The First Suit Cuts the Deepest: Kieron Dwyer Interview

[Kieron Dwyer Interview]In grade school, there was this guy that we never quite figured out where he belonged. He started out as the strange geeky kid that played Dungeons and Dragons with us now and again. Hell, he even played bass on a song I wrote for a school project. But he never came along when we started figuring out girls didn't fit into an equation that included elves and hit die.

In high school, he turned some sort of personal corner and became a heavy pot smoker and grungy girl copulator. Those of us who remember braining orcs for fun with him didn't quite see this coming, but he was finding an identity, even if it wasn't one we were a part of.

Then in college, yet another corner was turned and he traded patchouli oil for Eternity for Men, hemp for beer and working at the local head shop for medical school. Whether the peyote buttons showed him his destiny or he was tired of smelling like cat piss, we never asked him. To each his own.

Kieron Dwyer sometimes strikes me as that sort of hard-to-peg guy. He was the stepson of John Byrne. Yes, read that again. It was a bit of both a detriment (considering Byrne's public volatility, can you imagine how he might be as a step-parent?) and an advantage (Byrne was instrumental in getting Dwyer some of his more well-known work for both of the big two).

He started out as the company guy who did good work. He took over "Captain America" at a time when it needed a rough kick in the ass. He gave Mark Gruenwald's overly moral stories an edge that previous pencillers Paul Neary and Tom Morgan couldn't quite overcome. After successfully completing some of the best-looking Cap art in a long time, he moved onto DC to pencil a Batman story (that needs to be collected) with Peter Gillis.

But work in the spotlight became spotty and less satisfying and Dwyer started doing storyboard work and looking into creating work of his own. "LCD" (Lowest Common Denominator) is his labor of love. It's raunchy, it's crude… and it's gotten him in trouble.

Here's a life lesson that most people go by. You sue the people or corporations with deep pockets. Most people cannot afford to sue on principle without a financial backend. Lawyers expect to get paid and if it's a "principle" case, then a hefty retainer is needed. Of course, there's always that nasty exception to the rule.

Soon after starting up "LCD," Dwyer came up with a logo that resembled the revered/reviled Starbucks logo. It was definitely a slam on the corporation as instead of "Starbucks Coffee" figured prominently around the circle of the maiden, it maintained a bold "Corporate Whore," whose dollar-clenching fists and vacuous eyes said what most of us are thinking. Me, I laughed. It was out there, but it really wasn't any worse than many spoofs on the coffee corporation that I had seen. I mean, did Starbucks really think Mike Myers was doing them a service in The Spy Who Shagged Me?

But, see, somebody at Starbucks really got this stuck in their craw. And they sued Dwyer for cease and desist the use of the logo. For the end of this story, please sing these lyrics by the 60s group, The Bobby Fuller 4: "I fought the law and the law won." While the notion of the underdog fighting the power is a fine notion, it seems that David never had to fight Goliath in a court of law. Dwyer lost, but he fought the good fight. The upside is that he's not sketching for food near your local off-ramp and really he's thriving.

As if to play yang to Starbucks' yin, Dwyer recently became the "Avengers" regular penciller for the foreseeable future. It's a more mature and more refined Dwyer who comes back to Marvel at a time when it seems all sorts of artistic rebels are taking roost. His work on "Avengers" has been solid and reminded us that storytelling doesn't have to be gritting teeth, 2-page spreads or strict 90-degree angle, four-panel pages. It can think outside of the box and still communicate clearly. His silent issue on the "Avengers" was probably one of the easiest to read and get.

But don't think that he's gone all suburban. He still has the edge left in him and now he'll be building a new generation of fans, this time in the spotlight of the World's Greatest Heroes and the World's Raunchiest Magazine.

In this email interview, Kieron talks about being (step)Son of Byrne, why coffee tastes even more bitter these days and why the CBDLF is one of the staunchest defenders of comic book creators and fans.

-- Michael David Thomas


Michael David Thomas: Your mom met him and then married him when you were 13. How strange was it to have a stepfather who was also a professional comic book artist you read and admired (at least professionally)?

Kieron Dwyer: Well, while I definitely liked his work, I wasn't specifically a fan of his when they met. It was cool at first, especially for me to watch him draw and to see up close how it was done and to know that a person could have a very successful career and life in the comics field. Also he was very supportive and encouraging of my talents.

