Comic Culture


Paul Kupperberg

This week on Comic Culture, host Terence Dollard talks to writer/editor Paul Kupperberg. They discuss Kupperberg's newest book, the Illustrated Guide to Writing Comics.

AIRED: December 28, 2020 | 0:26:46

[upbeat 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 writer editor, Paul Kupperberg.

Paul, welcome back to "Comic Culture."

- Hi Terence, nice to be here.

Nice to be anywhere these days.

- [laughing] When we last spoke, we were talking

about Charlton Neo and the work that you do there

but today we're gonna talk about a different type of book,

not a comic, but a book about writing comics.

And I have a copy of it here for those at home.

It's called, let me read it, make sure I get it right.

"Paul Kupperberg's Illustrated Guide to Writing Comics."

So Paul you've been writing comics

for the better part of, I want to say,

close to 40 years. - 45.

- 45 years, so how do you distillate all of that knowledge

into a book that's really concise

and really good at teaching not only writing comics

but writing films, writing novels,

just writing in general? - First of all,

a story's a story.

It doesn't matter what form it takes.

There's always beginning, middle and end.

If it's a TV show, a movie, a book,

a short story, a comic book.

That's kinda basic.

The rest, hopefully I've learned how to write

and how to do things like distill information

down into a concise form.

I've written in the past, nonfiction books

for the middle school library market.

So I did all kinds of books

on different nonfiction subjects,

everything from astronaut biographies

to the sinking of the Titanic

to how to get a career as a rodeo cowboy,

sorry a rodeo clown. - Seriously?

- Yes, I wrote a book and it's careers, whatever,

and it was how to become a rodeo clown.

I'm prepared.

And I didn't just sit down

and start from scratch to do this.

A lot of the material I had already kind of laid out

in columns and essays and things I've written over the years

and just notes I've made.

So, a lot of the information was just kind of there

and it was just a matter of, pulling it all together

and giving it some shape.

- One of the things that mentioned is the young writer.

And I see this a lot with my students.

They have a really great idea

or they think it's a really great idea for a story

whether it's a comic or a screenplay,

but it's missing that one element,

which is the human element.

So can you kind of touch on the difference

between plot versus story?

- Well, plot is what happens in stories, why?

It's really that simple.

An example I used in the book

was that this guy at a signing came up to me.

He was excited and telling me the plot

of his comic book that he was working on.

And I said, "That's great. What's the story?"

And he started repeating the plot.

I said, "No, no, what's it about, who's this guy?

Where did he come from? What's happening to him?

Is he angry? Is he scared?"

Just asked the basic questions

about character and story

because story comes out of character.

You can't just take a generic story

and fit a specific character in it.

In comic books, a Superman story doesn't work for Batman,

an Aquaman story, doesn't work for Wonder Woman

So you have to tailor it to your character.

I've heard people describe it as saying,

just ultimately, what does your character want?

That's it.

That's your goal, that's what you're after.

You have to figure that out.

And once you know where they want to be,

you have to figure out how to take them along and get there.

- It's interesting, because you mentioned in the book,

you did some writing for "Archie Comics"

and you talked about how you wanted to write Reggie Mantle

in a way that would strip his dignity,

but you found that the character,

it was impossible for you to do that

because of the way the character was constructed.

So is this something, again that works with the story

of what the character wants

and how that fits into the plot?

- Yeah absolutely.

I could have written Reggie getting taken down

in these stories and have him disrespected

and not treated well.

But when I wrote that, it just wasn't right.

I finished the scene and I couldn't figure out

how he'd respond, even, I just didn't know.

I just decided that this guy

there was more to the character.

It's funny, you read these guys,

I've been reading "Archie Comics"

for nigh on to 60 years now.

The characters are so inside me,

I've absorbed them so much

that when I sat down to write them, I just kinda got it.

I knew that Archie is this guy

who was so desperate to be helpful

he'll trip over himself and destroy everything.

But he's trying to please everybody. He's the good guy.

Jughead is the smartest guy in town.

He just doesn't show it.

He's great at manipulating people.

So you pick up these clues about the characters

and you write little stories about them.

I wrote a story, not in the "Life with Archie,"

but in just the regular teenage "Archie" story where

Jughead and Ronnie are at the mall

and they're just stiping at each other,

'cause that's what they do.

But when push comes to shove

and Ronnie's accused of shoplifting or something,

Jughead jumps to her defense because this is his friend.

He knows her, she wouldn't steal.

And she is not surprised that Jughead

was having her back.

That's who these characters are.

And once you learn again, what do these characters want?

Well, in the storyline I was working on,

Reggie, wanted his dignity.

