Welcome to the Comics Waiting Room!
One of the wonderful things about being involved in the comics community is the occasional chance to pick the brains of some of the most talented people to ever put pencil to page and fingers to keyboard. Matt Wagner is one of those people, and I’ve been following his work since the beginning of his career. It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to fire questions at the creator of GRENDEL, MAGE, and a zillion other great comics. Many thanks to Joe Rybandt of Dynamite Entertainment for playing facilitator– Marc Mason
MM: Matt, your first printed work in comics was in January, 1982 in PRIMER, introducing Grendel to the world. Did you ever expect at the time that you'd still be at it, in the prime of your career 26 years later? How does that feel?
MW: I have to answer that with a “Yes.” I had always had it in my mind to be an artist. And by that, I don’t just mean someone who draws or creates things but someone who lives their entire life to do just that.
I’ve always thought of my life in the arts as a journey that will only end when I do. I don’t ever see my self “retiring” from this life. This isn’t just a job for me, it’s how I relate to the world, it’s how I think and process my feelings. It’s, quite literally, what I am. How does it feel? Well, let’s just say there’s never been any part of my brain that’s ever considered doing something else, getting another career, trying a new direction. Through my art and my life as an artist, I’m constantly challenged with new thoughts, new considerations, new ideas and directions. Why would I ever want to do anything else?
MM: Where did GRENDEL come from? Was the concept fully formed in your mind from the start, or did you see the potential to expand it come later?
MW: Well, of course I’d love to say that I’d had the entire centuries-spanning saga planned out from the very beginning, but it just ain’t so. I went to art school, and part of what I learned there was to take the situations, materials and challenges presented to you and make something of them. Hopefully, something beautiful and something resonant, but that tends to come later, after you’ve found your creative feet and voice. So, suffice it to say that, back in the early ‘80s when I was fumbling around for concepts that I’d hoped would set the comic book world on fire, I was aiming to create a significant anti-hero. Throughout my teen years, I’d been drawn to the sort of narratives that turned the readers’ expectations on their collective ear. The ELRIC stories by Michael Moorcock and, obviously, the novel GRENDEL by John Gardner, which was a re-telling of the classic BEOWULF legend, told from the perspective of (and sympathetic to) the monster. These sort of stories caused you a reader to think about their moral implications in a manner that I didn’t find in more traditional fantasy literature. At first, of course, I only had my sights set on Hunter Rose and his character arc. It was only after the success of that story that I found myself with the opportunity to tell more GRENDEL tales. And, like the artist I been taught to be, I took those pieces and kept rearranging them to create new and different versions and variations on my basic central theme; violent aggression and its moral ambiguity.
MW: It was a pretty heady time. Like the punk era of rock music that had just preceded the independent revolution in comics, there always seemed to be so much opportunity and so much potential. We were creating new rules- “our own rules”- as we went along and that was a very exciting premise. Of course, like any band, there was internal conflict coupled with personality clashes, but those now seem to secondary to the sense of young vitality in which were swimming. In many ways our reach certainly exceeded our grasp but, to me, that just made things all the more exciting.
MM: MAGE started shortly after the first round of GRENDEL ended, and eventually started running GRENDEL backups. What did you take from your early creative experiences and apply to MAGE?
MW: Well, as I said, I’ve always considered my life in the arts as some form of transcendent journey and that certainly comes across in MAGE. Part of what made the first segment of the MAGE trilogy work so well was that the reader could literally see my evolution as an artist and storyteller in conjunction with the narrative itself. As I became more aware of my skills and more fully developed my prowess as an author, Kevin Matchstick also came into his own, accepted his destiny and discovered the powerful spark inside himself.
MM: MAGE seemed like a much more personal, humanistic work. Did the series come as any sort of response to the grimmer world of GRENDEL?
MW: I’m a Libra. I’ve always been fairly dualistic like that. Yeah, I love grim tales, harsh music and moral ambiguity. At the same time, I love uplifting stories, beautiful melodies and heroic idealism. Call me fractured if you like but I’ve always considered it strength to be able to see the world and life from several different perspectives.
MM: Late in the 80s, you did your first work with DC, THE DEMON. How did you wind up on DC's radar? What was the first experience of working on corporately owned books like for you? Did it feel weird?
MW: The same ways that the big record labels keep their eyes on the up-and-coming bands, the big comic publishers and constantly looking to the world of indy comics to provide that next big thing. My first contact with DC came through my association with Dick Giordano whom I had met at a dinner at a convention in (I think) Atlanta. Dick knew of MAGE and invited me up to New York to give them a pitch on any one of their characters. At first, I had taken them an idea that would feature and all-new Batgirl but it turned out that they’d already okayed Alan More to have Barbara Gordon be gunned down by the Joker in KILLING JOKE. Dick asked me who else I liked from the DC line-up and I mentioned The Demon. Alan had just featured a scary new version of the character in SWAMP THING and I had always had an attraction to Etrigan- I’d actually done a big, painted version of the cover to the first issue of the original Kirby series way back in middle school. So, I took them an idea for a story and they bought it just like that.
