With Joe St.Pierre
To me, David Michelinie is easily in the pantheon of the greatest comics writers of all time. He wrote epic runs on IRON MAN, AVENGERS, and the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. He was also involved in the creation of some truly memorable characters in the Marvel Comics Universe, including CARNAGE, the TASKMASTER, SCOTT LANG (ANT-MAN), JIM RHODES (WAR MACHINE), and perhaps most notably, everyone‘s favorite wall-crawling villain, VENOM!
My very first job as a penciler was written by the man himself–you can imagine how intimidating that was;)–We also worked on my favorite SPIDER-MAN job at Marvel Comics together, which included both VENOM and CARNAGE. Dave has already scripted a story with one of my own creator-owned characters, CRICKET in THE NEW ZODIAX.
Joe: I‘d like to get into craft a bit. With your work on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and IRON MAN in particular, I‘d place you in the pantheon with creators like Frank Miller on DAREDEVIL, Claremont and Byrne on the X-MEN, Geoff Johns on GREEN LANTERN, who took characters that had previously existed, that had a certain level of popularity and recognition, and turned up the volume on those characters by embracing, rather than replacing, their histories, and enhancing them with more depth. I‘m wondering if you had an approach to that, or if you were like “Meh, just can‘t wait to get a paycheck.”
Dave: That‘s me today.
Dave: My viewpoint is I do the very best I can with any job under the circumstances. You‘re going to have days when you have the flu, when you‘ve broken up with your girlfriend…when your dog has died. But as a commercial writer you have to get the work done. I approach each character, each job individually.
Now with IRON MAN you have to give half the credit to Bob Layton because he and I co-plotted the stories. We were a great team-up because I had never read a single IRON MAN story before I got the assignment, and it was Bob‘s favorite character. He had read every IRON MAN story ever written, he knew the history. We had me, who had no preconceived notions, so therefore I came up with certain ideas, and (Bob) could tell me if it was something that had or hadn‘t been done.
The alcoholism issues are a good example. When I first got the assignment, I read the previous four or five issues of IRON MAN and I looked at Tony Stark and thought, “Man, his life is messed up!” The government was trying to take control of the AVENGERS, there‘s a hostile takeover of his company, his love life was in the toilet. I thought “Oh man, if Tony was a real guy he would need some kind of safety valve to let all that stress out.” And these days, there‘s cocaine, designer drugs and stuff, but at the time, in 1978 I guess, alcohol was the big deal. Martinis for lunch, especially among business people. It had already been established he‘s a party guy, he drinks, how about if that part of him got away from him? He needs the escape more than he needs his good sense. Bob liked it, we talked it over with Jim Shooter, and the only thing Shooter said was–because we (all) knew it was risky–“Do it well.” And he trusted us.
What would this guy do? What conflict–that‘s the keyword–what conflict could we put in the guy‘s life that would challenge him, to see what he would do: the Lady or the Tiger? You can save this person or not this person? What are you going to do? Someone once said “SUPERMAN would never make that choice, because he would find a way.” Well, OK, but SUPERMAN ain‘t human. We are humans. We can‘t win in a lose/win situation. There‘s got to be conflict. There‘s got to be consequences.
So in IRON MAN, we just did stories that we thought would be good, and that‘s pretty much how I‘ve handled every character.
Joe: Another thing I liked especially in IRON MAN was you gave him a dense supporting cast, which he hadn‘t had previously. How important is the supporting
cast to enhance and reveal the main character?
Dave: Supporting casts are vital. You can do so much with them and their interactions with the main character. We introduced new characters in IRON MAN when we saw a need for them. For instance, Tony Stark is an executive. He needed an executive secretary! So we came up with Mrs. Arbogast, a take-no-prisoners, no- nonsense woman partially with a comedic edge. Tony needed a pilot, but he REALLY needed a friend, so we gave him Jim Rhodes, an ex-military pilot. Tony needed a head of security, so we gave him Vic Martinelli. So we came up with these characters as the main character needed them.
Joe: Do you read a lot of comics nowadays?
Dave: No, I can‘t afford them!
