A Conversation with Elliot S! Maggin
By Anatole Wilson and Rich Morrissey
Beginning with "Must There Be a Superman?", Elliot S! Maggin (with Cary Bates) helped define the Superman of the 1970s and early 1980s. For fifteen years, he not only chronicled the adventures of Superman, but also the JLA, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Captain Marvel, and many more.
He wrote the two best-selling novels, Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday, as well as Generation-X with Scott Lobdell. He was lured back into writing about the Man of Steel when Mark Waid both dedicated the mini-series to him and asked him to adapt Kingdom Come in novel form. This August, Kingdom Come the novel will be released in paperback.
AW: I have the sense that many of our readers started reading Superman post-Crisis, and aren't very familiar with your body of work and how many of the themes you touched back then relate to your novelization of Kingdom Come. So it's probably a good idea to start at the beginning...
ES!M: Well, let's make one contribution to popular culture by defining that hybrid term "novelization." It comes up as an error on my spelling checker and I haven't added it to my dictionary. "Novelization" is a process: the process of turning something that isn't a novel into a novel. So I expect that the proper term for the product of that process would be a "novel." It's a small point, but I like to think of what I wrote as a novel.
AW: I've read that your first comic book story, "What Can One Man Do?", which appeared in Green Lantern #86, was originally a term paper for a course in American Media. What point were you making in your term paper, and how did it relate to the theme of the story?
ES!M: "What Can One Man Do?" was actually the largest part of that particular term paper. It was a course on American history, for a section on media. The point I was making was that a comic book story, effectively directed, could be not just an entertainment but an ideological tool as well. I wanted to illustrate that the comic book medium was effective in presenting a multi-layered point of view, and could do so effectively with a minimum of subtlety and a great deal of effectiveness.
RM: According to past accounts, "What Can One Man Do" was originally written as a 19-page story. What was cut out and/or changed for publication, and what did you think of the changes?
ES!M: I did the cutting and pasting myself, so I had no substantive objections to them. I welcomed the task, in fact, as a useful and entertaining exercise. There were portions of the story that wanted tightening, so I tightened them. I would have liked the phone scene in that story -- where Ollie called a succession of friends for advice -- to be a two-page spread as I originally wrote it, but Neal's execution made it quite effective, and I enjoyed the story in its final form quite a bit. You've got to remember that this was my first comics story, that I had only the vaguest notion that I might be able to do some more for publication, and I certainly had no idea that as a result I was going to get to ride Superman's cape for fifteen years. I was a junior in college. It was just a homework assignment for me; only more fun than most.
AW: You've said that your first Superman story, "Must There Be a Superman?", was the foundation for the rest of your Superman stories. Could you elaborate on that?
ES!M: It was a story in which I articulated to myself a number of the questions that eventually I tried to answer with the Superman series: What was Superman's relationship to his charges, the people of the Earth? To the authoritative functionaries of the rest of the Universe like the Guardians and, by extension, those who might be considered deities? What were the limits of Superman's responsibilities? Were there differences between the real limits of his responsibilities and his perception of those responsibilities? What role did his heritage, both on Earth and among the stars, play in the determination of his actions? What long-term effects were coming about as a result of his intercession? And so forth. These were all questions I mulled over, most of which I dismissed for a time, in the course of writing that story. It was my first Superman story, and Julie [Schwartz, longtime Superman editor], Denny [O'Neil, writer and editor], Neal [Adams, artist], Murphy [Anderson, artist and regular Superman inker at the time], Carmine [Infantino, artist and then DC publisher], and others made a point to me over and over -- as if they had rehearsed it together and all decided to impress me with it individually -- that it was the general belief that Superman was the hardest character to write. In fact, it took me about a month, maybe more, to write that one story. I believed them all for awhile, but I eventually realized I was not really struggling particularly with Superman at all. I was exulting in writing this series. It took me awhile to notice this, but it was true. And I think I managed to deal with what the others found so difficult, simply because I had started out by posing to myself what I considered to be these fundamental questions. I think many of my subsequent stories addressed individually most of the questions this first story posed.
