REFLECTIONS: Talking with Marc Guggenheim


"It was harder for me to break into comics than to break into Hollywood."

A happy belated Easter and Passover to all you readers out there. My ham was overcooked, then burnt and I couldn't find one of the eggs at the Easter Egg hunt, which I'm sure will come back to haunt me in about three weeks. Here's hoping yours was as fun and exciting as mine.

This week I've got Marc Guggenheim stepping up to the plate. Besides having the most fun name to pronounce in comics, Guggenheim is one of those obscenely gifted comic book writers who manages to elevate whatever book he is working on without making it look hard at all.

Aside from his television work on "Brothers and Sisters" and the pilot "Eli Stone," Guggenheim made "Flash" good again and is defying the odds by not getting "Blade" cancelled in six issues. If you haven't heard of him yet, you will as soon as his popularity explodes, which should be any day now.

"Blade" #10

Robert Taylor: How's life going for you?

Marc Guggenheim: Life is very, very busy. It's a busy time of year for me, but it's still going great. I can't complain.

RT: Let's start with how you got into comics.

MG: I'm a longtime comic book fan. One of my earliest memories is sitting in my room and flipping through a Superman comic when my mom walked in and said, "Oh my God, do you know how to read!?" I said no, and was just looking at the pictures, so even before I could read I was a comic book fan.

I've always wanted to get into comics. It was harder for me to break into comics than to break into Hollywood, but I guess after I had broken into Hollywood I had enough street cred to break into comics.

RT: Tell me about breaking in.

MG: I sort of broke in twice, first at DC and then at Marvel, and that was about a year apart.

At DC, there was a long chain of things that I can edit down for you. My wife used to work for David Goyer as his assistant, and her successor put me in touch with Peter Tomasi, who was doing some business with David. Peter read some of my television work and gave me two issues of "Aquaman."

And then a year went by and my manger put together a meeting with me and Marvel at San Diego ComicCon. They had read my "Aquaman" and TV work, and I got in touch with Axel Alonso, who bought a 36-page Punisher book, and he liked it so much that he offered me the "Civil War" tie-in on "Wolverine."

RT: Were you more of a DC guy or Marvel guy growing up?

MG: I started out with DC, then eventually discovered Marvel. I liked the lighter tone of DC comics until I was 11 or 12, and then I added Marvel to my reading enjoyment.

RT: And your favorite superheroes would be…?

MG: When I was reading DC exclusively it was Batman. When I was reading Marvel it was the X-Men.

RT: You can always tell which people are Marvel fans at heart when you ask them who their favorite DC superhero is and they say Batman.

MG: You are absolutely right and I didn't even realize it at the time.

RT: How was writing your first comic book? I love asking this of people who are coming from different mediums because they either overwrite the comic or underwrite the heck out of it.

MG: One of the most flattering things I've heard was that when Peter Tomasi read my scripts he told me that I had written the exact right amount.

I broke the story with relative ease, but when I sat down to write it I realized I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

RT: Welcome to my life. (laughs)

MG: I was stricken with mortal terror of rendering the story sequentially. At the time I was working on the show "Jack and Bobby," which was co-created by Brad Meltzer.

RT: Oh, I miss that show.

MG: I do to. I loved the show.

RT: I was one of the three viewers. Fingers crossed for the boxed set.

MG: I wonder if that day will ever come.

RT: If they have "Full House Season 6" why can't they have "Jack and Bobby?" I mean, come on!

MG: Part of it is a studio thing. Warner Brothers isn't as aggressive as Touchtone is about their old shows hitting DVD. There is a certain economic investment certain networks are interested in making that others aren't.

So anyway, I picked up the phone and called Brad. I described to him the opening sequence and he walked me through it. And he did such a great job of it that I knew exactly what I had to do. From that moment on the rest of it was butter.

RT: I normally ask this to people who are exclusive to one company or another, and you aren't yet, which I will get to in a minute, what did you think of "Civil War" and the crossovers at DC?

