Paul Kupperberg has been working in comics for decades now, primarily at DC Comics where he was a writer and editor for many years. He wrote Superman and Phantom Stranger, created “Arion,” “Checkmate” and “Takion,” and revived “The Doom Patrol” in the 1970s and 1980s, working with everyone from Jack Kirby and Mike Mignola, to Jan Duursema and Aaron Lopresti.
Kupperberg currently writes the monthly “Life with Archie” magazine at Archie Comics. Each month, Kupperberg writes two full-length comics in the magazine — one exploring what life would be like if Archie married Betty, the other if he married Veronica — where he’s been assisted by some fabulous artists including Norm Breyfogle, Fernando Ruiz, Al Migrom, Joe Rubinstein and Pat & Tim Kennedy.
As if writing those two comics each month isn’t enough, Kupperberg works on various other projects in and out of comics, including the comics-set mystery novel “Same Old Story.” His newest prose book is the young adult novel “Kevin” from Grosset & Dunlap based on Archie Comics’ gay teen Kevin Keller as a middle school army brat. Kupperberg spoke with CBR News about his work at Archie and his career to date.
CBR News: To prepare for this conversation, over the weekend I read all twenty-eight issues of “Life with Archie.”
Paul Kupperberg: Does it make sense? [Laughs]
Well, I’m a little confused as to what’s happening in what universe right now.
Welcome to my world.
How did you end up writing “Life with Archie?” Had you worked for Archie before?
I did some work for them around 1980 — some advertising comics they were doing with Radio Shack. I got to know [Archie Editor-in-Chief] Victor Gorelick and I’d see him over the years, but for most of the time I was working for DC either on contract or on staff. I never really had much of an opportunity to do work for Archie. About three years ago I got in touch with Victor, just to see if he was taking pitches, and he was. He bought half a dozen stories from me, just regular teen Archie stories. I got a call from him after that asking to come to meet with him and [producer] Michael Uslan and they asked me if I’d be interested in coming on this book. The stuff that Michael was doing in the miniseries of the main Archie book was so successful for them that they were looking to continue the storyline but Michael didn’t have time to write it seeing as how he’s producing movies.
Nobody ever said, “we chose you because,” but I assume that I had shown that I got the Archie characters. Even my regular teen Archie stories were based on their characters. I’m much more interested in writing a story about why Jughead and Veronica act the way they do to each other than to just do some kind of gag. I demonstrated I knew the characters. Plus I had an advantage over most of the Archie writers in that most of what they wrote was one-off Archie stories, but mostly what I’d written was ongoing serialized comic book fiction.
Was part of your interest in writing it because it’s so different from what you’ve done before?
Well, it is very different and it’s the kind of different that I’ve been looking for for a long time. I’ve written a lot of superhero stories — it must be in the neighborhood of six, seven hundred superhero stories in my career — and the punching and the fighting and the flying is the stuff you have to have in. It’s more interesting to write about the character. I always found when I was writing Superman and Superboy and Supergirl back in the ’80s, it was always more interesting to write Clark Kent or Linda Danvers than it was to write Superman or Supergirl. We know what Superman’s going to do, but what is Clark Kent going to do? That was always more fun to me than the fighting, so “Life with Archie” is all of that and hardly any fighting.
How much had been established by Michael before you started work on the book?
Well there was a lot that was set up as far as where the characters were and what they were doing at that point. Because Michael wrote the first issue of the magazine and then I took over with #2, he set up and established what he was setting up and establishing and it was my job to pick up that and see those stories through to completion. Nobody ever told me, this is how these stories have to end. They said, “Here it is, go.” To this day, I’ve been pretty much allowed to handle stories as I see fit. We sit and plot the stories and we’ll work out the broad strokes for the next six issues, but aside from broad strokes no one is saying, do this or do that. They’re letting me go off and do — I was going to say, what I want to do — but they let me do the stories as they come out. It’s not always the way I want to do them. The characters sometimes influence the way things go.
Over the first year and a half, there was a Dilton story crossing over between the two universes and since it wrapped up, there’s been nothing quite so crazy. Can you explain the thinking behind that?
We had established from the very beginning that that was going on and we were going to play it out for a while, but ultimately in “Life with Archie” that type of stuff doesn’t really work. You want to keep it grounded in reality. Once we wrapped it up, I was more comfortable with stories — as was Victor and John Goldwater and all the rest — that are very heavily grounded in reality.
You joked at the beginning about getting confused between the two universes, but you are writing twenty pages a month of each. Do you ever pause when getting an idea and think, “Wait, which universe is this?”
All the time. I have written entire scenes and sent scripts in and Victor would call me up and go, “Isn’t this going on in the other continuity?” There was even an instance that I missed, Victor missed and the artist caught it. It’s tough to keep track. You have the exact same characters in very similar situations. Jughead owns the Choklit Shop in both. Veronica is married in this one, but she’s in similar circumstances as a character in both story lines. Which one is Moose the mayor in? I keep a run of the book on my desk because I need to be able to pick up and flip through and find out where something happened to make sure I’m writing the right continuity. It can be very taxing on the brain.
