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REFLECTIONS: Talking with Charlie Huston

by  in Comic News Comment
REFLECTIONS: Talking with Charlie Huston

Reflections #201

No, now that “Reflections'” original numbering has been reinstated, it will not be cancelled at column 203 to be relaunched as “New Reflections” a few months later, in case you were wondering.

I’ve become rather jaded recently at many of the newer writers brought into comics from outside mediums, with many of the books launched by television writers and novelists belly-flopping in sales and quality a few months after premiering.

So, imagine my surprise at just how consistently excellent the “Moon Knight” relaunch has been. Charlie Huston has proven, like Whedon and Heinberg, to be a major exception to the outside-the-comic-medium rule, and his combination of noir stylings with grim-and-gritty superheroics hit a major chord with readers, myself included. I knew nothing about Moon Knight when I picked up the first issue and now he is one of my favorite characters in the Marvel universe.

I sat down with Huston for an in-depth about his place in the comic industry and lifelong love for Marc Spector.

Story continues below

Robert Taylor: How’s life?

Charlie Huston: Life is going well.

RT: How’s life going at Marvel?

CH: There is really nothing going on. My tenure on “Moon Knight” is kind of wrapped up for now, and we just don’t know as of yet what is going on after that. I’m scripted through 13, and I haven’t written a script in awhile, so “Moon Knight” is a little abstract for me, and we are trying to decide if my schedule will allow me to be involved beyond that.

Regardless of what happens, I’m going to keep my hands in some projects that I have been talking to [Marvel editor] Alex Alonso about, but there is nothing I can talk about because there is nothing definitive yet.

RT: Previous to coming into comics, you were – and remain – a fairly well-respected novelist. What made you want to make the jump into comic book scripting in the first place?

CH: It wasn’t a decision that I made and it wasn’t something I was looking to do.

I was a comic book fan when I was a kid, and in my early teens I was a very avid reader, and then I drifted out of them due to other interests and not being able to afford them. [laughs]

Every now and then I would find myself in a comic book store, and what happened was that I had published my first two novels, and it was about that time when Marvel and DC were getting very active in looking outside the traditional comic book world for talent.

Some of the incentive for that was to get writers who were established names in other mediums, and it became a selling point for the books. Outside writers came with a skill set you could use for a monthly comic.

With me, nobody came looking specifically for me. It was lovely of you to say I’m a fairly well-respected writer, but the emphasis is on “fairly.” As respected as I may or may not be, that is only with a small sample of the populace and most people probably didn’t know that I existed.

Someone from Marvel’s publishing initiative was out trolling for writers who might be interested in doing novelizations and sent a general query letter to my agency asking if I was interested in getting involved in writing novels.

My agent knew that I was kind of interested and I had started reading comics again a year ago in a fairly regular fashion. My agent asked me if I was interested. My response was a two-word email and I can tell you exactly what it said:

“Fuck yes!”

RT: Out of curiosity, you said you got back into comics. When you got back into them, were you more of a DC guy or more of a Marvel guy.

CH: I was always more of a Marvel guy. I was also into indy when it was getting started. There were only ever a couple DC titles I read. The thing that got me into comics in the first place was Miller’s “Daredevil” and Claremont’s “X-Men.” The stories were more mature, darker and a little more rooted in something approximating reality and I had always associated DC stuff with more over-the-top stuff.

The DC titles that I dug when I was a kid were “Legion of Super Heroes.” I think it was because it was more of a science fiction story than a superhero story.

The two things that I started actually going to the comic book store to pick up on a regular basis were “Astonishing X-Men” and “The Ultimates.” Those two books got me caring, and I went to the comic book store every couple of months to get what had accumulated and then I started branching out and picking up a few other things.

RT: Okay, so back to you getting your start at Marvel. So we were at, “Fuck this.”

CH: I was interested in having a conversation with Marvel, but I wanted to make it clear that I was not interested in doing novelizations. I wrote novels and there was no reason to take a commission to do someone else’s novel. It was unrewarding.

