we did.
I guess I fit in well enough with the ‘80s bullpen. I didn’t work in the offices, but I took the train in once or twice a month and always enjoyed the interaction with people there. As for my story efforts at the time, Shooter had always liked my work and editor Jim Salicrup gave me a fair amount of freedom, so that helped things run smoothly. Another advantage was that Iron Man wasn’t considered a “big” title then, so there wasn’t excessive oversight. There wasn’t a lot of interest from other editors and there wasn’t a big spotlight of attention shining on the book, so we were pretty much allowed to try new things without a lot of “you can’t do this, you can’t do that” interference.
How did I approach style and purpose? It was all a matter of character. I treated Tony Stark, and the supporting cast we introduced along the way, as if he was a real guy. He’d had decades of experience with super-science and super-villains, so I treated that as an accepted part of his personal “real world”. The starting point for me was that I saw Tony, while a flawed human, as a genuinely noble man at his core. And that was a factor, however subtle, in pretty much every decision and action he made throughout my run. So that was where purpose came from. As for style, I didn’t consciously determine how I would write the book. But the two factors that probably infuse the stories most consistently are humor and conflict. Co-plotter Bob and I shared a similar sense of humor, and when we cracked each other up during plot sessions, we knew we had something that would entertain the reader. As for conflict, that’s something that permeates the life of every single human on the planet, from “Should I have a burger and fries for lunch, or a healthy salad?” to “Should I give that homeless person a dollar, or pretend I don’t see him and walk on by?” Tony’s options might be on a grander scale than the rest of us, but conflict is something everyone can relate to, whether they’re conscious of it or not. There’s this great line from the first Bioshock video game: “We all make choices. But in the end, our choices make us.”
Koom: ...at some point, you did get sole writing duties on The Amazing Spider-Man which was, I'm guessing, Marvel's number one selling title at the time. Like I've mentioned to you before, I started out collecting those for the Todd McFarlane artwork. Your stories were something I enjoyed as a happy by-product though, and since I collected those comics consistently at that time, I was treated to a stretch of your writing. Though I have no love for the McFarlane artwork (or his personality) at this point in my life, I still remember the small touches to your writing. Besides the fight scenes and the typical Spidey villain stuff, there were many small moments of conflict or human drama. Peter Parker being married but not able to pay his rent, an entomology professor who did not have his doctorate and was a fraud, a housewife walking up to MJ (Peter's wife) and slapping her on the street because she didn't like the character MJ played on a soap opera and could not tell the difference between the character and real life, a millionaire neighbour of Peter's and MJ kidnapping MJ because he was obsessed with her, keeping her hidden in the same apartment building where they lived (the best part of this was how MJ escaped on her own without Spidey/Peter's help), and Peter touring to promote his book of photos are some of the small moments that stay with me still. I guess that besides my childhood fondness for Spider-Man, when I didn't know the writer's or creator's names, your Spidey period defines the flavour of the character in my mind for me. Could you talk about how you approached character and conflict and writing as applies to your Spider-Man run? Were your editors always on board with your ideas or were there direction and mandates handed down from above?
David: Actually, while AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was indeed one of the top books at Marvel at the time, I’m pretty sure the main X-Men title was the best seller. And maybe even a couple of other mutant books were selling better. (Chris Claremont could probably clarify that question!)
Yes, while I was writing Spider-Man stories I always considered the most important part of any of them to be that Peter Parker guy. What he did, how he chose to handle situations both dangerous and humorous, was what made the stories interesting. And that also applied to the villains and supporting cast. What you mentioned about Mary Jane saving herself without Spidey’s help was a nail hit on the head. That was a deliberate plotting choice on my part. While MJ was no balls-to-the-wall woman warrior, she was strong and self-determining in her career and her life, and I wanted to show that by example when she was faced with a situation where the cavalry wasn’t going to ride in at the last minute and pull her out of the fire. And the fact that Peter was proud of her for this was just another small character element that presented itself as a bonus.
