An exclusive interview with Elliot S! Maggin!
by Great RaoSuper-scribe Elliot Maggin wrote for DC’s Superman comics from the early 1970’s through the mid 1980’s. He is also the author of the bestselling Superman novels Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday. He recently finished his new Kingdom Come novel, based on the comic book mini-series by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, and co-wrote the recently released Generation-X novel with Scott Lobdell. (This interview was conducted in 1997)
How did you get your start writing?
Wrote my first published short story when I was 16 or 17 for a Canadian Boy Scout magazine. Decided to try writing comics when in college and I read Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow series. My first story ended up being a backup in one of the last of that series and Neal Adams drew it.
Where did you go to school?
I graduated Brandeis in 1972 (valedictorian, and to this day that gets its own line on my résumé) and I did a final honors thesis in the American studies department on Superman and Green Lantern. My first published comic book story, a Green Arrow story called “What Can One Man Do?” was a term paper for a class on the history of American media. I got a B+ and thought I deserved an A, so I sent it to DC where it got published. That was my junior year.
What are some of your favorite novels and authors?
Favorite novel is Huckleberry Finn. Love Mark Twain. Favorite writers are pretty eclectic: Homer, Machiavelli, Thomas Jefferson, Twain, Isaac Singer, Alfie Bester, Vonnegut, Orson Scott Card. Among contemporary authors I like Anne Rice, Ann Tyler (though I think her hero, Eudora Welty, is a huge snore), and lots of magazine and newspaper columnists. There’s this syndicated guy Rick Horowitz who writes out of Wisconsin who’s the funniest political commentator I’ve ever read.
How did you end up moving from Green Arrow to Superman?
Funny thing was that at the time – it was 1971 or so - no one else much wanted to write Superman. Mort Weisinger had just retired after 30 years of hegemony over the Superman character. His books were farmed out between Julie Schwartz and Murray Boltinoff and neither of them had done much thinking over what to do with the character. Julie’s original plan - his perennial fallback position, as it turns out – was just to give the character to his best available people and let them show him what to do with him. Julie’s best writer, and the one he most trusted, was Denny O’Neil, who wrote Superman stories for about a year and hated them. He just abhorred the experience. Well he’s just so powerful, Denny kept whining. He did whine, honest. He was in his early thirties then and going through a heavy whining period. He’s stopped since. But he just couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do with Superman. In the course of not figuring this out, by the way, he wrote some of the best Superman stories we’d seen in years - the Sandman series. But his approach was simply to reduce Superman’s powers and see if he could deal better with him that way. It simply didn’t work. The point of Superman is that he’s virtually omnipotent and has mishigass anyway. That’s what Carlin never understood about the character, as it happens. His conflict is rarely over not having enough power. It’s over dilemmas. This is a character who, rather than growing less powerful as he ages, only grows more so. That was one of the aspects that attracted me to Mark Waid’s notion of how to develop him for Kingdom Come. His growing conflict is not over power, but over right and wrong. I was surprised Denny couldn’t deal with that at the time; he was so adept at dealing with the same questions with Batman. But Denny didn’t want to deal with Superman. Len Wein took a go at it and did well, but didn’t want to commit for a long term to what he also felt was a very difficult character. Only Cary Bates and I wanted to do it, and eventually it came down to us. Both of us did a few stories for Julie and he thought we pulled them off. Neither of us ever had an exclusive claim on the series, either. Cary and I just kept doing Superman until the sales started to rise, the letters got better and more numerous, movie folks started getting more interested in it, and last of all people in the comics industry started noticing we were doing a good job. Then everybody else started to want to do Superman stories. Sonsobitches all thought it was easy after standing on the sidelines awhile. I never had a freelance contract (another contradiction in terms, I thought) with DC at all but I just worked month-to-month - with long breaks in the process to grow up, go to grad school, get married, have a family, bitch and moan at Julie - until all of a sudden I found myself with this enormous body of work behind me and an embarrassment of options. So the option I took was to leave town and live in bucolic rural New England long enough for everybody to forget I’d ever been there. Just didn’t want to fight what I thought was an unfair fight any more. Pretty silly, huh?
What would you have wanted to do with Superman if you had continued with him?
I never made it a secret that I would have liked to be the Superman editor. I wanted the character to loosen up quite a bit, and frankly to apply the materials, characters and directions from my novels - which I wrote, as it happens, on a pretty laissez-faire basis - to the comics series. Whenever, back then, I talked about what I wanted to do with Superman - and it was often and desperate - I kept harking back to those books and, dammit, nobody’d even read the things.
