Introduction Bibliography Ambush Bug Justice League Legion of Superheroes News Links

Gabbin with Giffen

Amazing Heroes #172, Oct 1989. Interview conducted by Darwin McPherson

While Keith Giffen's claim to fame is undoubtedly his work on the Legion of Super-Heroes past and present, he's also well-known for his plotting on various DC titles, especially the very popular Justice League comics. In the following chat, Giffen discusses his views and approaches on his most recent projects- Aquaman, L.E.G.I.O.N.. '89 and, of course, Justice League.

AMAZING HEROES: You've wanted to do Justice League for a long time
KEITH GIFFEN: An incredibly long time. Almost since the time Andy Helfer came on editing the book. I used to bother-him constantly. I started up a weekly harassment campaign of popping in his door every chance I could get and saying, Look, give me justice League. But at that point I was I more interested in drawing it. I wasn't trying to ace anybody out of a job, but I wanted it.
I guess, whenever DC decided that going to do a new Justice-League, start it over from number one, Andy and Paul Levitz both mentioned me, but not as the artist - as the plotter. I'd done occasional little plots here and there. I think I helped Paul out on a couple Legion of Super-Heroes. I did a Legion of Substitute Heroes Special.
So I have to give DC a certain amount of credit because they were taking a pretty big risk. I wasn't a tried plotter. I wasn't somebody who was known in the industry for being a plotter or telling a story without an already established plot. So when Andy approached me, I took all of five second before I said yes.

AH: What was it about the Justice League that you always liked? Why did you want to do Justice League?
GIFFEN: Well, the main reason I wanted to do Justice League was because, I don't mean to denigrate anybody, but the book was not doing that great during its latter days. I always looked at the Justice League as being DC's flagship team title, if not their flagship title. At that point, it was all of their top heroes together. I guess, in my own egotistical way, I really thought I could do good for the book.
And when a book is not selling well and all, DC gives a little bit more leeway. That's one of the reasons why I've always said, given a chance of going on an immensely popular book or going on one that's selling okay, I'll always go for the lesser one because you do have a little bit more leeway to play around there.

AH: what did you think the justice League needed?
GIFFEN: Just a little craziness, I guess. It had to be sparked a bit. I don't know if people had fallen into a Justice League formula or people thought, It's been around for so long, there's nothing we can do with it. But I just hoped that on Justice League I could approach it from a different viewpoint ... sort of come at it from left field, so to speak. A slightly different approach from the one that was being used.

AH: Do you think Justice League could have done well as a straight adventure book like Avengers or Legion or Titans?
GIFFEN: I'm sure it could. The Justice League has a following.... it's been around for a while, so I think just the fact that it is the Justice League would guarantee a certain amount of sales and make it a healthy book, It's odd because I can't think of Justice League and think of a book like Avengers or any of the straight team books at this point. I guess we've been doing this tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor for so long, I've totally forgotten anything I might have been thinking about in terms of Justice League as a serious book. I can conceive of serious moments, but not turning into a standard team book, no.

AH: Do you think Justice League, is getting repetitive with its jokes? Booster Gold and Blue Beetle chasing girls and being clowns, Oberon being the straight man, the Martian Manhunter and the Oreos....
GIFFEN: I think if we play it out far too long, yeah, it can get repetitive. It's funny because just earlier this week, Andy and I sat and sort of mapped out the direction we want to go in for the next year and we figured, Okay it's time to start yanking the rug out from under the reader's feet again:'
That doesn't mean getting rid of all the members and bringing in all new members. It just means giving the story-lines a slightly different slant. The humor's always going to be there in one form or another. I'll be the first is one of the big selling points in the Justice League.

AH: You already answered one of my questions about what you're doing to advance the humour but do you think Justice League could evolve into a straight story while you're on it?
GIFFEN: I wont rule out anything at this point. When I say we sit down and plot out the next year's worth of stories, that doesn't mean it's etched in stone. That doesn't mean were going to do it that way no matter what. There's always leeway, there's always room for a new idea.

AH: Has DC ever put the brakes on anything you wanted to do? In Justice League or anything
GIFFEN: No, not really. There are occasional and by that Andy and I will look at and by mutual consent say, Umm no, this is too bizarre. This doesn't belong in this book.
One of my ideas that at first I thought was a good idea, but in hindsight, I say thank God we didn't do this, was to give Jonn J'onzz a $56-a-day Oreo habit. In hindsight, I can see that would've been a really bad idea.

