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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Anthony Kuchar interviews Peter David for DC in the 80s

Peter David is one of those names in comics that any seasoned reader has seen appear more than once. From his unforgettable run on Marvel's Incredible Hulk to his memorable runs with DC's Aquaman and Supergirl, his reputation as a hardworking writer -- pumping out stories for a hungry comics readership -- is the stuff of legend. As warm in life as he is prolific, I got the opportunity to interview David at Niagara Falls Comic Con this year.

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Anthony: You started working for DC with Star Trek in 1988, this was when the original movies were still being released...

David: ...well technically the original movies are STILL coming out...

Anthony: ...true, but I'm referring to the original cast with William Shatner as Kirk and Leonard Nemoy as Spock and all those other great guys. This was an interesting era, because Star Trek The Next Generation was just staring to air on TV. You were writing a lot of comic stories... I have one here... "Who killed Captain Kirk?". This was an interesting run of stories because you incorporated some of the animated series characters (i.e., M'Ress).

"Who Killed Captain Kirk?" TPB. Published in 1993.

David: Well technically, I didn't 'incorporate' them as the characters were already part of the crew when I came on board as the writer. So, y'know, I just wanted to... People are always crediting me for things I didn't do. People come up to me and say "How did you come up with the idea of turning the Hulk back to grey?" and I keep saying "I didn't do that, Al Milgrom did", and people are always surprised.

Anthony: Was it a bit of a logistical nightmare working on Star Trek comics? Trying to keep things in continuity -- was that something you were concerned about or anything like that?

David: No, I really wasn't really the least bit concerned with that. My stories were set in the time period BEFORE the movies, pretty much. I wasn't really concerned with what they were going to do in the NEXT movie that was going to screw up my comic books, especially considering they blew the freakin' enterprise while I was on the book, so no, there wasn't really any logistics. That wasn't a problem. Star WARS was a problem with logistics -- when they had to do the comics that were set in between the movies with no idea what was going to happen in the NEXT movie. Jo Duffy once told me how she turned in a plot and Lucas Films said "No, you can't have a speed bike chase" which then told her there was going to be a speeder bike chase in the next movie. Star Trek was not any particular logistical nightmare other than getting stories approved.

Anthony: It's interesting because I was reading the foreword to this collection (written by George Takei) and he mentioned something about a villain being introduced that was based on a real-life politician, who was campaigning an anti-gay platform in the late 80s...

David: (chuckles) ...it's entirely possible... God knows I don't remember since this was almost a quarter century ago.

Anthony: No problem. Let's talk about super heroes. The Phantom -- your first super hero work for DC -- you brought the Phantom back to his roots (he was fighting pirates and smugglers and that sort of thing). You wrote the first Phantom mini-series, what was that like?


Issue #2 & #4 of the 1988 The Phantom mini-series

David: Oh, it was tremendously exciting. First off, I had to impress my new employers -- I had to show them that I could turn out stories that were publishable and written within a reasonable length of time. I also worked with Lee Falk, the creator of the Phantom, which was tremendously exciting for me. I mean, I still have the cover of issue #1 autographed by Lee Falk to me. So, it was a wonderful experience.

Anthony: You wrote the first 4 issue mini-series, but you didn't write the follow-up ongoing series published after that. Was there a reason you left the title? Or were not brought back on?

David: I honestly don't know -- they were continuing with The Phantom, but I was doing so much other work at that point that it may simply have been a matter that I didn't have the time.

Anthony: Next I'm going to ask about Action Comics Weekly -- namely Green Lantern. You wrote Green Lantern in that series (from issues #609 to #620). What was it like writing a Green Lantern feature for 1989's Action Comics Weekly 'experiment'?

Action Comics Weekly #614 (1988). Cover by Mike Mignola and Ty Templeton.

David: It was NOT one of my most fulfilling assignments. I kept asking Denny [O'Neil] for advice in terms of what I should be writing, and Denny kept telling me that I could write whatever I wanted to write, except that it turned out that Dick Giordano had very specific ideas that he wanted to use... (laughs) ...which Denny never told me. So, the stories I was producing weren't up to Dick's expectations of the comic -- which is understandable because I never even KNEW what his expectations were. He wanted me to write something dark and gritty, and I was writing something that had more humor to it -- so it was pretty much diametrically opposed from what Dick wanted. I have no idea to this DAY why Denny didn't tell me what Dick wanted me to do, but as a result, Green Lantern was not one of my enjoyable forays.

