Comic Culture: Tom DeFalco
Comic legend Tom DeFalco discusses making big changes to established franchises, writing characters, and why dogs are man's best friend.
[adventurous orchestral music]
- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture
I'm Terence Dollard, a professor
in the Department of Mass Communication
at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
My guest today is the legendary Tom DeFalco.
[laughs] Tom, welcome to Comic Culture.
- Thanks for inviting me.
- Now Tom, you've been a writer at Marvel,
actually in comics, I guess, since the 1970s.
And I was wondering if you could tell us
a little bit about how you got your start.
'Cause I know that a lot of people
would like to get into comics,
and I know every time someone tell their story,
it's always a little different.
So I was wondering if you could share with us
how you got your foot in the door.
- Well, I was always interested in being a writer.
And while I was in college, I tried my hand at it
a number of different types of writing.
Sold a couple of short stories,
worked for a local newspaper,
worked for the college PR department.
One of the local newspapers,
I did a weekly comic strip,
and just tried a bunch of things.
When I graduated, I decided to
see if I could get a job,
because I was of the mentality
that [laughs] you should have a regular job.
And so I applied to the different comic book companies,
and heard back from Archie comics,
and they offered me a job on their staff,
working in their production editorial department.
And I leaped at the chance,
and started working at Archie in the,
like I said, editorial production department.
As time went on, I started to write some one-page gags,
and eventually five-page stories.
And as time went on, I started doing more writing.
I started writing for Charlton comics
and then ultimately DC,
and then later on Marvel.
- And I guess it was at Marvel that
you worked on some of the most
iconic characters in comics.
You worked on The Amazing Spider-Man,
you worked on The Fantastic Four
with a couple of celebrated runs.
So when you're working on characters like that,
that are so popular with the audience,
and I know a lot of the characters have gotten
more popular now with the films and what not.
But you're working on those characters.
How do you make those changes to the characters,
even though their owned by Marvel,
and you have to give them back at the end of the day?
I know one of the changes you made
was that Mary Jane Watson knew
Peter Parker's night job.
So how does that work out?
- Well that particular one came as a surprise to us all.
I was working on the comic book with
Ron Frenz, my unindicted co-conspirator.
Ron and I have been working together for,
I've lost track how many years.
I'm gonna say 35, maybe longer years together.
And we would plot out the stories together,
figure out where the characters were going.
And we had worked out that particular issue,
and we knew where the next three or four issues were going,
and we proposed it to the editor,
the editor approved it, everything was going fine,
until I'm typing that plot.
And as I get to the end,
the original concept was that Peter
had some excuse to explain to Mary Jane,
what had happened recently.
And he starts to go into his excuse,
and then as I'm typing, I type,
"And Mary Jane turns to him and says
"I know you're Spider-Man Peter, I've always known."
which kind of caught me by surprise,
'cause [laughs] that was not how the story
was supposed to end.
And then I called up Ron, and I said,
"Ron, I got to the end of the story,
"And this happened."
And he said, "Don't be ridiculous."
And then he paused and he said,
"You know what, if Mary Jane knows, and has always known,
"a lot of things make a lot of sense."
And the more we discussed it, the more we thought,
"Yeah, she has always known, hasn't she?"
So the next day, I went in to talk to the editor.
His reaction was the same as Ron.
He started to tell me no, and then realized,
"Wait a minute, no that makes sense."
And then we marched into Jim Shooter's office
and Jim didn't even blink.
He goes, "Wait a minute, Mary Jane has always known?"
And he goes, "Yes, of course."
And then he started rattling off numbers to me.
This explains Spider-Man number such and such,
and Spider-Man number, issue,
and I'm thinking, I have no idea what
you're talking about [laughs] but if,
if it works, it works.
So, we went with that idea.
And then Ron and I had to throw out
the next three or four issues
[laughs] that we had planned to do.
- And it was interesting, because that's
one of those ripples in comics that
lasted for years and years until
I guess someone went back and they decided
how to re-create the characters.
We see that a lot where someone will go back
every five or ten years and decide it's time for a reboot.
But you got to make a lasting change to the character
that led eventually to the two getting married.
So when you look back at the impact
that you had on that character,
how does that make you feel?
'Cause if it were me, I'd be pretty darn pleased.
- You know, I was just pleased
to be able to work on the character.
And it was a thrill.
It was a thrill for me
to be able to be teamed with Ron,
and to work on The Amazing Spider-Man.
I was panicked all the time
we were working on Spider-Man [laughs].
I kept thinking, at some point or another,
they're gonna realize they need a real writer here.
