Though he began his decades-long career at DC Comics, writer David Michelinie is best known for his time at Marvel, where he had lengthy runs on A-list titles like “The Avengers” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.” But Michelinie arguably left the biggest mark on “Iron Man,” a series he wrote solo for many years and co-wrote with Bob Layton for many more. During his time with Tony Stark, Michelinie wrote or co-wrote famous storylines like “Demon in a Bottle” and “The Armor Wars,” and created characters like Jim Rhodes, Justin Hammer and Scott Lang. Lang, who never quite broke out as a character in the comics, is at the center of this summer’s “Ant-Man” movie as the title hero.
This August, Dover Graphic Novels releases a collection of what Micheline describes as “my favorite thing I’ve ever written for comics,” his and artist Bret Blevins’ Epic Comics series “The BOZZ Chronicles.” We spoke with him about revisiting the title, and in the process discussed his career as a whole, from his early years and the reason he left DC to head to Marvel, to the impact “Iron Man” and “Amazing Spider-Man” had on his career and much more.
CBR News: You’re best known for your Marvel work, but you actually started out at DC Comics.
David Michelinie: In 1973, DC Comics (known then as National Periodical Publications) began something they called an apprenticeship program. The intent was to bring young people in to work in the publisher’s offices as gofers, assistants and the like while they learned the business. It was a short-lived experiment, and I believe the only pro to come out of it was Martin Pasko. Anyway, I submitted samples to the program, but for some reason they were misdirected to editor Joe Orlando’s slush pile (unsolicited manuscripts). Joe’s assistant at the time, Michael Fleisher, had a few spare moments one day, took a script off the top of the pile — it happened to be mine — and read it. He sent me a note saying that I showed potential, but they couldn’t work with anyone outside the immediate New York area. Seeing a rare opportunity to get my foot in the door, I closed out my freelance obligations writing commercial and educational films in Kentucky and moved to New York two weeks later. I showed up on DC’s doorstep, and they pretty much had to give me a chance. Fortunately, it worked out.
I spent my first 10 months writing short stories for DC’s horror comics — officially dubbed “mystery” comics to get past the then-required Comics Code Authority. It was tough, scary, exciting and I learned a huge amount under Fleisher’s and Orlando’s tutelage. The first series I landed after that remains one of my all-time favorites: the Unknown Soldier tales in “Star Spangled War Stories.” My friends thought the assignment was ironic, since I had been a strong anti-war advocate in college. But what better backdrop to show the horrors of war than war itself? And I was blessed to have Gerry Talaoc as an artist. He set a unique mood and visual look that fit the new direction for the series perfectly. Another favorite from those early years was my short run on “Swamp Thing.” Len Wein’s beautifully written scripts on the original issues showed me how literate and emotional comics could be. I tried very hard to come close to the standards Len set. And having the magnificent Nestor Redondo on the art chores went a long way to cover up any of my shortcomings.
How did you end up moving from DC to Marvel, which happened in the late 1970’s?
That was the result of one of my first Great Disappointments in my comics career. I had created a series for DC that had been troubled from the start–I don’t believe it ever had more than two issues in a row by the same art team. At one point a new design for a major prop was needed, and the current artist submitted several original drawings and one Xeroxed design. The originals weren’t very imaginative (they turned out to have been drawn by the artist’s assistant), but the Xerox was pretty cool, so we went with that. After the first issue using that design had gone to print, it was discovered that the xerox had been of an animation cell from a Saturday morning cartoon show! So basically the series that I had worked so hard to create and make original was using a line-for-line theft from a TV show.
I made my anger known to DC and was told that the artist would be replaced. But I was asked not to tell anyone until the art for the current issue was finished. When the last page of art came in, I asked my editor who the new artist would be, and he told me they had decided to keep the current guy, knowing that if that happened I would quit. This showed me that DC, at least at the time, valued a dishonest (and lazy) artist over a writer who had given them unquestioned loyalty for five years. I called Jim Shooter at Marvel and asked if I could get work there; his reply was, “Would today be too soon?”
Around the time you moved to Marvel, you started writing “Iron Man.” Was that your first project for the company?
My first assignment at Marvel was “The Avengers,” and I was looking for a second regular series to write. “Iron Man” was open for a new writer and a new inker, and Bob Layton suggested we team up on it. Bob and I had become friends when he inked issues I’d written of “Claw” and “Star Hunters” at DC, and he was always throwing out ideas for those characters when we talked. He was a longtime Iron Man fan, and I’d never read the character before, so it seemed like a good mesh; I could bring a fresh perspective to the character, and he could redirect me if I got too close to anything that had been done before. And since it was to be a true collaboration, we decided to officially co-plot the book.
