TCJ 300 Conversations: Denny O’Neil & Matt Fraction

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

 

The Biz

O’Neil:
I gave an interview yesterday to somebody about G.I. Joe — I edited when Larry Hama was writing it — and once a year, we had to meet the toy company and they would show us prototypes of the coming year’s worth of toys and Larry had to integrate those. Though, in fairness to Hasbro, they were a joy to work with and that isn’t always the case when you have an outside client, but their attitude was, “We know how to make toys, you know how to make comic books. As long as you don’t come down to our assembly line, we’re gonna let you alone,” and they did. Larry was told, “OK, there’s going to be a G.I. Joe aircraft carrier,” and he’d have to integrate that into the comic somewhere, but they didn’t tell him how to do it.

Fraction:
This is a collaborative medium. Your independent stuff — if you’re taking notes or things like that on work that you ostensibly own, I think that’s compromise in a way that isn’t worth considering. But mainstream superhero stuff is a very collaborative medium, whether it’s something like Iron Man where there are films happening or the toy manufacturers saying, “Hey, we’re making an aircraft carrier!” There’s an inker and a colorist and penciler, to say nothing of an editorial staff and a letterer, and God knows how many cooks are in the kitchen.


From Invincible Iron Man #160, ©1982 Marvel Characters, Inc.


O’Neil:
Anything can serve as a springboard for a story. One of my favorite examples of that — and also favorite examples of writing to somebody else’s requirements — is The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is playing here at an outdoor Shakespeare festival. That was because Elizabeth liked Falstaff and wanted to see another Falstaff play which Shakespeare knocked out in a couple of weeks and she had it pretty soon. You were talking earlier about meeting with artists and asking what they wanted to draw, I remember one story — I can’t remember his name, proving my earlier point about names — in the hall he said, “I’d like to do a story with trains in it.” And, you know, Batman can be on a train!

Fraction:
Sure! I have no wandering need for any more ego, I have plenty of ego for any three people, but I’ve been blessed and cursed with an observing ego at the same time that’s actually regulating my ability to actually enjoy myself. I’m constantly reminded and aware that, while I might be alone in a room, making the stuff up, there are nine other guys on board and there’s a constant voice in my head. I’ve written a big summer crossover thing for the X-Men and Avengers and there are a lot of crowd scenes and I felt a lot of guilt writing them because I know how tough that is to draw. But there needed to be riots and there needed to be protests because it’s a politically minded, socially relevant thing and that meant there needed to be people in the street and big fights and two huge teams. Every time I wrote it — one of the guys drawing it, I worked with before on an issue that was about a funeral where there were 30 people in a room having a — I don’t know if you were a fan of The Wire, but I did a riff on the cop funerals from The Wire where they lay the body out on the bar and everybody gets hammered, but it was 30 D-list super-villains in a room and he wrote me — this guy now drawing all these crowd scenes and fights — and said, “Our next collaboration, you have to promise me is about a polar bear in a snowstorm.” [Laughter.]

O’Neil:
Well, I occasionally used to put notes to the artists: “Sorry about this but I’m gonna give you a lot of close-ups in a few pages.”

Fraction:
Exactly: “Listen, I know this one’s all talking heads — next issue makes up for it.” But hey, a story demands what a story demands: and I’m aware that I am but one of many hands.

O’Neil:
And maybe one of those other guys has a mortgage due or something. We get really pretty good working conditions for freelance writers: You don’t have to pitch a news story or reintroduce yourself every week or every month. Once you get established, you get work. What you pay for that is that you don’t have total freedom. Working with Batman, I thought, like Eisner said about The Spirit, “This is a very good storytelling tool,” and 80 percent of people on the planet, if I want to estimate, recognize this and they’re pretty much, all of the time, staying out of my way — what a gift to a storyteller!

 

Playing Fair

Valenti:
Do you both feel that the industry has treated you fairly?

O’Neil:
Yeah, I think I was lucky in that, for the first 15 years or so, I did have work under the old system where you signed away everything. But now it ain’t bad: They own the characters, but I sign contracts that give me a piece of the action. If Azrael, whom they have just brought back to life — who’da thought that? — becomes a movie, I will get a chunk of money for that and, in the meantime, I don’t have to worry about maintaining copyrights. They’re reprinting a lot of stuff and every time they do, I get a check. Also, it’s kinda nice to see the best of what you’ve done as a book because it probably will last longer and your grandchildren, if any, will be able to read it. I don’t think — the stuff we talked about earlier: We need a pension system, we need healthcare if the government ends up not providing that — but in most cases —

Fraction:
There’s a question! What’s coming first: national healthcare or a pension plan for comics? [Laughter.] What is on the slower boat?