Right now you have Kevin Keller running for Senate in one, Cheryl Blossom has cancer in the other. What can you tell us about the future?
We’re following through on the Kevin story line with the election and the aftermath. There’s going to be consequences to his campaign and contrary to my earlier statement about not a lot of punching and shooting, there might be some more shooting. Kevin is running on an “anti-everyone-gets-any-kind-of-gun-they-want” platform and we’re following through on that. Cheryl will continue to be a presence in the book. We’ve wrapped up her major story line, but she’s still going to be in the book and we’ll keep the subject of her cancer going. As far as the main characters, they’re going to keep going through regular ups and downs. It’s serialized fiction, which is a nice way of saying it’s soap opera. That’s what we do. Whether it’s “Superman” or “Life with Archie,” we’re all doing soap opera. We put characters through all these situations and see how they react. Whether it’s fighting Brainiac or fighting with your wife, it’s still soap opera.
Someone I know joked that in the first half of the magazine, Archie is married to Veronica and unhappy, and in second half he’s married to Betty and unhappy.
Well, with happy characters, you get a page out of them being happy and then what? Drama is adversity. It’s the human heart in conflict with itself. Too many happy characters and it’s not much of a story to tell.
A lot of the classic Archie stories are about him being indecisive and taking on too much and being unable to succeed at them. The tone is just a little different in the classic teen stories than in “Life with Archie.”
Archie’s a people pleaser and he goes out of his way to please people. He wants people to be happy. That’s why he’s also so eager to do things for people, to help out. He gets caught up in his own enthusiasm and then he screws up but he means well. In the teen stuff he can’t pick between Betty or Veronica because he can’t disappoint either of them.
You also wrote a new novel, “Kevin” which features Kevin Keller, and that will be released soon. I know you’ve written novels before, but how did you end up writing this one?
Archie had signed with Penguin. They had published a couple Betty and Veronica novels and since Kevin was getting publicity and attention, and he’s also an interesting character with something to say, they wanted to do a young adult novel based on him. They were having trouble finding a story that worked. When I heard they were having problems from Victor I said, “You know, I do that too.” He passed that along to the editor at Grosset & Dunlap and at some point when they couldn’t find a story with the people they were working with they got in touch with me. I pitched a couple of plots. I wrote the book. It was pretty straightforward.
You make it sound pretty effortless.
The process this time around was. Normally chasing after work is like pulling someone else’s teeth while they’re trying to resist you. This one was pretty easy. It happened over the course of a few months but once they asked me it went quickly and pretty easily. Sometimes it’s just trying to get the job done as deadlines are approaching.
It sounds like you were all on the same page as far as what they wanted and what the story would be.
Yeah. It’s set back in [Kevin’s] middle school years before he’s come out, before he’s even realized what’s going on with him. It’s not in Riverdale. His father is a military man and they were always moving around. The story involves Kevin grappling with his own issues plus another storyline that involves another kid and bullying. We’re trying to say something as well, if that won’t scare away readers.
It sounds like you’re enjoying working at Archie.
Overall, working on this series has been one of the most fun, sustained efforts I’ve had writing comics. There’s no end of stories to write. The characters are great. They let me write the types of things that I want to write. I don’t feel constrained by anything, from the people I’m working with or the property I’m working on. I think I can still do any story I want to do. So yeah, I’m really having a great time. I like the people, I like the books. What’s to complain?
You were an editor for a number of years. What do you think makes a good editor?
If an editor comes to a writer or artist, I always feel it’s because you want that person’s look or feel or imprint on the project. My view was, if I’m hiring this guy, it’s because I trust him to do it, so I’m going to step back and let him do that. I knew if I hired John Byrne to write and draw “Wonder Woman,” I don’t need to stand over his shoulder. I’m hiring him because he’s John Byrne, so let him be John Byrne and step aside. I think a good editor is someone who lets the creative team do what they do best but is always standing there ready to go, “Wait a minute. Maybe you want to think about this, or have you thought about going another way?” Or just be there to answer questions or help solve problems.
You wrote another novel about two years ago, “Same Old Story,” which is a mystery set in the 1950s comics business which some people may have missed. Talk a little about the book.
It’s set in the early 1950s during one of the crises that affected the business in those days. It forced a lot of companies to shut their doors and stop publishing and a lot of writers and artists were being put out of jobs. Suddenly the streets of New York were alive with scurrying creatives going from company to company to company looking for whatever work was around. My lead character is a young writer who started out writing for the detective pulps, and the murder victim is actually based on an old DC Comics writer. The lead’s father had been a New York City homicide detective and he wrote stories based on his old man. He gets involved in a murder at one of the comic book companies he started writing for since the pulps were going out of business. The novel is half the story of him getting involved in this murder mystery. His dad is dead but his dad’s ex-partner is a family friend and he’s investigating this murder so he’s seeing it from the inside as well. It alternates the chapters of his story with the pulp story he’s written about the crime, with his detective character, based on his father, as the protagonist.
