Matt Wagner is a legendary figure in comics history. He’s created dozens of classic comics stories over the years. It was a treat to catch up with him at this year’s San Diego Comic Con to discuss Grendel, Django/Zorro and the joys of working on a comic with your son.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: How’s your Con been?
Matt Wagner: I just got here an hour or so ago.
CB: Are you serious?
Wagner: Yeah, two hours ago, something like that.
CB: So you just airlift in, you are going to do one night and get out of here?
Wagner: No, I am here tomorrow night too. I did signing here today, but then tomorrow I am doing this thing with Quentin Tarantino. Do you know about that?
CB: No, I don’t.
Wagner: I’m co-writing a Django / Zorro crossover with him
CB: How did that come about?
Wagner: You got me. Just kind of out of the blue. The guy who owns Dynamite is friends with Reggie Hudlin, who produced both Inglorious Bastards and Django. They just started shooting the shit and kind of came up with this idea. They asked me, “Would you be interested in doing this?” I was like, “Well, yeah, but that’s never going to happen.” Then, out of the blue, I forgot about it totally and about eight months later, they called and said, “Quentin read your Zorro stuff. He loves it. He wants you to come down.” So we’ve got the story all blocked out. I just turned in the second script.
CB: So he’s a fan?
CB: How cool is that?
Wagner: Yeah, it’s right on. But I’m a fan of his, obviously.
CB: Well, sure, yeah. Do you know if he read any Grendel?
Wagner: He read a little bit of Grendel. He just loves the Zorro stuff.
CB: Okay. It’ll be a great series. You’re still on Zorro, right?
Wagner: No, I haven’t written it for a while. This is kind of a return to it, so that’s really cool.
CB: I’m sorry. I couldn’t remember that.
Wagner: I wrote like 32 issues, something like that.
CB: Are you drawing this one?
Wagner: No, just writing. Again, he and I kind of co-wrote the story, and I’m doing the actual final script.
CB: So when you do writing as opposed to writing and art, do you approach differently?
Wagner: No, it’s apples and oranges. I used to only write plots. I would write plot in dialogue fashion. I’d write a plot, artists would draw it, and then I would fill in the dialogue.
As the years have gone by, I’m comfortable now writing full scripts. Initially I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t want to inhibit the artist too much. I felt like if I wanted that sort of control over things, I should draw it myself since I can draw.
But as the years have gone by, I’ve gotten so used to working with artists, I kind of know how to stay out of their way and also how to describe to them exactly what I feel the story needs. So now I write a more traditional full script. But it’s apples and oranges, visual storytelling to me.
CB: I guess so. You have a very strong visual storytelling sense, though. So when you see these final pages, do you have this reaction like…
Wagner: Oh, yeah, occasionally it’s like, “Wow, that’s not what I expected.” Only occasionally it is so wrong that I insist on changes. “No, that doesn’t work because of this.” But generally, again, I find I write pretty clear scripts and generally I get back what I am expecting.
CB: Okay. I have to say, if I was an artist at your level of achievement (you were winning Eisners twenty-five years ago), I would be so tempted to say, “No, no, no, your storytelling sense is wrong. Where is my establishing shot?”
Wagner: You know, I’ve been writing this long thing for Legendary Comics, The Tower Chronicles, that Simon Bisley is drawing. Simon’s visual style and storytelling style isn’t my style at all. That took a little getting used to, but then I did. I got used to it. You learn when to let go. If I want that level of control, I should draw it. And I realized if I’m going to collaborate with people, I need to step back and let them have a voice in the process too.
CB: I’ve actually heard this a few times from writers this weekend who are after a certain point in their career. Like when you are younger, you always want control. Then you kind of end up saying, “I don’t need that control anymore. I trust myself. I trust you.” It is, on some level, just another project, too.
Wagner: In the end, you have more control, because you are letting the project control itself, as opposed to you feeling that you have to control every nut and bolt, caulk and wheel.
CB: A little more of a control freak than you?
Wagner: Yeah, yeah, probably so. It takes thousands of pages.
CB: I write some nonfiction. I have a book out from TwoMorrows, The American Comic Book Chronicles. When I read the other writer’s chapters, I immediately want to say, “No, your verb is in the wrong place. This paragraph doesn’t make sense. It’s not how I would do it.” I want to continually edit them. It drives me crazy. At this point, I have trouble reading anyone other than real professional writers. I’m not a great writer, but I have my own biases. It’s good to know you can at least turn it off.
Wagner: It’s not even so much as even turn it off as just go with the flow.
CB: That’s great advice, Matt. Thank you. So you are working on a new Grendel as well?
Wagner: Well, Grendel versus the Shadow.
CB: How did you end up crossing over Grendel with the Shadow?
Wagner: Which there again I’ve been writing The Shadow: Year One for Dynamite. And they actually kind of concocted that crossover as well. They said, “What are the chances of doing a Grendel Shadow crossover?” I did the Batman Grendel crossovers years ago, and I’ve had offers for lots of other Grendel crossovers. Never did them because my thought was after Batman, where do you go? But I’m a giant Shadow fan from way back when, so that struck a cord deep in my heart. I was like, “I think I need to draw that one, too.”
CB: There’s only a handful of characters on that level: Doc Savage, Tarzan, only a couple more.