Joe: (laughs) that‘s my headline: “Venoms dad can‘t afford comics.” (laughs)
Dave: (laughs) I love to have copies of my reprinted stuff, it makes me feel like “OK, I‘ve done something with my life.” How many rocket scientists have their formulas reprinted 10 years down the pike, and collect royalties, you know? This is gonna sound so bad, but I KNOW good writing, and some of the (current) stuff is painful to read. I don‘t read them because they‘re expensive, and I would read something if I knew it was going to be good. But it‘s such a crapshoot to throw out four or five bucks, and read two or three pages and think, “No, it‘s terrible!”
Joe: You can tell right away, right?
Dave: Yes, if this is something that‘ll keep your interest or not. The most important parts of any story, whether it‘s comics, novels, short stories, movies or television, is the first and the very last. In a novel, the very first line and even the very last line. In comics it‘s that first page, those first words. Even if you‘ve just got people simply talking, and you don‘t understand or it seems confusing, if you express clearly that something important is being discussed, something that’s vital to the characters later in the story, then they’ll want to know what it is and they’ll keep reading.
You‘ve also got to leave the reader with something that‘s either satisfying or intriguing. Give them a smile or a tear or a shudder to make them remember the story. Or leave them with a question, a mystery or cliffhanger, make them feel that they absolutely MUST read the next chapter!
Joe: Let‘s talk about that first line (of a story). Do you find you spend extra time on the first line, or do you write many first lines? Do you pay special attention to that first line?
Dave: Oh, from the plot on. I try to have something that I know is going to be interesting either visually and/or thematically, soon.
Joe: The first time I really became aware of that first line was with NEUROMANCER. It‘s an early cyberpunk novel by William Gibson. That first line in NEUROMANCER was “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Joe: I thought that line set the tone for the entire book to come. Terrific stuff. From then on, I paid extra attention to that first line of every story I read or wrote, to the point where, when I was writing the CRICKET story that appears in NEW ZODIAX #3, I jotted down several different choices for that first one. The line I came up with is “You must have loved him very much.” CRICKET is referring to her client, whose husband is dead and haunting her house now, but it‘s also reflective of CRICKET‘s own situation–she‘s in a parallel scenario. I kind of racked my brain on that first line. How does that work with you?
Dave: It varies with the story. I am an instinctive writer, I don‘t think a lot about symbolism or theme, or this and that or the other things that literary figures do, but almost without exception, if you asked me “Why did you do this or that?” I can tell you. I may not think about it at the time but I can explain why I did it; “because it leads into this, and then this leads into this, and the surprise that‘s coming here.” And with your first line there, what you‘ve got, you‘ve got in a small way, you‘ve got a mystery. “You must have loved him.” Who? What happened? The reader in me wonders, “Oh, something‘s happened. What happened? Tell me about it.” It‘s mild, it‘s not like “OH MY GOD!! LOOK!” But it‘s enough that someone would read that line and they want to know more. You’ve successfully led them into the story.
Joe: One of my favorite gigs in my career was the very first job I did; the first issue of RAI that you wrote, and the title of that particular story was “New Moon Asunder.” I just thought, “What a genius Dave is! The title kind of says it all; it‘s evocative and poetic, like the word “sun” is inside “asunder,” and the sun and moon go together, and (the character) RAI was kind of caught between two political factions. So, am I over-thinking that, or…? (laughs)
Dave: I don’t know if you‘re overthinking, but I don’t think I actually thought of it at the time.
Dave: It was Japan (which was one of Earth‘s moons in the Valiant Universe at the time), it was falling apart. It was being torn asunder… well, okay, I MEANT to do that!
Joe: Yeah that’s it– say you MEANT to do that and my mind will be blown.
Dave: Consider your mind blown.
David Michelinie‘s story featuring CRICKET of the NEW ZODIAX is a stretch goal for the NEW ZODIAX Vol. 1 NEW EDITION, available through Kickstarter right now! Simply go to newzodiax.com or here: https://w w w .kickstarter.com/projects/1576279164/new-zodiax-volume-1-new-edition-by-joe-stpierre