INTERVIEWS DAVID MICHELINIE: HERO WORSHIP
“Business is a tough world these days. It makes a
-- Tony Stark, Iron Man #123
dialogue get any better than that? David Michelinie
was my first “favorite writer”. In fact, he was my favorite writer
before I was old enough to know I had a favorite writer! His
work on Iron Man and especially The Avengers were seminal,
early influences on my own work. His stint on Amazing Spider-Man
with artists Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen was one of Marvel’s
top sellers for years. His body of work includes Swamp Thing,
Captain Fear, Web Of Spider-Man, The Bozz Chronicles,
Star Wars, H.A.R.D. Corps and Action Comics. More than being
a great writer, David is truly a class act, and words can’t really
express how honored I am to have been able to interview him about
his career and his craft. This is what it’s all about, folks…
JOE CASEY: Okay, here’s where I start waxing
your car right off the bat, David. But I’m certainly happy to do
it. I’ve always thought you were a rare breed of comicbook
writer, the kind I think we could really use more of these days.
Your work always seemed to aspire to entertain and engage without
the accompanying bluster that modern creators tend to spew about how
they’re going to reinvent the wheel (and I fully admit, I’d count
myself as occasionally guilty in that regard). As a fan, I never
saw you take a job and then enact change for the sake of change.
You simply settled in and told great stories, as opposed to being
overly concerned with “making your mark”. So, now that I’ve got you
here and can just ask you flat out… when you’d approach a new writing
assignment, whether it was Unknown Soldier or The Avengers
or Spider-Man or Superman, what tended to be your thinking?
Did you have some personal statement of intent with each new series
you took on, or was it simply just to tell good stories?
DAVID MICHELINIE: Well,
you pretty much hit the nail on the head when you used the word, “entertain.”
I’m not a terribly deep thinker, and I’ve never really had any interest
in revealing Great Truths or imparting my hard-earned but spotty wisdom
to others. I’ve always loved to read, both comics and prose, but mostly
as a form of entertainment. And offering entertainment is all I’ve
really sought to do with my writing. If someone spends twenty or thirty
minutes reading one of my stories, ends up with a smile on their face
or a lump in their throat, and then just goes on with their life,
I’m perfectly happy with that.
As for making changes, I usually let respect and logic be
my guides there. For example: when I took over Iron Man for
my second run on that book, the series had developed characters and
situations that weren’t the type I was particularly interested in
pursuing. But I felt that the previous writer, and the readers who
had enjoyed his work, deserved more than having everything suddenly
and jarringly go in a different direction. So my co-plotter, Bob Layton,
and I constructed a two-part story that tied up loose ends in a way
that we hoped would be satisfying to the readers, while at the same
time providing a believable turn towards the direction we wanted to
go with future stories. Further example: when I took over The Unknown
Soldier, the title character impersonated people by wearing full-head
masks. I found it difficult to believe that such masks would fool
anyone, especially friends and relatives, so I altered the process
to have the Soldier use facial appliances and character-specific make-up,
like a Hollywood special effects expert. That wasn’t change for the
sake of change, but because it simply made more sense to me.
CASEY: I know a little bit about your career
biography. You’re one of those guys that took an incredible leap
of faith and moved to New York and showed up on DC’s doorstep, looking
for work after what I’d consider the most bare bones encouragement
from Michael Fleisher, who was Joe Orlando’s assistant at the time.
Maybe I’m misrepresenting it, but when you look back on your first
“break”, what kind of perspective do you have on it…?
I’m stunned that I ever did such a thing.
People who know me consider me to be conservative and overly cautious,
and they’re generally right. But though I’m not a particularly ambitious
or aggressive person, I do tend to recognize opportunities and make
the most of them. When I first moved to New York I had six hundred
dollars from my savings account, and another five hundred my mom gave
me. I lived on canned spaghetti and tap water for ten months, learning
my craft and selling occasional six-page stories (at ten dollars a
page!) to the likes of House Of Mystery
before I got my first shot at a series job. But I knew I’d gotten
a toe in a very special door, and if I didn’t push my way through
at that time the door might never open again. These days I look back
at that time and wonder, what the hell was I thinking?!?
