If you don’t know the name Gerry Conway, you don’t know Bronze Age comics. Conway is the creator of such classic characters as Power Girl, the Punisher, and Firestorm, among many, many others, and was one of the stalwarts of Marvel and DC’s lines in the 1970s and ‘80s before moving to a career in film and TV writing. This interview focuses mainly on Conway’s work for Marvel and DC in the 1970s, as it was conducted for a separate project that I’m working on.
But this interview was too great not to publish here. First, because Conway was a tremendously gracious, interesting, and enjoyable subject. And second because we had a special guest star in our interview – a wonderful creator who wandered over while Conway, Zack Davisson, and I were chatting at Gerry’s table at the Emerald City Comicon. No spoilers, though, unless you skip ahead. But this was definitely one of the coolest convention moments I’ve ever had!
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Tell me about the genesis of the Punisher.
Gerry Conway: The Punisher was originally created to be a secondary villain to a character called the Jackal. It was my intention for the Jackal to be the primary villain. I needed a character to be the introduction to the Jackal. It was going to be kind of a throw-away, one-shot character.
At that time there was a fairly popular movement towards vigilantes in fiction. You had Dirty Harry. Death Wish had come out as a book I think. There was a series of novels called The Executioner. The notion of the lone vigilante doing things that society couldn’t do was kind of in the air. So I wanted to use that as a kind of framework for this character who I honestly thought was going to be a one-shot.
As we got through the stages of designing a costume, naming the character and the actual writing of the story, I found that this guy had kind of an interesting point of view. He’s not the typical Marvel character. He’s a bad guy who’s also working from what he considers to be good reasons. He’s primarily going after bad guys, so he’s not like Doctor Doom, where while he thinks he has good reasons he obviously doesn’t.
This could be a guy who was kind of self-deluded in his own way. I found that fascinating. In the process of writing that book, I thought, “Well, maybe he’ll bring him back.”
CB: It struck me at the end of the first appearance of him that the Punisher walked away from the Jackal basically saying “You’re on the wrong side of the law. I’m fighting for justice.” And that’s the moment, for me, where the character really clicked in as being just this one dimensional bad guy.
Conway: He’s not a hired gun. He has a moral compass. It’s kind of strangely pointed, but it’s a moral compass. And the Jackal misuses him, gives him misinformation, but once he’s aware of what it is, where things are, he’s not going to be used.
CB: You brought the Punisher back very quickly, six months later.
Conway: As I say, we kind of knew we had something.
CB: Were you reading the fan letters? Where you getting a lot of mail about him or was it more just your instincts?
Conway: More like my instincts. To be honest I never really followed fan desires. Partly it was because —
CB: After the Gwen Stacy story I’m sure.
Conway: Also as a fan myself, I knew that my opinions were just as valid as anybody else’s, so it wasn’t like it was coming from a point of view of not knowing what I want it to be. So I was like Bob Haney trying to figure it out. I actually was twenty-one years old, so I figured if I liked it, it’s probably good.
CB: It’s pretty remarkable being in the industry in that age, especially at that time period; that’s an incredible amount of freedom for someone your age.
OK, let’s move on to Power Girl; not the obvious question about the costume, but why did you create her? Was she specifically meant to be a commentary, in some way, about women’s liberation?
Conway: Well in part. I was doing a new series, All-Star Comics Starring the Super Squad, and I wanted a couple of younger characters. Specifically I wanted a strong female character. I felt like too many of the female characters in comics at that time — this was kind of before Jean Grey became Jean Grey and I felt like the women were just kind of secondary figures, so I wanted a fairly strong female lead. I’d always been a fan of Supergirl and I thought, “Here’s an opportunity — because it was taking place on Earth-2 — to create a version of Supergirl that doesn’t impinge on the Linda Lee version.”
CB: So she was intentionally created to be different from Supergirl in that way.
Conway: Absolutely. My goal was to make her very independent, to make her as – It’s a cliché to say women’s lib, but we were trying to be conscious of women as powerful beings.
CB: She was definitely a powerful character as a personality. Yeah.
Conway: Absolutely. She was a take no prisoners, take no shit kind of character.
[Editor’s note: at this point, some fans came up with a stack of comics to be signed]
CB: I’m curious, do you remember every comic you’ve ever written? I see people put them out in front of you. Do you ever check and say, “Did I write that one?” or do you just sign what’s put in front of you?
Conway: Occasionally I’ll go, “Whoa, I don’t think I did that.” Then I look and say, “Hey, I did.” I wrote over a thousand comics.
CB: That’s what I thought. You just sign them so confidently I’m like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” Ok, next question. The DC Implosion; were you surprised by it? What was your reaction?
Conway: I was terribly surprised. Well, I actually had two more characters in the pipeline.