MDT: What was John Byrne, the stepfather, like in the brief time you lived with them?

KD: I won't go into specifics. Suffice to say, there's usually a big gap between our heroes as we perceive them and then as they really are. It's best to appreciate a person's work as separate and distinct from them personally, I find.

MDT: What kind of help did he give you when you were looking to get into the comic book business?

KD: Around 1986, I had moved back in with him and my mom to be closer to the east coast publishers. Just getting to know the editors at Marvel and DC socially through living with him, I had a nice opportunity to get to know some people from both companies in a social way before hitting them up for work. I did sample script pages for about 5 or 6 months and got a lot of helpful advice and info from many sources, including JB. One day, Denny O'Neil called him to ask him to do a fill-in on Batman. He couldn't do it and suggested me. Denny had seen my samples and liked them, so he decided to give me a shot. I owe them both for that.

MDT: When you worked with him on the "Torch of Liberty" stories, was it business as usual or was it different from a usual artist/writer collaboration?

KD: It was pretty much the same, although he gave me a lot more room to add stuff than many other writers. The plots were very simple. Whether that was trust or laziness, only he could tell you. ;)

MDT: Do you keep in touch today? If so, what are the conversations like? If not, why not?

KD: No, but not from any animosity that I'm aware of. There just isn't any need. He and my mom split up some years ago and they are still very good friends. So long as she's happy, my concerns are met.


[Consumer Whore]MDT: You were sued by Starbucks for copyright and trademark violations. How did you appear on their radar in the first place?

KD: You'd have to ask them that question. I don't honestly know. I think it might have been at a convention in Oakland, but I'm not sure.

MDT: Did it seem that they were making an example of you?

KD: Absolutely.

MDT: What was the last ruling on the case and what has the fallout been?

KD: The judge in the initial hearing ruled that I could not sell anything with my parody logo on it and the settlement I reached with Starbucks confirmed that. I can't go into specifics of the settlement, but suffice it to say that you'll never see the logo used by me again. There may be other logos, though. ;)

MDT: Are you in the process of appealing the ruling?

KD: Nope. The settlement is done, the case is over.

MDT: What kind of role did CBDLF take in your case? Are they still involved?

KD: As the case is over, no. The CBLDF helped offset some of my lawyer's fees and they did a lot of work helping to spread word of the case in the media, but cases like mine are not the usual kind handled by the organization. CBLDF was created primarily to assist in the legal defense of comics retailers who have been prosecuted for selling adult comics to children (or, in fact, to adults), and similar obscenity charges. It's an important and worthwhile shield in this industry and I encourage everyone to join CBLDF now.

MDT: Does it seem strange that Nintendo and ABC haven't come a calling for the same thing?

KD: DUDE. Are you trying to get me sued again? Seriously, I get the Nintendo thing, because of Tokemon, but what's the ABC reference? I'm not sure I want to know, really.

I hesitated about making fun of Alfred E. Newman in the second issue of "LCD" (oddly numbered #1, as the first full sized issue is #0). I did use my image, which features Alf and the kid from Cracked magazine in a compromising…uhh, position, but it went inside the book instead of on the cover, as originally intended. This was right after the Starbucks case started and AOL had just acquired Time-Warner, which owns MAD magazine, so it seemed wise not to incur the wrath of another mega-corp, indeed the mega-est corp of all. The Starbucks case, unfortunately, had a chilling effect on my decisions regarding "LCD," which is a drag. The whole point of the book is satire, parody, and good-(OK, BAD-)natured fun. Pulling my punches just feels wrong. But court is a real bummer, and my lawyer, Andy Gold, has a living to make, as do I. Previous artists who've become legal poster children for causes have often been lucky if they had any kind of career afterwards. Whatever anybody wants to say about David v. Goliath situations and how cool it is to be the underdog, well…it's not so great, actually. It's mostly time consuming and energy-draining bullshit. And when all is said and done, I don't want the Starbucks thing to define me. I want people to read and enjoy my work, that's all. And pay me, too. I like getting paid.


[The Avengers]MDT: You've said that you were interested more by particular stories and characters than by artists and writers. What's one of your favorite stories? Who's your favorite character?

