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A Discussion With Arrowsmith's Kurt Busiek By Derek Handley
'He makes writing look easy,' is the phrase I heard most often when asking people about this particular gentleman. He's been in the comics industry for over twenty years, and in that time has spun some of the finest super-hero tales ever. He's worked on some of the biggest characters and teams, and understands exactly what makes a comic book tick. He's got an interesting and unusual new series coming out from Cliffhanger, and is still bringing joy to fans of Astro City. He is, of course, Kurt Busiek: writer, gentleman and one of comics' most notable superstars. Despite illness and a five-book load, he agreed to answer some questions about his work and his books, and give his views on a few matters.
Slush Factory: The first issue of Arrowsmith is coming out from Cliffhanger on July 16th.
Kurt Busiek: That's right.
SF: Are you very excited now that the book's release is this week, or do you tend not to think about a book once it's done?
KB: Actually, I'm still working on it. I've never been one of those guys who's shut of a book once he's done. I'm excited about Arrowsmith finally coming out, and I'm eager to see how people like it.
SF: I read that it's a project that you, Carlos Pacheco and Jésus Meriño have been working on for some time. What was the genesis of it? Did it come to you when you were working together on The Avengers?
KB: The desire to work on it came from our Avengers days. Carlos and I had a great time working on Avengers Forever – we share many of the same attitudes and approaches toward comics storytelling – so we were naturally interested in doing something else together. When Mark Waid and I started up Gorilla, Carlos was one of the people we talked to, and that's the actaul point at which we first started talking about doing Arrowsmith.
Ultimately, Carlos decided to stay with Marvel a little while longer, which was undoubtedly the wisest choice, given how things worked out with Gorilla. But when he was ready to go to Cliffhanger and do creator-owned work, he called me and said, "Let's do Arrowsmith now; what do you say?"
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SF: Where did the idea actually come from? I mean, was it a desire to do fantasy, or to do something different, or was it an old project that kept 'coming back to you'?
KB: It came together from a number of different places – over the years, I've talked a fair bit to various people about what fairytales would be like if they all happened in the same universe, like superhero comics tend to – what kind of world would arise from a "realistic" take on that kind of material. Now, I have to say that this was mainly as an illustration of how superhero stories are inherently and appropriately unrealistic, but I ended up bringing up the example so often that I got interested in it. And I'd suggested to a novelist friend of mine that it'd be interesting to see a fantasy novel with magicians in much the same position as WWI pilots – taught magic swiftly and thrown into battle with less than adequate preparation, to live or die depending on how fast they could adjust and learn. And then, when I was casting about for something that would be full of interesting visuals, for Carlos to draw, it came back again, and we talked.
SF: So it has changed a lot since its initial conception.
KB: Well, not really. All those ideas – the single universe for different tales, the inexperienced combatants, the magic, the war – went through different stages, but once they all came together into Arrowsmith, it didn't go though many changes after that.
Carlos and I added a lot of detail, figuring out the world, the magic, the powers behind the throne, Fletcher's background and so forth, but the core idea and the first story arc stayed very much the same as it was when it was first conceived.
SF: According to the previews, Fletcher Arrowsmith, the lead character, will stand before some tough choices. Could you fill us in on what kind of choices those are? And how important are those choices in terms of the outcome of the war?
KB: Well, I'll warn you right now that I shy away from questions that involve giving away the story – I'd rather you find out what choices Fletcher faces by reading Arrowsmith rather than this interview.
What I will say that he experiences things that make him change his concept of how the war works and why it's happening, and has to face choices based on his new understanding, but I wouldn't want to go into detail. It won't be what people generally expect from an acton comic, I think, and hopefully not anything simple-minded; it illustrates a change from innocence to a growing maturity, and shows how someone grapples with the choices that we all grapple with along that road.
I'll add, though, that this is not a comic about how Fletcher wins the war. The war is the setting more than it is the story, and just as, say, Saving Private Ryan or Terry And The Pirates or Enemy Ace or Paths Of Glory or Bridge Over The River Kwai are more about dealing with the war and living through it than about winning or losing it, Fletcher's story is about Fletcher and the world he lives in and how it's changing around him. The mechanics of the war are a part of it, but not the point.
Fletcher's an airman, an aviator. Ultimately, his job is to do what his superior officers tell him, and while he'll go on missions that could affect the war, he's not a general, and doesn't decide strategy. Of course, even an indvidual can have an effect of the outcome of a war, but whether he'll do that remains to be seen.
SF: What kind of a person is Fletcher? We know that he's young, he has left his home, he holds certain 'romantic illusions' about the way the world is, and he is unsure of his place in the world. What else would you add to that?
KB: That's not enough? He's got reddish-blond hair, and his father's a blacksmith. He's friends with the local commercial wizard's daughter, but he meets other girls as a flight cadet and as an officer. He's got friends, enemies, a brother and a sister. He wants to be someone that matters. He's off on a journey, with no idea where it'll take him.
SF: The tasters and art that is up on the 'net is certainly, as you described it, "gorgeous," and fans of Carlos and Jésus certainly won't be disappointed. Comic writers often talk about how blown away they were when they got to see their words turned into images, how some sequences went beyond what they'd imagined or discussed. What sequences will we see that really took your breath away when you got the art?
KB: There are those who think that talking about the art is not a spoiler, but I'm not one of them. The story and the art both deserve to be uncovered as they were intended. There are sequences that took my breath away, but I'd honestly rather let them take your breath away, too, rather than have you hear about them ahead of time...
SF: Actually, when you put it like that, I'm embarrassed for asking.
KB: (Laughs) Just doing your job.
SF: (Laughs) Okay, getting back to the story…is Arrowsmith a one-off, or could there be a sequel? The world sounds intriguing; any other tales of it you'd like to tell?
KB: Arrowsmith is planned as an ongoing series of mini-series, with breaks in between so Carlos has time to do it right. We'd like to explore Fletcher's whole world, from Connecticut to Cathay, from El Dorado to the Golden Khanates, from Atlantis to the Seelie Court.
SF: Okay, just with that you've got me hooked. Now, moving from Arrowsmith to the arrow-master – you have repeatedly said that Hawkeye is your favourite comic hero. What puts Clint Barton above other characters in your eyes?
KB: I like him because he's very human and very fallible, but still a hero. All he's got is his skill, and he practics and works and trains and dedicates himself to it until he's so good he can stand shoulder to shoulder with gods. That's one hell of an accomplishment. Plus, he's got a good heart, but he's impulsive and emotional and that leads him to do hasty things and screw up (usually in his personal life) and have to fix it. I find that both realistic and easy to identify with – and the way I see it, Hawkeye's so focused on his skill, and devotes so much energy to it that he doesn't have a whole lot of energy left over for socializing, for interacting nicely with others. When he lets go, he just lets go, and says or does whatever comes to mind first. It's a pressure-release valve for him, the price of maintaining the focus on his skill. I like that, too – the tight control he exerts over himself for his work, and the impulsiveness in other arenas. Plus, I like that his history is one of a guy who screwed up (he became a villain out of love for the Black Widow) and has since been making up for it.
Plus, cool costume. Can't go wrong with a cool costume.
SF: When Hawkeye left the Avengers for the Thunderbolts, you were working on both books. Was that idea something you'd had in mind right from the relaunch of The Avengers, or was it something that came 'down from above'? And seeing as you like the character so much, if he'd been going to a book you didn't write, would you have tried to 'fight to keep him'?
KB: Having Hawkeye lead the T-Bolts was an idea that was actually in the T-Bolts proposal, even though I knew he was off in the "Heroes Reborniverse" at the time, and we didn't know if he'd ever come back. But if he was going to become available, I knew I wanted to bring him in, and could only hope that whoever got the Avengers assignment would be open to letting me.
So it was a good thing for my T-Bolts plans that I got the Avengers job, and my editor liked the idea. I have to admit that if someone else wanted Hawkeye to go join some other book, I'd have fought to keep him for Avengers. I thought he worked very well in T-Bolts, but if I wasn't writing that, I'd have wanted to write him elsewhere.
SF: Astro City is back on the shelves as the Local Heroes miniseries. What made you decide to do it as a miniseries? Will there be a new ongoing series after that?
KB: We scheduled it as a mini because my health has been shaky – I'm able to write Astro City scripts again, but I'm not able to do so monthly, so we're putting it out on a schedule that we know we can deliver on, rather than promising something and then failing to meet it. So after Local Heroes, we'll do more, but it won't be regular until and unless my health improves to the point that I know it can work.
SF: Fingers crossed for that. What's next for the denizens of Astro City? You always struck me as having a store of ideas for that world that you dip into when the time is right. What stories do you want to tell next?
KB: I do have a bunch of stories to tell next, and it's more a case of picking the stories that cry out loudest to be told next than thinking up ideas. That said, we'll be doing a number of different stories next, with an unusual approach. But it looks very much like one of them will be the story more people are waiting for than any other – the story that was originally going to be Marvels II, which involves (but does not center on, be warned), the death of the Silver Agent.
SF: You've introduced several characters in cameo that are from other parts of the Astro City world – the Lion and the Unicorn, Bullroarer, the Birds of Paradise, et al. Any plans to feature them in a story, or were they only ever intended as colour and background?