CB: There was a Western book, if I remember right?
Conway: I think it was a Western. Also there was Vixen, who I ended up using in Justice League. So I was very disappointed. I was very disappointed about Firestorm being cancelled and immediately started campaigning for ways to bring him back.
[Editor’s note: at this point in the conversation, Kelly-Sue DeConnick came up to Mr Conway’s table, gleefully asking him to sign a copy of Ms Marvel #1, which Conway wrote in 1976. DeConnick, of course, is writing Captain Marvel these days, a continuation of the character that Conway created. I turned off the recorder for a moment when the conversation started, but this was too good of a chat to leave it off for long.]
Kelly-Sue DeConnick: You did a great job [with Ms Marvel #1] and I love that you credited your wife as we
Conway: She was instrumental in helping out. She had a lot of good ideas.
DeConnick: My husband is also a comic book writer [DeConnick is married to Matt Fraction] so it’s nice that…
Conway: So you’re competing at Marvel.
DeConnick: Yes, he writes Hawkeye and FF and Fantastic Four, so we’re a super, super nerdy family.
Conway: Do you like working in Marvel?
DeConnick: I do. I do. I do. We’ve had a really good time…[But] I don’t think anybody gets to stay there forever.
Conway: You have your moment.
DeConnick: Yes, we have to plan for it.
CB: Your book is getting a good response.
DeConnick: You know, my book is getting very good reviews and we have really active, very engaged fan base, but our numbers are not what I would like them to be.
Conway: Are anyone’s numbers what they would like in the modern market?
CB: The Captain Marvel book was kind of interesting. One of our writers wrote a piece recently about the art in that book on how it’s a little bit controversial. A lot of fans don’t know how to react to it.
DeConnick: The new artist, Filipe Andrade, it’s cartooning; it’s fantastic cartooning. I love it. It looks to me like Ernie Barnes went to Europe for a year and came back to draw Saturday morning cartoons. It’s these crazy, really elastic bodies and if you don’t dig that, you really don’t dig that.
Conway: I think the problem with the major companies is you don’t have room for the kind of odd look. We had the odd look back in the day because we don’t have enough talented artists.
DeConnick: I think if all of our books were photorealistic I would be bored to tears. …So we’ve had a lot of different artists.
Conway: You know what might be cool someday is to try to come up with a way to get two artists working on the same book but one in charge of the main book and the other one is in charge of a different section of the book.
DeConnick: That would be fantastic. I’d love that.
CB: Mike Mignola did that in a BPRD book in a similar way where they went to Fairyland in his book and one artist did the real world and one artist did Fairyland. And with Dave Stewart doing the colouring it was an almost seamless transition between the two artists. It worked really well actually.
Conway: It would be a nice way to make that great.
DeConnick: Yeah, and with the scheduling the way it works these days too, with so much double shipping. That’s a lot of the reason – a lot of the complaints we get are that there was a change at all. It’s like, well, people can’t draw two issues in a month.
Conway: Comic book fans are amazingly conservative. They don’t want change. They demand change, but they don’t want change.
CB: You were one of the first to live through that though.
Conway: Oh, yeah.
DeConnick: There’s a Ben Saunders book that has a whole essay on your handling of the Gwen Stacy saga. [Do The Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes]
Conway: You know, he gave me a copy it.
DeConnick: I loved it. He’s great. Anyway, this has been a great pleasure for me, thank you sir.
Conway: Thank you for coming over. Don’t call me sir.
CB: Man, It’s those amazingly interesting little unplanned convention moments that can really make a convention. We’ll probably put it on our article for the website. Thank you.
OK, two more questions if that’s OK. When you went to DC the first time, you got Conway’s Corner. Was that planned to be a little sub-line of books at DC?
Conway: In effect it was because I knew, when I went over there, it was specifically because Carmine [Infantino] wanted me to bring some of the “Marvel Magic” over. Carmine and Stan [Lee] had this kind of rivalry going in the ’70s. Probably more so on Carmine’s side than Stan’s side, because Stan was kind of oblivious to most things that happened outside Stan. But Carmine was definitely very competitive and he wanted to sort of poke Stan in the eye from getting some of the quote top talent and I was one of the people that he got.
My goal was to try to basically change the culture at DC to be more like Marvel and I realized that in order to do that I had to have like my own little niche area, where people would have an excuse to not do things the way they were done at DC. In a way I was sort of influenced by Murray Boltinoff, because Murray Boltinoff, I don’t think intentionally had this separate universe, inside DC that I heard seemed not to interact at all with the rest of DC.
CB: Earth-H, I remember that.
Conway: So we tried to keep that in mind and when I did Conway’s Corner, it was to that goal.
CB: Did you feel strange at all about being singled out in the ads?
