Comic Book Biography: Keith Giffen

by Rik Offenberger

It’s one of the better creator stories of the past couple of years. After a stretch where he could barely get a nod of recognition from Marvel or DC, Keith Giffen is experiencing a career renaissance rarely seen. While he was a major force to contend with in comics in the later ‘80s and ‘90s, thanks to his work on Legion of Super-Heroes and Justice League, both titles ultimately went through major shifts in tone, and as their directions changed, so did their writer.

For a long-ish period, it seemed that Giffen was gone from comics as well. His name would pop up occasionally, but for the most part, comics seemed to have moved on, and Giffen wasn’t on the train.

Give it a few years, and things do change. With a solid foundation based in translating popular manga series, and some new superhero work through Boom! Studios, Giffen is back in full force, overseeing not one, but two major events: Annihilation at Marvel and 52 at DC. It’s a comeback that would make not only any of Giffen’s contemporaries, but…well, any creator working in mainstream comics jealous.

During some of his rare free time, we sat down with Giffen for a look back, around, and forward.

Newsarama: Keith, let's just jump into it at the beginning - where did you study art?

Keith Giffen: The Little Falls public library.  I didn't really have any formal art training and it shows.  The year I spent at the NY School of Visual Arts was a faux hippie, metaphysical nightmare and the night courses I took at the DuCret School only reinforced what I'd already pulled from the library's books.

NRAMA: Your first published work was on The Sword and the Star, How did you break in with Marvel?

KG: Odd luck.  Ed Hannigan had just left The Sword and the Star and they needed a replacement, like... yesterday.  It just so happened my samples were in John Romita's office at he time and Bill Mantlo saw them and thought I had what it took.

He was so wrong.

NRAMA: How did you go from a few fill ins here and there to working on the Defenders?

KG: I don't know.  It just seemed that I was always landing on projects that I wasn't experienced enough to carry.  I'm going to say Gerry Conway had something to do with it because Gerry was a booster of my stuff back then.  What he saw in me back then I'll never know.

NRAMA: What's it like revisiting the team today?

KG: Anyplace I go with JMD and Kevin is going to be a fun place to be.

NRAMA: Why did you jump to DC?

KG: Mostly because Joe Orlando was the only guy in the business willing to give me a second chance.  I burned a lot of bridges the first time around, did dirt to a lot of good people.  It took a real act of faith on Joe's part to let me back in at DC.

NRAMA: You did some Doctor Fate back up stories in Flash, were you a Dr. Fate fan prior?

KG: Nope.  I did like Simonson's take on the character though...

NRAMA: You ended up doing a lot more with Dr. Fate later, was this because of reaction to this early Dr. Fate work?

KG: I'm going to say yes.  Dr. Fate was the first character I did as a professional and not a pig headed jackass.  The Doc's been good to me.  Hi, Marty!

NRAMA: Your first breakthrough work was on Legion of Super-Heroes, how did you get the assignment?

KG: Mike Barr offered me some back-up work on the strength of my Dr. Fate stuff.  Paul Levitz agreed to it; and let me state here and now that had I been in Paul's place I would have forked the evil eye and run.  Paul's was the second act of faith that got my career on track.

NRAMA
: You were associated with the Legion of more then 10 years, what about them appealed to you?

KG: Everything!  The world building, the huge cast, the sci-fi elements!  What's not to like?

NRAMA: Since you left the Legion, have you followed the comic at all?

KG
: I've stayed shy of the Legion for the most part because I'm too close to the book.  A fair assessment of anyone else's run is, pretty much, impossible.  That said, I've been following Waid's rethinking of the concept and loving it.  It's far enough removed from the Legion I did that I can actually see it past my ego.


NRAMA
: I always though Ambush Bug was hysterical, how did they let you get away with the things he did in Action Comics, which wasn't supposed to be a humor title?

KG: Two words.  Julie Schwartz.

NRAMA
: Likewise, you went seriously offbeat with Lobo. What was the appeal of Lobo?

KG
: I have no idea why Lobo took off.  I came up with him as an indictment of the Punisher, Wolverine, bad ass hero prototype and somehow he caught on as the high violence poster boy.  Go figure.

