Bill Messner-Loebs: A Career Retrospective (Part I)
By Darren Schroeder
Darren Schroeder: What is your full name?
Bill Messner-Loebs: William Messner-Loebs I was William Loebs, but my wife and I took each other's names when we were married.
BML: 51 Geez, I'm almost old enough not to be trusted twice!
DS: Favorite web site?
BML: Not counting the Silver Bullet site, which is of course my absolute favorite of all time, bar-none, pinkie-swear, I think the one I most enjoy is the Fiasco Web Site where Don Simpson posts a new Megaton Man strip every week.
DS: Were comics a big part of your childhood or did you discover them at a later stage?
BML: Both. In the mid-fifties I read all the goofy DC titles and I even remember when The Fly came out. I remember the ads for The Flash #1. I sent in a letter to save Green Lantern after his initial run in Showcase. He sent me a postcard to thank me. I was there for FF#1 and the first Amazing Adventures with Spiderman. I still have the wedding of Sue Storm and Reed Richards. I also read the comic adaptations of X, the Man with X-Ray Eyes and Atlantis, the Lost Continent, and even Dr. No. I never have seen the film of XTMWXRE, but I remember every panel of the comic. It was chilling.
But once the Marvel Universe started doing lengthy continued stories it became obvious that Michigan comic distribution was not what it should be. One month I decided to catch up on the FF and discovered that Medusa (!!?!) was the fourth member.
Then Johnny Storm and a big Amerind suddenly appeared riding on the back of a gigantic telepathic bulldog. It was obvious I would never figure out what was going on. Then, after college, I was doing research for an article on the "new comics" and bought the drug issue of GL/GA, and the Harvey Spirit collection among others. A bit later Swamp Thing began along with Miller's Daredevil, and I was hooked again.
DS: Looking back at the books you used to read back in the mid-fifties, what's the biggest difference for you between comics then and the comics of today?
BML: Well, in the mid-fifties they were all Superman and Batman related, and Uncle Scrooge. That's what there were. They were mostly short, plot intensive and surreal, revolving around imaginary stories, death by Kryptonite, super-animals and history NOT changing. Not to mention being attacked by your own super-collections.
DS: Was art an important part of your education?
BML: In grade school and junior high I loved art. I illustrated comic strip adventures. But in college, abstract expressionism was all that was being taught, just as the English courses specialized in poetry. Besides, by that time I was being drawn to the History department.
DS: What materials and equipment do you use when drawing your comics?
BML: When I draw my own, I use a lead holder with non-photo blue lead. I tighten up using a #2 charged with dilute Dr Martins Sky Blue. Then I ink with a schaffer fountain pen, then weight the lines with a brush pen, or a sable brush with black magic ink. The lettering is done with CorelDRAW 3, laser printed onto gummed paper, and then I scan a reduced copy of the art into PaintShop Pro where I add the tones, panel borders and solid black areas.
DS: Who do you see as the target audience for your work?
BML: My first audience is me. My larger audience is, well, people who like experimental comics. Experimental in the larger sense, because I know that I can't write to a formula very well. I'm always trying something new and that's where I get my juice; I can't just coast. Whether I'm writing super-heroes or something else, I love to find the edges, and expand them. So my audience has to be people who enjoy that process. I've been approached by fans of every age and sex, by fans of every nationality and race; I don't think my audience is easily differentiated from the herd. And it's probably not huge, assuming there are huge comic audiences somewhere.
DS: What work have you been doing recently?
BML: Recently? Ah there's the rub! I did a short story in Flinch called "Dead Woman Walking," and the 4 part Brave Old World, both for
Vertigo. I am just finishing up an issue of Superman Adventures, and I'm beginning a series for Scrawling Eye called Boreanna, Enigma of the Frozen North. I'm writing a western novel called The Adventures of Johannes Falk.
DS: What comics have you read recently? Why did you like/dislike them?
BML: Supernatural Law-Wolff and Byrd I love the sheer fun of this thing, the lightness and puns, and in-jokes and the thousand different ways changes are rung in on the legal and social issues involved. It's also nice to see popular fiction where the constitution is respected and lawyers are seen as human and not demonized.
I also suspect that Batton Lash does a better job of playing fair with the law than say David Kelley does on the Practice.
The Ballad of Utopia Yes, the artwork is very influenced by Frazetta, but for once the story lives up to the art. I know a little about the 1880's and this is as close to accurate as I've seen in any comic (or movie, for that matter!). And it feels hot and gritty, and yet it likes its funky characters, and its grim little secrets. There's a sense of hidden fun to it all.