Conway: No, I loved being promoted. It was probably the most promotion I’ve ever received.
CB: It was kind of cool, yeah. When you look back on it, did that line live up to expectations? You end up going back to Marvel relatively quickly.
Conway: I went back to Marvel because Marvel offered me the dream job that I thought I wanted when I left. I wanted to be the editor-in-chief, and for a variety of good and bad and political reasons and other reasons, I was passed over for that. I was enough of a kid at that time to take my marbles and go home.
So my feelings were hurt. I acted out and I decided I was going to go off and show everybody. But then I was given the opportunity to get that job and again, not really thinking it through, not taking a longer term view of it, I went back and it was a bit of a disaster.
CB: How long did you actually have that job?
Conway: I stayed in that job for about five weeks. Five to six weeks. It was just not right.
CB: It was an impossible job at the time.
Conway: I think it would be impossible for anybody who has any needs for approval from other people. It’s like, to the extent that you wanted people to like you, that was not a job that you were going to be comfortable with. [Jim] Shooter, to his credit, didn’t care if people liked him or not, so he was able to take charge in a way that none of us were able to, at the time.
CB: Yeah, that’s one of the unambiguous good things about Shooter. The line actually got organized, for better or for worse.
Conway: Yeah, you could say what you will about his aesthetic choices, but from a professional point of view, he did what had to be done. And I didn’t have that kind of chutzpah or professionalism.
CB: At that age? Yeah, who really does?
Conway: I was twenty two, twenty three years old.
CB: Last one. How did you end up writing the first issue of Tomb of Dracula and
then moving off it very quickly?
Conway: I was the go-to guy at Marvel for the books that Roy came up with and just didn’t want to write himself, but we always kind of knew that I wasn’t the guy that was going to stay on them. So every time he came up with a new idea he would sort of talk it over with me, or with his wife, or with an artist, and kind of semi-plot it.
I would then write the script for it. This happened with “Man-Thing,” it happened with Tomb of Dracula, it happened with Werewolf by Night, it happened with “Killraven”. If you go through, in the early ’70s there were a bunch of books that were created doing the Marvel expansion that I had a hand in and then passed them on to the next person. “The Beast” is another.
CB: Do you ever wish you had some of the royalties from some of those characters that you helped create?
Conway: I wish I had some of the royalties from any of the characters I did at Marvel. I got nothing.
CB: It’s just such a tough time. You said yesterday in your Spotlight panel that you really thought the industry was going to die. Everyone did.
Conway: Yeah, we did.
CB: Are you surprised that we now have 60,000 people at a convention in Seattle?
Conway: Part of is that this is no longer comic book convention. It’s a pop-culture convention. I look around and I see all these people in cosplay costumes and I really, honestly, completely bewildered by what motivates them beyond a certain point.
I mean, there are obviously people who really love this because they love the characters. But then there are people who are just doing this because they want to dress up in these costumes. I don’t understand it at all. I don’t know. It’s my age.
CB: Does it ever make you feel a little strange that people walk by as one of your characters, who then doesn’t come up and say hello to you?
Conway: I’m really offended when all those really, really beautiful girls dressed as Power Girl who don’t ask me to sign them. I just want to sign them.
CB: Because I always think that it’s interesting that you have people, who can absolutely walk by and they have no idea that the person that made that character is sitting right here. And it’s not like you can put up a sign, “creator of Power Girl, creator of Punisher.”
Conway: I mean for them, it’s kind of like steampunk which I also get and love, but none of these folks actually have probably read the original material that this stuff comes from.
CB: They probably have more investment in the look.
Conway: It’s the look, it’s the idea of dressing up, and it’s like tattoos which are sort of a way of establishing yourself and creating your own identity. So it’s all cool.
CB: Yeah, that’s a good attitude towards it.
Conway: Yeah, I can appreciate that. It’s like rock music, you know? Comics and rock have a lot in common. They’re both expressions of alienation and at the same time it’s about demanding attention and becoming part of the mainstream.
CB: And when that happens, you kind of lose your piece in it. It’s like you made it, but now they own it and you don’t anymore.
Conway: You turn into Kurt Cobain and you’ve got this weird moment where you can go different ways.
CB: For a short time you were on top of the zeitgeist, but you have to let the zeitgeist move on because at some point — I heard you have kids, I have kids as well — they have to have their generation of stuff.
Conway: Absolutely, I have a 17-year-old daughter who doesn’t read. How is it, I’m a writer, I have a daughter and she doesn’t read. Well, none of her friends read and she goes to a very, very high level school.
It’s not like they can’t read, it’s not what they do. She has other interests, she has other things. A lot of these modern comics today were also kind of post-literate in a sense. It’s again, like a rock thing. It’s just the culture.
CB: Well, thank you. This was… spectacular.