NRAMA: You were in the first wave of creators to join the Image creators after it was founded, what was the appeal there?

KG: I was sold a bill of goods about calling my own shots and being part of a creative collective.  What can I say?  I fell for it.  But Lord above, the money was astonishing!

NRAMA: Your art had changed a great deal from Defenders to Trencher, how did your art evolve?

KG: I didn't want to draw everything twice so I thought I'd see what happened if I just dove right in on the inks.  Definitely not to everyone's taste.

NRAMA: Over the years, you've worked at Marvel, DC, Image, and Valiant. Is there any real difference between the companies?

KG: Not really.  They're all after the same thing and tend to go after it in pretty much the same way.  Where I land has more to do with the personalities involved than the characters or concepts.

NRAMA: Much of your work has been collaborative, with you plotting, scripting, doing layouts or finishing art, do you prefer to working as part of a team or was this an editorial decision?

KG: It's my preferred method of working.  I love creative give and take.

NRAMA: Speaking to one of your more unusual collaborations, you've written English adaptations of some pretty popular manga. How do you script Battle Royale and Battle Vixens if you don't speak Japanese?

KG: I get rough English transcripts that I then have to make sense of.

NRAMA: Still with your collaborations, for five years you and J. Marc DeMatteis produced Justice League, usually bi-weekly between JLA and JLE, what made you think that it was the right time to bring back humor comics?

KG: We never thought in those terms.  It felt right so we did it.  It still feels right.

NRAMA: How did you convince DC?

KG: We didn't tell them.  Hell, before that first issue hit we were sure that this was the book that was going to end out careers.

NRAMA: With Justice League, you were producing the number one comic at DC. Usually in comics when someone is successful other creators try to imitate that success, why did the other creators run from humor rather then embrace it?

KG: I have no idea.

NRAMA: Moving on to one of your more favored charatcers, In Crisis on Infinite Earths they started the series by bringing the Blue Beetle to the DCU, somehting which you made good use of in Justice League. How do you feel about them killing him to start Infinite Crisis?

KG: As harsh as it may seem, I was done with him.  What DC does with him from then on is their business.  RIP, Ted.

NRAMA: How did the death of Blue Beetle, the use of Booster Gold and Maxwell Lord affect your plans for I Can't Believe it's Not the Justice League?

KG: I Can't Believe was done way before we knew Identity Crisis existed.  The deaths didn't affect us at all because we'd finished the series already.  Well... Okay... JMD got a bit weepy but that's about it.

NRAMA: How does it affect plans for any future use of the group?

KG: Don't know.  Don't care.  We're done with the characters.  We told the tales we wanted to tell and its past time to go.

NRAMA: Springing out of Infinite Crisis is the new Blue Beetle, how did you get the assignment?

KG: Dan DiDio put it on the table.  The challenge was irresistible.

NRAMA: WHat can you say about your fellow creators on the title?

KG: Cully Hamner on the art and John Rogers on the dialog.  Cully's a known commodity.  His talent speaks for itself and I couldn't be happier having him aboard.  John Rogers is a produced screenwriter slumming around in comics until the next balloon payment on his house comes due.  Actually, he's the most talented co-writer I've worked with since JMD.  This guy's going to have whatever comic book career he wants; he's that frickin' good.

NRAMA
: Who is the new Blue Beetle?

KG: Jamie Reyes.  A 16 year old Mexican kid out of El Paso, Texas.

NRAMA
: What is the connection to the previous Blue Beetles?

KG: No comment.  He's connected up the wazoo but that's a story for the book to tell.

NRAMA: Visually, at least, this isn't quote the same thing as when Kid Flash took on the Flash's costume at the end of Crisis. Jaime's got the scarab, but from there on out, it's new?

KG: New everything.

NRAMA: How does the new Beetle fit into the DCU?

KG: He's in the midst of it, if that's what you mean.  His eventual fit?  That's something we'll be exploring in the book.

NRAMA
: How is this series different from Steve Ditko's or Len Wein's?


KG
: Steve Ditko and Len Wein aren't doing it.  Seriously.  This is our take on it for better or worse. 

