Obviously, you're familiar with Kurt Busiek's bibliographical characters: the Avengers. Superman. Batman. Aquaman, Astro City. Wonder Woman. Autumnlands. Conan. Thunderbolts. (And if you're not? Please, pick up his runs on these books ASAP) He's influential, his stories range through a large scope of genres, and by golly, Astro City is a work of art.
Over the last couple months I have been absolutely blessed to be able to have an email correspondence with Mr. Busiek, who is arguably one of the greatest comic writers and creators of this generation.
First off, thank you SO much for taking the time to e-chat with us. To start things off, I wanted to send over a couple questions about Autumnlands, just because it's such a hauntingly terrific book that the story just sticks in my mind like an earworm.
Comparing Autumnlands to your past work, it seems like such a stark departure: You've excelled in superhero books for a long time, and have won numerous awards because of them. What drove you to try such a diverse, ambitious story?
Well, AUTUMNLANDS isn’t my first non-superhero book by any means. I’ve done CONAN, SHOCKROCKETS, ARROWSMITH, THE WIZARD’S TALE and more.
I like variety, and I’ve been drawn more and more to fantasy over the years, so I wanted to do more in that vein. AUTUMNLANDS was a story and a setting that had been in the back of my mind for a long time, and it felt like it was finally time to get going and do it. And to do it as comics, because really, if you’re going to tell a story about animal people, isn’t in better to be able to see them?
And with your past works on Avengers and Astro City so prominent, when did the Autumnlands story start to percolate? Was it a progressive thought that expanded into a story?
Yeah, it’s something that slowly developed over the years. It starts, more or less, with me wishing I could write KAMANDI, but every time I talk to DC about it, they’re holding it for someone else (usually Grant Morrison), so I’m not able to do it. So I stewed over that, and eventually two things happened. First, I realized that doing KAMANDI would probably be a bad idea — it’s one of those projects that’s so solidly identified with one creator that if you do it like Kirby, you’re not going to do it as well as he did, and if you don’t do it like Kirby you’re doing it wrong. And either way, it probably isn’t going to sell, so it won’t last.
So that was the first bit, and it made me realize that I’d be better off doing a series that had what i like about KAMANDI in it, without actually being KAMANDI or duplicating KAMANDI. And the second bit was that I read Jack Vance’s TALES OF THE DYING EARTH, and realized that instead of a post-apocalytpic world of SF, if my “future world” of ascended animals was a richly-textured world of magic and fantasy, then I could have a blast with that, and immediately be off in a new, non-Kirby direction.
So I started playing with that, and the floating wicker cities, the gods, the young terrier, the legendary warrior from the past…they all fell into place, and I started building the world around that.
Did you immediately consider Image as the right publisher for this, or did any other house come to mind? And was your recruiting process really as easy as that first issue recollection makes it out to be?
I thought it would be a nice fit at Image, since Image was doing a lot of strongly-individual creator-owned work, combining eccentric approaches to genre with strong, engaging visual material, and I thought AUTUMNLANDS would fit well in that kind of line. I’d talked with other publishers about it over the years, and no one had leapt up and said, “Yeah, yeah, you gotta do that!” But Eric Stephenson liked it a lot, when I ran it by him, and we were off to the races. I thought it would fit at Image well and he thought it’d be a strong book. Plus, they’ve got a great deal, so what more did we need?
Right, the rest of the team.
We talked about a bunch of different artists, so it’s not like we put together the team overnight. But once I saw Ben Dewey’s work, online, in the Emerald City Comicon book, in a PLANET OF THE APES annual…I was more and more convinced that he was the right guy. And when I called him to see if he was interested, it did go about like I described. A little slower, maybe, in that there were more words spoken. But he honestly didn’t need to hear much more than “big sprawling fantasy adventure in a world of animal people” before he said, “Sure, I’d love to do that.”
Jordie Bellaire joined us because she and Declan Shalvey visited Portland, and she saw Ben’s art for the first issue and said, “Can I color this? I want to color this, let me color this.” And we did seal the deal over pizza.
And John Roshell’s been designing and lettering books of mine since MARVELS, along with Comicraft honcho Richard Starkings. So I already knew he was up for it, and sure enough, he was.
Those various conversations were spread out over more than a year, so it didn’t happen overnight. But each of them happened fast, once they happened.
When crafting the characters in Tooth & Claw, did you start with the animal species, or did you assign them based on character attributes?
Could be either, or other things. In Goodfoot’s case, I started out with the name, and her personality and species both came from that. But usually, it starts with character. We want a character who’s snooty, or menacing, or whatever, and we decide on an animal to fit. We’re a bunch of typecasters, rotten pigeonholers!
But it can go other ways. Gharta came out of character — we wanted someone eccentric and unconventional, and a stumpy warthog among the elegant wizards of the Seventeen Cities seemed to fit that well. But Affa, Gharta’s aide and lover, started out as a sketch Ben did of a giraffe woman that I thought was great, so I wrote her into the story as Gharta’s aide, partly because the sketch looked great, partly because the two of them would look great, one of them stubby and the other so tall.
