Still Crazy After All These Years: Keith Giffen talks "52" and His "Return" To Comics

Wed, September 28th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

Ross Richie with Keith Giffen in Los Angeles, December, 2004.
If you've been reading comics for the last 30 years, you're likely well acquainted with the work of writer/artist Keith Giffen. The prolific writer's body of work is large and varied, having made a lasting impression on fandom with his work in the '80s on "Justice League International" with co-writer J.M DeMatteis and on a popular run of "Lobo" mini-series with co-writer Alan Grant. Still other fans remember him best for his run on "Legion of Super-Heroes."

Without a doubt, his work in the '80s built a devoted and loyal fan following that sticks with him today as he embarks on a variety of new projects. Books like "Drax" and "Howling Commandos" for Marvel, "Common Foe" for Image Comics, "Gutwrencher" and "Hero Squared" for Boom! Studios, or his recently announced role as part of the regular crew on the tentatively titled "52" from DC Comics, the weekly comics event that's set to launch in May of 2006, the month following the conclusion of "Infinite Crisis."

For anyone who has followed Giffen's work, you know he's had his ups and downs in the industry. There's periods, like now, where it seems everywhere you look he's involved in a new project, whereas there've been other periods where he seems to have fallen off the comics radar. Then suddenly he's back again, bringing his unique style of writing and artistry to a new generation of fans.

CBR News recently spoke with Giffen by phone for a lengthy chat to discuss the above-mentioned books and his "return" to comics. Along the way he shares some valuable lessons with readers who may have an interest in joining this crazy field we call the comics industry.

Alright, let's start out with the biggest thing people will be seeing from you in some time, your part in DC's weekly comic series "52."

Dan Didio was very generous describing my role in this. I'm working with the four primary writers, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns and Mark Waid. They're the primary creative force. I'm helping out with plot input and when they've written their scripts, it falls to me to break it all down into tight layouts. We're doing this to make sure the story gets told the way we want it to and to keep the story rhythms consistent regardless of the artist drawing the issue. I guess the best way to describe my contribution... ever seen these tug-of-war things they have on beaches?

Of course.

I'm the guy at the end of the line with the loop around his shoulder. I joke that I'm the "52" anchorman. I'm on board to facilitate the process, to make it as painless as possible for the writers to get done what has to be done. That said, if something goes wrong, and stuff can go wrong, I'm not talking about missing a deadline, these guys are pros, but people get sick, shit happens. I'm primed to step in, should something like that happen, and fill in for that writer or add extra support to the next writer. For instance, I could work up visuals from plot and one of the writers could dialog over the top of those visuals at the same time as the artist is drawing from the same visuals. Who knows, I might end up writing a few myself, but at this point I'm the anchorman.

You're sounding a bit like the everyman on this project.

The writers are on the front line waging the war, I'm keeping the supply lines open. That's a good way to put it. I don't want this to sound like I'm having any more impact than I'm actually having. While I was at the meetings, ideas were bounced around and I was given input into a lot of the core elements of the stories, but I'm primarily a facilitator. It looks like [Editor] Steve Wacker and I will be the only consistent presence in each one of the 52 issues and we all know editors don't count...

And this all starts the month after "Infinite Crisis" finishes up, right?

Yup. "Infinite Crisis" ends and the month after we start hammering away.

You mentioned that you're just getting started on this. Where are you at in the process at this point?

I'm at the hands on phase. I have picked up the pencil.

Out of "Identity Crisis," a lot of fans felt that DC Comics had it in for you and those characters you brought to prominence through your and J.M. DeMatteis' work on "Justice League" in the '80s, despite the fact that you said publicly a number of times that wasn't the case at all. I think when it was announced you'd be taking a very hands-on roll with "52," some people were really surprised. Clearly the online chatter that you're on DC's hit list, for lack of a better analogy, is simply not accurate.

DC and I have had our rocky periods. It's like a long, dreadful marriage. But the whole "Keith must be pissed off because they're killing off his characters"...there's nothing there. The rumormongering got out of hand. Sue's death [in "Identity Crisis"] started the whole firestorm. Look, any criticism I level at any other writer or artist boils down to, "That's not the way I would have done it." That's what all criticism boils down to, really. When I read "Identity Crisis" I thought it was a pretty good read. When I saw Sue's death I thought to myself, "OK, that's not the way I would have done it." I'm not egotistical enough to think that the characters JMD and I handled back then would be hermetically sealed and put on a shelf with a note saying, "Not to be used until Keith & Mark come back to reclaim them." There was no anger. I wasn't pissed at DC and DC wasn't pissed at me. Period. I understood what they were doing and I agreed with a lot of it. Still do.