O’Neil:
Probably national healthcare, but what do you think, Matt? Do you think we have a bad deal?

Fraction:
You know, I knew the job was dangerous when I signed up. I think you guys — the pushes and the changes that have come about — I get a piece of the action because of what the folks that came before did. So far, I’ve been treated very fairly and I’m acutely aware of what’s going on: The contracts I read are crystal clear, a high tide raises all ships and I know very much that wasn’t always the way. I get copies of what I write and I’m treated well, I’m treated fairly and it’s not my day to run the company.

O’Neil:
For me, one of the last walls fell with getting movie money for characters they used in movies. I really questioned that that one was ever going to happen, but suddenly it is and it’s not because we had any leverage to apply to the companies.


From Thor: Ages of Thunder #1, ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.


Fraction:
You know, I went out to Marvel West and did a week on Iron Man 2 last summer and was paid for it. They had my books there and they had printouts of the ones that hadn’t come out and they had a hard copy of scripts that hadn’t been drawn. It was clear that there was at least going to be a speck of my DNA going on over there and I was well compensated for my time and work.

O’Neil:
Yeah, with Ra’s al Ghul, I was surprised. I was certain I was going to get something, but I have no complaints about the way I was treated and then I got to do the novelization and I got to be a consultant on the video game. The company had no legal obligation to do any of that.

Fraction:
Like I said, I have no complaints. I also believe very much that ownership is control and the stuff that I own, I control and that’s a very different deal and a different world. So I, at no point, went in to working for hire thinking that it was anything other than work-for-hire. I knew I was a warm-bodied being that could type. I didn’t have any illusions. I left a career in advertising at a company that I co-owned, for God’s sakes.

O’Neil:
You co-owned an ad agency?

Fraction:
We were a design and animation firm that worked for ad agencies. Why I came out here, like I said, was to synthesize fine arts and film and ended up starting this company with friends and we made short films and cartoons and things. One of the most recent pieces they did was the opening credits for the last James Bond film. So it was that kinda stuff: commercials, show packages, credit sequences, beer commercials, Coke commercials, music videos and things like that. We had started it after we all left school so having understood what ownership was on that level — I really have no complaints. The artists I know have their work returned to them, the artists get their pages back. Like I said, I’m aware of the shoulders I’m standing on.


From Uncanny X-Men #510, written by Fraction and drawn by Greg Land and Jay Leisten; ©2009 Marvel Characters, Inc.


O’Neil:
Do artists get their work back now?

Fraction:
The folks that I know — there might be folks that have trouble with it with smaller publishers, but I’ve not heard anyone that I’ve worked with at Marvel complain. True, most artists work digital now, there’s very rarely actual pages sent in, but in my experience, no one that I’ve worked with has complained to me that they weren’t getting their work back from Marvel.

O’Neil:
That was a big stumbling block for decades.

Fraction:
Yeah, and I’ve seen scripts that are written where writers will say, if it’s a page with a million people and an airplane crashing and an explosion and Captain America and Batman fighting on top of the Empire State Building all at once as every star in Heaven falls, “Now, just keep in mind while you’re drawing this, that you’re going to be able to sell it for a million dollars at a convention.” [Laughter.] And it’s true! It’s a real secondary source of income for a lot of artists.

O’Neil:
Yeah, and it damn well should be. I had 60 pages of Neal Adams artwork because they were going to throw it away and somebody in the production department said, “These are your stories, you might as well take it because otherwise it’s going into a shredder.” The best horror story I know is Prince Valiant, Hal Foster originals, the syndicate put them on the floor during rainy weather so people wouldn’t track in the dirt.

Fraction:
[Makes sounds of pain.] Oh my God!

O’Neil:
But that’s what it was — nobody thought this was an art form — it was product. I think with a few exceptions, Eisner being the conspicuous one, most of the people who were working in it just thought, “Well, this is a paycheck.” Danny Fingeroth did a book called Disguised as Clark Kent about Jews in comics and, for a lot of those guys in the late ’30s, there were not very many opportunities, even the pulps didn’t seem to welcome them. So, comics were a way to put some food on the table.

Fraction:
Yeah, they came over to the UK as ballast and they would be used in crates as padding — Alan Moore talks about that of American comics being things that were put in crates to stop things from clanking together. Maybe this takes it full-circle, but I like working in a trashy, disreputable medium.

O’Neil:
Could you imagine being an author? I’m not a big Mickey Spillane fan, but I resonate with the thing he said, “I’m not an author, I’m a writer.” When you’re doing a novel, if you allow yourself to be an English major and think, “Oh, there’s Cervantes and Dickens and Mark Twain and William Faulkner and me!” [Laughter.] You really don’t want to carry that load.

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