REFLECTIONS: Talking with Mark Verheiden

Reflections, Volume 3, Number 15

The countdown is officially on until "Reflections'" landmark 200th installment. I can't $#&@ing believe it! Okay, I already know the column is bound to be an All-Star spectacular with all of your favorite creators stopping in to say hi, eat a piece of cake, steal another and chat about the good times, but I haven't yet decided just how to coordinate it. And since you, dear reader, have been with me since day one, I'm looking to you for help.

If you have any ideas about just how you think we should celebrate this big event, shoot me an email, and maybe it'll happen!

But first, I've still got a few more splendid interviews left to conduct before the big day, beginning with today's: Mark Verheiden.

I won't ramble on much about Mark's seasoned career in both writing for comics, film and television, because I just know you are skimming over this paragraph because you want to find out about his work on "Battlestar: Galactica," "My Name is Bruce" and, of course, his blockbuster work on "Superman/Batman." So stop skimming and start reading, bub!

Robert Taylor: How's life?

Mark Verheiden: Oh, life is great. We just finished working out the story for a "Battlestar Galactica" direct-to-DVD movie, and I'm having the first couple weeks off I've had in a year, which is nice.

RT: And what are you doing with your first couple days off?

MV: I've been running around trying to catch up on all the stuff I've been putting off for a year. And staring into space. I really missed staring into space. But I've got plenty of work coming up, and we're still waiting to see what will happen with "Battlestar." It hasn't been renewed for a fourth season yet, but we're all hopeful.

RT: Hopefully you aren't going to strand them on a planet and have the Cylons come again, right?

MV: I wrote the season three closer, coming up on March 25, and I'll just say that if the show were to end on that note, there would be a lot of very unhappy BSG fans out there.

RT: If they don't renew it you could close it with those films, right?

MV: I don't know what we'd do, or frankly, "they" would do, since it's not up to me. Let's just hope it's renewed; that would solve a lot of problems.

RT: Ratings aren't down that much, are they?

MV: It depends who you talk to and how you factor the demographics and all that stuff. It's all very complicated, but they certainly haven't gone up. So people should watch it, Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m. on the Sci-Fi Channel!

RT: Let's keep our fingers crossed. Let's talk comics now, why did you want to become a comic book writer?

MV: That's a helluva question. If you go way back, I was and still am your classic comic book fan. I collected them when I was a kid and I still collect them now, albeit with a bit more discretion. When I first started collecting in earnest, I was a bit of a Marvel zombie, but after awhile I bought everything I could afford: DC, Charlton, Warren, Gold Key, pretty much everything except Archie. In the '70s, I also got into underground comics in a big way, especially anything by Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Greg Irons.

As to why I was so fascinated with comics and writing, well, I guess there was something about telling stories that always fascinated me. Some of it must have come from my Dad. He was a manager at the local electrical utility, but he also wrote freelance articles about trade issues for various professional journals. He was always incredibly proud of those articles, about being in print, and something about that must have imprinted on me.

Anyway, I thought I wanted to be a comic book writer and artist back in junior high and high school, but that morphed into an obsession with filmmaking. After spending a couple years trying to make a low budget movie in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, I finally took the plunge and moved to Los Angeles to break into the film business. Of course, almost as soon as I moved to L.A., my friends Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley started Dark Horse comics up in the Portland area and asked me to contribute to that. I created a character called "The American," got lucky when another Portland pal, Chris Warner, agreed to draw the book, and suddenly I had a comic book career. Even though I had changed my focus to film, suddenly I was actually making a living writing comics.

And that was fine with me. Comics are a great cross between a literary and visual medium. It's also a field where the writer's intent can come through without tons of editorial interference, or at least it felt that way back in 1987. The wonderful thing about comics is that you write them, someone prints them, and they're out. Far fewer steps are involved than, say, for a movie or episodic television. Of course, at the time I had no reference points, I just loved writing comics!

RT: You said that you were more of a Marvel zombie when you were younger and now you work more for DC. When did you become such a big DC fan?

MV: I think I fell out of comics at the same time a lot of folks from my so-called generation did, back in the late '70s/early '80s; the mainstream books were getting pretty tired. Then "Watchmen" and "V For Vendetta" and "Dark Knight" came out, and the smaller press stuff exploded, and it felt like comics were exciting again. During that time, '84, '85, it felt like DC was leading the charge, at least in terms of mainstream comics. That said, I certainly don't have a problem with Marvel, and in fact I did a book, "Stalkers," for the Epic line years ago. But for whatever reason, DC's come a'knocking more the last few years.

RT: Now most comic writers come out with three or four books a month. Is it lack of time or you putting all your focus into one book to make it as good as possible?

MV: When I was writing comics full time I was doing up to three books a month. But producing a show like "Battlestar" (or "Smallville" before that) is a 24/7 job, and it's just impossible for me to do more than one book a month. And last year was especially intense, because I also wrote a feature and developed a television pilot that just went to script over at the Spike channel.

RT: What film did you do?

MV: It's called "My Name is Bruce," starring Bruce Campbell. It's a screwy comedy starring and directed by Bruce. He plays a stuck-up, forgotten B-horror movie actor who gets kidnapped and brought out to this small town of idiots who think he is the embodiment of "Ash" from the "Evil Dead" movies. They want him to kill a very real monster, and he thinks it's all an elaborate birthday gift arranged by his sleazy agent. It was produced by Dark Horse Indie, their lower-budget film division. We shot it in August and it should be coming out later this year.

RT: What other stuff do you have in the works right now?

MV: In comics, "The Enemies Among Us" arc of "Superman/Batman" is finally wrapping up - the scripts are in! - and then we're launching a three issue arc where Superman and Batman meet the Metal Men.

Aside from that, I just finished a comic book adaptation of the first "Evil Dead" movie, which makes sense since my life seems to revolve around all things Bruce Campbell these days. The book is being painted by John Bolton and his work is absolutely amazing, creepy and really nasty. Conceptually, we took the movie and expanded on it, getting more into the back-history of the characters and showing some scenes suggested but not actually in the film. "The Evil Dead" book should start coming out this year too.

RT: Let's talk "Superman/Batman." Jeph Loeb's brand of storytelling seems to be a bit more shiny-happy whilst you have a more tortured, get-into-the-characters'-deepest-souls thing going for you. How did you get the assignment in the first place?

MV: I was co-executive producer on "Smallville" for three years, and while there, I got reacquainted with the folks at DC Comics and wrote a few stories for the "Smallville" comic. That led to a run on "Superman." As that was wrapping up, Dan DiDio and Eddie Berganza called and asked if I had any interest in jumping onto another title. "Superman/Batman" was one of the ones mentioned, since Jeph was heading off to Marvel. Since Jeph was sitting in the office next to mine at "Smallville," I was pretty well up on what he was doing on "Superman/Batman." And it turned out well for me, since the story I originally pitched for "Superman," but dropped because of the One Year Later push, became the first arc for "Superman/Batman."

In terms of stylistic differences, again, I thought Jeph did a great job on the book, but I had to do my own thing. My problem is, if I don't understand a character's mindset, I'm totally lost, so I suppose I do focus a little more on the smaller moments. Another difference between our two approaches is that Jeph stayed almost exclusively on Superman and Batman, while I spent a little more time with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne.

RT: How did you like "Infinite Crisis," One Year Later and all the ancillary miniseries and titles?

MV: I think they've really lit a fire inside the DCU. It's been great to work with Eddie Berganza and Dan Didio, who both bring amazing energy and passion to the job.

RT: Would you ever be interested in doing a large-scale crossover like that?

MV: It would depend on what it was and who I would be working with. I'm a never-say-never sorta guy. That said, in the abstract, I am probably less attracted to doing big crossovers than books less locked into the DCU day-to-day continuity, like "Superman/Batman." S/B isn't "standalone" in the sense that it has no impact on the DC Universe or visa versa, I have definitely been trying to reflect what's going on "outside," but the arcs are their own stories that don't necessarily tie directly into anything else. That freedom is appealing.

That said, I wrote "Superman" #219, part of a four book crossover that ended with Wonder Woman ultimately killing Max Lord, and despite a great deal of trepidation on my part, I thought that book turned out pretty well, and yes, I am fully aware that the series was controversial and others may differ! So when I say that crossovers don't appeal to me, it's not that I would never do one, it's just that I would have to hear what it is and who is involved.

RT: You mentioned other opinions on the book. Are you big into the Internet chatter or do you do your own thing?

MV: I'm somewhere in the middle. I do check out some of it, just to see what's buzzing. That said, I'm probably in the Allan Heinberg camp, who (to paraphrase, hope I'm not screwing this up, Allan!) said he was the type of guy who could read 100 flattering comments, but the one bad one will ruin his day. Me, I can ruin my day just fine without any outside help.

But I think it's great that people are interested enough to comment one way or the other, and as a fan myself, I still self-publish my own little privately circulated apa-zine (sort of like a hard copy blog) every couple of months chock-full of my own glorious opinions. I also write an actual internet type blog. But when it comes to writing stories, whether we're talking comics, movies or TV, I just have to do what feels right to me within the constraints of the situation.

RT: Getting back to "Superman/Batman," do you have a set number of story-arcs planned out?

MV: After the Metal Men arc there will be some other people jumping onto "Superman/Batman," and it's up in the air what I'll be doing next. I've been talking to Eddie about various things and we'll see what's next.

RT: Let's talk about your first issue; the one you did with Kevin Maguire. Where did it come from?

MV: Well, there's an interesting story of editorial/authorial synergy. I was all set to start the Ethan Van Sciver/"Enemies Among Us" arc when Eddie Berganza called to tell me Ethan wasn't ready to start work yet. Would I be up to doing a one-off with Kevin Maguire? As a huge fan of him, I said sure Now, either Dan Didio or Eddie, or maybe both of them, had this idea of doing a story that would deal with Earth-2 Power Girl and Huntress and the Golden Age Superman and Batman. Since I love Silver and Golden Age comics, this sounded great. So they gave me the basic story parameters, and then I took off with it, throwing in the Ultra-Humanite, gorillas, Solomon Grundy and all that insane stuff. I'm especially pleased that on top of the madness, the story had a little heart to it, too.

RT: When did you find out you were going to work with Ethan Van Sciver on the next "Superman/Batman" arc and how excited were you?

MV: Ethan was involved right from the beginning, and I was thrilled, his work is amazing. I loved what he did with Geoff Johns on "Green Lantern." Ethan combines the classic style of a Brian Bolland along with the hyper dynamics of, well, Ethan. Great design sense, great character work.

RT: Ethan has a nice mix of Bolland and George Perez, I think.

MV: Yeah. At any rate, we got together in the spring of 2006 and talked through the story, then plunged ahead. Unfortunately, there isn't a particularly happy ending to this story. For a variety of reasons Ethan wasn't able to finish the arc.

RT: And Matthew Clark is going to finish out all the issues?

MV: Well, no. (laughs).

He's doing two, and then the last issue is being drawn by Joe Benitez. Both Matthew and Joe have done incredible work, so hey! It's an All-Star lineup.

RT: Well, if they must give you fill-ins, you could do much worse.

MV: Of course you'd love to have it all drawn by the same guy, but Matthew Clark brought this really tough dynamic to the issues he's done, and Benitez, who is drawing the final issue, is knocking it out of the park. Three great artists, same low price!

RT: How did you choose the silver age characters you decided to use? They are pretty out there. I mean, the Caveman from Krypton?!?

MV: I have a pretty substantial silver age collection, as well as all the archive editions and B/W phone book reprints, so it was really a matter of going back and picking out the most fun of the bunch. I'm especially proud of resurrecting Zook. I love the old "House of Mystery" books where he co-starred with the Martian Manhunter. I figured no one was going to suss out that the main bad guy was Zook, and by golly, I was right!

RT: Yeah, I had no idea it was Zook. (laughs)

MV: My favorite was the Creature Who Could Not Die, who appeared in a "Showcase" appearance of Green Lantern. What I loved was that he was "The Creature Who Could Not Die," but in the original story -- he died! That wasn't right! So I brought him back. As for the others, Dr. Phosphorous is just a great looking villain, and no Silver Age-ish book is complete without Titano.

RT: I loved how you brought back the silver age Lois Lane and I just thought that was Ethan doing a certain style, but then the modern Lois shows up and beats the $#!+ out of Silver Age Lois.

MV: The idea that Zook was years behind the current superhero curve was fun and allowed me to do scenes like that.

Poor Zook.

RT: So are you more of a Superman guy or more of a Batman guy?

MV: I don't know. Eddie Berganza thinks I'm more the Superman type, and maybe he's right. I can be pretty cynical about things, but deep down I still believe that most people are intrinsically good and try to do the right thing. I think Superman shares that sunny optimism. On the other hand, and regardless of the different shades of character currently being applied, Batman is inherently darker and more complicated.

From a writing standpoint, I think you need to be careful with where you take Superman. There is an iconic thing about him that you can't tamper with. If you even suggest something untoward with the character, it can cause consternation, and not without some justification. He is the fictional embodiment of truth, justice and the American way, after all. Batman's darker than that, though he is certainly heroic and lives by his own strict moral code. Still, there's more flexibility there. Miller's "Dark Knight" version of Batman works alongside the sunnier '50s and '60s stories, but it's hard to imagine a "Dark Superman" working at all.

What's great about "Superman/Batman" is you get to balance the two off of each other. And they really do need each other, as friends and as warriors. Superman looks at the proverbial log and admires the wood's natural beauty; Batman kicks the log over and reveals all the creepy stuff sliming around underneath.

RT: What's coming up for the rest of the arc?

MV: You'll finally see the alien armada that is coming to conquer Earth, then things get really bad. The fifth issue of the arc ends worse than a "Battlestar" cliffhanger! But the ultimate story is as much about the rocky friendship between Superman and Batman as the alien invaders, and it all comes down to a test of wills and personal philosophies between our two heroes.

RT: Who is drawing the Metal Men arc?

MV: Pat Lee. And it's really good.

RT: That will work.

MV: I plotted out the three issue Metal Men arc and wrote the first issue, then got really busy with "Battlestar" so Marc Guggenheim pinch hit and wrote the last two issues. And did an excellent job, I might add. For those fans concerned about schedule, the first issue of S/B Metal Men is done and Pat's busy finishing the rest, so hopefully these will come out in a timely fashion.

RT: Any other books out there you are itching to get your hands on?

MV: If DC ever decides to revive the funny Bizarro or the Legion of Super-Pets, I'm there! Seriously, though, I'm kinda itching to do something original again, though if something fun pops up, great! But in terms of superheroes, heck, I'm already doing the best book there is. To have a chance to write Superman and Batman, these two icons; it's been wonderful.

RT: Any artists out there you are keen on working with?

MV: I'd love to do a story with my pal Paul Chadwick someday. Kevin Maguire's great. I loved what Ed Benes did on "Superman." Matt Clark, Joe Benitez and Ethan were all great. If we're talking "dream-team" scenarios, I'd be thrilled to do something with Russ Heath, and I wish I could drag Chris Warner back to the drawing table one more time.

RT: Are you ready for the "Inside the Actor's Studio"-esque lightning round?

MV: Sock it to me.

RT: What was your first comic?

MV: "Fox and the Crow." I was four year old, and I have been trying to find the specific issue for the last 20 years. It would have been from the early '60s and I still have this vague memory of the first page, where either the Fox or the Crow are "humming." As to why this remains such a vivid memory - my parents taught me how to read at home, before pre-school. After spending a Saturday at the blackboard, I suddenly had an epiphany, "hey, I can read!" So I borrowed a quarter, probably asked my Mom to walk with me to the corner drug store and bought that Fox and Crow book. I then spent hours painstakingly sounding out the words. And so an obsession was born…

RT: Favorite comic of all time?

MV: Why, I can't name just one! I thought that "Watchmen" was brilliant, and really holds up. "Marvels" by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross is really good. I think "Acme Novelty Library" is incredible. The Kirby run of "Fantastic Four" is a long time favorite. Anything by Basil Wolverton. Steve Ditko's self-published stuff. Jim Steranko's brief run on "Captain America" is still a fave. If you're talking goofy classics, then Charlton's six-issue run of "Space Western" from the fifties is high on the list. Golden Age "Captain America" stories. The funny Bizarro stories. '50s/'60s era Batman. And anything, absolutely anything drawn by Fletcher Hanks.

Hanks probably needs a little explanation, he was an artist in the late '30s/early '40s who did some amazingly crude and yet bizarrely fascinating stories, including "Stardust," "Fantomah" and "Big Red McLain." A small cult has formed around the guy's work, and I'm a card carrying member. Fantagraphics is putting out a book on Hanks later this Spring, reprinting a bunch of stories, and I contributed scans for some of the reprints. As far as I can tell, I not only have a copy of every comic with a Fletcher Hanks story, I also have one of the only surviving pieces of original art!

RT: What comics can't you miss now?

MV: "52." They are doing a great job with that. "Stray Bullets." "Acme." "Jonah Hex" at DC. I like a book called "Peepshow," that comes out every five years. I think Johnny Ryan's stuff is really funny. I follow creators as much as books, so I'll buy anything by Chris Ware, Crumb, Clowes, Joe Matt, Ivan Brunetti, the usual alternative suspects.

RT: Favorite curse word?

MV: Sweet Jesus!

RT: What is the best superhero movie ever made?

MV: It's a tie between "Spider-Man 2" and the first two "X-Men." The Donner "Superman" had a wonderful charm, too. Nostalgia-wise, I've always liked "Superman V.S. The Mole Men."

RT: What is your weirdest convention experience?

MV: It was in Columbus Ohio, probably in the late '80s when I was writing "The Phantom" for DC. A guy comes up to me and asks, "when did the Phantom get married in the comic strip continuity?" I told him I had no idea, and he stormed off really pissed. He comes back a few minutes later, madder still. I had just done a Secret Origins story involving Two-Face and evidently we had changed Harvey Dent's wife's name. I believe it had been "Gilda Gold" and the editor and I both agreed that was kind of silly. That explanation did not placate my accuser, who was furious at the alteration. He stormed off again, then came back a third time, squinted at my name tag and scrawled down my name, angrily telling me that he was going to "report" me to my editor. For a second I thought he was gonna bust me in the face, but my being 6' 5" may have dissuaded him.

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

MV: I suppose I'd go with "The American," from Dark Horse, but I'm always looking ahead and continue to blithely assume the best is still to come…

Next Week: Joe Kelly or Aaron Lopresti, depending on which one I edit first!

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