I once read a piece about how Marv Wolfman was a little stymied at a panel, pausing to explain that he’s a writer, not a talker, but I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to writers who are great talkers and one of the more enjoyable conversations I enjoyed was with prolific writer, editor and all-around good guy,Gerry Conway.
Bryan Stroud: From my little bits of research I gather you grew up in the city?
Gerry Conway: I did. If by the city, of course, you mean New York City, because there is no other.
Stroud: (chuckle) Exactly. I take it you were probably a comic book fan as a boy?
Conway: Oh, sure. That was my primary interest as a kid growing up. That and movies and science fiction.
Stroud: You’ve pulled a hat trick then as far as eventually working in all those genres.
Conway: Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had that opportunity. It’s rare that you get to fulfill almost all your childhood dreams.
Stroud: How exactly did you get your start, Gerry?
Conway: As a kid in my early teens I was going into Manhattan to visit the different comic book companies. I’d been a reader of comics and a fan and I wanted to write them…or draw them. I think my first preference was to draw, but I didn’t actually have any artistic talent, so that was a bit of a problem. DC comics used to have a weekly tour that they gave of their offices during the summers. This was the mid-’60s, and one particular summer I started going almost every week and I discovered that after you got in through the front door with the tour group you pretty much were free to sort of slip off and knock on different editor’s doors and talk to them and ask them if they wanted certain stories and that sort of thing so I ended up doing that and met a number of different editors. I often volunteered myself to be a summer intern for a couple of weeks and came up there and worked in the production department which also gave me the opportunity to meet people.
Amazingly, to me, looking back on it, I was an extremely forward and aggressively self-confident teenager in that I would do this. I ended up being known well enough by the different editors that they would take my calls and listen to my story pitches. I finally got to the point where an editor named George Kashdan, who was the editor on Hawkman after Julie Schwartz gave it up, was taking some story ideas that I had and was actually at the point, I believe, of buying one of them when they went through a major change in editorial staff and Dick Giordano came in and replaced him and Joe Orlando came in and Carmine Infantino became the publisher and so on. At that point, Dick Giordano became my mentor. He gave me a lot of input. He was very kind and open to giving me direction and after about a year or so of attempting to break through I finally sold my first story. Not to Dick, but to Murray Boltinoff who shared an office with him and was under the impression that I was already writing for Dick. So my first story was basically a sale by mistake because Murray would never actually have bought a first story from someone.
Conway: From there, as they say, the rest is history. I wrote a number of stories for Dick Giordano, eventually became the main writer of what was known as the interstitial material on House of Secrets, writing all the little introductions between stories by the character Abel the caretaker and that led to other assignments and eventually to work at Marvel and so on.
Stroud: That’s quite a circuitous route.
Conway: Basically the way things worked back then is that you had to make a personal connection with the editors before they would even read what you were sending them. They would read your letters, but I don’t think they would really even take you seriously if they didn’t know you. And it’s amazing that they actually even let us in. (mutual laughter) Because these days these companies are such monoliths, the idea of just sort of wandering in and hanging out at Marvel or DC is pretty fantastic. It’s not something that they’re open to.
Stroud: It is a completely different world over the last few decades. They’re both corporate conglomerates, so I guess your story is probably one that will never be repeated.
Conway: I don’t think so. I mean, it was sort of a mom and pop setup in the sense that it was a very small group of people that were the gatekeepers. At DC I think there were six full-time editors and at Marvel there was basically Stan [Lee] and Roy Thomas and a rotating cast of proofreaders and editorial assistants. It was a small community, too. The entire comic book community in 1968 or ’69 might have amounted to 100 to 150 people total. Total. If that. You’re really talking about a very small pool of people who all basically knew each other. We all knew each other socially. Once you were in that group it was like a very friendly group. There was some competition, but it wasn’t as ruthlessly competitive as it is today I would think, just because it was a smaller group of people and you’d trade off with people. I used to, with Len Wein, for example, we were roommates at one point; and we would help each other out on stories. People still do that today, obviously, it’s not that people aren’t cooperative and helpful, but I think there was more a sense of camaraderie in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Stroud: More of a collegial atmosphere.
Conway: It was just a small group of people that were doing it. Everybody knew everybody. (Chuckle.) I’m really amazed when I think back on it.
Stroud: I believe it was Anthony Tollin that told me that at that time you could actually kind of afford to live in New York.
Conway: It was possible. New York was bottoming out at that point. By the mid-’70s it was at its worst as a city. The most unlivable that it could be. That was during the period when you had that famous Daily News headline: “President Ford to New York City: Drop Dead!” (Mutual laughter.) Which of course was a gross exaggeration, but a very cool headline. That was the time when you had The Son of Sam and riots and you had a really depressed real estate market.
