Comic fans who follow writer Kurt Busiek’s prolific Twitter account know that if they haven’t seen the writer’s byline on a traditional comic lately, it isn’t for lack of desire.
The creator behind hits from “Astro City” to “Marvels” has been away from a heavy writing slate over the past year due to some medical issues, but this week, he made an unheralded return to getting work out there with the republishing of “Thoughts On A Winter Morning” from digital-based Monkeybrain Comics via comiXology. The autobiographical story drawn by Steve Lieber was originally published in the “Negative Burn” anthology, but as the writer tells it, his dusting the tale off for digital life is just the first step in his happy return to producing more comics work on a regular basis. And the next step will be more digital work with a story titled The Gas Kat Prowls” for Mark Waid’s Thrillbent.com.
CBR News spoke with Busiek about the long journey to getting his first autobio work created, the potential digital comics hold for his work, the creative challenges of creating for Thrillbent, the status of the beloved “Astro City” and his plans for more and more comics work in the next year.
CBR News: Kurt, I wanted to start by asking where you’re at in your writing life. You’ve spoken publicly on Twitter about how health issues have been a roadblock to getting any comics writing done of late, but with two stories on the way, from Monkeybrain Comics and Thrillbent.com, can we assume that you’re back in the swing of things?
Kurt Busiek: Well, yes — but not going by the stuff you’re talking about. That stuff is not as new as you think it is. The short answer here is that after I finished “Trinity,” which is about three years ago now, I got sick and I got slower and slower and slower. This past January, I wound up in the emergency room on a more regular basis than anyone would like. I spent the last six months or so on pain pills that were so effective that I wasn’t getting any writing done at all. I was very slow up until January, and then I was at a complete standstill. Now, I’ve had surgery. I’ve had my gallbladder removed, and I’m recovering. I’m back at work, working on “Astro City.”
But the two projects you’re talking about — one is a reissue of a story I wrote in 2004, and the other is going to be a new publication of a script that had never been drawn from 2003. I then rewrote it last year, and when I was sure my brain was back and I could write it again, I polished it up a few weeks ago again for Thrillbent.
“Thoughts On A Winter Morning” is out this week on comiXology from Monkeybrain. I haven’t read everything you’ve ever written, but I think this is one of the few if not the only autobiographical story you’ve ever done. It’s set in 1998, but, did you not write the full script until ’04?
Actually, it was written the day it happened. It’s set in 1998 about a week after my daughter Sydney was born. I got up that morning when my wife and the baby were asleep, and I took the dog for a walk. And in the course of that walk, I realized that I was seeing practically everything about the world through different eyes. I had a different perspective on things because becoming a father had just changed things. Throughout walking Hector around the neighborhood, I started thinking about the way perception changes over time. What you see through a child’s eyes is not the same as what you see through an adult’s eyes is not the same as what you see through a parent’s eyes, and so on. These were heady thoughts for…well, a winter morning. [Laughs] When I got home, Sydney and Anne were still asleep, and I didn’t want to let go of what I was thinking about. So I sat down at the computer and wrote it down. Because of my instincts and experiences as a comics writer, I wrote it in comics form. I wasn’t intending to write a story that would see print. I just wanted to get the ideas down in some form so I could hang onto them.
I think that probably counts as my first piece of autobiographical writing, aside from things like a cartoon I wrote for Peter David about how I designed the “But I Digress…” logo [from “Comics Buyer’s Guide”] for a convention guest of honor booklet. But that was just telling an anecdote about Peter in comics form. This was an actual story.
So the script just sat there until 2004 when Joe Pruett was reviving “Negative Burn,” and he asked me if I could write something for it. I told him, “I’d love to, but I’m completely locked in with deadlines — but I do have this short piece that hasn’t been drawn.” I revised it a little bit for him, and we lined up Steve Lieber to draw it. And Steve did an absolutely stunning job. He lives across the river from me in the Portland area, so he actually came over to my neighborhood that I had lived in when I wrote the script, and we basically retraced the walk. He took photos of the house I’d been living in then, and when I passed the local park, he wanted to get everything as close as he possibly could. It was an interesting exercise because he was working with photographic reference for all the present-day stuff, but for all the parts that were memories from my childhood, he had to go on my descriptions. Half the story, he could draw accurate to real life, and the other half was filtered through his perception of my perception. That was an interesting process considering the story is all about perception. But he did a gorgeous job. I’m thrill to have been able to work with him, even if it was only for eight pages.