I think Julie read them, but I’m sure they didn’t make much of an impression. I don’t think Paul read them. I’m fairly certain Jenette never did, and Sol Harrison, forget about it. Maybe Cary read it, but he may have said so just to make me happy, as did Neal Adams. Certainly none of the other writers and artists read them. In retrospect, it’s got to have been a really surreal experience. Here I was, 27 years old with a book on the bestseller lists that dealt quite directly with the field in which I was working every day, and nobody with whom I was working ever - I mean not even once - sought me out to discuss my book with me. Not even something like, “Really sucky book, El. Why do you think it’s selling so well?” Once in awhile someone would say something like, “I saw your book at Brentano’s,” and I would say, “So what did you think after you took it off the shelf, paid for it, took it home and read it?” and the conversation was over.
I find it hard to believe that no one actually read them!
Here’s how I know for a fact that nobody at DC with any clout at the time could have read them: DC is so paranoid about lawsuits that they balk and whine whenever you want to use a proper noun, let alone refer to a trademark. Yet I went off for two pages or so in Last Son of Krypton about what great machines Xerox copiers were. At the time you couldn’t buy them, only rent them from Xerox, and Xerox made the best copying machines in the Milky Way Galaxy, I held. So I said a Galaxy-wide Xerox copier piracy operation got going on a planet of Alpha Centauri. Xerox machines would disappear mysteriously from offices, warehouses, shipping vehicles, and get sold at exorbitant prices all over the Galaxy, just because they couldn’t be bought - only stolen. If DC had known a passage like that was coming they wouldn’t have allowed it on a bet. The Xerox Corporation’s response, by the way, was to buy fifty-thousand copies of Last Son for their employee book club. DC came into a lot of money - and they won’t know why unless someone reads this to them – for not being vigilant and letting me write what I wanted. But the price I paid, eventually, for finding a way to write what I wanted, was being ignored.
Copies of Last Son of Krypton were all over the place. I’d see people reading those suckers on planes, on subways, in classrooms behind open copies of Proust, in ski lodges where you can better spend your time picking up on snow bunnies, everywhere. But not where there are a handful of people I might have wanted to influence. I’ve concluded that in those novels for the first time (one of only two times) I felt I had a free hand with the character because nobody in a position to restrict me wanted to go to the trouble of reading an actual book, and nobody wanted to admit to it.
The only other time was with Superman #400, in which I did a lot of editing of the book and pulling it together myself over the phone from New Hampshire, because Julie’s wife was very sick.
Can you talk a bit about your work on Superman #400? Was the reaction any different when that came out?
Well, you’ve got to understand that I don’t know what the reaction was. I was living up in northern New Hampshire at the time and was pretty much out of touch except by phone. I called up artists, I worked out stories with them as well as with Julie. Al Williamson actually convinced us that he needed extra pages to spread out his segment a little. Jim Steranko called and read his whole script over the phone to make sure it was all right. (It was, in fact, all right.) Everybody working on it got really excited, it seemed. I do know that the marketing department at DC didn’t want to do so much as a house ad for it. “The 45th anniversary?” this little turkey marketing wonk asked me. “So then what’ll we do for the fiftieth?” she wanted to know. Then it sold like oxygen tanks in Atlantis and they sent me a big royalty check, ignored the reorders and it sank out of sight. If you’re a creative type, be very careful of companies driven by the marketing department; they’re in the habit of doing very little marketing because they’re too busy running the company. So I don’t actually know the answer to the question. I kind of liked it myself.
Is there any truth to the rumor that you wanted to have Superman and Lois get married?
When I started writing Superman I was feeling my oats and hanging out with all the young turks. Had lunch one day with Gerry Conway and he was all excited, he was going to kill off Gwen Stacy. So I decided I wanted to kill off Lois. I didn’t much like her, after all, and I wanted Supes to go around picking up alien babes all the time. Bad idea. Then I had this dream about Lois. No joke. A really wet one. And I got to know this nice old lady who had played Lois in the Superman TV series, Noel Neill. So I decided Lois was the love of my life and I insisted over and over again it was time to give the thing some boogey and marry the two of them off. Nobody let me do it. I used to trace Mort Weisinger’s tenure at the Superman books. Every six months he’d throw some spanner in the works. He’d make up a 5th-dimensional pixie. He’d create a Supergirl, or a super-pet, or a Superboy, or a Legion. Every six months like clockwork. The clockwork I found when I was trying to bust the envelope was more of the Swiss variety: reliable and steady. I find that you do better by your characters when you just love them and live with them than you do when you try to freeze everything in place and revere them to death.
What did you think of Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
Were you ever approached to write the “last” Superman story instead?
No. When Alan was in New York he actually took Julie by the shirt and got his nose up in Julie’s face and said he had to let him write the “last” Superman story. It hadn’t yet occurred to me to ask, and Julie committed it. Alan did a good job.