Stroud: A perfect storm.
Conway: Yeah. It’s hard to believe now. I lived in New York and given that the worth of money was very different then than now, but in 1970-71 I was making about $25,000 to $30,000, which was a very substantial salary. My dad at that point was a blue collar, lower middle class kind of guy and he was making maybe $10,000 or $15,000. So I was doing way better than him and I was just out of high school. But my rent was maybe $500 or $600 a month and that was for seven- or eight-room apartment on the west side of Manhattan. The building I was in when we were leaving it in the mid-’70s was just about to go co-op and we could have bought our apartment for about $50,000 or $60,000. That apartment today in that neighborhood would be worth upwards of 2 or 3 million dollars.
Conway: That’s what the difference is in that environment compared to now. So, yeah, you could live in Manhattan. You could live in the city. You could work and earn a good living as a comic book writer and this was without royalties and without any ancillary money.
Stroud: Just on a page rate, then?
Conway: Yeah and the page rate was like $20 or $30 per page, so it wasn’t even that much. (chuckle.) My first comic book story, I got paid $10 a page and the rate really didn’t go above $20 for something like 6 or 7 years.
Stroud: It’s hard to imagine.
Conway: Well, it was a different age and a different time. Its decades ago. (Mutual laughter.) We are talking 40 years. That’s a lo-o-ong time. To put it in perspective, which I tend to try to do for myself, 40 years before 1969 was 1929. (Laughter.)
Stroud: That does do it.
Conway: Doesn’t it? Imagine people in 1969 talking about 1929: “Yeah, back before the crash, before the Great Depression…”
Stroud: That is indeed a generation. You seemed to come in at a time when there was almost an unofficial changing of the guard. Were you aware of any of that at the time?
Conway: I think we were. We certainly were aware that a lot of the people that were ubiquitous icons in the industry were vanishing around us. I came in and Gardner Fox and John Broome and Bob Haney were all being pushed out and I’m just talking about the writers, I’m not even talking about the artists and I think much like in the film business there was a sense that in order to compete and appeal to the newer readers, the more sophisticated readers, you had to suddenly get this new blood into the business. I remember Denny O’Neil used to refer to us as the young snots. We were all the young snots. Denny was like 26 and I was 16, 17, Len Wein was maybe 20, Marv [Wolfman] was 21. We were all (chuckle)…we were kids. And we were supposedly the people who knew how to reach this market that they knew that they needed to get into. I’m talking about DC Comics as opposed to Marvel, because Marvel actually I think felt like they had that market. They understood that market, but DC didn’t understand the market. That’s why they replaced people like George Kashdan and Jack Schiff and brought in editors like Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando which was an attempt to change the whole creative thrust of the business. Which they did. It really did go from the generation that had created comic books to the generation that grew up reading them.
Stroud: A logical transition and that kind of echoes something that Denny told me when he described DC as having the feel to him of your father’s comic books while Marvel was more the wild west.
Conway: Yeah. Marvel was rock and roll and DC was Lawrence Welk and trying to get Lawrence Welk to do rock and roll…
Conway: I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember that transition in television terms, but you take the Ed Sullivan Show, which was a very popular show through most of the ’50s and into the ’60s and it was a variety show that was designed to appeal to the average middle class American, and over the course of the ’60s it basically lost its audience and it tried to reach the other audience, but there was just something so awkward and stodgy about the attempts. At the same time you come along with a show like Laugh-In, that came out in the late ’60s and it just immediately hit that audience, that hipper, more attentive audience. But if you’re a producer and a creator, how do you go from Ed Sullivan to Laugh-In? It’s impossible to turn Ed Sullivan into Laugh-In. That’s why it took DC Comics so long to catch up, because it had an entire mentality that had to be basically thrown out.
Stroud: I don’t mean to cast any stones, but when you read things like Bob Haney’s attempts to add hip language to the Teen Titans it was just embarrassing.
Conway: It really was and it was sad, too, because Haney had tremendous ability. I have a really sad story about Bob Haney in that he was an extremely bitter guy and he was at one point the highest paid writer at DC and their most successful writer. He was their go-to guy. The fans always admired people like Gardner Fox and John Broome among the DC writers, but in terms of sales, Haney’s books always outsold them. He was considered the guy who really got it. That’s weird for us to think of. We don’t think of it that way, but you look at Murray Boltinoff and Murray was the only guy who lasted as an editor from the ’50s through the ’60s and well through the ’70s at DC.
