REFLECTIONS: Talking with Peter David

Reflections, Volume 3, Number 13

Some interviews just become too epic to be contained in one installment of "Reflections," and after completing my interview with Peter David, I decided that this was one of those occasions.

David's career is, of course, epic in and of itself, with most of the biggest books and characters in comics on his resume, as well as work in television (one of my favorite shows as a youngster was "Space Cases," a show he co-created) and novels. And since I like to talk about past work mixed in with the present, I knew the interview was going to be big from the moment David accepted.

But never before have I used up three tapes to record an interview or almost completely drained my cell phone battery on one call.

Any sane person would decide to transcribe a cliffnotes version of the interview, boiling it down to the major book beats and trimming off the fat, but as I sat down to begin the task of transcribing, I realized there wasn't much, if any, fat to chop off. David made great point after great point, covering a diverse amount of subjects effortlessly, so I decided to keep it. All of it.

To prevent myself from having some sort of aneurism from too much transcribing and to prevent your head from exploding from getting too much good information, I've helpfully broke the Internet…er…interview in half. That said, let's begin.

Robert Taylor: How's life?

Peter David: Life is going pretty well. I had a bowling league last night. I lost my first game, won my second, tied my third and won my match point. It's entertaining being a new father again and dealing with Caroline.

RT: See any good movies or television lately?

PD: I've actually really started getting into a TV series that has been around for a dog's age, but I was never a fan of. It's the sitcom "Scrubs." I watched a couple of episodes when it first started but wasn't particularly wild about any of the characters, and they kept switching the schedule so I couldn't keep up about it.

But then I started going to a gym regularly, and Comedy Central has been running it in the mornings. One of the things I do at the gym is work out on an elliptical machine that has a television screen on it. I started watching it and really getting into the series, and now I watch it faithfully on Thursdays and am catching up with it on Comedy Central.

In terms of the recent wave of new programs, I've been enjoying the hell out of "Heroes." I may be one of the few people who like the new Aaron Sorkin show "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," although there was an episode that made me realize Sorkin missed the boat on what the show could have been. There was this one episode where there was this old guy who the audience realized had been doing "Studio 60" back in the '50s, and he's talking about what it was like having to deal with McCarthyism and the people from the writing room, and it dawned on me that what he was talking about was more interesting than "Studio 60" itself. I wish they had taken this cast and set it back in the '50s. Having a TV show where they have to deal with increasing government incursion would have a lot to say about the world we are living with now. It might be a tougher sell, but it would be a kick.

The David household also loves "Friday Night Lights." One of the young stars, Scott Porter, is a comic book fan. He came up and introduced himself at Dragon Con and said he had a TV show coming up and would be playing a crippled quarterback and was a huge fan of my work. And now we are huge fans of his.

RT: I'm one of those people who can't help myself and latches onto the soon-to-be-cancelled TV shows even though I should know better…

PD: Usually I'm fortunate enough to know what they are, and then avoid them. I've had my heart broken too many times. I feel no guilt in this. My support of a TV show makes no difference because I'm not a Nielsen family and therefore it doesn't matter.

RT: Speaking of that, have you been watching "Veronica Mars" this season?

PD: I met Kristen Bell at a Wizard Con. Very sweet girl. I have to admit I haven't been thrilled about the ongoing thread of the first half of the season, because it was twelve episodes filled with rape. Oh. My. God.

RT: And then it turned out half the girls were faking their rape.

PD: It's a relentlessly unpleasant subject to begin with and then it's falsified as well. It's like that old joke about the two old women needing in the lobby of a hotel, and they start discussing the hotel and the food there. The first says the food is just terrible and the other one agrees and adds that the portions are so small.

Considering that they are trying to increase viewership, I think half a season worth of rape wasn't the way to go. I really wish that they had come up with anything else. Why couldn't they do something where the college newspaper she was working on was wiped out by a fire and she was investigating the arson, or something like that if they wanted to do something other than murder.

I'm enjoying "Smallville," as well.

RT: I haven't watched it this season.

PD: You are missing Green Arrow!?

RT: Sorry!

PD: And now they have the whole freakin' Justice League and have Martian Manhunter!

RT: I'm going to get it on DVD.

PD: Do you not buy monthly comic books and wait for the trades too?