RM: Some people do find Superman easy to write, I've found. Others (including most of the people you mention, definitely including Denny, Neal, and Carmine) gravitate more easily to less powerful heroes like Batman, finding them inherently more plausible (since Batman theoretically could exist in the real world; Superman couldn't). Perhaps it's a matter of the level of their power fantasies, or the use of a hero's power and ability as a metaphor for the real world. Jenette Kahn herself tends to divide professionals into "Batman people" (like Bill Finger, Denny, Neal, Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Frank Miller, and Alan Grant, most of whose comics work has been on Batman and other characters with relatively limited powers), and "Superman people" (like Jerry Siegel, Cary Bates, John Byrne, Mike Carlin, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, and Mark Waid) who tend to favor Superman and other super-powered heroes. Yet it's almost inevitable that people in the latter category seem more attracted to real-world power than those in the former category...which has applied perennially at DC; in the Silver Age Superman editor Mort Weisinger very definitely dominated Batman editor Jack Schiff, and Jenette Kahn herself, despite her expressed preference for "Batman people" promoted Superman's Mike Carlin over the (senior) head of Batman's Denny O'Neil.
ES!M: Well I think your exception denies the rule. It's well and good to try and find patterns among the madness, but I think in this case the conflict is specious. Superman is no more fantastic than Batman. Batman is no more realistic than Superman. Both require a separate universe with suspended laws of physics, chemistry and biology to rationalize. It's just a matter of how effective the storyteller is at prompting the audience to suspend disbelief. The real question, I think, is what moral issues do you want to deal with in the stories to which the character lends itself. I guess you could call me a "Superman person" because I tend to see the more universal and enduring themes that a Superman story embraces as a better intellectual workout. This does not, however, make the themes to which a Batman story addresses itself either exclusionary or somehow less significant.
The only recurring question of the Superman series, I realized in retrospect, that was missing from that story was the question of Superman's relationship with his disguise, Clark Kent. Who was real and who was the fiction? Was either real? Was either a fiction? This was the only Superman story I ever wrote, I believe, in which Clark Kent did not appear at all, and come to think of it, that is in some sense consistent with my eventual answer to the question -- an answer that is at odds with the approach being taken in the current series. I went back to the Homeric and mythological attitude toward the disguise. The disguise may be vivid and important -- even beloved to the hero -- but the hero's true nature is the heroic one. Check out the story of Odysseus' return to Penelope. Check out the story of Leda and the Swan. It makes more sense that way, and has more classical resonance, I think.
AW: That story was only one of many you pitched to Julius Schwartz on that day. Were there any other ideas in there you would have liked to pursue, but couldn't because they were shot down, or you never had the opportunity to follow through?
ES!M: I remember having presented a great many story ideas to Julie that day. I don't remember what any of them was specifically. I only recall a phrase Julie shot back at me that struck me funny at the time. "No elves," he said. "Don't want to hear anything about elves." For some reason he felt short people were being overused at the time. I think what I was trying to bring to Julie that day was stuff like what everyone else was doing, and what he pounced on was something like no one else was doing. The story idea, you may know, was out of a conversation I had had a few days earlier with Jeph Loeb, who was about 12 or 13 at the time. I forgot the conversation and remembered the story. I think it's a bit of attractive symmetry that Jeph is writing the series now. Cool, huh? Over and over since then I've been told by editors and agents that I have this difficult-to-market penchant for trying to go "off-model," for trying to press at the walls of what a series is doing at the time. Superman was in trouble in 1971 -- in enough trouble that the powers that be found it advisable to entrust him to the likes of a couple of kids like Cary Bates and me. I felt so empowered by the experience of pulling the character out of the clutches of innocuousness and oblivion in those days, that I've been trying to repeat the trick ever since. One of these days I'll find an editor or a producer who's courageous or desperate enough to walk that walk with me again, but not so far.
AW: Why "not so far?" Many of DC's critical successes have been old characters (Swamp Thing, Sandman, Animal Man) whose traditional characterizations have been turned on their heads. (And, I might point out, they're doing lots of stories with elves.) Are there any characters other than Superman you might be tempted to revamp?
ES!M: I don't know. My wife and my literary agent both say it might be my personality. I have this tendency toward aggressiveness when it comes to creative intention. Had a massive run-in with an editor and an artist not long ago because I spent a lot of energy presenting the reasons I chose to do one thing or another in a project, and I later found that they were just fed up with my approach. I thought we were having creative differences; they called it a personality conflict. Go figure. I'd be delighted to take a crack at virtually any established character and make the moribund dance and sing. I love to do that stuff. I'd much rather work on something I own myself, though. It's not the money -- one of my problems is that I've never been very good at following the money -- but there are just fewer people to account to in the latter case.
RM: I actually thought you and Cary Bates went "off-model" quite a bit more than John Byrne and his successors, who often got credit for it but never seemed to me to be doing more than turning Superman into a generic Marvel (or, far worse, generic Image) character, neither of which he should be.
ES!M: I'll agree with that, only because it sounds like you're boosting Cary Bates. Cary deserves a good boost, I think. He's a genuinely innovative thinker and has never gotten much recognition for that.
RM: Paradoxically, it's usually the less successful characters and companies (EC in the '50's, Marvel in the '60's, DC in the '70's and early '80's) who try to do the most experimentation; more successful companies tend to stick with a successful formula.
ES!M: I don't find that a paradox. Pushing at the dense wall separating convention from innovation is what creative people do. Did you know that small businesses, for example, fired by the enthusiasms and visions of their founders, generate jobs at a rate thirteen times greater than big established companies? That's an extraordinary number. The same holds true for any creative enterprise. That's why the music business gets shaken up by a fundamental change in the character of popular genres and Jefferson observed that Shay's Rebellion was overdue and indicated an inadequate penchant for the people of the young United States to commit insurrection against their government. Stories are dreams. They're supposed to force you into dealing with situations that have never confronted you, but ultimately might. They're supposed to shake up your consciousness and spiritual foundations, not lull them into complacency. Complacent, chronically "on-model" storytellers are doomed in the long term.
AW: It seems to me that most writers consider Superman the hardest character to write for either because of his powers, his icon status, or his image as "the big blue boy scout." Does this seem like a fair analysis? If so, how do you get around this when writing about him, or do you try to get around this at all?
ES!M: I found that this was true of Superman only when I got gun-shy as a result of the warnings of others. The way you get around his icon status is what I've said before: Love your characters and live with them, and don't try to freeze them in place and revere them to death. Talk to them. Listen to them. Ride along on their adventures and write down what you see. I've learned in adulthood what I never realized other than on a gut level as a young writer trying to resurrect an icon: Fantasy is real. Metaphor is real. Look at the opening page of Kingdom Come if you want to understand my approach to dreams versus reality. I do believe in Santa Claus. And I believe in flying dogs in capes. And separating your fantasy reality from your temporal reality is no more difficult than speaking two languages and keeping track of when you're speaking one or the other. One language is no "better" or more expressive than another. It's just that some ideas in some languages are untranslatable to some others. Without believing it yourself, I can't see how you can make a story work. As for the image of Superman as a boy scout, that's simply what he is. Do we have a problem with that? I'm a Boy Scout. I was Cubmaster of my son's pack for years. Never got to be an Eagle Scout but I've attended a load of Courts of Honor where people I was proud of got to be Eagles. There was an attitude in the Sixties and Seventies -- some of the best times of my life nonetheless -- that there was some kind of inconsistency between saluting the flag and voting Democratic; between having a point of view that is progressive and thoughtful, and experiencing the holy. I see no such dichotomy and I'm pleased to say I wasn't cowed by the thought, when I was a kid, that there might be some inconsistency there that I just wasn't understanding.
AW: I think the connotation "Boy scout" is meant to imply naivete, or to suggest that an uncompromising moral code is somehow outdated, or something only an inhuman being could retain. There's also the issue of respect for the law in an age where authority is often questioned and our political and judicial systems are constantly ridiculed. The example in Kingdom Come would be when Superman had Magog prosecuted, when I think most people would have said the "human" response would be to take revenge, or "rightfully" execute a mass murderer.