And they were gonna boot me off the book.
In point of fact, I was only supposed
to be there temporarily.
'Cause when the editor, Danny Fingeroth,
came to me and told me that Roger Stern,
who was the writer on Amazing before me, had left,
I said to him, "Roger Stern was the best
"Spider-Man writer since Stan Lee.
"Only an idiot would follow him."
And Danny said, "Yeah, and I know just the idiot."
And that [blows nose]
- It seemed too, when you
were working with Ron Frenz,
you seemed to really capture, you said, Stan Lee.
But between the two of you,
it seemed that you captured that early feel.
He had a very Ditko-esque style
when he was working on that book,
and your writing brought Peter back
to that lighthearted character
that was missing a little bit.
So in taking over for Roger Stern,
you brought the character back to his roots,
and injected a lot of fun.
- I think comic books should be fun.
I think, yes, you know,
they're dealing with life and death struggles.
But ultimately, if I could stick to walls,
and web swing across the city,
I'd be having a wonderful time.
And I think the character should be
having that same wonderful time.
I know that these days,
that's considered old-fashioned,
that characters should be grim, gritty
and depressed all the time.
But like I said, if I could do those amazing things,
I'd be having a blast.
- Now the business when you were
working on The Amazing Spider-Man,
it's changed from the way the business is now.
And you were saying that you were working
maybe three or four months in advance
and talking to the editor.
How is that different now?
It seems now there's a lot more editorial control,
because maybe a writer will stay on
for six issues before handing it off
to the next creative team or something like that.
What have you noticed being the big differences
between that time in the eighties
and the working environment now?
- Well, that time in the eighties,
you were basically assigned a book.
And you stayed on that book until
or you got into a disagreement with the editor,
or you just got tired of doing the book.
Those were basically the three reasons.
These days, it's almost like
people go story by story.
Somebody has an idea for one story
for Spider-Man, and they
they take that story,
and they split it into six issues.
They do their story, and then
they've said everything they have
to say about the character,
and they're ready to move on and
conquer a new character.
I was on Spider-Man, I'm gonna say maybe
two years, three years, I don't remember at this stage.
And I felt I was just barely scratching the surface
of who that character was.
I was on Spider-Girl for 13 years,
and could easily do another 13 years.
Because with each new issue,
I would learn more things about the character,
and dig deeper into the psyche of the character.
And to me, that's what I found
fascinating as a writer.
- Now a lot of of people,
I think that's a really good point.
A lot of people always think of writing
as a series of events.
And you're looking at the events
as what shapes the character,
if I'm getting you correctly.
- Yes, it works both ways.
The events shape the character,
and the character shapes the events.
If you come up with a scenario,
gunmen burst into a bank,
with, you know, with
yeah with rockets, you know,
or some super weapon.
Well, those events will
help shape the character.
But the character will also shape
the way those events follow.
Captain America will deal with those bank robbers
in a very different way from the way
Spider-Man would deal with those characters,
which is a very different way from
the way Batman would deal with them.
Or The Fantastic Four or anybody else.
Each character should be so individual,
individualistic in the way they handle any situation,
that you can come up with, like I say,
the same scenario, and you can use it
over and over again because
each character will lead to a whole different story.
- And speaking of stories, you had one of the longest runs
on The Fantastic Four working with the late Paul Ryan.
One of those runs that, as a reader,
I went back and I think I came in
somewhere in the middle of your run,
and I ended up going to the long boxes
and collecting the entire run.
Working in the nineties, it was a time of
the gimmicks and we had the big market and what not.
And I think you have the honor of
being the writer when The Fantastic Four
had the first die-cut cover.
I think that was one of those big gimmicks.
So when you're working on a book
and there are those gimmicks that come through,
and you're working on a quality book,
does that help you in the long run?
Or does that get in the way,
'cause you're gonna get that speculator
who's looking for that next shiny object?
- I think the,
the first [mumbles] cover we did was
I think it was the all-red cover
with the die-cut with the human torch on it.
Basically we came up with the story first.
And they'd been hounding me to
do an enhanced cover, an enhanced cover,
and I finally said, "Well, if you're gonna
"do an enhanced cover, this is the issue
"where Johnny Storm accidentally burns down a college."
And you know,
that was it, and after that we resisted,
up until I think it was
398, 399, and 400.
They managed to, the sales department
overruled and managed to put that
fancy covers on those things.
But otherwise we just had the one enhanced cover.
And again, like I said, it was story-driven.