It was the "Life with Archie," storyline.

And he was grown up, out of college,

and all his friends were on their way to doing something.

And he was just drifting.

He didn't know where he was going

and all he wanted was a direction.

So, my job as the writer of the story was to push him off

and get him going in that direction.

- Dealing with characters, like you said

you've been reading for most of your life

and you kind of have a sense of who they are,

but I guess because we generally tend to think of things

as entertainment, we don't necessarily absorb

all of the nutrients of the story

and understand the characters the same way

that you have to as a writer.

So is this something that maybe,

when you are coming on to the book,

maybe you talk to the editor just to get a sense

of what they're looking for and then see how that maybe

can put those pieces together in your head?

- Well, for "Archie," it was a little easier

because I had a model to work off of.

Before the "Life with Archie" the magazine started,

there was the six issue,

Archie loves Betty, Archie loves Veronica storyline,

in "Archie" Comics starting the number 600

that Michael Uslan had set up.

So I kind of had a blueprint to work from on that.

But walking into a character

is kind of the job.

I've been doing that my whole life.

Someone says, you want to do a "Doctor Who" story?

Yeah, I'll do a "Doctor Who" story.

I never watched "Doctor Who"

but I learned what I needed to know

about "Doctor Who" to write a story.

And nobody came back to me afterwards and said,

you had no clue what you were doing, did you? [laughing]

The only time I've ever been stymied was "The Lone Ranger,"

could not get a beat on "The Lone Ranger."

There was nothing there for me to grasp.

But otherwise, you go in you watch.

I'm currently writing

a "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" pro story.

So I sat down and watched another episode or two

just to familiarize myself with his speech patterns

and things like that.

It's the job. - One of the things

that your book does touch on and what a brilliant segue

you provided me with was the shift from fan to pro.

And you talk about some of the behaviors

that you need to have as a professional,

versus like me, I might make some comics

at home on the weekend,

but I'm not ready to send my submission out to a publisher.

So if I'm looking to be a professional writer,

what sort of discipline what sort of approach should I take

when I'm looking at that blank page?

- You just have to do it.

Put a word on there.

Find a word, start it.

Write page one, panel one,

and then just start something.

You shouldn't be sitting down to write a story

without knowing where it's going to begin with.

But just do it, just sit down and do it.

Find a story you want to tell.

Back when I started writing comics in the mid '70s

you didn't really have to have anything to say.

[laughing] It helped.

The guys like Steve Gerber and Steve Englehart,

and you know, anybody else named Steve, they went out,

they had stories to tell and they had points to make.

A lot of us were just writing comic book stories.

There was an inherent message in any comic book story.

But in any superhero comic book story,

good versus evil, that message is always there.

But as a fan, you approach this material

as the fantasy.

You're on the outside of the fantasy looking in.

And you see this, social media is great

to observe this, you see the fans speculating

or letting everybody else know

what they would like to see coming up in these books

or in these comics or these movies.

Most of it is just impractical

for reasons that they just don't know about

because they don't do this for a living.

there's speculation on why things are done,

was like, did you plan this?

No, I just happened to notice that 12 issues earlier,

I did this thing.

So I picked up on it and it just looked like I planned it.

That's how it works.

That's how long form storytelling works.

There's always an assumption that what you've done

is based on something that's come before.

Like, oh, is this based on the which version?

No, I made it up. [laughing]

So fans, they can focus on the fantasy part.

The writer also focuses on the fantasy part

but he has to be realistic about it.

The writer has to deal with the fantasy

and has to make it realistic.

Whether you're doing "Game of Thrones" or

Detective Mars story set in the real world,

you still have to make it believable.

You have to believe those dragons and that magic.

You can't just apply this generic story to it.

You have to make it real.

You have to make it believable.

So, yeah, we're stuck with that problem.

The fans hate what you do

'cause they know what they want you to have done.

But if you do what they want you to have done

they are like, yeah, I knew you were gonna do that.

It's a weird situation to be in.

You're fulfilling their fantasy.

So that puts you in a precarious position.

- I think someone once said, I can give you what you want,

or I can give you what you'll enjoy,

or something along those lines.

I might want Spiderman to win the lottery,

but that's going to fundamentally change,

Peter Parker the character as he's constructed.

And I guess that would lose his appeal.

- Whenever the characters get happy

and things are going well, it gets really dull.

So you have to jump in and screw up their lives again.

Happy isn't interesting.

So, you can't leave the characters in a good place,

otherwise, who cares?

- Speaking of cares, you started your career in comics

as a fan and you wrote stories

that were of the time of that style of comics

and your work has evolved over the years.