ES!M: Not something Superman does. Simply out of the question. Any example of a character taking that action is demonstrably not a Superman story. It's something else. That doesn't make the character naive. It makes him more effective. Which is not to say that in some way the character is not naive. That's simply not the manifestation of it.
RM: You've said that Superman has always been your favorite character, both as an icon and as a human being. How do you see him as a character?
ES!M: How do I see him as a character? I'm not sure what the answer to that is, other than to refer you to all the stuff I've written about him and let you figure it out from that. That's the easy way out. I think that Superman's place in contemporary American mythology is what attracts me to him. There are just so many things about him that qualify him to occupy a level comparable to that of Zeus or Odin or Arthur or Lincoln in predecessor cultures. I'd like to think that my years wrestling with Superman were the training I need to begin to map the path of Twenty-First Century mythology, however that shakes down. I'm working on it.
AW: In what ways are you working on "mapping the path", and where do you see this path leading?
ES!M: If you asked me that question about Superman in 1971, I wouldn't have had a clue what you were referring to, and might have given you a misleading answer that, in retrospect, would now make me look like a total washout. I'm just writing what I'm writing, trying to keep in touch with whatever muses cross my path, and being pleasantly surprised whenever it hangs together coherently.
RM: How do you envision the distinction between Superman and Clark Kent? Do you agree with Jules Feiffer that Superman is the real identity and Clark the assumed one, with John Byrne that Clark is the real person and Superman only the costume, or do you consider them both real people, and different sides of the same man's personality?
ES!M: I think Jules Feiffer got it on the head and John and those who continue to adhere to his interpretation are just wrongheaded about it. Certainly they're both "real" people -- but Clark is real to Superman in the sense that Superman is real to us. Clark has depth and preferences and structures of belief that grow as he grows older, but these are all constructs of Superman's obsession with him. Clark is a soul just as Superman is a soul. But in the same sense that Superman is a soul who is the product of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's souls -- and those of every creator through whose hands he has passed -- Clark is a soul who is most directly a construct of that of Superman. I refer you back to the use of disguise in mythology. Certainly, within the confines of the story of Apollo's conception, the Swan existed -- but Apollo was nonetheless Zeus' son. Would Jerry and Joe ever have sold -- or even cared about -- the epic comic book adventures of Clark Kent? I mean Clark's a nice guy and all, but it would be an irrelevancy.
RM: As you put it in one of your novels, Superman's hobby was Clark Kent.
ES!M: Exactly. His religion, too.
RM: Follow-up question: It's been said that the Lois and Clark TV show essentially presented the John Byrne Superman, that being the version of Superman appearing in the comic books of the time. Would you say that the Christopher Reeve movies reflected the Maggin/Bates/Swan Superman, that being the Superman who appeared in comics when they appeared? Not in all ways of course (Clark wasn't a TV newscaster), but in others (like the characterization of Superman and Clark Kent; Reeve is said to have read a number of contemporary Superman comics for research) they seemed to reflect your own work.
ES!M: I don't know. I know the people who put together the show did a lot of reference to my two novels. Other than the characterization of Luthor and of Clark as the "real" person rather than Superman -- which, I understand, the folks at DC specified -- the series was pretty consistent with my ideas of the character. I thought Dean Cain was terrific -- to my surprise and to that of the people who first cast him as a last resort. I even wrote an episode on spec one summer. Unfortunately, it was the summer before they did a story arc about Clark and Lois' engagement and Lois getting a long-term case of amnesia and some frog-eating illness -- and my script was inconsistent with their intended direction. The story editor I spoke with loved it and told me I'd given it to him about six months late.
RM: I've always thought you wrote one of the best versions of Lex Luthor ever (along with Edmond Hamilton and Jerry Siegel, both of whom seemed to influence your version). Like Marvel's Doctor Doom and Star Wars' Darth Vader, he's a fascinating villain because he's not so much an evil man as a good man who took a wrong turn due to his ego. How do you see him and his rivalry with Superman?
