Kurt Busiek Interview
conducted by David J. LoTempio
Kurt Busiek turned the comic world on its head with his innovative series MARVELS, which he collaborated upon with Alex Ross. The work showcased a creator with an innate grasp of humanity - its folly, fears and joys - within the superhuman context of mainstream comics. He followed up this award-winning with yet another award winner, Kurt Busiek's ASTRO CITY, a series that thematically followed MARVELS. Concurrently, he resuscitated such books as AVENGERS and IRON MAN, and co-created the wonderfully manipulative THUNDERBOLTS. All of this work made Kurt Busiek one of the top name creators during the 90s.
Perhaps what is ignored is that Mr. Busiek had been in the business since the early 80s, landing gigs on POWERMAN AND IRON FIST with Marvel Comics, and the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA and RED TORNADO mini-series with DC comics. It is these later works, which Mr. Busiek has graciously decided to reminisce about. This interview was conducted via email on February 23, 2002
DL: I'd like to start with a standard question for me. Where do you live and how does it affect your writing?
KB: I live in the vast Pacific Northwest, and I'm not sure it affects my writing at all -- or if it does, I'm not conscious of it. It certainly affects my general mood, though, since I love living out here. The spectacular scenery keeps reminding me what a great place to live this is, which can knock me out of an obsessive funk easily.
DL: How many comic books do you own and what does your wife have to say about it? I'm warning you that your answer will have very personal relevance for me.
KB: I stopped counting how many comics I have about twenty years ago. In my office, there are nine standing bookcases full, another seventeen longboxes on the floor, and a few dribs and drabs of other stuff. And then the bulk of it's in the basement, in a storeroom that doesn't have much room to move around in.
My wife sometimes despairs about where to put it all, given how much new stuff keeps coming in, but she read comics before we met, and was working in a comics store when we got engaged. And it's how we make our living. So all in all, she's fine with it, and at least some of the comics that flood in here every month are hers.
DL: In other interviews, you've mentioned having difficult time staying in the business until your success with MARVELS. Yet, your older work seems to hold up quite well - solid characterization, suitably interesting plot twists. Your style of writing seemed to be caught between the public's fixation on Wolfman and Claremont and the incubating "grim and gritty" aesthetic. Do you think that publishers and the public weren't ready for your type of work? Were there too many freelancers?
KB: I think I was doing decent, well-crafted work, for the most part, but it wasn't anything that stood out, that made people eager to see more by me. They didn't flee from it or anything, but there wasn't any reason to give the marquee assignments to me. I think the point where I started doing stuff that stood out was on VAMPIRELLA, and that wasn't a series many people saw. So MARVELS was the first place I did something really attention-worthy that people actually picked up and read. That gave 'em a reason to remember my name, so things started moving from there.
THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA
DL: One of your early assignments at DC comics was writing a JLA-JSA crossover. This was during the period when the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was changing over to JLA DETROIT. How did you land the assignment?
KB: I'd written one issue of JLA by that point, and editor Alan Gold thought I was worth taking a try on. Plus, Gerry Conway, the book's regular writer, didn't want to write the crossover that year -- and to make matters worse, he had a lot of the JLA tied up in something involving Mars, as I recall, while various of the others were unavailable for one reason or another -- I think Green Lantern was exiled to space, and the Flash was in jail. And over on Earth-Two, it wasn't much better -- most of the JSA was tied up in a big story introducing Infinity Inc. So it was to be a JLA/JSA crossover without many characters available on either side, and whomever Alan had asked to do it had turned him down.
Me, I was young and hungry, and figured that if I could do a workable story under those circumstances, it'd prove that I was inventive enough to give a chance on something else. So I took it, and did my best with it. I think I sprung the Flash from jail long enough to take part, used Alan Scott even though he was on the list of characters Roy had said he'd rather we didn't use unless we absolutely had to, and rung in Supergirl just to fill out the cast.
Ultimately, we had fun doing it, but it wasn't any challenge to the great crossovers of yore.
DL: Were you involved in the development of the JLA's new direction?
KB: Not in the slightest.
DL: How did it feel to be writing an event like a JLA-JSA crossover as an early job?
KB: A little nervous, but not overwhelmingly so. Alan Gold was a nice guy to work with, and didn't really make things seem threatening. Besides, it didn't seem like all that early to me at that vantage point; I'd been working as a writer close to two years by then. Seems early to me now, eighteen years later, but not so much then.
DL: You had the opportunity to work with veteran Silver Age artists - Carmine Infantino and Mike Sekowsky (JLA #240). As a young creator, what were your thoughts about pairing with these veterans? Did you feel overwhelmed? Did you learn much from them, or were you separated from them?
