TCJ 300 Conversations: Denny O’Neil & Matt Fraction

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

 

Frank Miller & Bill Sienkiewicz

O’Neil:
I think Frank went over the stuff he did with Bill Sienkiewicz, I think — I shouldn’t even mention this because I can’t swear to it —

Fraction:
You know what? I remember reading an interview about them getting pages in on either Elektra: Assassin or the Daredevil graphic novel that they did together and there always being a heavy rewrite pass that happened once the pages came in.

O’Neil:
Yeah, Bill has the soul of a fine artist, I think. He’s done any number of pictures that I would be happy to hang on my wall.


From Batman: Sword of Azrael #3, written by O’Neil and drawn by Joe Quesada and Kevin Nowlan; ©1992 DC Comics.


Fraction:
When comics stopped being a peripheral detail in my life and started to be a real going concern, Sienkiewicz was a big part of that. I wanted to be an artist and to draw and to paint and to suddenly see these beautiful painterly covers — I didn’t know he was referring to Bob Peak and Ed McGuinness and all the guys he was building off of — they just leapt off the stands. Sienkiewicz was an early obsession, I guess it would have been at 10 or 11. That guy was just breaking rules I didn’t even know existed.

O’Neil:
Yes, just really rebelled against his influences, within one year his style changed drastically. He became maybe the most interesting — certainly one of the most interesting — artists in the field.

Fraction:
It became interesting to see how far he could push against the ceiling of just what, technically, was possible with the printing. I would love to see his work almost remastered. There are a couple of guys, actually — I’d like to see Walter Simonson’s remastered, some of Chaykin’s stuff, since these were guys really pushing against what the printing presses were capable of, what the coloring process was capable of. Maybe it’s a terrible idea, I don’t know — maybe it’s the equivalent of colorization — but I’d love to see what a digital restoration of some of that groundbreaking work would look like.

O’Neil:
I bet Chaykin would love it. Probably Walt would, too. Chaykin was my son’s first employer and I was one of Howard’s first editors.

 

Only the Lonely

Fraction:
Now, I have to ask this: Tell me about the coffee room.

O’Neil:
At which company?

Fraction:
DC.

O’Neil:
Well, it’s something we miss. It was a place for freelancers to go and hang out and exchange gossip and talk shop. There was a coffee machine that gave you your 25¢ cardboard cup. They just, I guess, expanded and ran out of room, but one of the things I miss is the informality of the comic-book business. A huge number of pros would get together every Friday night and play poker, for example, until one guy got paranoid and was afraid he was giving away his ideas to the competition. So, that dampened that, but it was very informal and we weren’t taking it seriously. As a card-carrying rebel with very low self-esteem, it was almost a perfect world for me.


From Punisher War Journal #19, written by Fraction and Rick Remender and drawn by Howard Chaykin; ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.


Fraction:
With the conventions, Marvel has us out a couple of times a year to do these summits. You can tell the Marvel guys want to get the hell out of the office. But all the freelancers want to stay there because it’s the closest thing to a bullpen experience that any of us are ever going to have.

O’Neil:
And writers, particularly, do lead very isolated lives.

Fraction:
The idea where there used to be a building where everybody was — writing comics was a job that required you to go somewhere.

O’Neil:
I thought the best tool I had as an editor was — these were times far more flush than they are now — two or three times a year I could get everybody together away from Manhattan. Very often the Tarrytown retreat house, which is now very close to where I live. We would — very much like your description of working with editors — get the writers and some artists sometimes, and for three days we would talk out, “This is, in broad, general strokes, where the characters are going. These are the big events.” My assistant sometimes wanted to plot out everything and kind of micro-manage some of them. I always thought, “No, we have to know what the ballpark is, but I want to leave a lot of room inside the ballpark for people to get inspired.” That was especially necessary if we were going to do one of those monster 1100- to 2,000-page —

Fraction:
Crossovers, yeah.

O’Neil:
Jordan Gorfinkle on a laptop computer, taking copious notes, and then poker every night. I think it was enormously useful: It was a way to build morale, but more than that, to really get on top of the work — to know where we have to go for the next six months. Now I understand that when they do that, it’s all done in the office and I attended one of those — and it’s OK, it still accomplishes things, but the vibe is considerably different.

Fraction:
Marvel, they go to a different office space in Manhattan at a law firm. They rent a giant conference room that has one wall of dry-erase board and giant paper — some poor bastard has to run around with a Sharpie to make notes live to make sure everything is being captured. There’s a big calendar and notes are taken and collated and given out so no ideas are lost. But I love the idea — was it true that there were no editors allowed in the coffee room, that it was freelancers-only?

O’Neil:
Oh, I think they were allowed in there, it wasn’t a show-a-card-at-the-door thing, But the editors didn’t even have expense accounts. All the years I worked with those guys, nobody ever took me to lunch because they didn’t have the wherewithal to do it.

