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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Paul Kupperberg talks about the 1988 Checkmate! ongoing series

Paul Kupperberg was a busy man in the 1980s. He wrote most of the Arion, Lord of Atlantis ongoing series, the last 24 issues of Vigilante, the first 18 issues of Doom Patrol v2, the entire Supergirl v2 ongoing series, so many Superman-related stories that we can't list them all here, and a run of Green Lantern Corps back-up tales in Green Lantern v1. (Not to mention other projects he touched on.) Most importantly, Kupperberg wrote all 33 issues of 1988's Checkmate! ongoing series. Checkmate! was a little unconventional for a DC book - it was a mix of covert operations and espionage, it re-used characters from Vigilante and Doom Patrol v2, and didn't really interact with the rest of the DCU. It was a NEW FORMAT book and kind of crept below reader's radars because it was only available in comic book shops. I had never even heard of it until about a decade ago. Needless to say, it acquired a cult following and those who like it, like it a lot.

This is an aggregate of two different interviews with Paul Kupperberg. The first, by Aaron "Head" Moss, was recorded on 2016 in his Task Force X: Episode 19 podcast. The Task Force X podcast mainly concerns itself with John Ostrander's Suicide Squad and Kupperberg's Checkmate! comics. If you're into either of those, I'd recommend you check his podcast out.

On with the first interview:

[as per usual, I've mangled the continuity of this interview so it makes logical sense to the reader -editor]

Aaron "Head" Moss: After Vigilante ended, shortly thereafter, Checkmate! started up with a couple of the characters from the Vigilante book. Who's idea was it - who came up with the idea of Checkmate!?... Was it your idea to continue it? Or was it...?

Paul Kupperberg: The whole idea was that "we'll end Vigilante and come up with something to replace it on your schedule". I was kind of looking around and saw that DC didn't really have a central spy agency at the time. I'd been playing around with those kind of ideas - the whole espionage idea - in Vigilante. [We] just decided to take it to the next step and take all the people involved in the espionage end of what was going on in Vigilante and transfer them into Checkmate into an actual sanctioned group. It came under Amanda Waller's command - she was running Suicide Squad/Task Force X.

Moss: You had Black Thorn, Harry Stein, Harvey [Bullock], seems like everyone that was directly involved with the end of Vigilante came over to Checkmate!. Looking in different places I'm seeing that you're credited with it, I see that John Byrne is credited with help creating it because they first appeared in Action Comics #598 (1988).

Kupperberg: The genesis was: I wrote the proposal. John [Byrne] is a friend of mine. We asked him "would you mind if we exploited your name by having you [develop] a character", he said "no no, not at all, do I get lunch out of it?" So yeah, we bought him lunch, and at lunch we sat down and looked over the proposal. We just talked about the 'look' of the knight costumes. He did this sketch in a sketch book and that was it. Steve Erwin took that (and the proposal) and designed the headquarters and the characters and all that stuff. [You can read about Erwin's recollection of it here. -editor]

Moss: So the [Checkmate] knight costume... that was you? Or you and John [Byrne] that came up with the idea for the Knight costume?

Kupperberg: It was mostly John [Byrne]. Some of it is kind of self-evident: you're doing a knight costume, so you're going to need someone with some kind of helmet-thing going on. He's also a spy, so you're going to want to keep it dark. The gauntlet and the staff that expanded. So, y'know, kind of riffing off of the whole 'Knight' theme.

A Checkmate Knight in action. Checkmate! v1 #1 (1988)
Moss: Out of all the Checkmate! stories was there a favorite storyline you had in that?  Was there anything that stands out that you look back and go "Damn, I did a good job on that".

Kupperberg: There was a bunch of back-ups I remember - Randy Duburk drew a few of them - those were pretty good. That was later on in the series.

Checkmate v1 #33 - Randy Duburk art

Especially at the beginning, I like the first few issues a lot. I was really pushing it and trying to be ambitious and tell these big stories. And I think I was very successful in accomplishing what I set out to do. Whether or not anybody liked it, that's a whole other story.

Moss: There was that cross-over with Suicide Squad: the Janus Directive. How closely did you and John Ostrander work on the title? Was it just a cross-over?

Kupperberg: It was pretty much a cross-over - as I recall the idea of that cross-over was mostly John [Ostrander]'s. I guess he worked on it with his editor. Johnathon Peterson was my editor. I think Bob Greenberger was editing Suicide Squad at the time.

As I recall I wasn't involved too deeply in the plotting of the overall story arc. I was responsible for the stories in Checkmate!. It was mostly a Suicide Squad story, it seemed to me. I think it started there and ended there as well.

Moss: It crossed over with Firestorm v2, which was written by John [Ostrander], Captain Atom v1 and a few other titles John [Ostrander] was writing.

It seemed mostly like a John Ostrander storyline. But I know that Checkmate! was involved because Suicide Squad and Checkmate, as I said, are different sides of the same coin. I wasn't sure how involved you were with the cross-over...if John [Ostrander] was like "This is what I want you to do" and you went [off] and did your own little thing with it.

Kupperberg: Yeah, that was pretty much it - to my recollection. Yeah.

Moss: So the series ended. Before it ended, did you tell the stories you wanted to tell? Were there other stories that you wanted to?

Kupperberg: Oh sure, there's always more stories to tell - except in the case of something like Vigilante where obviously we exhausted - you often hear "we're cancelling this title because we think we've ran out of stories to tell with this character". No.  If you have, then you've got a problem. Because there's always more stories to tell about any character. No, it was a matter of sales. What'd it last? 33 issues? Not too bad.

