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Kurt Busiek Part Two (Return to Part One)

ADD: And yet, who wouldn't be in that kind of situation?

KB: Yeah, well, that was my theory. This was a guy who'd been doing a very good job working with people who he considered his peers, who had now just been given his dream. And it's not that the people in the Avengers are better people than the people in the New Warriors, but, if he's working alongside Namorita, it's like, yeah, she's a girl about his own age, there's no threat there. There's no, "Gee, do I measure up?" It's different when you're standing next to Thor. And ever since you've been a young kid, Thor has been one of your idols, and I think that's gonna rock you back on your heels. But still, I didn't want to do that sort of thing again, so we made the determination that Alejandro was not going to be somebody who was gosh-wow impressed with the Shockrockets. Instead he was envious of them. He was somebody who lived a life of privation and hardship, and looked on the Shockrockets as the lucky stiffs who got all the good food, who got all the comfortable beds, and had the kind of easy life he wishes he had. So yeah, he's in some awe of them, but that awe translates as a certain level of bitterness and cynicism, and of course he's dumped into the team and finds out it's very, very different from anything he'd expected. Which, again, it rocked him back on his heels in a different way. And that became a very interesting character to write. He's not the nicest guy on the planet. He's not an unsympathetic guy, but he's not a clean-cut straight shooter.

ADD: You mention Justice--it seems like when that plot was resolved, it was something you had been working to right from his introduction in to the team. And one of the things that I've noticed in going back and rereading your Avengers run is that, it seems like you and George have pretty well worked things out far in advance before we end up seeing them a lot of the times. Is that how you generally work, have you got things usually plotted out far in advance?

KB: Not really plotted out far in advance, whenever we start something rolling we know where it's going. For instance, with Justice we knew that he was going to have a difficult time fitting in to the Avengers because he was starstruck. And eventually he would have to get over that in a story where he would see that the Avengers have, without denigrating them as heroes, that they have frailties and feet of clay just like he does. And at the same time we knew we were gonna be contrasting this with Firestar, Justice's fiancée, who joined the Avengers without really wanting to, without being terribly impressed with the Avengers, because this wasn't what she wanted to do with her life, and the Avengers made things so much better for her, that she embraced the dream that Justice was struggling with, and that because she didn't have that awestruck attitude he did, she didn't have any impediment to working well in the team. So we knew that there was gonna be a little problem with the fact that he wanted to be an Avenger and she didn't, and she early on turned out to be a much better Avenger than he did, because she had a different set of expectations.

So we knew that we were gonna be playing that out and resolving it, but we didn't know precisely how we were gonna be doing it. We just knew that we needed to hit certain beats along the way. Just as, for instance, in the latest issue, we bring back a surprise character that people perhaps weren't expecting to see, and we know where we're going with that. Several times in the last few weeks, in conversations with Tom Brevoort, I've revised how all the various beats of the Yellowjacket plotline are going to play out. I know what those beats are, I know where we're going with it. But when George decided to leave thew book and we needed to bring in a new artist, we changed around our plans for what the storylines are gonna be, so all the running plot threads, Yellowjacket, the Triune Understanding, the Vision, things like that, kind of got braided differently, to play out in the new material. So it's not a case of having everything plotted out in advance and knowing mathematically that "At this point we'll do this and at this point we'll do this," it's more like knowing, "We do this, and the next step is this," and once we get to that next step, however it comes up naturally, the next step after that is this, and we'll build to a resolution that's this. But the context for each of those beats will be worked out as we go along.

ADD: You've got some flexibility built into the process there.

KB: Yeah.

ADD: You've probably got one of the most prominent online presences of anyone in the creative community in comics...

KB: Probably, yes.

ADD: I was quite surprised after reading that Avengers issue to see that there was some confusion in the minds of the readers over who exactly Yellowjacket was there at the end--obviously you're not gonna give anything away here, but my impression, immediately, I felt that it was because of the way that he was drawn, was that this is the Yellowjacket who we last saw in Avengers Forever. Am I wrong in thinking that this is what we were supposed to think?

KB: (Laughs).

ADD: Or, say no more and that will tell me that maybe it is supposed to be vague.

