A Comics Titan:
An Interview with Marv Wolfman
Visual storytelling has become increasingly integrated into popular culture over the past few decades. Many fans, critics, and bystanders have, and will continue to focus tremendous attention on the artwork found within comics. While images are integral to the medium and a significant aspect of the genre’s appeal, comics’ success must also be equally attributed to the caliber of the stories. Graphic storytellers are those unique individuals that provide the concepts, dialogue, plots, and pacing necessary to drive tales that incorporate anything and everything from everyday events and social commentary to abstract or epic, world-shattering science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
One storyteller who has mastered the art to its highest degree is Marv Wolfman. Even if you don’t know the man by name — and shame on you if you don’t — you probably know his work. Marv has been involved with creating comics through most of the past five decades. He has worked for both DC Comics and Marvel Comics as a writer and an editor. When you see his name credited to a story, you know immediately that it will be meticulously plotted and populated with individual personalities that exhibit the best and the worst of humanity. Detailed back-stories and complex motives are par for his course. A testament to the popularity of his characters is evidenced by the large numbers that have made the leap to TV, film, and animation.
Some of his best-known comic creations include Starfire, Cyborg, and Raven (from The New Teen Titans comic and also seen on the Teen Titans cartoon), Bullseye (nemesis to Daredevil and portrayed by Colin Farrell in the Daredevil movie), Blade (the Vampire Hunter, played by Wesley Snipes in three feature films based on the character), Nightwing (the new identity of Dick Grayson — Batman’s original partner Robin), Cat Grant (Adventures of Superman and portrayed by Tracy Scoggins on TV’s Lois & Clark), Black Cat (Amazing Spider-Man), and Deathstroke (A New Teen Titans’ villain and major rogue opposing most of the DC universe’s major heroes)
Some of the many comic book series he’s scribed for include: The New Teen Titans,Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Crisis On Infinite Earths (12 issue maxi-series), Tomb of Dracula, and Nightwing.
Marv has stretched his literary abilities through multiple genres and projects. He is a proud co-author of Homeland, a graphic novel depicting the history of the state of Israel and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. In addition to his comics projects, Marv has worked in animation, video games, and even written novels based on DC characters. I met Marv at the 2007 Wizard World Philadelphia comic convention. I found this man, who has been instrumental in crafting so many of my favorite stories and characters, to be very thoughtful and polite, so taking advantage of his kind nature — I requested the opportunity to interview him about his career. Marv graciously agreed. What follows are some intriguing details about his creative process, his opinions on the state of the comics industry, and some thoughts about what he still has yet to accomplish.
WRR: When you were growing up, what kinds of stories/literature were you reading that gave you your insights into heroes, villains, and epic types of adventures?
WOLFMAN: I grew up reading Superman and all comic book characters, the tween books such as Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys, then graduated into Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, and other SF authors. Almost all of those writers dealt in one way or another with good vs. evil. In Bradbury, good often didn’t win, but it was still evident. Many of the stories were about self-sacrifice and certainly about helping others.
WRR: How do your story ideas come to you? Do you see the concepts visually in picture sequences? Is the manner in which your stories come to you why you first became interested in writing for comics, or is there another reason?
WOLFMAN: I have no idea how ideas come and try not to think too much about it. I do see stories visually at first; I see how things move and photo moments of a story. They need not be big action scenes; sometimes they are character moments, but I do very often see the visual first before I start working through that to find the emotional center. As for writing comics, I think I started thinking about them because I wanted to be an artist and needed stories to draw, so I simply wrote them myself. As time went on it became apparent that not only did I want to draw in the worst way, I sadly did. My writing was far better.
WRR: Does your creative approach change with projects for animation, film, or videogames? What are the differences from your perspective?
