Monday, December 13, 2010

Interview with Gerry Conway - 2008

Initially, I didn't plan to include interviews on my writing blog, but I really am quite proud of some of them, if for no other reason than I was able to keep my composure with people whom I idolized. Almost all my blogs have featured interviews with writers, artists, editors, and more, and they are some of the things I'm most proud of as a blogger/writer/historian.

Some interviews I've done via email, and some live over the phone. For the most part, I prefer to do them via email because transcribing a live conversation is so tedious it drives me crazy. That said, I have to admit that with a few exceptions, live interviews come out much better, since its an actual conversation which inevitably yields more interesting observations.

Case in point: the time in 2008 I got to interview one of my comic book heroes, Gerry Conway. I was in the middle of my run on my JLA Satellite blog, and growing up Gerry Conway simply was the JLA writer, period, clocking in more years and issues than any other writer for the team, before or since.

Gerry was incredibly generous with his time, answering some of my geekier questions with charm and humor. I knew as soon as I first posted it back in July 2008 that this was one the best interviews I had ever conducted.

Growing up when I did, Gerry Conway simply was the writer of Justice League of America, always had been the writer, and always would be the writer. The JLA was under his authorship when I first discovered the book, and he was responsible for almost all the stories I think of when I think of the book.

Since Gerry had left the world of comics to write for television, he was (for me) tough to get a hold of, so I resigned myself to not being able to talk to him directly for the blog.

Luckily, he started his own blog,
Conway's Corner, and through that I was able to contact him and ask him if we wouldn't mind talking to me for JLA Satellite.

He generously said yes, and I got to spend part of an afternoon doing something I never would have dreamed of when I was a kid reading his comics: sitting around talking JLA with the Gerry Conway:

JLA Satellite: After writing issues in between other writers like Martin Pasko, Cary Bates, how did you end up writing JLA full time?

Gerry Conway:
Well, let's begin with, I did those [early] issues during my second run at DC.

I worked at DC three separate times, first time was in the late 60s where I broke in, basically trying to get every assignment I could. The second times was after I had spent five years at Marvel, and I sort of brought in as a Great White Hope by Carmine Infantino, to offset the fact that Marvel was doing very well, so I was kind of a feather in his cap.
So they sent me around to write for a variety of different editors. I'd always loved the JLA, it was one of my favorite books growing up, so one of the editors I definitely wanted to work with was Julie Schwartz.

Julie brought me aboard to write some issues, and at that point he was casting about, trying to decide who was going to be the regular writer on the book.

I then went back to Marvel for about a year, maybe less, and when I came back to DC, it was under terms of an exclusive contract, for which they were going to guarantee me a certain amount of writing each month. By that point Julie decided he wanted me to be the regular writer for JLA.

JLA Satellite: I ask this of everybody--Len Wein, Frank McLaughlin, because unfortunately he's not around to talk about it--what was it like working with Dick Dillin? Even then, his run on the book was astounding, but nowadays, if an artist is on a book for six months, that's a huge deal...

GC: Dick was one of the old pros, he'd been around a long time, and the old pros, they looked at it as a long-term commitment. In fact, they were glad, because it meant they didn't have to hustle, and they could just concentrate on doing good work.

I never actually personally met Dick. We collaborated in the traditional DC format of me writing the scripts in advance, and they would be filtered through the editor, and the writer and artist, for the most part, unless they were personal friends, didn't connect up. It was kind of a hands-off system.

But as I worked with him, and I discovered what were his strengths, what he enjoyed doing, how could I focus my writing on things that would bring out the best in him.

He brought his own take to each of the characters without ever giving the sense it wasn't the same character [that you knew]. It as quite an accomplishment.

JLA Satellite: Did you have any expectation you'd be on the book for so long?

GC: You know, I actually enjoyed working on the book so much that it never occurred to me I would leave it [laughs]. Short of leaving the comic book business, I thought I would be writing the book. It felt like this was my home.

JLA Satellite: It certainly was an extraordinary run. I mean, as far as I ever knew, you always wrote the JLA!

[laughs] I had written it longer than any other writer to the point I left--I wrote it even longer than Gardner Fox.

JLA Satellite: I was about six or seven when I first discovered the book around 1978, so you were The Writer, so, okay, Gerry Conway Writes the JLA, sort of a fait accompli.

GC: Yeah, it's just part of the Natural World.

JLA Satellite: [laughs] Yeah, exactly--I was like "That's who writes this book." Anyway, something else I've wondered about--when you created Firestorm, he joined the JLA not too long after. Was that something you had in the back of your mind as you were creating him, that you'd use him in JLA, too, or was that sort of an accident?

