There is no star rising faster in comics today than writer Tom King. With the successful conclusion of Grayson and The Omega Men, the critical acclaim of The Vision and Sheriff of Baghdad, and the launch of a new Batman series, King has established himself as a household name for comics fans. His stories are diverse, thoughtfully planned, and brilliantly executed.
Comics Bulletin writer and critic Chase Magnett sat down with King for a conversation that mostly steered away from the standard topics of conversation. Batman is mentioned, but so are King’s short story Black Death in America (now available for free here, here, and here), famous directors of classic Westerns, and life growing up in the Midwest. King tells it how it is, and here he shares a lot of wisdom and some fun bits about American comics.
Chase Magnett: You were just nominated for your first Eisner for the short comic Black Death in America with artist John Paul Leon. That’s very exciting and the story is out there for anyone who wants to read it now for free.
King: I wrote this story and I didn’t think anyone would ever read it. It was one of those things where after it came out, I searched for it on Twitter and I couldn’t find anyone who had ever seen it. I was really surprised at the Eisner nomination.
I am so proud it. It is a nonfiction story that uses all of these comic book tricks to tell a story. I just didn’t think it would ever get out, and then it got Eisner-nominated. DC was very kind to release it for free on Comixology and on their website. It is on my Facebook page and my Twitter page. So now because of that Eisner nomination, people are seeing this story. It is the story of an American hero named Henry Johnson and what he did. So I am really proud of that.
Magnett: That was part of the CMYK anthology at Vertigo.
King: Yeah, it is about a guy (I don’t want to spoil it all) in World War I. He basically faced twenty Germans by himself, at first with his gun until his gun jammed. Then he drew his sword and charged them. He was a black soldier working under French forces. He was one of the big heroes of the war. His nickname was Black Death. That is his actual, real nickname.
Then when he came back to the States as a black man in 1919. There were riots. He came back to his own living hell. So it is about both of those things and how they can exist in one man; how you can both be the hero of the U.S. and have to live a nightmare in the U.S. So it is called Black Death in America and it is about his story of coming home.
Magnett: How did you first discover that story?
King: There was a column that Henry Lewis Gates wrote that I used to read about great African American lives. He was one of the stories. That is how I found him.
Magnett: It is just one of those things that stuck with you over a long period of time?
King: Dude, we are comic book fans! If you think about a guy on a hill and twenty Germans coming in – and the name Black Death – that sticks out.
Magnett: I’m sure you’re answering a lot of questions about Batman right now.
Magnett: That’s why I’m not going to ask you about Batman. Right now you are tackling a lot with a brand new Batman series, finishing Vision and Sheriff of Baghdad, and you just finished Omega Man, You are doing a ton of work.
King: Too much work.
Magnett: So what are you consuming right now? Do you have time with kids to consume anything?
King: I have three kids. I watch a lot of Phineas and Ferb. In fact I just pitched something based on a Phineas and Ferb episode. It’s like, “Man, that’s a great story. Someone should totally use that!” So don’t think I am not influenced by my children. I watch a lot of the premium TV that everyone else watches. I watch Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley. My two favorite shows from last year were Fargo and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which seem like the furthest of extremes, but I love both of those shows.
Magnett: They are both really well executed shows.
King: They have a vision. Neither of them are what you expect them to be. Every episode you are like, “This is not what I expected,” and yet it all fits within the tone of the show.
Magnett: I’m from the Midwest and Fargo is the most Midwestern show I have ever encountered.
King: I married a Midwesterner. If I had to recommend one thing for writers of comic books, marry a Midwesterner as nice as my wife because that will get you in.
Magnett: Is that why you were in Nebraska recently?
King: No, my family is from Nebraska. My grandmother who helped raise me passed away. She’s from rural Nebraska, grew up on a ranch out there. She was born and raised on a ranch. So we went out to pay our respects and bury her.
Magnett: I am sorry to hear that.
King: Thanks. It was a good celebration. She lived until she was 92 and died happily in her own bed. If you are playing the game, that’s how you win it.
Magnett: That’s is a surprisingly common tale out there. My Grandma Mildred was mowing her lawn and cooking bacon every week until she was 89.
King: Yeah. It is that bacon fat, man. You’ve got to do it.
Magnett: It’s the greasiest and best food I ever ate.
Magnett: So have you found that the more you write you consume other media to escape or to seek inspiration? Do you approach other’s work in a different way now?
King: I read a lot of comics; I am still a comic nerd. When I interned at DC and Marvel, I read every issue that came out. It was for my job. I started to see through the matrix and started to see comics. I was really afraid and I really did not want to read any more comics because I just saw that there is a sort of formula to them. I started to see that formula. So I thought that would happen.
When I see comics now, I see the personalities now that I kind of know everybody. There’s less than fifty professional comic book writers, or something like that. It is significantly less than there are professional football players, so you eventually know all of them. You are afraid you are only going to see the personalities, but that didn’t happen. There is some miracle to it that I still get sucked into a comic book.
