TCJ 300 Conversations: Denny O’Neil & Matt Fraction

Posted by on December 21st, 2009 at 5:07 AM

 

Deadlines

O’Neil:
Is that a problem for you guys, the deadline thing?

Fraction:
I love it. It keeps me honest, you know? I would nitpick endlessly if I didn’t have deadlines — and I’m sure there are people that do have problems — I thrive with that little bit of pressure. It helps me not be precious; I could noodle around forever would I not have people calling and asking, “Where’s the script?”

O’Neil:
You hear people like Julie Schwartz talking — well, you don’t hear him any more — but it was evidently one of the things that hurt Bill Finger’s professional survival and it’s a problem that goes way back. I was at DC to do a talking-head thing a few months ago and I asked one of my editor friends, “What’s your biggest problem?” and he said, “Getting two consecutive issues out of a given team.” It was certainly the major problem I had as an editor, both at Marvel and DC. The guys who will go to work for television and scrupulously adhere to TV schedules to do a 60-page teleplay, but can’t do a 22-page comic in months.

Fraction:
I think there’s a pay priority differential.

O’Neil:
Yeah, but it’s also a cultural thing and I’ve never heard anyone say anything that I agree with more than what you said just now: I like deadlines because they focus you. It has nothing to do with the quality of the work; there are writers who are fast and there are writers who aren’t.


From Thor: Ages of Thunder #1, written by Fraction and drawn by Patrick Zircher; ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.


Fraction:
I’ve done a couple of writing seminars and what-have-you and one of the best — if I could go back in time and tell myself anything about it, it would be: Give yourself the gift of sucking. You kind of have to let yourself be lousy and just do better next time and believe that there will be a next time and get it done and move on to the next thing. Otherwise, I’d have paralysis by analysis.

O’Neil:
Did you major in English?

Fraction:
No, I was an art and a film major. Close enough, we’d have been in the same cafeterias. I very much came from a production culture in my education where we had to produce work constantly. So, I need that little nervousness, that little shock of adrenaline just to keep things going.

O’Neil:
The worst thing about being an editor — one of the reasons I retired three years early — was you had to fire occasionally. That’s an awful experience on both sides of the desk. But I once took someone off a book and I pointed out that this person had missed a dozen deadlines in a row and the writer didn’t understand why I was upset about that, why that was a reason to switch writers. It’s something about the people who come up primarily through fan culture — it’s their hobby. The other thing is — Dick Giordano used to say, “We have to remember we’re not curing cancer.” We had to remember that what we do — storytelling — is very deep in the human psyche and very important to us, and may have something to do with our survival. But, any individual story — whether it’s written by Shakespeare or by the guy who does the funnies for the bubblegum — is not, at the end of the day, that important. It’s an interesting job, it’s a fascinating job, I can’t imagine anything that would have given me more satisfaction, and not everything I did was awful, but it was just writing another story in a world that’s full of stories.

Fraction:
Yeah. This is interesting — one of the things I really wanted to ask was about the transition you made from writing to editorial. You still had your foot in both worlds, but what was that transition like? What was it like as a job — what was the corporate culture like at the time? Tell me about Denny O’Neil, Writer, becoming Denny O’Neil, Editor.

O’Neil:
Well, my life was very, very bumpy at the time. Going through divorce, did a lot of drinking and carousing, and I was maybe past the worst of that but I realized that I had a kid who was starting high school and I needed more money. If I wrote any more, I might have been compromising — I had enough regard for what I did to want to do it as well as possible, given whatever limitations were in effect. So, I went to DC and said, “I really need a few more bucks,” and their answer was to offer me some more books to write. Well, I was writing a book for Scholastic Publications on the history of comics and that involved interviewing a lot of people, one of whom was Jim Shooter at Marvel. So, I went in to talk to Jim about this chapter I was writing and he offered me a job. It was an editing job, it was something I could do with the left side of my brain. I’d let DC make a counter-offer and they didn’t have anything like that open. Jenette Kahn hired me as an editor the first year she was there. That was during the worst of my bad life, bringing a thermos chock full of cheap brandy to work every day — not recommended, this is not the path to career advancement.

Fraction:
Yeah, I was a gin man myself; also available cheap and readily.


From Iron Man #169, written by O’Neil, penciled by Steve Mitchell and inked by Luke McDonnell; ©1983 Marvel Characters, Inc.


