Steve Lieber has been telling stories in the comics medium for more than two decades working for many of the largest publishers in comics, in addition to establishing Periscope Studio in Portland, Oregon. He’s a master of the comics form who has continued to cultivate his own skills as well as those of others in the industry.
Steve sat down with Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin at Denver Comic Con to discuss both The Superior Foes of Spider-Man and his experience working at Periscope Studio in Portland. The result was a revealing conversation about the craft behind comics and the versatility of visual storytelling.
Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: Let’s dive right into The Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Considering the premise and the cast, it seems like a minor miracle that it was published.
Steve Lieber: I am still shocked it got made.
Magnett: It’s the most fun I’ve had reading about supervillains since Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. Can you provide a little insight into how it was pitched and accepted?
Lieber: Thank you. That’s high praise. I can’t. Nick (Spencer) pitched it solo. I was brought aboard after I did the Hawkeye Hurricane Sandy story (Hawkeye #7). I guess that got me back on Marvel’s radar. They realized that I could do humor, I could do pathos, I could do naturalism, and I could do it all on a deadline. I think Steve Wacker suggested me as a possibility to Nick and Nick said sure. I’m privy to this, so I’m not quite sure as to what actually happened. I can’t imagine what it was that Nick told them to sell this project. It stuns me every day that I am drawing this material. It feels as much like a small press book as anything I’ve ever worked on, despite that we’re working in Marvel’s world.
Magnett: You have worked in a lot of different genres at a lot of different publishers. When I’m reading Foes, although it is set in the mainstream superhero genre, it seems to pull elements and styles from a wide variety of places. How do you think all of your previous experience has influenced your work on this comic?
Lieber: I think having told a lot of different stories has given me the flexibility to shift what I do with what the script requires. There are places where what is called for is straight up superhero drawing and I can do that. There are places where what is called for is something dinky or something ironic, something that’s expressing pathos or flat out patheticness rather than power. As I understand the genre, most superhero stories are written as power fantasies. This is an impotence fantasy. This is a story where a big part of the pleasure is in watching the characters writhe as they fail and it’s a genre with an entirely different set of rules. But storytelling is still storytelling and so long as I understand what it is that every panel needs to accomplish, all I need to do is draw it.
Magnett: As far as the understanding the needs of each issue, page, and panel goes, what is your scripting process with Nick like?
Lieber: It’s really, really organic. Sometimes Nick will write me three pages of dialogue with only a couple of guidelines as to what needs to be in one panel or another. A lot of it will have no panel descriptions whatsoever and he’ll leave it to me to handle what’s happening on the screen. It’s almost like the script for a play, rather than the script for a comic. Other times he’ll write straight “Marvel style” telling me what story beats a page needs to hit and then he’ll look at what I draw and come up with what text needs to go on top of that. Sometimes it’s straight comics. It’s really, really organic.
As someone who likes to write and has work they’re interested in, it’s really great to occasionally get a script page that says, Steve this is all yours, all we need to know is that at the end this happens. I get to actually be in charge of the storytelling for a few pages. It’s very, very cool.
Magnett: There have been a couple of two-page spreads where the group has to navigate through various rooms and traps. Is that how those were produced?
Lieber: Yeah. Those were instructions to do something diagrammatic, shows the layout of the place, and have fun with it. I got to come up with all of this stuff that comes in there. I didn’t necessarily think of it as what that villain would have in their lair, more as what would Boomerang would claim is in there in order to make himself look good for being able to survive in that place or scare the people he’s talking to.
I think of the entire story as one long, sprawling lie that Boomerang is telling. I don’t know if it is. Some of it is real, but that’s the tone I have in my head when I’m telling it. So I try to keep it like what would it feel like if a drunken supervillain were telling the story. That’s the voice of the book.
Magnett: One other thing I have noticed about the design of the book is that it tries to show, rather than tell whenever possible. There is a lot of emphasis on pictures over words. I like that you use thought balloons and place pictograms in them rather than words. The use of thought balloons and pictograms in comics are not common in mainstream comics currently. Why have you chosen to make additional use of those elements?
Lieber: The language of comics has a wonderful and varied set of tools and we’ve abandoned two-thirds of them. It breaks my heart. We know that our audience believes these things are corny. We’re using these tools with an awareness of how our audience perceives them. We’re mostly trying to kick people’s legs out from under them. We want to use these tools to surprise and delight.
I’ve loved pictures in word balloons for years. The first time I used it was in a mini-comic in the summer of 1990, so it’s been floating around with me for a while. I used them in an issue of Hawkman, and an issue of Alabaster, a very dark fantasy book I did for Dark Horse. It’s not just a cutesy thing. It’s a great tool we have that we don’t make enough use of.
Magnett: Re-reading the first issue on my flight in, I came across the panels where the entire team is together and each of them has a single icon that characterizes their current state perfectly. I couldn’t help but wonder why we don’t see more of this.
Lieber: It’s so efficient. One of the toughest things that comics has to overcome is the lack of physical space to tell stories. If you’re working on a Marvel book, you have twenty pages to communicate stuff. That’s it. Being able to give our readers a notion of who all five of our characters are in one panel… How can you not take advantage of that? Also, in that case, we can go back later in the story and show how their relationship with Boomerang has changed with five more visual balloons. Just by putting different things in the balloons, you’ve now expressed a different relationship.
Magnett: One last thing I’ve noticed about Foes, before we talk a little about Periscope Studio, is that there are a lot of small references and jokes included in each issue. In the most recent issue, The Superior Foes of Spider-Man #12, there’s a panel which is clearly a take on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. When you include so much comics history in a book, is there a hope that your audience might discover something like Krazy Kat?