AH: Yeah
GIFFEN: Sometimes when you throw ideas back and forth, you start getting really bizarre so you have to know when to reign it in. I don't look upon Justice League as being a book that's out for ha-ha laughs. I'd like to think Justice League is a book that you go to and it's amusing. To me, it's more of a buddy book.

AH: Why didn't you draw Justice League when it first came out?
GIFFEN: I don't think my approach fits Justice League. I drew an issue and I don't think it worked as well as the other issues. I think the artwork should be more on the realistic side. Somebody like Adam Hughes. Adam is almost a perfect example of what we've been looking for. I'm so into the plotting of the thing that once I'm done, to go back and pencil it would be like doing the same job twice and I'm not really interested in that. That's not to rule out a little inventory here and there or a back-up if it's the kind of story I feel that my approach won't detract from.

AH: How do you decide which project you're plotting that you'll draw?
GIFFEN It's just a feeling I get, Yeah, I can do this. Like with the two Justice League books, knowing what were looking for in the books. I'd like to think I'm savvy enough to realise my approach to pencilling won't work for those books and I'M not willing to bend my pencils to fit into what were looking for. Its the same with L.E.G.I.O.N. '89, which is something closer to what people conceive as a more mainstream comic book approach.
Whereas with this new Legion book coming out now, I figure I want to pencil it because I'm slanting it towards my strengths. Well I'm plotting and pencilling it, of course Id do that. I'm trying to do something different with it. I can say, Okay, I can apply my approach here.

AH: Is your present style, which is looser than the style you used on the old Legion, easier or faster to produce?
GIFFEN To a certain extent, yeah. I'm not a big fan of the feathering approach. If I can get away from dot, I wont do it. I like to just drop die line in them. I call it slashing the lines in. I think with the approach I'm using right now, there's less room for you to cover up
By cover up I mean ... you're not the strongest guy drawing faces so you have a close up. You drop in as much stuff as you can and overwhelm them-Wow! Look at all the detail!-and they might not notice the nose is maybe a couple of degrees off What I'm doing now is there it is and that's it, folks. No excuses.
In a way, it is faster because I'm not getting in there and drawing every brick in the wall and every single window in the building and every girder in the bridge. But then, that slows me down because I realise what lines I put down have to count. So the same amount of under-sketching gets done either way.

AH: Let's, move onto another DC project of yours. Why did you decide to bring Aquaman back? How did it come about?
GIFFEN: It wasn't my idea. I believe Barbara Randall [now Kesel] approached me about doing an Aquaman mini-series. She asked me if Id be interested in the character. It gave me the chance to work with Bob Fleming again, and I always wanted to do something with Curt Swan; so I said sure.
From there, they decided to do a Secret Origins about Aquaman, so we did it. They asked us to expand it a bit and it became The Legend of Aquaman which came out first. It looks like I was meaning to do it in that order, but actually, I signed on for a miniseries and The Legend of Aquaman came after the fact.
I guess when I thought of Aquaman, the first thing that jumped into my mind was an aquatic feral child. I thought that was an interesting idea to play with, so I said yeah. I thought it might be a challenge. Reading Aquaman. you can see it's a simple story. Its not aimed at the people who are into all die X-Men stuff it's aimed at the people who just like to read a comic. Maybe I can say it's aimed at a slightly younger audience

AH: You took him away from the direction of of that first Aquaman mini-series by Neal Pozner and Craig Hamilton. Why?
GIFFEN In all honesty, when I took on Aquaman, I asked what exactly could I do, not having read that miniseries. I had no idea what had gone in, there. When I went to Barbara, I said, What are the parameters of this job? She said, Just do Aquaman. How do you see Aquaman?
When I Told her, she and DC said fine and I sat down and plotted it out. I never mad what Pozner and Hamilton did; it was no intention of mine to invalidate anything they did or to lessen anything they did. I hope that both approaches are equally valid if they're that different and that people are going to Hey, they're both good stories I'm not that continuity conscious.