NRAMA: Your take, for years, has meant Bwa-ha-ha. Any of that in it?

KG: No, it ain't no "bwah ha ha".  Far from it. 

NRAMA: You've seen a huge resurgence in your work recently, what brought you so firmly to the forefront on major titles from both DC and Marvel at the same time? 

KG: That’s a misconception, that’s a real misconception, I am involved in two major projects but I am just one of the creative forces in Annihilation but that’s Andy Schmidt’s baby and I am storyboarding 52.

NRAMA: But still, you're working on some to the biggest projects of 2006 at both companies, does the competition between DC and Marvel give you any difficulties?

KG: I have never known it to be a competitive as it is right now between DC and Marvel. Ever, ever. Just the exclusive contract wars alone. There are very few of us who are doing sizable amounts of work for both DC and Marvel. I am not under contract. I am a freelancer. I can work wherever I want as long as once I commit to a project I see it through. If Marvel is going to be pissed off that I am working for DC then float a contract make me an offer, I am a freelancer. If you are not going to put something on the table, then do us all a favor and shut up. I have had no problem at all; neither company has rattled their sabers at me. As a matter of fact I am having fun at both.

NRAMA: Are you interested in an exclusive contract?

KG: If no one offers me an exclusive, I'm happy working at both companies. I don’t think they didn’t offer me an exclusive, nobody loves me. It is not something that either company nor myself have thought to actively peruse. Don’t get me wrong, if someone floats by the right deal, I’m gone. People say “If I win the lottery I’ll keep my job” f you. If I’m still writing and my wife wins the lottery, I’ll walk in the middle of the sentence. I love the job, but let’s get real. I love working for DC but let’s get real, I love working for Marvel but let’s get real. I am sure that Peter David didn’t say “If I take this deal, I make less money.” Right now I am happy working for both companies, next month who knows.

NRAMA: How many titles are you writing currently?

KG: Blue Beetle, Annihilation, 52, Hero2, I Luv Halloween, and various issues for Boom, and I still take the weekends off.

NRAMA: How did you become involved in Annihilation?

KG: Annihilation is pretty much Andy Schmidt’s baby. The primary stories are mind, but it’s done in such a cool way. Normally it’s done in a certain way. Look at Geoff Johns with Infinite Crisis; he has to shoulder that mother by himself. I don’t have to worry about that because I write the Annihilation: Prologue, set up everything and push the characters to a certain point. Then we have 4 mini series and I am just doing the Silver Suffer. I finish Annihilation based on where they leave of the characters [Annihilation: Prologue - written by Keith Giffen and art by Scott Kolins and Ariel Olivetti. Silver Surfer - written by Keith Giffen and art by Renato Arlem Super-Skrull - written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and art by Greg Titus Nova - written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and art by Kev Walker Ronan The Accuser - written by Simon Furman and art by Jorge Lucas Annihilation -  written by Keith Giffen]. It’s like I get a little break in the middle, and I think that is really a cool way to work.

NRAMA: In Annihilation, you're revamping many of the cosmic heroes on the Marvel Universe. What guidelines were you given?

KG: Tell a good story and entertain the readers. Remind people why our cosmic characters are cool. Andy and I knew where we wanted to go and Marvel had already signed off on the idea. Now they just watched to make sure we could pull it off.

NRAMA: Joe Quesada said you "...will be making some changes in the way these stories are told and hopefully how these characters are perceived" What type of changes are we going to see?

KG: Huge changes. This is the first time there are going to be sweeping, sweeping changes to the cosmic universe. Love it; hate it, there are going to be people who feel both ways. At the end of it you will not be able to say he was lying about the sweeping changes. Just being from earth and being out there will have a whole different cache. We are really going in and shaking things up and forcing people to see why these characters are cool.

NRAMA: The title is Annihilation, what is annihilated in this story?

KG: Everything. As of now, were I a Marvel character, I would be a mass murder and the death toll would be in the millions.

NRAMA: Any clues as to who dies?

KG: We are killing of characters and worlds; we are also creating new characters. The theme is can we fix it. This character, we want to kill him but can we fix him? There were a couple of character we were going to kill, but then if we could do, this, this and this, it would be cool. There were a couple of characters that I thought they wouldn’t let me in yards of, and they said butcher the f-ers. There was a lot of stuff put on the table by Marvel that really surprised me.