But I was very interested in talking to them about a comic book. It’s not something I think I would have ever pursued on my own, since I wouldn’t know how to pursue it, but since it came to me it is definitely something I wanted to try.

So we began to have discussions, but nobody there had ever read my novels, but they were passed on to Axel and he liked it. Fairly early in those conversations, I was asked if I had every heard of Moon Knight. He had been very close to my heart as a kid and once it was brought up in conversation, all that stuff that I had loved from a kid came rushing back and I knew that it was the book I wanted to work on.

It turned out Axel and I were very simpatico and Joe Quesada became involved and also was very attune to what was going on. It just happened that the pitch that I had was really right up the alley of what they were looking for.

RT: Did you know of David Finch before he came onto the book?

CH: I didn’t really. I was always a writing guy, so the comic book creators that I knew were writers, with only a couple of artists. Of the new ones, I had only just started reading again, so I hadn’t been looking very much. I was just becoming aware of what artists I liked. While I wasn’t intimate with Dave’s work, he was one of a few artists who I recognized because I had been reading Bendis’ “Ultimate Spider-Man.”

I was at a house and asked a friend what “Ultimate Spider-Man” was and when he told me I thought it was a miserable, cheap, bullshit, rip-off idea that is a fucking crappy corporate decision. And then I read the first issue and thought it was awesome.

That is how I became aware of Bendis, and when I saw he was writing Marvel titles, I was reading some of the “New Avengers,” so I was aware of Finch, but I had no idea of his stature.

I had written the first three or four scripts, and Axel used those to court artists. Since I was a brand new writer and Moon Knight was an obscure C-list character, Axel thought he would find an artist who was just trying to break through, and I think that when he talked to Dave, he was just fishing. So when Dave came on, I knew from Axel’s level of excitement, that it was a big deal. Soon I realized just how fortunate I was that my first title had someone like him to drive the interest in the title way up. I give Dave the lion share of credit for the popularity of the launch. I don’t think that without that level of interest Marvel wouldn’t have been that muscular with the launch of the book.

RT: Before we get into the actual scripting process, let’s talk about the research you did for the book. As someone who went into the series dry from the first issue, the way you seamlessly integrated the backstory in with the present was great.

CH: I read those books when I was a kid. They were all boxed up in my folks’ place.

RT: They didn’t throw them out? [laughs]

CH: I only had a couple boxes and it wasn’t eating up a ton of space. I’m not much of a collector and I didn’t preserve them terribly well. But they were something I wanted to keep around.

I got my folks to send me the “Moon Knights” that I had and I bought the “Marc Spector: Moon Knight” books because I had never read those. Just for fun I picked up the run of “West Coast Avengers” when he was on the team.

A lot of people don’t know that Moench wrote two really good minis after his run and one is key continuity because in one of the miniseries’ he was resurrected.

You have to know what people before you had done. One of the things, besides the appeal of being involved with a character that I loved, was that the continuity was embraceable. This wasn’t Spider-Man or Captain America or, God forbid, the X-Men.

I felt like I was on firm ground with “Moon Knight” because I felt like I had command of the source material and could build stories from that.

RT: He’s the classic noir hero at the beginning of the series. Was that all you, or partly Marvel?

CH: Marvel gave me a blank slate. The conversation I specifically had with Joe was to have a Moon Knight who was active and ready to reengage into the Marvel universe. Joe said this could be brand new, or a reboot, or whatever I wanted to do. He just didn’t want me to change the fucking costume. [laughs]

For me, there was no question that it would be Marc Spector. There were a few things I needed to tweak for the continuity, but I wanted to grab onto everything there was before and build from there.

You said that he is a classic noir character, and that is how the character always felt to me when I read him as a kid. Undoubtedly, part of where my noir taste comes from is “Moon Knight.” That is one of the elements I connected with when I was younger.

It also served the story to have the character at a zero point when the book began. It’s easier to start from there and a great place for new readers to jump on.

To be honest, the original thing that I talked to Axel and Joe about, and part of the reason the pitch worked so well for them, was that I said that Marc was like an aging athlete who was past his prime. This is a guy who, at one point in his life, was a real star in the game, but he is now falling apart. But he wants to get back in the game. And I didn’t realize I was pitching it to the only two avid sports fans at Marvel.