KB: It's not so much supposed to be vague--I'm a little amused at the idea that many people have decided that this Yellowjacket much be plucked out of time because of the costume he is wearing. If this was some sort of new manifestation of Yellowjacket, why couldn't he wear whatever costume he wanted to wear? In any case, you will be learning more as we go along. Really, the intent of the end of Avengers #30 was to make people go, "Whoa, hey, how does that work?!"

ADD: It really came out of left field. My personal bet was that that was Captain America hiding in the shadows. I guess most people thought it was the Living Lightning, and it turned out to be probably one of my all time favourite characters, simply by dint of the fact that my all-time favourite Avengers issue was #161, where Yellowjacket had been manipulated into taking on his Ant-Man persona again. And it's a blast to see George drawing Yellowjacket again.

KB: I've had a great time, because, I think the Yellowjacket costume is one of the best costumes in comics, I think it looks great.

ADD: Was that John Buscema that originally designed that?

KB: Yes, or at least, John was the first artist to draw it. I don't know if Roy Thomas sketched it out, or John worked it up, or what. But it was first drawn by John Buscema. And unfortunately, Yellowjacket--the identity Hank (Pym) has been in when he's had breakdowns, at such momentous occasions, that it just doesn't seem logical that Hank Pym would willingly become Yellowjacket again. So that's a difficulty because, it's a great costume, it's a cool name, I'd certainly like to use it, but it's not the kind of thing where Hank's gonna wake up one day and say "Hey, I think I'll put on my Yellowjacket costume, after all, the memories I associate with that are so damn good." So I started looking around for other ways to deal with it. And the first of those was, when we did Avengers Forever, I realized we could pull Yellowjacket from just before Avengers #60, and that would get my favourite Yellowjacket, because much as I like the Yellowjacket costume, I like the one without the goggles better. And I like the attitude, and kind of--

ADD: The leering?

KB: --Smirkiness of the character in those two issues he's just a real sparkplug. So we put him in Avengers Forever and Carlos Pacheco went to town drawing him. He had him always chewing gum, and leering at people, and he just really channeled the John Buscema body language from those first couple of issues and presented the character in a very vibrant way, much more of a distinctive personality from normal Hank. And people really liked that, so we found a way to do some more with it. And I won't say what that is, but it allows us to have not only Yellowjacket, but somebody who's very much like my favourite Yellowjacket, the arrogant glory-hound Yellowjacket, running around in the book at the same time as we've got Hank Pym.

ADD: It's interesting, when we talk about Marvel and the Avengers, you obviously, for all the great creator-owned work you've been doing recently, you obviously still have a great knowledge of and affection for the Marvel universe, and you're certainly in, maybe not a unique, but an unusual situation in terms of writing not only one of Marvel's top titles, but also being able to do Astro City, which is being published by DC, and Shockrockets coming through Image. Is this something you envision being able to do for a long time, working for the three biggest comic companies?

KB: Well, it certainly hasn't seemed to be a problem so far. Nobody at Marvel wants me to stop doing Astro City, because Astro City is one of the books that made my name as big as it is, and that helps them sell Avengers. Nobody at DC wants to really see me stop doing Avengers because Avengers is a very high profile book and that helps sell Astro City. I'm sure that if I went over to DC and did a high profile book for them instead of Avengers, they'd be just as happy with that, maybe a little happier, but in the meantime nobody wants to be a hardass about, nobody wants to say "No, you cannot do that if you are going to do this." Because comics have changed since the days when publishers wanted to be in complete control of freelancers. Right now, Avengers is an important Marvel book. But there have been a lot of years where Avengers hasn't been selling all that well.

Right now, Avengers is selling very well, and that's partially due to the fact that it's the Avengers, it's partially due to the fact that it's George Perez drawing it, it's partially due to the fact that it's me writing it. And nobody really wants to mess with that equation. Right now Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are doing the Punisher, and it's hugely successful. It's, in fact, more successful, sales-wise, than Preacher. and it's that combination of a well-respected creative team that's got some audience interest behind them, and a character that's got a lot of fans. The two of them together are larger than the sum of their parts, and Avengers has been benefiting from that (same scenario). So instead of Marvel getting proprietary about everything and saying "You must work only for us," Marvel wants to accommodate me and George and other creators so that we'll be happy doing books like Avengers, and they'll be able to keep that process going, of popular concepts allied to appropriate creative teams that have some fan interest behind them.