We’ll get characters wherever we can. One who’ll show up eventually came out of a dumb joke I told to make my daughter laugh, and then I thought, “Hey, that’s good, I’m using that.”
With a story like this, how much further ahead do you plot? Is this a finite tale, with planned arcs along the way, or are you letting the story evolve as you craft?
Let me put it this way. We know how it ends. We know various mileposts we have to get to along the way. But how we get from milepost to milepost, that’s flexible, and we can wander and explore and find new things. So we have a plan, but there’s plenty of room to flesh out that plan with new ideas, as they occur to us.
So it’s a finite tale with lots of evolution along the way.
It's really neat to hear you talk about the pre-production stage of making a comic, and even more so when you talk about publishers like Image setting up a strong creator-owned structure. Have you ever considered going a step further and using crowdfunding to put a book or project out?
I’ve thought about it, but there are two stumbling blocks for me. The first is that I don’t—so far—have any projects I want to do that I’d need to crowdfund. I’m fine funding them in more traditional ways. And second, my big problem these days is time and energy. I’ve got a million things I want to do, and not enough hours in the day or health in the body to do them. So while I admire the people who’ve done great crowdfunded books, and think it’s an exciting and cool new approach, it’s also a lot of work, and the last thing I need to add to my schedule is more work that isn’t about creating stories.
I have plenty of urge to get more and more control over what I do, but I don’t have any urge to be a publisher. I’d much rather work with publishers who can make what I want to do happen without me having to do it myself.
That said, if I ever run into a book I desperately want to do that would have to be crowdfunded to happen, I’d certainly consider it. I like the idea of it…I just don’t have the time or the need, right now.
You've seen comics you've worked on, like Avengers and Heroes for Hire, make the transition to film and TV (or on the way to, considering the cases of Luke Cage and Iron Fist). Will Astro City be headed in that direction at any point? The rich history you've built and the stable of characters you've cultivated would seem to make a really great drama.
For as long as the book has existed, there’s been interest from TV and film people in the rights, and that’s only increased in recent years, as superheroes have become bigger and cooler and more popular. So it’s certainly possible, and I think nifty things could be done, going down that road. As to whether it’ll ever happen, that’s something I can’t fully predict, because most TV or film projects that get launched don’t actually make it to the big or small screen.
But I can say that there’s interest, and I can’t talk about the details, but, well, yeah. Things are percolating.
Do you think the big-budget comic book films are helping or hindering the comic book market? Like having a film's plot influence the direction of a particular book, or even with Fox's ownership of the FF's film rights potentially leading to its cancellation under Marvel Comics.
I’m not really sure how to answer that. I think they’re helping in that Marvel and DC are certainly seeing lots of money come in as a result, not so much from selling periodical comic books, but TPBs and digital comics and the like.
The idea of movies or TV influencing comics content has never been a problem for me. Jimmy Olsen and kryptonite come from a radio show, the Batman TV show got the comics to bring Alfred back from the dead, and so on. Harley Quinn comes from a cartoon. Good ideas can come from anywhere, and I don’t think DC should have thought, “No, no, no, we can’t put Smallville in Kansas, because if we do we’re being driven by the movies!”
If it resonates, go with it. See where it takes you. If I was writing the characters at the moment, I’d be at least thinking about whether a Hulk/Black Widow romance would be an interesting road to follow for those characters…the concept that it’s a bad idea because a good writer came up with it for a movie instead of for a comic book is just weird to me. Comics are influenced by many things, and deciding that movies or TV should be walled away doesn’t make much sense. Stir it all together and see what you get out of it.
And Marvel’s in the process of blowing up and rebuilding their whole universe right now. If they come out the other end and there’s no FANTASTIC FOUR book, I’ll be surprised. I think the online fuss over that stuff is just crackers. They publish a lot of X-Men stuff. They publish Spider-Man, even though Sony makes the movies. They’re going to do what sells, or what they think sells.
When you're writing your stories, do you do full script, outline, or the Marvel Method? And what are the benefits of each?
I work differently depending on the project. ASTRO CITY and AUTUMNLANDS are full script (though there are a few issues of ASTRO CITY over the years that were done plot-style when I was sick), but AVENGERS and ARROWSMITH were plot-style. MARVELS and AQUAMAN were full-script, UNTOLD TALES and SUPERMAN were plot-style.
I just want to make the best comic I can. If it’s the kind of story where the end result will be better if I have more control of the pacing, then I’ll lean toward full-script. If it’s the kind of story where I want the artist to be able to go crazy, as long as he tells the story well, then plot-style is a good idea. And different artists respond to different things. Alex Ross wants to know all the details, so if I work with him, it’s full script. Carlos Pacheco has more energy in his art if he has the freedom of a plot.
So it varies. Whatever gets the best result. I’ve even done comics where I did a script and rough layouts for the artist to work from, because that was what’d get the best result at that time.
As long as I get to take another pass at it once the art is done, and tailor the script to the artwork, I’m comfortable working in whatever method will make for the best comics.
