REFLECTIONS: Talking with Mark Waid, Part 1

Reflections #206

Sometimes, after many obstacles, much patience, a little bit of craziness and a time that seems like forever, something amazing can finally be accomplished you can be utterly proud of.

No, I'm not talking about "52," I'm talking about interviewing Mark Waid. Duh!

Waid is one of my all-time favorite writers, a guy who is so good it makes you want to reread his books forever and repeatedly bang your head against a wall because you know you will never be in the same league if you are a wannabe writer. I know, I have the bruises.

But I've never gotten the chance to interview the guy! At least, not until now. There have been near-misses on both ends due to deadlines or internships, but finally, at long last, I got to interview one of my idols.

As an added bonus, it was on the day the final issue of his yearlong weekly comic book, "52," came out. Maybe fates were causing us to miss each other so many times before because the interview was so perfectly placed.

And what an interview it is. It's so big I'm going to split it in half, covering "52" this week and some super cool stuff next week as well.

Robert Taylor: This has been a long time coming Mark, I can't believe we've never done an interview before.

Mark Waid: I can't either, but I'm game.

RT: So how's life going?

MW: Pretty good. The long winter's nap that comes after a project like "52" is very much appreciated.

RT: 52 weeks. All on time. All on shelves. It's finished. It's complete. And it wasn't just a major cliffhanger ending for "Countdown"!

MW: One of the things we fought for tooth and nail early on to make sure that there was no scene at the end where there were suddenly Monitors who say "to be continued!" We wanted to make sure everyone gets a resolution after spending $160 and 52 weeks reading this thing.

RT: So…would you ever do it again?

MW: [laughs maniacally] I would certainly work with those other three writers again any time on anything. And I would do it again. Because it would be fun to apply what we learned. But only if it were the only thing I had to do for a living. Writing on "52" while having to sustain other books is what, I think, fried me. In theory, this project should have taken about a week a month out of all of us. In reality, this took up half our lives.

RT: How successful do you think "52" is as compared to all those other epic projects you've done over your career?

MW: I'm torn. It's hard to answer that today of all days, since the book hit today. I do think that the biggest success is simply that we did it.

The fact that we piled up a bunch of good ideas in 52 weeks and they had structure was a success. There were times when it looked like the train was about to go off the tracks, story-wise. But with the four of us onboard and excellent editors like Michael Siglain and Steve Wacker we were able to avert train-wrecks in at critical moments and make sure every setup had a resolution to it.

I don't know how it will hold up two years or four years down the road, but we can cross our fingers and hope for the best.

RT: How much has the end point changed?

MW: Different is not exactly the word. We always knew, after our first meeting, what acts one and two would be. The actual Booster multiple world reveal didn't come up until about halfway through. What we had as a placeholder was more Lady Styx stuff, but it didn't feel big enough, and it didn't change much about the DC Universe.

It was Geoff who sat in the conference room and muttered "52 worlds." I heard him and nobody else heard him. I told him to say it out loud because if I said it out loud everybody would be thinking it was just me wanting to go backward to the Silver Age, but if he said it out loud it would be cool.

He did. And we fought for it.

Grant has said this many times: For all the good and all the benefit of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, it made the DC Universe a smaller place, and each ensuing crossover has made the DC Universe smaller and smaller and smaller. Every summer, more rules, less imagination. Grant and I swore we wouldn't be involved with that unless we could do something where we could have big ideas again. One of my favorite lines is in the last issue, when Rip Hunter refers to the expansiveness of the DC Multivers by saying , simply,"Welcome home."

That is what the DC Universe is to me. Anything can happen here. The only rule is that the readers need to be entertained.

RT: What point do you think the series stopped just marking time for "One Year Later" and became its own monster?

MW: It was issue 5. That was the space hero hospital issue. With that script, "52" became its own entity and we no longer felt like we were playing connect the dots. There was a moment of cohesion to that script, which was written almost completely by Grant because we all had other commitments that week -- but that's when we realized we'd created something that was its own species.

RT: Is there any moment that you wrote that you are specifically proud of?

MW: I could say, but that's what I have Greg for. Greg has been great at ballyhooing my moment of Clark jumping out of the window to catch Supernova's attention.

RT: He also said there is one moment in issue 52 that was all you that would make readers squeal with delight.

MW: See, I don't have to worry about telling you, because Greg will. God bless that boy.

RT: Oh come now! Was it when Booster met Blue Beetle?

MW: That was a great moment too. Grant, Geoff and I were drunk off our asses in Grant's LA home when we cooked that one up. We got Greg on the line to tell him, and he thought we were just drunk dialing him.

RT: When I interviewed Greg, he chose when editor Steve Wacker left as the hardest moment for him, but said everyone would have a different moment. What is yours?

MW: When Wacker left.

As everybody will say, Siglain did an amazing job of picking up the gauntlet and walking into a thankless job. All he could do was fail or, at best, keep his head above water, and we tried to make it as easy on him as we could and vice-versa. But I cannot stress enough how he rose to the task. We would all work for him again anytime, anywhere.

That said, Steve built the machine. And when he left, it was crippling. By that time, Steve knew how to get the best work out of all of us. Had Michael been in there from the very beginning, he might have been able to do that instantly too, but Steve had been there and had brought an X-factor that Mike had to learn to replicate. Which he did.

RT: How many moments were there when you weren't sure you could pull it off?

MW: To my mind, there were never any moments that I thought we couldn't get 52 weekly issues out. But there were half a dozen moments where I was convinced what we did get out would be completely unreadable crap that would have no relation to actual storytelling and would serve no purpose.

There was a point halfway through where I sat down and reread issues 1-26. I made copious notes about all the plots we had hanging and all the setups and all the characters, and there was a point where I just wanted to put a bullet through my head because I thought there was just no way we could resolve it. But I think we did.

RT: I think you covered most of them, at least the big stuff.

MW: We probably didn't hit every last little bit, but in part that was because of the crippling loss of 12 pages at the end of the story.

We were told from the very beginning that we would have 52 pages for the last issue. And obviously, we didn't. At the last second, and I mean at the last possible second, someone ran the numbers again and decided that if we put 52 pages in, we would have to charge extra, which would not have been cool.

RT: You guys had about eight major storyarcs that you were juggling. Which one surprised you the most?

MW: I think the Steel one surprised me the most, but not in the best way. I'll personally take as much blame as I possibly can for this, but I don't think his resolution was as big and grand as we'd originallly envisioned.

RT: It seemed too neat.

MW: We really wanted to have a grand, mythic sweep to his finale, but I don't know what quite didn't work there.

RT: I think maybe it was because there was no way you guys could have topped the New Year's issue with the finale.

MW: On the other hand, I think the Booster Gold one surprised me the most in a good way. That is the storyline whose ending bears the least relation to the one we originally planned. What we had in place was this great story where Booster was pretending to be Supernova, but they were both coexisting in Metropolis at the same time throughout the series, and Clark Kent's big storyarc was to find out who Supernova was. According to all those false history records Skeets was carrying around, there were supposedly three great feats Superman was supposed to have accomplished during that year, but since time was still hinky, his absence wasn't predicted by those records. Booster would have to step up and take Superman's place, but had to adopt the Supernova identity because everyone thinks he's a jerk.

That was the original plan, and that was what was going to carry us through on Supernova. But early on, we realized it was based on a false premise. It was predicated on the notion that Skeets was a good guy who had history wrong--but, especially after Infinite Crisis, we realized that we were all sick and tired of writing stories based on "time gone wrong." Still, we'd set up that Skeets was giving out misinformation, so the question became "why?" Grant had the answer when he posited that maybe Skeets wasn't, as we'd been led to believe, a good guy with faulty information. Maybe he was an evil guy who was deliberately misinforming Booster. And we all agreed that was way more interesting a thread to follow.

The continuing Booster/Supernova "rivalry" would have been a cool story, and I was looking forward to sinking my teeth into that, but what we did was better.

RT: Aside from storyarcs, what character did you not like going in that you now have a fondness for?

MW: With all due respect to the fine creators who handled the character, I wouldn't have given you a nickel for Renee Montoya before this. Not because I didn't like her, but because as a reader I had no emotional investment in her. Personal taste.

But boy, did Greg take her and show me how interesting her character could be. I understood her pain and suffering and demons. And this was by the second or third week!

RT: When did you guys decide to kill off the major characters?

MW: That happened before pen hit paper.

Ralph's resolution was my favorite thing in "52." The scene with the "ghost detectives" was what we were always building to with Ralph. Based on his history, his personality and his character, there were only two possible payoffs for Ralph: he could have lived, but been miserable without Sue for the rest of his life, or we could have killed him. But simply killing him to be gratuitous didn't feel right. Killing a character that's been around since before you were born is, generally, a thoughtless and convenient path to take as a writer, and I've learned that the hard way.

My memory is that Grant and I were sitting side by side, and then we looked at one another and said simultaneously: "Ghost detectives." Then the assistant editor, Ivan Cohen, bounced in with a reference to "Topper," which was an old movie and tv show about a ghost couple. My single favorite moment of the entire "52" experience was that exact moment, because that was without question a perfect sendoff for those two characters, and we all knew it instantly.

Without going backward, it restored what Sue and Ralph were, which was globetrotting detectives, while at the same time giving them a whole new arena to play in and a unique role in the DC Universe.

Hopefully, someone will pick up that baton and use them somewhere else in a miniseries or a backup series.

RT: Was there anything major that changed after you scripted it that appeared in the final comic?

MW: Not anything worth going into.

RT: We haven't really talked about Black Adam yet. Or creating Osiris and Isis only to kill them off, which I thought was brilliant.

MW: I thought that was really good. I remember, at some point, Geoff came up to me and he was upset because Dan had just told him he wanted to keep Isis alive.

RT: That was the entire point of the story!

MW: She was created to die!