ES!M: You've got it about right. What do I add to that? Luthor is me. On my best days. Not to say I'm some kind of super-genius, but on a really good heavy-duty writing day I can be really smart for about three or four hours. It's in those three or four hours -- totally obsessed and focused -- where I find Luthor.
RM: You and Cary Bates were the main writers of Superman for a number of years, and collaborated on several stories. How did your views of the character compare? And how did you feel about the other Superman writers, from Denny O'Neil to Leo Dorfman to Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, and Martin Pasko, during your tenure?
ES!M: All of these guys are people with whom I have had some measure of friendship and whom I respect and admire a great deal. Leo Dorfman died not long after I met him, and I wished I had been able to know him better. Denny startled the bejeebers out of me last time I saw him when he told me that, as far as he can tell, he is now the senior editor in the field. I guess he is -- but I still think of myself as a kid, and I think of him as someone who ought to think of himself as a kid because I do. He remains, I believe, the finest and most skilled writer in the field -- without exception. Len, Marv, Marty, and Gerry have all been people with whom to break bread and share a joke, occasionally at my expense. These guys are signposts to me, and Cary is still my main man. To talk about them in other than personal terms is virtually impossible for me.
RM: What do you think of the changes made, by John Byrne and others, to Superman since your departure... especially Lois Lane's learning Clark's identity and finally marrying him?
ES!M: Ever hear of a girl named Joyce Maynard? She's this middle-aged housewife in New Hampshire somewhere with a talent for autobiography. She's made a career out of autobiography. She wrote the novel To Die For, and I hear she's got an unspeakably huge advance for a book on an old friend of mine who is in prison now and whose story ought to be told more sensitively than Joyce is capable of. Lately she's marketed a collection of love letters written to her long ago by the reclusive writer Jerry Salinger with whom she once had an affair. I don't approve. I first became aware of Joyce Maynard when she was 18 and I was 20 and she had written a series of three long articles for The New York Times Magazine on what it's like to be young and hip in America. At the time, I was likewise hip and almost as young and, I fancied, a significantly better writer. So I hated her. I don't still hate her. I just disapprove -- and only mildly, at that. Lately I had occasion to reread her series for the Times Magazine from back in the Pleistocene Epoch and grudgingly decided that after all it was quite well written, considering her age and cluelessness at the time. But I was likewise clueless and still managed to be hip (for the benefit of the currently young and clueless, they call that "fly" now, I believe) and still ought to have written the series, I thought. And sometimes I still think that.
What was the question . ?
RM: I know how you feel! There was a time when Nelson Bridwell (whom I knew quite well) was editing Superman Family, and the writer of the Jimmy Olsen stories (Gerry Conway, I think) had just left DC for Marvel. I tried to get the assignment, only to find out the front office had pushed a replacement on him... Tom DeFalco, who later got to be Editor-in-Chief at Marvel. I really resented him then; less so now. But I still think I should have got the Olsen assignment.
ES!M: And in a parallel universe I'm the Senator from New Hampshire and Tom DeFalco is interviewing you for Kryptonian Cybernet.
RM: Speaking of politics, It was also reported that you'd originally wanted Oliver Queen to run for mayor (which he finally did) and win (which he ultimately didn't). Is this so, and, if it was, what would you have done with him as mayor?
ES!M: I don't know, but I'm sure it would have been fun. Frankly, I got a bit preoccupied with Superman after that. Julie just wasn't ready to have me take Green Arrow off in my own direction at that point. He had Denny with a kind of brotherly affinity for the character, and running for office was a notion quite alien to Denny. You'll remember that it was Denny who undid Ollie's fortune -- de-Batmanned Green Arrow in a sense -- and I think Denny did this in order to present a character whose ambitions and values mirrored his own to some extent. Ultimately, it's what I did with Superman -- albeit with similar values but a whole constellation of divergent ambitions.