KD: I remember a few stories that Alan Moore wrote in the late 80's for DC. One was a short Green Lantern tale about a Green Lantern from another planet where there was no light, so there could be no power based on light, which the GL power obviously is, so he was given a Green Bell instead. Also, he did a great Clayface story with George Freeman that made Clayface very tragic and sympathetic. Moore is an excellent writer and always seems to find the heart of any given character and the story [that] captures that essence in some new way. He's brilliant. I'd love to work with him some day.

My favorite character is Batman. I always found it inspiring to think that someone could do what he does simply by willing it (and having millions of dollars to make all the gadgets, but that's another thing).

MDT: What kind of projects do you have going on right now, besides the Avengers?

KD: I'm doing the next issue of "LCD," my adult humor comic. This will be the fourth full sized issue and will have contributions from Shannon ("Too Much Coffee Man") Wheeler, Jim Mahfood, Tony ("Battle Pope") Moore and, as always, Rick Remender and Harper Jaten (those ginchy "Captain Dingleberry" Boys). Rick, Harper, and I are also working to finish more "Black Heart Billy" material for a trade paperback collection, which will collect the first two issues of the book and a bunch of additional material. Look for that later this year from AiT/PlanetLar, as well as an original graphic novel for them called Last of the Independents. It's written by Matt ("Rex Mantooth") Fraction and it's going to be fun to draw and to read. It's good old-fashioned action stuff with an anti-hero in the Robert Mitchum mold. Matt's written a fast paced, hilarious script, and I can't wait to get started on it.

MDT: You've done movie and animation storyboarding. How did you start doing that? Was it a pretty seamless transition? Any future projects you're working on? Is it something you enjoy doing or is it just another job?

KD: It was something I'd wanted to do anyway, but I sort of fell into it, with the movie boards. I had a connection to someone who had written and would be directing a movie to star Christopher Lambert, so I was able to get the job, based largely on my existing comics work.

In some ways, it's easier to do storyboarding than comics, because generally the drawing doesn't need to be all that detailed, so I can get a lot done quickly. Doing comics made the transition easier and harder, actually. Easier, because I have camera angles burned in my brain, but ironically, harder at times, because the shots I have in my head are often not the kind that a camera's going to match without a crane or something, which is more expensive. Still, I think in 3D, and that helps with doing boards, as well as comics. Often, in my experience, they don't end up using the boards as a real guide for how they set up shots anyway. I like comics better, overall, because I like telling stories and knowing that people will read them.

MDT: You've said that you made a deal with yourself to do a painting a month even when there's not a paying gig behind it. Have you kept up with that?

KD: No. It's a shame, but no. I'd really like to get back into it though. I'd also like to find more time for guitar playing and other interests, but it's been hard with a monthly comic to pump out, which we've done since August 2001, following a year of the hardest full time work I've ever done, with "Swing Town," which is a 12-episode web animation series Rick, John Estes and I produced for local animation company, WildBrain.com. The three of us wrote and animated the entire series, which still has not aired, unfortunately. WildBrain suffered much the same fate as most other web-based entertainment sites in the wake of the dot bomb environment. Hopefully a day will come when web-based content/entertainment will find a profitable model, and maybe our show will finally be seen, as it deserves to be.

MDT: Besides Rick Remender, who inks your pencils the best? If you say, "I do," then who else?

KD: Naturally, I like inking myself the best, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is financial. That's not to say I think it looks the best, but it's more fulfilling. However, my inking style is definitely looser in general than what people might be used to seeing on a mainstream book like the Avengers (although Tom Palmer has inked the book at times and has a pretty loose style), and Rick has a cleaner, more straightforward style. He's done a great job so far. Hilary Barta, Mike Manley, and Karl Kesel are others who've done some very nice work over my pencils.


MDT: How did you come to get the book assigned to you?

KD: Kurt [Busiek] called and asked me to come aboard, but I had to say no, as we were still finishing up "Swing Town." Indeed, we had been promised a second series by WildBrain, so we thought we'd be working for quite a while longer. A week or two later, we learned that they would not honor that part of our deal, so we were left wondering what to do next. I called Kurt back and said, "I hope you guys haven't given the book to anybody else," and thankfully they hadn't. I talked with him about his plans on the book and then talked with Brevoort and the deal was done.