Do you think he did a pretty flattering job representing the modern you?
[Laughs] I think he did a reasonably accurate job. He didn’t make me look like a superhero or anything. He made me look like me. Every point in the story that hits an emotional beat, he captures that emotion beautifully. The story may be a series of reflections and experiences out of my brain, but Steve is the guy who brought it to emotional and graphic life. That’s why the story works, I think.
It struck me the other day that digital publishing operations like Monkeybrain that work via comiXology and other digital platforms feel very much like they’re occupying the space once held by indie companies like First Comics, Pacific Comics or even Caliber, which was the original home of “Negative Burn.” They’re focusing on more creator-owned work that’s sold specifically to readers already invested in the comics market more so than this idea big publishers have about digital being a “new newsstand.” Do you feel that platform is better suited to your putting out more personal or smaller works than the Direct Market may be these days?
Sure. I’d like to do more with Monkeybrain, and most of the print publishers that I work with seem to work with comiXology. One way or another, when “Astro City” goes digital through DC, it will be on comiXology. But the thing that thrills me about this comes in two stages. The first, of course, is that this is like a comic book store that you don’t have to go to. If you’re in the middle of Montana, and there’s no comic book store for 300 miles, you can get comics. If you’re in an airport heading for France, and you ran out of something to read like a few graphic novels…bam! You’ve got them. The accessibility of it fits in with what you were saying about people already in the know about comics, but the fact that it’s available to anybody with a web link means that it’s available to people who don’t know anything about comics. They may not be naturally driven to it.
I think a lot of what works well in what comiXology is doing is that they’re doing stuff that fits into the urban fantasy/mythic fiction category. They’re doing a lot of all-ages material. If somebody who knows about comics happens on “Amelia Cole and The Unknown World” [from Adam P Knave, DJ Kirkbride and Nick Brokenshire], they can go, “This is really cool urban fantasy stuff.” Or the same with “October Girl” or any of the other Monkeybrain books. If someone picks up Paul Tobin’s new novel or Adam Christopher’s superhero novels, they might latch on to “Edison Rex” [by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver]. And through social media, the word can spread to people who don’t read comics or don’t go to comic stores. They can say, “Here’s this cool thing aimed at me. And it’s only $0.99 or $1.99. I can sample it on my computer. I can try it out the same way I’d try out a novel on Amazon.”
So the core, easy-to-reach audience for Monkeybrain may be like the audience First or Eclipse was hitting years back. But the large cloud audience around it is limited only to people with web connections. It can reach out and connect to people that Marvel and DC aren’t able to reach with print.
The other thing I’m really excited about is that here’s a short story I did a decade ago, and we can make it available where it doesn’t have to be in print or in an anthology somewhere. It’s just here. Here’s a complete short story that’s $0.99. It used to be that when you did short stories in comics form, they were just dead after their initial release. What can you do with them? Unless it was part of a series, you weren’t able to collect it. Those things felt like they were easy to be orphaned. Now here’s a project I did with Steve Lieber — and neither of us are obscure names — but you didn’t know about it. You hadn’t seen it, and you hadn’t seen it because it appeared in an anthology in 2005 and hasn’t been seen since.
This is what I love about the digital revolution. All throughout my formative comics reading years, I was hearing about the story “Master Race” by Bernard Krigstein. And eventually, I got to read it because it was collected in a big heavy book somewhere. Now in digital, you can be reading an article that mentions “Master Race,” and it can have a hot link that will take you to a place where for a dollar, you can download that one story to instantly experience the sort of thing that as a kid I had to wait YEARS to get my hands on. You can potentially get that story for a buck. If they wanted to, all of Will Eisner’s “Spirit” stories could be online for a dollar each. You wouldn’t have to buy big, heavy hardcover collections. Those are great collections, and I have them and love them, but if you could walk into that world for a dollar? That’s wonderful. That’s exciting.