Why is that? That’s because his books sold better than everybody else’s books, even Julie Schwartz’s. I’m not saying they sold better in the sense that they had these fantastic numbers and everything, it’s just that consistently, month in, month out, he met the sales. And people like Bob Haney were the guys that helped him do it. Well, when I was breaking in and I finally became fairly well established, in I guess the late ’60s and early ’70s, as a newcomer, there was this effort in the early ’70s to create something called the Comic Book Writer’s Guild. This was something that we were supposedly all going to become members of this and put pressure on the publishers to treat us more fairly. (Laughter.) Like that was going to happen. We would have these meetings, and at these meetings you would have all these different generations of people. It was also at the Illustrator’s Club in Manhattan, which was like the grownups’ club. That was where the newspaper illustrators have their townhouse clubhouse. It was like where the grownups were. And they also had a bar.
So we would go there and of course we’d get drunk. And I remember hanging there one time for this meeting and Bob Haney was there and Bob was definitely a bit smashed and he came over to me and we were chatting and I had very mixed feelings. He was a guy whose work I liked on things like Metamorpho, but I hated on things like Teen Titans, because he didn’t get me as a kid. But if you just looked at what he did on Metamorpho, I mean he was pretty good. When you put him in this other context, he’s not. So he was standing there and we were talking and he points to me and he says, “You know, you’ve got a lot of potential.” I was like, “Oh, really?” And he said, “I used to have a lot of potential.” (Laughter.) How’s that for grim? And I’m standing there going, “Ah, um, okay.” And I thought about it recently and Bob was probably younger than I am now when he said that, and I thought, what a sad, sad way for someone to feel at that point in his life. I don’t really know what happened to Bob after that, but he was pretty much pushed out of the business by people like Denny. Denny took over writing Brave and the Bold and working with Batman and Haney’s ability to adapt just wasn’t there and I don’t think there was much willingness on the part of people like Carmine to push him toward that and I don’t think he wanted to, to be honest. I don’t know what he wanted to do.
Stroud: It begs the question, because it sounds like Arnold Drake was in kind of the same mold there for a while. I’m told he was in the thick of trying to instigate this guild idea and it didn’t enamor him to the higher-ups.
Conway: I think Arnold Drake and Gardner Fox and Joe Gill and Bill Finger were all trying to get just things like health insurance and they were all fired. They were all let go and we were brought in. We didn’t realize that we were basically scabs. But we’re talking about two different guilds. There was an effort in the mid-’60s, like ’67/’68 to try to pressure DC into providing health insurance for the writer and artists, by the writers and artists who were working at that time. People like Gardner and Bill Finger and they were basically told, “Screw you. We’ve got these new up and coming talents and those are the guys we’ll go to. They don’t care.”
Stroud: And who will probably work for less.
Conway: It’s not less really; we just won’t give them any trouble.
Conway: Really. We were kids. We were just happy to be let into the play area.
Stroud: Sure. That’s another thing that I’ve noticed is that there was kind of a different attitude between what I guess you’d call the first generation and the succeeding generation because in many cases they were there just trying to make a living and the succeeding ones were more along the lines of loving to work in that particular genre.
Conway: A lot of that earlier generation, many of them, and I’ve said this before, not pejoratively; they perceived themselves as failures. Most of them, I think, at least among the artists, wanted to be newspaper artists or illustrators and they either couldn’t do that work, or they found that they couldn’t make a living doing that work because of the kind of ruthless nature of the newspaper business. So they ended up doing comic books and believe me, comic books were not a culturally acceptable alternative for most of these guys. I mean these were guys who wanted to live in the suburbs and they wanted to be Don Draper in Mad Men. I don’t know if you’ve watched the show Mad Men.
Stroud: I’ve seen it.
Conway: That was DC Comics. If you want to know what DC Comics looked like and how the people in it behaved, that’s what it was like. I knew these guys, because when I came into DC in the late ’60s those guys were the ones who were leaving. The suits. The guys who would dress up, who would come into the office in a suit and tie and drop off their artwork. Then they’d take their paycheck and they’d go home and they’d pretend that they didn’t do that. It was almost like they were secret pornographers. They did not feel like this was a legitimate art form. At least some of them.
I would say Joe Kubert certainly thought it was a legitimate art form. That’s why Joe Kubert continues to be a relevant artist in the field. But there were plenty of artists for whom this was not something that they wanted to be known for doing. It was not their preferred career. That’s why I say we were meeting at the Society of Illustrators, at their townhouse, and that was the grownups. Those were the important guys. Those were the guys who won Pulitzers for their newspaper strips and were treated as cultural icons. They were the Milton Caniffs and the Hank Ketchams and the Charles Schulzs and these guys weren’t. They didn’t get any respect. Ultimately, from a cultural icon point of view, these guys were just as important, and in many cases better than some of the guys who were touted by the society that was giving it to them.
Stroud: Yeah, and that’s a great point, because that was the brass ring at the time; to have a syndicated strip or maybe to work in advertising and those were considered honorable professions whereas the comic book work was not for whatever reason.