MDT: Your inker and friend Rick Remender is working with you on the book. Was Marvel hesitant to use your inker instead one of theirs? What does Rick do differently for your pencils that no one else does? Why aren't you inking it yourself?

KD: I told Tom Brevoort that I could handle the art chores entirely in house, with Rick inking the book under my supervision, to maintain a look that I wanted on the book. Tom was cool with it, but wanted to see what we had in mind, which was part of why we did the promo piece that was released when Marvel announce my arrival on the series. Apparently, everyone at Marvel was pleased with what they saw. I ink certain things myself, depending on how I feel at any given time. Sometimes it just makes more sense, time-wise, for me to ink something myself rather than pencil it tight just so Rick can ink it. Some faces and background elements in particular fall into that category. Sometimes, I just get a jones to ink something, so I do. Otherwise, as stated earlier, Rick's inking is cleaner than mine, so it generally works best to have him deal with that part. And it keeps him off the streets.

MDT: Are you going to be painting any covers for the "Avengers?"

KD: No plans to, but I have been inking and coloring them myself, so I get some of the same ya-yas out as I would with painting. Mostly, I'm really trying to bring a new design ethic to the covers on the book. I personally feel like there have been enough static shots of the whole team looking heroically into the sky to last for all time. I know some of the fans really dig those covers, so we'll probably throw one in now and then, but I'm trying to think "outside the box" (I hate that phrase, but it fits). From the reaction I've gotten, it seems like many people dig what I'm doing.

[Avengers #47]MDT: You did an homage to "Gone with the Wind" for the last "Avengers" cover. Can we expect to see more of this type of emulation of popular media (something right up your alley) in the future covers?

KD: Nothing specifically in mind that way, but it's always possible. I'd never force that element into the covers or the book unless it seemed warranted and appropriate. The Avengers isn't my forum to make statements or anything. I just want to tell fun stories in a visually dynamic, exciting way. Hopefully I succeed at that.

MDT: After writing your own stuff, with no restraints, how odd is it to work on a corporate book with characters that are not yours and with an assigned writer?

KD: It is a shift and it has taken some adjustment for me. I'd gravitated away from the mainstream for certain reasons and didn't anticipate being back doing a mainstream book again, least of all the most mainstream book of all, perhaps. Now that I'm here, though, it feels good and I'm just trying to stay excited and stay on top of the monthly deadline pressure.

MDT: How has it been to work with Kurt Busiek so far? Do you talk one-on-one at all? Is he pretty open to suggestions you have?

KD: We talk on the phone from time to time, but mostly communicate via email, which is my primary mode of communication these days, across the boards. While he seems to welcome my input or feedback, he has been planning the Kang War epic for some time and now that he's leaving the book, he has a limited number of issues to wrap it up, so there's only so much room for me to throw in my two cents. I knew that coming into the situation, though, and I'm okay with it. I think I will have more of a role in the stories with Geoff, if only because he's just started writing scripts and is coming aboard indefinitely, as I have.

MDT: Tom Brevoort is always held up as an excellent editor. What kind of contact do you have with him? Does the truth hold up to the hype?

KD: Ha ha. What kind of question is this? "Hey, Kieron, how do you feel about the guy holding your purse strings? Would you like to use this public forum to call him a jackass?" Tom is an excellent editor and a prince among men. Did I say prince? I meant King.

MDT: What there ever any trepidation or concern voiced to you by Marvel about hiring you for a high profile book? Were they worried about the lawsuit from Starbucks? Were they worried you were too "radical" for Marvel tastes now?

KD: Well, for the real answer to that, you'd need to ask someone there. I do think that there was some concern that "Avengers" readers today might not be familiar with my work and might identify me as "the Starbucks guy" or "the dirty comix guy." Indeed, from what I saw on the message boards online, that was a correct assumption. Part of the reason they had us do the promo piece was to allay people's fears, as it seemed to do once it was released. Unfortunately the news of our arrival leaked early and there was a bit of damage control that had to be done, but nothing irreparable, by any means.

MDT: You've said that you've had reservations about working for Marvel (versus working for DC) in the past. What made you change your mind this time around? Is there a real change that has happened at the company?