Lieber: I would never expect anyone to do research based on anything I draw. I did it because I hope somewhere in the collective reader’s unconscious that there is an awareness not only that this story, this comic, these characters existed, but that there’s a weird love triangle dynamic going on between Krazy, Ignatz, and Officer Pupp. I wanted to strike an odd note in people’s heads about what was going on between Chameleon and Boomerang. It’s not to imply anything, but I wanted to strike the odd note.
Magnett: I think it evokes that Boomerang, while he is at odds with Chameleon, also aspires to be like him and assume his role.
Lieber: The cover for issue 13, where all of the foes are cosplaying as different villains, I wanted to use that to show their aspirations and their inner-life. That’s why Boomerang is there as Kraven the Hunter.
Magnett: You were one of the founding creators at Periscope Studio. What made you want to establish a studio and band together with other creators in the Portland area?
Lieber: We didn’t want to die alone.
Magnett: That makes sense.
Lieber: It’s a very common thing for cartoonists to be found five days dead at their drawing boards with their cats starting to nibble at the soft parts. We just didn’t want that to happen to any of us. We want someone to call 9-1-1 when we die at the board.
Wally Wood said that cartooning is like being sentenced to life in prison and hard labor and solitary. Periscope is our attempt to get back into the general population. There are a lot of prison metaphors here. Prison and death, that’s comics.
Magnett: Periscope Studio is the Life Alert of comics.
Lieber: I’ve gotten into comics and I can’t get up. It’s just so much more pleasant to work around like-minded weirdo and we’re all better artists for it, at least I can say that I am. There is so much to be gained from being able to turn to another artist and say, “This panel isn’t working and I’m not sure why. Do you have any thoughts?” When something isn’t funny, I can turn to Colleen Coover and she’ll say do this, this, and this. Suddenly, it creates a bigger laugh.
The last diagram of the Chameleon’s lair, I was struggling to find obstacles to put in there. I called across the room and said to Ben Dewey, artist of the Tragedy Series and funny as hell, and said that I need some obstacle in the Chameleon’s lair. He said, “The Chameleon is Russian, right? Matryoshka dolls filled with giant spiders.” Bam! He didn’t pause. That was the first thing off the top of his head, a Matryoshka doll filled with giant spiders and that’s amazing. It’s everyone’s favorite panel. Colleen Coover suggested putting the floating Boomerang, Fred Myers’ head in the middle of the stick figure sequence and it makes it twice as funny to have that head floating there.
That’s a big part of Periscope is being able to consult. Being able to consult on business matters. Someone has done stuff for a movie studio, but someone else hasn’t. Instead of trying to make up a price for yourself, there’s somebody right there who’s already solved that problem. Actual assisting, working so close together a lot of us can imitate each other’s styles. If somebody needs a page of background inking to make a deadline, there’s someone right there to do it. Everyone has a much easier time making their deadlines.
Magnett: How has the experience been watching so many artists flourish and grow while at Periscope?
Lieber: It’s a never ending source of joy for me. Watching folks who came in as interns, like Ben Dewey, he came in as an intern and a year or two from now he’ll be one of the biggest names in the business. Natalie Nourigat who is a spectacularly gifted artist and prolific as hell, she turns out pages by the score, is going to explode. People are going to ask where did this person come from and they came from Periscope. Ben Bates, who has moved into the city, so he’s gone to a different studio now, is a terrific artist and folks are endlessly impressed with him.
I love watching what the studio has been able to do for those folks and, frankly, what they’ve been able to do for us. It’s a two-way street.
Magnett: In addition to Periscope being a great collection of comics talent, Portland, as a whole, represents a massive amount of comics talent, both writers and artists. What is it about the city that makes it a great place for comics in your opinion?
Lieber: Cynically, shitty weather means that people don’t go outside so they get more work done. It’s a city that encourages creativity, even if it’s not making you money. It’s very supportive of people doing art for the sake of art. It’s nurturing that way. There are a lot of social rewards for making things, even if the financial rewards are not forthcoming. There is a critical mass of talented people, which means that ideas are boiling and people are bouncing ideas off one another.
Practically, it’s one of the last cities on the West coast where a comics income will buy you a house. That’s a really practical element. I think it all started with Mike Richardson at Dark Horse, bringing people by and showing what a terrific place it was to live, incentivizing them to move there. He’s the one who planted a core of people who started luring their friends over, and they lured friends over, and they lured friends over. One of the things that goes with it is that it’s a city that really loves reading. You have the largest independent bookstore in the world. You have book festivals. It’s a very bookish city. We’ve got a great library system.
I did not know that Portland was a great place to create comics when we moved there. It was dumb luck, but my wife got a job at the library there and I followed her. She got a job at the library there because it’s part of one of the best library systems in the country.
Magnett: Periscope did a Kickstarter last fall to publish a series of artbooks. Are there future plans to continue publishing those books or run another Kickstarter campaign?
Lieber: I think we’d really like to do another one someday. Right now we’re still really focused on getting the initial run of books from China out to the backers. We’ve got the first box of bound proofs and I think the first round of books go out in a couple of weeks. There should be an opportunity for people who didn’t back the Kickstarter to buy the books. I don’t know the numbers, but I believe we printed some overages. If that’s the case, we’ll make them available through the individual people.
Magnett: Thank you so much for your time this morning.
Lieber: It was a pleasure.