How did I approach the Spider-Man character and the writing of his stories? Pretty much how I try to write any story: from the human aspects of the participants. Spider-Man was my favorite comic book character of all time, and the only thrill greater than getting to write his stories in WEB OF SPIDER-MAN was when I was transferred over to his original title, AMAZING. It was literally my dream job. But I was thrown a major curve shortly after I took over the book: it had been determined by Marvel management that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson were to be married. I hated that. Hated, hated, hated it. I wanted to write the Spider-Man I loved when I first got back into reading comics in college, the poor guy who has human problems and always struggles to do what’s right--just like me! It was one of the reasons I think the character had become so popular, because he was so easy for young readers to identify with. But how many 15-year-olds (the median age of comics readers in the 1980s) were married, let alone to a fashion model turned actress?!? I lobbied against it, but Stan Lee was going to get the couple married in the newspaper strip and the die was cast--the comic book was to follow. So I fell back on my core perspective: what would a real human do in this situation? And by looking at Peter Parker’s troubled past, and the true love he felt for MJ, I decided to do something rather daring: make the marriage work! Most marriages in comics (and sitcoms and soap operas and other series with continuing storylines) fall prey to the cliche of putting the marriage in trouble: infidelity, misunderstandings, jealousy, etc. This is likely due to the pressure of coming up with new stories every day, week or month. So I decided it might be different--as well as challenging--to give Peter Parker something of a happy life for a change. And I found it was a lot of fun. And with both Peter’s and Mary Jane’s non-standard “careers” to play with, it wasn’t all that difficult to come up with reasonable and believable conflicts to create action and visual interest. So it all goes back to that one golden word: character.
Editorially, there was kind of a schizophrenic background to my AMAZING SPIDER-MAN experience. Initially, Jim Salicrup was the editor on the four Spider-Man titles, and Jim and I got along pretty well. I would present him with the general direction I wanted to go over the next three or four issues, he would make suggestions or ask for changes, and when those were seen to and approved I would be free to write the full plots for the artist. Things generally went smoothly; I had fun and a fair amount of freedom, and the book’s sales began to rise. But then Jim left and Danny Fingeroth replaced him and things changed. Danny was much more of a hands-on presence, and after the three issue arc I had begun that introduced the Carnage character, I was pretty much required to follow Danny’s ideas for story directions. Danny was something of a company man and felt that part of his job was to make books in his stable more commercial and increase sales. For instance, Jim had been very protective of the Venom character, not allowing other editors to use it, not forcing me to write Venom stories simply to boost sales, and allowing me to feature the character only when I had a new idea that would move the character and his relationship with Peter Parker forward. I think this was one reason the character’s popularity continually built up, the fact that whenever he appeared something new happened. When Danny took over he offered Venom to the entire Marvel editorial crew, even suggested that they use him. To me, this led to inconsistency in characterization (the first time another writer wrote a Venom story, the character suddenly had two powers he’d never had before, with no explanation) and over exposure. I hung in there, trying to make entertaining stories out of concepts I wasn’t that happy with, until finally I gave up and left the book.
Koom: There is much in your last answer I want to address. I think you definitely made the right choice in playing Spider-Man and MJ's marriage the way that you did. Since I jumped on board after they'd been married, it didn't seem forced or unnatural to me - it was an interesting development and I bought into it. I did later purchase the annual where the marriage had taken place (through the back issues at the specialty comic shop) and though the cover had a lovely image by John Romita, I found the story of the wedding day forced and unmemorable. In terms of MJ being a model and a knockout, I guess she was one at that, and Todd McFarlane drew her in a very sexy way during that run you wrote. I can still remember the early pages in issue 300 where they're in bed in a hotel room and her body is popping out all over the place in that negligee, and of course her wild curly big late 80s hairstyles which Toddy loved to draw. I don't think that I found it hard to identify with their relationship because MJ was a likable, strong woman with character. Though she was pretty, she wasn't successful, she struggled for her gigs. She was different than earlier incarnations where she acted like a brat and was difficult to identify with - I think that's the version they went with for the Kirsten Dunst movies. Peter had changed too - he wasn't just a neurotic teenage fuck-up anymore - he was a young man, once again struggling, and trying to live up to being a married person in his twenties. Also, though not tall or muscular, he was cute, even attractive and sympathetic. So, for all those reasons, I found myself, as a thirteen year old, identifying with them, looking at them as role models for the next part of my life. I would say that your choice to make the marriage work was a good one but more importantly, you focused on small moments that really worked. For example, Peter Parker pretending to strain, lifting the couch when they moved apartments, but later picking it up with one arm, when they were alone, so that MJ could vacuum underneath it. There were just many wonderful moments like that - human moments, that though they didn't make the broad impact of arcs by Frank Miller or John Byrne, really stayed with me in a very touching way. McFarlane's own Spider-Man series which he 'wrote' was a pile of garbage if you ask me because he didn't put any thought into the characters or stories at all - it was simply a vehicle for his splash art pages. The Image guys in general really get my goat - as the name of their company suggests ('Image'), it was all surface, superficial. All that mattered was the visual ostentation - not writing or storytelling at all.