Black Adam would have had no reason to go postal had she lived.

From time to time, as can be expected with a series of this scope and one that goes on for a year, there were several moments where edicts came down from on high asking us to change things that might have weakened our story, and we had to cluster together, shields raised, like the Spartans in "300" and just say no.

RT: It's such a credit to you guys for creating such an interesting character that they wanted to keep her instead of killing her off.

MW: That is mostly Geoff. We all contributed to each other's plotlines, but that was mostly Geoff. The only contribution I made to Black Adam at all, besides Greg's avowed favorite moment in the last issue, was the notion that once he is captured by the scientists, he's caught in the third act of "Lawrence of Arabia."

RT: How did you like the whole idea of DC giving "World War III" spinoff issues?

MW: They what!? [laughs]

Well, it was an interesting publishing decision. But it had nothing to do with the "52" writers. I hope they're good.

RT: You've said before that by "52" taking place in "real time," you took half the crayons out of the box. What do you think it added to the book?

MW: First, it allowed us use many more characters. If this had been a four year long monthly series, people would have rightfully lost their minds when certain characters went three issues between appearances.

As long as we touched on any particular story beat once a month, I felt like we did it service. Coming out so rapidly, and in "real time," forced us (in a good way) to structure the stories with great deliberation and forced us to make sure that every scene had a beginning, a middle and an end--even scenes that were one page long.

Near the end, of course, a lot of the multi-plot-thread storyine juggling feel by the wayside as we approached the resolutions to the stories. The resolution of Ralph Dibny, for instance, couldn't be done in ten pages, or of Steel, so act three was when we started devoting issues to a certain character.

RT: I'm not going to ask you to talk at length about the other three writers, because I'm sure, at this point, you've been asked over 100 times.

MW: And yet it is still true. Everything we say is true. Greg is still the structure guy. Grant is the wild idea guy. And Geoff is the guy who would say "Why doesn't somebody just eat somebody?"

RT: Let's talk about the artists.

MW: Not enough good things can be said about the artists. They were asked to do an inhuman amount of work in an impossible amount of time.

These guys, especially the Chris Batistas of the world, were in that horrible position of doing work at twice their normal speed that they could still be proud of. Once we got to the back half of the series, and more and more of our pencillers were drafted by Marvel or recruited for "Countdown," it got harder on everyone.

"Countdown" nearly killed us. There was a point about three-quarters of our way through where "Countdown" officially began and half our artistic stable was drafted for the new book. They proved they can do "52," so their reward is doing "Countdown," but we needed those guys! Still, all of them really stepped up to the plate. I love Pat Oliffe's work, and Justiniano did a really nice job with the World War III issue, just to name two.

Keith's job was to make sure that the pacing was essentially consistent throughout the series. Not a lot of two page spreads. Not a lot of two and three panel pages. No matter what we gave Keith, it became six panels! [laughs]. We gave him nine panels, it turned into six panels. We gave him two panels, it became six panels. It probably was a good thing in the long run, because it really helped establish a consistent tone.

RT: What advice do you have for the people in "Countdown?"

MW: [laughs maniacally] Be prepared for it to all change on you. I've said this about my own work, repeatedly, and I'll say it about "52." Any writer who says that they have the ending of their big story figured out in minute detail is either lying or a crash test dummy. A good story takes on a life of its own.

RT: I interviewed Adam Beechen last week and he said there had been no major blowups -- yet.

MW: Don't poke the bear, Adam! Don't taunt the gods! Jeez, why not just say, "Hey, we're pitching a no-hitter!" while you're at it?

RT: Tell us about the production department.

MW: You could back up a truckload of gold ingots and naked masseuses and chocolate fountains into the production department and it wouldn't be enough to repay them for what they have done. They saved our ass without fail every week. Sometimes this book would leave house and be on stands less than a month later. That was because the production department made it happen, despite any last-minute tweaks and fixes necessary.

RT: What are you and Grant and Greg and Geoff going to do to celebrate?

MW: About a month ago, when Grant was in L.A., we went to Vegas for a weekend and won money at craps and had a good blowout celebration. It was a little preemptive--the last issue hadn't shipped--, but by that point we were done scripting and thought we were allowed to celebrate.

RT: Tell us about fan reaction to the series.

MW: It is what it is. It's nice when it's positive, but at the end of the day, what matters--what has to matter--is that we felt like we did our jobs and did right by the characters. Fan reaction is utterly unpredictable. Utterly. And it can never be anticipated, nor can it dictate your choices as a storyteller. If all I paid attention to was fan reaction, I would right now lock all my doors, turn out the lights and live in tearful darkness for the rest of my life. I'm glad we have fans, I was a fan, I still am a fan. And I appreciate that most fans--particularly those who speak to us face-to-face rather than behind a screen name-- realize that while "52" wasn't utterly flawless because we were building something new from the ground up, it holds up pretty well in the macro.

Next week: Waid on his sudden exit from "Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes," thoughts on his replacement, "Brave and the Bold," and why comic books just can't be fun anymore.

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