Did you pitch the idea for a new Aquaman, or were you approached by DC to spearhead a new direction?
I was approached by DC, kind of as a Hail Mary pass. AQUAMAN had actually been cancelled, and they were looking for an idea that would get the people upstairs to un-cancel it and give it another shot. They’d had several pitches shot down (including, I think, one that was a lot like the Geoff Johns revival that worked so well a few years later), so they needed something dramatically different.
So after talking it over with Dan Didio, me throwing out various ideas and him making suggestions, I worked up what became AQUAMAN: SWORD OF ATLANTIS. That one, the people upstairs approved. And while it did’nt work in the long run, they got another year or two out of it, at least…
What went into the development of Arthur Joseph Curry? And how did you want to differentiate him from Orin?
I had thought that, over the years, Aquaman had become less and less human, and there was less and less reason for him to engage with the surface world at all. The Golden Age Aquaman was human, the son of a scientist who’d imbued him with acquatic powers. The Silver Age Aquaman was half-human, the son of lighthouse-keeper Tom Curry and an Atlantean princess. And the post-Crisis Aquaman was entirely Atlantean. I thought maybe we should try reversing that, get back to a more human Aquaman with more overt ties to the surface world.
So I suggested going back to the Golden Age origin, but with a new character, a younger, less experienced Aquaman, who’d adventure in a much more textured undersea setting. I wanted him to be an outsider, who could learn along with the readers what this world was like — not entirely unlike Conan, who I’d been writing as well. But where Conan was tougher than anything and anybody, I wanted the new Aquaman to have a pretty steep learning curve, and to need help along the way.
You fleshed out King Shark in a novel way in that series - he became a sympathetic and engaging character. How familiar with the character were you in advance?
Well, partly sympathetic. I was familiar with him, as a fan of Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett’s SUPERBOY, where he debuted, and I went back to his origins to set him up for what we’d need in the series.
He came out of a suggestion by Dan, but in a very different way than Dan had intended. Dan had an idea that if I remember correctly (and I might not), would have had Aquaman as an amnesiac and something of a threat to the world, teamed up with King Shark and Arion. This was Dan’s nod to Marvel’s DEFENDERS — a sea-king, a man-monster and a sorcerer, but all of them tied to the ocean. And who knows, maybe it’d have worked better than what we did.
But I already had plans to use Arion in SUPERMAN, and didn’t want to scrap them. I liked King Shark, though, and thought he’d work very well in the epic-fantasy take I wanted to do on the undersea world. So I kept that part of Dan’s setup, even if I didn’t do the rest.
Was it your idea to transform the original Aquaman into the Dweller?
Yes. I wanted him to be still around, and I wanted it to be a surprise. But I didn’t want him in his normal form, or he’d take over the book. I figured we’d let the new version star in the book for a while, then “cure” the Dweller, restore him to the throne and have both King Orin and Young Aquaman, to do very different kinds of adventures.
I also, I’ll admit, was playing off Dan’s DEFENDERS nod, by having my own set of sea-prince/man-monster/sorcerer, but in this case I played Orin as the sage adviser, full of magic and mystery. Nobody noticed any connection to the Defenders, maybe because we took such a heroic-fantasy tone rather than a superhero one.
I even dropped in a surfer named Silver (Jessie Silver, who Arthur met on Windward Home), and nobody noticed that, either…
How much of the story arc did you have planned and detailed in advance? I know you left the book early for another project, but was Tad Williams aware of where you wanted to go?
I had an enormous amount of stuff worked out — not tightly structured, but I have a good five years or more of vast undersea fantasy (with surfaceworlder meddling) set up, in hopes of doing a giant epic that would re-set DC’s undersea mythology, building on THE ATLANTIS CHRONICLES and my own creations.
I outlined some of it to Tad, when I had to leave the book because TRINITY was planned, but he had his own ideas on where to go — we even both had abyssal god-creature ideas, and he swapped in his in place of mine. But that’s just fine, that’s the way it works. He should have made the book his own rather than tried to follow my ideas.
Do you feel like there were stories you never got to tell with the triumvirate of King Shark, Aquaman, and Dweller? Would you ever return to the character?
Oh, lots and lots of stuff. I would have loved to stay on the book and do a long run with Butch, but he left after 6 issues and we never really got our feet under us. We were behind the eightball right from the start.
As for returning to the character, no real plans for that — I think if SWORD OF ATLANTIS showed anything, it’s that Aquaman fans want a much more traditional Aquaman, and what I like about my ideas for the book is all the epic-fantasy stuff, not so much the superhero stuff. So I’d like to use those ideas, but somewhere else, outside the DCU, with entirely new characters not connected to Aquaman or King Shark or DC’s Atlantis. I’ve worked out a lot of ideas, and I hope to do it someday, maybe as fantasy novels rather than comics.
That way, I can tell the stories I want to tell without anyone thinking I’m messing up Aquaman and going in the wrong direction…
We can't thank Kurt enough for his time and his willingness to answer the dopiest questions we had... especially my fanboying out over his Aquaman run that ended nearly 10 years ago.