O’Neil:
Yes, exactly. So that job only lasted a year, but when Jim made this offer, it just came at exactly the right time. I was looking for something to do to make a living that did not necessarily involve writing. It was interesting that, for about six months, I didn’t have to write and found that I missed it. The question you ask is, “Am I doing this just to put food on the table or is it something deeper?” But both there and at DC, I think the understanding was that I would be a writer/editor — not a guy who edits his own stuff, that almost never works out — and, as a result of not having to edit my stuff, I got to work with Mark Gruenwald and Julie Schwartz and it was really fun and gratifying to collaborate with them. But I did Spider-Man and I was removed from that and Iron Man was a kind of fluke.

 

Iron Man’s Alcoholism

O’Neil:
I later found out that Mark Gruenwald shielded me, that his boss thought that Iron Man as an alcoholic was a terrible idea. There are people who think about alcoholism, “If you just get hold of yourself, dammit! Stop being so damn self-indulgent!”

Fraction:
And that was how Tony Stark got sober, he just kind of white-knuckled it for a night and was fine.

O’Neil:
Yeah, if it were that easy, everybody would do it.

Fraction:
I was wondering if that was a case of somebody not wanting to see — I’ve done scenes where we’ve seen Tony being a part of AA, have a sponsor and all that stuff — but, going back and looking at that early stuff, this was clearly editorial mandate: Nobody wanted to see Tony at an AA meeting, he just had to stare out of the window as it rained for an evening and he would be fine come daylight.

O’Neil:
Yeah, well, the first Iron Man story I did was a fill-in and Dave Michelinie had established the drinking problem in the continuity. I opened on Tony having a dream that he’s in the Iron Man suit, but he’s drunk and then you turn the page and he’s waking up, saying, “Wow, what an awful dream.” Steve Ditko did a great job on the rest of the story but we ended up having Marie Severin drawing that one page. There are people who think that heroes should never have serious flaws. I don’t think they should be jerks, the word “hero” is from the Greek “to serve and protect” and I think that has to be element of it. But, having a guy overcome something like an addiction or a terrible flaw seems to me to enhance his heroism and I think Gruenwald’s boss was of that school or something like it.

We — Mark and I — if we had to do it again it would be six issues shorter. I think we did stretch it too far. There were a couple of other glitches but, basically, it was pretty successful and we got a lot of praise from rehabilitation organizations. So, what’s Tony’s drinking situation these days?

Fraction:
Well, he’s onto a bad patch, but I’ve written him as being, basically, a dry-drunk. I don’t know that I want to get him drinking again, but I want to show him not asking for help — that’s been a big deal for me — and so this has been him as an arrogant, headstrong, “it’s OK, I can keep it together, I can fix everything” — coming from that sort of place. So, he’s learning the hard way that that is not, in fact, the case.


From Invincible Iron Man #1, ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.


O’Neil:
Did you have a sense of the movies moving in the direction of more —

Fraction:
My sense of having talked to the guys is that it’s going to be an issue, but I don’t think they’re ever necessarily going to do a Demon in a Bottle kind of story — that takes it into a different place than you can comfortably handle in a summer blockbuster. So, I think it will remain an issue and, if you’ve seen that first film, he clearly enjoys being in his cups a little bit. So, I think it’s going to be there subtextually and I don’t know how fine a point they’re going to put on it, but it’s definitely informing how they’re handling the character. In the casting alone, they’re acknowledging —

O’Neil:
Oh yeah!

Fraction:
This is maybe an interesting segue, but you very much are known for bringing in cultural and topical and political relevancy to the mainstream at a time when it might not have been a clean fit. Whether it’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow or any of this stuff — tell me about urging comics to grow up a little bit, or to deal with issues a little bit more complex and complicated than: “Ooh, Dr. Doom!” or “Ooh, Joker!”

O’Neil:
Or, “Who is this guy?” on page 22 and you turn it and it’s a full-page shot of Viktor von Doom! [Laughter.]

Fraction:
Exactly, but you were very instrumental in turning —

O’Neil:
So they tell me and that’s very gratifying to hear, though I will disabuse anybody of the notion that Neal [Adams] and I were the first. There are some Superman stories that are socially conscious — in the way that Warner Bros. movies were back then —

Fraction:
Right, the “I am a fugitive from a chain gang” school of —

O’Neil:
Yeah and the last year I had an editorial job, I was living here in Nyack and it’s an hour and 15 minute drive, so I listened to a lot of old radio shows and the Superman radio show was remarkable. The writer in me responded to it: “Wow! They establish everything you need to know every day without slowing down the story.” There were also a number of them that were really socially conscious.