The entire first issue I had Moon Knight fantasizing about his past, and I wanted to have him originally in a mental hospital and really kooky, and I had been fiddling with different ideas, like if one of his old villains was behind it. Joe was the one who said to keep it closer to the broken athlete idea and to just have him on painkillers. I thought it was a great idea. I have written about a lot of addicted characters in my novels, so it was an area I had already played in, and it came comfortably for me and suited the characters.

RT: I love asking this of writers from other mediums: Did you overwrite the first script, underwrite it or write just enough?

CH: The first script was changed very little. The critique I got from Axel after he read it was that there was a few specific story points that needed adjusted, but other than that, not much. I understood that if you are going to stack a page with a lot of panels, you need to make sure that you focus on as many small elements as possible and aren’t trying to cram too much detail in. I hadn’t taken into account what that would do to an artist, though.

I tried to trim it up and work from a base six panels per page and be aware when I was going over that.

My consistent criticism of myself as a writer is that I use too much dialogue, and panels become overcrowded. I’m not streamlined that way, though. Maybe if I do a lot more of this, it will change. In terms of my run, it’s becoming part of the style of the book.

RT: You can’t do a noir story without shadows and a lot of hardboiled dialogue though.

CH: I would say that, at some point, I would like to do some more stripped down stories. In most of my action sequences, I try to leave it alone except for some voiceover captions and let the action carry it.

I don’t have time to second guess myself, so I write things as I think they should be written. The truth is, there were very little adjustments made to the first arc when Dave came onboard, and that was to distribute action throughout the arc more evenly so he could plug his big guns in elsewhere and really shine. Other than that, Axel was pretty much hands-off. He gives me guidance and answers questions, but there has been very little rewriting.

RT: There are some really pretty splashes and scenes. Were those mostly you or mostly Dave?

CH: I knew nothing about Dave’s love for two-page splashes. When we first started working together, he described himself as a classic Image artist and now I know that it means big splashes and lots of action. Generally what happened with those was that I always told Dave if he wanted to adjust the distribution and size of the panels, he had the freedom to do that as long as the panel count remained the same and dialogue wasn’t really redistributed.

Mostly, that stuff was Dave taking stuff and moving panels around and doing an extra page when Marvel would let him. That’s how we got the big showstoppers in there. It was usually a surprise for me and it was really cool to get those bulletin board stunners.

RT: Looking back on your first arc, how successful was it?

CH: Looking back, I’m pretty happy with it. There are some things, in both the arcs, there is a lot of storytelling stuff going on so that I could fulfill Marvel’s mandate about having a feasible Moon Knight ready for the universe, so I had to put in a lot of exposition. One of the solutions was to bring in the Profile character and integrating the Moon Knight ensemble, which is a hallmark of the title, even though some writers had jettisoned that. But I felt like this was a family and part of what the world was and it needed to be at the forefront of the series. I feel like that part of it was very successful. In introducing new people to the character and giving people all that a lot of flavor, but leaving a lot of question marks to build other stories was good.

There were things that I felt I dropped the ball on. I feel like I misused Taskmaster; he just ended up being used as a badass and I didn’t make use of his abilities or highlighted what he really does.

I’m sure that if I flipped through I would find things on every page that would disappoint me, but I feel that overall we did a good job of what Marvel wanted to do.

RT: You said earlier that you haven’t turned in a script recently, and I honestly am not up with the news there, so please enlighten me.

CH: Just because I was contracted through a certain number of scripts. I had a contract where I originally was going to do a mini, and then Marvel wanted to try and launch it as a monthly, and I had a window in my schedule that allowed me to complete the first year. I wrote through issue 12, and I realized I wanted to do a 13th issue to tie up the storytelling so that it could be easily handed off to another writer.

And now I have no time. The reason I could do it was because I had a hole in my schedule, and it’s long gone. I turned in the last one months ago, and now I don’t have the time and Marvel and I have talked abut different options, and we have had the luxury of time to figure out if I can stick around or if I need to walk away and let someone else pay with “Moon Knight.”