Who was the character based on?
It’s based on Robert Kanigher [the longtime DC Comics writer and editor who co-created Sgt. Rock, Barry Allen and many others]. In fact Julie Schwartz is a character in the book. I have my guy going up to DC looking for work and he runs into Schwartz and they have a brief exchange and he started coming back into the book again and he ended up a character.
You worked for Schwartz when you wrote Superman, is that right?
I wrote for him for years on the “Superman” titles and “DC Comics Presents” and he was the editor of the Superman newspaper strip for a while when I was working on it. I worked with him a lot.
I know you began working in the mid-’70s, but what was your first job in comics?
The first story I sold was to Charlton Comics in April of 1975. It was a five-page story that got printed in “Scary Tales” #3 and was drawn by Mike Zeck, who was himself relatively new. That was my first job. Although I’d been hanging around the fringe of the industry for years due to fanzines and other stuff I was involved with. Plus my brother Alan was an artist a few years older than me and he was already working for DC as of ’71 or so. I got to know a lot of the young turks of the time like [Howard] Chaykin and [Al] Milgrom. I used to do fanzines with Paul Levitz. We did “The Comic Reader” back in the early ’70s. I’ve been around the industry a long time.
In your time as writer, you created “Arion” and “Checkmate,” and you revived “Doom Patrol” in the ’80s.
I actually revived them in “Showcase” in 1977. When “Showcase” was brought back, Doom Patrol was the first feature in it with Power Girl. That run of “Showcase” lasted not very long, but I brought them back and then again in their own book in the ’80s.
Looking back on your time at DC, do you have any favorite projects?
As a writer, I did a “Phantom Stranger” miniseries with Mike Mignola in the ’80s that I’m still oddly proud of. Not oddly. I did a good job and it was drawn by Mike Mignola and Craig Russell. I mean, even if I did a crappy job, who was going to notice? There are individual issues and stories that came out good. One of the last Superman stories I wrote was an imaginary story where it’s in the future and Clark had lost his powers when he was a teenager and went on to live a normal life and then has to become Superman. It was just a throwaway imaginary story but it turned out really well. There’s a couple issues of “DC Comics Presents,” especially one drawn by Gray Morrow with Superman and Madame Xanadu.
As an editor, “Wonder Woman.” I’m proud of my work on that book because it was in some doldrums. I brought in Mike Deodato for a run and then Byrne to do his run on the book. There’s this one shot that I did “Wonder Woman: Amazonia,” with William Messner-Loebs and art by Phil Winslade. Phil was nominated for a National Cartoonist Society Award for his art. They both did a really nice job. “Life Story of the Flash” was a graphic novel I worked on by Mark Waid and Brain Augustyn and Gil Kane and Joe Staton and Tom Palmer.
And now every month there’s more “Life with Archie” with more cancer, death and shooting.
Absolutely. Anything can happen and eventually it will. [Laughs]
You even brought Josie and the Pussycats into the series.
I did. And the story I’m starting today is bringing in Sam Hill. Everybody gets resurrected.
Are we going to see more of the Pussycats or other characters?
Not at the moment, but who knows what the future will bring.
You do have a large cast to juggle.
I do. I have something like sixteen-eighteen characters and sometimes you just have to cycle them out of sight for a story arc or two to either refresh them or to give other people a chance because I’ve got to get more Mr. Weatherbee in there.
How far ahead are you working?
#28 is out and I’m working on #33. I’m usually about four to six months ahead, depending on what’s going on.
The usual comics lead time.
Well, the usual ideal comics lead time. [Laughs] I hear plenty of stories of shooting pages off to the printer one by one as the artist delivers them. But it was ever thus. I can tell some deadline stories that I don’t actually want to relive. [Laughs] Oh, Gil Kane, you nearly killed me.
I think that may end up being the article’s headline: “Paul Kupperberg on how Gil Kane nearly killed him.”
[Laughs] It was on “The Life Story of the Flash.” They suddenly wanted the book out two or three months earlier than it had originally been scheduled. It was impossible to begin with and then Gil was having health problems, but he didn’t want to tell me. He thought if he told me he had health problems, I’d take him off the book, so instead he just screwed up enough that I had to take him off the book. As opposed to getting him help which I would have done and brought someone in to help him finish. So I was working without any information from Gil and trying to make this impossible deadline and with an impossible artist but hey, Gil Kane. What can I tell you?
I was just curious about the lead time because “Life with Archie” is technically a magazine and does that change timing or how you work.
That’s all on the distribution and production end and really doesn’t affect what I do. I’m still writing a comic book story and they’re still drawing comic book stories. It’s just a matter of what template they slip it into once it’s all been written and drawn.
“Life with Archie” #29 is on sale May 8 from Archie Comics.