Conway: That’s why it was so interesting that Neal Adams made the move that he did, because Neal was an extremely successful commercial artist and illustrator who had a career in advertising and chose, basically, to become a comic book artist, because he loved it. This was like a mind screw to these guys. (Chuckle.) They couldn’t understand why he was doing it. “You’ve got the brass ring. Why are you giving it up to do comics?” And even though he only did it for a relatively short period of time in terms of his overall career, his impact was enormous. Because again, he was the guy who represented that turn, from people who did it because they had to do it, because it was a job, to someone who chose to do it because it was an art.
Stroud: A complete shift in paradigm to say the very least. The impacts were reverberating throughout the industry after he and Denny changed Batman from the TV show back to his roots.
Conway: Right. Or at least an interpretation of his roots, because seriously if you go out and look at Batman before Denny and Neal did it, even if you go all the way back to the first appearances of Batman you’d have to go back to the first two or three stories before it became silly. (Laughter.) It’s not like there was some halcyon Golden Age of serious Batman stories before Denny and Neal came along. (Chuckle.) You’d have to really go all the way back to the first three or four stories to get anything remotely like a dark Batman. I give them an enormous amount of credit for conceptualizing that. In other words they did not go back to find something. They created something. They created an interpretation that had the feeling of what a dark Batman should be and it felt like it was an inevitability. But it really wasn’t. A guy running around in a bat costume with pointy ears. Trunks and boots, I mean, you know…(Mutual laughter.) No reason to think that’s going to be dark and spooky and existential. It’s really not an inevitability.
Stroud: Does the name Francis X. Bushmaster mean anything to you?
Conway: Well, it means two things to me. Francis X. Bushmaster was actually a relatively famous silent movie actor in the early 20th century and it’s the name of a pseudonym that was suggested to me by Joe Orlando for some stories that I did. (Chuckle.) I didn’t know that he was a famous actor, but Joe said, “Call yourself Francis X. Bushmaster.” “Okay.”
Stroud: It certainly sounds grandiose. What was the purpose behind that?
Conway: I don’t really remember. It may have been that I was already moving to do stories at Marvel and Joe just wanted to not make it an issue that I had done stories at DC. I don’t know.
Stroud: That seemed to be typically the case, although Denny told me that his Sergius O’Shaugnessy handle was more because he was still doing newspaper work and didn’t want to be sullied by his involvement with comic books.
Conway: Exactly. See? I didn’t feel it was a dishonorable thing, so I’m not really sure why that pseudonym came up. It may even have been a joke. There was at least one story that Len Wein and I did together as a round robin that Joe published and I don’t think that was a Francis X. Bushmaster story, but we might have used a joint pseudonym for that reason. I don’t think I used it more than once or twice.
Stroud: You talked about collaborating with Len and he was telling me how he and Marv used to do that sort of thing. Was that due to time constraints or just a fun way to work?
Conway: In at least one case it was fun. We came up with a story idea to do a round robin and we did that for Joe and I think the other time that we collaborated was on a Star Trek story that Len was way behind on deadline and had to deliver something the next day, and so he and I did a round robin and we did this overnight. One of us would be writing page one while the other one was writing page two and the goal was to figure a way to get page one to dovetail to the top of page two, and it was to just get it done as fast as we could. We did a 25-page story overnight. It was actually fun and I think it turned out reasonably well. I don’t remember anything more about it other than that we got it done and the editor thought it was okay. (Laughter.)
Stroud: High fives all around. It reminds me of that famous story where Joe Orlando and Wally Wood were working furiously on pages and Joe would barely finish the pencils when Woody was inking over them.
Conway: Absolutely and it’s still done where you have this kind of grind-it-out-to-meet-the-deadline, and it can be a lot of fun and sometimes it can be really good work and most of the time it’s not. (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: Len did say to me, and I’m curious if it’s the same for you, that while he hates them, the deadline is his friend because otherwise he’d probably never get anything finished.
Conway: Oh, absolutely. I totally agree. It’s very hard for me to write anything on spec. By spec I mean on speculation that someone is going to buy it or to write it just because I want to write it. And that’s unfortunate. I think I had more desire to do that when I was younger. You spend 30, 40 years writing for a living and you just end up not being able to juice it up unless you have an assignment and know where it’s going.
Stroud: I forget who it was I was talking to, but they made an interesting observation or speculation and I don’t know if it’s the case now, but it probably speaks very well to people like yourself. They said probably the ideal combination would be a little bit more seasoned, mature writer teamed with a young artist as far as turning out a good comic book story because writers tend to get better as they get older just through their life experience and so forth whereas artists, unfortunately sometimes deteriorate as time goes by for physical reasons.