Anthony: That makes sense. It was kind of in a weird place -- the actual book had been discontinued at that time -- the last 'regular' issue being Green Lantern Corps #224 in 1988. Did you have any affinity for Hal Jordan?

David: My take on Hal Jordan was that his origin pretty much made no sense, because the ring was supposed to find somebody who had NO fear. The only type of human being who has no fear is a psychotic. Everyone who has ANY rationality has fears of some kind or other. If nothing else, a fear of dying. Finding someone with no fears at all meant that the ring had found someone completely insane.

panels from Action Comics Weekly #609 (1988). art by Tod Smith and Danny Bulanadi



Anthony: Do you remember working on the Blasters one-shot? It was an Invasion! spin-off...

Blasters Special v1 #1 (1989)

David: If you say so. (laughs) I barely remember anything about it. The only things I remember are... #1 I got to work with James Fry -- a long-time friend who's one of the funniest people in the entire universe. I still remember when James called me up and he said "Peter! I want to tell you this: he's a werewolf, she's a vampire, they're detectives, they're... (wait for it)... Thirst & Howl!" and I started laughing hysterically, and James said "You think that's funny?" and I said "I think that's hysterical!" and he replied "You're the first person who's laughed!". And I said "well everybody else is an idiot, I think that's friggin' brilliant." I'm going to do that as a comic book someday, I swear.

So, at any rate, I remember that... and the other thing I remember about Blasters is 'Ben Steel and his bear, Hans'. I think it was James' joke -- it was not mine -- I always thought that that was amusing. Other than that, and the fact that Snapper Carr started it, I remember absolutely nothing about Blasters. Remember, you're asking me about stuff in the 80s -- that was 35 years ago.

panel from Blasters Special v1 #1. pencils by James Fry, inked by Robert Campanella


Anthony: Oh yeah. Well, anything you can recollect is great. Do you remember Giglamesh II? Jim Starlin wrote that series, but he claimed it might've been based on an idea that you had? Do you remember anything about that?

David: I pitched Giglamesh to Denny O'Neil and he said "That sounds really interesting, let me think about that". Every so often I'd check in with him and say "Should I write something down?", and he'd say "No no, don't write anything yet. I'll send you a format." Which he never did. One day Denny calls me and he says "I've got some bad news. We're doing a Giglamesh comic, Jim Starlin's doing it, he came up with the idea totally on his own." And I said "Well that really sucks", but I knew it was possible -- things happen. That was until I spoke to Jim. I asked him how he came up with the idea and he said "I didn't come up with the idea, Denny pitched it to me." After I uttered a string of profanities, I went straight to Dick Giordano and said that I'd been ripped-off. I had told him what had happened, and they paid me a 'kill fee' for the work that I wound up never doing, and Denny swore that they'd be doing two Giglamesh comics now -- Jim's and mine -- which I knew was absurd. And, which of course, was absurd because they never did it. So, I was flat out ripped-off with Giglamesh.
Gilgamesh II v1 #1 (1989)

Anthony: Wow. That's a shame. It's interesting -- there was a lot of interest in Giglamesh during the late eighties -- I guess because some of the work had finally been translated.

David: Yeah.

Anthony: It's a shame that never came though. I wanted to ask you a few questions about Aquaman. Probably second to your Incredible Hulk run, Aquaman is one of the characters you've had a lot of history in terms of reviving and revamping (both aesthetically and character-wise). How did you get the Aquaman assignment and what was your approach to it going forward?

David: DC offered me the Aquaman assignment -- they really liked they way Atlantis Chronicles had come out -- in fact I seemed like the logical person to take over Aquaman. They launched it with a four-part limited series called Time & Tide and, I guess, were satisfied enough with the work I did that they felt I could handle the ongoing book.

Issues #2 & #4 of the 1994 Aquaman: Time and Tide v1 mini-series

David: I started trying to think of ways to make Aquaman interesting, because you have to understand -- that at the time that I was taking over Aquaman -- the general public had zero interest in him. I mean, when I told fans that I was going to be writing Aquaman, the most asked question was "Why?". He was seen as one of the lamest characters. Certainly his portrayal in Super Friends didn't help.

Aquaman as seen in the 1980's Hanna-Barbera Super Friends cartoon

David: To me, Aquaman was tremendously exciting, I saw him as the Tarzan of the Apes of the DCU. He survived in environments that no ordinary person could, he was super strong, and at the very least he was bullet resistant (considering how he could stand up to the crushing pressures of the ocean with no trouble). I thought that he had tremendous amounts of potential.