CASEY: Well, I’m damn glad you pushed. Obviously,
I’m a huge fan of your work, David. I’ve read tons of comics
you’ve written, at just about every company you’ve worked at, and
I’ve always been impressed at how at home you are with the language
of comicbooks. Your stories tend to read
so effortlessly. Especially since I’m assuming you’ve written most
of your work plot-first, it’s even more impressive. Was writing comics
something that always came easily to you, or do you feel like you
worked hard at your craft?
comics was very difficult for me to learn, and I didn’t start feeling
comfortable with it until I’d been making a living at it for a couple
of years. And didn’t really feel confident in my
abilities for another year or so after that. Most people outside
the field don’t realize how limiting, how specific, comic book writing
is. With a novel, short story or screenplay, you write until the story
is done, whatever length works. With comics, each story has to fit
into a specific page length--no more, no less. You also have to be
concerned with the number of panels and number of words you use. Call
for too many panels, the art grows tiny and looks like postage stamps;
use too many words and the work starts looking like a textbook with
spot illustrations. It takes quite a bit of discipline.
I remember a cartoon from an old EC comic: it showed an artist leaning
against a door jamb, drawing table in the background, with sweat poring
down his face. The caption was something like, “Whew! Drew
a whole panel today!” I think it was meant as a joke
about an artist who was rather leisurely in his work habits, but I
could really identify with that guy. There were days early on when
I’d struggle over every word, second- and third-guessing everything
about it. Some days I’d literally get only a single panel written
before I’d give up and spend the rest of the day wandering around
Queens, feeling like a failure. But eventually the effort, thought
and desperation paid off, and the writing process smoothed out as
I actually learned how to put stories together.
As for using the language of comic books to make my stories read effortlessly
(and thank you so much for saying so), whatever ability I may have
in that regard was brought out by my mentors, Michael Fleisher and
Joe Orlando. Michael taught me the most important thing I’ve ever
learned as a writer: “Never assume that the reader knows what’s in
your mind.” That sounds so simple, so basic, but there are still a
lot of writers who don’t get it. They’ll be familiar with the backgrounds
and nuances of the characters and situations in a particular story
(especially if it’s part of a multi-story arc) and so will write that
story as if everyone else knows exactly what they know. But every
single story is going to be read by people who are coming to it for
the first time, and they’re likely to become confused, or totally
lost, if you forget to tell them what’s going on. You don’t want to
write down to your audience, and there’s a thin line between being
clear and being condescending. But if you can learn to walk that line,
I guarantee you’ll be a better writer.
All too true. Now, as far as I’m concerned, and
with all apologies to Stan, you were the man at Marvel right
when I was really connecting with comicbooks
on a serious level for the first time in my life. You were
a literal double-threat with The Avengers and Iron Man,
work that still holds up to this day. And believe me, I’m not the
only one who feels this way. When you look back on that specific
period of your career -- if, in fact, you ever do -- what’s your take
on it now…?
MICHELINIE: It was
wonderful, probably the overall happiest time I’ve spent as a writer.
I left DC Comics after two incidents in which I was screwed over because
they wanted to appease an artist, at the expense of my scripts. I
called Jim Shooter at Marvel and asked if I could get work there.
He answered, quote--“Is today too soon?”--unquote, and immediately
sent me 22 pages of an Avengers story to script. When I got to Marvel
it was like going home, even though I’d never been there before. The
administration at that time was very much dedicated to telling stories,
and they had a genuine respect for writers.
And incidentally, speaking of the man, that was also
the period when I first met Stan Lee. Other than meeting Stephen King
a few years later, that was the only time
I’ve ever been reduced to the state of Gushing Fanboy. And I loved
CASEY: Right now, I know exactly how you feel.
One thing that completely blows me away about your work on The
Avengers is that you weren’t a fan, you came into it completely
cold when Jim Shooter handed you the gig. How did you go about finding
your voice on that book and how’d you do it so quickly? For my money,
your writing was completely assured on that series right from the
thanks. In all honesty, there were two factors involved in my quickly
learning to write The Avengers: Jim Shooter, and crap-your-pants
terror. As you say, I had never read The Avengers before. I’d
been a big Marvel fan but, other than Spider-Man, I’d mostly been
drawn to second-tier characters like Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer, Conan
and the like. The first few issues of Avengers that I scripted
were from Shooter plots, and were part of a long arc called The Korvac
Saga. So I read and absorbed the already-written stories in that arc,
and then sat down with Jim each time a new story had been drawn. He’d
go over the plot with me page-by-page, explaining character traits,
motivations, relationships, everything. It was an intense learning
period, but I basically just tried to follow what Jim had already
thought out, and to emulate his speech patterns for the characters.