Conway: It may be true. I mean I don’t know that there’s a hard and fast rule with that, but I think there is certainly some evidence that at least artists do tend to peak in their thirties. It’s also true and I think this is an interesting counterpoint between the artist and the writer mentality; artists, as they get older, it’s not so much that their work deteriorates, but that they become more and more abstract in their approach, in that they have less interest in the extraneous detail. It’s like their work pares down and gets more and more minimal or minimalist. And that can be good in some cases. You take someone like Jack Kirby, who I think sort of peaked in his late thirties or early forties. I’m thinking now in like the mid-’60s. He peaked doing this incredibly detailed, very vibrant, very involved material, and then as you watch his work as it progressed, further and further it became more and more abstract. Bigger and bigger figures and less and less detail on the page. It was as if he was paring it all down to the most minimal interpretation and what I would say about that is not to take the negative, “Oh, he’s getting weaker. He’s not as good as he used to be,” but it’s that his patience for what he considered to be the less relevant parts of the art got reduced. He just wanted to do the big element that mattered to him.
Now for a writer, what ends up happening is that you actually accumulate experience and you want to say more as you get older. It’s like you have more to say. You have more to put in. Rather than reducing, you’re trying to add more to the material. More layers, more sophistication, more senses of meaning, so it’s like the two arcs are moving in opposite directions. (Laughter.)
Stroud: Of course. It’s interesting that you make that notation. I was wondering to myself…I haven’t read a lot of it, but I’ve picked up a couple of Steve Ditko’s recent independent works and I thought it was pretty flat and two dimensional.
Conway: Yeah, but to give it a kind interpretation, you could say it’s sort of like Picasso when he got to the point where the line suggested everything else that he would ordinarily have put into the picture. He, himself, only felt like he needed to put in one line. And the same with good comic book artists. The bad ones just deteriorate because they never had that much to bring to it in the first place, but if you take a look at it and start to say to yourself, “Okay, it’s not that the guy has gotten lazy. It’s not that he’s no longer got the chops. What could it be?”
Well, what it could be is that he’s actually able now to see more in that single line than maybe we do, but for him that single line represents all the other lines that would have surrounded it in the past. I’m being very abstract myself, because it’s very hard for me to really express it because I’m not an artist and I don’t have the vocabulary for it, but that’s sort of my impression of it. Thinking about people like Kirby or people like Ditko or people like Gene Colan whose work became looser and looser in certain ways as time went by. And it’s not that they’re bad artists or anything, it’s that their patience for the extraneous got reduced.
Stroud: I like it. I think you’re onto something. It’s almost like a shorthand.
Conway: Yeah, exactly. Shorthand. The single line expresses for them everything they want, that they feel they need to express. Joe Kubert is a perfect example. Joe Kubert is a wonderful artist whose graphics have remained, I think, as sophisticated and as full today as it was 45 years ago, but you look at his brush strokes and the amount of detail that’s in his work and there’s far less of it now than there was then. And what could that mean? I think it means that he feels that he’s expressing everything he needs to express with much more minimal line work than he did before.
Stroud: Yeah. It doesn’t require the same degree of embellishment.
Conway: It’s because he has more confidence in that line and less patience for all the other extraneous stuff, which we might actually love. We might look at the old stuff and say, “I love all this detail work.” That’s what may appeal to us, but an artist may be looking at it in a totally different way.
Stroud: I noticed that a lot of big name artists have interpreted your scripts. Just a short list includes Gil Kane, Ross Andru, Gene Colan, and Steve Ditko. Did you feel anyone represented your ideas particularly well?
Conway: I had three favorite artists that I worked with in my career and they would be Ross Andru, for the work that he and I did together on Spider-Man, which I think is among the best work that both of us did anywhere. I would say Jose Garcia-Lopez at DC. He and I did some work on books like Atari Force and Cinder and Ash and various Superman and Batman stories that we did over the years. And Gene Colan. Because we had two really good runs together on Daredevil in the early ’70s and on Batman in the early ’80s. Those are sort of the three artists who I feel happiest in terms of long relationships with. There were individual stories by different artists that were just fabulous and I was so pleased to have them work on it, but in terms of a continuing relationship, those were the guys I think I did some of my best work with who interpreted that work.
Stroud: Was there ever any degree of frustration when you’d release a script and not know what would become of it?
Conway: That happened more I think at DC in the late ’70s and early ’80s when I was writing six or seven titles a month and I would be just turning scripts out and in some cases not really know who the artist was going to be. (Laughter.) But I worked with artists that, in some cases, just didn’t have the chops to put down what I envisioned and you learned how to compensate for that and try to write a bulletproof script where the story is covered. Where the artist can bring it. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Stroud: I think Len was the one who described it as defensive writing where he would sometimes follow the old Army method of instruction: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them and hope that some of it sinks in.