All of a sudden I found myself working for DC Comics and I’ve gotta confess I just wasn’t ready for it. I shouldn’t have taken on that gig while I was still doing MAGE and I really had no idea of how the big companies operated in any sort of professional sense. It was something of a painful process and I’d have to say that, even after all these years, I look at the series and imagine what it could have been had I been working on it and it alone.
MM: You didn't stray from creator-owned work, though. THE AERIALIST appeared at Dark Horse a couple of years after that. It also remains your only major work to have never fully been finished and published. Can you talk a bit about what happened with that series and perhaps if you'll ever return to it?
MW: Well, I started that storyline after Comico had filed for bankruptcy and the legalities of all that were so up in the air. I was reacting to the frustrations of that time by concocting a storyline that would just push people’s buttons all over the place; homosexuality as the norm, a world devastated by ecological mismanagement that was later saved by the mass cultivation of marijuana; I’d only gotten around to pushing a few of the buttons I had in mind when both MAGE and GRENDEL came back into my control. In the end, both of these narratives appealed to me (and, truthfully, to readers) more than THE AERIALIST, I’m afraid. At this point, I have no plans for ever returning to that long-unfinished story. My muse has led me elsewhere.
MM: 91-92 saw a great variety of work from you: TERMINATOR, TARZAN, SANDMAN, BATMAN, and the return of GRENDEL. Were you having a particularly fertile period as a creator, or was it all a coincidence of timing?
MW: Hmmm. I don’t really recall. I’ve always been fairly productive. At some times more so than at others so, yeah, I guess you could count that period as an upswing. But I think another factor was the fact that I was now a fully established talent in the field and not just a hungry young wannabe. I produced a lot of work during that time period because I got offered a lot of opportunities during that time period. I did it because I could.
MM: Those that don't know you for your creator-owned books like GRENDEL and MAGE likely know your name as the writer on the long-running, very well liked SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE. How did Wesley and Diane come into your life?
MW: Well, I’d met and had an offer to work with Karen Berger and this was prior to the formation of Vertigo. She was starting to carve out that niche in the DC world but it wasn’t yet formalized by the name and the imprint. They were publishing Gaiman’s SANDMAN at this point, to obviously great success, and they were looking for some way to further capitalize on that star. The problem was, they didn’t see a way to do it without Neil at the helm. Nowadays the Vertigo personality seems fairly well established but, at that point, it was still quite amorphous.
I had recently turned on to various crime noir fiction and, of course, always had a love for all the typical trappings of the pulp traditions. It was around this time that I’d also taken a great liking to Guy Davis’ work on BAKER STREET. I contacted Guy and offered to write something for him at DC, giving him a wider audience and a bigger paycheck! Guy went through the DC Who’s Who and came up with a selection of characters that appealed to him- one of which was the Golden Age Sandman. His note to me at the time said something to the effect of, “I know they won’t let us do this because of Gaiman’s Sandman, but it sure would be fun.” “On the contrary,” I replied, “That’s exactly WHY they’ll let us do this.” I then went to Karen and suggested that, since Neil had turned everything about DC’s Sandman character on its ear, why not take that influence and re-apply it to the former incarnations of the character. This gave me an opportunity to bring a more hard-boiled flavor to the pulpy aspects of this, one of DC’s earliest costumed characters, all coupled with a certain historic reality. In Wes and Dian, I had my own version of Nick and Nora, Lamont and Margo, Hammett and Hellman.
MM: Was it difficult keeping up the mystery aspect of the book? Did the story structure (a series of four-issue arcs) hurt or hamper you as a writer?
MW: No, that was a very specific decision on my part from the very beginning. Four chapter storylines would make the eventual paperback compilations about the size of a pulp novel. I’ve always been heavy into story structure and if you really look at that series as a whole, you’ll see it reflected in the narrative as well; Wes and Diane’s relationship undergoes a dramatic narrative step for every year’s worth of issues.
MW: I’ve always enjoyed writing for other artists because it challenges me and enables me to expand me own perceptions of how a story ought to be told. As a result, I’ve always worked in plot-and-dialogue fashion in an effort to more fully engage in a collaborative experience. I want the artist to have a significant role in how the story will unfold on the page. That, in turn, inspires my eventual word choices and character beats.
MM: Will we continue to get trade collections of the series?
MW: That’s an arcane secret known only to the DC Sale and Marketing staff. Of course, I surely hope we do.
MM: From there, we've continued to see more GRENDEL, and you also returned to MAGE. As you've continued your characters' sagas, have they evolved how you might have anticipated? Or have they gone into areas you would have never guessed?