KB: There's always a chance, depending on what stories I come up with to tell. But the book does focus on Astro City more often than not, so heroes based there (or who travel there) have rather more of a chance of getting the spotlight.
Still, there are Astro City-based heroes who've been seen less often than the Birds of Paradise, so even that's no guarantee.
SF: Were you surprised at how quickly readers and the industry took to Astro City? It seemed to find a place and a name for itself from the word Go.
KB: I was very surprised. The series is focused on stories I very much want to tell, but there are no guarantees, of course, that because I want to tell them, there are people who want to hear them. And a book with brand-new characters in an unknown setting is a hard sell – especially when it's a superhero book. So we rolled the dice and took a chance, and wound up surprised and delighted that so many readers wanted to go where we wanted to take them.
SF: Speaking of new books, getting readers and so on: A couple of years ago, you were asked about the future of comics (In a Wizard feature, along with Mike Turner, Paul Dini and J. Scott Campbell). You talked about the need to reach the audience, and get into new venues – to get the comic out of the comic store. Since then, there've been more comic-based movies, more comic-based games, and so on, but it seems like there still aren't many comics being sold in venues other than comic stores. Are you disappointed? Do you have any advice to the people who distribute comics, in terms of what they should be doing?
KB: Not many comics sold in venues other than comic stores? I can't agree – the sales of trade paperbacks, both in comics shops and outside 'em, is the single fastest-growing success story in the industry right now. My big advice is: Let's keep it coming!
SF: Okay. Well, would you agree that there aren't many comics that are good jumping on points for younger readers – that it has become a kind of club, with little access for new members?
KB: Again, no, I wouldn't. I think there are tons of good comics for young readers, from Amy Unbounded to Akiko to Leave It To Chance and more. And manga trade paperbacks are reaching audiences we traditionally lost a connection to, including girls. I think what we think of as "mainstream" comics (i.e. big company superheroes) need to do a better job of reaching out, and we often have a problem letting those new could-be readers know that comics that they might like exist, but I think the comics are out there. We just have to do a better job of getting them to the audience.
SF: During that interview, it was also suggested that a plus of comics is that they have diversified – there are more and more titles in different genres. You're best known for your super-hero work, but is that your favourite genre to write, and what do you enjoy reading?
KB: I like superheroes, but I'd never want to limit myself to a single genre. My favorite comics of all time are Milton Caniff's output on Terry And The Pirates and Steve Canyon between, say, 1947 and 1961, so that's hardly the mark of a superhero zombie. And I'm as likely to pick up my Usagi Yojimbo trade paperbacks to reread as I am my Englehart run of Dr. Strange or JLA.
Favorite genre to write? Beats me. I like adventure. I like SF, fantasy, superheroes, horror...if it's got good characters and a compelling story that explores those characters, I'm a happy writer.
As for what I'm reading these days...I read a ton of stuff, but some current favorites include Usagi Yojimbo, Way Of The Rat, Incredible Hulk, Hawkman, Savage Dragon, Firebreather, Fables, Invincible, For Better Or For Worse, and PVP.
SF: That was an impressive run on The Avengers, by the way. Did you get to achieve everything you'd planned during that run? Were there any storylines you had to change due to a character being unavailable? I mean, The Avengers shares more characters than any other book I can think of, bar JLA, so that must cause some headaches.
KB: I wouldn't say I got to achieve everything I ever wanted to do with the Avengers, but we sure hit a lot of what makes the book appealling to me. The only storyline I can think of where we changed it due to character unavailablity was "The Kang Dynasty," which was originally convceived to be about the Red Skull. Once it became a Kang story, it took a different tack and became a different story, though – one that had its own dynamic and its own character concerns.
Oh yeah, and we had plans for Zodiac a couple of times. Once they fell through because another take on Zodiac was being done in Alpha Flight, and then the next time because Maximum Security changed our plans for upcoming stories, and then before I got around to coming at it again I was gone...
SF: What's next for you? Would you like to focus on your own projects, and if so, what are they? Or is there a book you haven't worked on that you'd like to take on?
KB: I'm working on Astro City, Arrowsmith and Conan on an ongoing basis, and doing the Superman: Secret Identity miniseries (with Stuart Immomen) and the JLA/Avengers mini with George Perez. That's enough to keep me hopping, though I've got a few other projects in the works that haven't been announced yet – at least one creator-owned and one company-owned.
I like doing my own projects, and I like playing in the big sandbox with the other kids, so I wouldn't want to choose one or the other. There are plenty of books I wouldn't mind working on someday, from Green Lantern to Kamandi to JLA to X-Men to Spider-Man to Thor and more. But you never know what's going to come next, so I just like to stay open enough to do a nice variety of things, and not get into a rut, no matter how enjoyable a rut it might be.