And the freelancers were not well-regarded — you know the story of the big freelancer “night of a thousand deaths”? Where Steve Skeates and I were hired away from Charlton to go to work for DC? In the arrogance and the ignorance of youth, we thought, “Well, the stuff we’ve been doing for $4 a page, they’re probably knocked-out by it, boy! They want to get us.” Although the reality — which was given to me by Paul Levitz years later — is that those guys who created the DC pantheon — the writers and the freelancers — had asked for a little help with the health insurance and the response was to dump ’em. So, Skeates and I were warm bodies who knew how to type. We had worked with Dick [Giordano] for a year each at Charlton — Dick would come into Manhattan once a week and we’d both had some experience at Marvel. But Skeates and I were hippies and did not wear jackets and ties to the office, so we were told not to walk past the big boss’ office — to go out and go the long way around — because, I dunno, maybe if he’d happened to open his door and saw somebody with long hair and tie-dye, he’d have had a coronary.

 

Unionizing

Valenti:
Well that actually brings up question of forming a writers’ guild and how there have been attempts in the past — and how that has never really come to fruition.

Fraction:
That’ll never happen. Someone will always be willing to write Batman for free. You said you guys were warm bodies and you could type — there’s always going to be somebody. You sit at a bar with an editor at a show and you see 19 people come up and pitch ideas at them. If everybody writing the top 20 books all quit and demanded “Union Now – Union Forever,” those 19 guys would be getting phone calls. There will never be a union. I think things are getting better — I bet things have never been so good — but there will never be a union.

O’Neil:
That story I just told you, I was writing a piece for Superman’s 50th birthday and Paul [Levitz] told me this story and I said, “Well, you realize that I’m a journalist in this context — this is something I’m going to write and, boy, that makes the company look bad,” and he said, “It will tell everybody how far we’ve come.” It was a good answer. Does ACBA mean anything to either of you?

Fraction:
Not to me.

O’Neil:
The Academy of Comic Book Arts, which a bunch of us started in the early ’70s and I think, initially, part of the agenda was as a bargaining body of people to talk with the publishers. But it was sabotaged almost from the first instant by the fact that one of the small publishers, Jim Warren of Creepy and Eerie, was on the board. Now, while Jim Warren was not DC or Harvey or Marvel, he was a guy who wasn’t a freelance writer or artist. We could organize giving awards once a year, but we just couldn’t ever get it together to take any meaningful action, even to investigate things like health insurance. Now I am on the board of the Hero Initiative — that’s partially to fill-in that blank. If you are a guy with five years’ experience doing comic books and the universe has treated you badly and you need some money to survive, you can apply to us. But, apart from that, we have no pensions —

Fraction:
Yeah, there’s no 401(K), there’s no medical or dental.

O’Neil:
And it doesn’t make any difference when you’re 25 years old, living in Queens with roommates and subsisting on pizza. When you’re 40 years old with two kids and a sick wife, it can make a huge difference.

Fraction:
The difference between working in the mainstream and doing independent work is the difference between having a wife and a kid, and a roommate and pizza. It was great doing indy stuff for no money after-hours of my day job but, you know, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got a son, I’ve got a house. Just the needs and necessities of the real world oftentimes take precedence.

O’Neil:
Yeah, I think everybody should have that adventure of living off pizza with roommates for a few years.

Fraction:
It’s the work I did then that got me the work I do now, without a doubt, and still informs it — it’s just the paradigm’s twisted a little bit. Like I said earlier, I’m very aware of the people whose shoulders I’m standing on right now and the work and sacrifice that happened. Things have never been better for creators in the mainstream right now and God bless the Hero Initiative for the work they do.


From O’Neil and Adams’ Green Lantern #85, ©1971 DC Comics.


O’Neil:
Well, the anomaly is that, as a publishing venture, comics are not doing very well. As a venture that supplies other media, they’re incredible.

Fraction:
We’re the leaders and loss-leaders. [Laughs.]

O’Neil:
Yeah, and the movies are evolving in the direction of quality, I think. Iron Man was, by any criterion, a good movie. And the second Batman movie [The Dark Knight] did not end up with the good guy and the bad guy fighting, it was about redemption and having the hero run off into the night at the end, instead of emerge victorious. They’re getting more and more literate and just working better as cinema. The costume is no longer the whole trip. I think much of the medium’s history as publishing has been marginal. Well, during World War II and right after that, David Hadju’s book [The Ten Cent Plague] indicates that they were selling millions of copies a month. Certainly as long as I’ve been in it, we used to sell 100,000 a month, but not a million.

Fraction:
It’s a transition period, you know? I don’t think we know where we’re headed quite yet. The formats are changing again and the fortunes will change with them.

O’Neil:
Yeah, I was about to ask you about that, Matt, do you think comic books as we know them — these magazine things — are gonna survive?

Fraction:
I think as long as there’s printed matter in the world, whether the New York Times is the last paper standing, or Time Magazine is the last magazine standing, I think as long as there’s printed material, there will be comic books. I don’t believe there’s going to be day- and date-exclusive formats any more. I think we’re quickly coming to a point where a six-part Iron Man storyline might launch in the direct market the same day that the finished collection comes out at Barnes and Noble and that you can download it on your iPhone or what have you. I think, as new distribution channels open up, comics are going to flood in — if, for no other reason, that you can spend — soup to nuts — eight, nine, ten grand to put an issue of Batman out into the world and turn it into a billion-dollar motion picture. You can’t argue with that return on investment. I hope. That’s what I tell myself — maybe I need a Plan B.

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

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