Fraction:
There was a K.K.K. story, is that correct?

O’Neil:
I think so, and there was an anti-Semite story.

 

Social Consciousness and Comics Writing

O’Neil:
My own memory of my first glimmering of social consciousness was hearing — as maybe a 6-year old or 7-year old — Superman on the radio telling me that the difference in skin color was only because of a chemical called melanin and people were all the same. I had never heard anything like that. My parents — I don’t know how they avoided being bigots, but they did. Well, thing is that some people don’t know — they’ve never known a black man or a Jew — and the only information they have comes from tainted sources, but they don’t know that the sources are tainted. Anyway, that didn’t rub off on my parents, but that was the first thing I can remember hearing about this racist problem. Then, at Charlton, I did a one-shot called Children of Doom, which was a pacifist-oriented story and, as the Justice League writer, an ecology-themed story based on that river in Ohio that actually caught fire.

Fraction:
My grandmother lives on the muddy banks of the Cuyahoga River I will have you know, sir.

O’Neil:
So, you know all about that?

Fraction:
Sure, sure. And, as a matter of fact, I just bought Children of Doom at the last convention I went to, which we can get into but, please, continue.


From O’Neil and Adams’ Green Lantern #76, ©1970 DC Comics.


O’Neil:
Well, Neal and I became flavor of the week at DC and, similar to what happened with Batman, Julie [Schwartz] said, “We want to continue publishing this title; it’s not doing well —

Fraction:
This is really the aftermath of the show being canceled and the camp stuff not working.

O’Neil:
Yeah, that was Batman — suddenly camp was as dated as button-hooks and I had to come up with a new concept. But, with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, it was just, you know, “this thing is dying… Whattaya know?” Well, I had fooled with Ollie’s characterization in Justice League, I had taken his fortune away from him so that he wasn’t just another clone of Bruce Wayne. I was really, sincerely involved in the peace movement and the civil-rights movements and I was living on the Lower East Side, surrounded by that world. So, there seemed to be no reason not to try something that would combine my comic-book writing with the real-life concerns that I had as a citizen, a parent, a veteran and all that stuff. I don’t think that Julie Schwartz even mentioned it to his bosses — it was such a loosey-goosey business back then that I think editors pretty much did what they wanted. Of course, you had to worry about the Comics Code but, as for the rest of it, we just did it. I assumed — I didn’t know — that Neal was going to do the art because he had not been a Green Lantern guy, but I think I first saw his proofs in Julie’s office and I was blown away particularly by the last three panels of the first chapter. I think he did a brilliant job and then, suddenly, journalists started paying attention.

The first story ran in the Village Voice and did not mention Julie, Neal or me — the guy who gave the interview might not have known what the hell he was giving an interview about — for whatever reason, that changed and I was getting the same 15 bucks a page that I was getting for writing Super Friends. But, Neal and I suddenly found ourselves getting interviewed and seeing our names where comic-book writers’ names don’t normally appear and we were aware, on some level, that we had pushed the envelope. I am looking at a hardcover edition of those stories that was published a few years ago — I don’t think either of us, in a million years, would ever have believed that that would have happened. Conventional wisdom was that the audience turns over completely every three years, so we think, “Well, the average comic book is forgotten in a year. Maybe it’ll take ’em two years to forget this one or this bunch.” But they did stick around.

Fraction:
Were you aware when you were writing it that this was pushing it, or did it just naturally happen? Was it a conscious decision to cross that street?

O’Neil:
Well, it was conscious decision to incorporate real-life social concerns. I guess we knew that that might ruffle some feathers and it did: We heard stories of the comic books not getting off the boxcar in certain cities because authorities objected to the content. We got some nasty letters, but the vast majority of the response was really positive and it didn’t save the sales thing. In those days, editors never saw sales figures so you never knew why a book got canceled. In my stint as a freelance editor, I knew that they could not have sales figures on some of the stuff that got shot out from under me. In those days, you got preliminary figures three months after off-sale and reasonably accurate figures in nine months. So, if something has had only two issues for sale and they say, “Bad sales,” you know that can’t possibly be right. So, after 14 issues, Julie said, “We’re going to continue it as a back-up in The Flash but the book itself is folding.”

“OK — onto the next thing. What am I going to write for you next week, Julie?”

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3 Responses to “TCJ 300 Conversations: Denny O’Neil & Matt Fraction”

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