Conway: Right. Tell me three times. That’s certainly true. And the other thing that happens is that when you’re working with an artist and you get familiar with their strengths and weaknesses you tend to write toward those strengths and defend yourself against those weaknesses, so if you know an artist is particularly good at mood and dramatic confrontation rather than action, your stories for that artist tend toward mood and dramatic confrontation. Because it’s a collaboration. Neither one of you stand-alone and hopefully if you’re working well with an artist you’re communicating on some level even if it’s not directly. You’re communicating your understanding of each other, so the artist is giving you what you need, hopefully, and you’re giving the artist what he needs.
Stroud: Getting a true partnership going.
Conway: Absolutely. And it’s really important that happens because otherwise it can be just a grind.
Stroud: Did you have a preference between full script vs. Marvel method?
Conway: You know, they both have their strengths and weaknesses. When you write full script you’re more in command of the structure of an individual sequence. You know how it’s going to pace. You know how it’s going to play out and you can control that. You can’t necessarily control the execution of it in terms of what the artist gives you, so sometimes the dialogue that you’ve written isn’t really reflected in the art and you end up with this kind of dissonance between the two. So in those cases, obviously writing it Marvel style is better because your dialogue is then reflecting what’s on the page, but you’re losing input over the actual pacing of the scene. You can describe it as detailed as you want; how you want the scene to be broken down, but ultimately if the artist is not working from a full script it’s going to reflect his sense of pacing and his emphasis of what is the important moment in the scene rather than what you might have intended. So it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. Depending on the artist I was working with, I would rather do it one way or the other. With somebody like Ross Andru, we were so much in sync in terms of our sense of how to pace a story and how to tell a story that working Marvel style was actually the most efficient and creative way for us to work together. With another artist where I wasn’t in sync with them, I’d rather do it full script.
Stroud: When you did what is obviously one of your best-known works, the grand company crossover, the Superman vs. Spider-Man book, who called the shots as far as the artist. Did you request Ross?
Conway: Yeah. It was one of those weird circumstances because I came over to DC comics from five years at Marvel as one of their top writers at just the moment when they were closing this deal and as it turned out the setup was that Marvel was going to provide the artist and DC was going to provide the writer and since I was the new fair-haired boy at DC and Carmine loved to tweak Stan’s nose he put me on as the writer, and in effect the editor of the book and we both recommended and suggested Ross because Ross was someone who had drawn both Superman and Spider-Man and who would be familiar with both worlds as it were, and I had the extra reason of wanting to work with Ross again. (Chuckle.) It was like a great opportunity to do what amounted to, I think, possibly the best thing he ever did as an artist, at least up to that time. And he’s done some really fine work, so it wasn’t like this was a big surprise.
Stroud: No kidding, and the results were really smashing. It’s hard for me to fathom how you could get such a good product when you had what seemed to be so many cooks involved in it.
Conway: It was surprisingly few cooks. That was what was so amazing about it. This is where the Marvel method played to the advantage of the book, which was at Marvel, what they tended to do was, at least at that point; it changed a few years afterward, but writers were given titles to write and they were basically made the de facto editor of the story. They would talk with the editor-in-chief, at that point Roy Thomas, in general terms about it, but it wasn’t overseen to the degree that it would be overseen at DC. So there was nobody at Marvel who was going to come in and supervise the project. I brought in Roy Thomas as the supposed editor/consultant from Marvel, but Roy didn’t care. (Chuckle.) He was like, “What? Fine.” He was my friend. He basically said, “You go ahead and do it. I’ll just stay over here.” And at DC, I was the editor, in effect, of the book, so there was nobody overlooking us.
We had one real criteria that we tried to apply to it, which was that it was going to be an equal balance between the two characters. There would be the same number of big images of Superman as of Spider-Man. If Spider-Man was featured prominently in one two-page spread, then Superman would be featured prominently in the next two-page spread, and so on. That was the only internal pressure and we brought that pressure on ourselves as the creative team. It was actually a challenge that we gave ourselves to try and make this an almost equal balance between the two characters and their supporting cast, which I think we succeeded in doing.
Stroud: I would agree. How long did it take to crank out the final script? Do you recall?
Conway: I was writing while we were drawing, so we would do five to six pages of plotting. We had the overall story and we knew what we were going to be doing, but we would plot this thing in four to six page segments and as Ross was drawing it I was writing the dialogue for it, so it took two or three months, I think, for it to be all done. Ross was doing it while he was doing other work for Marvel as well and Dick Giordano was inking it while he was doing other work, so I’m not sure exactly how long it all took, but it wasn’t more than two or three months.
Stroud: Were you aware of Neal Adam’s uncredited work on that project?