When Cap said, “Hail, Hydra,” I gasped along with everyone else. I read a lot of Marvel. I read a lot of DC. I read a significant amount of Image. So I am still a comic book nerd, first and foremost. If I am just going to relax and have my own time, I am either going to read a comic or I watch a lot of old movies.
Magnett: What kind of movies?
King: I am big John Ford and Howard Hawks fan, George Stevens too. I like the old school movie guys.
Magnett: Mentioning those three directors, is there a point where you said, “I need to do a western”?
King: I feel like everything I write is a western. I did a whole issue of Grayson where they walk across the desert, which is from an old John Ford movie, Three Godfathers. I steal liberally from those old movies.
Magnett: I think it shows a lot in Sheriff, too.
King: The voice of The Vision, which people are very kind and give me a lot of credit for, is a combination of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (I stole a lot from him) and also The Magnificent Ambersons from Orson Welles. The opening scene has this amazing narration. I went right to that for The Vision because it is a suburban drama. I steal from the old movies all of the time and you can see the direct results.
Magnett: You mentioned the idea that at a certain point you look at superhero comics and start to see a formula, but then as you keep going you start to see through it. Do you think it comes from a change of perspective where things that may have seemed old to you take on a new life?
King: I think the formula has changed. What I am talking about are the nineties and two thousands. There really was a formula to write a Marvel comic book back then. You needed a fight in the first five pages. And then inevitably that fight turned out to be a flashback. You had three pages of explanations of what that fight was. Then you had another seven pages of fight and then you had two pages of explanation. A lot of people were using the Paul Levitz or Chris Claremont plot device then, which is that the ABC… Do you know what I am talking about? Or do you think I am crazy?
Magnett: I can’t say I’m familiar.
King: Denny O’Neil has a copy of it in his book. The idea is you have an A plot and a B plot and a C plot. Your A plot is your main plot, your B plot is your subplot, and so on… Your A plot gets fifteen pages. Your B plot gets five pages. Your C plot gets two. And then slowly one fades into another. Your B becomes your A and the A goes away. Everybody was using that method.
Magnett: It reminds me of Claremont, but Claremont would go from A to G.
King: Claremont is an A through a Z. I interned for Claremont, but I think of it as Paul Levitz and Claremont because Levitz actually charted it out on paper.
It is a good question. People use formulas less now. There is a lot more experimentation today. Although when you start to see some repetition, you get a little annoyed by it, especially if you see people using the same devices.
Magnett: Do you think that kind of thing lights a fire under your ass though? You are aware that formulas develop even if they are unintentional, so do you look at your own work and review it for that?
King: Constantly. And I feel like I fail at that, too, a lot. I am starting to look at Sheriff, Vision, and Omega Men as a trilogy. I don’t know what to call it. The readers should write in; tell me what to call it. It should be something like the Innocence Trilogy.
They are three different books in three different genres for three different companies, but they all contain basically the same plot. I feel bad about that. I didn’t intend it to be that way. They are all about some innocent person who is trying to do one good thing at the very beginning and then it all goes horribly wrong. So clearly that plot line must be in my subconscious somewhere.
Magnett: Is that something where you are start to psychoanalyze yourself?
King: Yeah! I think writing is a form of psychoanalysis. When you write, you are trying to get to something that you can’t say out loud. That’s why you write fiction, right? You are trying to do two things. Number one, you are trying to thrill your audience and entertain them. That’s the number one thing. And number two, you are trying to get at what is in you. You’re trying to draw on stuff that you can’t quite talk about in yourself. So when it comes out on the page, you are like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was in me.” If it is working, that is the way it should be.
Magnett: That’s an interesting things about comics. When you are looking at a director’s oeuvre, you have to move through it and slowly over years you start to see what it is that fascinates them. But with comics, you can have somebody writing three things at the same time, then pick them all up in one month and say, “Oh, that’s it. This is their thing.”
King: That is exactly right. I am aware of that and I want to break from that. And I try to. I was obsessed when I first came into comics with doing no captions. I was like, “I am not doing any captions.” I come from novels and captions always feel like telling instead of showing. So when it came to Vision, I said, “Okay, I am going to go heavy with the captions,” just because I wanted to break the pattern. That’s how the Vision captions started. Whatever pattern you are on, try to break it; Alan Moore said that. I stole that from him. I steal things from lots of people.
Magnett: I think art can be seen as a continuous history of stealing dating back to cave drawings. Everything is inspired by something. But that shows no tool is inherently bad, it’s a matter of how you use it. Captions for so long just told you what is happening in a story, like you said. But in The Vision, it becomes clear as you read that it’s part of a grander cycle and narrative. Part of stealing is the challenge of finding new ways to use old tools.