RM: Interestingly, I'm in the process of writing an article about Denny's JLA stories (which of course tie in with his Green Arrow; especially the development he gave the only JLA members not appearing in a solo strip that carried over to GL). Although having Oliver Queen go bankrupt might have been a bit excessive, I could see it as a case of Denny's attempt to move him as far from being a Batman clone as possible (which had gone pretty far by the '50's... I mean, an Arrowcave? Arrows and archers, unlike bats, aren't generally associated with caves...) and closer to his other main inspiration, Robin Hood. (It had to be pointed out to me that, as Robin Hood had been a nobleman who lost his title and land when Richard Coeur de Leon left for the Crusades and his brother John took the throne, so did Oliver Queen lose his fortune due to the schemes of John ...)
ES!M: That's really cool. I never noticed that before. I think Julie, Denny, Mike [Grell] and the others who wrote Green Arrow at the time were really careful well into the Eighties not to use the Robin Hood analogy overtly, so I don't know how much of the parallel they executed consciously. I like to think that recurring patterns in popular culture recur because we have something going on in the collective consciousness that makes them bubble up -- like the creation myth or the flood story that appears in cultures all over the world without apparent cross-referencing.
RM: Still, as a followup, I remember the World's Finest story you wrote in which Ollie finally ran for office... only to fall victim to a last-minute fix. Why couldn't he have actually won then? Denny probably wouldn't have cared; he'd gone back to Marvel (at least for the time being) by then...
ES!M: It was my last Green Arrow story. I hadn't written the character for a long time and knew I wouldn't likely be doing it again ever. I just wanted to tie up some strings. I wish I'd had him win. Then I might have done better when I ran for Congress not long afterward.
RM: Whose idea was it to split up the Green Lantern/Green Arrow team, and give each hero a strip of his own, after the regular title was cancelled?
ES!M: I think it was Carmine Infantino's. It could have been Julie's, though, with Carmine signing onto the idea and making it his own. Editors had a lot more autonomy in those days than they do now, but their actions were ultimately the responsibility of their publishers. The Green Lantern/Green Arrow series could have gone on much further, I believe, if DC had the kind of oversight in the marketplace that they have now. I'm convinced -- and I understand that there is significant evidence to support this -- that the series was selling far better than DC's numbers indicated. Retailers and distributors had enormous leverage in those days that allowed them to falsify sales figures and resell coverless comics for which they had already received a full refund. I walked into a 7-Eleven with Neal Adams and a bunch of guys around that time -- somewhere outside New York, I think it was on the way to Vermont one Halloween -- and somebody got it in his head to prove to Neal that he was more famous than he thought. So he walked up to a couple of kids looking through some comics, pointed at Neal and said, "You know who that is?" and when these strangers looked at Neal you'd have thought they'd seen Eric Clapton or something. I'm certain that series made a lot more wind in the countryside than was blowing around it back at the office.
RM: Well, of course they could have recognized Adams from his Batman stories or even his Marvel work, but I'm inclined to agree that the series was a better seller than was realized at the time. I know that's the way it's said to have happened with Jack Kirby's contemporaneous Fourth World titles, which were cancelled around the same time.
ES!M: Same story. Brilliant comics. Lousy feedback. Get a clue.
RM: Denny O'Neil has always appeared to be, and has specifically said, that he's personally more in tune with "human" heroes with few if any powers. You, by contrast, seem to enjoy working with super-powered heroes like Superman. So why, when the team was split up, did he continue on the Green Lantern solo stories while you took over the Green Arrow feature, when each of you might have seemed more at home with the other character?
ES!M: I wasn't in on that decision and I don't think Denny was either, but you're right about our preferences. I had this whole rebirth idea worked out for Green Lantern which didn't get any farther than my honors thesis at Brandeis. Eventually Denny and Green Arrow got back together -- and I still miss Hal Jordan. Maybe I've just got a penchant for boy scouts.
RM: Actually, Denny didn't do a whole lot more with Green Arrow...just used him in the second GL/GA run which read like a pale imitation of the SF run (its worst sequence, I always thought; issues 80-84 or so) of the original go-round. Mike Grell (who illustrated a number of your backups; how did that collaboration go?) did most of his character development there.