Dan Didio and I got a kick out of the whole thing. We did this goof in "Wizard" wherein we played around with it. One thing we try to do is keep the lines of communications open so there're no misunderstandings between us. Sometimes, if people hammer away at something long enough, the principals might think, "Wow, maybe he is pissed off." I can remember calling Dan and saying, "I'm not pissed! I'm not pissed!"

Here... Maxwell Lord killed Blue Beetle, right? Let's see now...

Panel One - The Justice League look up in surprise as Ted Kord teleports in.

TED

Hi guys, I miss anything?

It's that easy to undo. Of course, undoing it now would cheapen a story that had to be told because the end result is worth it. It's also disrespectful to the writer who came before. There's a reason I bumped the Legion five years later when I wrote "Legion of Super-Heroes." It's because I wanted Paul Levitz' run on the title to remain inviolate. More fool me.

While I really appreciate the affection the fans have for these characters JMD and I thoroughly soiled back then, I have to be really careful that I don't become a cause. That's never a good thing. It's kind of oddly flattering to think that our JLI characters remain valid enough to act as the foundations for current DCU events. We had impact. Very cool. I'm not thrilled with death as an event, but that just brings me back to, "That's not how I would have done it". Again, I know where DC is heading and I think it's a worthwhile destination. I certainly wouldn't be doing "52" if I didn't agree with what's going down and want to be a part of it.

That leads right into my next question. Why do "52?" This is a substantial project for you. What is the attraction for you?

The challenge. Nobody thinks we can do it. I'm a slave to a challenge. "52" is the challenge. When Dan DiDio first mentioned this to me he point blank asked, "Is this physically possible?" Yeah, it is. There's not a big margin for error, but if the people are dedicated, yes, "52" can be done. I believe we are going to do this. I firmly believe that "52" is going to be worth every penny spent.

I'll admit I was concerned going into "52" that we wouldn't have enough to fill all 52 issues. Then I sat at the meetings listening to all of the great ideas being thrown onto the table with no claim on them, the writers putting them out there not knowing if they'd even get to work on them. Pure selflessness. We'll probably wind up cutting stuff out because there's so much.

I know you're just getting started on this right now, but what are the communication lines on this project like? Is it all going through Steve, or are all five of you talking?

A bit of everything. Nobody is ever more than a phone call or an e-mail away. The lines of communication are wide open. If Greg Rucka sends an e-mail about a concept that he thinks would be good for an early issue, it's CC'd to everyone involved. I'm more a lurker at this point. My direct input doesn't start until I actually take that first issue and begin breaking it down. Right now I'm sitting back while the writers find their level of comfort in terms of story approach and workload division. And still no egos in sight.

So, this really is a collaborative effort.

Grant Morrison put it best, "I feel like I'm in a band."

So which one are you?

[Lobo]Pete Best. (laughs)

(laughs) Of course you are!

I was asked by someone up at Marvel who knew there were "52" meetings going down, he asked, "So, how'd the meetings go?" The only response I could give was, "We're going to kill you!" (laughs) I walked out of those meetings more excited about the project than when I walked in. Let's face it, when you get that kind of talent, that many egos in a room together, the potential for disaster is there. But to watch all these guys put their egos aside and get insanely creative... Yeah. We're going to do this up right.

How long have you been working in comics?

Since 1976, with a two year hiatus because I was an asshole.

(Laughs) Alright, so you've been working in comics for almost 30 years. When was the last time you were this excited about a project?

(thinks) Taking over "Legion of Super-Heroes" after Paul's run and finding out I could bump it five years into the future. I try not to get too excited about projects because... Who knows? A lot of the stuff that's been the most successful for me has been stuff I thought would end my career. I really thought when we did "Justice League" back then that it was doomed. I put "Lobo" out as an afterthought, thinking he'd die on the vine. Wait..."Great Darkness." When Paul told me what he wanted to do with that story I thought, "Wow, this is going to be something special."

"52" could, pretty much, have the effect of legitimizing weekly comics in American, when we pull it off.

Provided "52" is a success, do you think we'll be seeing more weekly comics in America?