It was a really solid foundation and I was highly motivated since
I wanted to keep writing for Marvel. Of course, having a great artist
like George Perez draw the book when I finally took over the plotting
myself made it easier, too.
CASEY: This is something I’ve always wanted
to ask you… what were the circumstances of you and
Bob Layton returning to Iron Man in the 80’s. Your
70’s run is a bona fide classic. I think the trade paperback collection
of the Justin Hammer/”Demon In A Bottle” issues (The Power Of Iron
Man, collecting #120-#128) is not only the first TPB I remember
seeing and owning, but the first collected edition I ever saw in a
“real” bookstore. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the second run, but
was there any trepidation on your part about going back to it? How’d
As I remember it, Mark Gruenwald
was looking for new personnel to take over Iron Man, and he
called Bob and I individually to see if either
of us would be interested. I assume that was because he’d liked our
previous work on the book, but I guess it could have been because
we were simply both available at the time. I’m sure there was some
trepidation on my part, as I’d left the book years before because
I felt I’d run out of Iron Man stories to tell. But I guess the time
since then had allowed the idea well to fill up once more, and the
thought of collaborating with Bob again sounded like fun, so I signed
on. The collaboration process had changed by then; Bob and I had both
grown creatively, Bob had done some writing on his own, and we were
no longer living a few blocks away from each other in the same little
college town, which meant that we had to plot over the phone instead
of face-to-face. So the second run had something of a different tone
to it, but I think we were still able to do some interesting stuff.
CASEY: An aspect of
your work on Avengers and Iron Man that really influenced
much of my own work was the political aspect of those series. From
Gyrich and the NSA dictating the Avengers’ membership to Tony
Stark’s dealings with S.H.I.E.L.D., I don’t remember other comics
from that time that dealt with even quasi-political material as it
related to superheroes (aside from maybe Don McGregor). Were these
things you were interested in exploring, or was its inclusion simply
a function of the stories you wanted to tell?
MICHELINIE: I’ve never
been a particularly political person. I have the normal and healthy
mistrust of every politician that’s ever walked the face of the Earth,
but other than that the subject doesn’t interest me that much. In
the case of Henry Peter Gyrich in The
Avengers, I believe that was one of those things I inherited from
Jim Shooter. I thought it was a great conflict, so I went with it.
And with Iron Man, it would have been difficult to not
deal with politics. Tony Stark’s milieu was the world of global power;
he was a major player in the realm of international commerce. And
there’s no way he could have attained such a degree of success without
learning to deal with the political ins and outs of both the United
States and the foreign countries with which he dealt. Twisting that
around, there’s not a politician alive who can get his/her job done
without the cooperation of Big Business. So politics was simply a natural backdrop for stories growing out
of that particular character.
I suppose this is a Spider-Man-related question. To me, you’re one
of the few writers of the 70’s and 80’s that was really able to update
the Stan Lee-style of writing, that unique way of communicating with
the reader while simultaneously providing a rip-roarin’
yarn. What is it about Stan’s writing that connected with you as
a reader and how conscious were you of incorporating Stan-like elements
into your own work…?
MICHELINIE: I didn’t
consciously incorporate anyone’s elements into my Spider-Man stories.
But Stan’s Spider-Man was what got me back into reading comics in
college, after I’d “grown out” of them in junior high. I loved those
stories, could relate to a central character who (and this may be
a cliche now, but it’s
sooooo true) had problems that I could identify
with. So I’m sure I absorbed a lot of how Stan did things simply by
reading his work over and over again, and that probably comes out
in my writing to this day.
Obviously, you were working with white-hot artists during your stint
on Amazing Spider-Man. First, Todd McFarlane
and then Erik Larsen. But I still say it was your voice that
was the real, consistent treat of that run. Recently I really went
back and read a good portion of your time on that series, and it was
probably the most pure fun I’ve had reading superhero comics in years.
I’m curious, though, what was it like to be at the epicenter of the
pre-Image revolution. I mean, you were the last writer Todd and Erik
worked with, which I think is significant. If the stories had sucked,
I’m not sure they would’ve risen to the top of the heap in the manner
they did. Do you feel like you gave those guys a platform to shine?
