Shockrockets and Superstars: Kurt Busiek Interview

Tue, May 16th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Bill Baker, Contributing Writer

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I've heard that Kurt Busiek has jokingly referred to himself "an overnight sensation ten years in the making," alluding to the fact that it wasn't until he collaborated with Alex Ross on the critically acclaimed, fan favorite and highly successful MARVELS mini-series that he was truly "discovered" by both the fans and editorial powers that be. His accomplishment with MARVELS provided him with the kind of attention and sales that has since allowed him to work regularly on many of the company owned characters he long dreamed of writing [such as IRON MAN and THE AVENGERS], as well as launch his own creator owned book, ASTRO CITY.

More recently, he and a group of his fellow travels parlayed their collective creative and economic muscle to form an all-new company, Gorilla Comics, that has begun to publish, with the help of Image central, a number of original, creator-owned books in a wide variety of genres not typically seen on the shelves. To date, there's only been two books released bearing the Gorilla logo - an ashcan for SUPERSTAR, available only at last year's Mid-Ohio Con, and the first issue of SHOCKROCKETS - both of which feature the work of Busiek and fellow Banana Trust member, Stuart Immonen. Not surprisingly, both of these books are becoming increasingly hard to find as demand for this new work rises.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Kurt recently via e-mail, and he was gracious enough to take time out of his hectic schedule to answer a slew of questions about his latest work. Despite his being plagued by an ongoing health problem, I found him to be scathingly funny, more than a little witty, and extremely generous with his time.

[Shockrockets]BILL BAKER: Let's start with the basics: What are the SHOCKROCKETS? Who controls them, and why are they necessary? Finally, where did the idea come from, and what lead you to launch Gorilla with it?

KURT BUSIEK: The Shockrockets are an elite squadron of fighter aircraft, a hybrid of cutting-edge human and alien technology, piloted by the best pilots on Earth. They protect Earth and humanity from all kinds of threats, external and internal, in the wake of a brutal war against alien invaders. They're an internationally-backed and -funded organization, the most visible remaining aspect of the worldwide alliance that beat the aliens.

The idea came out of bits and pieces of things Stuart and I had been thinking about over the years, and started when I asked him what he'd like to do for Gorilla if he could draw anything he wanted. He said, "Big machines," which got us going on cool SF technology, and we developed the concept from there, tossing in ideas and approaches as we talked.

BB: How did the series get developed from the idea phase to the final product?

KB: We developed it together over a series of phone conversations and e-mail exchanges. As I said, it started with me asking Stuart what he'd like to draw, which led us into the SF/technology/big honking machine realm. We started with Alejandro, postulating a teenager digging through a hi-tech junkyard for parts to customize a flying motorcycle with, and then working outward to figure out a world and a context. Why would there be a junkyard full of alien technology? Because there was a war. What was the war about? How'd we win it? How do we make winning the war center of big cool machines?

Along the way, we each tossed in ideas we'd had before -- I'd once come up with an idea for a futuristic Blackhawks, and elements of that certainly crept into the Shockrockets. We talked about a manga-influenced approach -- not duplicating the surface look of manga, as many artists do today, but of building from the underlying storytelling principles and working outward. We just tossed everything in a pot and stirred it and messed with the result until we were happy with it.

BB: How much collaboration, give and take, is there between you and the rest of the creative team on the book; do you guys talk about upcoming stories, designs, etc., and influence each other's work throughout the process, or do you do your work independently?

KB: There's a lot of back-and-forth between me and Stuart -- I'll talk through every story with him before I plot it, so I know going in it's something he'll enjoy drawing and to get any input he might have on how things should develop. I don't talk as much to Wade [Von Grawbadger, the inker] or Jeromy [Cox, the colorist] -- Stuart does, since they're bringing through the visuals, and it makes more sense for him to be the point man on that. I do deal with Comicraft closely, going over the lettering, making suggestions and requests.

But it's not as if these guys need constant supervision -- the reason everyone's working on the book is that they're good at what they do. So we'll talk back and forth to make sure we're on the same page, and we're all happy with the approach we're taking, but then everyone goes ahead and does their best on their own, and it all comes together well.

BB: What particular abilities and sensibilities does Stuart bring to this series? What about Wade, and the others?

KB: What people see first about Stuart is his realistic finish, his rendering. But good though that is, it wouldn't mean much if there wasn't a good storyteller underneath. Stuart lays out a story clearly and dramatically, he paces things well, his characters are good "actors" -- and he's got a fantastic sense of setting and atmosphere.