Nah. American comics aren't hard wired for weekly. You kidding? Monthly's kicking our asses. This ain't Japan where one creator lords it over a studio full of assistants. We've had a few creative conglomerates, "The Crusty Bunkers" come to mind, where under a tight deadline everyone jumps in to help out, but that's pretty much, it. On "52" we have a long enough lead-time and we've got good, solid artists. It's kind of nice to land on a project wherein good, solid, professional, exciting and on time count for more than Wizard Top Ten position.

Have you been on the Wizard Top Ten list?

I've never been on the Wizard Top Ten list.

That could all change soon enough.

I don't think so. I have nothing against the magazine, I get a kick out of it, I have friends there... but no. It's not something I think about.

I think this is a good point to switch gears and start our discussion of the "return of Keith Giffen."

But I didn't go anywhere!

Well, I should point out that there are many, myself included, who knew you didn't go anywhere, but the general public seems to think you did go somewhere. Your profile has certainly changed over the years and is definitely on the upswing right now.

It's all cyclical. It's like riding a Ferris Wheel. I went thought the "Keith who?" period and, yes, that really happens. Don't forget, the comics industry eats its own young. You have no idea how grateful I am that, after 30 some odd years, my stuff is still in demand by editors, that there are fans out there that still appreciate the ol' "Bwah-ha-ha" and the other stuff I choke out. It's flattering. Thanks so very much, guys! Good to be here.

C'mon, no one stays on top. The spotlight moves on. If you're smart, and this is all the benefit of hindsight, when that spotlight's on you, you carve yourself a niche. In my case it was Bwah-ha-ha and snarky humor. They've served me well over the years. You'd also better do a decent variety of genres and approaches. The last thing you need is the "one trick pony" label. Ultimately all you can do is your best, whether it's high profile like "52" or adapting manga like "Battle Royale."

How are your adaptions of "Battle Royale" coming?

I'm halfway through the final issue. I loved the film, liked the novel. When I found out that Tokyopop had "Battle Royale," I called Mark Panicia [then at Tokyopop] and told him, "I will crawl through this phone line and castrate you with my teeth if I don't get this job!" I really pushed for it.

It's funny, because I remember seeing posts on message boards feeling sympathy towards you when word first got out that you were doing translations for Tokyopop, but this is something you absolutely wanted.

"Battle Royale" was a labor of love. I just wanted to be a part of it. I know there are hardcore manga fans upset with some of the liberties I took in adapting it but... Cut me a break! When I was brought on board, Tokyopop's mandate was that the story be made palatable for the American reading public. They were shooting for an audience past the Otaku fan base. Sometimes the hardcore fans feel they're being given the short shift when the companies reach past them in an effort to become a mass-market medium again. It's not meant as insult nor slight. The constant reader is cherished in this business. The Otaku are an important facet of manga's continued success in the United States. That being said, being as palatable as possible to the mass market American reader is also important. I know I pissed off a lot of the purists, but deep down where I really live... I'm sorry but I don't care. I'm not disrespecting you, I'm not trying to do you a disservice. In the case of "Battle Royale" I'm trying to take something I love and make it as successful as possible in this country so I can say thank you to the guys who did this twisted piece of manga. I'd like to think, if the roles were reversed and someone took my work to the Japanese market, that the guy adapting it would do for me what I'm trying to do for "Battle Royale." There are a lot of subtleties in manga that just don't translate to the American market. I was told to go one step past that. I don't feel I've done anything to dishonor the project nor the creators. So when you see boards saying, "Gee, it's a pity that Keith has sunk so low that he has to adapt manga..." Keith's loving it!

You mentioned previously that in your almost 30 years of comics that you did take two years off. When was that and what happened?

When I first got into the industry. When I warn new guys not to do something because bad things will happen? I'm sounding the warning because I know, you because I did it and I can show you the scars. When I got into this business I was working with the likes of Wally Wood, Joe Kubert, Ernie Colon, Joe Orlando... Paul Levitz was coming up. I was working with solid creators, the kind of people I'd kill to work with now, but I was too big an asshole to realize it then. I just wasn't ready for it. I blew myself out of the business and slunk out of town with my tail between my legs.

When exactly was this?

About 1977 or 1978.

What did you have to do to get back in?