GC: I didn't think of it in those terms. I believe I brought him into the JLA after his own title had been canceled.

JLA Satellite: Yeah, it was in between his book ending and his back-up strip in The Flash.

GC: I just wanted to keep writing him. I thought he fit into the group really well because they didn't have a really young member.

JLA Satellite: That's related to something else I wanted to ask you, they would occasionally have these polls where they would ask readers "Well, who do you think should join?", and one time they asked, Zatanna was the #1 choice, so they said "Well, next issue she's going to join!"

I realize this is very obscure, but I'm sort of fascinated--how closely would you guys follow that? What would happen if the people who bothered to write in picked the most ridiculous character, and you'd be stuck with them?

GC: Well, I think we would've found a way to make it work, but the reality is the reason these characters would be the favorite choice is because that's the character we did the best, or had the most intriguing back story.

So, it wasn't likely they'd pick somebody out of left field.

JLA Satellite: [laughs] You'd be stuck writing Ragman or the Queen Bee or somebody like that...

GC: Well, you'd have to admit, that could've been kinda cool [laughs], to bring in somebody...and this is what happened later, after I left the book, that they brought in some really left field characters, and that can be fun, that can be a way to really pump up the excitement.

But I think we knew it was a fairly safe bet that we'd have the most likely candidates.

JLA Satellite: I had a contest on the blog, asking people to pick the best character who should've joined but never did, and someone sent in Shade, the Changing Man.

When I first saw it, I thought, that's the stupidest...but then when I thought about it, I thought, that would've been really interesting!

GC: Exactly.

JLA Satellite: To throw that bomb into the book like that, so I said, ok, that's the winner.

GC: Exactly, and it should be fun like that, otherwise why do it?
JLA Satellite: The three-parter you wrote, "When A World Dies Screaming" (JLA #s 210-212, drawn by Rich Buckler) was originally conceived (and promoted) as an all-new treasury-sized JLA comic. Any idea why it was scrapped? And whose idea was it to use it in the regular book a few years later?

GC: The treasury-sized books were dropped because of mediocre sales versus expensive printing costs. I don't know who thought to use it in the regular books later, but it certainly made sense not to waste the material.
JLA Satellite: Why did you leave the book at #216, only to come back two issues later? I remember buying that on the newsstand and going--like I said, it didn't occur to me someone else could write the book--"Wow, what's going on here?"

GC: I hate to say it, but it's so long ago, I don't really remember the circumstances.

I know I was having some trouble at DC, in and around that period, and there was some interest in changing up the title in some way. I don't really remember the exact circumstances, I'm much clearer about why I left the book ultimately [laughs].

JLA Satellite: [laughs] Yeah, well, well get to that in second. But you left at the end of #216, co-wrote the JLA/JSA team-up with Roy Thomas [JLA #'s 219-220], wrote the ""Beast Men" story [JLA #'s 221-223], which was very intense, much more intense than anything I had seen in the book before. And then JLA Detroit kicked in not long after that.

What was the genesis for that change? Was JLA not selling well, so DC would've been open to that kind of experimentation?

GC: There was a sense, at that time, that they needed to shake things up.

It was right about that time that John Byrne was doing Superman [actually, that was two years later--Rascally Rob], new editors were being brought in, and regardless of what sales of the title was, they felt they needed a change.

The book had been doing very well. The sales took a hit when we did JLA Detroit, but before that I don't think they had been doing particularly badly. I think it had been doing fine.

But there was this sense that it needed sort of a revamp--and I didn't necessarily disagree, one way or the other, but I saw an opportunity to do something new for me--by that point I had been writing the book nearly ten years--but here was an opportunity to bring in some new characters, and it seemed like it might work.

And we had a new artist, Chuck Patton, and we had a new editor, and sense of, let's try something a little different.

It didn't work, and I think part of the reason it didn't work was the choice of characters, part of the reason it didn't work because of the collaboration between Chuck and myself was okay, but it never really sparked, it was a combination of things.

After five or six months, I'm not sure how long it lasted, but I was starting to campaign to change it back--"You know, this was an interesting experiment, but I don't think it's working. Let's go back to the formula that had worked and find some way to revamp it."

But by that point, they felt the problem wasn't with the book, it was with me. That was the problem, so they decided just to replace me.

JLA Satellite: I was going to ask you about that--you were gone in the middle of a storyline. All of a sudden, someone else was writing the book. There was no discussion of it on the letters page, and I remember thinking, what the hell's going on here?