KB: I never got to speak to either of them at all. I also got to work with Don Heck and George Tuska, though, and it was all a treat, working with guys whose work I'd enjoyed for so long. I can't say I felt overwhelmed, just pleased to be working with such pros.
On the RED TORNADO mini, actually, I'd wanted Gene Colan -- if you're going to do a story about wind and storms and swooshy atmospheric effects, who better than Gene? -- but he wasn't available for one reason or another, and they gave it to Carmine. And Carmine did a gorgeous job, full of beautiful rainstorms and wind and such, most of which kind of got lost under an unsympathetic ink job. But the pencils were beautiful.
And on JLA #240, I actually pitched the story for Sekowsky -- I'd heard through friends that he was looking around for some comics work to do, so I suggested to Alan Gold that he get the original JLA artist for a fill-in featuring the JLA as they were when he'd last drawn them, and I'd get to write it. Alan agreed, Mike agreed, and off we went. Not many readers noticed that the JLA in that story are from right between the last Sekowsky issue and the first Dillin issue, but hey, I liked it.
But I never met Sekowsky, and didn't meet Carmine until years later. He told me he didn't remember drawing a RED TORNADO mini-series at all.
DL: "The Supremacy Factor" in JLA #224 is one of my editor's, Mike Hutchison, favorite stories and he devoted a column to it (see http://www.fanzing.com/mag/fanzing24/jla.shtml). To synopsize, the villain, Paragon, has the ability to acquire abilities from anything living thing within a certain range, similar to Amazo. Mike did have a few questions regarding the story and I felt I should pass them on.
Although this may be overthinking a superhero comic, I must ask what Paragon's motivations are for becoming a costumed villain?
KB: Um, uh, er ... that was 1983, David! I haven't read that story since it came out, and my copies are somewhere in that crowded basement room ... I can remember bits and pieces, but mostly what I remember was that opening scene where I got to write JLAers in their secret IDs, and then some really nice Costanza lettering and Giordano inking. I don't recall what Paragon was actually up to.
If I ever bring him back, I'll have to dig it up and refresh my memory. And fill in any holes that might've been left out back then.
DL: If Paragon didn't want to be noticed, then why wear a costume underneath his trench coat?
KB: Beats wearing it over his trench coat?
I honestly don't recall -- maybe we didn't have a reason, or it got lost in the shuffle. If the Ethel Merman of the super-villain set comes back, I promise to give him a reason to wear a costume...
DL: In AMAZING HEROES #62, you're noted as saying that Red Tornado was designed to be uninteresting. "Most of the people I talked to at DC said, The Red Tornado's really boring. I hope you're going to do something about it."
The character had an admittedly hard time since it lived in the shadow of the JUSTICE LEAGUE, and comicdom's other famous artificial human, the Vision. Even his destruction in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #8 was eclipsed by the death of Barry Allen in the same issue. Why is Red Tornado such an also-ran?
KB: I think it's largely that he's a shy, retiring character in a book that wasn't really known for character drama. As such, when they did character stuff, the louder characters got the stage, and the famous characters got the action, and Reddy stood in the background looking glum. AVENGERS was more about giving the guys who didn't have their own books a chance to shine, and so the Vision got to be a main character there -- but in JLA, Reddy got crowded out by the superstars and by scene-stealers like Green Arrow.
DL: Looking back 17 years, do you feel that your series was a valiant effort? A failed experiment, perhaps?
KB: A lesson in how not to do a mini-series, I think. It was a workable story, and readers seemed to like it -- it didn't help us any the Reddy got blown up in CRISIS between issues #2 and #3, so readers knew it "didn't matter" -- but it was well-crafted enough. The mistake I made was that it was designed to be a lead-in to an ongoing series, so it built up to Reddy making the decision to change his life and be more dynamic and interesting, but there was no follow-up, and I never got to write those stories.
Were I doing something like that today, I'd trigger the Big Decision in #1, so readers would get three more issues to see Reddy acting different, and maybe get a chance to like the new set-up before the mini was over. Wouldn't have helped us there -- not with him being dead by the time we were done -- but it's a better way to approach things in general.
DL: You seem to have come full circle with enlivening homunculi, with the Vision in the Avengers. At the time, you stated that you wanted to make Red Tornado an exciting, enjoyable concept without following the same route as the Vision (AH #32). Do you view any of your recent work on the Vision as an extension of your work on Red Tornado?