I was dating my, now, wife for six months before she knew I could draw. (laughs) Okay, I was coming out of being a repo man in South Jersey after doing a stint as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. I sold Kirby vacuum cleaners by day and repossessed them by night. So my, soon to be, wife discovered I could draw and she was pretty adamant that I not let my talent, what there was of it, go to waste. I explained to her that I had burned too many bridges and was personna non grata and thought that was the end of it. Wrong. She took it upon herself to call Joe Orlando and told him I'd learned my lesson. Joe responded, "You know, he really is a moron!" But then he said, "Send him in, we'll talk." Everything I've got right now, my 30 years in comics, I owe to four people; my wife for forcing the issue, Joe Orlando giving me a second chance, Mike Barr for giving me the Dr. Fate backups in "The Flash" and Paul Levitz for getting past the horrifying times we'd had back when I was a self destructive loser, for being able to put that aside and give me a crack at "Legion of Super-Heroes." So, when I say, "Don't do that because horrible things will happen," it's because I did it and horrible things did happen. I was the asshole. I was a moron. I screwed people up. I could write the book, "How not to break into comics!" How do you fuck up working with Wally Wood? How do you look at Joe Kubert as if he doesn't know what he's talking about?

The indiscretions of youth.

Pretty much. I call it "Rampant Asshole 101." (laughs)

OK, looking at the peaks and valleys of your career, the '80s were a huge up period for you. You and Mark on "Justice League." Your run on "Legion of Super-Heroes." Your work with Alan on "Lobo" was out of this world popular. On up to your work on "Trencher" with Image, your profile was still very high. Then there was a period in the mid-to-late '90s where your profile dipped precipitously. What was going on during that period for you?

I guess it was a cycling down. I suppose people... I got nothing. It was someone else's turn in the spotlight. I was still doing the work, but I just wasn't being met with the same across the board acclaim. During the '80s, for a while, it seemed like I had the golden touch. The guys in the spotlight always appear to have the golden touch. Brian Bendis has the golden touch. Eventually he won't, but he'll have a body of work that will see to it that he can continue working and telling his stories. The spotlight moves on. That's life.

Was it harder for you during that period to get work?

Absolutely. It was extraordinarily difficult for me to get work. Believe it or not, it's not that easy for me to get work now!

It doesn't appear that way.

I don't get offered stuff that often. I've never been the guy that's tapped in when someone leaves a title. Most of the time it requires a revamp, often from a new #1. "JLI" was offered as a revamp in the wake of "Justice League Detroit," "LSH," a deliberate revamp from #1, "Suicide Squad"... Revamp. "Thanos!" "Thanos" was a clean offer, thank y' muchly Mister Schmidt. I don't get those, "Geoff Johns is leaving the 'Flash,' would you like to take over?" calls. It's either "crank something out for a new #1" or "this thing is damaged, can you figure out something to do with it?" No complaint. I kind of like it. It gives me a little more leeway. Would I like a stint on X-Men? I don't know. Is that weird? I really don't know.

Well, a project of that sort certainly comes with a whole set of complications that can be very tough to manage.

Yeah... I think about it sometimes and, to me, the grass over there don't look that much greener. There are enough people capable of riding herd on "X-Men," "Spider-man," etc. I kind of like the fact that I can still pull a decent "Defenders" riff out of my hat. You know, I still have no idea how my name got put into the pot with "Thanos." That came out of the blue. "Thanos" was, pretty much, the project that started my... "revival"...

Interesting. I would have thought you'd say "Formerly Known As The Justice League."

Well, "Formerly Known As The Justice League" came with a lot of weird weight. When it was coming out, it was very popular, but "Identity Crisis" was there and it started that whole DC is out to get Keith thing. I'm talking a clean, clear project that showed people I'm not all "Bwah-ha-ha." Trust me, winning that Eisner? Gold! Did it translate into anything? No. It's a lovely thing and it's great that your peers voted it in; that's the feeling I get when I look at it. This is voted on by guys like me. It wasn't a bunch of comic book snobs figuring, "ehhh... Maybe it's Giffen's turn."

"Formerly Known as the Justice League" got people saying, "Oh, he's back!" Of course, my response was, "I didn't go anywhere." I'm kind of like a band that had a few hits back in the '80s and they've been chugging the club circuit since then and all of a sudden they have a new hit and, "Wow, when did you reform the band?"

So, you kind of think it's more the public at large-- and not so much the industry at large-- that finally came back around and wondered, "Why have we been ignoring Keith all these years?"