GC: These things happen. I was burning out, as a writer. I had a lot of resentment over the way I was being treated at DC, by some of the people there. I felt I had been scapegoated for policy changes that hadn't anything to do with me.

I had been hired to put out a lot of writing--you know, that was what they wanted when they brought me on. And then I became criticized for...putting out a lot of writing.

JLA Satellite: [laughs]

GC: No one said, hey, we'd like you to cut back a bit and focus on a handful of titles, and we'll work with you on that. They decided I couldn't do it; I was old news and they didn't want to hear it.

They pushed me out; first they fired me off the editorship of [Fury of] Firestorm, then I was pushed off that book, which I had created, and then they took me off JLA, a book I'd been writing for ten years.

Then they basically started cutting my assignments without replacing the work that they had guaranteed me, and that they were paying me for. And then they wanted me to give money back!

At the end of the year, they had guaranteed me X number of pages, writing during the course of the year, and paid me for that, and then when they hadn't given me the assignments to do it, they said I had failed to deliver.

It became really rancorous, it was really bad--

JLA Satellite: Hard to believe you left to work in Television instead.

GC: Yeah, certainly, you get treated just as badly, but...

JLA Satellite:'re paid a lot more.

GC: I did go back and write for Marvel; they thought I was doing a pretty good job.

And you know, all the people that were involved with that are no longer with the company. Today, I don't have any resentment over it because its, what, twenty-five years ago? And I certainly had my share of the blame.

JLA Satellite: I specifically wanted to ask about Aquaman, because this [JLA Detroit] was a big moment in the character's history. Here was a character not in the book that much, and here he is taking the reins and taking charge.

When you were scoping out the plans for changing the book, was Aquaman someone you wanted to write more of, and this was the way to do it, or was it more of, "Hey, I have this idea to rejigger the team, and this character, because he's not appearing anywhere else right now, would be the most logical candidate"?

GC: Yeah, it was that.

The goal was to have a group of characters who could relate to each other, specifically in this title, and we could do continuity within this title. That's why I started focusing on Red Tornado, say, and Zatanna, for story lines before this because they didn't have series anywhere else. And it made it easier to develop personal conflicts and personal storylines.
It was hard to get conflict between Superman and Batman if they don't have that conflict outside the book.

JLA Satellite: Looking back over your run, I was reminded how much of Red Tornado's story you built up in JLA--you developed his relationship with Kathy, you introduced the orphan girl, his adopted daughter Traya; a lot of the stuff that people would use when they were writing Red Tornado. So I wondered if you were looking to do that for Aquaman.

GC: I really like Aquaman, I really loved the Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo run in the 60s. I thought what they were doing was just awesome.

So I thought he had a lot of potential, it's just at that time--it really makes no sense for an ocean-based character to lead a team that's based on a lake.

JLA Satellite: [laughs]

GC: You know, if you think about it, it's really dumb, but hey! It seemed like a good idea at the time.

If I had to do over again, and I thought about it the way people think about it today, I would've picked a character like Martian Manhunter, but he wasn't as interesting a character as he would become later on.

JLA Satellite: You did that two or three-parter, where Aquaman goes to look for Mera [JLA #'s 241-243], and he quits! He finally says, you know, I need to be with my wife and I'm gonna leave.

That was very abrupt, because he sort of burnt a lot of bridges with this group, saying "You need to have commitment, commitment", dragged them all the way out to Detroit, and then goes "Naah, I'm gonna leave."
I look back on that and realize that was probably wasn't necessarily something that was your idea, because they had the [1986 Aquaman] mini-series...

GC: At that point, I was being told what to do. My autonomy on the book--whenever I had any--probably ended around the time I left the book that first time, and after that I was basically trying to manage my way within the DC system.

I don't think [Aquaman leaving] would've been my goal, leaving a group he had brought together.

JLA Satellite: [laughs] Yeah, I have to say, when I read those issues, I was fourteen or fifteen, I was really mad--"Gerry, you've made Aquaman a big jerk!"

But they had that Neal Pozner mini-series that I really loved, just a few months later, and I eventually I figured, oh, okay, this was probably some edict from DC, saying, we gotta get him out of this book.

When you're a kid, you tend to think the writer and artist are running everything, you think everyone is Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, totally running the show. Later on, you go, ok, I see what's going on.

GC: Nowadays they coordinate things a lot more, and I think it works a lot better. But back then you had a very weak management team at the top of things, and you had editors that have never done this kind of work before.

