Mutants, Movies & Medical Bills: A Night With Peter David

A living legend of the comic book industry, writer Peter David recently sat down at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art for a chat with two of his longtime editors, Marvel alumni Danny Fingeroth, and John Ordover, former senior editor of Simon and Schuster's Pocket Books division. During the course of the evening, David -- PAD to his fans -- discussed his career, past, present and future, and the effect his recent stroke has had on it.

In fact, Fingeroth started off the conversation by asking about the stroke, which David said occurred in the pons region of his brain, the area which affects the nervous system. Doctors told him that 80% of people with strokes in that area die from them. He was proud of his time in the recovery center, as he made rapid progress and pushed himself a lot further than doctors thought he would be able to, to the point where he can now walk on his own with nothing more than a cane. A query to the audience as to if they could detect any change in his speaking ability prompted a resounding "No," to his satisfaction. He praised the support he got through his health insurance from Marvel, saying without it, "I'd be $80,000 in the hole."

Joking about the notoriously negative nature of the Internet, David said he was shocked that the response to news of his condition was an almost-universal outpouring of well-wishes. Approximately 50 books from his Crazy 8 self-publishing imprint sold the month prior to his stroke, but the month of his stroke that figure jumped a hundred-fold, a windfall he was grateful for as health insurance does not cover all expenses. One downside he noted was that in the wake of the stroke, he was notified that his services would no longer be needed for the next "Spider-Man" video game, even though his work had been well-received on "Spider-Man: Edge of Time." Although it was never said to him directly that that his stroke was the reason for losing the gig, David felt the implication was clear.

Asked if he'd ever written a story in any of his fiction similar to what happened to him, David said that he hadn't. The closest he came was when he'd planned to have Quicksilver suffer a stroke in his original "X-Factor" run, which he envisioned as the ultimate struggle for a man used to moving faster than everyone. However, he left the series over differences with editorial before that story could come to fruition.

Turning to his upcoming projects, David talked about "Artful," a new book published through Amazon which takes the point-of-view of the Artful Dodger of "Oliver Twist" fame. This Dodger, however, is a vampire hunter on a mission to protect Princess (and eventual Queen) Victoria. David noted that in the original "Oliver Twist," Fagin, the criminal mastermind, was described as having fang-like teeth, never eating or drinking and never coming out in daylight. This description was one inspiration for his new take on the old classic.

Asked about his early career at Marvel, David noted that he was first hired in the sales department by Carol Kalish, whom he had initially met to interview for a comics magazine. While working in sales, he developed a rapport with editor Jim Owsley (now known as Christopher Priest) who gave Peter his first comics work as the new writer of "Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man," where he was tasked with killing off Jean DeWolffe, who was unpopular with Owsley. David eventually left the book under pressure from some in editorial who resented his connections with the sales department, but was given another opportunity by a young Bob Harras to take over a book that no one else wanted to write: The "Incredible Hulk."

At first, David was reluctant, not wanting to write a one-dimensional character who went around smashing things, but Harras persuaded him, explaining that previous writer Al Milgrom had left the Hulk in an altered state -- gray and somewhat more intelligent, akin to his initial incarnation. David would remain with the book for 12 years.

Explaining the circumstances of his eventual departure, he related that his editor Bobbie Chase approached him late in the book's run with a suggestion to shake up the book's status quo. She knew that he had long said he would never kill off Betty Banner, as she was David's wife's favorite character, but at the time, David was in the midst of a divorce. With that in mind, she asked if he would be willing to reconsider his previous stance, and he agreed. Before he could execute the story, however, upper management came to him and said they wanted the storyline to result in the Hulk becoming a mindless monster, running around the Marvel Universe smashing everyone -- exactly the kind of story David had sought to avoid when he first signed on to the book. David tried to persuade them that this would not make for a compelling read, but they disagreed and ultimately ousted him from the series. David noted with some irony that the book's sales didn't recover from his departure until Paul Jenkins' run, which returned the book to the sort of psychological stories David preferred.

When the discussion turned to David's "Star Trek" work, Ordover, his editor at Pocket Books, took on the role of lead questioner. The two explained how they developed the line of "Star Trek: New Frontier" novels together, partly in response to the perceived shortcomings of the "Star Trek: Voyager" television series, which Ordover saw as having no real mission. The mission "New Frontier" centered around was the collapse of the Thallonian Empire, a Star Trek analogue for the recently disintegrated Soviet Union. This gave the crew of the USS Excalibur the opportunity to explore worlds that had at one point been as developed as the Federation, but had since fallen into chaos, a scenario both Ordover and David felt offered ample storytelling possibilities.

The floor was opened to questions from the audience, and David was asked about his involvement with the recently released "After Earth" film. David explained that his agent contacted him and said that someone had written a screenplay for their brother-in-law who was a famous movie actor, and now wanted him to write a novelization based on this unproduced screenplay. David was skeptical until he found out that the brother-in-law in question was Will Smith, and the man who wanted to hire him was Caleeb Pinkett, Jada Pinkett-Smith's brother. He had a 20-minute story meeting with Caleeb over the phone, and Caleeb was impressed enough with their discussion that he decided to hire David to write the bible for the film.

Initially, Overbrook Entertainment, Will Smith's production company, wanted to pair David with some traditional Hollywood writers to work on the bible, but he persuaded them to choose his longtime collaborators and Crazy 8 partners Bob Greenberger and Michael Jan Friedman instead. Together, the three developed a 300-page bible for the world of "After Earth" that reached as far back as 1 million B.C. into its fictional history. The trio have also worked out a story for a possible sequel to the film, but David acknowledged that the film opened to less-than stellar reviews and box office, making the prospect of a sequel fairly unlikely. David said that he believed the reviews were much harsher than the film deserved, and attributed it to attachment of director M. Night Shyamalan to the project, whom David believes critics were negatively predisposed towards based on his last few films. He urged the audience to go see the film and make up their minds for themselves.

With the two hours of free-wheeling conversation having passed quickly, the panel wrapped things up with a final question from the audience, one regarding the future of David's fan favorite Marvel series "X-Factor." David reiterated that the series is ending with issue #262. The final issues, which follow the conclusion of the epic "Hell on Earth War" storyline, comprise an arc titled "The End of X-Factor." Each issue focuses on a different member of the team, wrapping up their individual storylines. But what comes next? David said he was mostly sworn to secrecy, but could say that he does have a new series coming from Marvel, and it will involve mutants.

As the evening drew to a close, members of the audience rushed to greet the writer and express their congratulations on his excellent recovery, as well as excitement at stories to come.

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