WOLFMAN: I don’t concern myself with what media I’m writing for at first. My goal with every story is to find the emotional core of what I’m writing. When I do writing lectures I like to talk about interior vs. exterior stories. Since I talk primarily to those who know comics, I talk about Batman (or most detective) stories being an exterior story. They are about the hero finding a problem — usually threatening someone else, and solving it. Then I talk about interior stories such as with Spider-Man, where the actual problem for the story is something that affects Spider-Man personally. The “crime” story is usually of secondary consideration. You care about the hero first and foremost, so even if the plot isn’t completely original, you read it because of how the hero is affected. However I start a story, I like to eventually make it an interior story — however one with a strong plot. I want you to care most about the characters and then about what surprises await you.
WRR: What do you think of the model in which the majority of mainstream comics in the U.S. are presented to consumers (monthly issues, less than twenty-eight pages)? Is there a better format that you would prefer to see put into practice?
WOLFMAN: I think stories should be the length they need to be, which is why the current interest in long graphic novels is so encouraging. We no longer write one issue stories, and once you do continuing material you need to let the story dictate the length, not the length dictate the story.
WRR: Do you feel comic characters are really designed to last in perpetuity? Would the artistic vision be better served if characters were given a finite run with a predetermined developmental arc instead of fated to endure endless resurrections and to face repeatedly their “impossible to kill” nemesis?
WOLFMAN: I think there are many ways to approach this—often infinite story lines can work, and just as often a finite story is better. Eventually characters may outlive their usefulness, but what I’ve found is that just because they outlive it for me, it doesn’t mean another writer can’t use what has been done as a starting point for an all-new approach. I don’t like to lock myself down to story or series length if possible.
WRR: You did some great work on Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula in the 1970s. In fact, you have stated that you learned a great deal on that project. How did the restrictions placed by the Comics Code Authority (CCA) affect your storytelling approach to the horror genre?
WOLFMAN: The comics code only censored me when I talked about religion. But then back in the — 70s we wouldn’t have gone too bloody anyway; comics were still considered for the most part to be for kids. The comics code did get me to have to think in terms of indication rather than showing, to imply that something was happening off panel instead of showing it. From their rules came a degree of subtlety.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tomb of Dracula is a prime example of how secondary and minor characters can be employed to drive various intertwined subplots with tremendous effectiveness. Also, despite the imposed restrictions set by the CCA, Marv managed to make Dracula’s sociopathic personality and despicably cruel nature come to the forefront in this series.
WRR: While working on Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula, you created the character of Blade, a hero exhibiting some of the characteristics of vampirism. Where did you first get the idea—as it appears to have become very popular in the past couple of decades (in television and literature) to have heroes with vampiric powers or vampiric blood lineage play a central role?
WOLFMAN: I have no idea where Blade came from. He is only one of two characters that I’ve created (the other being Deathstroke) that came to me fully formed and in an instant. In the beat of a heart I knew everything about him. I wish I could explain better but that was the way it was. As I say, it only happened one other time. I wish it had happened more since I spent hour after hour creating some of those others.
WRR: You have created some truly evil as well as memorable villains. What characteristics make a villain worthy of repeatedly antagonizing your heroes? Which are your favorite villains out of the many you’ve created?
WOLFMAN: My belief is a fairly common one; villains can’t believe they are villains. They should be as carefully created and as subtle as your best hero can be. They need concerns, worries, problems, etc. They just see the world differently. The worst villains chortle, but the best villains simply can’t understand why others don’t see the world as clearly as they do. Sometimes the better villains are ones who want to help, or believe things are going to hell. Still others can feel they have a destiny that demands certain actions be taken. They should be motivated by the exact same things the heroes are, but the results of their actions cause greater problems.
Of the villains I’ve created, I’d say Brother Blood, Black Cat, Bullseye, Deathstroke, and a few others are among the most complex.
WRR: The New Teen Titans comic created by you and artist George Perez in the eighties was wildly successful, providing DC comics with a top selling monthly magazine. What was the experience like once the book took off?
WOLFMAN: Because most DC comics at the time were killed before their seventh issue, we didn’t assume Titans would sell, but we decided up front to do the comic the way we thought it should be done. If it only lasted six issues, they’d be the best six issues we could do. Somehow word got out and sales were enormous. They gave us the ability to continue doing the kinds of stories we wanted to do and helped lift a moribund DC out of the creative doldrums.