MG: I really enjoyed both "Civil War" and "Infinite Crisis." It's tempting to lump them together because they are crossovers, but the truth is that if you stand them side by side, they are telling completely different stories. They are very different in terms of their artistic and narrative goals.

So I think they get compared wrongfully.

RT: In a way "Civil War" is all about the future and tacking politics whereas "Infinite Crisis" is about recapturing the spirit of the past.

MG: Exactly. One of the things I loved about "Infinite Crisis" was that it was this great sequel, or homage, or tip-of-the-hat to "Crisis on Infinite Earths." When I was growing up that blew my mind because it was so amazing and ambitious.

And I loved how "Infinite Crisis" did its own thing, but acknowledged what came before it.

And you were right, "Civil War" is doing something different by doing something more political and trying to make fundamental change to the way characters are interacting.

One of the things I've always liked about DC and Marvel is that each company has its own identity. I think we would all be living in a boring world if DC was run like Marvel and Marvel was run like DC. The whole industry is better for it, and comic books on the whole have really improved as a result.

RT: Since you write major books for both companies, tell me how working for DC is different than working for Marvel, and visa versa.

MG: They both share certain similarities, but that is because you are creating the same work product in the same industry. One company will send me PDFs and the other will send me hard copies via FedEx. The thing that I've discovered is that it's not so much a difference in companies or policy, but a different in terms of which editor you are working with.

I find myself adapting to editors instead of companies.

RT: Why haven't you decided to go exclusive with one or the other? You are writing high profile books for both companies, why don't they offer you exclusivity?

MG: That's not to say that they haven't. (laughs) Until now I've been saying no.

RT: Why?

MG: It's a combination of a lot of things. The whole idea that anyone would offer me work is still surprising to me. The corollary that I would ever turn down work is surprising, and if I would be exclusive I'd be cutting off half of my potential employment.

That having been said, I wouldn't rule out an exclusive at some point. Basically, the way both companies work is that there are certain projects that are tied with exclusivity. You can't work on certain characters and certain books unless you are exclusive. And when and if I get offered one of those types of gigs, I would go exclusive at that point.

RT: You are still a relative newcomer to comics, but how would you say your writing style has evolved since you wrote that first comic?

MG: I've become a lot more sensitive to how artists work. I tried really hard to keep the panel per page ratio as low as possible, because I want to give the artist a lot of room to maneuver.

At the same time, I hate decompression. I hate it as a reader and I always try to avoid it as a writer.

RT: And let me speak for all comic readers out there by saying "thank you."

MG: You are welcome. I am consciously struggling to tell as much story as possible in as few panels as possible.

RT: Let's talk "Wolverine," your major hello to the comic industry. How did you approach writing the book and who did you look to for inspiration?

MG: Looking for inspiration is really two different questions. One is a question of artistic influence, and the other is in terms of logistics in terms of continuity.

With respect to the second part, this was a tie-in to "Civil War," and I wanted it to be relevant. As a writer, I approach it with all of my pet peeves as a reader in mind and one of those is that most of the tie-ins have nothing to do with the story and one of my major objectives was to come up with a story that couldn't exist except for "Civil War."

As far as influences are concerned, probably the two biggest ones were Chris Claremont and Mark Millar.

RT: It was a "Civil War" story. It was about Wolverine, which is the most convoluted continuity ever. It's one of Marvel's top-selling books. And it's your first major gig. How did you not implode?

MG: I'm very used to working under stress. I used to be a lawyer, and I work for television where there are millions of dollars at stake daily, and you get used to writing under pressure.

Yes, all the things you listed were pressures, but my biggest worry was this huge responsibility I had to Axel Alonso. He should not have given me "Wolverine." I had never had a published book from them and had only submitted one script. The vote of confidence was huge. And my biggest fear was that he would end up looking bad for the decision.