I would love to continue writing the title for a long time, and Marvel would like to have me on the title, but I have to write these novels.

RT: My fingers are crossed. Are there any DC characters or Marvel characters you want to work on? I know you also worked on that “Ultimates Annual.”

CH: The annual fell into my lap and it was a situation where they needed somebody while Mark Millar was not feeling at his best and someone needed to pick up the slack. That was intimidating because “Ultimates” was one of the titles that got me back interested in comic books.

I didn’t have a strong idea for a full cast story, but they told me that if I wanted to I could narrow down the focus to a few cast members. When I was a little kid, I would read the same comics over and over, and one of those comics was a Kirby “Captain America and the Falcon.” I knew I wanted to do that, and John Barber, who was editing the annual, gave me a lot of stuff to root through to refresh my memory.

So that was one of those cool things that gave me an opportunity to reconnect with something from my childhood.

As far as other characters, I know the big guys in the DC Universe, but I don’t know the nooks and crannies. I wouldn’t know how to start over there.

RT: And you seem like more of a nooks and crannies type of guy as well.

CH: I wouldn’t know what was there. I would happily talk to anybody about anything because I love to write, but I wouldn’t know what to do.

As far as Marvel goes, there are a couple of things Axel and I have talked about, and I’m hopeful that we will get one of those situated in the near future. My guess is that if I don’t continue on “Moon Knight,” there is not another monthly I would conceive of trying to work on. Any work I would do for Marvel would be a mini for the foreseeable future because there aren’t as many deadline issues.

I love the X-Men, but I wouldn’t know where to start with it nowadays. I love Daredevil, but any story I would tell would be so hard to separate from “Moon Knight” and not have it bleed over.

A character who I love, and would like to get my hands on, is the Vision.

RT: He’s dead. Well, sort of. He’s been replaced with a smaller, teenage Vision.

CH: I knew he got ripped in half, but if he is dead it’s better for me.

RT: It plays a lot better on the page…

CH: It always does.

RT: But his memories were downloaded into a younger version of himself in “Young Avengers.”

CH: I’m trying to visualize titles in a comic book store, and there are some weird obscure characters I could play with, and if I had an idea for something like a Cloak and Dagger story I might pitch that, but that’s all I have for you right now.

RT: Okay, lightning round. Favorite curse word.

CH: The one I use the most is fuck, straight up. Fuckwad gives me particular joy as well.

RT: What are your biggest strengths as a writer?

CH: In novels, I would say it is not overwriting. My novels are really lean. In comic books, I would say the strength is the dialogue, which can be the same as a weakness.

RT: What is your favorite comic book movie of all time?

CH: If you are talking about movies that remind me of comic books onscreen, the thing that popped into my head as a flawless spirit of comic books is “Road Warrior.” I actually referenced it in the “Ultimates Annual” with the car chase at the end.

The best comic book adaptation is “Superman.”

And I mean the original, not “Superman Returns.”

RT: What would be the one comic you would write for the rest of your career?

CH: I’m sure it would be “Moon Knight,” there is no reason to get fancy about it. I have, in my head, enough stories to keep me occupied for a few more years, and I’m sure I could generate more ideas.

RT: Tell me your most memorable comic book convention moment.

CH: There is no real specific incident. The first time I went, I was utterly unprepared and felt like I was getting brain raped every second I was on the trade floor. I lasted about 30 minutes on the trade floor. I just about ran screaming I was so overwhelmed.

But, off the top of my head, I was giving away copies of one of my vampire novels, and I was pulling people out of the passing crowd who looked like they might be into vampire stuff (and they aren’t that hard to find at a convention) and I grabbed this guy who was wearing a lot of goth-type stuff. I realized he had the fang caps in his mouth, and he invited me to a vampire party he and his friends were having that night.

RT: If you were only remembered for one thing in your career, what would you want it to be?

CH: As a good workman, and all that implies.

Next week: Frazer Irving!

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