WRR: What aspects of the creative process for the New Teen Titans during its peak made it work so well? Was there better communication between writer and artist, better editorial input, top-notch professional supporting staff?
WOLFMAN: As I say above, we were given the freedom to do what we believed. We didn’t take advantage of that freedom but we used it. As for writer and artist, within a year, George and I lived in the same city and plotted the stories together. I’d come in with an idea already roughed out and then George and I together would beat it into shape. It meant we were both working toward the same goal, and it also meant there could be no ego involved; it became a group effort.
WRR: You novelized the 2006 Superman Returns movie. What is the process like to take a film and convert it into text? Do you work from a script or early versions of the film? Are you required to match the dialogue and scenes exactly or do you have some freedom? How do you go about placing your personal stamp on the book?
WOLFMAN: On Superman Returns I worked from an early script. I was given an incredible amount of freedom because before I began the novelization I sat down with the movie writers and we talked about what their ideas were. They also asked me to come up with backgrounds for the secondary characters, to flesh out the people who were in the movie; I had 80,000 words and they had two and a half hours. I could do a lot more and they encouraged me to push as much as I could. I used as much of their dialogue as I could so the novelization would feel like the finished movie, but I also have many, many pages and scenes which I created out of whole cloth. It was a great experience.
WRR: You also recently novelized the Crisis on Infinite Earths comic storyline (originally presented as a twelve issue limited series when it was originally published in 1985) in 2005. The story was a huge effort on your part to reconcile continuity and simplify the DC universe (DCU) while also satisfying new and old fans alike. It was also a tremendous success. So now that you’ve done it twice (in different forms), what are your thoughts about the reintroduction of the multiverse in DC’s new limited series Infinite Crisis?
WOLFMAN: I keep saying, and I mean it, since I’m the one who decided we should get rid of the multiverse, how could I complain when someone else decides to bring it back? I did Crisis on Infinite Earths because DC’s sales, except for Titans and Legion, were pretty poor. DC needed something big and I came up with the idea of the Crisis to convince Marvel readers that this wasn’t their father’s DC any more. We needed something big, splashy, controversial and completely thought out in all details to demonstrate how good the DCU could be. It took me many years to work up the story you saw and I have to say I still stand by it today, which I can’t always say about everything I’ve done.
WRR: A large part of your earliest work was done under work for hire agreements with the major comic companies. As some of your more popular creations have become widely accepted and been subsequently made into TV and movies or produced for the toy market, have you been able to receive fair compensation? What are your thoughts on the artist’s rights as they pertain to his/her work when it becomes iconic in stature and so much more commercially lucrative than the original contracts could have foreseen?
WOLFMAN: I believe writers and artists should benefit in whatever moneys their creations make, whether they write it and own it or they write it for someone else who owns it. Any company that does not honor that moral contract will eventually cut their own throats. Fortunately, DC Comics puts a percentage in their contracts so percentages are not only moral but legal, too. It’s not a huge percentage, but it is there and I’ve done well by them. I wish it were the same for others.
WRR: What other project(s) do you want to complete in the future so that you can look back in a few decades and say that you have attained everything you wanted to professionally?
WOLFMAN: I want to write my own original novels. As for ever being able to say I attained everything I wanted to professionally, that won’t ever happen. Any time I read someone’s work I admire, that I wish I could do as well, I realize how much more work I need to do. I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and I know all I can hope to do is improve where I’m weak. I know I’ll never be as brilliant as some folks are, but that keeps me pushing. I do wish it were easier, though.
WRR: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to the Wild River Review, Marv, and thanks for all the adventures — please keep them coming.
John Moskowitz is a professional business consultant who has performed project management, coaching/training and process improvement for clients in the pharmaceutical, credit card and construction materials industries among others.
John has been responsible for the design of PowerPoint presentations for executive management, training materials focused on financial analysis, project management and process improvement and flow mapping, step-by-step instructions for software self-help menus and templates for teaching six sigma statistical control concepts. He has also authored numerous corporate internal change management communications to reinforce company-wide policy.