I did find that your Venom issues resonated with me. They resonated, not because he was a novel character or because of the fact that he was a terrifying being, but because you played the psychological dynamics between Peter, the alien symbiote which wanted to mesh with him and become his black suit, and Eddie Brock (who ultimately meshed with the alien to become Venom), really well. It was a weird love triangle. It was your playing of those dynamics that made it fascinating. Once again, the human touch. I did get turned off by the time Carnage came along because it didn't have the human touch and it seemed to come out of that wave of crass commercialization that saw multiple covers, 'collectible' crap, and the formation of Image. It was a very cynical time and I stopped collecting superhero comics. When you say that you were mandated what to write by Fingeroth, it makes a lot of sense.
Have you read Sean Howe's book on what went behind the scenes at Marvel, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story? Did you find that it matched up with what you experienced at Marvel? How do you feel about Marvel's reign at the box office now and the way its comics follow suit? I'm sorry but I don't know if you're still writing for Marvel so I don't know if this is an uneasy question to ask. I guess I should ask what you're working on these days? The thirteen year old in me might have liked the migration of superheroes into the mainstream but somehow I'm not so sure - it leaves an empty feeling in me, as someone who loves movies, comics, and art. It seems so crass, cynical, commercialized. An unimaginative recycling of stuff that belongs in the sixties. The veneration of Stan Lee and Marvel also makes me uneasy. I guess I'll ask you how you feel about it all now as a way of wrapping things up. Sorry to end on a bit of a down note - if you want to reorient the question to something more positive, feel free.
David: Okay, starting with the Spider-Man wedding issue...you’ll notice that I didn’t plot it myself. I didn’t want to do the usual villains-crash-the-wedding-and-fight-stuff-happens story, so in my original plot I came up with something a little different. There was action, of course, but the core of the story had Peter discussing things with dead people. He’d be walking along, troubled, and he’d start talking about how he didn’t know if he was mature enough for marriage. We’d switch angles to show that he’s conversing with Uncle Ben who is walking beside him. Peter wouldn’t seem bothered by the fact that Ben had been dead for years. Later he’d be talking to someone about his worries that Mary Jane could be put in danger being Spider-Man’s wife, and we’d see that Gwen Stacy--also dead for some time--was addressing his concerns. All without Peter questioning her being there. In the end, Peter would pass out and come to in a hospital, and we’d learn that he’d suffered a concussion from a battle either at the beginning of the story or from a recent story in continuity. Basically, he’d been hallucinating, arguing with himself to settle his doubts about his decision. But he’d come to grips with his internal conflict and realize that his love for MJ--and her acceptance and love for him--outweighed anything else and the marriage was a good idea. Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter told me he liked the idea (though in a later published interview he’s quoted as calling it “lame” and “inappropriate”, which really hurt my feelings), but that Marvel wanted a more standard story because the wedding would be getting a lot of publicity and would be read by a lot of people who didn’t normally read comics. So he replotted it himself and I tried to dialogue the piece as best I could.