Just to be blunt, I've always wanted to write comic books, but at the end of the day if I imploded, I'd still have a job because I had television to fall back on. But for Axel, it was such an incredible leap of faith for Axel that I could not botch it for him.

RT: Looking back, how would you evaluate the story?

MG: I never evaluate my own writing. Even when I'm turning something in. I guess I feel like I wouldn't have turned it in if I thought it was bad. I don't look backward. Of all the people who have an opinion about my writing, my opinion would carry the least weight. So, I don't spend a lot of time evaluating it.

RT: That's really smart and I wish I could remove it from your brain and use it myself.

Let's talk "Blade."

MG: I met Tom Brevoort at WizardWorld and he told me he read my "Wolverine" and said it wasn't bad. And I thought he hated it! He hated me, he hated my family and he thinks I'm ugly. And then, less than a month later I get an email asking if I want to write "Blade."

I wouldn't call myself a huge Blade fan. It wasn't a character I thought I'd have to write. The real appeal was the ability to write a monthly comic, because that was always one of my goals. When he said "Blade," I said "okay."

I had to think if I had anything to say about the character and if I could bring anything to it. But Tom, and he does this for a lot of the characters and projects that he works on, he sent me his thoughts in the form of a manifesto. I found his manifesto very bold, and it fell in line with a lot of the things I thought about the character and the book. Tom has a way of making things really exciting and I knew I would have a lot of fun with the book.

RT: Did you know going into it that most, okay, all of the Blade books in recent memory have been sinking ships?

MG: Oh yeah. I totally knew that, and Tom told me to think of it as a six-issue limited series. [laughs] I went in with my eyes wide open.

RT: Is that why you decided to go completely apeshit in the first issue, storytelling wise?

MG: Yeah, it was a big consideration. I think I tried to do too much and threw too much at the wall and that may have thrown a lot of people. But that was definitely my thinking. I knew I had one issue to catch everyone and I had to throw in everything I could think of. In hindsight that was a mistake.

But I think since then, and the readers agree with me if the Internet is to be believed…

RT: Ha!

MG: Yeah, I don't know if it is to be believed either. But they said that issue #2 was better than #1, and #3 was better than #2 and so on. So, people who hung in there may have realized the series found its footing.

We've had really good word of mouth and the response has been very positive. I'm really proud of the book, and it's a book that no one else is doing. Very few titles are self-contained. We've got that cool past and present structure. We've got Howard Chaykin, who is doing phenomenal work. We are pulling out all the stops.

It's a very hard book to write. Of all the books I'm writing, "Blade" is probably the hardest to write each month. It's tough because it's self contained and has such a structure to it.

RT: How long are you sticking with it?

MG: Anytime I come onboard an ongoing series, my commitment is open-ended. I'm very much a product of my upbringing, and I'm used to Claremont on "X-Men" or David on "Hulk." I'm not a big fan of coming in for six issues and leaving.

The exception was "Wolverine," where I was coming in for a specific arc and it wasn't up to me.

RT: Alright, let's move onto "Flash," another book that was dropping like a stone when you first came onboard.

MG: I like to have the bar set low when I come on a book. [laughs]

RT: That's a good way to approach it.

MG: I actually try to take what is offered to me if I think I can tell a story about it.

RT: Were you reading Bilson and DeMeo's issues? Did you follow the continuity?

MG: Oh yeah. There are a lot of runs of "Flash" that I love. I love writers who worked on the book because they have become big influences on me. And now I get to play in the same sandbox. That was a big part of the allure for me.

RT: Now I was expecting you to pretty much dump everything from the previous few issues and do your own thing, but you are keeping a lot of aspects from earlier issues as well. Was that your idea?

MG: It's a product of my upbringing. If I'm going down a particular path as a reader, I hate it when another writer comes on and throws all that out.