MW: Ideally, they will always travel into areas that I would have never initially guessed. I’ve always said that it’s my job, as a storyteller, to take my audience somewhere they wouldn’t have expected nor been able to reach on their own. To do that, I need to venture into places that I myself might have never expected.
MM: DC has also given you cracks at their icons, not only with multiple BATMAN books, but also Superman and Wonder Woman in TRINITY. Did doing that book fulfill any sort of childhood desire for you? Was it one of those 'dream come true' situations?
MW: Well, of course. I love working on those characters because I grew up loving those characters. To continue the music analogy, it’s like a band doing cover versions of the songs that inspired them to become artists in their own right. At this point, I’m perfectly happy with the way I’ve been able to straddle both the mainstream and independent markets. It feels very natural.
MM: You're now tackling the writing duties on ZORRO for Dynamite Entertainment. How did you come to be involved with the property?
MW: No surprise, I also grew up loving Zorro. I’d seen Dynamite’s updating of the Lone Ranger and thought it was a really savvy way to bring that character to a more modern audience. When I heard that Dynamite had also acquired the rights to Zorro, I got in contact with them immediately to offer my skills as the cover artist in the same manner that John Cassaday was enlisted on the Ranger book- and I should point out that I have never done that sort of “cold call” before. But, like I said, I love Zorro! Additionally, I’ve known Dynamite’s publisher, Nick Barrucci, for something like two or three centuries and so I was fairly comfortable making the offer. It was Nick who then came back to me with the counter-offer; how would I also like to write the (at least) first storyline. I hemmed and hawed for all of a second or so before accepting.
MM: I know you've got permission to use everything from the pulp stories to Isabel Allende's novel about the character in putting together the series. Does having that large amount of background material make it easier on you as a writer? Or more difficult?
MW: Truthfully, it makes it just a whole honkin’ heap of FUN! Again, I’ve loved this character in almost all his incarnations (curiously, I’ve never seen the GAY BLADE spoof but am constantly surprised by how many people really seem to have enjoyed it!). I loved the silent film, the Tyrone Power version, the serials, the comics (most of them), the TV show. Hell, I even loved the fairly crappy Frank Langella TV movie! More importantly, I loved the Allende novel and when I learned that Dynamite had the okay to use the material from the novel in their re-launch of the title… well, that just made the prospects all the sweeter. So, basically, I’m distilling ALLLLL the many aspects of this character that I’ve loved over the years into MY version. It’s all of those influences filtered through my sensibilities and storytelling skills and, I’ve gotta say, I’m thrilled with the results.
MM: How is writing a character with a pulp background different than tackling the DC icons? Does the character's somewhat wider public appeal change how you approach the story?
MW: Well, in both cases, there’s a lot of back-story and history to consider. Luckily, since we’re starting all over from the very beginning on this version of Zorro- exposing some of the many specifics of his past to those who don’t know the character so well or hadn’t read the Allende book- it’s like I’ve got a totally blank slate to work from in many regards.
MM: You did a lot of the character design work and are tackling covers for the book. Was there any particular real-life inspiration and research you used to make the book look and feel more authentic to the era the story is taking place?
MW: It’s kind of a constant process of learning about the time period and bringing the sensibilities of a modern audience to play against the tableau of a historical setting. It was much the same way on Sandman Mystery Theater. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be anything close to an expert on this time period but I’m doing my best. I’ve gotten a lot of help from Sandy Curtis, the vice president of the licensor, Zorro Productions. She’s been an invaluable source for pointing out historical specifics. At the same time, I’ve sometimes had to say, “Well, that one bit is just not gonna matter to our current readership and the story works better without it.”
MM: Do you have a lot of ZORRO stories to tell? Can we expect to see you around for a while?
MW: At this point, I’d have to again answer, “Yes.”
MM: Many of the greats in comics, no matter how talented, have an embarrassment on their resume (see: RAMPAGE 2099, SKATEMAN), but if someone scans your body of work, that stain isn't there. You're also refreshingly free of controversy and detractors. What is it about you that has helped you avoid bad career decisions and continue to make great, relevant work after 25 years?
MW: HA! Well, I’m FAIRLY certain that you could find plenty of people who’d take exception to the first portion of that description. But, aside from that very kind assessment, I can comment on your other points. True, I’ve never been one to overly care about the petty ins-and-outs of the comic industry. I don’t care who’s on top at the moment. I don’t care about who gets long with whom. I’ve never particularly cared whether I make the Top Ten list in WIZARD. I’ve got enough of a readership to make me happy and, as I said earlier, I’m in this to live the life of an artist. Not to win any popularity contests. I do this because it’s what I feel driven to do. I tell my stories because they’re inside of me and they want to come out. I just try and concentrate of what appeals to me and what inspires me. Again, I figure that, so long as it stays interesting for me, on some level, it’ll remain that way for my readers as well.
MM: Thanks for your time, Matt. I greatly appreciate it.
MW: My pleasure, Marc. Again, thanks for your kind words and your obvious support of my work.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved