Jeff Parker and the New Adventures of Old Marvel
Though he was raised in the heart of North Carolina, comic writer and artist Jeff Parker has recently made his home in the Marvel Universe. Specifically, yesterday’s Marvel Universe.
Parker’s start in the industry was at Malibu Comics, that ill-fated Marvel subsidiary, where he provided art for the book Solitaire. He also worked steadily for DC Comics on titles like Justice League, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, Robin, and Batgirl.
Jeff has recently worked with much success on the Marvel Adventures all-ages books, as well as on the New Universe’s Starbrand Special. 2006 also saw Jeff revive two seemingly inert genres at Marvel, penning stories for Marvel Romance Redux and Marvel Westerns. His current book, Agents of Atlas, and his just-released X-Men: First Class, both put 21st Century spins on older properties. Before we take a look at the origins of these books, let’s hear from the man himself about the secret origin of Jeff Parker.
Mitch Montgomery: Let’s start right at the top. Comics—when and how did you start reading them?
Jeff Parker: My Dad ran a grocery store in Burlington—Chuck's Curb Market—and of course, there was a spinner rack of comics. I generally spent all my time sitting on the Coke cooler reading everything on the “Hey Kids, Comics” rack. Sadly, I rarely took them home; I read them and put 'em back. They were for sale!
At some point I eventually made the transition from wanting to be a comic character to working on them. You know, a lot of people aren't making that transition nowadays.
MM: What comics were you reading back then?
JP: My main ones were always Batman and Spider-Man. Wait—first it was all about Dennis the Menace. Then the superheroes. I read a lot of the Harvey and Archie books, too.
MM: What comic characters did you want to be?
JP: I alternated between wanting to be Spider-Man or Batman.
MM: Everyone interviewed about the comic business has a different story about how they got in. What was the path that led Jeff Parker from that spinner rack in Burlington to here? Any amusing factoids? Any desperate measures taken? Lots of Ramen Noodles consumed?
JP: As you know, North Carolina has been, oddly enough, a haven for comic fans. In the Piedmont, ACME held some big shows in the 1980s and early 90s, and [the comic store] Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find has made Charlotte one of the main cities for comic conventions. So I took my samples to lots of cartoonists and asked advice, and of course badgered editors.
When I finished college (and by finished, I mean simply “stopping” before I got a Master’s degree), I worked odd jobs that allowed me to draw stories. Convention dates were always my deadlines, and I would go to each with a new batch of pages. Gradually, I got to know the comics community, and joined Artamus Studio as it began in Hillsborough. From there I would piggyback my samples along with everyone else’s Fed-Ex boxes until I caught the attention of editors, mainly Hank Kanalz at Malibu Comics. All the work I landed with them came from pages of Fantastic Four I sent to Hank. I wish I could find copies of those samples now; I can’t remember what I drew.
Everyone remembers 2003, when Parker sucker-punched the industry (and comic readers) with his self-published graphic novel The Interman. Entertainment Weekly hailed the book that Parker wrote and illustrated as "the best genetically engineered spy-on-the-run flick you've never seen.” Parker’s story about an adapting CIA agent was published in 128 pages of full color—a format that is unheard of for a book published away from the larger companies.
MM: Let’s talk about The Interman. That was a pretty valiant move to self-publish such a big book big in full color. What do you feel when you think back to that?
JP: Well, it wasn't unheard of, except for maybe the plunge into full color. But that's the way I saw the story. Up until that point, no one had ever seen me in print doing the kinds of stories I like. So, professionally, it opened up lots of doors for me, and made readers aware of my writing as well. It may have encouraged others to publish their own big projects, simply because they saw that I didn't end up in ruin, stealing pies off window sills.
MM: And is there some sort of follow up happening? When can we expect to see that?
JP: If I can just get caught up on my Marvel deadlines this Fall, you should at least see the 32-page Interman Zero soon.
MM: And the film version? Wasn’t there a wonky chain of events there? What’s happening?
JP: Paramount optioned it first, and then sat on it as they did with most properties they optioned at the time. They had a lot of turnover at the top levels, and that never bodes well for previously bought scripts or books. New Line Cinema picked up the option after that lapsed, and they’re on a second version of the screenplay with [the] British writers, the Griffith Brothers. So, progress is actually happening, as far as I know.
From The Interman
MM: Is it a safe estimation to make that you are doing more writing than drawing these days? What are the practical differences when you’re working with artists like Leonard Kirk or Roger Cruz versus doing the artwork yourself?
