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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Chris Sheehan interviews Kurt Busiek at the 2016 Phoenix Comicon

On June 4th 2016, faithful contributor Chris Sheehan volunteered to bravely trek through the Phoenix Comicon on behalf of this webzine with the intention of interviewing comic book pros about their work for DC comics in the eighties (and then some). We lost communication with Chris throughout the day and feared for the worst, but much to our delight, this is what he came back with:

Chris Sheehan: I read your JLA/Avengers, and it was awesome - a real dream come true. We all know that DC and Marvel tried putting something like this together during the eighties, and it just didn’t work out. There are [George Perez] images online, and one would imagine there was at least a plot?... perhaps a partial script? Were you privy to any of that "old" information?

page from JLA/Avengers (circa 1982). image source:
page 21 of the 1982 JLA/Avengers story pencilled by George Perez

Kurt Busiek: I didn’t want to know.  There was information about it, and when we did the fancy slip-cased edition we included all of the surviving pages that were drawn, and we made a nod in that story... and treated that story as if it was an old adventure that they’d had together.  But, I wasn’t trying to recreate what Gerry [Conway] did back in 1982.  What I wanted to do was build it up from scratch.  I read a little about what the story was, enough to make a nod to it... but I read more about it afterward.  When it was too late to be influenced.

panel from JLA/Avengers #3 (2003). Property of DC comics and Marvel comics.
Busiek's nod to the "original" JLA/Avengers plot

Chris: One of my first Justice League comics was issue #224 where they battle Paragon.  The depiction of the Justice League around that time was that they were almost a bit “in-fighty”, and the way you portrayed them in that issue was more “chummy”.  Was that the direction you wanted to take, or was that editorially driven?

JLA #224: the team you'd want to grab a beer with

Busiek: That was me. I had pitched a bunch of Justice League springboards for fill-ins to Len Wein, and Len said "These are all perfectly good Gardner Fox Justice League ideas, but I don’t want Gardner Fox Justice League ideas, I want Roy Thomas Avengers ideas... but with the Justice League". So basically, what he was saying was that he wanted a more Marvel-type story. So, I went away... and came back with that story and he thought it was cool.

My view of the Justice League is that, sometimes they get mad at each other, and Len himself (when he took over Justice League of America) started the Hawkman/Green Arrow feud and things like that.  But I figured for the most part, they're experienced professionals who have been working with each other for a long time, so I opened with them getting together for lunch in Star City, and it’s not a situation where they’re going to be mad at each other.  Under pressure, they might get sort of snippy at each other, but I thought it was more fun to see them relaxing, because that's not what we normally get to see with the DC characters.  We do see that with Marvel characters off and on, so I was thinking what would Roy [Thomas] do here?  Let’s have them meet up in their secret identities and be gregarious.

Chris: You did the Red Tornado mini-series, and you had at one time said that Red Tornado was one of your favorite DC characters. Is that still true today?

Busiek: I really haven’t kept up with the DC Universe much over the last years, but I know they keep changing the Red Tornado around. What I liked about the Red Tornado is that he was, as superheroes go, he was sort of a background character... and I’ve always been fascinated by the background characters, as [my work on] Marvels and Astro City probably makes clear. So I liked the fact that he was this kind of reclusive retiring superhero who was glad to be with the group of them but didn’t really feel like he was "up there with the stars"... he was supporting cast, almost. That kind of modesty and maybe self-image problem made him a character that I could readily identify with and empathize with. It was fun to play with him during that story on those grounds.

Chris: Speaking of Marvels and Astro City, those stories come from the point of view of a bystander, not a hero. What inspired you to take that route with your storytelling?

cover of Marvels TPB #1 (1994). Property of Marvel comics. cover of Astro City: A Visitor's Guide (2004). Property of DC comics/Wildstorm.
Have you read these, yet? Highly recommended.