And I'm wondering at what point did you start

to maybe think of a Clark Kent in Superman family story

differently than maybe something you did long form

in your run of the "Doom Patrol" or in "Checkmate?"

- Yeah. I don't know.

When I was doing Superman, it was, pre-crisis.

Up till then, this was Julius Schwartz's "Superman,"

which I loved when he took over the book in 1970.

So I grew up in the '60s on the silly Mort Weisinger stories

Superman fighting gangsters in suits.

While, over in "Batman," he was fighting aliens

and mad scientists.

It was just a topsy turvy world back then.

Julius stories could be silly.

There was a large component of silliness

to a lot of the stories.

Oh, you could overcome it after a while

after you'd been working for him for a while.

He'd let you do stories that didn't contain those elements.

I love that stuff and I'm not apologizing

for any of it that I wrote.

I got to write "Superman" so nya nya na na na.

Great, awesome.

After that, you felt the business shift.

That was kind of like the death knell

of the silver age silliness.

Nobody was doing that anymore.

Julie had been kind of the last two of those guys.

So once I started doing things like "Vigilante"

and "Doom Patrol," you're propped up

by the fact that it's "Superman,"

and I was writing a lot of "Superman" in the early '80s.

I was writing "Supergirl" "Superboy,"

a large portion of the "Superman" in Action Comics

and DC Comics Presents,

as well as the syndicated "Superman" newspaper strip.

So I was, "Superman" up to here.

But still, you've always got that backup with "Superman."

He's Superman.

You need a story?

Well, he can do anything. It doesn't matter.

You can take it as far as you want.

You get back to these more down to earth characters.

Even "Doom Patrol" were infinitely more down to earth

than "Superman," it's a different matter.

You can't rely on the mythos anymore.

Certainly not when I got to "Vigilante."

You have to have something to say

when you're writing those stories.

If you're just writing stories about a guy

who goes out, bashing bad guys,

we got the "Punisher," but you can't do that.

I started writing it with a superhero mindset to it.

And then I realized no, this isn't an altruistic superhero.

This guy's insane.

Even though Adrian Chase was presented as this cool,

sober judge, you don't conceive the idea

of putting on a costume and killing people.

That's not the thought of a rational mind.

At some point I realized it's going to end badly

and it is going to end.

This is a character that can sustain itself.

At some point he has to pay for it.

That's heavy.

And now you're telling stories,

you're telling me stories about real people.

You're dealing with real situations.

It's not guys in costume zapping each other

over the secret orb.

It's about child molesters and rapists and drug dealers,

all kinds of in the gutter stuff.

It was at that point where, it wasn't a conscious effort,

but it was just time to grow up

and time to tell more grownup stories.

- You talked about the great Julius Schwartz,

and I will say that whenever I go to a convention,

one of the things I do is, is long box dive

for the classic late '70s early '80s, "Superman,"

the pre-crisis "Superman."

And you did that great run on "Supergirl."

But let's talk about the editor's role a little bit.

You mentioned in your book

that you had been working on a book

and Joe Kubert ended up becoming the editor,

and he gave you some advice

about this magical character to use less magic.

So how does some advice like that actually help the writer?

- It was "Arion Lord of Atlantis"

and Joe replaced the previous editor

who had replaced me as writer on the book

that I had created for reasons we need not go into,

but we're not my fault. [laughing]

But Joel was handed the book.

Joe being a guy who believes that creators

should do what they create got me back on the title.

I do the first couple of issues for him.

He calls me, he says

"I think there's just too much magic in this book."

I went, "You mean, there's too much magic

"in this comic book about this Atlantean sorcerer?"


And he goes, yeah, yeah, too much magic.

Just cut back on the magic.

Let's get rid of the magic for a while.

And it was one of these cryptic editorial instructions.

But when I sat down to do it,

I realized what you're always talking about,

that I was using the magic as a crutch.

Arion can just wave his hands and do whatever.

And, hocus pocus, he's out of trouble.

That's easy.

That's the ultimate nullifier effect, I call it.

When you can't defeat the Galactus, you realize,

oh, wait there's this ultimate nullifier

that can defeat anything.

Let's just go get it. - If you have that crutch,

the magic wand that can solve all problems

it makes it easier for you not to solve them.

- That's right. You don't have to solve them.

You just have him do a spell. So take that away.

Now he's gotta deal with things like everybody else

with fist and sword

or discussion and negotiation.

So it did make a big difference.

Eventually the magic came back, but now I had learned

how not to mess with it.

And Joe being brilliant, he was able to deduce that

after a few scripts.

- Let's talk a little bit about writing,

I guess, the action descriptions.

It's one thing you mentioned in your book

about the Marvel style, which I guess is Stan Lee

talking to an artist, maybe playing out

how a scene's going to go and then saying okay,

deliver the pages and he'll write the copy.

But DC was always known as having more of a scripted format

because you might not know who the artist is

on the book that you're writing.

So when you're writing do you kind of say,

well, if it's Curt Swan I'm gonna write it this way

and hope that it's Curt?

Or if I get Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez I'm gonna hope

that he can interpret whatever I'm writing

and make it as brilliant as they can?

- I kind of learned to write kind of generic.

I give as much information as the artist needs

to set the scene.

I don't tell them how how to shoot it

unless I need a specific angle

as a very specific story reason.

I don't tell them how to draw.

I just tell them what I need in the panel.

I leave it up to them to bring that in there.

Guys like Curt...

I was just gonna say what couldn't he draw?

But my next point was if I knew Curt was gonna draw a script

I wouldn't do monsters from outer space and aliens

'cause Curt drew the most ridiculous aliens

and monsters ever.

He just never got the hang of that.

His stuff was so grounded in realism

that his aliens were just goofy and laughable.

They looked like something out of "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."

But then every now and then you'd get a surprise.

I turned in one script, which was just written

with my usual generic panel description

and the art comes in and Julie shows it to me.

And it's Gray Morrow.

So, you never knew. [laughing]

- Now I see we have about five minutes left

in our conversation.

I wanted to talk about the process that you went through,

I'm gonna hold the book up again for our folks at home

the process that you went through

to get these books printed and published.

You went through Kickstarter,

and did crowdsourcing to get this done.

So I'm wondering how do you approach a campaign

to reach out to as many people as possible,

but also appeal to folks

who might have supported some other campaigns

and get this book so that everyone can read it?

- I'm probably horrible at Kickstarter.

It did well, but I see other people,

well, it depends on the book.

Some books can bring in tens of thousands of dollars,

and I did, okay.

I did, like 300% of my goal

which is very nice and very gratifying

and I'm very happy for that.

I'm sure there are ways to push it harder

and I should learn them because,

crowdsourcing is kind of becoming, unfortunately,

the way that books are getting distributed these days.

I'd love to just be able to use it

as a kind of a jumping off point,

knowing that I could, other outlets to sell the book,

but you know what?

For a large part, a lot of your circulation

is the Kickstarter backers.

It is available on Amazon.

I offered copies direct as well, signed.

It's weird for me, 'cause I'm used to old school publishing.

It was just you hand the book to a publisher

and the next thing you know, you get a copy,

and they give you money.

It doesn't cost you money.

Now I've got one going now for another book

that's about writing.

It's called "I Never Write for the Money

But I Always Turn in the Manuscript for a Check."

And it's a collection of edited and revised columns

and essays I've written over the years

about writing and having written,

and everything in between.

But, again, the campaign is going well

and I'm always gratified.

Like I say, I told you before we started going

that I never expect to reach my initial goals.

So anytime I go past, it's great.

It's very gratifying.


it's a new world.

We've got bookstores dying to begin with

and now you top it with COVID,

which is gonna kill even more,

we're adapting. [laughing]

- I just wanted to talk a little bit about social media.

You're on social media.

You've got, I'm sure the Twitter and the Facebook accounts.

So when you're reaching out to folks about the Kickstarter

is this something that you're kind of like

hoping that you've cultivated a big enough group

or is it something where

it's just, you're Paul Kupperberg, darn it.

And everybody should be aware

that you've got this great career

and a lot to say about comics.

- I leave that for other people to say.

No, my point, I just try to get it out as much as possible.

With this current one we put together

a 60 page free downloadable digital comic book sampler,

eight stories of mine that you can get

just for checking out the Kickstarter campaign.

You click a button, you share information

about the campaign on your Facebook page

and then you get a downloadable comic book.

So, no purchase necessary.

So we're trying to attract people that way,

give them something for helping you out,

say thank you for helping spread the word.

- Well, Paul, I've been told

that we're just about out of time.

I'd like to thank you so much

for taking time out of your schedule, to talk with me.

If there's a way that people can find out more

about the work that you've got on Kickstarter,

where can they find that? - On Kickstarter itself.

Also, I'm on Facebook and Twitter under Paul Kupperberg.

So you can follow me there.

And I am relentless and annoying in posting about it.

But try to be entertaining in the process.

- Paul, I find you to be entertaining on social media,

and I'd like to thank you for taking time out

to talk with me today.

I'd like to thank you at home for watching "Comic Culture."

We will see you again soon. - Thanks.

[upbeat music]

- [Announcer] "Comic Culture" is a production

of the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.


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