AR. Maybe you could clear something up for me. Why was Aquaman banished as a baby? I couldn't really tell from The Legend of Aquaman. was it his blond hair?
GIFFEN Actually I don't want to answer that because Aquarium will be getting his own series and Bob Fleming will be delving into that. So out of professional courtesy for not blowing a major story-line.

AH: Is Curt Swan going to draw the regular series?
GIFFEN I believe so, yes. I'll be there, but I won't be as visible. I won't be doing as much as I did on the mini-series

AM: No, breakdowns
GIFFEN: Here and there maybe. Curt really doesn't need me, you know. But in a pinch, if it's required, if people feel more comfortable that way, I would have no objections to doing it. But I really look upon this as being Bob and Curt's baby right now.

AH: I wanted to ask you one thing about the breakdowns. Why do you get credit for them? I understand some writers make little drawings of a plot. Mike Baron does it, but we don't see Mike Baron: script and breakdowns Steve Rude: pencils. . ..
GIFFEN I don't know. See, I don't even know why I really got co-plotter credit on a lot of the old Legions because all I did was go to Paul and say, Wouldn't this be a weird idea...? The plots were really and totally his. I don't know why I get Plot and Breakdowns.
I know my breakdowns are a lot tighter than anyone else I've- seen. I actually do draw a mini comic book and just jot notes all over the place. I suppose you have to ask Andy Helfer or the other editors who make that kind of decision. I know that I never asked for Plot and breakdowns just like I never really asked Paul to give me co-plotter or anything like that.

AH: That's very interesting. I always thought it was a Keith Giffen ego thing.
GIFFEN: No, no. There's not a heck of a lot in the Keith Giffen ego thing. I just want to get credit for what I do. That's all there is to it. I've no need to see my name splashed across the covers. I don't show up at conventions with a flourish. It's very rare you'll see me at a convention. I cringe when I hear anybody referred to as a superstar in comics. I think comic book superstar is kind of an oxymoron.

AH: You don't think of yourself as a big name comic artist?
GIFFEN: No, I think of myself as one of the guys in the trenches getting the stuff out there month after month: If people like it enough to buy it, then all the better for me. It's my chosen career ... of course, I want to do good at it. But I don't want to be worshipped, no. If people like it, drop a line to DC saying, Good job, that's fine. I don't like the publicity machine it sometimes gears up because there's always the danger that you'll start listening to your own publicity and then it's a very short step to believing it.

AH: Getting back to Aquaman for a bit. Issue #3 just came out and it seems you've killed Mera.
GIFFEN: Yes, it certainly does, doesn't it?

AH: Is it true?

AH:- Oh, good.
GIFFEN: No, not at all. You have to realise what were talking about with Mera is a human being from another dimension. So what makes you think the heart is there, anyway?
Actually to be perfectly honest with you ... initially, that was her death. Dick Giordano came down and said, Y'know, Keith, I really like Mera! I've always been one who can pick up on a hint. So in hindsight again, the way the story worked out and with the plotlines it leaves open for the Aquaman series, I'm glad we did keep her around.

AH: I remember I saw in an old interview you did you said you wanted to kill Kalista of the Omega Men and Karate Kid....
GIFFEN: Every so often, a character comes up that I just look at and say, I just want to off this guy. Karate Kid was one. And Kalista. Everyone was insisting on keeping her around and I just thought, This is nothing I don't see anything in this character. Maybe I was just being too....

AH: Cynical?
GIFFEN: Cynical and negative. Yknow, there is a tendency in the business to say, Well, I'm now doing the Avengers and I don't like the Wasp so I'm going to kill her. If you step back a bit, then you say to yourself, Maybe I don't know what to do with her. I tend now to think twice about it if I say, I don't like this character. I'm going to kill this character. I stop and think, Wait a minute. Maybe something else will know what to do with this character. So if I'm going to kill a character now, I make sure, Is there a reason for it or is it a cheap shot? If I have the slimmest doubts about it, I won't do it.

AH: Do you think death and change are vital to keep a book interesting?
GIFFEN: No. If you've got an active imagination and you're really interested in the characters, I think you can weave interesting enough stories with out killing a character.
I I think, though, in any book, the writer should really strive to get across the point that just because five guys go off to battle, there's no guarantee all five will come back. Or if they do come back, there's no guarantee they'll be in the same shape as they left. That doesn't mean you have to kill the characters, but there should be reactions to what goes on. If you've got five characters in a group and the villian dies a ' horrible, gory death and they all react the same way, I think they're doing something wrong because no five people will have the same reaction to an event.