I decided that I had to radically change his appearance, that that would be a good start. So I gave him the long hair and I gave him the beard, and I developed the idea of him losing his right hand and having it replaced with a harpoon. I thought that would make him look a lot more 'dynamic'. I mean, if the old Aquaman walks into a room, you'd go "hey Aquaman! What's going on?". If the long-haired bearded guy with a scowl walks in and he's got a harpoon on his arm, you're gonna go "um.. yes? what can i do to help you, sir? don't kill me." I wanted that kind of gravity to his appearance -- so that when this guy walked into a room -- you KNEW he was a bad-ass. He was NOT someone you wanted to screw with.

panel from Aquaman v5 #5 (1995). art by Jim Calafiore and Howard M. Shum

David: The harpoon-hand was an idea that I REALLY had to sell DC on. I had a meeting with Paul Levitz and the top editors about what I wanted to do, and I had to convince them of the quality of the idea and that it would totally work for Aquaman before they eventually signed off on it. So that was signed off on at the highest levels of DC comics.

Anthony: Wow. Because obviously such a dramatic change affects the brand of the character. Kinda like taking Superman's 'S' away.

David: Absolutely. Yeah, exactly.

That was one of the hardest sells that I'd ever had to come up with.

Anthony: It's interesting because you also altered some things about his past, but then there's other things that kinda come before -- like his son being killed by Black Manta, his relationship with Mera -- that you didn't change. What was the reason for the those kind of decisions?

David: Because it worked. Why should I change the concept of Ocean Master being his half-brother? It worked. It had for a couple of decades, I saw no reason to screw with it.

Anthony: Were there any Aquaman stories you never got to do? That you felt unfulfilled?

David: Well, yeah. I mean, I had a conclusion to the whole harpoon-thing. I was going to kill Aquaman off, Aqualad was going to take over the mantle of Aquaman, then eventually Aquaman was going to return as an elemental being with no attachment to humanity, and Mera (of all people) was going to manage to ground him enough that he would be able to restore himself to his human form. At which point he would no longer have the harpoon-hand. That is, essentially, what DC wound up doing, but -- while I was still writing Aquaman -- I did this storyline where I killed him off and was then told that I had to bring him back immediately. And I said "but we have this whole storyline I was going to do!" and they said "You can't kill him off. People won't believe it because they'd just got done killing off Superman" and I was furious because that was my whole friggin' storyline. And I finally threw up my hands and said "That's it! I'm outta here!".


The 'Death that was Not Meant To Be' from Aquaman v5 #45 (1998)
Pencilled by Jim Calafiore and inked by Peter L Palamiotti 

Anthony: That's interesting. So editorial was really concerned that the Death of Superman storyline would take away the thunder of the Death of Aquaman storyline?

David: Yeah, except my attitude was that Aquaman was a LESSER character than Superman, so people might readily BELIEVE him being killed off. But the editor said "no, we can't do it", at which point I threw up my hands and said "Fine! I'm out!". They brought in other writers to write Aquaman, and then several years later they killed off Aquaman and brought him back as an elemental being. So they finally got around to doing MY story -- except, y'know -- other people had their names on it. (chuckles)

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It's hard limiting yourself to "on topic" questions when talking with Peter David. The man is a wealth of information, and could talk for any subject for extended periods of time. During the weekend, David had a pretty constant stream of fans coming to his booth, getting copies of Incredible Hulk, X-Factor and Supergirl signed. Something I found interesting was that a fan asked David to sign a particular issue of Supergirl where the cover had the title character with a bunch of kids, and no title. But the kids where using american sign language to spell SUPERGIRL. It was a really cool moment.

cover of Supergirl v4 #65 (2002)


As always, we'd like to thank the 2018 Niagara Falls Comic Con for organizing this event, and Susan Carver of the Press Relations team to allowing us the opportunity to meet with Peter David. The NFCC was a great show, we can't wait to see who next year's line-up of guests will be, and if you're ever in the area you should make a special effort to check it out.


-Anthony Kuchar

A graduate of Brock University’s Dramatic Arts Program, Anthony has had an interest in comics since he was young and his favorite 80’s DC books are Batman: The Cult, Sandman, The Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Ronin.

if you enjoyed this interview, you may also enjoy:

-Peter David reveals DC's "Big Plans" for 1990's Atlantis Chronicles
-Review of 1986's Aquaman v2 mini-series


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