Conway: Yeah, I’ve heard that Neal said that he redrew the faces for Superman and some of the figures on Superman and that’s probably true, but it’s not that much more than was done in general with art at that point. Inkers were brought on very often to work over the pencils. One of the reasons we brought Dick on to be the inker was because we wanted to smooth out some of the rough edges that Ross had in his art. And this was not uncommon. You look at Joe Sinnott working on Jack Kirby. It’s a very different look than what Chic Stone did on Jack Kirby and very different from what Vince Colletta did on Jack Kirby. Neal and Dick Giordano shared office space together. They were part of a company called Continuity Associates that was doing advertising work and I think they did a lot of things like that where Neal had an assignment and he was drawing it and inking it and Dick would come in and work on some of the pages and vice versa.
Stroud: Not such a strange or unusual thing.
Conway: I think it’s certainly true that Neal did it. I don’t think that anybody really cared. (Laughter.) I honestly don’t think it made any difference. Yeah, it probably improved the look on Superman a little bit, but it’s not like there was anything wrong with what Ross had done.
Stroud: Yeah and goodness knows Dick Giordano didn’t need any lessons on being an inker.
Conway: Obviously not. I think it’s more just that Neal wanted to be a part of it. He couldn’t help himself. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: I was watching Coyote Ugly the other day and it occurred to me that it must have been kind of a kick to see your Punisher introduction issue of Spider-Man be a subplot on a movie.
Conway: I wasn’t really aware of that. What was the subplot?
Stroud: Well one of the main characters is an aspiring singer in New York City and her love interest, an Aussie, bribed a way for her to perform on a local stage by offering his mint copy of Spider-Man #129 (poor Australian accent) “Look here. The first appearance of The Punisher.”
Conway: That’s funny. I didn’t notice that. I’d seen the movie years ago and I’m actually a Piper Perabo fan and she’s in it, so it’s funny. I’ll have to look at that. Cultural icons, what can I say? (Mutual laughter.)
Stroud: I just thought, “That had to make Gerry feel good.” Your character became coin of the realm.
Conway: Oh, it is in many ways, but not coin in my pocket, but it’s certainly coin for somebody.
Stroud: Denny was telling me…I don’t know if it was strictly as a courtesy and I don’t know if he has any actual input, but he says he often sees the scripts for the Batman movies. Did they show you any of the same courtesy on any of the Punisher films?
Conway: Oh, no. I wasn’t even aware that these things were being made until they came out in some cases and they’ve never given me any credit. It’s just a “Marvel Comics creation.”
Stroud: Oh, geez. The consistent story I hear is that DC is much kinder and generous to their creators.
Conway: Well they have been over the years. Whether that will continue now that Paul Levitz is no longer in charge is a good question.
Stroud: That’s the other thing. There has been very consistent praise for Paul’s efforts in that regard. I know Len in particular told me that if it weren’t for Paul’s insistence that he get a creator contract or whatever it is for Lucius Fox, “just a guy in a suit” he would have missed out on a substantial sum of money because of his major part in the last two Batman films.
Conway: It’s true. DC has been very good about making sure people are taken care of and this is after treating [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster horrendously for many years. I think their experience of humiliation when the first Superman movie was in development and Neal Adams made a big public stink over the fact that Sigel and Shuster were like on welfare, receiving nothing and getting no money on this film. That’s really when things started to turn around for the creators in the business and it was as a result of that, I believe, that DC started to become more proactive.
Stroud: Good for them, or whomever. Paul has obviously been a force in it and I suppose that stems from his being a creator himself.
Conway: In addition to that he was also a fan and he approached this in part as a fan, wanting to do the right thing for the creators because he saw that was good business, but it’s also the morally correct thing to do. And there are very few people in the world, certainly in the entertainment world who have any clue at all about the morally correct thing to do. (Laughter.)
Stroud: Throw money into the mix and it all tends to go out the window, unfortunately.
Conway: Well, money and ego are the two worst things to deal with in the entertainment business. There are ample supplies of both.
Stroud: I don’t doubt it for a second. With all the work you’ve done for Hollywood how has that compared? Was that an easy transition?
Conway: Creatively, it was very easy and actually professionally it was fairly easy. It took maybe two or three years to make that crossover. I’ve heard people refer to Hollywood as high school with money and that’s true and it’s also true that it’s comic books with money. It’s very similar in terms of both the ethos, the aesthetic and creatively it’s very similar. It’s about telling stories visually and there’s a lot of money involved. It’s all the same. Telling stories visually and creating mythology.
Stroud: So it wasn’t a tremendous leap.
Conway: It was and it wasn’t. The things that worked for me in comics worked for me in films and television. My ability to be adaptable to writing other people’s characters, to work in collaboration with people, to understand that my take on something wasn’t necessarily the definitive take. A lot of people don’t have that.