KD: Primarily, I saw a sea change occurring at Marvel when Joe Q took over the editor-in-chief role and it felt like a good time to be working for them. DC had treated me better, simply put, and they had kept me as busy as I wanted to be, which was terrific. Then the industry took some bad turns, I tried some other things, and the breeze began blowing in another direction, so to speak. I still work for DC, though, when I have time or they have something of interest to me. Not that I have anything like free time these days, of course.

MDT: How long are you going to be on the book? Do you have a contract for a specified number of months or is it open-ended?

KD: It's open-ended, but I have made a commitment to myself to do at least a full year's worth of issues. I hope it's much longer. But there's no contract involved.

MDT: The monthly grind of comic book takes it toll on artists real quick. It seems rare anymore that the regular artist of a title can do all twelve issues of a monthly series, either on-time or at all. What's your expectation for doing this? How fast/slow do you work? Does having your own inker help in keeping on-time?

KD: I work pretty fast, and Rick is pretty fast. We're making some adjustments to our style and our work methods, so that takes some time, but once we're on track, I think we'll keep good time. Issue 50 took a lot out of us, though, and then we were asked to skip ahead to issue 57 (for reasons I'm not divulging yet), which is Geoff Johns' first issue. Consequently, we are skipping over issues 51 and 52, which are being done by Brent Anderson and Ivan Reis, respectively. Then we'll be back on for issues 53 through 55. 56, which is Kurt's final issue on the series, will be a fill-in by Yanick Paquette. Then from 57 on, Rick and I will be on it monthly for as long as possible. I don't like to skip issues and wouldn't have done so if not for this special occasion.

MDT: You've had a reunion with Captain America, a character with whom you've become most associated. Did the old sensibilities of drawing Cap kick in? What's different about drawing the character now?

KD: I've never been too far from Cap, as I have regular requests for Cap sketches at every convention I do. I hope to make Cap as dynamic and heroic as possible, as always. He's the cleanest, most streamlined hero there is and I enjoy drawing him every time.

MDT: Mark Gruenwald always seemed to be a bit of a simplistic moralist in his writing, but once you started drawing the book, there seemed to an edge to the story just underlying what was written (the madness of John Walker, the Red Skull scenes, the Serpent Society story). Was this a conscious effort on yours or Mark's? How much of it was collaboration or total accident?

KD: I believe some of it was simply a result of Mark seeing my portrayal of Walker, visually, and realizing he could push his point that much more, that nobody could handle the position of Cap but Steve Rogers. I do think Mark's Cap was often a bit too broad and his boy scout thing was constraining. For the first several issues I was on the book, Steve Rogers (as the Captain) was behind bars of some sort in virtually every panel of every page. So I just cut loose as much as I could with Walker and figured they'd pull back the reins if I went too far, but I think people dug what we were doing. I know the sales went up, so we must have been doing something right. It took a little while, but Mark and I collaborated a fair amount on the book, especially leading into the Bloodstone Hunt saga near the end of my run on the title.


[LCD]MDT: What's the easiest way to describe "LCD" for those among the uninitiated?

KD: It's like an unholy communion wafer for your soul. And super-fucking-funny.

MDT: What's your publishing schedule for "LCD?"

KD: I'm trying to get at least 3 out a year from this point on. Ultimately, I want to go quarterly with "LCD," but that would be a true stretch, especially with a monthly book to do.

MDT: In a market that is depressed, how has the book done? Where do you see it going?

KD: I don't ever print more than I know I can sell, so the market isn't even much of a consideration for me. It's a slow build thing, as well. I didn't expect, or care, if it took the industry or the world by storm (would have been nice, of course, but…), so I wasn't shocked or disappointed when it didn't. It has gotten a lot of attention, not the least of which due to the Starbucks lawsuit, and those who read it either love it or hate it. The ones who hate it are obviously wrong, and in the minority, so to hell with them. Those who love it spread the word and bring in more readers, so it grows exponentially, every issue. I hope to continue that kind of growth and eventually put it out in magazine format. I want it to be for this generation what the National Lampoon was for me in the 70's. I also want to connect the book more with the Web site (www.LCDcomic.com) and ultimately have them mirror and support one another, the way the Onion does. Sky's the limit.

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