NRAMA: Do we finally get to see the return of Captain Marvel?

KG: Unfortunately no. Everything but. Captain Marvel is one of those characters where something is going to be done with him and the one who came up with the cool idea is the guy who gets to do it.

NRAMA: Just to be clear, does any of this tie in with the Drax the Destroyer mini-series, or any of the changes that Drax has gone through and how he fits into the Marvel Universe these days?

KG: No it doesn’t. Drax the Destroyer was something I was doing three months before Andy came up with Annihilation. Drax the Destroyer ended the way it did deliberately. It was a story that even though it had a slow pace a lot of $#!t happened. People say nothing happened. We killed the f-er and he came back to life. A whole town was enslaved, I mean come on.

NRAMA: Who’s idea was it that it was time to revamp Drax? He is a rather obscure character in the Marvel U, what makes him appealing to you?

KG: Andy Schmidt called me and said what do you think of a Drax mini series? I said why? He has an on going series, it’s called the Hulk. Then Andy dropped the bomb on me. He said why don’t we do Lilo and Stitch. From there on it was how can we make the character cool again? Some people will say we succeeded some people will say we failed, but at least we got him out of the Pirates of Penzance costume.

NRAMA: You also worked on a rather literal revival of Howling Commandos. Who came up with the twist that they would actually howl this time?

KG: I was talking to Mark Paniccia and said wouldn’t it be cool to do a monsters version of the Howling Commandos? It’s such a cool name, we should do something cool with it. It’s just one of those things where I was shooting the $#!t with an editor and he perused it independently and the next thing I knew I had a book. I told Marvel it was a six issue mini and they said it was an ongoing. Look who was right.

NRAMA: Along with Annhilation, you're also working on 52 at DC. With all the other writers and all the heroes involved in this series. How do you organize everything to tell a coherent story?

KG: I am the layout guy, I am the storyboard guy. I am there to facilitate and help the four major writers: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and of course, Mark Waid. I take the scripts and break them down into visual stuff, not because we don’t think we have artists who can tell a story, we have amazing artists, and each of them is turning in their A game. We are doing this because we have a weekly book and within a month we have a weekly book with three different artists working on it. It is important that visually and layout wise that the book has the same internal rhythm. It’ Batista one week then you are back to Joe Bennett. It will still feel familiar enough from issue to issue that it won’t be to jarring. They let me play around with new characters and jerk around with costume design. I include as many junk culture references to the DCU reality so you that you feel you are introduced to a new world. Infinite Crisis is the last day of a particularly harsh winter and 52 is the first day of spring. This brings a different tone and tenor to the DC Universe. In the old DC Universe, one of the seesaws was always busted. We are not calling all the shots but what we are doing is giving you a walking tour of the DC Universe. We show, the geo political situation, the junk culture situation, the theological situation. Here is how the characters are related too, and here is how the man on the street feels. It’s a lot of different touch points for a lot of different characters.

NRAMA: With all different One Year Later titles, how do you interact with that very critical year in the heroes' lives? Do you ahve to deal with everyone's changes?

KG: The major characters in 52 will not be appearing in any other book during the year that 52 takes place.  Basically if they arrived in another book then you see the end of 52 already. In other words, if Renée Montoya is going to have a sex change, and shows up in another book as Robert Montoya and we are in the second week of 52, our story is shot to $#!t. Not one of these characters will walk out of 52 without being profoundly affected. I had no use for Steel walking in, but now I like the character.

NRAMA: So these characters will spin off into their own series after 52?

KG: That’s not for us to say, that’s for the readers to say. If the market would support the books, DC would be foolish not too. Sure we would all like to get a little book out of the back end, but the ultimate goal of 52 is to tell a good, solid story, involving interesting characters, and make it unique from the other special event books that have come before or will come after, by having it unfold in real time. When you are sitting down on the 4th of July it will be the 4th of July in that weeks issue of 52. Wherever you are in time and space during that year, our characters will be there. Then we can’t miss an issue. We are the NASCAR book.