And is that something that you considered with all of your artistic
collaborators over the years…?
MICHELINIE: I truly
believe that cream will rise to the top whether the milk is sweet
or sour. I hope I provided interesting stories, and maybe the opportunity
to draw some exciting visuals, but how well an artist deals with what
they’re given depends on the amount of talent they bring to the table.
I know my dialogue tends to be sharper when the pictures I’m working
from are fun, and I imagine most artists put more into their pictures
when they enjoy the plot they’re working from. I’ve been lucky to
work with some fabulous artists throughout my career: Nestor Redondo,
George Perez, Bob Layton, John Byrne, Walt Simonson, Dick Giordano
and many, many more. Each of them brought their own quirks and creativity
to the projects, and that brought out different elements of my own
work. And that’s the bottom line: it’s the end product, the collaboration,
CASEY: Here’s a craft-based
question: I’m assuming that you wrote a great deal of your work using
the “Marvel method”. In other words, plot-first, after which you
would dialogue the art after it was drawn. Did you ever write full
script (during your time at DC, for example) and did you find yourself
more comfortable with one method over the other…?
almost all of the stories I wrote for DC in my early years were written
full script. That was the way I learned to write comics. I think I
wrote maybe three or four “Marvel-style” scripts during that time
to accommodate specific artists who preferred that process.
As such, I was definitely uncomfortable when I switched to the plot-pencils-script
format at Marvel. It meant giving up a great deal of control over
how the story was told. With full script, you can say exactly what
goes on in every panel on every page; you’re at the wheel and can
direct the whole show. But when you merely give an artist a plot,
you’re leaving an awful lot of the storytelling to someone else. And
artists, like writers, vary greatly in both their storytelling style
and their ability to express story points clearly.
Once I got used to “Marvel-style,” however, I decided that while it
might mean less control for the writer, it was probably the method
that would produce the best end results. This is simply because the
writer can see the pictures before he/she writes the words, giving
the words and pictures a better chance of fitting together well. For
instance: say you have a scene where a character is in the dark and
stubs his toe. Writing full script, your total copy for that panel
might be a word balloon saying, “Ow!”; you might think that’s all that’s necessary. But what if the artist draws a shadowy form in silhouette stumbling,
simply saying, “Ow!” The reader’s
going to wonder, “What happened? Did someone shoot him? Is there someone
else in the room, did they hit him? Why’d he cry out?” But if you
see that picture first, and realize that what’s going on isn’t clear,
you can have the character think/say something like, “Ow!
Damn chair leg! That toe’s gonna hurt for
a month!” Thus letting the reader know what’s happened, and eliminating
a possible hiccup in the flow of your story.
Blunt question, but I’ve always been pretty curious about this. I
hope it’s not too personal or too crass. Do you get any money from
having created both Venom and Carnage? I mean, Venom in particular
went on to make boatloads of money for Marvel. Were there any character
creation agreements in effect at the time?
MICHELINIE: I signed
creator agreements for both Venom and Carnage, and I usually get a
check once a year for any accumulated licensing shares. Marvel has
been pretty good (as far as I know--I haven’t checked their account
books or anything) about sending money from action figures, T-shirts
and such. But I did have to fight a long, frustrating battle to get
anything from those characters’ appearances in video games, and I
still haven’t received a single penny for Venom or Eddie Brock from
any of the animated Spider-Man TV shows.
CASEY: I know The Bozz
Chronicles holds a special place in your heart. Definitely
an overlooked gem from the original Epic days. You own that
series, right? Have you ever thought about taking it out for another
spin? It seems to me that those kind of historical fantasy tales
are certainly more in vogue these days…
I own Bozzy and his intrepid band. In fact, I recently had a lawyer
look over my contract with Marvel to make sure, since I’d had a couple
of nibbles from Hollywood about the series. And, yes, I have thought
about doing more Bozz stories from time
to time, but I don’t think I ever will. I’m really, really happy with
that short run, and honestly don’t know if I could generate the same
kind of stories today. I’m not necessarily speaking in terms of quality
here, but those stories were written at a particular time in my life,
when my viewpoint and experience were different than what they are
today. Besides, I would be hard pressed to find an artist who could
equal what Brett Blevins did, which is basically pluck images straight
from my brain and draw them line-for-line on paper; I’ve rarely enjoyed
such a perfect mating of talent and project. It just seems unlikely
that I’d be able to duplicate the essence of that first run, at least
to my own satisfaction.