ADD: I've seen in other interviews with you where you've talked about the difference between doing a book like the Avengers, which you've talked about, maybe the skills come a little easier, than doing a book like Astro City, which I guess my take on it would be that it seems to be a more personal work for you--not that the Avengers isn't great, it is, and I enjoy it a great deal--but it seems like you've invested huge amounts of your commitment into the work that you do on Astro City. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between the two modes of writing?

KB: It's actually really just a procedural difference. The Avengers, at base, is an adventure story. The major question that needs to be answered in any Avengers story is, what happens next? And what happens next needs to be interesting and all, and the characters need to be engaged in interesting plotlines and stay in character, and that good craft stuff, but it's essentially a plot question. Who's the next villain? How are they going to react? What happens next? And those are stories that I can write--it's not a matter of easier or harder, those are stories that I can write pretty well, I think. Whereas Astro City, the stories are all about internal narrative. The stories are all about how people react to things, and what they're thinking, what they're feeling, and what changes happen in their life. Astro City, despite the fact that it has superheroes running around punching people in it, is very seldom about what happens next. It's about, "So, how do you feel about that?"

And that's a very different kind of story structure. It's a very different kind of thing to write. And the difficulty I've been having writing Astro City has to do with my chronic health problems. I have a chronic sinus infection, and when I've got that going on in my head, it's harder for me to concentrate on the kind of delicate balance that a character-based series like Astro City requires. It's not a matter of the craft of structuring out the page or pacing out the issue, it's a matter of setting up everything you need to know about the character, so that when you do start asking the "So, how do you feel about that" questions, everything is in place so that the audience can react in sympathy, or out of sympathy with the character, depending on what's needed for the story. That's a trickier piece of craft. I wouldn't say it's better or worse, it's simply a different approach. And when I'm ill, it's an approach that I am simply not capable of delivering on. When I'm dealing with a sinus infection I can sit there and spend two solid weeks working on an Astro City story and getting nowhere--and I've done it. Whereas with the Avengers, I can always fallback on "what happens next." That the themes and character ramifications and looks into the human condition are the subtext in Avengers, and they kid of happen naturally along the way. In Astro City they're the text, and I have to do them consciously. And with my health situation the way it is I can't always do that.

And I'm unwilling to write lousy issues of Astro City because I happen to be sick that week. It's a difficult situation for other people to understand, because they don't actually share the mindset I have when I'm working on different kinds of stories. I recently--well, not recently at this point, but I read an interview with Robert Towne, the screenwriter, and Towne apparently had terrific recurrent allergy problems that left him in a period of several years where he was unable to write original screenplays. He could script-doctor, he could take an existing screenplay, a structure that already existed, and rewrite it, and make a lot of money that way and exercise his craft and his creativity. But because of the way his allergies were affecting his mind, he simply couldn't structure out a new story on his own. And he said in the interview that nobody got that, and I read that and I went, "I know exactly how you feel, pal."

ADD: I bet. Do you find that the audience has been patient with you during that time?

KB: Well, they're certainly frustrated, but the difference is, there are a lot of books that are late, and there's no apparent reason those books are late except that the creators just didn't get 'em done. And when those creators are asked "Where's the book," they say "Oh, you know, we'll get to it, we'll get it finished, we're working on it. Don't bug me." And the audience gets annoyed with that.

ADD: Especially when one of those people is doing 18 other things.

KB: Um, well...

ADD: Hypothetically speaking.

KB: Yeah. But in the case of Astro City, I've always been pretty upfront about it. I don't say "Oh, we're having production difficulties." I say "I'm sick! It's my fault!" (laughs).

ADD: And again, that's pretty hard to argue with. And certainly, I don't think you're looking for sympathy, but it's an explanation, and it's certainly a reasonable one. And for my money, Astro City, I think it's worth waiting for a quality issue for you to resolve your problems than getting something that's substandard, and so far I haven't seen a substandard issue of Astro City.