King: I think that’s true. I mean, you read The Aeneid and it is just Virgil stuffing together The Odyssey and The Iliad and writing it in Latin instead of Greek. This is what artists have done since the beginning of time.
Magnett: Then Shanower’s Age of Bronze is just telling the same stories, but with an entire new, beautiful spin on it.
King: That’s true.
Magnett: You mentioned these comics is as being trilogy, something you are trying to move past and find different things.
King: Is that possible? That seems like a thing. It seems like it could be a trilogy.
Magnett: The way you described it, it makes sense as a thematic trilogy.
King: I feel they talk to each other in weird ways. There is a cat scene that happens in Vision and there is a cat scene that happens in Sheriff. There is a repetition of a line about something being beautiful. I repeat myself unconsciously and on purpose sometimes. They do at least cross some words. They all have the important number thirty-seven buried in them.
Magnett: When you are writing a comic, do you want to make sure it should be read more than once. It’s something I picked up on reading the Future’s End special of Grayson. It’s a comic you have to read twice and it works both times, which adds some value to it.
King: I have said this before, but a comic is very expensive for the amount of time it takes to read. When a Netflix subscription costs you $15 and you get an infinite amount of entertainment, whereas $15 of comics is five comics. That is an hour’s worth of entertainment. For people who read a comic you create, your responsibility is to give them something that goes beyond that fifteen dollars.
And not just to think about, but to go on the Internet and complain about and interact with your friends and be part of the community, to interact with me and to tweet me of Facebook me about it. Comics have evolved into a weird medium. Ten percent of being a comic fan is about reading the books; the other ninety percent is about interacting with this community and with the creators. It is what makes it so cool and so reactive to the audience.
When you write a book, if someone reads it and says, “Okay, I am done,” then it is not worth their four dollars. You have to give them something extra. I know there is a theory like, “Oh, I am going to write something so complicated that someone has to read it twice.” That just seems arrogant to do shit like that. I like that there is deeper stuff in it, but life is so fucking hard.
Sorry, I swear a lot.
Magnett: Doesn’t bother me at all. I work construction.
King: I was in the CIA and we swore a lot.
If you can give a guy a comic book and take him away from that hardness for a little while, it is not worth it for me to have him read it and go, “I don’t know what the hell this is and I’ve got to read it three more times to figure it out.”
Magnett: Yeah. James Joyce is James Joyce, but you shouldn’t necessarily aspire to that.
King: That’s right. I tried reading Finnegan’s Wake and banged my head. What’s the point? It is a code for something that the author wants to say. I am not writing code; I am writing stories.
Magnett: I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of having to read a comic twice in order to understand it, but that if you read it again, you will be rewarded.
King: When I was a kid, every winter I would crawl on my top bunk. I didn’t know creators back then, but I would bring three books with me. I would bring Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, and a volume of Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and I would read them every single year. They were rewarding every year and I saw new stuff in them. I hope people do that with my comics. Although reading Watchmen when you are a kid over and over, that can’t be healthy.
Magnett: I started when I was thirteen. I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing.
King: It blows your mind.
King: It blows your mind.
Magnett: Looking ahead, you are wrapping up a lot of series and comics readers are really starting to recognize the name Tom King. Beyond trying to move forward thematically, what goals do you have for yourself?
King: I feel my goal is that if I can complete this trilogy – I did one of them; Omega Men landed and I felt it landed well – if I can land the other two and have three twelve issue books in one year, I think that would be pretty good. I would be happy with that.
And Batman is my chance to do the other side of that and write entertainment, write the fucking end of Die Hard when he says, “Yippeee ki yay, motherfucker!” Write the moment you’ve just got to get up and shout for. That is what Batman is a chance to do.
Magnett: Batman does feel like a major tangent, in that it is hard to call Omega Men or any of your other work to date superhero comics. Like you said, they’re more like Westerns. Batman I think at its core will always be a superhero genre comic most of the time, and that’s is a new thing for you.
King: I think Grayson was a superhero comic. It pretended it was a spy comic, but it was a superhero-spy comic. I think the big difference to me between Batman and those three books is the hero. I am spoiling this, but he is going to win.
I am not going to say he is not going to die, but he is going to win. And none of those books have heroes at their center who are going to win at the end. I think that is important to Batman.
When I write, I keep in mind that I want to write for two audiences at the same time. I want to write for the twelve year old boy who picks this up and has never picked up a comic book, because I was that twelve year old boy. I was picked on by bullies my whole life when I was a little kid. But I remember reading superhero comics and seeing the good guys win and that just being real important to me as a kid. I want to make sure that comes across in Batman. He is the hero.
I don’t want to write a book that is about Batman being an anti-hero and being crazy; I want to write a book about Batman. He has his flaws and he has his obsessions, but his flaws and obsessions are what drive him to be the man who when he gets knocked down, punches back. I want to write that.