NRAMA: How so?

KG: You don’t go to NASCAR to look at cars go round and round choking on gas fumes; everyone is looking for the crash and I can tell you now there will be no crash.  Period. We are going to do this.

NRAMA: Are these stories interconnected or are they separate stories?

KG: There are different story lines in a greater frame work. If necessary the character will interact, other times they will by running parallel storylines. They are interwoven storylines that connect to one another. It may be 6 weeks, 7 week or 8 weeks before Ralph bumps up against Steel. Montoya may never meet Booster Gold. It’s such an intricate storyline that Renée Montoya may be in Africa beating up Cheetahs, what can that possibly have to do with Booster Gold opening up an ice cream shop? But it does. I think it’s fascinating the way it all dovetails together. I know what’s coming and I am still fascinated to see each script.

NRAMA: Is each of the four writers writing a different storyline?

KG: They are turning in full script. The way this is put together, they all write. They decide who will write what this issue. At this point certain characters are gravitating to certain writers. But that doesn’t mean that writer will handle that character throughout the whole series. One month you might get a Booster Gold section from Jeff Johns and the next month you might get a Booster Gold section from Grant Morrison. The four guys get together and write a full issue. It’s not like I get this jigsaw puzzle and have to put it together. They put it together; I just have to make sure the pieces fit seamlessly and that the artist has to know what they have to do to keep the story going. I am the storyboard guy. It’s not something I would want to do on an ongoing basis. It’s a bear; I can handle it for a year. How often am I going to have the chance to work with Rucka, Johns, Waid and Morrison for one full week for an entire year? How cool is that? Has this amount of talent ever pooled their resources to tell one big ongoing story before? I don’t think so. I think it’s worth the price of admission just for that.

52
is not going to legitimize weekly comics in America. However, it may cause some special events to be done weekly. I kind of like the idea of every week you go in and another issue is waiting for you. I just finished issue 14 and every issue has this whammy that hits you. There is not an issue that you can put down and say that was an in-between issue. Every issue has something to slam you. I remember at the meeting, it was a mater of what to cut out. Everyone is contributing ideas, plot lines and creativity. No one has laid claim to an idea. Waid may lay an idea on the table and he has no idea if he will be able to see that idea to fruition; and nobody care because everyone is having too much fun. Grant Morrison said it like being in a band. I think someone else said it’s like being in the Beatles but then that makes me Pete Best, so I don’t want to think about that. 

NRAMA: Can you tell us who all the characters are?

KG: I think that is pretty much public knowledge now. Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man; John Henry, Steel; Black Adam; Renée Montoya; Booster Gold, Adam Strange; Animal Man; and the Question plays a large role too.

NRAMA: With Black Adam in it, does that keep Captain Marvel out of the DC Universe for the year?

KG: There are a lot of characters from the DC Universe that appear in 52. There are going to be a lot of DC Characters showing up. Not to show up and say, “Hi I am a guest star.” While the main characters will not show up in any one year later books, the reverse is not true. Green Lantern will, show up, Green Arrow, and Shazam too. There are only a handful of people who will not show up and I can’t divulge who they are at this time. But it’s the DCU; you can’t fling a cat without hitting a hero.

NRAMA: How often do you fling cats?

KG: I despise the animals; I had a summer job killing cats. I was so happy.

NRAMA: There is the History of the DC Universe as a back up story in several of the issues; do readers have to read this part of the series to understand the post Infinite Crisis DCU?

KG: Yes they will. Dan Jurgens, man Dan’s back in the saddle. How great is that? When I hear that Dan was going to be doing those back up stories, that put the exclamation point on the book. Picture perfect. I have nothing to do with Dan’s work. They have $#!t in there that I can read. It’s like Justice League. I used to never read J.M. DeMatteis’ dialogue. I would read it when the book came out. My Justice League plots had cursing and they were R rated Justice League plots, and he would smooth it out and turn it into comic books. Explaining bestiality to Mary Marvel never made it into the book, but it was in the plot.

NRAMA: Er, on that note...wrapping things up...

KG: Wrapping things up, I've just got to say that I'm really a lucky guy. I've got no complaints
.

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