AH: On to another DC series. L.E.G.I.O.N. '89 Why was it established?
GIFFEN: First of all, I'm on for the first 12 issues of L.E.G.I.O.N. '89, whereupon I'll let Alan Grant and Barry Kitson run on their own. I agreed I'd stay on and help the book out for the first year. L.E.G.I.O.N. '89 came about as ... one is the obvious one, the Legion in the 20th century. Even if it's not the Legion we all know, but using Legion-oriented characters.
Another was a chance to do some of the kinds of stories we can't do in the Legion of Super-Heroes. Not so Much grimmer stories, but stories with some thoroughly unlikeable characters. The third was to to fill the void that was created by the dissolution of the Green Lantern corps. Green Lanterns were always this intergalactic peacekeeping force and now that they're no longer around ... well,- lets conjure up another one.

AH: Do you think L.E.G.I.O.N. 89 is the Omega Men redone?
GIFFEN: Hmm, no. I. was involved with the first issues of Omega Men. Omega Men was a group of outcasts that was going to become a super-hero book, basically. L.E.G.I.O. N. 89 starts off as a super-hero book that's eventually going to become more of a cross between the Green Lantern Corps and Hill Street Blues It's going to become more and more of a police book except that the police happen to be science fiction-orientated.

AH: When it first came out, I noticed it resembled Omega Men in that you have aliens from different planets working in a big organisation. You don't see the entire organisation - just this handful of aliens and they're fighting the villain of your choice.
GIFFEN: Actually L.E.G.I.O.N. '89 right now is budding the organisation. The idea is, once you've got the organisation solidified, they've got a certain amount of planets they're patrolling as an intergalactic organisation and the cast rotates. L.E.G.I.O.N. '89 is one hell of a lot more people than just that core group, but I think it's important to have some kind of core group that the readers know and understand to the best of our ability to make them understand.
After that point, you can afford to do three issues with Officer So-and-so and Officer Blah on this mission and they come back. Then some of the L.E.G.I.G.N. '89 core group members that were focusing on now will walk in and out of the story as supporting cast members. Sometimes, they'll be taking the spotlight, but were pretty much playing them down in favor of the organisation LE.G.I.O.N. 89 is. L.E.G.I.O.N. '89 is not just those, guys.

AH: Since the book is in its early stages, it just seems that way
GIFFEN: Yeah, it does seem that way, because right now they really have no organisation to speak of. My own personal feeling is, I don't feel the need to dot all the i's and cross all the t's as fast as possible. My thinking is, lot the story find its own pace and then just go along with it.
You've got them putting a police force together. Well you just don't put, one together overnight. I mean, it would've been real easy for me to have said, Okay, all of Colu comes back to life and calls Vril Dox their god and they all serve him. He says, 'Now you're cops,' and they all go out into the cosmos. Bah-dump-bump. That would be easy, but it would also be kind of a cheat, I think.

AH: Will you make any contributions to the plot after Alan Grant takes over after issue #12?
GIFFEN: Yeah. I think every so often, I'll plot an issue here and there. I'm always in touch with Art Young, the editor. I call Barry Kitson, the penciller, kind of regularly; we struck up pretty much of a friendship. So I'm always going to be sticking my two cents in but I'm not going to have the final say on the plots anymore. Not that I do - the editor has the final say - but in terms of the creative team, I'm not going to be the one who's actually sitting down and thinking the plot out. That's going to be Alan Grant's responsibility now.
And keep in mind that Alan might have totally different ideas about this book than I do. Alan might take over and decide he wants to focus on the core members. I'm just giving my opinion at this point.

