"Spider-Girl" was only supposed to be one issue. When MayDay Parker dunked a basketball on the first page of "What If?" #105, no one at Marvel Comics knew the heroine would anchor the longest running female-driven series in the company's history. The writer behind that story - and the additional one hundred and thirty over the next twelve years --Tom DeFalco, sure didn't see that coming.
The daughter of Peter and Mary Jane Parker, Spider-Girl lives in a separate reality than the regular Marvel Universe, one called MC2. The timeline has yielded a few miniseries and short-lived ongoing series, but nothing with the staying power of Spider-Girl. MayDay's first series, "Spider-Girl," was saved many times from cancellation thanks to fan outcry, and made it to 100 issues before being rebooted as "The Amazing Spider-Girl," which is coming to an end next month with issue #30.
Though "The Amazing Spider-Girl" has been cancelled, her adventures will live on in the bi-monthly anthology, "The Amazing Spider-Man Family," in a feature written by DeFalco and drawn by longtime Spider-Girl artist and co-plotter Ron Frenz.
A legend at Marvel Comics thanks to his work as Editor-in-Chief and landmark runs on "Amazing Spider-Man," "Thor" and "Fantastic Four," DeFalco stopped by REFLECTIONS to talk about bringing MayDay to life, sustaining her for over a decade, his relationship with Marvel Comics, and his experiences with crossdressing superheroes.
CBR: The character of Spider-Girl will live on in "Amazing Spider-Man Family." How will these stories differ from May's ongoing series?
Tom DeFalco: I wish I could answer that. The first story is going to be twenty-two pages. I've been told that the second is sixteen pages, but I don't know if a definite decision has been made about that.
Will you be keeping the same editorial team as "Amazing Spider-Girl?"
I believe I'll still be working with Tom Brennan, but I have not seen a copy yet. I don't know who the actual editor is-Stephen Wacker or Tom Brennan. There's a chance that they split up the features. I hate to be so ignorant about an assignment which could be my last for Marvel.
What do you mean by that?
A bunch of reasons.The good news about working with Spider-Girl for twelve years is that, creatively, I've faced a lot of challenges and had a lot of fun, worked with great characters and great people. The bad news about working on the same thing for that many years is that editors start to believe that it is the only thing you can do. So the only way I can get non-Spider-related work is to work for other companies.
Even though "Spider-Girl" and "Amazing Spider-Girl," while about Spider-Girl specifically, were often very diverse in terms of content? Obviously, they sustained themselves for quite a long time.
The truth is that editors are a cowardly and superstitious lot. They are constantly looking for the "next big thing" that will magically jump the sails of every comic book. The sad truth is that, with the market we have today, there is no magical "next big thing." The bottom line is that readers want exciting stories with memorable characters and plenty of action and angst. If you can deliver that, you will continue to sell. If you can't, you won't sell comic books-or any kind of fiction. You have to have the ability to grab the readers by the throat and make them care about the characters and stakes and make them hang on for the story.
"Amazing Spider-Girl" is not, nor has it ever been, one of the top sellers, but for twelve years we've been pretty consistent. I'm often surprised an editor can't look and say "Wow, they've kept the book alive for twelve years-they must be doing something right!"
There was an opportunity for Marvel to publicize "Amazing Spider-Girl" when fans were complaining about Mary Jane and Peter's marriage being dissolved in regular continuity, in the "One More Day" story.
To [Marvel Editor-in-Chief] Joe Quesada's credit, he did try to direct people over to "Amazing Spider-Girl" at that time. Our problem is that Peter Parker is a supporting character in our book. If you are picking up "Amazing Spider-Girl" for the adventures of married Peter Parker, you'll just see a couple of panels here and there. This book is called "Amazing Spider-Girl" and it is about Spider-Girl.
I think we did pretty good for a female superhero whose adventures are set in an alternate universe. I read the Marvel handbooks and at one point we were an alternate future, then we were an alternate present-I don't know what we really are and I don't really care. [laughs] We are just trying to have some superhero fun in the merry Marvel manner.
I'm very happy with Spider-Girl. I think the company has done very well by us. I have no complaints about the book. We had an amazing run, though who knows how long "Amazing Spider-Man Family" will last-perhaps ten years from now you'll be asking me if I'll be doing the new Spider-Girl feature in "Spectacular Spider-Man Family." I have no idea what the future brings; I just try to always be open to it.
How many stories do you have percolating in your mind for May in the near future?
Ron Frenz probably has forty ideas in his head. [laughs] I've been focused on wrapping up the current epic in the current series. I have a bunch of ideas that could turn into stories or dead ends. If you are asking me how long I can continue writing Spider-Girl, the answer is indefinitely.
Way back with that first panel of May slam-dunking the basketball, how much shelf life did you think Spider-Girl had in her?
One issue. We only did it as a one-issue thing. Around that period of time, I was assigned to write "What If?" and I was focused on coming up with those stories. Ron and I were working on "Spider-Girl" and enjoyed it, but we tend to enjoy whatever we are working on.
Why do you think sales have always remained steady but relatively low on the two Spider-Girl series?
Over the years I've seen all these rationales about why people don't want to read "Amazing Spider-Girl." They say: I don't want to read "Spider-Girl" because it's too connected to the Clone Saga. I don't want to read "Spider-Girl" because it's not connected enough to the Clone Saga. I don't want to read "Spider-Girl" because Peter is not a main character. I don't want to read "Spider-Girl" because it's a second person narration. I don't want to read "Spider-Girl" because it's a first person narration and I am not May Parker! I've also heard, "I don't read 'Spider-Girl' because it isn't set in the real Marvel Universe."
So many excuses. But they can do whatever they want-I don't care. "Spider-Girl" is not a comic book that will change anyone's life. It is a fun superhero comic book. We are not a decompressed comic. Stuff actually happens. We have subplots. Our characters are real three-dimensional characters who have their own lives. It's been a blast and I hope it continues to be a blast.
There is a strange thing about comic book fans. If you ask five of them, "Do you read 'Jonah Hex?'" all five will give me detailed reasons about why they don't read "Jonah Hex." They will come up with detailed excuses to explain why they don't read a specific title. If you ask five people, "Do you watch 'Burn Notice' on television?" They are either going to say "yes" or "no." They wouldn't bother to explain why they aren't interested in it. Comic book fans look for excuses to explain why they don't have to buy a certain comic book, as opposed to just saying they aren't interested. I think people should always vote with their wallets. If they read something and enjoy it, they should keep reading it. If they read something and don't enjoy it, they shouldn't buy it. Maybe a lot of people tried "Spider-Girl" and decided they didn't like it. That's fine.
After which cancellation scare did you realize you had something really special going on?
I don't know if I ever realized that. [laughs] I always had a ritual. Whenever a comic book was cancelled or I was done writing the thing, I would gather up all my notes and reference material and toss it out in the garbage. I would clean off the desk and start fresh. It took me until the third time "Spider-Girl" was cancelled that I realized I should not be doing it anymore. The office would tell me they needed more plots and I just tossed out my stuff. I have a terrible memory so I kept having to start from scratch.
"Amazing Spider-Girl" is classified as an "all ages" comic. Have you ever had to cut anything out because it was too button-pushing?
No, because I'm not that kind of writer. I always approach the assignment knowing what kind of an assignment it is. For "Spider-Girl," I'm just not going to come up with stories that are inappropriate for her book, and if I do, I'm just going to reject them without even thinking about it. If I come up with an adult story idea, I'll do it in a project aimed at an adult audience. I am exceptionally lucky because I've always had outlets to do anything I want to do.
Which of Spider-Girl's supporting cast members really grew on you as the two series progressed?
I was surprised by Moose. People always talk about how characters take on a life of their own, and Moose really did take on a life of his own. Early in the run, when Spider-Girl first met the Dragon King, Moose had been a big bully up until that point. The Dragon King burst into a room and threatened Jimmy Yama and Moose went out of his way to help and save Jimmy. It seemed so natural for Moose to do that.
Later on, the idea of having him get together with Courtney threw me because it seemed natural, and those two have become such a charming couple together.
What can you tease about the final issues of "Amazing Spider-Girl?"
We are going to find out who and what the brand-new May is. We are going to definitely find out who that spirit guide is. The brand new May and our May will come to a resolution of sorts. The Peter Parker/Norman Osborn thing will be resolved. More hints about The Black Tarantula and Arana's relationship will be revealed. Normie will get to have a few choice words with his father. Some people will live happily ever after. Others won't.
How did you come up with bringing Arana into "Amazing Spider-Girl?" Back in the day, Arana was introduced as a replacement Spider-Girl and fans went crazy with anger over it.
There are two aspects to the question. We put her in the story because she helped us set up our theme and set the ball rolling for this entire thing. The issue where she shows up and confronts Spider-Girl seems like a one-shot meaningless story, but when you put it all together, you realize that the issue states the theme of everything we are going into and may, in fact, set up a lot of what will happen to Spider-Girl in the future. Arana seemed perfect for that.
Years ago, when they first introduced Arana, they were going to call her Spider-Girl. Our bookstore sales were so good at the time that the movie people wanted a character not related to Peter Parker so they could sell them separately. I think that ultimately, Joe Quesada stepped in and said that they should worry about movies and he should worry about comics, coming down on our side. Joe has always been one of Spider-Girl's biggest supporters, and I appreciate that.
At some point, there was a "Spider-Man Family" book and they asked me to do a story with Peter Parker, Arana and May. I had never read any of the Arana material and asked for reference. The company supplied it, and I found a charm to the character that was never fully exploited. I know that is an unfair thing to say, because I know that there are a hundred writers looking at "Spider-Girl" and saying, "There is a charm to this character that was never fully exploited." [laughs] That's not what I'm trying to say. There was a charm and vitality to the character and, as a writer, I would have loved to play with the character.
Over the course of the first Spider-Family story, I set her up in Spider-Girl's present and thought that I would have to use her somewhere down the line. In this story I knew I could use her to help my theme and help the story.
Let's talk about what Ron Frenz brings to the book. You and he are listed as co-plotters. How do you come together to create the arcs for the book?
Many years ago, Ron Frenz and I were teamed together by the legendary editor Danny Fingeroth-who pays me five bucks every time I mention him. We were working together on "Spider-Man" and we started to develop this method of working where we would talk to each other about the characters and what they were going through. That kept evolving until we started talking about everything. Ron and I approach comic books from the same editorial point of view. We believe the story is the boss. The only thing important at the end of the day is the story, so we approach it without ego.
Ron and I get together over the phone because we live in different states-he in the state of infinity and I in the state of confusion. We throw ideas out, oftentimes one will have a great idea and we will both start discussing it and finessing it. And because we have no egos, we throw in any idea, no matter how stupid, and talk about it. We will keep throwing ideas at each other and, by the time we are done, the story doesn't resemble anything we started with. At a certain point I realized I didn't know whose idea is what, and I don't care, because it's all good in the end.
I always say that all the good ideas are Ron's ideas because I know I come up with a lot of bad ideas. I'm sure I come up with the occasional good one, otherwise he'd have no reason to keep working with me. [laughs]
Let's talk about those "Little Benjy" cartoons by Colleen Coover.
Tom Brennan wanted to do some extra features in issue #25 and he said he had a great artist if I could figure out something to do with her. He sent me Colleen's samples and she is a terrific cartoonist. I took some time to figure out how to use it in Spider-Girl's world. At first I thought about doing some kind of fantasy thing. The more I thought about it, I realized I could do something really fun with Benjy. One of my favorite comic books was "Sugar and Spike," so I decided to do something like it.
Let's talk about the letters pages. How much mail do you get per month?
We don't get all that much. Writing letters is a lost art form. When was the last time you wrote and mailed a letter? The closest people get to mail these days are greeting cards and paying bills. I have a hunch that ten or fifteen years from now, there won't be any snail mail anymore.
We get a dozen or so emails and a lot of them say "I like the book" or "I don't like the book." I like the letters that explain why they do or don't. I remember the days when they were essentially critical essays, and I'm lucky because we've gotten a number of those, but the days of hardcore letter writing is over. And I mourn it.
Over the course of the 131 issues, are there any letters that stick out to you?
Not really. The letter writers stick out to me because they constantly send letters in. Guys like Michael Jung, John Koerner, John Dillion and Jeff Westoff and guys like that send out letters all the time, and I probably forgot twenty people who now think "Tom doesn't like me!"
What's next for Tom DeFalco?
I'm doing a "Kid Colt" series for Marvel Digital. For Titan Comics, I'm doing a story for "Monsters vs. Aliens." For Moonstone, I'm doing a "Phantom" story that is prose with illustrated pictures. That's all I'm doing comic-related unless an enterprising editor calls.
What kind of assignments would you like to do?
I am a fan of the medium so I would like to do either human stories or adventure stories. I'd love to get my hands on characters like the Viking Prince or the Black Knight. I love traditional superheroes as well. I'd love to do anything that gives me a creative challenge. I want to write a comic book that is something I can make a solid unit of monthly entertainment which will thrill the readers be fun for me. Life is depressing enough; there is no need for comics to add to the depression.
Lightning round time. What was the first comic you ever read?
It was a Batman comic. I was a young kid and one of my older cousins, John, had a family gathering. I was sitting around and he showed me this Batman comic book. The only thing I remembered was that Batman was scary looking. On the one hand, he scared me. On the other, I became fascinated with the idea of newspaper comics in a book. All I knew is that I wanted more.
What is your biggest strength as a writer?
I have the ability to fall in love with my characters, and yet it is not a blind love because I can see their faults.
I have so many. [laughs] My biggest struggle is that all I see are my weaknesses. I still take writing courses and read books on how to improve my writing.
Favorite comic book movie?
I liked "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," the first two "Spider-Man" movies, "Iron Man" and "Transformers."
Weirdest convention experience?
There was the time I was trying to help a friend pick up a young lady only to realize she was not a young lady. I wasn't interested in her, I was just trying to help him! I was the wing man! This man was dressed as a comic book superheroine, and the opening line for my friend, who happened to be an artist, was "I'll never be able to draw the character the same way again."
At this point the person dropped his voice and said, "Gee, I guess I really didn't fool you guys, huh?" When he said it, he was looking right at me. I did a triple take and my friend managed to cover up by the time he looked at him.
If you could only be remembered for one thing in your career, what would it be?
As a writer, I would have to say "Thunderstrike." It was one of the most personal journeys Ron and I ever took. As an Editor-in-Chief, I would say Marvel Masterworks. I love those books and am glad the company is still producing them. I just wish they'd send me free copies so that I didn't have to pay for them!