Busiek: It’s something I was always interested in as a kid. When I started reading comics I was a teenager, and I wouldn’t think much about "Wouldn’t it be cool to be Spider-Man?" or "Wouldn’t it be cool to be the Flash?", I'd think, "Wouldn’t it be cool if Iron Man flew down the main street? What would that be like with the windows rattling? What is Spider-Man was hanging off that telephone pole? What would it be like to see that?".  And I’d wonder things like "My sister had a poster on her wall of Shaun Cassidy."  So I thought, in the Marvel Universe, "What do teenage girls have posters of on their wall?" It wouldn’t be Spider-Man, because he’s creepy, it wouldn’t be Captain America, because he wouldn’t license anything like that,… it’s got to be Johnny Storm! Thinking about that sort of thing - thinking about what else is going on in that world and what things would be like. Marvels and Astro City, and a couple of earlier stories that I did as backups in various Marvel comics were coming from that particular point of view. Something I hadn’t seen in comic books. I got to write a story in Marvel Superheroes about a guy who worked for Stark Industries motor pool, and every month he’d put in for a transfer... he wanted to be Iron Man. And so, seeing it through his eyes, is a chance to see Iron Man from a completely different point of view.

I did an issue of Avengers. It was one of the first issues I’d plotted as a fill-in around the time that John Byrne left the books. It was the last issue of my run that was finally published because the plot had hung around a long time and just hadn’t been drawn. It was about a couple of accountants from the Maria Stark Foundation who were in town to spot-audit the Avengers adventures so that they can justify the Avengers tax-exempt status… and again, here’s a way we can tell you about this adventure, but we can tell you about it from a different point of view and you can get a different sense of how things work. That’s the kind of thing I’ve always been interested in.

panel from Avengers v3 #56 (2002). Property of Marvel Comics.

Chris: Now, this isn’t DC... it’s more for my own curiosity. You came up with the idea for Jean Grey’s return, starting with her body being found in Jamaica Bay. How did that all come about? 

cover of Avengers v1 #263 (1986). Property of Marvel Comics.

Busiek: None of it was particularly conscious or aimed at making that story happen. When I was in college I was a comics fan and I would come home from school on vacations and hang out with other folks who were comics fans. Three of us; me, Richard Howell who has since gone on to be a writer and penciller, and Carol Kalish who would become Marvel Comics Vice-President of Direct Sales and Specialty Publishing. We got together for an evening one night, and we were just talking about comics, and the news came out that this death of Jean Grey story was about to happen. They were friends with Peter Sanderson, who knew people at the office... so, basically we heard it through the grapevine before it was published.

And we heard that Jim Shooter said that she couldn’t be brought back from the dead unless there was a way to make her not guilty of the crime of genocide... and my reaction to that, as well as Richard and Carol’s was "Ooh, a challenge!" So we bounced story ideas around, came up with ideas, and I cooked up that story.

I wasn’t a comics pro at the time, we were just having fun talking comics. Then, a couple of years later... I was writing for Marvel, writing Power Man and Iron Fist... and I was at the Ithaca Fan Fest, and Roger Stern and his wife, Carmella, put me up at their place. So, we were talking... getting to know one another...

We went out for lunch before heading to do a radio interview, and we were talking about the X-Men... because I really like the original X-Men. Roger says to me, "It’s a pity you can’t have the original group back again..." and I said... "ehhh, there’s always a way!" He reminded me that Jim Shooter has this "rule", and I told him that I figured out a way around it... and I outlined the story to him, and he laughed and said it would actually work! Now remember, even though we were both professional writers... this was just us talking.

A little while later, and I wasn’t aware of these conversations at the time, he’s talking to John Byrne... and he tells him that he’s met a guy whose figured out a way for you to get around that Shooter edict. He outlined it to John, who thought it was a good idea... and would actually work. When X-Factor was being started up, Bob Layton was writing it and the fifth member of X-Factor was going to be Dazzler. John called up Bob and asked him if he wanted Jean back... because they now had a way to do it. He outlined the story to Bob... who liked it. Keeping in mind, that I had no knowledge of these conversations.

cover of X-Factor #1 (1986). Property of Marvel Comics.
Just think: the lady in green was *almost* Dazzler!