RT: No, I buy myself all the monthly comics I can afford. I have class Thursdays until 9 p.m. so I have a little bit of an excuse.

PD: Tragically, they have not yet invented some amazing machine that can record TV shows while you are gone. For sixty bucks you can buy a video recorder.

RT: I'm just so lazy I want to get everything off iTunes nowadays.

PD: Is it on iTunes?

RT: Not yet, all they have is "Supernatural" and "Veronica Mars." But I promise to get a season pass as soon as it comes to iTunes.

PD: Well I sure hope so because there may be a quiz.

I am embarrassed to admit that when they had the brief cameo of Martian Manhunter I didn't know who it was! This is especially embarrassing because throughout the episode they found Oreos all over the place. I don't know if I just wasn't paying attention, but I didn't realize who it was.

When Bob Greenberg asked me about the cameo, I was like "That's who it was!? Son of a bitch!"

Sadly enough, I'm never smart enough to keep quiet things that make me look like a clueless buffoon.

RT: It's alright; I admitted that I don't like "Smallville," which is just as bad. Anywho, let's switch gears and talk about how you broke into the industry with "Spectacular Spider-Man" way back in the day.

PD: Technically, I broke into the industry because I was Marvel's Direct Sales Manager. What happened was that I had been there for several years, and was a writer as well.

I thought I would branch out by breaking into the writing aspect of comics, but I was stonewalled by every editor I went to because there was, at the time, a vast divide between editorial and sales. Editorial's perspective was simple: if a person had any creative ability, they would be working in editorial. If you were working in anything other than editorial, you had no creative ability.

In the middle of this mix was an editor named Jim Owsley. Owsley was an assistant editor, and was always pleased because it appeared that I had respect for him. I'm not saying I didn't, but he thought I did.

If I walked into the editor's office because I needed information, I would turn to Jim and ask for help. To me, that's kind of obvious. But when other people would walk into the office and ask if the editor was there, and Jim would say "no," they would just walk out. Jim was annoyed by this.

The fact that I did not hesitate to accord him the respect he felt he deserved resonated with him. Understand, I wasn't trying to be manipulative or anything, I just did it because I needed help and the editor wasn't there. I was busy trying to do my job and didn't think anything of it.

The reason this is relevant is not to paint myself as a wonderful person, but because Jim eventually became an editor and was put in charge of Spider-Man, the flagship character in Marvel comics.

All of a sudden all the people who didn't have time for Jim or didn't consider him worth talking to, all wanted to become his best friend and pitch Spider-Man stories they wanted to write. Owsley, of course, was very attuned to the fact that these were the people that wouldn't give him the time of day when he was merely an assistant.

In comes Peter David, the guy from sales who no one would touch with a ten-meter cattle prod. I told Jim I had an idea or two for Spider-Man stories, and Owsley closes the door and asked for them, because since I had time for him when he was an assistant editor, he now has time for me. And he liked the ideas I pitched, so he bought them and then put me on "Spec Spidey."

This caused a massive scandal in editorial. It was actually subject to editorial meetings.

RT: You can't be serious!

PD: The notion that Jim was putting this guy from sales on to Marvel's flagship title did not go over well. The philosophy was that Spider-Man was the character that you needed experience on before you were allowed to come near. Indeed there was one person in editorial who said "What next, are we going to hire people from subscriptions?" It apparently never occurred to him that people from subscriptions might have good ideas for stories.

The entire time I was writing Spidey, Owsley was under tremendous pressure from those above him to get me off the book. After a year's worth of time he had to give into the pressure and took me off the title.

But then what happened was that Bob Harras approached me. Apparently some people at Marvel bothered to read that guy from sales' books and found them halfway decent. Harras approached me because he had no one to write "The Incredible Hulk" because that was the book no one was interested in. It was flatlining from a sales point of view and was considered a one-dimensional character.

Since the Hulk was a character no one was interested in, Harras could approach me without the controversy or political fallout.

RT: Did the character appeal to you at all?

PD: The Hulk was a character I had absolutely no interest in writing. Whatsoever. Although I was interested when he told me that they had switched him over to the grey Hulk with the thuggish mind. I said I would take on the series and figured it would last six months…

Cut to twelve years later.

RT: Is there anything major that you would have changed from your run?