Can you tell us a bit about your newest project? How did you end up with the Kingdom Come assignment?
I hadn’t read it or heard about it when Mark Waid called to ask if I’d do it. I learned later that apparently my friend Jeph Loeb had suggested me to Mark, to whom it had not at first occurred to call me. Meanwhile I had no clue what Kingdom Come was. I told Mark I’d be glad to do another novel for DC if they’d be interested in re-issuing Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday. They grumbled a bit at the very idea, but they appeared to soften a little after awhile. They said George Lowther’s book from the ’40s - which is actually quite a good piece of work, by the way - was reissued as a historical document. I told them to give me a break, that Lowther’s easier to deal with than I am because he’s dead. I told Mark that I was sure I’d love whatever it was he and Alex had created and that my decision to do a novel would be based not on that, but on how flexible DC would be. They wouldn’t be very flexible, I found. But Mark sent me the first two issues, which were out by then, and the scripts for the latter two. I liked them, of course. And then I got to the end of the fourth script and found that Mark the turkey dedicated the series to me. So I called him and chewed him out over it and asked how the hell he’d expect I’d turn down the assignment now. I wrote a first paragraph after I read the scripts, sort of to set the voice, and that paragraph turned on the kids at Warner Books. I expect that first paragraph will survive pretty much intact as the opening of the finished book.
Have you expanded on Mark Waid’s and Alex Ross’ story at all? Is there any additional material?
Lots. It’s a novel, after all, and turns out it’s a little over a hundred-thousand words long so now it’s a big novel. First off, Mark and Alex had a whole bunch of stuff in mind they couldn’t fit into the comic books, and I got to go off on a lot of it. But the cooler thing is that there are a lot of details neither they nor I had any idea about and I got to make all that up myself. For example, I had to figure out just how to kill off Lois Lane. Not bad. I guess it’s been my karma all along to kill Lois.
Will we see anything further about Green Lantern or New Oa?
Alan Scott ends up being a metahuman delegate to the United Nations, and I expanded a bit on that role. A couple of my favorite scenes in the comic book take place at New Oa, and I’ve added a few more of my favorite scenes there to the book.
So just “which” Superman will we be reading about in the book?
I think it’s my Superman, if there is such a thing, all grown up and morbidly disheartened. When Abbie Hoffman and Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain - all of whom aspired quite consciously to superheroism - despaired of their respective missions, each effectively destroyed himself. That’s what Superman’s done here. That’s what James Bond did at the end of Dr. No as Fleming originally wrote it. I told the guys at DC that my feeling is that the phrase “comic book continuity” is a contradiction in terms and I’m simply sidestepping the issue of who lived in what universe when. Really, this character is a Superman who is aged and emotionally disenfranchised and dead to himself. We simply follow the ancient protocols of story structure: every story turns twice; every great essay poses a straw man and knocks him down. This is the story of how a Superman turns.
Has your vision of Superman changed since you first started writing him?
Sure it has. My vision of life has changed since I was twenty. It’s not like you get up in the morning of your thirteenth birthday and say I’m going to change the world to the following specifications and then you go about doing it. Well, scratch that. In fact, I did something like that, although it didn’t work. Plans necessarily change along the way. I was supposed to get elected President in 1992 and the election came and went. So it goes. As I worked with Superman, my concept of him got closer and closer, I think, to the Siegel and Shuster vision. If anything, I think of Superman more as an American icon and less as an action hero now. But what really has changed is my vision of what constitutes an American icon. It’s all right, in my perception, to be a patriot. It wasn’t always. People with whom I disagreed had somehow usurped the concept of patriotism and even ruined it for awhile for my own personal purposes. Superman personifies the kind of call to patriotic and humanitarian values that candidates for public office try to awaken in their public in the course of a political campaign. He’s a kind of guileless generic politician, I think. Sort of like the guy I was trying to be when I ran for Congress a few years ago. You put the program before the people - i.e.: Truth, Justice and the American Way - and see who signs on. No P.R. flacks. No consultants. No market survey samples. Just the program, folks. Doesn’t work in politics; I know. Works in fiction, though, and it works in the hearts and souls of kids of all ages. You can apply a rule of thumb to every successful Superman story (and all of mine were by no means necessarily successful) and that rule of thumb is this question: “Did this story in some manner uplift both the character and the reader?” When it doesn’t do that, it fails.
You mentioned earlier that you’d like your first two Superman books to be re-published. Does it look like this will happen? Will there be any extra material in the new editions?
Just waiting for written confirmation of a verbal agreement we made before I’d actually come up with a marketing scheme. But yes, there were about 3 or 4 pages in the earlier British edition of Last Son that got cut out of the American and other foreign editions. Not very much, but my editor thought they were a little over the top. Never been a very over-the-top kind of guy, and it isn’t very intense stuff, but I still like it and I want to put it back.