KB: Well, I'd like to say the same thing. I see them from a different perspective. When I look at an issue of Astro City, I don't see a finished work, I see the struggle that went into it. And the ones that have been much more of a struggle to write, don't feel as clean to me as the ones where I was in control right from the start. So it's a frustrating experience to me too. And certainly there are readers out there who have said "Kurt says he's sick, but he's doing Avengers every month, so I'm not sure I buy it." And I just wonder, gee, Astro City wins me awards, sells real well, pays very well, stays in print forever, why would I be stupid enough not to write it, if I could? But these are guys who just can't see that distinction that writing Astro City is different from writing Avengers. Not better or worse, but different.

You know, to them, I should be able to sit down in four days and write something. Doesn't matter what it is. If it was horror, write horror. If it was a character story, write a character story. If it's an Avengers adventure, write an Avengers adventure. "It's all writing, it's all the same thing." But it isn't. It's a different approach, it's a different mindset, it's a different way of thinking. And at times it's just very, very difficult for me to deliver on the kind of mindset that Astro City requires.

ADD: You talk about the feedback from the readers, and of course you're online quite a bit in terms of responding to readers in the newsgroups. How do you think the Internet has changed, if it has, your approach to the way you do your job?

KB: It's hard to say how it's changed the approach I take to my job, because the Internet started being a part of my life at the same time as I started to do a lot more mainstream, high profile work. I was introduced to the Internet while I was out in Maryland visiting my friend Lawrence Watt-Evans and doing a signing for Marvels #1 or #2, I forget which at this point. And he showed me the discussion that was going on on GEnie about it. And I thought this was great, you know, this was like getting all the mail on the comic, but getting it two months early.

So when I got home, I signed up for CompuServe and GEnie, and started reading the feedback, and I'm sure that it's had some sort of effect, but on the other hand the work that I've been doing, the kind of books I've been writing, went through a very big change over the couple of years I was ramping up on the Internet as well. But in the long run, I'd say that it's--it's a more efficient process of getting reader reaction than the old letters to the editor, but it's not all that different in terms of what effect it has on the work. if everybody's complaining about one particular character, then maybe I'll do something about that, but I would do something about that if everybody was complaining in the letters to the editor too. I like the Internet because it's kind of an instant gratification thing.

ADD: Your Marvel editor, Tom Brevoort, is also fairly prominent in some of the same newsgroups that you are...do you think that he, in his role as editor, places as much importance on the online commentary as he does on somebody who's willing to slap a stamp on an envelope and mail in a letter?

KB: Probably not. The amount of effort it takes to slap a stamp on an envelope is not very high, you know, it's not much of an effort, but it's some effort. It's more effort than it takes to type up a "Man, this sucks! It's Tuesday and you haven't fixed the problem that was there on Monday" e-mail. There's a lot of stuff that gets vented on the Internet that simply gets vented because it's easy. And the thing I was saying before, at one point Tom and I were commenting on the fact that someone would gripe about something they didn't like in Avengers, and a week later they'd gripe again about how it hadn't been fixed yet. Now, there hadn't been another issue out.

ADD: (Laughs) "I looked at that same issue and it's still there!"

KB: Yeah. And we started going, "It's Tuesday, and Simon Williams is still a jerk, it's Wednesday, and Simon Williams is still a jerk!" It's a monthly book, guys. But--these are people who get on the Internet every day. And if that's what they're feeling, they'll say it again. And then they'll say it again. And then they'll say it again. And I think it distorts the picture. It ends up looking to people who frequent that newsgroup or message board or whatever, like there's this massive crusade to stamp out whatever piece of the book that these guys don't like, and it turns out it's four or five guys, repeating the same stuff over and over and over and over.

ADD: There's maybe 250 posts a day in the Marvel newsgroup--that can't possibly represent a very big percentage of the actual people that are actually reading the Avengers.

KB: Oh, no, no. If the people who posted on the Usenet Marvel group were representative of the audience, then Untold Tales of Spider-Man would have been Marvel's best-selling title.

ADD: Okay, so we can see there is sort of a filter that you would look at before going "Oh, they don't like it, I better change this."