ES!M: I liked working with Mike Grell. Great guy. I really get along well with people who are outlandishly different from me. I don't think he's ever gone anywhere unarmed.
RM: How did you see the relationship between Green Arrow and Black Canary? It always confused me that he seemed to take the lead, even though, at least by the continuity of the time, she was supposed to be at least a decade older than he was. Did you ever consider exploring this in a story?
ES!M: Never thought about it. I think the way we got around it was the time dilation effect of passing between Earth-One and Earth-Two. Multi-dimensional rationales manage to explain away a lot of inconsistencies -- like spackling before you paint.
So have you got a problem with older women or what?
RM: Why did you take on the assignment of writing SHAZAM! ?
ES!M: I loved Captain Marvel and lobbied for the job. I felt he was an important figure in the contemporary mythology and wanted to be the guy telling his stories.
RM: What do you see as the main distinction between Captain Marvel and Superman ... especially since, for most of the time since DC took him over, he's had mostly editors (Julie Schwartz, Mike Carlin), artists (Kurt Schaffenberger, Bob Oksner), writers (Denny O'Neil, E. Nelson Bridwell, and yourself), not to mention writer/artists (Jerry Ordway, with a reported proposal by John Byrne as well) who've also handled Superman? Should he be done in the same style as Superman, or differently?
ES!M: Differently. He's Jupiter to Superman's Zeus. Where Superman is serious Captain Marvel ought to be solemn. He's surrounded by talking tigers and malevolent worms, for heaven's sakes, and he goes about his life as though that's reasonable. He's Woody Allen to Superman's Clint Eastwood: a reasonable man in an insane world, as opposed to a man of values imposing those values on a world only partially able to incorporate them. Get it? I'm not sure any further analogies would be useful, but I can't quite bring myself to get the idea out the door any other way.
RM: Could you tell us your side of the 1973 controversy leading to C.C. Beck's departure from the series?
ES!M: Beck had this notion -- quite reasonable, I think, in retrospect -- that his interpretation of Captain Marvel was the definitive one, and that any other means of approach was invalid. His artistic style at the time was criticized as simplistic or out-of-date. I prefer to think of it as restrained. He put a lot of work into his pieces. Unfortunately, he took any measure of respect for his contribution as a license to ride roughshod on other people's likewise hard work. He took liberties with scripts and made unreasonable demands of editors, attempting to impose policies and procedures on people who were already comfortable working with one another with a previously defined set of boundaries. He took outlandish offense at little things like whether a writer capitalized or underlined material that was to be bold-faced in the lettering. He insisted, ultimately, on a de facto creative veto with regard to "his" character. I don't think his style or creative approach were out of date or no longer valid, but his interpersonal skills were negligible. His departure from the character was a classic case of the people in charge simply not wanting to work with him any longer -- a phenomenon with which I've been acquainted myself.
RM: You briefly wrote the Justice League, both by yourself and with Cary Bates. Did you want to do more with the group?
ES!M: I would have liked a freer hand for a longer time, but all of life's experiences are like that, I guess. I found Justice League probably the most difficult comics assignment I have had -- though, young and foolish, I approached the difficulty as a challenge. I enjoyed far more what little I was able to do with a later incarnation of the Justice League -- little stories I did with Fire and Ice, with Booster and Beetle. I would most have liked taking that kind of freewheeling storytelling approach with the traditional characters. That would have been fly. (See? I can do it sometimes.)
RM: You wrote the story bringing Hawkman back to Earth, introducing the Equalizer's plague that exiled him from Thanagar. Jack C. Harris finally resolved this loose end, but did you have any plans of your own as to how to resolve it?
ES!M: To tell you the truth, I don't remember. Jack's good. I appreciate his bailing out the loose end when he had the chance.
AW: Let's talk about Kingdom Come. Your second novel, Miracle Monday, took a number of your comic book stories and wove them together into a coherent story. How did the experience of writing Kingdom Come, which was based on Mark Waid's story, differ from that?