KB: Yes. I came up with Reddy's desire to get out and experience things, to explore life and make choices and try stuff, to be an enthusiastic participant in a world he didn't have much experience in, as a way of giving him something to do that was unlike the Vision, who was reserved and contented in a comfortable, supportive marriage. And then by the time I was writing the Vision, his marriage had been blown to hell, he'd been turned into a toaster, and we wanted to find a way back to an engagement with humanity for him that wasn't the same path he'd taken before. And, well, I never did get to develop that idea with Reddy, so I gave it to the Vision. The sort of thing he did on his date with Warbird was stuff that Reddy would have done if I'd kept writing him.
DL: Why do you think the Pygmalon story - a simulacrum that comes to life - is so important that it reappears often in culture, i.e. Pinocchio, Data from Star Trek, etc?
KB: It's a story about an innocent experiencing the world -- essentially, a story about a child becoming an adult, but in a different form. Stories about growing up, about taking on adult responsibilities and learning to be equal to them, are told over and over again, particularly in stories aimed at younger readers. The Vision, Reddy, Data, Adam Link ... these are all ways to tell that story with a character who can physically be a hero, who can take part in the action, but who can also follow the developing hero's journey, can experience love or betrayal or whatever for the first time without needing to be physically immature at the same time. So they work well for comics.
There's something compelling about the "powerful innocent," be he Red Tornado, the Silver Surfer or Valentine Smith. So it's a concept that recurs.
DL: DC Comics spun off a series from ECLIPSO: THE DARKNESS WITHIN called VALOR, which was the story of Lar Gand, a member of the Legion of Superheroes with the powers of Superman, in the 20th century. The series seemed to have a solid direction for the first year until Mark Waid came on and spun it around.
As a reader, I thought that Waid's direction was byzantine, and yet John Francis Moore's work, the previous writer, seemed pedestrian. You came in and wrote the last four issues, which culminated in the series finale and the end of current Legion history (End of an Era). I was always very curious as to how you got involved with the series. Was there hope that you and Waid could turn the book around?
KB: Waid, maybe, but by the time I came on the book, I think they knew it was dead. Originally, Mark suggested me as a co-writer for VALOR, since he was jammed up on deadlines. But once we started going, I rattled off what I thought we should do for the first story, and Mark said, "Hey, you don't need me. Why don't you just write it, and I'll sell the editor on having you do it all yourself."
I knew it was only a four-issue gig when I got it, but it was fun to do.
DL: I reread these four issues of VALOR and particularly liked the two-part story in which Valor succeeds in seeding the future Legion worlds in one day. Unfortunately, Valor's success seemed sadly worthless in light of the Legion's retroactive upgrade. Did you know that you were writing the final issues?
KB: Yes. Doesn't mean we shouldn't make it as good as we could for those who'd be reading it. If it was going to be wiped out, so what? Let's make it a good ride.
DL: Were you involved with developing End of an Era? If so, what emotions and concerns did you have about the final fate of the Legion? I gather from your past statements that you are a Legion fan. Closing the door on the old Legion couldn't have been easy for you.
KB: I wasn't in on the beginnings of it, but by the time we were actually plotting out the six-parter, I was on board and taking part. Everyone involved was interested in restoring the Legion, in digging them out of the mire they'd become, uh, mired in, and getting them back to something closer to the classic spirit of the team. That sounded good to me. I wasn't going to be part of the new crew, though, so my focus was mostly on sending the old guard out with appropriate fanfare and respect. As I recall, I came up with the explanation of the SW6 team, and the idea that they'd all shake hands with their adult counterparts and merge. And I remember pushing hard to make sure we established that the time-wave that reordered everything didn't wipe them out, but rebuilt what should have been, without Rokk's tampering. I wanted to get across the idea that the old Legion wasn't being "killed off" to make way for a new one, but that the spirits, the souls of the existing Legion were being re-formed into this new timeline. So that while the characters didn't know, we the readers would know that these new Legion characters were in fact the same guys we'd been reading all these years, transformed by the time-wave, not thrown away and replaced.
I don't know that it worked -- certainly there were readers who missed that -- but it was the bit I was fighting for, some sort of clear causal connection between the old and the new.
Other than that, I didn't have to actually pull the trigger, so I mostly just enjoyed finally getting to write the Legion, and doing the best I could with it. Kind of a first-and-last chance, all rolled into one.
DL: Thanks Kurt for taking the time to discuss these old books. I'd like to remind everyone that Kurt Busiek has a wonderful new book out from DC comics called The Power Company. Check it out at your favorite comics shop or zip by DC Comics to check out a preview.
is an aspiring writer with a wife, child and dog. He is a closet libertine and thinks he can sing like Marvin Gaye...on his good days. Wishes he could write like Nelson Algren. He is also a contributor to our first comic book, "Fanzing Presents: Job Wanted", which can be purchased at Too Many Longboxes.com!
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Kurt Busiek and David J. LoTempio.
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