All of that makes him a terrific comics artist -- and in particular, for SHOCKROCKETS, he's great at technology, and the particular look the book requires. The ships themselves are fictional, but Stuart makes them look absolutely credible, and he knows how they work and what all the various gizmos and gadgets on them do. And he gives the book a strong "aviation movie" feel that makes it all the more distinctive and different.

As for the others, well, Wade's got a strong, controlled line that brings Stuart's pencils through very well -- he was Stuart's first choice, and I'm delighted with the results. Jeromy's got a great color sense that I don't really have the vocabulary to describe -- his work on the book is saturated and intense, giving it a kind of hyper-real look that suits it well. And Comicraft -- I've been working with them for over a decade now, and we work very well together. Jason Levine in particular can take a panel where I've written too much copy, and make it look balanced and natural, and not many letterers can do that.

BB: What kind of scripts are you using on the mini-series? Do you do rough layouts for your own, or Stuart's, purposes?

KB: We do SHOCKROCKETS "plot-style." I type up a detailed synopsis, usually running about seven or eight single-spaced pages, broken down page by page and describing each page in a few paragraphs. Stuart draws the book from that, and I script the dialogue and captions to fit what he's drawn.

I don't do layouts for the book -- I make sure I don't plot a page I COULDN'T lay out, if I had to, as a way of making sure I'm not putting too much story on any one page for Stuart to draw. But from there, he's so much better at it than I would be that it makes sense for him to do it.

BB: Was there a particular reason you chose to use "the novice entering an inner circle" narrative device to introduce the series? Does this approach allow you and Stuart to do things in a way you might not be able to otherwise?

KB: Well, the novice is the lead character. As noted, we started with Alejandro, and built the world around him, so it's only natural for us to approach the story starting with him. We do shift viewpoints in the course of the mini-series, but the through-line is still Alejandro's -- he's the character who grows and changes most over the course of the story.

I'm sure we could have done things differently, but if we had, it'd have wound up a different story.

BB: What can we expect from the SHOCKROCKETS in the future? Do you see this as something that can or will become an ongoing, monthly series, or do you plan on continuing the story through more mini-series?

KB: Our plan is to do SHOCKROCKETS as a series of mini-series, giving the readers a clear, self-contained package each time, and allowing us to do other projects in between. So unless the project tanks, we'll do another SHOCKROCKETS mini sometime next year, and keep coming back to it that way as long as we've got stories to tell about them and an audience to support the telling of them.

BB: Are there any plans for SHOCKROCKETS merchandise, say a line of toy airships and pilot figures?

KB: I'd love that -- but we're just concentrating on doing the comic, and if there are spin-off possibilities, we'll chase 'em down later. There aren't any current plans.

"I hope Gorilla will be successful enough to launch projects through other distribution methods, to promote widely, to experiment with format and do all the stuff I think the industry needs."
- Kurt Busiek

BB: One of the things you folks at Gorilla have talked about is getting the product in front of an audience that doesn't usually buy comics. How are you going to get SHOCKROCKETS out there and into those new customers' hands? Are there any new or different promotions, appearances or such that you're planning? Finally, are there any plans for taking out ads in general interest magazines, or on radio and TV?

KB: We've certainly talked about the NEED to get comics in front of newcomers, but there's a limited amount we can do, given the state of the industry and of our finances. We can't afford a big, real-world ad campaign, for instance, and we're only able to distribute through Diamond at the moment.

So right now, we can only take baby-steps. We've tried to make SHOCKROCKETS a book that a non-comics-insider can enjoy if they find it, make sure each issue is new-reader friendly, that sort of thing. And if and when we get the first series into trade paperback form, we'll be doing our best to get it into bookstores where it'll hopefully be able to reach SF readers and others who'd like it but don't go into comics stores.

Eventually, I hope Gorilla will be successful enough to launch projects through other distribution methods, to promote widely, to experiment with format and do all the stuff I think the industry needs. But for now we've got to start by establishing ourselves in the direct market, to create a base from which we can, with luck, branch out to do those other things.

[Superstar]BB: What's the basic idea and theme behind your book SUPERSTAR?

KB: Superstar is a young superhero whose power is directly related to the number of people who believe in him, who approve of him and support him. As such, the more popular he is, the more powerful he is -- and that leads him to a balancing act: If he stays popular, he can do a great amount of good, but if he does unpopular-but-worthy things, he'll lose some of that ability. So how does he balance that? What does he do?

He's in essence the world's first politician-superhero, needing a public mandate to continue, but driven to do the right thing even when it conflicts with public tastes. That's the heart of the series -- and wrapped around that, we'll have danger and excitement and drama and interpersonal conflict and romance and big ugly monsters and all that cool stuff.

