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Legendary comic book writer discusses love of characters

By Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service:

Tom DeFalco spoke and signed autographs for fans at Pittsburgh Comic Con. Photo credit: Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service
Tom DeFalco spoke and signed autographs for fans at Pittsburgh Comic Con. Photo credit: Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service

Legendary comic book writer and former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief, Tom DeFalco attended the Pittsburgh Comic Con in November. DeFalco has worked on such prolific titles as “Dazzler” and “Thor,” but is most well-known for his time on “The Amazing Spider-Man” series. I was lucky enough to catch up with him and discuss comic books, the stress of being a Marvel Comics editor and the impact of superhero films on the industry.

**Note the questions and answers have been edited for clarity**

Q: How’d you get started in comics? What was the initial motivation?

A: As a young child, I was fascinated by newspaper comic strips. I actually used to cut them out and make my own books. And somewhere along the line, a cousin showed me a comic book and I thought, ‘Oh, they stole my idea’ [laughs]. But I was fascinated by the concept of comic books and comic strips and was always interested in the medium. Growing up, I knew right away I couldn’t draw. I liked telling stories and planned to just be a writer, but always planned to be a pro writer. When I was growing up there was just a handful of really good comic book writers. It just never occurred to me that I’d ever do comics, so I just concentrated on all sorts of other writing. I think after I got out of college – I don’t know what was the motivation – my goal was to do a comic strip and I got in touch with Archie Comics and they offered me a job. So, I started working at Archie Comics and got involved in comic books. I did get involved in comic strips over the years, but comic books are more fun.

Q: How much have conventions changed over the years?

A: They’ve changed tremendously over the years; now they charge for signatures which we never used to do back in the day. When I started, conventions were a place to interface with the fans and more to promote things. The promotion angle is gone. Although some publishers still think the promotion angle still functions—I don’t believe it does anymore. I think everybody who rakes us in here to make their big announcements are just wasting their big announcements.

Q: What was it like taking over Marvel Comics after Jim Shooter as editor-in-chief? When you took over, were there any troubles you had to go through during that process?

A: Well I had to reorient the way people were looking at things. When Shooter was there he took everything very personally. In many regards, he thought he symbolized Marvel. And I didn’t think I symbolized Marvel. I thought, I had enough trouble being Tom DeFalco, I wasn’t going to be Marvel Comics. And I didn’t take things personally and I owe a lot of that to Larry Hama. When you were in a position of power in those days, in the comic book industry, you’d have a lot of fans that would just rip you apart and write the most horrible things about you. And when there wasn’t a controversy they’d make one up. And Larry, my good buddy, would sit on my couch and read whatever horrible thing they had written and laugh hysterically as he read it. As a result, when I think about bad reviews or bad things people are saying, I think of Larry laughing and I’m light-hearted about it. He did me the greatest favor in the world – and knowing Larry he did it on purpose – because he didn’t want me to feel bad. So, I never took things personally. So, that was a major change. And also, Jim really knew what he wanted, he really wanted a specific thing. I’m a lot flightier. As a writer, I have a very wide net and do a lot of different kinds of material. And as a result, I was much more spread out and fascinated by all sorts of different kinds of material.

Q: What was your favorite project you worked on as a writer?

A: As a writer that’s really hard to say. Me as a writer, when I’m going to be working on a comic book character I have to fall in love with the character because I intend to be there for years. At any given time, I was in love with “Spider-Girl,” I was in love with “Thor,” in love with the “Green Goblin.” When I think of it I’m always torn between “Thunderstruck” and “Spider-Girl.“ It is always hard to figure out which of your children you love more. But those two were very special to me.

Q: When you were editor-in-chief in the mid-90s with the success of the “Spider-Man” and the “X-Men” cartoon shows, did you feel any added pressure as far as pushing those titles out at a quicker pace?

A: No, no. We always had pressure pushing out the “Spider-Man” books and the “X-Men” books because those were the most rabid fans. The “X-Men” fans just wanted more and more “X-Men” material. We could never satisfy them. No matter how many books we produced it was never enough for the fans and the marketplace. Same thing with the “Spider-Man” books. We were constantly running just to keep up with the demand that we had. There was a time with “G.I. Joe.” too. When we were doing three or four “G.I. Joe” titles and could’ve been doing six or eight if we had the people who could do “G.I. Joe” and it still wouldn’t have been enough at that time.