KB: Yeah, yeah. Also, there's times when, if people online don't like something, my reaction is "Eh, you're wrong." But if we're getting--for instance, when we introduced Triathlon, the main reaction to Triathlon was "We hate his costume." I heard that online. Came in in the mail. I heard it at conventions. It was just consistent. Everybody said it. They hated his haircut, they hated his goggles. So, we changed his costume. Took away the goggles, gave him a different haircut. That's when I started hearing from people, "Why'd you take away the goggles? The goggles were the best part!" But, something like that, we consistently heard the same message from all quarters. Much as, for instance, in Avengers #2, when the Scarlet Witch showed up in that medieval gypsy kind of costume thing, the reaction to that costume was phenomenal, everybody loved it. So a few issues later, we decided "Let's put her in that costume in the regular day. People really like it." George put it in a couple of issues earlier than I thought he was gonna put it in. I was planning to plot in a "And now she puts on the costume" (scene), and George just put it into the next issue, and I covered it in dialogue.

Since then, we have heard vehemently from people who don't like that costume, want it changed immediately, want her to go back to the original costume, want her to go back to the costume she was wearing in the Crossing, whatever--but, we only hear that from a certain number of people on the Internet. The mail that we get, most of the people who comment on the costume seem to like it. It gets good response at conventions, and even when, on one of the Avengers message boards somebody decides to do a poll about the costume, "Boy I hate this costume, doesn't everybody agree with me?" He comes out like, 4, 5, 6 to 1 in favour of the costume. So if you didn't actually weigh the various responses we get, you'd think, "Avengers fans out there just hate the costume." And it turns out that, no, there's some Avengers fans out there who hate the costume, and they're really loud. But when you actually look for people's opinions, more people like the costume than dislike it. So, sorry guys, you're loud, but--too bad.

It would be very easy to assume that the feedback you're getting on the Internet is accurate, but it would be a bad way to produce comics to continually react to that sort of thing. Ultimately, you've got to take all the feedback you get, however it comes in, and weigh it and do what you think is best. I recently did a poll on various newsgroups, asking who people out there thought were the greatest menaces in the Marvel Universe at large. I didn't tally up all the votes and decide, "They all think this guy's the best, so we'll use him." I just looked at the responses and said "These names come up a lot. Okay, I can come up with stories for a couple of them. This guy--he comes up a lot, I don't like him, so I'm not gonna use him." And I'll tell stories that will be the best stories that I can tell, but I'll be using the fan response as catalyst, not as marching orders.

ADD: George Perez is leaving the Avengers (after issue #34). I believe that you were a fan of the Avengers when he was drawing it originally during the 70s...it must be just a dream come true to be able to see your stories illustrated by this man.

KB: It has been magic. I write stories, and when they leave my keyboard, they're Kurt Busiek stories. And then when they come back in pencils, they're Avengers stories. They gotta be Avengers stories, look at 'em, George Perez drew 'em!

ADD: (laughs).

KB: The rush of excitement at seeing George's pencils come in based on my plots has never abated.

ADD: He's leaving the title because of health concerns, and we wish him well--it does open up the question of what's going to be in the future for the Avengers. Do you see yourself sticking around for a while here?

KB: It looks like I'll be sticking around. Originally, there certainly was a temptation to say, "Well, you know, George and I will have done up through issue #34, and had a great time doing it and he's leaving, so maybe it's time for me to go as well." But on the other hand, there's also the temptation to say "What can we do next, what can we do that's exciting and different and takes the book to a whole new place with a different look and a different style and writing approach to go with that different look." So Tom Brevoort and I talked over what kind of thing we'd like to do with the Avengers post-George. I said, you know, if we could find the right artist, somebody that I would be comfortable working with, then I'll stick around.

ADD: How was Alan Davis chosen to succeed George Perez? Did he come forward or did you or (Avengers editor) Tom Brevoort go to him, or...?

KB: Tom and I talked things over and worked up a short list of who would be ideal to draw the book after George's departure (and no, I won't tell you who else was on the list). Tom called Alan, and Alan signed on.

ADD: What strengths do you think he will bring to the title?

KB: Well, the part about being a terrific artist doesn't hurt...But more specifically, Alan's not only a terrific draftsman and a powerful storyteller, he's also very good at classically-heroic characters, so Avengers should be ideal for his approach. They're big, they're bold, they're larger-than-life and they're very human -- and Alan's top-rank in all of that. I've been a fan of his since he was just starting on Captain Britain, and I saw his new costume designs in the Marvel UK offices. I've loved his work ever since, and I'm delighted to be working with him at last.