Wagner: Yeah, the real classics.And there’s really not much more, I’ve pretty much had my hands on all my childhood favorites at this point.
CB: I guess that’s right. There is nothing left on the list then?
Wagner: Not much. The Shadow was kind of the last one, and now I’ve a big dose of The Shadow. I wrote a Tarzan short story years ago that was so perfect I wouldn’t want to improve on it. You know Teddy Kristiansen? It was illustrated by him. It was an adaptation of my favorite, favorite short story. Zorro, the Green Hornet, I’ve done Superman, a lot of Batman, now a lot of Shadow. I don’t know where to go after that.
CB: Not a bad career when you think about it.
Wagner: Back to creating my own stuff, I guess.
CB: With your son, you worked on that, too?
Wagner: Yeah, my son is actually coloring The Shadow / Grendel.
CB: That must be a little surreal, I guess.
Wagner: I don’t know. We have a real good sense of communication. He’s been coloring The Shadow: Year One, which I don’t draw. But of course I see it all and I approve it all. He’s knocking himself out a little more for the old man’s project, you know. And it looks terrific, I will say.
CB: It must be exciting.
Wagner: It is exciting. Luckily we have a really good sense of communication. And he’s someone that listens. Like when you are giving advice or instruction, he gets it. A lot of young artists have this kind of snotty, “Oh I meant to do it that way.” But he’s really good at listening. We’re getting to five, too.
CB: Is it fun to do Hunter again, too?
Wagner: Oh, sure, it is always fun to come back to Hunter.
CB: The old muscles.
Wagner: The cool thing about this, I’m kind of a firm advocate that the Shadow kind of needs to exist in the 1930s.
CB: I was going to ask about the time difference.
Wagner: Yeah, Hunter always seems he should have existed in the ’30s, so I get to toss him back in the ’30s. I figured out a cool way to do it and it ties into the Shadow, kind of.
CB: Okay, because the art deco design certainly matches.
Wagner: Sure, excellently.
CB: Definitely. Are we going to see Mage 3?
Wagner: Absolutely, soon-ish.
CB: I think that’s what you said about Mage 2 ten years before it appeared.
Wagner: Yeah, this is sooner-ish.
CB: For those of us who remember, I still am dying to see how the whole sage turns out, how he really became Arthur Pendragon. It’s interesting because it’s different eras of your life that are reflected. There is kind of optimism of the early Kevin, and then this maturity and but also…
Wagner: A little cynicism.
CB: Cynicism but also, the guy who in his twenties and thirties likes to hang out with his friends and have adventures with him. And now at a certain point, it will be interesting to see how things change.
Wagner: Yes, it will. The third one is called The Hero Denied.
CB: The Hero Denied. There’s a lot of adult life in that, isn’t there?
Wagner: Yes, there is, yes indeed. And I think I needed to get far enough into my adult life to be able to look back and reflect on it consciously.
CB: Have you been thinking about The Hero Denied since you were young?
Wagner: Yeah, I think about it. But with Mage, I try to not think about it too much. I try to go into it like a Zen journey, where I just try to not nail things down. I try to let it take me where it’s going to go. It’s almost jamming on a story.
CB: Sounds like that’s a different technique for you than it usually is.
Wagner: Absolutely, I don’t use it on anything else. And it’s not to say I don’t kind of know where it’s going to go, but I try to keep it loose.
CB: Well, it has to be fifteen parts, right? Isn’t that part of that…
Wagner: Yeah, it will be the same thing. It will be the same structure.
CB: So you don’t have a lot of room to breathe in that way.
Wagner: Yup, the same structure. There will be a little interlude that will lead us into the third one. I already kind of got that one figured out, truthfully. I’ve had that one figured out for a while. I know the first several notes of the symphony, put it that way.
CB: Okay. That gives me an idea when I can finally expect to read the third one.
Wagner: It’s getting there.
CB: Okay. It’s been a good career, though. I mean if that’s kind of where…. It will be a great kind of valediction in a way. Maybe that’s when you’ll get your Hall of Fame award.
Wagner: Yeah, I mean, I’m probably never going to stop telling stories. I will slow down at some point because I’ve been pretty consistent for a long time.
CB: Yeah, you’ve always been really productive.
Wagner: But you’re right in that Mage 3 will be a certain punctuation on my career. Certainly I won’t say it’s the end. It won’t be the end.
CB: No, there is a certain way of looking at the world when you are at the age that you and I are, where you just kind of are in a different place with your relationship and with your experience. Just having a son who is now grown and working and with whom you have an adult relationship; it’s an extremely different perspective than anything else you’ve done in your life. Young Matt could have never expected that.
Wagner: No, would have not known what that was like at all. Not even close. Just the sheer act of being here totally changes your outlook on everything too.
CB: And all the ups and downs attached to it.
CB: How old is he?
CB: I have a 23 year old also. It is wonderful to see how the relationship is changing and the respect and love that you feel for them. And at the same time just feeling to myself, I want to give him the space to become truly himself. It’s kind of exciting.
Wagner: Yeah, I didn’t push him into comics. I certainly gave him a lot of comics to read. And he always knew he wanted to be in the arts, the visual arts, and in some form, the storytelling arts. But he didn’t know if that was going to be photography or filmmaking or any number of things. Eventually he decided on comics on his own.