ES!M: I took the opportunity to do a good deal of weaving there too. Mark's story was strikingly consistent, especially with regard to sensibility, with the work I did in comics -- especially the Superman series -- for many years. Mark's sensibility was the reason I took the assignment. For the opportunity to work with characters in old age with whom I had worked in their youth (as well as mine) I felt able to purge a lot of long-unsatisfied demons from my system. Browse the book. You can't help but trip over an example of my filling in the blanks left in my own long-ago canon. I thank Mark all the time for that chance.
AW: Did you find it constraining, or a greater challenge?
ES!M: Actually it was a little easier having a story framework to start with. I started both earlier Superman books without much of an outline in mind. I didn't know you needed one. These days, I plan to a fault. I go out at night with a cigar and a beer and make diagrams. Writing Kingdom Come was, compared with Last Son and Miracle Monday, like an engineering job. I wrote it at pretty much the speed of light. Comes with experience, I guess.
AW: One of my favorite parts of the book is when Jennifer Capper found herself elected President, without campaigning, solely on her merits and without really wanting the job. Is this a Utopian or dystopian fantasy of yours or is it the ideal outcome of your own run for Congress?
ES!M: Yeah, I always wanted to get elected President by acclamation myself. There's a lot to be said for denying high office to anyone who actively seeks it, but not wanting it also licenses a person to fail. The attitude I like best was Clinton's when he first got elected. Someone asked him if he's intimidated by the sudden rush of authority and responsibility, and he said basically that he'd turned his skin inside out to get to be President, and to shrink before the task now would be altogether too self-important to be acceptable.
AW: In your forward to Kingdom Come, you say that super-hero stories are not about gods, but about the way humans wish themselves to be. Yet so many of today's comic book "heroes" are nihilistic and amoral -- heroism is almost an accident. Aren't they more like the Greek gods of old than the super-heroes of the Golden and Silver Ages of comics?
ES!M: I think a lot of current interpretation of "heroism" misses the point. Free-fall sales through this Dark Age of Comics bears that out. I think we're marking time until somebody wakes up and gets back in touch with the American character.
Working on that one too.
AW: How is each of these characters changed by the events of Kingdom Come: - Superman
ES!M: He recognized and thus overcame the error of his desertion of the obligations that, until the death of Lois, defined his life and gave his days meaning. By finding himself again as a result of the love and tutelage of another great woman, he finally honored Lois.
- Wonder Woman
She suffered the wrath of her Fates that came as a result of the classic tragic flaw of each of her predecessor Greek heroes: hubris. She overcame these adversities through battle, lost some friends, and learned the lesson of humility of which she shows evidence by finally involving herself in the life of a worthy man as formidable as herself.
- Norman McKay
ES!M: As an old man, he is reminded of his childhood faith, wraps it up in his personal tradition and finds a way to give it as a gift to his community.
- The Spectre
ES!M: Finally, at great pain, he remembers his humanity and takes steps to begin to restore its core values within his soul.
ES!M: Redemption is possible. He allows others to take his hand and lead him. Absolutely classic.
AW: You've written two original stories in the past couple of years, "Luthor's Gift" and "Starwinds Howl." Both stories deal largely with Superman's childhood -- with Superboy. How important would you say that being Superboy, with a full range of powers, is to Superman's character as an adult?
ES!M: In my perception, Superman was at some point Superboy. Child is father to the man, we all know. If the character is going to be real, if he is ever going to be the great man beneath the glasses and the timid facade, then he has to have been such a person in his most formative years. Anyone who remembers his own childhood at all must know this.
AW: One of the shortcomings of the comic form -- or any visual medium -- is that often a facial expression or pause in dialogue takes the place of a thousand words of introspection. Do you think that writing the novel gave you greater insight into the characters than was conveyed by the graphic novel?
ES!M: I certainly hope so. I hope a wonderful graphic novel managed to inspire a comparably perceptive and viable novel. We'll see. I hope this novel is one that's not only read, but discussed.
Early September 1999