JLA Satellite: I have one other nerdly question, and then I'm done with these sorts of questions--when you were coming up with the idea for JLA Detroit, a lot of the characters that bailed out were not appearing anywhere else--Green Arrow, Black Canary, the Hawks, was that your choice not to include them, or was it...
GC: No, that was my choice, in one sense, I wanted to include new characters. The reason being, the template I wanted to use was the transition from the old Avengers to the new Avengers, around issue #20, where you had this group made up of the permanent Marvel superstars, it then transitioned to this group of new characters who were going to be led by one familiar figure.

JLA Satellite: Right, Captain America.

GC: I remember that's when the book became interesting to me. It allowed the title to be whole.
If I had used more characters from the general DC universe, they would've come in with their own baggage, their own personalities, and at that point I just wanted to write something that was essentially a new book.

That was the plan, but it never coalesced.

JLA Satellite: Wow, I've waited all these years to learn these things!

GC: [laughs]

JLA Satellite: Looking back...when I talked to Steve Englehart, he was really happy to talk about his year on the JLA. Because most of the time when he's interviewed, he's asked about his Batman stuff with Marshall Rogers or his Marvel work, but he was very proud of his JLA work, and he didn't get asked about it much.

Do you look back at your JLA run, and say "That was some of my best stuff"?

GC: There were a handful of titles I was really connected to as a writer and a fan, of course one being [The Amazing] Spider-Man, another was Firestorm, because I had created him and felt paternal about it, and JLA, because it was one of the first books I can remember being a fan of.

I can still remember the first three or four I bought off the newsstand, one with Kanjar Ro, or maybe even Despero, it was really early. And so I was always a fan of the book even though I lost track of it a bit when I became a Marvel fan.

I felt, you know, a personal commitment to it, and I really enjoyed writing the stories. I really enjoyed the "here's the group, let's split up into smaller teams" stories, I enjoyed coming up with the Crisis each year, trying to top the previous year. The more complicated...

JLA Satellite: Poor Dick Dillin!

GC: Yeah..."What can we do now?". That was a lot of fun for me...once I found a way to hook into individual characters and develop stories for them, like The Red Tornado, then it really felt like a personal book.

Plus it was an ego trip...after a certain point you realize, "Wow, I've been doing this longer than anybody...this is cool! I want to see if I can break some records..." So there was a certain amount of fun doing that.

JLA Satellite: Are there particular ones you look back on and think "Those were the best ones I did"?

GC: Yeah, I think most of those would be the "Crisis" stories I did, I'm particularly fond of the crossover with the western characters [JLA #'s 198-199] because that to me was fun...doing Jonah Hex [laughs] was strange doing that.
I liked the Red Tornado story lines...I don't remember specific issues, I remember story lines, arcs. It was fun.

JLA Satellite: Yeah. I've mentioned here before, and on your blog, that--and I am barely kidding when I say--that I think that JLA #200 is the single greatest piece of literature ever produced by Western Civilization.
GC: [laughs] Oh, wow. How old were you when that book came along?

JLA Satellite: Let's see...1981, so I would've been ten years old.

GC: I figured it would've been around that time.

JLA Satellite: This probably won't make the interview, but I have to mention this--years ago, I had a girlfriend who also read comics.

Now that's rare enough, but she didn't like superhero comics. I guess if you don't first find them as a kid, they don't resonate with you, so she couldn't understand why I liked them so much.

So one day we decide to exchange comics we each liked, and she asked me for one comic that summed up what I liked about superhero comics. So I bought her a copy of JLA #200.

GC: Wow.

JLA Satellite: So anyway, I give it to her, its in a bag and board, and she puts it off to the side.

She lived in another part of the country, so we only saw each other every few months. I go back, a month or two later, and there's the book, in the same spot it was when I left, completely untouched.

And I thought to myself "This relationship's doomed! She can't find the time to read one measly 72-page superhero comic!"

And you know what? I was right! We eventually broke up.

GC: [big laughs].

JLA Satellite: I thought "How can you not read this?" Its so much fun, it moves so fast, the artwork is so nice..."

Really, I'm like, "If Gerry Conway only wrote one comic book in his life, this would be enough." This thing was the most tremendous comic ever.

GC: [laughs]

JLA Satellite: I'm going to leave it at that. I cannot express how much it means to me to get to talk to you. I appreciate all the work you did, its so beloved to me, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me for the blog.

GC: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for remembering.

I can safely say there probably wouldn't be a JLA Satellite blog without Gerry Conway. His run on JLA gripped my then-seven-year-old imagination, introducing me me to a world of heroism and camaraderie that has stuck with me, all these years later. This blog is in part a tribute to how much I loved those books, and Gerry Conway was the creative drive behind most of them. Thanks--for everything--Gerry!

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