Also, I really liked the idea of Bart moving to Los Angeles and joining the police academy, so there wasn't even a temptation to drop out those elements. There was never any discussion with myself or editorial to move off in a different direction.

RT: You are incorporating a lot more villains into the run. Was that your choice?

MG: It was and it wasn't. The choice of Steppenwolf in my first issue was my own choice. DC had come to me when they offered me the book and told me there were certain signposts that I would have to hit.

Part of the allure of the gig for me was that they were going to be doing some stuff with the Flash that would have reverberations outside the book with the entire DC Universe. Part of those tentpoles I had to hit meant I had to use specific rogues. I knew I had to involve these characters, but that's not to say that if I didn't have that mandate I wouldn't have done it anyway.

RT: Who is your favorite Flash?

MG: Wally, because he happened to be Flash during certain seminal moments in my life.

DC didn't make a mistake in having Bart become the Flash, they made a mistake in not killing off Wally. And the reason I say that is that I remember when Wally took over for Barry, and I never got a sense that there was any resistance for Wally taking over for Barry, and I didn't get that resistance as a reader.

Yet you see that resistance now in terms of Bart taking over for Wally. Part of me has to wonder if that is because Wally is still alive in some technical sense, and the possibility of Wally coming back is more than there was for Barry coming back.

RT: I think part of it was that everyone knew that the big rumor for "Infinite Crisis" was that Wally was supposed to die. But, like Nightwing, he got the last second reprieve, which makes readers think there are new major plans for Wally and the Bart stories are just a stepping stone we have to get by to get to the actual story.

MG: That's interesting. That proves my point in DC making a mistake in not killing off Wally. When I read it in "Infinite Crisis," it felt right to me in that it was an echo of "Crisis on Infinite Earths," and I like the idea of that parallel.

I like the stories talking to each other in that sense.

RT: It's been leaked that Barry will be back in some form.

MG: I can guarantee you that Barry is not coming back in the pages of "Flash" and no one has informed me that Barry is coming back. In fact it is 180 degrees away from the story the company is telling.

RT: Do you have anything else in the works that you want to talk about?

MG: I'm working on an Oni Press creator-owned title called "Resurrection." I'm also working on a six-issue "Batman Confidential" arc. And I am working on something at Marvel that I can't talk about because it's top secret. It's going to be pretty amazing.

RT: How's "Brothers and Sisters" coming along?

MG: It's been a dream gig. I didn't start off planning on working on a TV series this year. I wanted to develop a TV show.

And then I did start doing something creator owned with Greg Berlanti, who worked on "Jack and Bobby." But then, in the midst of that, Greg got brought on to run "Brothers and Sisters" and brought me on.

I fell into it, and it's the luckiest thing to happen in my career, both professionally and creatively.

Creatively, the characters are such a joy to write. You can tell all these different types of stories with them and give them all these fun moments. So satisfying!

RT: Tell me about "Eli Stone."

MG: We just turned in our cut to the network and are really proud of it. It exceeded my wildest expectations. The cast is just amazing. It is one of the best casts assembled for the television show in recent memory. The performances they gave were fantastic and really elevated the material.

It's about a lawyer who finds out he may be a modern day prophet. It explores spirituality and what it means to be spiritual and issues like that.

RT: How has ABC been reacting to it?

MG: They have been supportive from day one. From the second we turned it in, they got it. The studio and the amount of encouragement has been really cool.

RT: Ready for the lightning round?

MG: Sure.

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

MG: It's so cliché, but it's "Dark Knight Returns."

RT: What is your biggest strength as a writer?

MG: My dialogue.

RT: What is your biggest weakness?

MG: My action.

RT: If you could only write one comic book for the rest of your career, what would it be?

MG: "X-Men."

RT: Who would be your art partner?

MG: For pure fanboy gratification, John Byrne.

RT: What is your favorite comic book movie?

MG: I have to say "Superman: The Movie."

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

MG: That I wrote fun stories that made people think.

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