JP: That’s a very safe estimation. This laptop goes everywhere with me. I’m surprised at how open I am to artist’s interpreting things differently than I saw them in my head. I thought I was going to be much worse about that. I’m almost always pleasantly surprised, and in the rare cases [where] I ask for a change, I don’t think they mind much because it’s always about storytelling. Often writers will ask for a change that’s completely arbitrary, and in fact it hurts the storytelling.
As the story goes, after World War II, the company that would become Marvel Comics was a very strange place. Publisher Martin Goodman was worried. He was worried that the market for superhero comic books had dwindled too much to support his Timely Comics line. Goodman changed the name of the company to “Atlas”, which was also the name of the company that Goodman used to distribute his comics. Atlas, with its main office located on the fourteenth floor of the Empire State Building, branched out into more genres than superhero comics—mystery, suspense, espionage, westerns, space operas, romance and fantasy. Any given month in 1950s saw Atlas shipping more than 16 different books, until the company switched distributors in 1956. The ending of the “Atlas Age” is marked by the first issue off Fantastic Four in 1961, which is often sited as the birth of the Silver Age of Marvel Comics.
As the writer of the Marvel series Agents of Atlas, Parker is tasked with rescuing five characters—Venus, Marvel Boy, The Human Robot, Gorilla-Man, and Jimmy Woo—from Atlas-era obscurity and cementing them firmly in the current continuity of Marvel Comics. These characters are sometimes referred to as the “1950s Avengers” (as they are in Marvel’s What if? #9).
MM: As far as Agents of Atlas goes, I’m curious: was that something you pitched to Marvel or was that something that Marvel had on the back burner waiting for the right creative team to come around?
JP: That is something that Mark Paniccia was looking at and thought specifically of me, and asked me what I would do with it. So, really it was a huge editorial hunch. Marvel was not sitting around holding meetings saying “we need to use the 1950s Avengers.” Luckily, [Paniccia] liked my idea.
MM: The Atlas characters are kind of the middle children of comic history, in that they are not quite Golden Age or Silver Age. Do you have any specific predisposition for those old characters? If so, why?
JP: I like them because they’re pulp archetypes. To me, they have mythic qualities and you can see how later characters were born from them. Often because [they were written by] Marvel’s top creators before they became the big names we know them as now.
From Agents of Atlas #1
MM: Did you do any research for the book? I can imagine a lot of those Atlas books are hard to dig up…even for the folks at Marvel.
JP: Yes. And you’re right; Marvel wasn’t able to help as much as they could with Silver Age and later work. Fortunately, dedicated fans take up the gauntlet with that, and help fill in holes and point you to reprints of the original stories, which are much more accessible and affordable!
MM: Speaking of which—have you signed an exclusive contract with Marvel? You’ve got kids to feed, right?
JP: I’ve not, though I’ll certainly entertain the idea if they offer it. But as a free agent, at the moment, I’m writing for the new Virgin Comics line, which you’ll hear more about soon. And yes, those kids love to eat!
MM: Back to Atlas—in the back of Issue #2, you briefly mention Stamford, CT and the events of Civil War. What is it like having your book come out at the same time, but outside of the huge company-wide event?
JP: It’s like being washed around in a tidal wave trying to get the Coast Guard to notice us over here on this little dark life ring while everyone else is in a big glowing orange raft with flares. Yet, a good clear signal manages to cut through. Everyone involved is putting their all into the book, and the readers appear to be noticing. So while we don’t have the big focus as the crossover, we do have the advantage of being to tell our own story, and I think when the book is collected in a trade it will do really good sales.
MM: Also, I have to say—in the first issue, there is a great moment where M11, the Robot, holds Gorilla Man over his head and charges into battle, while Gorilla Man fires guns from all four appendages. For me, that was one of those moments where I realized how great comic books are, because something like that wouldn’t necessarily work in a movie or a novel. Was this an image you immediately had in your head when you knew you’d be using these two characters? Was it artist Leonard Kirk’s idea?
JP: Hell no, that wasn’t Leonard’s idea, that was all mine! But he drew the hell out of it, didn’t he?
MM: Kirk’s art is flawless there, as well as through out. Any more random thoughts on that moment?
JP: That was one of those bits that didn’t occur to me in the outline, but arrived as I was scripting [and] trying to figure out how those two would really take on the Mojave Base. I always try to puzzle that stuff out; I don’t like vague action where big cosmic blasts go off and no one can articulate what actually happened.
MM: One last question about Atlas: I was wondering if you could explain the comic rating system a little. Your book is rated “T+” for teen. This allows for things like Dugan’s “free hooker” joke. Is there any concept of the rating system from your perspective? Atlas is clearly a mature book, but is there any push from Marvel to rein things in?