Is there a chance we’ll see any more Superman stories from you in the future?
I don’t honestly see it as a likelihood. Here’s the problem: I’m a grown-up now. Those who know my work and who have dealt with me on a professional level know what a bloody perfectionist I can be, how obsessive I get about things like commas and tense agreement and the niceties of definition of terms I choose. If I use the word “nincompoop” and an editor changes it to “incompetent” I get nuts, because although the definition might be essentially the same, the rhythm of the words is different. I hear rhythms in words and phrases and share them with my readers – and impose them on my editors. Julie did that to me. He made me rewrite stuff when it was already good, and by the time I figured out that it was really good enough two drafts ago he had turned a boy who kept his dishes in the sink and washed one when he needed it, into a raving intellectual compulsive. It’s Julie’s fault. So I must cop to the fact that I’m tough to deal with. In fields like book publishing and film, people like perfectionists – especially quirky perfectionists with oral compulsions. But in comics, that’s just not the case. Comics aren’t about art, from the publishers’ viewpoint; they’re about product. I was once told by someone for whom I was doing some work - a friend, as it happens - this: “You were hired to do some carpentry work and somewhere along the line you somehow got the impression that you were supposed to do sculpture.” It would be my point of view that Superman constitutes sculpture. It wasn’t sculpture when Jerry and Joe were first doing it; it was just work. It was still carpentry - good quality finish carpentry at that, but carpentry nonetheless - when Jack Kirby took his magic fingers to it. And it was just work at first when I was a twenty-two-year-old turk whose attitude to my job was that it was a great way to pick up girls. But now Superman is a thing that I understand too well. I love the character too much. I have these obscure notions about storytelling and the way values and ethics get communicated among humans. And I’m a pain in the ass to work with. When you’re paying a pain in the ass a lot of money to do what he does, you cut him a lot of slack. There just isn’t enough money floating around in the comics business for me to be such a pain in the ass about it. And besides, Superman has grown to encompass large tracts of the personal fiefdoms of a number of head cases who would rather not spend hours on the phone with the likes of me arguing over costume colors and literary citations as they apply to pop culture. So it doesn’t make sense to suppose I’d be doing any more Superman comic book stories in the foreseeable future. I’m sorry too.
There seems to be an effort among some comic book creators to restore the heroic ideal, myth, and a sense of optimism to super-hero comics. Do you think they will succeed?
I think inevitably mythology will survive. Whether the comic book as an exponent of mythology survives depends on (1) the vagaries of the consumer base, which is shrinking and (2) the possibility, however unlikely, that upper management will find their way through their fog to recognize what it is they do for a living. I’m quite impressed with some of the things Billy Tucci’s company has been doing with Crusade Comics. Other than that, the pickings are sparse.
Can you give us an update of your Goldenrod project?
Goldenrod’s still around. It’s a character I’ve wanted to write for a long time. The earliest sketch I have of him goes back to 1974. I made the mistake of letting the boys who got me involved in a little under-expertised attempt at a new publishing venture begin to publicize it, and I wrote a script and copyrighted the material with the feds. It’s all penciled and mostly inked (Keith Tucker and Dave Simons) and when all my ducks are in place I’m finally going to publish it. It’s a lot of fun.
Did you enjoy working on the Generation X novel?
I did. It took me awhile to warm to these characters (Scott gave me a crash course and a pile of comic books I had never read) but I find I like them quite a lot. I realized that these people just aren’t drawn very extensively yet and that I can take major liberties with them - a tabula rasa. Once I figured out who they actually were it got to be lots of fun. I realized after a week or three of tearing my hair out trying to figure out what to do, that what these kids were, basically, was a group of horny high school kids with super-powers. That’s how I’ve written the book. I hope you like it.
Have you written any comic books since Archie’s Super Teens #1?
The Archie story was, I think, the last comic book story I wrote. I’d never done anything for Archie before, and that’s when I started thinking of my comic book work as kind of an œuvre and pretty much finished. At Archie they seemed rather ecstatic with it, and they haven’t called back. I was set to do a series along with Scott for Stan Lee’s new Excalibur line called Hellion - wrote it and billed for it and never got a check - but that fell through.
I seem to find myself regarded by upper-management at a number of the older comic book companies as one of the dinosaurs. It’s interesting what kind of dinosaurs think that. I don’t know whether folks like this think of me as competition or really don’t want what I’ve got. Either way, the effect is the same and my solution has been - though it has been difficult to carry out - to go elsewhere and essentially start over. This is finally beginning to feel like it’s working.
9 May 1997
You can contact Elliot S! Maggin and read about his current work at his web page, Exclamations!
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