The League of Extraordinary Gentleman Wow. Why wouldn't I love this? Alan Moore. Alan Quartermain. And a selection of the weirdest Victorian Heroes. It took me a bit to warm up to the art style, which seemed flat and unexpressive initially, but it either improved, or I did.
DS: If a film was made of your life, who should play you?
BML: John Goodman.
DS: What is it about the comic medium that attracts you to work with it?
BML: People asked me, for starters. And I like the fannish atmosphere. I'd end up at the conventions, even if I weren't a guest. There's something very attractive about sitting all by yourself and creating a movie that people can roll up and put in their pocket.
DS: What was the first comic you worked on and how did that come about?
BML: It was Nightwitch, as I recall. It was produced by Power Comics, a small, not very efficient criminal enterprise in East Lansing Michigan. I was one of the inkers.
DS: What sort of comic was Nightwitch and how did you get the job?
BML: It was a combination of Dr. Strange and Wonder Woman, our heroine was so powerful that nothing could stand before her, if she was awake. So she was always being hit from behind. And then her costume would be ripped suggestively. That was the totality of her character. It was b&w and glued rather than stapled.
DS: By my dating of your work I jump from Nightwitch to Justice Machine... what's missing?
BML: I think The Bunny of Death and the True Story of Job from A Plus Comics, and several stories in Nucleus Comics. And Puss and Blades in the Comico Reader.
DS: Any common themes with these?
BML: Just feeling my oats. Puss and Blades was inking over Bill Bryan, which I just did again to better effect in the current OZ books from Arrow.
At that point I was discovering one of the things I'm best at, which is taking familiar themes and giving them a good strong twist. When I first started reading "satirical" send ups of fairy stories and other things they were invariably described as "daring" and "innovative", when most of them were comfortable and obvious. I resolved to at least try to be surprising. There is no greater drug than true shock in the eyes of an audience.
DS: You had several stories appear in Cerebus. How did that come about?
BML: The editor of Nucleus and I went to a Relaxacon called Laffcon in London Ont. and took Nucleus 3 with us. We meet Dave and Deni there and a year later when Cerebus expanded, Deni called.
DS: Did you think at that time that Cerebus would still be going this many years later? The Regency hotel sequence was going by then, so yes, I knew it was something special, and we were in for a good long run.
DS: In 1983 your comic Journey starts being published. This focuses on the life of an early 19th century frontiersman. What prompted you do set a comic in this era?
BML: McAlistaire was one of several characters I would draw in my sketchbook steadily over the years. He started out as a version of Trashman by Spain, but set in the past instead of the future. Mountain men always interested me, more than cowboys or soldiers. Plus, he would be alone a lot of the time, with only trees for background. And I pushed him back to 1810, so the Western frontier would by in Michigan, making my research local.
DS: During that time you were also picking up jobs such as inking Mr. Monster and artist on some Grimjack issues. Had Journey helped you pick up these kind of jobs?
BML: Oh, yes. I wouldn't have met any of those guys, or had them see my stuff, save for Journey.
DS: Journey seems to have gotten a good response from the critics, why did you cease working on the series?
BML: Well, for one thing I was totally exhausted. At the end I was doing Journey WarDrums, and Jonny Quest, and the art in Wastelands, and Silverback too, I think, all monthly. Which is why Journey became less and less monthly.
DS: Johnny Quest was a series inspired by a 60's cartoon show. How familiar were you with the characters and how did you approach writing for the comic?
BML: Well, I had seen it when it first came out, and had caught the brunt of the Hanna Barbara hype machine (it was the first true adult, realistic cartoon ever made, etc, etc.) It seems like those who really loved it were 12 or younger when they first saw it. I was 17, and very judgmental 17 at that. I was very disappointed. When Comico sent me videotapes I was appalled. Now I was, what? 34 or something and the flaws and derivative nature of everything were obvious. But when my friends told me the JQ stories they remembered, they were wonderful; epic tales of spies and adventure set in every exotic city around the world, brimming with subtle character interaction, warm fellowship and arcane knowledge, both scientific and spiritual. So I set out to write the stories everyone remembered.
DS: The art team changed quite a bit before Marc Hempel and Mark Wheatley became the regular team from #14. How closely were you working with the artists and did the changes make things difficult for you?