AH: What differentiates the 20th century from the 30th century artwise
GIFFEN Very little. Comics are basically, in my opinion, shorthand. The idea is to get the eye into the panel and get it to pick up on the information that you want to relay and get it out into the next panel as fast or as slow as you want. You pace the book by size of panels, amount of details, etc.
But the main idea is to tell that story, to absorb the reader into the story. That's why too detailed a drawing will yank a person out. I call it yanking them out of a dream because they'll go, Wow! Look at all that drawing there. They're out of the story now. You've pretty much defeated your purpose at that point.
Because it's shorthand, there's a certain amount of science fiction conventions that are used. If I were to do the 30th century and really try to project what the 30th century is going, to be like, I wouldn't have big spaceships cruising through space or huge cities or computers that fill entire rooms. Miniaturization is a fact of life now, imagine what it'll be like then.
You've got to have certain recognizable things. That's why even though the Legion of Super-Heroes are in the 30th century, their haircuts and their looks tend to reflect modem day fashion.
When it comes to science fiction in the 20th century and 30th century, there's not a heck of a lot we can do unless Barry and I were to get together and say, Okay, you can have this and I'll take this. There are some conventions of science fiction that strike a responsive chord to the reader.
I used to drive myself crazy trying to get totally different forms of architecture and approaches in fashions for different worlds. And I'll admit all worlds shouldn't look alike. There is going to be a certain amount of similarity, simply because the same guy is drawing all the worlds.
It is an interesting question. It's something I've never really thought of before. What's the difference between a Khund in the 20th century and a Khund in the 30th century? The title of the book.

AH: I would think in 1000 years there would be some natural evolution. If you're going to create a team in the past with Legion ancestors, you'd have to account for 1000 years of history.
GIFFEN: You realise what one thing in L.E.G.I.O.N. '89 is? Barry Kitson is throwing in, even on Alien worlds, a lot of things that we recognise as 20th Century things. He's using a standardised architecture with a little alien twist, vehicles that do have wheels, standard doorways and stairs. Whereas I tend to try to use different little holographic tricks, or overlays, and gravity nullifying devices. So I guess there is an attempt to - maybe it's a subconscious attempt, I don't even know - artistically define the books as being different. It's a little difficult.

AH: On to your future projects. One of the things you're trying to get is the Creeper, right?
GIFFEN: Right now, the Creeper is with Andy Helfer. He's going to be editing it. We're in the process of cobbling together a story at this point. This is something that there's really no rush for.

AH: He's one of your favourite characters?
GIFFEN: Yes, he is. I tend to like the stranger DC characters like Ragman, the Demon to a certain extent, but the Creeper is an old favourite. I'll just be plotting again, it's still up in the air, but Bart Sears' name is being mentioned quite a bit. I just want to make sure whatever comes out there does the character justice.

AH: What do you see in him?
GIFFEN: I guess ... it's a book with an in-built sense of humor. The idea that you can put the Creeper into lunatic situations and/or generate lunatic situations. He's always struck me as the super-hero with the whole world as the straight man.

AH: Will we see Ambush Bug again?
GIFFEN: Yeah. He's got a stint in Secret origins where we're going to have him lie through his teeth again. So he will be making a return appearance. Probably the final one, at least as far as my involvement in the character goes. Doing the Secret Origins, I pretty much realised I've said all that I want to say with the character. You should really recognise when it's time to get off a book or a character.

AH: You have such an active imagination. Why haven't you done anything that's written, drawn and created by you? Only thing I know of is something like Video Jack....
GIFFEN: I tend to share ... I usually bring dialoguers and an inker along even if I'm going to do everything else.

AH: But still, there's been no title that's been created by you, has there?
GIFFEN: Well, really just the March Hare. I don't know if that's just laziness on my part or what. There are so many rich characters out there that I see that I'd like to get my hands on and try em out. And I don't think that I've got such a limited supply of ideas that I can't afford to do a company's characters or other peoples characters and have to hoard, Ooh, that's too good an idea! I'm gonna save this for when I self-publish! because there's always something else that's going to come along.
That's a question I never thought of. I'm comfortable with what I'm doing and I enjoy it. I don't feel any overwhelming need to have something with Created by and pencilled by and even stapled by... No, I haven't reached that point yet.

AH: It look like we've reached the end. Is there anything else you'd like to say to Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea?
GIFFEN: The New Legion has been getting a lot of weird reactions. I'm beginning to fed like Michael Keaton, you know, in that everyone seems to think I'm on the Legion book to do my damnedest to destroy them and I'm anti- fan. I think that's the sort of thing I that's levelled against me the most. I don't consider myself anti-fan in any way. I am anti-anal-retentive fan, but those are, thank God, few and far between.