BB: What lead to the decision not to launch Gorilla with a SUPERSTAR series or one shot?

KB: We wanted to make it clear from the beginning that Gorilla wasn't just another place to do superheroes, so we made a conscious decision not to launch with superhero projects.

SUPERSTAR is different, true, but it's not so different that it couldn't fit into the Marvel or DC Universe with some tweaking. So we decided to hold off and do it later, when it could be one example of the various things Gorilla does instead of one of the foundations that gives people a sense of what Gorilla is all about.

BB: Why give this character his own book, his own home, with Gorilla; why not just incorporate and launch him within your existing ASTRO CITY universe? What about this character, and his universe, are unique and different from the past visions of super heroes?

KB: If I put Superstar into ASTRO CITY, he'd be an ASTRO CITY character. ASTRO CITY is a vehicle for exploring the genre and finding out what life is like within a superhero reality -- it's only secondarily about adventure and thrills. So that would change the tone of the stories I'd do right there. And if I did Superstar in ASTRO CITY, I'd only be able to tell stories about him every now and then, since he'd share the book with the rest of the cast of dozens of superheroes and millions of ordinary people.

SUPERSTAR the series is about Superstar -- making him part of an ensemble cast is not a great way to realize that.

As for what makes Superstar different and unique, I think I've covered that. To go further into it, we'll just have to tell some stories and show people...

BB: This is an idea that you developed, on your own and with others, for quite a long time. How did the initial spark come to life, what are some of the reasons it's taken so long for the book to see publication [except as an ashcan or preview], and what effects has the long gestation period had on the original version and vision of the title?

KB: As I noted in the text page in the ashcan, the initial spark for Superstar came when a high-school friend suggested a superhero who only exists when people believe in him. I liked the concept, and jotted it down in a notebook. That was close to 25 years ago, and I've thought about the idea and reworked it since, and it's developed over time into what it is today.

At times, I'd decide to use the character as part of the cast of a book I'd be developing, but those projects didn't go anywhere for a variety of reasons -- a publisher wasn't interested, the proposal never got finished, whatever.

And it's only fairly recently -- to my perspective, anyway -- that I've been able to do creator-owned books and have a chance at them succeeding, so many of the times I'd work on the concept, it was with an idea toward doing it "someday," not trying to realize it right then.

But as I worked with the concept, I refined it, and eventually it wasn't just a piece of a superhero concept, it was the center of it, and I realized he'd be best off as the center of a series. I couldn't tell you step by step how each bit contributed to the concept and series -- it was an organic process, and I'm sure it's still going on.

BB: What unique qualities does Stuart bring to this title? What are some of his contributions to the design and feel of the book? How about Wade? Finally, what attributes of your previous collaborators remain, and what about each of them had made you want to do the book with them?

KB: Stuart's an excellent comics artist, as noted above, and he's very good on a book that has a lot of humanity to it. Wade's a very good inker for Stuart.

So far, what I've liked most is that Stuart makes everything that much more real, that much more nuanced, more textured, so the scenes come alive in a way I hadn't envisioned when plotting them. More than that, I expect we'll find out as we do the project.

As to previous collaborators, I'm not going to go through them one by one. For the most part, nobody got further than a costume design, and all of those remain the property of the individual artists, so I'd start fresh, not showing any of that material to the next artist in the barrel. There must be some residual effect, but I couldn't tell you what it is.

BB: What kind of scripts have you provided to Stuart for this project so far? Is this the same kind of format you used throughout the development of the book? If not, in what ways - and why - have you changed your format, style and approach to scripting comics?

KB: So far, we've done three proposal pages and an eight-page opening sequence. There really hasn't been enough work done to tell if our approach is going to change.

For the few pages we've done, I've done the same kind of plot synopsis I do for SHOCKROCKETS, and it's working well so far. But I think you're imagining a lot of discarded SUPERSTAR scripts over the years, and there aren't any. I've written concept overviews from time to time, but it's not as if I wrote six issues of SUPERSTAR in 1978 and then another six in 1984 and then another six later. I wrote notes, had conversations, wrote premise descriptions and character snapshots, but didn't write scripts or plots for a series that didn't actually exist yet.

BB: When can we expect to see this title officially launch, and has there been a decision as to what format it'll be in yet [mini-series, one-shot, ongoing monthly]?

KB: It's not scheduled yet. We're planning to do a 48-page one-shot called SUPERSTAR: AS SEEN ON TV after we finish the first SHOCKROCKETS mini, but we'll schedule it when we know when we can get it done and out. After that, I'd like to do a SUPERSTAR mini-series, but it's possible we could do a second SHOCKROCKETS mini -- or something else -- first. We'll see.