BML: It made things horrible for Diana Schutz, my editor. My stories were done months ahead of picking the art teams, but it was a nightmare of co-ordination for her. It was cool to be working with and interacting with so many other artists. And frankly, as the one thread of continuity in the book I knew it was a great and unique position for a writer to be in. In a medium where the artists tend to be the stars I got much wider notice than I might have otherwise. Neil Gaiman got a similar boost from Sandman and really made the most of it.
DS: What was DC attempting with Wasteland?
BML: Mike Gold wanted to create a modern mag of psychological horror, that would be totally free of EC influences. And to give his quirker friends work.
DS: Do you think it succeeded?
BML: I think it succeeded brilliantly. However, by the time he was well enough settled into DC to start the book, even the quirkiest of us had already found work. So John Ostrander and Del Close were always fighting the clock and there was never time for the sort of collaborative interaction I was hoping for. Furthermore, because they were complex 9 page, nine panel pages with intricate urban backgrounds, it was nearly as much work to draw one of them as a whole issue of Journey.
DS: With the Flash you had a long run with an established superhero. How did you get up to speed with the back-story of the character?
BML: Well, I had grown up reading the Flash and had enough interest in the character to keep in general touch with what was happening. I started on issue 9 or something of the new run and they sent me issues and scripts so I knew what Mike Barron had been doing. Plus they xeroxed a couple key scenes from Teen Titans to show Wally West's evolution. We were trying something new enough that the majority of Flash's old continuity didn't apply.
DS: Did you set out with any grand plan for the character?
BML: I wanted to fulfill what Mike had started. He had come up with such a unique take on the character, and yet he seemed to be struggling. He had started writing Punisher at the same time and was having such a good time with that book, that he couldn't give Flash his full attention. At least that was what he said to Mike Gold when he left. So I wanted to play with that, in sort of the same way I wanted to play with the Thor that Warren Ellis created. I guess I'm more of synthesizer than a full bore creator.
I also wanted to make him DIFFERENT than Batman. All the heroes at that time were so driven and sour, and their worlds so grim, that it made things boring. The essence of drama is contrast and surprise. Batman is only interesting when he's different from everyone else.
DS: What are the key elements to a superhero?
BML: Hydrogen, oxygen, helium and a little iron-y. Sorry. I think you should write them in just the same way you write any other character ... which has probably kept me out of the big time. Denny O'Neil famously (and possibly apocryphally) once remarked, "Don't write the character, write the costume." If Denny actually said that, thank God he's never followed it himself. The one extra difficulty in writing super humans is the powers.
Much of storytelling is created by the shared knowledge we have as humans about how the world works. We know instinctively how heavy a manhole cover
is, we know how long it takes to run across the street. By changing drastically the relation between space and time, a character like Flash effectively eats away at the stuff of conventional drama. Most of the writer's time goes into inventing reasons why he can't just solve the crises in the first page of the book.
DS: How did DC react to your idea of outing Pied Piper?
BML: DC, in this case my editor Brian Augustyn, was incredibly supportive. Nobody seemed to have the key, even after several attempts, to creating a sympathetic gay character and I wanted to take my shot. Brian, as always, was at my back and gave me his full support. I wanted to create a character that people would get to know before they discovered he was gay, and I wasn't sure I'd have 30 more issues on the book. So I looked at my existing cast and picked the Piper. It was also a little quid pro quo. Brian wanted the IRS story line; I wanted to deal with a gay character. We were both pleased as punch.
DS: What was the reaction from readers at the time?
BML: Very positive. I don't remember any negative comments.
DS: I think it was issue 54 where there was an explosion on a passenger jet.
An air hostess is sucked outside to certain death. What you had the Flash
do next has always stuck in my mind as the perfect piece of superhero writing. Was this a special issue to you?
BML: In fact it's the one I give as my favorite single issue. Too often we are given heroes who aren't afraid, or who are curiously passive spectators to tragedy. Heroes actually need to make things better occasionally or they aren't heroes, really. They are puppets, strung flat and tangled by irony. And I wanted an issue that would be complete in itself, after a string of continued stories. And I wanted a story that would again center on speed, something I hadn't done for a while. I was so pleased when the notion occurred to me. I remember thinking, "This is a real superhero plot!
Wow. I actually came up with one."
I actually wrote and sold that issue to Brian on a flight we were taking to LA to watch the filming of the Flash TV show, so it has a lot of meaning for me.
To Be Continued... Next Week
A somewhat complete but not quite correct William Messner-Loebs bibliography
A convention sketch
A picture from one of Bill's Comics
Jonny Quest Comics