Bill Messner-Loebs: A Career Retrospective (Part III)
By Darren Schroeder
Darren Schroeder, SBC contributor and small press maven,
continues his discssion with Bill Messner-Loebs,
artist/writer of more comic books than you can talk about in a
single part interview. Today they carry on their chat about
Bill's work at DC comics, looking primarily at Dr. Fate,
Wonder Woman and The Jaguar for DC's !mpact
DS: What were the reasons behind the cancelling of Dr. Fate, and how does it effect you when a title that you have been working on comes to an end?
BML: Dr. Fate had always flown pretty close to the surface of the water. No matter what we tried we couldn't seem to bring the sales up. Plus Karen's group was in the process of turning into Vertigo and books that weren't going to be Vertigo books (like Wonder Woman) were being moved to the DCU; books that were staying (like Dr. Fate) had to be more like Vertigo. I submitted a couple of proposals for changing Dr. Fate for the new company, but they ultimately wanted to go a different way (all my ideas were too funny, and therefore lacked "weight".) Plus, I was utterly exhausted. I had been writing 5 books a month for two years, through my mother's last illness and death, through my wife's illness and near death. I had had a head cold for three months and couldn't shake it. So when I was told that Dr. Fate would be cancelled when I left, that didn't seem like a bad thing.
DS: You said "When the actually crossovers hit, of course, it was like riding out a typhoon on an ironing board." Are crossovers a necessary evil or a creative opportunity?
BML: They should be a creative opportunity and did try to view them optimistically - really I did - but they never seemed to work out. As I said, they were being written as I was trying to cross into them. So I had no visuals and never enough information to really do the job properly. Plus there was never enough motivation to read and think about the cross over. It wasn't my story and usually not the sort of story I was best at telling. And, of course, the best ideas come as the writing is actually happening, so none of us were seeing each others' best work. Very often the cross over main books were done after the series books that were crossing into them.
DS: I've seen your name mentioned in association with a Time Masters mini series, is this correct?
BML: I vaguely remember discussing that with an editor (maybe Mark Waid?) years ago. Nothing since then.
DS: Dark Horse seemed to have cornered the market on treating film/tv properties as the starting point for comics that for the most part are worth reading in their own right instead of being easy cash cows. Was this approach apparent when you worked on Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis?
BML: Well, again, this was a book based not really on the movies, but on the game that was being created at the same time. I think it was a miserable time for all involved, and not a representative Dark Horse experience.
DS: What is the representative Dark Horse experience?
BML: My notion of the respresentative Dark Horse experience is one with a lot of freedom of expression, in a less structured work environment. And generally a lot of fun. This has been overall the experience of friends of mine who have done work for Dark Horse and I continue to believe it's the norm. My few contacts with Dark Horse have been so fleeting, outside the very odd Indiana Jones-thing, that I have no way to judge, except by third parties.
DS: Jaguar has been described as a teenage superhero trying to cope with her powers plus university life in a new country. Did the world need a new one of these?
BML: Well, gosh, Metallo, not if you're gonna describe it THAT way! I thought of it as - what if Betty and Veronica were Superheroes? Now the world may not have needed that either, but I thought I could do a fair job of writing it. The Impact line was aimed at younger kids and we thought it was a reasonable approach. Looking back, I think almost everything we did was too conservative. When a successful line aimed at younger kids came along, it was IMAGE.
DS: How did Jaguars ethnicity influence your writing for the character?
BML: Well, I did try and incorporate the Brazilian Experience, as much as I could from my Gringo remove. Although Rio is very cosmopolitan city with a wild reputation, I tried to imagine her as a shy and retiring, upper-class, convent-reared girl. Thus the Jaguar personality would have a contrasting
personality to struggle against.
DS: You mentioned that you actively tried for the writing task on Wonder Woman. Why?
BML: Because people had always said that the character was un-writeable, and I knew I had done a fair job of writing women. Wonder Woman was the mountain top in that regard. And she was one of the three top DC characters, their mythic troika. I wanted to try. And George had restarted the character so beautifully, I knew I had a real chance.
DS: "character was un-writeable" That seems an odd thing to say about the character who has had her title for the longest consecutive run in the DC line. What was their justification for that opinion?
BML: You think that folks in comics actually justify their opinions? Ooo, Mean Bill. Although Wonder Woman was the longest running title, the book had struggled in modern times, and was seen as a wacky, camp and dying title. I felt that was a mistake, bred because several generations of writers had been told to "write down" to an imaginary "girl audience" which DC was not reaching anyway. So the stories were distorted by this editorial view, and high premium was not placed on realism or intensity. Dan Mishkin, who was the last Wonder Woman writer before George
Perez restarted the book (I think that's right. Then Trina Robbins did a mini-series after that in the 40's style.) told me several very interesting ideas he had for the title, but he was not allowed to do any of them. To give you an idea of the mindset, when one Wonder Woman editor heard about my first plot line, with Diana as Captain Blood in space, freeing captive women, his response was, "I would NEVER have let you do that! Wonder Woman is fantasy; SUPERMAN is science fiction!" A sidebar: only in comics would Captain Blood in Space NOT be considered fantasy.
These various self-defeating perceptions on the editorial level had turned Diana preachy, and without a lot of texture. Every time someone would propose a female-based comic, the response was: "girl books don't sell. Look at Wonder Woman." It was obvious from George's run that women AND men would respond to well-structured characters in strong stories. And from movies like Alien and Coma, it was also obvious that men could identify with female heroes (the other thing editors refused to believe.) We just had to try.
DS: At what point in your career did you decide it was in fact a career?
BML: I had always WANTED it to be a career, but sometime in the middle of writing my five books, I looked up and the rest of the country was in a recession and I hadn't even noticed. At that point I thought, "Hey, I can really do this!" I had never been a fast writer, but now I was, at least kind of. I was producing. I was in the game.