Moss: Were there any stories that you wanted to tell but DC editorial told you 'no'. Or were you pretty much given free reign on it?

Kupperberg: I go into these things knowing the parameters I'm working. I'm not going to try to shove a story down their throats when it's clearly inappropriate to the book. We were a regular non-labelled DCU title, so those were the stories I was going to tell. Vigilante, when we got the mature label, I went ahead and pushed the limits a little. I don't try to do rape stories in Superman. Not appropriate.

Moss:  Was there any characters you wanted to include in this Checkmate! comic that editorial told you 'no'. You said you knew you were getting into and you wrote to that title. So I wasn't sure if there were any characters you wanted to use as a guest appearance or anything that DC editorial said 'no we can't do that' or was there [anyone] you asked for and they said 'go for it'? 

Kupperberg: I don't think I used that many other DCU characters in the title. Again, I was trying to keep it reality-based. Even with the Janus Directive, nothing wrong with the stories or anything, but they're my least favorite of the whole run. Just because, again, I was trying to keep it 'in the reality', and once you bring in superheroes reality flies out the window. No matter how hard you try - I know everybody thinks "our heroes reflect the real world". But they DON'T. They CAN'T. You're not constrained by reality. A death doesn't have any emotional impact because you know they're coming back next month. If somebody's in a corner, you know they're going to pull the ultimate nullifier out of their ass and send Galactus packing. Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby], the greatest run of any comic book ever - the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four v1 - smack dab in the middle you have the Galactus epic. They're at the height of their power - the greatest team on the greatest run of a comic ever - and they're forced to pull the ultimate nullifier to send Galactus on his way. So it doesn't matter how good it gets, you're hemmed in by the lack of reality. You gotta go there. Once you bring superheroes in, as soon as someone can fly, you're screwed. Then anything goes.

Moss: If asked, would you be willing to come back to Checkmate!? Or do you have any more Checkmate! stories hidden in your mind somewhere?

Kupperberg: I would absolutely love to get my hands on the characters and on the concept again. No, I don't have any stories at the moment. My job is to come up with stories when I have assignments for these things. Stories are not the problem.


The Task Force X podcast also interviewed Kupperberg about his work on the Vigilante series and why the series ended. You can read the interview here.

Aaron "Head" Moss, a major G.I. Joe enthusiast, also co-hosts the G.I. Joe: A Real American Headcast and has been a guest on our 1991 G.I. Joe Impel trading card set review. He also hosts the Starman/Manhunter Adventure Hour which covers both the 'Will Payton' Starman ongoing series and the 'Mark Shaw' Manhunter ongoing series (circa late 1980s).


In an April 2nd, 2014 interview on VOC Nation's Compton After Dark podcast show, host Dean Compton spoke with Paul Kupperberg:

Dean: In your Checkmate! v1 series for DC [comics] you dealt with a lot of issues that were making the headlines at the time: Americans providing weapons to rebel Quracians so they can provide a diversion while America does covert stuff (Iran-Contra affair), some Britains side with aliens to overthrow government (I think that was Irish, actually), America/Russia teams up just as the Berlin Wall is being destroyed. Curious if you're using this as a platform to covertly state your disapproval of current affairs, or if you're just trying to tell an engaging story?

Kupperberg: A little bit of both. A good story is number one. And if you can sneak a little message in there, what the hell, as long as it doesn't hurt the story. I was not a big fan of Ronald Reagan or his policies and still cringe when I hear him referred to as one of the greatest presidents of all time. There's that little thing called 'verisimilitude' - you read a story and even if you're not thinking "oh that's Iran-Contra" in the back of your mind you're going "that sounds familiar" and it kind of makes the story more interesting and more engaging - I hope.

US President Ronald Reagan 1982

Dean: I recommend it [Checkmate!] to everybody... you can ask [co-host] Ryan. I'm pretty annoying about recommending that and Suicide Squad as contemporary pieces that really told a great story of [what] was really disillusionment of whatever existed as a social contract between the American government and the American people, not just as far as welfare programs, but also as far as surveillance programs - of course that's a different story. We can talk about COINTELPRO and etc going far back but...

There was definitely a feeling, during the Reagan era, that any promises that had been made as far as social liberties and social security were out the window now, and you were going to work harder and do what authoritarians said for less and like it... and if you didn't like it we were going to treat you like we treated the Air Traffic Controllers.

Kupperberg: And look where it's led us, to the wonderful [things] we have today. [laughs]

[Dean's question was directly related to an article DC in the 80s wrote several years ago examining the Checkmate! ongoing series. I want to personally thank Dean for pronouncing my last name correctly (sounds like 'Frank-cooer' when said in English).]


You can listen to the full podcast here. This is a fantastic episode to listen to if you are a fan of Charlton Comics and/or the Charlton Arrow. Dean had gathered an All-Star ensemble of guests (Paul Kupperberg, Mort Todd, Roger McKenzie, and Fester Faceplant) who delve through everything from the history of Charlton comics, their favorite memories about Charlton comics, the Charlton Action Heroes, a few hilarious anecdotes and the creation of the Charlton Arrow. The energy on this podcast is electric and I strongly recommend a listen.

Dean Compton (and Emily Scott) also manage The Unspoken Decade - a comic book blog that examines the 1990s in comics. It's one of my favorite sites to visit and looks back at all of my old favorites. Look for more collaboration between Dean Compton and DC in the 80s in the future.


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