I always looked at this stuff that,
these gimmicks were interesting,
they put a spotlight on the book.
I was always hoping that the people who bought the book
would open the cover and read the book,
'cause to me it was all about what was inside the pages.
I always had an attitude that comic books
had one of two values:
Either the comic book touched you on some emotional level,
in which case it was priceless to you.
Or it didn't, in which case it was valueless.
And I was always hoping to be on the priceless side.
I was always proud of my run on The Fantastic Four
because on the one hand, we used to get
the worst reviews in creation.
Everybody used to tell us how much
they hated the book. [laughs]
And yet, every issue, the sales went up.
And I used to think, "Well, they hate it so much,
"They're getting all their friends to hate it too."
And I found out years later,
the reason why so many people hated the book is
'cause they said, "You never give the characters a break."
"Every issue, more terrible things happen."
One guy said, "can't you ever give 'em
"an issue where nothing happens?"
And I said, "Well, that's called blank pages."
I said, "Well, if that's what you want to buy,
"I can do 24 of those a year."
'Cause no plotting, no scripting, nothing happens.
- I remember being a little surprised
that Alicia masters was actually a Skrull.
But all in all it was a fun book.
And you know, as I mentioned before,
you were working with Paul Ryan.
You mentioned Ron Frenz before.
You seem to have collaborators
that you work on books for years and years.
How does that partnership work?
Is it the true collaboration,
where you both bounce the ideas off each other?
Or is it something where you just give them the plot,
and they come back with the pages,
and it's just another day at the office.
- It's you know,
I don't think it was ever just another day at the office.
With Ron Frenz,
I've sometimes said that
when we are plotting a story together,
I lose track of where
I end and he begins.
I know many a time, I come in with an idea,
and he'd come in with another idea,
and then we'd just start talking.
And by the end of the day,
we had maybe a tenth idea that
is the foundation of the story.
And we'd just throw ideas back and forth.
And then I would type up a plot,
send it to him, and I'd suggest
all sorts of what I thought were great visuals.
And he would come up with even better visuals,
[laughs] which would always annoy the heck out of me.
Paul Ryan and I would, again,
mainly discuss character.
How is Johnny reacting to the traumas that's going on?
How is Sue feeling about everything?
And the stories, the actual plot details
would kind of work themselves out.
Because we kept focusing again on the characters.
How are the characters reacting to this situation?
To that situation?
With The Fantastic Four, yeah,
I think at one point we had like six or seven
members of The Fantastic Four.
So each situation had like seven reactions, at least.
And we were always trying to make sure
that everybody was very distinct.
When I joined the business,
I remember somebody saying to me
that if all the panels are black,
and there's four word bulbs,
you should be able to tell which character is speaking.
And I've always taken that to heart.
- And I do remember that run in The Fantastic Four.
There was always something going on,
and it was on such a cosmic scale as well.
And yet, the characters, the core four of that book,
they still retained their humanity.
You always had it focused on the characters,
so even though they were in space
and the watcher was there or something like that,
it was always a very relatable reaction
that each one of those members was having.
And I thought that was a great way
to handle those characters,
very much in keeping with the lead Kirby run.
- Well, I always looked at it like,
The Fantastic Four was basically a family book.
A family soap opera,
much like Dallas.
With Dallas you had oil wells in the background.
With The Fantastic Four you had
some science fiction thing in the background.
But it was, at it's core, a family soap opera.
- And at some point in the late eighties,
you switched gears a little bit.
You became the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.
- So what's it like when you take on that responsibility
as opposed to just working on your
two or three books a month,
and having that anonymity?
Well, it was kind of a nightmare [laughs]
it was a big complication.
I had joined the staff at one point.
Jim Shooter was the editor-in-chief,
and he had asked me if I'd like
to come on staff for awhile.
And at that point I had not had
a full-time staff job for years,
and I wasn't even sure I could do it.
And he invited me on staff and he said,
"Listen, I just need you for
"a little while, maybe six months."
And I said, "Yeah, I can do six months Jim."
I figured, yeah, no matter how bad it is,
I could do six months.
Six months came closer to 15 years.
[both men laugh]
I was surprised Jim made me the editor of Spider-Man.
And I thought, I said,
"What is Spider-Man?
"This is Marvel's most important character.
"What are you giving it to me for?"
And he said, "Well, it's just like Archie,
"except he has super powers."
And I realized he was right.
Same sort of thing.
always viewed myself as a freelancer
masqueraded as a staff person,
and figured, yeah, at a certain point,
I'll either get fired or I'll get thrown out.
Then I could go back to full time writing.