BB: Do you have any other projects that you're developing for Gorilla at this time?

KB: At the moment, SHOCKROCKETS and SUPERSTAR are filling my jungle plate. There isn't anything else in the works, though I have plenty of ideas for projects.

BB: How are you managing to balance all of these duties, your freelance and creator-owned assignments? What's your typical work day like? How many hours a day [or a week] do you work? Finally, how long does a typical script take to create, from initial plot to finished script, and has this process gotten easier, or more difficult, over the years? Why?

KB: Right now, I'm in lousy health, so I'm balancing things badly. ASTRO CITY is proceeding at a crawl when I can work on it at all, I'm keeping up with AVENGERS in fits and starts, and keeping pace with Stuart on SHOCKROCKETS. I should be able to do more than that, but I spend too much time ill.

A typical work day -- and I don't have enough of them -- involves getting up around 8 AM, reading my e-mail, eating breakfast and showering and all that morning stuff, then settling in to write, and working on whatever's next on the list, be it a plot or script or research or whatever -- with a break for lunch. If I finish something up at, say, 4, I don't usually start something else, but conversely if I'm rolling along on something long I've been known to break for dinner and then get back at the keyboard until ten or eleven.

Between the long days and the short ones, they balance out to leave me enough time with my family, to read, to watch TV, whatever. And I'm usually asleep around midnight, so I can wake up at 8 the next morning.

Theoretically I'd take weekends off, but realistically I'm usually late on something due to being ill, so I work through them, taking days off when I just can't keep pushing any further.

Over the years, writing a script has gotten easier, because I've gotten more practice at it. But I try to keep trying new things, to keep myself from just doing what I already know how to do. That keeps it challenging and engaging, and I hope it keeps me from getting into a rut.

On a healthy work schedule, a plot will take me a day or two, a dialogue job will take two or three days, and a full script takes about four or five. But illness slows that down quite a bit.

BB: What are your current thoughts on the comics market, business and profession? Do you have any thoughts on ways to improve the condition of the art, business and creators? Is Gorilla part of your solution, and, if so, what does Gorilla in general - and you, in particular - plan to bring to the market that might not already be there?

KB: I've gone on record elsewhere and at great length on what I think is wrong with the industry -- but it basically boils down to the idea that we're not doing comics a wide range of people would be interested in, we're not packaging them in formats that wide audiences would be willing to pick up, we're not distributing them to places that casual readers go and we're not promoting them well. We're focusing on a small and dwindling group -- and this is not said to dismiss the core audience; I'm one of 'em, after all -- and we're working so hard at trying to get 250 of them to stop reading Book X and read Book Y instead that we're not bringing in the new readers who will develop into older readers one day and gripe that we shouldn't reach out to new readers, we should focus only on them ...

"...we're not doing comics a wide range of people would be interested in, we're not packaging them in formats that wide audiences would be willing to pick up"
- Kurt Busiek, on what's wrong with the industry today

I think the way to fix that is to start doing it right. Unfortunately, that takes money, and the companies with money aren't willing to put their resources behind what seems to them to be experimental books. As an editor friend of mine once put it, they'd rather lose $100,000 launching a book that gets canceled in a year than risk that $100,000 trying to reach out to a new audience. They know they're going to lose it, but they'd rather lose it the traditional way than take a chance on losing it in some new way they might get blamed for.

I hope that changes, because it's not enough to just change the content. If I write the perfect book for romance fans, it won't do any good if it's packaged like a traditional boy-oriented comic, distributed to stores that sell traditional boy-oriented comics and promoted in other boy-oriented comics. For Pete's sake, DONALD DUCK and BUGS BUNNY don't sell well in the current market, and they're world-famous icons. BUGS BUNNY should be able to sell in the millions -- but not in this format, not through this distribution system.

I'd like it very much if Gorilla can one day have the resources to address some of these things, but as I noted before, we have to build a foundation before we can reach out from it -- and the arena available to us at the moment is the direct market. Give me ten million bucks and I'll try something else -- but launching into the mass market without adequate capitalization is suicide. Even if you've got a great package, in the right format and with the best possible material, you'll run out of money before enough new readers are drawn to it, and you'll be one more well-intentioned failure.

So if Gorilla is able to establish a strong foundation, ask me again. In the meantime, we're focusing our effort on getting to our feet.

BB: What's the best thing about being part of the Banana Trust?

KB: Having the freedom to do what we want, and the support and encouragement of the other Gorilla creators.

BB: Any last thoughts on the launch of SHOCKROCKETS ... and Gorilla as a presence on the shelves?

KB: I'm pleased with the response so far, and I only hope it continues!

 
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