How are you taking this enthusiasm for the distribution possibilities in digital and moving it into the creative end of the equation? You say that the story you’re doing for Thrillbent — “The Gas Kat Prowls” — is a script you’ve had for a while, but Mark Waid’s big idea there is to write stories that fit the specific medium of the tablet and such. Are you redrafting that tale with an eye on those ideas?
What Mark’s been doing in “Insufferable” is exploring that format in his particular way. I’m not 100% sure “The Gas Kat Prowls” will be exploring it in the same way. To give you some background on the story, this is an idea that I had going back to 1983, maybe. I loved the idea so much that I knew I was going to write it some day, and my working title for it was “American Gods.” [Laughter] When Neil Gaiman’s book was announced, I thought, “Dammit! Somebody got to it first!” Then I read the book and went, “No they didn’t! This is a really good book, but it’s a completely different idea!”
So I wrote a short, 12-page story that built the core idea of what I had in mind for my “American Gods” project for an anthology that never ended up happening. That was in 2003. And then last year, I was involved in another anthology that never got off the ground, but I dusted off this story and rewrote it at 18 pages. I thought that was too long, but I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it. I knew the 12-page one was too cramped and the 18-page one was too fluffy. There was something structural going wrong. So after my brain started to clear, I contact Mark.
Partly, my interest in Thrillbent is because I like the platform and I like what Mark is doing with “Insufferable.” But Mark’s also one of the best editors I know. Here, I’ve got this story that I really want to do, and I’ve written two versions of it where I know something about it doesn’t quite work. I’m tapering off of pain pills, so I need a sounding board — somebody to give me straight advice on what to do. So I sent Mark both versions of the story, and by the time we got to talk about it, I was going, “I think I know where the structural problem is, but I’m not sure.” And when I told Mark my thought, he said, “Yeah, that fixes everything.” Then he gave me a few suggestions and pointers, and I rewrote the story now as 16 pages long, or 32 Thrillbent screens. I was writing it to take 16 pages of comics and split them in half. Mark and I have talked about ways to use some of the things he does in “Insufferable” to our advantage, and now it’s with an artist who I don’t want to name just yet. But he’s giving us thoughts on how we can do this online in that way that isn’t animation but also isn’t a static presentation. So we’re still opening up the story to see what we can do. My script is the starting point, and we’ll see where it goes from there. My only rule going in was that I’m perfectly open to doing this kind of thing online, so long as it’s also possible to do a print version eventually. I like the idea of doing online comics, but I also love print, so I want this dual purposed.
For now, are you just focusing on these smaller things to dip your toe in the water while “Astro City” comes together, or do you have some other projects in the hopper?
The answer to both halves of that question is “Yes.” “Astro City” is almost ready to go. The only reason we weren’t back at the beginning of this year or maybe earlier was that I was slower because of the illness. But I think I’m working on issue #8 now. We’ve got seven issues done, which is more than a trade paperback’s worth of stuff ready to go. What we’re waiting for now is for me to be producing a script a month so we don’t go for seven or eight months before we’re off-schedule again. Right now, I’m working to get a couple of scripts in the can, and if I get two scripts done in two months, then I’ll be back on pace, and we can schedule the book with lots of lead time in case there are problems. But the whole idea is to get me rolling again for production.
I have a follow-up to “Superman: Secret Identity” called “Batman: Creature of the Night” that John Paul Leon is drawing. There, I have the advantage that I’ve been slow, but so is John Paul. I’m still fairly well ahead of him on scripts, but as “Astro City” is rolling, I want to get more “Creature of the Night” script done for John Paul so it can keep moving at whatever pace it will move at. And there are other projects I have in the works that have been back-burnered or not started up because I’ve largely been non-functional. The idea is that I’m sticking my toe back in the water, but I will be going deeper and deeper in as I can. I’ll be adding more work to what I’m doing once I get these “Astro City” scripts done and know I can produce at a certain speed. Hopefully, I’ll build back up to a more regular level of production for me.
“Thoughts On A Winter Morning” is available now through Monkeybrain Comics on comiXology.