Many people — including myself — would argue that yours is the definitive run on the series, with arcs like “Demon in a Bottle” and “Armor Wars,” creating many characters including Jim Rhodes and Justin Hammer. Did you have a mandate when you took over the book? Did you have a plan for where you wanted to go with the book?
Nope, no mandate. “Iron Man” was a mid-tier book with average sales when we took it over. If I recall correctly, there wasn’t a huge amount of excitement over the character, either with readers or at Marvel. There were hardcore fans, of course, but in general I would describe the attitude towards Iron Man as “sleepy.” Which was great, because we were given pretty much a free hand with what we wanted to do. In fact, when we came up with the alcohol storyline — a potentially controversial move back then — the only instruction editor-in-chief Shooter gave us was, “Do it well.” As for a plan, we kind of worked on that as we went along.
If people don’t know you for “Iron Man,” they probably know your run on “The Amazing Spider-Man.” You worked with so many artists, developed numerous new characters — do you have any favorite moments from that period?
Spider-Man was my favorite comic book character of all time, so being assigned to write “Amazing,” the original Spidey title, was a favorite moment by itself — ranks right up there with making my first professional sale and seeing the first issue of “The BOZZ Chronicles” in print. Working with an editor who gave me a great deal of freedom — Jim Salicrup — and a penciller who gave me clear storytelling and cool visuals — Todd McFarlane — made those first years fun, exciting and very special.
Another Marvel character you created is Scott Lang, who will be the star of this summer’s big “Ant-Man” movie. Did you get to visit the set or have a cameo on the film?
No, I was never asked to do any of that. Though I would have loved to be in a crowd scene standing next to Stan Lee, maybe saying something like, “Yeesh! Who thinks up this stuff?”
Do you have a favorite Scott Lang story?
I’d probably have to go back and reread all of the Scott Lang appearances I wrote to jog my memory for any specific stories. But in general, my favorite part about writing Scott, both as a civilian and as the new (at least at the time) Ant-Man, was dealing with the family angle. I really liked the relationship between Scott and his 10-year-old daughter, Cassie. It was tough for a single father to fight crime while trying to raise a kid, and it was tough for Cassie to know her father was a super hero and not be able to tell anyone! I thought that element brought something fresh to the genre.
This summer, Dover is publishing a collection of “The BOZZ Chronicles,” a miniseries you wrote back in the ’80s —
Actually, it wasn’t a miniseries — it was an ongoing bimonthly that was contracted on an annual basis. I was asked to renew after the first year, but had “irreconcilable differences” with the editor I was working for directly, and declined to renew.
Anyway, “The BOZZ Chronicles” remains my favorite thing I’ve ever written for comics. I got the idea after seeing the movie, “E.T. – The Extraterrestrial.” I wondered what would have happened if the title character had been stranded on Earth a century earlier, when there wasn’t the technology to allow him to “phone home.” So I came up with a powerful but childlike alien who crash landed in Victorian England. I partnered him up with a streetwise hooker-with-a-heart-of-slightly-tarnished-gold and an expatriate American cowboy and had them establish a consulting detective agency. Then, sort of like Sherlock Holmes meets “The X-Files,” I had them take on bizarre cases, to keep the brilliant but homesick alien’s mind off of thoughts of suicide. It was sort of like steampunk before that term became popular. Bret Blevins drew the stories with a wonderful period feel and the perfect blend of humor and humanity. I’m very proud of those stories.
“BOZZ” was published by Epic back when Archie Goodwin was running the imprint, correct?
Archie was a truly good person and the best writer Marvel had. Producing work that he found worthy was very important to me, and was a major factor in the quality of the stories I was able to produce. I only wish I’d been able to work with him more directly on the later issues; I’m sure the series would have lasted longer.
I know that we’re talking mostly about comics you’ve written in the past, but you are still writing projects in and out of comics. What do you have coming out soon?
I’ve written three pieces for Charlton Neo that I hope will be out this year: A 2-parter that was done for the upcoming “Charlton Action,” and a short humor piece that doesn’t have a specific home yet. I also have two prose short stories scheduled for paperback anthologies. One is a steampunk superhero tale for a book that just changed publishers, so I don’t know when it will be out, or exactly what the title will be. The other is for an homage to 1960s comics, titled “Giant Swingin’ Superhero 1968 Special.” I’ll be posting details on my Facebook page when I know them.
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