JP: Believe it or not, they almost made it a MAX book! I think the rationale was that they weren’t using the label enough, so for a bit I was taking advantage of that. Really, it wasn’t much different than what I ended up with; I just had Gorilla Man and Dugan swearing a lot more.
MM: What I’m really asking is if we’ll ever see a panel where M11 charges into battle carrying Venus, who is topless and firing guns?
Whether you are fully-clothed or stark naked, when you look at things like Brett Ratner’s recent Hollywood blockbuster X-Men: The Last Stand, Marvel’s umpteen monthly X-Men titles, and two X-Men animated series, it is difficult to imagine that all of this madness grew out of five strange teens with extraordinary powers. When the book was first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, X-Men was about being young, different and cool. Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Beast and Angel were students at a secret school that had a whacked-out, wheelchair-bound guru headmaster. They listened to Beat poetry in coffee shops and in the streets they fought giant robots that represented the establishment.
The series lasted sixty-six issues and saw contributions from industry legends Roy Thomas, Jim Steranko and Neal Adams. In the years since, creators such as John Byrne and Joe Casey have attempted to put fresh spins on those classic adventures of Marvel’s mighty mutants. Jeff Parker adds his name to that list with the just-launched miniseries X-Men: First Class.
MM: Let’s talk about the upcoming X-Men: First Class a little. Again, was this something you pitched to Marvel?
JP: I’m still not sure how that came about.
MM: There have been a couple of short series about those early Lee/Kirby X-Men days, like The Hidden Years and Children of the Atom. What do you think is the appeal of that original dynamic?
JP: I think we all yearn for simpler times when say, Jean Grey was alive. That’s my theory.
MM: Is this series set in the present (2006) or does it acknowledge the 1960s origins of the book?
JP: It is set in what the 1960s stories would be now, the mid-90s. I try to keep it as timeless as possible, though; it’s not necessary like in the Starbrand Special where I really wanted to make mullet jokes. It would be fun to set it in the actual 60s like Dan Brereton did [on the Batman story] “Thrillkiller”, but since [this book is] in [X-Men] continuity, to make a point of the 60s would make them all around 60 years old.
MM: Even Lee and Kirby kind of got a little repetitive when they were on the book. Something like issues #1-40 are the X-Men versus Magneto. Is Magneto a player in this book?
JP: No, because there are Magneto stories enough to last a lifetime!
MM: Side note—what did you think of X-Men: The Last Stand?
JP: I enjoyed it, actually. I didn’t think it was as strong visually as the previous X-films, but it was very fun and action-filled. I like the way the movies by nature have to trim out convoluted continuity and in these cases, often pare it down to the essence of what’s good about the characters and stories. That’s what I try to do with the “Marvel Adventures” stories I write, since continuity is a no-no there.
MM: Just to wrap things up—both of your current Marvel projects involve applying a modern sensibility on old properties. What do you think is the significance of that, in terms of the industry right now? I feel like I read the words “re-visiting,” “revamp” and “nostalgic” in every article I read online about comics. Is this the new trend—dusting off old characters for the new millennium?
JP: It’s simply the professional thing to do—every entertainment company of any size tries to keep their properties viable and relevant. In my opinion, the ones that succeed best are those that find a way to keep their original creations intact and in context, along with modernized incarnations.
MM: Is there a danger of comics becoming too self-reflective, or is this a natural progression?
JP: There’s always a danger of comics becoming too self-reflective, and I think that hurt us, when stories from the 1970s and 80s fed upon their own histories too much. I think the key is keeping it cyclical instead of linear. Focus on good plots with characters that you plan to keep intact for decades, save drastic character changes for rare cases or for characters that aren’t meant to be archetypes.
I wish people would quit putting hundreds of spins on origins that have been done well already. Batman, I’ll pull out just because I mentioned him earlier. Worry about showing Batman solve a really confounding mystery; don’t show me the Waynes getting shot every week. I swear if I never see the Waynes die in Crime Alley again I’ll be just fine. And market characters doing what they do well rather than shoehorning them in a category they don’t fit in. Captain Marvel (the Batson kid) has the most fleshed-out and consistent universe of characters, and would make a terrific all-ages book. Throwing all that away just wastes good work that could still entertain today. Mr. Tawny is the most kick-ass character there is, and Mr. Mind is a great villain. There’s no point in going for a darker tone when Alan Moore already took that version as far as you could with Miracle Man. Sorry, got off on a rant there.
I can rant on Marvel too, but I’ll bite my lip because you never know, I may get a chance to actually change the things I don’t like!