Stroud: I see you’re still doing comic book work now. Do you see that continuing on for a while?
Conway: I’d like it to. I’ve pitched a couple of more projects to DC and hopefully they’ll give the go ahead to at least one of those things. At this point in my career I’m pretty much semi-retired. I’m not writing for film and television anymore and that’s something I’m very happy about. So I’m just enjoying doing some writing for comics.
Stroud: Gene Colan described being an artist as sort of a grand love affair, a passion where you almost have to do it. Do you see writing in that same light?
Conway: Yes. It’s probably less of a passion than something that feels right to me. When it works well I’m extremely happy that it works well. I feel satisfied with the work and I feel good about myself and all that. It’s not a compulsion for me the way it once was in my early days as a writer when I had to write and I was teeming with ideas and I couldn’t resist putting the material down on paper and all that. Now it’s more like, “That would be a good thing. I’d like to do that.” I guess part of that is 20 years writing for film and television and dealing with a lot of frustration working with people who are far less creative than the average comic book editor.
Stroud: (Laughter.) But certainly have a superior opinion.
Conway: Oh, certainly they believe they’re much more creative. Their self-regard is without peer.
Stroud: I think I’ve met the kind. Probably not on the scale you have.
Conway: You know there’s a bully in every playground and usually he thinks he’s just great. Unfortunately in the film world those bullies are primarily the people you’re working for.
Stroud: I’m sure there’s a whole discussion there all by itself. I notice you keep a blog. Has that been pretty enjoyable?
Conway: It has, but I haven’t actually kept the blog up for six or eight months or maybe even a year now. I mostly twitter and update my Facebook page. That’s my primary Internet social networking platform now and I enjoy that. I get more instant feedback and it keeps me in the public eye to the extent that I want to be kept in the public eye.
Stroud: When you were doing the Star Trek daily strip what were the differences involved in that as opposed to other types of work that you’d done and did you like it?
Conway: I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. I actually wrote for two newspaper strips. I did that one and I did a Superman strip, I believe with George Tuska for six or eight weeks. Some fairly long story arc. I think I did the Star Trek strip for about a year. It was fun. It was sort of a challenge to do something in a different format, to learn how to express a story in three panels at a time, trying to create a story that lasts over a number of weeks. It was a very interesting process, and it happened at a time when I was transitioning from comics to film and it was a good opportunity to help make that transition.
Stroud: Do you feel all the recent raging successes of the superhero films the last several years is sustainable and is it good for the industry overall?
Conway: I think it’s a fad. I’ll tell you that. And I think any continuation is going to depend on the quality of the material. The film business looks for what they call franchise properties where they don’t have to think about a project. The studios do not want to have to make a decision on whether something is good or not.
Stroud: Hence the sequel.
Conway: Hence the sequel. Yeah. It’s a low-pressure decision. “If something did well, we’ll do it again.” That’s really it. And as a result comic material is perfect for that because you can do endless numbers of them, and from the point of view of the film executive, they’re always looking for a way to defend their position. He’s not looking for what’s great or what’s fun or what’s interesting or what he thinks people want to see. He’s looking for a way to say, “I didn’t make a bad decision.” And one way you can do that is to say, “Look, this was already published. Somebody else had bought it before me. So it must have been good.” That’s the main appeal that comic books have to film executives. It’s a pre-established franchise material. So it’s like a sequel without having to go through the process of having made the first film. Therefore, it’s a safer bet.
It’s not a consideration of whether it will be successful; it’s just a safer bet from the ability to defend your decision. It’s all defensive. What people outside the film business don’t understand about how things are made in the film business is that decisions are very rarely made because people think that they’re going to make money on a project. They may make money on a project and they certainly hope to make money on a project, but there’s two aspects of a decision that are the primary driving force: The first, of course, is it’s defensible. “I can defend my job by saying I made a decision that was a reasonable decision for me to make based on the fact that other people already thought it was a good idea.” And the second part of it is, they want to be able to talk about it at cocktail parties.
Conway: Why actors are hired, why writers are hired, why directors are hired is simply so that producers can have something to tell the sexy young woman that they’re trying to seduce, that they’re working with Tom Cruise, they’re working with this hot new writer, they’re working with this hot director. That is the entire purpose of why certain things get done. It defensible. “I hired Tom Cruise, because his last three movies made millions and millions of dollars. I did nothing wrong. I’d like to be able to get laid.” That’s it. That’s the full extent of what creative process goes on in the minds of the people who are actually getting the green light to film. Creators definitely have passion and have things that they want to do and that’s all very well and good. That’s what actually drives it, but why do things get made? It’s for those two reasons.