ADD: Will his style require a different approach from you than George's?

KB: Sure, I expect so. I try to write to the strengths of whatever artists I'm working with, and I'm sure I'll wind up doing things I wouldn't have done with George drawing the book, or avoiding things that I'd have tossed at George without thinking twice. But it's an organic process, and I can't analyze it out beforehand -- I'll just be visualizing Alan's work while I'm plotting, and that'll affect things. And of course, as we work together, things will change and develop through experience. But we will be taking a new direction in the book -- it'll look different, it'll feel different, so it seems like the right time to rethink the way we've been doing the book, and try to stretch some different creative muscles.

That's not to say I haven't been happy with how things are going with George -- but this is a new run, a new era, so let's do some new things. I don't want to talk about it in specifics yet, since Alan's first issue won't hit 'til January, but Tom and I have been talking about how Avengers would be if it were created today rather than in '63, and we're very strongly trying to make it a new and different book -- much of what I've done so far has been influenced by earlier eras, as we've been reestablishing what the book is all about, but I think it's now time to stake out some new territory, to take the foundations we've been reestablishing and build something new with the team's rich and solid history as a base. It'll be big, it'll be dramatic -- and it'll feature a lot of Avengers. Not an army of 'em, since Alan doesn't want to draw that and I don't want to write it, but an approach that'll let people see a lot of familiar faces, and some lesser-seen ones along with the classics.

We've got story structures that could take us past #50, and more stuff worked up we could do after that -- and it's stuff that'll involve everything from outer space to Subterranea, from intrigue to all-out war, and more beyond. We've got one hell of a roster of villains slated to appear, and plans to start of with a bang and then just keep building from there. It should be fun.

ADD: Anything different or special planned for the fill-in issues between George leaving and Alan coming aboard, ala the "Un-Avengers" issue recently?

KB: I wouldn't call 'em fill-ins, since they're integral to the book's development -- they're drawn by guest artists, but they're very much part of the ongoing Avengers saga. John Romita Jr. will draw the first post-George issue, which will be our "Maximum Security" issue, then Steve Epting will draw a two-parter that sets things up for the new series direction and features a return to Slorenia -- and then Alan will come aboard as the Avengers take a whole new approach to protecting Earth. And I'm delighted to be working with both of them -- I loved Steve's art on AVENGERS during the #300s, and I've been a Romita Jr. fan since IRON MAN. So we've got our big summer blowout with George, then the Maximum Security event, then a showdown in Slorenia that'll make the Avengers rethink their mission and how to accomplish it, and then the launch of "a whole new era of assemblin' excitement," as Stan might put it. Sounds pretty good to me -- all the more because I get to write it!

ADD: To wrap up, back to Gorilla Comics for a moment--where do you see Gorilla being a year down the line and maybe five years down the line?

KB: It's very hard to tell. A year down the line I hope those of us who are doing regular series will be rolling on with those regular series, and those of us who are doing various miniseries will be keeping up production on those. Our original plans on Gorilla have altered somewhat, because we didn't go into this looking to be self-publishers. We went into this looking to be in control of our own work. But we wanted to find a publisher or financial backer to do the administrative stuff. And we found a financial backer who, after we'd already started going, had trouble financing, and as a result we ended up self-financing the company, which puts a lot more of the administrative weight right on our shoulders. And that makes it a lot more work and a lot more time-consuming.

If a year from now we're working with a financial backer who's taken a lot of the business weight off our shoulders, I'd be happy about that, and things would develop in a very different way than if we're continuing to self-finance. If nothing else, it's really hard to publish other people's work when you're telling them "Sure, you can do something here, but you gotta pay for it." So ideally, I would love to see Gorilla become the comics imprint where I do all my creator-owned work for the rest of my career, and keep it in print and have a great time and develop ongoing working relationships with promo guys and production guys so that from project to project I know that it's going to be well-delivered.

But whether that's something that'll happen is just something we're gonna have to--we're gonna have to keep surfing on the current industry situation and see how things develop and how we can react to the various changes that come along. I don't think anybody can tell you where they're gonna be five years from now.

 

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