Makes perfect sense. I’ve actually had a few of those types of projects
myself. So, I’m proud to say that we share at least one thing in
this business… we both had our stint writing Superman. Since I’m
interviewing you, what did you take away from those years writing
the Man of Steel…?
some pretty good paychecks? (Rimshot; cue
laugh track.) But seriously, folks... I’ve been fortunate to write
long runs of two cultural icons, Superman and Spider-Man. And to embrace
a cliche, it doesn’t get much better than
that. I was both delighted and surprised when Mike Carlin called and
offered me Action Comics, though I didn’t really realize what
I was getting into. Being essentially one-fifth of a writer (writing
one of four monthly books along with a quarterly, all fitting into
a week-to-week continuity) certainly had its challenges. I usually
ended up writing middle stories in the arcs, so I did a lot of treading
water. It got frustrating on occasion, and going through three editors
and three pencillers in three years meant
constantly having to adjust, but it certainly wasn’t dull! Now if
only I could write a Batman book to pull off the hat trick...
CASEY: Are there any
other superheroes -- at either publisher -- that you didn’t get the
chance to write that you always wanted to take a shot at…?
MICHELINIE: I always
thought it would be cool to write a Batman book. I guest-starred the
character in a couple of stories, but never got to really develop
any long storylines with it. Though there have been so many Batman
stories written, including a lot of really good ones, that I honestly
don’t know what I’d do with the character even if I had the chance.
Other than that, I don’t think there are any specific characters I’d
kill to write. Mostly I’d be interested in writing characters I’ve
never written before; I like doing new things.
CASEY: Do you keep up with the industry at
all these days? Do you still read any comicbooks for enjoyment?
I remember early on in my career hearing
some writers who’d been around for a while saying that they didn’t
read comic books any more. Being young and therefore knowing everything,
that rubbed me the wrong way; I mean, how could you make a living
writing comics and not read comics! I thought it was the height
is why I’m embarrassed to say that, no, I don’t really read many comics
these days. I think the key word in your question is “enjoyment.”
One of the few down sides for me about writing comics is that they’ve
become associated with “work” instead of “play.” When I want to read
for relaxation, for enjoyment, I find I can get lost in a novel or
short story much more easily. With comics, it’s hard for me not to
automatically analyze, to think how I might have done a particular
scene differently, that sort of thing. So, while I still have tremendous
respect and affection for comics, I have to admit that I don’t read
them much these days.
CASEY: So, moving into novel-writing
(which I know you’re currently concentrating on), have any specific
skills you cultivated writing comics ended up serving you in this
medium or is simply 180 degrees away from anything comics-related?
me, comics and prose are very different animals. I suppose the basics
of storytelling are pretty much the same: a beginning, middle and
end, character growth, conflict, climax, denouement, etc. But accomplishing
those goals with words only, with no pictures to play off of, is quite
a singular discipline. It’s like learning how to write all over again,
particularly making sure the reader has all of the necessary information
without giving something away, or becoming tediously detail-ridden.
Right now the process for me is like pulling teeth with a pair of
rusty pliers, but when I complete a chapter or story that I feel truly
works, the satisfaction is immense.
About the only specific comic book skill that I’ve found to be helpful
on a regular basis is plotting ahead. I’m used to working out a full
plot (so the artist can draw it) before writing a comics story, and
I’ve found that works well for me with prose short stories. I always
have a fairly detailed outline either in mind or in note form before
sitting down to actually write the story. But I haven’t made that
work for novels yet; I’m just too impatient to spend days or weeks
working out all of the specifics of a 300-page book. I tend to sit
at the computer and just start banging away. As a result, I frequently
end up with a chapter or two and then just sit there wondering, “Okay,
what now?” Oh, well, maybe I can sell those dangling chapters as collectables
you’re not already familiar with David’s work, just head over to Amazon.com
and simply do a search on his name. You’ll be shocked at how much
of his work has been collected over the years. And it’s all great
fun. Trust me, you won’t regret a single
Joe Casey-A-Rama: Mike