It took a lot longer for that to happen
than I thought it would.
At a certain point, the company,
for a lot of reasons, decided that they
had to make a change with Jim Shooter,
and since I was Shooter's second in command,
I always assumed that when they
decided to get rid of him, they'd get rid of me too.
And in point of fact, was preparing to leave comics
and work in animation.
And then to my surprise, they came to me
and they asked me to be editor-in-chief.
And at that time, I said to the President,
"You realize I am a freelancer
"masquerading as a staff person?
"And everything I do is gonna be
"to help the lives of the freelancers?"
And the President, a gentleman
by the name of Jim Golden said,
"Well that's your job.
"That's what you're supposed to be doing."
He said, "We also want the books to sell.
"But so long as the books are selling,
"advocate as much as you want for them."
I said, "Okay."
and I planned to only be there as editor-in-chief
for two or three years, but then
then Ron Perlman bought us, and I figured,
well the problem with people coming in,
they're gonna want to fire somebody,
put their own guy in, in charge.
So I'll let me be the guy that gets fired,
and I'll make sure that Greunwald
is the guy they replace me with.
Ultimately, that didn't work out.
- But I'm imagining it's tough
to go from just worrying about your own book,
to worrying about every book.
And having to deal with, as you were saying,
the freelancers, and the editors and everything else.
So how would you fit in your own writing?
'Cause I think at that time you were also
working on The Fantastic Four.
So how do you juggle all of that responsibility,
and still get to be creative?
I look back at it, I don't know how [sound cuts]
Putting in 10 or 12 hour days at the office,
and then going home and
pretty well just going to bed,
then getting up about 5:00 in the morning
and doing my writing, and then
going into the office, getting there by 8:00,
and going around.
When I first planned to be a writer,
I thought I was going to be a school teacher
and a weekend writer.
It didn't occur to me that I'd be
a writer who had to work on the weekends.
So for years, I worked
seven days a week,
putting in 12 or 15 hour days.
But it just seemed to be the thing to do at the time.
- So right now, you're working for Archie comics again.
You're working on a book about
everyone's favorite bad guy, Reggie Mantle.
So how do you get over to Archie,
and how do you get this book and take
basically the heel and make him
the star of his own series?
- Well, the title of the book is Reggie and Me.
And the me is his dog.
Because I figured you want to have
a sympathetic view of Reggie,
and who would love Reggie without reservation?
His dog. [Terence laughs]
So I have the dog as the narrator.
And the dog has a realistic view of Reggie,
and yet loves him just the same.
I will warn you, you haven't read it yet.
- I'm sorry.
- This book does not end well.
There's a great tragedy in it, and it does not end well.
- It seems like Archie is one of those publishers
that's really not afraid
to take a risk with their characters.
I know they've done a reboot of Archie
after 70-some-odd years of publication.
But previously we've had the first gay character,
we had some weird zombie stories.
So what is it about Archie as a publisher
that they're willing to take these chances
and let writers such as yourself make these bold stories?
I think, I give a lot of credit
to the publisher, John Goldwater,
the son of the original John Goldwater.
John grew up with Archie,
and understands the characters intimately.
The president of the company, Mike Pellerito
and also the editor-in-chief Victor Gorelick.
They've been with the company forever.
They know that the essence of Archie
can't be harmed, it can't be changed,
and they're willing to experiment,
take all sorts of chances.
Because they know it's fiction,
and well, the characters are very strong characters.
And as long as any story you do,
whether it's a zombie story,
or a superhero story featuring Archie,
as long as it remains true to the character,
Archie will shine.
- And is this something where you work
that full script style?
Or are you doing the traditional Marvel style,
where it's the plot and you have an idea
of where the dialogue is going to go,
but you wait until the pencils come in
before you really put that all together?
- With the Archie, the Reggie and Me thing,
I've been going on a full script.
I think it,
I think for adventure stories,
the Marvel plot dialogue way
is the best way to go.
Because it just allows the artist a lot more freedom,
and gives the artist a lot more control over the visuals.
And I think for adventure stories,
that works out the best way.
With humor stories or
or basically drama stories,
the pacing is very important,
and in that regard, I think the full script
is the way to go.
- Well, Tom. - You know, I'm a flake.
I try all the different methods.
- Well, we can never really stop
trying to learn and get better.
But I'm being told, Tom, that we've
run out of time, which is a shame.
I'd like to thank you so much
for joining me today and talking about your career.
And I'd like to thank you at home
for watching Comic Culture.
We'll see you again soon.
[adventurous orchestral music]