PD: There are stories that I would have written differently. I read stories now and wince because I feel that they were overwritten. People remember "Hulk" #340 very fondly and all I can see in it are major flaws.

When we did "Heroes Reborn," there was a brief time when "Hulk" was cancelled. And due to massive groundswell from the fans, Marvel changed its mind, but it left me up against a wall because I was trying to balance the stories I was trying to tell while dealing with the ramifications of "Heroes Reborn" put me in an incredible hammerlock. Between "Onslaught" and "Heroes Reborn," editorially the series went completely off the rails. When I found out it was going to be cancelled, and I had to write stories to accommodate this, I seriously considered resigning from the book. I didn't feel that I could produce stories worth telling under these constrictions.

But I felt like I really owed the fans to stick it out and make the best of a bad situation. So I did the best I could, but in retrospect, when you try to make the best of a bad situation the results are bad comic books. I was extremely unhappy with the "Hulk" during that time.

Once we were past "Heroes Reborn" and Kubert came onboard, I felt the book was as good as it ever was. Unfortunately, we were hemorrhaging readers from the bad stories from the "Heroes Reborn" fiasco. By the time the story was back on track we had a different readership, but the damage had been done.

RT: How would you compare the crossovers from way back when to the almost constant crossovers that are affecting your books at Marvel today?

PD: When I took on "Friendly-Neighborhood Spider-Man," I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. Spider-Man is the flagship character and if you are going to be doing crossovers he is going to be affected, and if you are going to do crossovers, it is going to be exceedingly tricky. I would keep coming up with plans for what I want to do, but what is happening keeps knocking my plans off the rails.

I had a whole storyarc planned with the school and then all of a sudden Peter Parker is unmasking himself during "Civil War." I was faced with a situation where all the villains would know he is at the school, so I decided to do a story where the villains attacked the school, and then was told that was happening in "Spec Spidey." And that was problematic.

You are always dancing as fast as you can, and it can be a real hassle.

Also what is problematic is that every villain I wanted to use in "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" kept running afoul of other books. Either those villains had just been used or were about to be used. Only in recent issues have I been able to use the villains that I want to.

The book has only been the book I wanted it to be since issue 11. Up to now it's been a little bit frustrating, but I can't blame anyone at Marvel because, like I said, I knew the job was going to be dangerous when I took it. I didn't know it was going to be this dangerous, but I knew it.

But it's only been since the Mysterio arc that I feel like I've been getting any traction. Spider-Man's strength has always been his supporting cast, and I've never been sanguine about the fact that Spidey's supporting cast is the Avengers. Why are we doing that when he has one of the best supporting casts in the history of comic books, so I've been aggressively bringing them back.

Some people don't like the way I'm doing it, like with Flash Thompson. I brought him back as an amnesiac who forgot that he and Peter became really tight. Some fans complained that I had undone years worth of character development, and it was true.

But the thing was that he had been in a coma, and I wanted there to be a reflection on that he had been in that coma.

The alternative was that I could do issue after issue of physical therapy, and does that sound like a good idea to you?

RT: Uh, no.

PD: He comes out of his coma and Peter spends issue after issue helping him walk again. Jeez, that sounds boring. It might be uplifting for people having trouble walking, and I can respect that, but it still doesn't sound appealing to the average comic book fan. So I thought the impact on Flash should be mental and not physical.

We've had ramifications because Peter still remembers all the character development. When they told me that Peter was unmasking, that blindsided how I wanted to go with Peter and Flash, but offered new opportunities. Once Flash hears that Peter is Spidey, the first thing is that he is in total denial, and then when he comes to the realization that it is true, that is a complete character arc itself.

And now once he accepts it, he acts like Peter is his best friend. This is irritating to Peter because once upon a time they were best friends, but now he doesn't know if it's real or if Flash is just sucking up to him because he is Spider-Man. That presents another character arc that wouldn't be open to me if not for the unmasking.

Rather than seeing the lines that crossovers cut off, you have to see the storylines that the crossovers can present, and go with that.

Next Week: If you think this was great, wait until you hear David talk up "X-Factor" and Stephen King.

Also in the coming weeks, we have a great lineup of creators for you: Aaron Lopresti, Greg Rucka, Charlie Huston, Joe Kelly and J.M. Straczynski.

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