At the time, I was working in the offices at Marvel as the assistant editor on Marvel Age magazine. I was up in the Bullpen hot-waxing stats of covers onto a layout board, to put together the magazine... as this was long before computer pre-press. This guy sidled up next to me and says, "I hear I have you to thank for having Jean back!" Now, I never met Bob... I didn’t know who he was... I hadn’t talked about this Jean idea for probably three years... so, my reaction was more along the lines of "Huh?"

So, he explained, and I talked to Roger on the phone that night. Jim Shooter calls me into his office the next day, he told me he heard about my idea... and if they were going to use it, he wanted to make sure I was paid for it. He had them cut me a check for two-issues worth of plot at John Byrne’s plot-rate which was the highest they had at the company. My reaction was "I’m nearly broke! I'm the assistant editor on Marvel Age! I don't have any money! This is great!"

The irony that followed was, we had this idea for covering it in Marvel Age magazine, which was kind of the in-house fanzine. The idea was, that it was a big secret. There was a fifth character, but nobody knew who it was. On the original promo artwork, it was just represented as a silhouette... so what we're promoting is that there's a secret here. The way we’ll do this is, we’ll do interviews with everybody involved. Just a straight interview... they don’t have to hide anything... and then we’ll redact the material. So, when you’re reading it in the magazine, it’s got black bars over parts of the interview when they’re talking about the secrets you’re not supposed to know about yet.

I was the assistant editor on Marvel Age at the time, as we've established... so, every time in the interviews, where John or Bob or Roger said "It was all Kurt Busiek’s idea" I was covering it up with black tape!

So that’s how it happened. I came up with the idea as a fan, and it traveled from person to person, out of fannish discussion, and then when it came a point where it was possible to do it appeared, John called up Bob and asked if he wanted it... and that’s how it happened.

Chris: Coming back to JLA/Avengers, how hard was it to actually get that story done? Were you being hit with a lot of outside input, or was it for the most part left to you and George [Perez]?

Busiek: Well, they didn’t leave it to me and George completely - we had to run a lot passed our editor at Marvel and our editor at DC, and for the most part, everything was fine. Nobody was telling us "this" character needs to win "this" fight, or this has to end in a draw, or "these" characters can't face off. Nobody was being precious like that. We agreed at the beginning, we want to make this a good story. We don’t care about balancing the number of villains from each universe. It’s cool if the fights have conclusions… we just want to do a kick-ass story. We don’t want to make it a carefully planned minuet, we want to make a cool superhero story.

There was a point that is funny in retrospect: when I plotted issue three, it originally started with the Avengers and JLA the way they were back in 1982, as of the time when the first cross-over was supposed to happen - and as the story moved forward, there were time ripples and changes where we would see all the various iterations - but the editor at DC felt there was too much Barry Allen and Hal Jordan in it. As he told us, Barry and Hal are never coming back and this book is for the fans today, not the fans of yesterday. I was thinking, a lot of those fans of yesterday are still here today and they're still buying the books. There’s plenty of Wally [West] and Kyle [Rayner], but they’ll still be happy to see Barry and Hal too. He made us redo it, so that we had more of the modern stuff.

panel from JLA/Avengers #3 (2003). Property of DC comics and Marvel comics.
original 1982 JLA appearing in JLA/Avengers (2003)

So that kind of unbalanced the second half of it. I think we did okay, but it wasn’t as strong as the original outline had been... and of course, Barry and Hal never did come back! And nobody remembers them... and nobody cares about them... so, I guess that editor was right!

A big thanks to Chris Sheehan, who has his own blog at Chris Is On Infinite Earths, for taking the time to interview Mr Busiek. And thanks to Kurt Busiek for taking the time to be interviewed. You can read more about Kurt Busiek at

A very big thanks to Tom Kuipers and the rest of the Phoenix Comicon Media team for allowing us to make this happen. It was a fantastic event and we are looking forward to next year's sequel. ;)

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