How Do You Know When It’s Time to Go?
Recently the comics industry was abuzz with news of creators departing from assignments prematurely. There was a great hue and cry, lots of speculation and supposition. This column isn’t about those situations, because those are private matters between publishers and creators. Frankly, it’s none of my damn business, nor yours.
This column, however, is about departing from ongoing assignments. More specifically, why creators decide to step away from a gig. The reasons can be myriad, from schedule overload to the old standby of “creative differences.”
I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had a number of long runs on titles. More than 50 issues on “Silver Surfer,” more than 75 issues on “Green Lantern,” more than 80 issues on “Witchblade.” Even my run on “Scion” for CrossGen was nearly 40 issues, which I guess by current standards is a lengthy stay. Those books were all good fits. Something about the characters and the rest of the creative team clicked, and I was happy to just keep going.
There have been other times in my career when the fit wasn’t as cozy, when the process of working on a book was far more work than pleasure. Yes, I realize that writing comics is a dream job for many, so even the thought of walking away from an assignment probably seems crazy. I suppose it’s a bit like being in a relationship that’s not working. At some point, the difficulties outweigh the benefits.
So how do you know when it’s time to go? It’s a hard decision to make. Most freelancers hate turning down work. You’re essentially turning your back on money that could help pay the rent or the mortgage, put food on the table for your family. Let’s be honest: even a bad job in comics can be better than a good job in a lot of other places.
I made the decision to step away from assignments on “Thor” and “Superboy” after a year on either title. In both cases, it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one I pondered at length. In each case, my run hadn’t gone as I’d hoped, and I wanted to take the title in a new direction.
As I’ve written previously in this column, the artist on most of my “Thor” run was a gentleman named Bruce Zick. Certainly a talented guy, but not my ideal for what I wanted to do on “Thor.” So I started with an artist I didn’t click with, segued into a crossover that went on too long, and then welcomed another artist who was mostly known for swiping Andy Kubert panels. But despite all that, I loved the character, his supporting cast, the setting. It was still one of my dream assignments, following Kirby and Simonson. I wanted my second year on the book to make up for the first.
I started making plans for my second year on “Thor,” including proposing that Tom Grindberg take over the art duties, bringing a touch of Frazetta to Asgard. The editor agreed, though in retrospect I’m not sure there was ever any real intention to make the artistic switch. We worked up storylines that included a female archaeologist as a new love interest, a new space-faring villain, and even turning Thor into a woman for a while (thanks to Loki’s manipulations of Odin).
We pitched a year’s worth of issues, with a wealth of artwork to accompany. The editor responded positively, then asked us to include more stories with Thor on Earth. So we did that. Then he asked us to send Thor into outer space. So we did that. But the target kept moving, with no definitive decision. The frustrating back and forth went on for a few weeks, with the editor seemingly unable to ask for or approve a coherent direction.
I finally decided I couldn’t give the editor what he wanted if even he didn’t know what that was. We had a brief phone conversation, and I essentially said, “Maybe it’s best if I step aside.” It was a congenial conversation. We said we hoped we’d work together again — though I don’t know that either of us really meant it — and that was that.
It was the first time I’d ever walked away from a title. It was a curious feeling; a little scary, truthfully. But I also felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, which to me was an indication that I’d made the right decision.
“Superboy” was a title I’d never really thought about writing, though I certainly enjoyed the character’s introduction in the “Death of Superman” storyline, and his subsequent monthly series. The assignment fell into my lap on a visit to the DC offices for “Green Lantern” meetings. The editor asked me if I might be interested in the book, since the current team was moving on. I said yes, and off we went.
The first order of business was selecting an artist. Finding someone who was appropriate to a book starring a teen, and who could maintain a monthly schedule, proved to be considerably more difficult than expected. The choices at the time were relatively few. I suggested trying to lure Mark Bagley over from Marvel, but that notion was dismissed.
We ended up choosing Ramon Bernado, a Spanish artist very much influenced by John Buscema. Ramon is a truly talented artist, but stylistically probably not the best fit for a book like “Superboy.” I’d still walk across hot coals to be able to do a Conan story with Ramon.
A few issues into my run, I discovered that I wasn’t all that interested in the problems of a perpetual 16-year-old. I wasn’t as invested in Superboy’s life as I was in that of, say, Kyle Rayner. It wasn’t that I disliked writing “Superboy,” or that I disliked his character. But I wasn’t as enthusiastic as I should’ve been. As I needed to be. I enjoyed the stories, but there was something missing.
Toward the end of my first year on the book, the editor who initially hired me left staff, and the title passed to another editor, also a friend (and fellow Mets fan, which never hurts). By this time, Ramon Bernado had departed, and we were casting about for a permanent replacement. I campaigned for Georges Jeanty, whom I’d met through artist Dave Johnson. I’d introduced Georges to DC, helped him get his first few assignments, and wanted to keep working with him.
But when it came to setting a direction for the series… there wasn’t one. I felt like the “Superboy in Hawaii” angle was played out, and the book needed a kick in the pants. I pitched a storyline in which Superboy would move in with the Kents in Smallville, essentially being raised by them as he took on a secret identity and attended Smallville High. I thought it would be a way we could give a nod to the classic Superboy stories of the past, but with a contemporary twist.
I also suggested that Superboy’s imperfect clone, Match, be sent into the future to join the Legion of Superheroes (another title in the same editor’s stable). That wrinkle would’ve allowed a Superboy in each era.
The editor wasn’t enthused about the pitch, but didn’t have another direction in mind. The situation developed into one of “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I hear it.” The more we kicked around other directions, without striking upon anything usable, the more convinced I became that the Smallville scenario was the right way to go, or at least the right way for me to go. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t interest the editor in that direction.
So once again I made the decision to move on. Not all that different from my decision to move on from “Thor,” I suppose. And again, it was an amicable parting.
In retrospect, these might seem like petulant decisions. I couldn’t take the books in the direction I wanted, so I took my ball and went home. But I think it was the lack of an alternate direction, or any direction, that prompted my departures. Part of being a professional is… well, being professional. You’re playing with someone else’s toys. Ultimately, you have to be okay with the owner of those toys telling you how to play with them. The difficulty is when there’s no direction, or an ever-changing series of directions.
For me, it was about being able to put myself in position to do what I thought would be my best work. As a creator, you have to tell stories you believe in. When you can’t do that, it’s best for everyone to move on.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Ravine” for Top Cow, “The Protectors” for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.