Q: With the current success of the Hollywood blockbuster films based on comic book, did you ever think it would blow up like it has over the last decade?

A: Absolutely not. When I was there [at Marvel Comics] we were struggling to give the rights away to the films. We kept figuring if we could ever get a movie it would help sales, it would help this it would help that. I wasn’t sure they’d ever be a “Spider-Man” movie ever filmed. I use to tell people I worked on every version of the “Spider-Man” movie expect the ones that actually got made [laughs]. I probably worked on about seven to 10 “Spider-Man” movies, none of which ever got made.

Q: Do you think it is good for the comic book industry now, the success of comic book movies?

A: I think it is good for the fans. Certainty the Marvel movies are a lot of fun. They do a lot of the same “hoo-haw” material guys like me and Ron Frenz loved doing. It was the same material we were doing in the ’80s and ’90s as opposed to the grim and gritty stuff that they’re doing now. So I think it is wonderful for them. Back in the day I thought, if you do a movie, sales will go up. Today I look and sales are horrible. So, I don’t know if that’s a reflection that has anything to do with the movies or if it’s a reflection to do with the distribution or if that’s a reflection of the kind of material they’re putting in the comics.

Q: With Dazzler, did you have any fun working on that particular title? I know that was somewhat of a promotional title at first and a lot of mishaps happened with delays in publication at first.

A: Yeah delayed for a couple of years. I had a lot of fun with Dazzler. I think I was basically chosen for Dazzler because I had worked for Archie Comics and they were thinking of something for the mass market and maybe something for the Archie audience and that sort of stuff. It didn’t quite go in that direction. But like I said you fall in love with every character as you’re doing it. And I really had a lot of fun. I forget how many issues I worked on, seven or eight, but I really enjoyed each of those issues. I was just starting out at Marvel and this was my chance to make a mark. I look back at some of those things and think, ‘Wow what kind of dialogue was I writing? What was I crazy?’ I think I was just trying desperately to be Stan Lee and there’s only one Stan Lee, I should’ve known better [laughs].

Q: I know you said you fall in love with your characters, but at a certain point deadlines are deadlines. Was there any pressure while you were writing?

A: There was always pressure. There still is pressure. That was just the name of the game. Back in the day the book had to be done by a certain time because if you missed shipping it almost wasn’t worthwhile publishing that comic book anymore because it wouldn’t get distributed properly. We just accepted that as our lot in life. If you had to pull all-nighters, you pulled all-nighters. You just did whatever you had to do to get that book out. I don’t even consider it pressure – it was the nature of the beast.

Q: Did you enjoy writing more or your time as editor-in-chief? I could see that as a more responsibility more problems, sort of thing. What were the pros and cons?

A: I always considered myself a writer who was masquerading as a staff person. And I always knew that being editor-in-chief was a temporary job and I always considered it a temporary job. I think it’s like being a football coach. When you have a winning team, you’re the greatest guy in the world. You lose a couple games, it’s like, get rid of this bum. I knew it was something I’d only have for a few years. I figured I might last two or three years. I lasted longer. I did have fun as editor-in-chief, but my true love has always been writing.

Q: What made you want to work on ‘Reggie and Me?’

A: It was just such a ridiculous concept that I thought, yeah I think could have fun with this. I started with the Archie Comics and I thought I would be a humor writer for most of my life. I owe the great Joe Orlando who said to me, ‘Maybe you should start thinking about the superhero stuff because they pay you the same rate and it doesn’t have to be funny.’ I said, ‘Really? So, you’re only doing half the job and they’re paying you the same amount of money [laughs]?’

Q: Do you think fans are too harsh on writers, creators and now Hollywood movie producers and directors? Do you think they have knee-jerk reactions far too often?

A: I don’t know if they have knee-jerk reactions. The fans like what they like. I think that what they like today might not be what they like two or three weeks from now. I can tell you that from when I was on Spider-Man that basically people would tell me they liked Roger Stern better. And I’d agree with them because I liked Roger Stern better too [laughs]. You know when I was on Thor people would say, ‘Ah you suck, we like Walt Simonson better.’ And you know, I liked Walt Simonson better too.

Q: Any advice for comic book creators or writers trying to get into the business?

A: My feelings about writers is you should just be a writer first and do a wide variety of things. And let comic books be one of the things you do. Because if you’re going to create stories, be able to create stories in different kinds of mediums.

DeFalco is currently working on “Reggie and Me” a title from Archie Comics. 

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