Now, about Carnage...I’m sorry you didn’t care for the character, but I understand. His popularity is a little scary. But I created him for a very specific reason. A lot of readers seemed to have missed a couple of traits about Venom that I thought were vital. Some complained that he was a cliche since all he wanted was to kill Spider-Man. They missed the point that other villains (with the possible exception of Kraven) didn’t even want to SEE Spider-Man, let alone fight him. They only battled him when Spider-Man interrupted their criminal activities. I tried to showcase that fact in a story where Venom thought he’d killed Spidey. At which point Venom, as an entity, ceased to exist; it became a contented Eddie Brock and a dormant symbiote. The other thing that I thought was important about Venom--and that even made him a little sympathetic in a disturbing sort of way--was that he had a strong ethical sense. Twisted, sick and pathetic, but strongly moral. He thought Spider-Man had wronged him, he saw himself as a victim, and so sought to protect other innocent people as he wished someone had protected him from Spider-Man’s “evil”. If he heard a kitten trapped up a tree, he’d be determined to save that innocent kitten and nothing would stop him--even if the most direct path had him smashing through a bus full of orphans and nuns, sending them tumbling over a cliff. He was a sick bastard but he thought he was doing good. So, I created Carnage as a character who had similar symbiote powers, but no moral compass whatsoever, to contrast him with Venom’s “ethics” and make that trait a bit more obvious. As a bonus, it gave me a chance to have Spider-Man and Venom fight alongside each other against this mutual foe, something I thought readers would get a kick out of. (Oh, and I can’t blame Danny Fingeroth for the character--those plots were done before he actually started exerting influence.)
Sean Howe’s book? Haven’t read it.
Marvel’s Hollywood ventures? I’ve actually enjoyed most of the films, some more than others. I find that I tend to enjoy movies more when they feature characters I’m not familiar with--Deadpoool, Guardians Of The Galaxy--probably because I have no preconceived notions about them. I liked Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie (though I hated the third one where Peter smacked Mary Jane--that ain’t what a hero does!) and loved the first Iron Man. But the two Andrew Garfield Spidey-flicks did nothing for me, and ever-darkening franchises like Thor leave me a little cold. And while I understand--and generally agree with--the notion that movies and comics are separate media, and some of the more colorful comic book costumes would look a little silly in reel life, I do find it annoying that every hero seems to have a leather fetish. I almost expect Iron Man to show up some day in black leather armor!
As for what I’m working on now: not much. None of the big companies have any interest in employing me, and I’ve been treated very unprofessionally by the smaller companies I’ve approached. I wrote three stories for Charlton Neo but then they changed their story format to one that won’t accommodate my stories, and I haven’t heard from them since. I’m supposed to write a story for an artist friend’s web comic, but that’s going very slowly. And I’ve written a script for a one-shot comic being published by the creator of the characters, but if that project doesn’t reach its Kickstarter goal it will never see print. That’s what one gets for being Old School, I guess--if you define “Old School” as writing stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. And a point.
And about the state of super heroes in comics today--I really can’t judge since I haven’t written a mainstream comic since 2011. But there could be a number of factors impacting the quality and sales of what’s on the stands these days. I’ve been told that one of the Big Two doesn’t even let editors pick the creative teams for his/her titles any more. That’s now being done by a committee. I’ve also been told that creative teams at one company are determined by budget, not by whether they’re a good fit. That is, if a top tier (as in top dollar) penciller is chosen, that doesn’t leave enough in that issue’s budget for anything but a mid-level writer and a bottom end inker. And I’ve heard from more than one person in the know that one company has actually been bringing in veteran writers/artists to teach current pencillers how to break down a story. Not hiring people with experience who already KNOW how to tell a graphic story, but hiring them to teach others who don’t know how but are still given the jobs. And you wonder why comics aren’t as entertaining and exciting as they used to be?
Koom: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. This has been the best gift I've been given this Christmas. I'm really sorry that with all your experience, you're being blocked out of the market. I hope that your other projects bear fruit in the new year. My best to you and your family. All the best.
Sketch of David Michelinie by: Joe Orlando
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Koom Kankesan was born in Sri Lanka. While his family lived abroad, the civil war in Sri Lanka broke out and this caused them to seek a new home. They eventually settled in Canada and have lived here since the late eighties. He has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. Koom contributed arts journalism to various publications before becoming a high school teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Since working as a teacher, he has taken semesters off now and again to work on his fiction. The Tamil Dream, his new book, is his most ambitious to date. It looks at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and how it affected Tamils here in Canada. Besides literature and film, Koom has deep interests in history and science, and an enduring love for comic books.
You can write to Koom throughout January at firstname.lastname@example.org.