Sort of. I mean, the industry never totally blanked on me. Andy Schmidt thought enough of my crap to float "Thanos" past me. The new "Justice League" stuff came out of two people. Dan Raspler had been after me for a while to revisit the concept. He kept on encouraging me, but I kept saying no because I felt I'd be repeating myself, "It's never going to be as good. We're going to look like shadows of our former selves." The person who eventually talked me into saying "yes" was Spencer Beck.

What did he say to convince you?

Don't be an asshole!

(Laughs) Sounds like he took on the role of surrogate wife for you!

Spencer's been a friend for years. He's a great guy. I always call him when I'm pissed off, "I'm leaving the industry!" He always responds, "No, no, don't be an asshole!" It's his mantra. He's the one who convinced me I could do it. He mounted this really annoying campaign. Then it dawned on me, "1-800-Superfriends." I agreed to do it and it snowballed from there. Spencer's still a friend. Raspler got fired.

So, this "return of Keith Giffen"...

Doesn't that sound like my life's turned into a horror movie?

(laughs) Right, OK. So, it doesn't sound like any of this was orchestrated, it just all happened organically for you.

Right. Again, it's part of the cycle. With "Formerly Known as the Justice League" we really wondered if we could pull it off again. Can lightning strike twice?" When it hit again, it was amazing. There were a lot of people out there buying and enjoying the book who'd never read the original run. I think when we did the '80s "Justice League" we never fully appreciated what we had. This time, though... DeMatteis and I, together, working this particular riff, not only do we do it better together than either one of us could do it apart, we do it better than anyone else in the business. I'll go up against anybody if DeMatteis is with me. And that's a special thing. This time we really appreciate it.

DeMatteis and I hadn't seen each other in, like, 18 years... More! We'd thought Bwah-ha-ha had been put to bed and was done with. But when it caught on again we ran with it, ran to Marvel, "Let's do 'Defenders" and to Ross Richie at Boom! Studios, "Hero Squared!" I plan, in one form or other, to work with Mark DeMatteis for the rest of my career. This time I get it. It's wonderful and fun and the fans have responded. As long as the fans're willing to lay out the money, we'll put on the baggy pants and man the seltzer bottles.

You know, I met and talked to Mark for the first time this year at Comic-Con International. I've met and talked to you a lot, but I've never met him.

Kinda shocking?

Talking to Mark?

Talking to either of us. Mark and I... at heart we're so radically different that not only should we not be working on the same book together, we shouldn't be even on the same fucking planet together!

That's what I was getting to! This is one of the most unlikely pairings I've ever seen in comics.

Exactly. Mark is this kind hearted, never a bad word for anybody, deeply spiritual, just all around great guy. I'm the troll under the bridge.

(laughs)

Mark came up with the best take on our creative process. He said, "Keith douses himself in gasoline, sets himself on fire and runs to jump off the cliff. I chase him with a blanket, tackle him and beat the fire out but, in doing so, I come much closer to the edge of the cliff than I ever wanted to!"

(laughs) Wow, that's a beautiful description.

We compliment one another. Without Mark, I skew dark. Without me, I think Mark skews philosophical. Put us together, it's like the Three Stooges minus one, and if Kevin's [Maguire] aboard... It's just Shemp so no big deal.

Yeah. The collaboration's unique. We sure don't know where it comes from. We don't really care. And we love doing it. I'm not loosing touch again. In a world of grim, dark, gritty and horrible, isn't it nice to see Dormamu and Umar sniping at one another? Isn't it nice to have one book out there that says, "The first word is comic. Let's have a little good-natured fun. We promise not to fuck them up too bad." At the end of the day there'll still be a Dr. Strange and a Hulk and a Sub-Mariner. Thanks to Marvel for taking a chance because they had no reason to trust us. Still don't...

And it's done well, hasn't it?

It's doing OK. We are not being spat on when we go up to Marvel and that counts for something.

To many, outside appearances would lead most people to believe this was the busiest time of your career. Is that correct?

No, the '80s would be the busiest time in my career. I was juggling a lot of books. I'm coming close to equaling my '80s output, but keep in mind it's not like I'm doing "Defenders," "Drax" and "52" all at once. These are staggered, done well ahead of time.

I'll tell you one neat thing; my phone is ringing more and I'm being offered more work than I ever have in my career. My career has mostly been, "I have a cool idea, can I do it for you?" It's been me pitching the idea. Now they're calling me and that's kinda nice.

And of course there are a number of projects you're working on that you can't even talk about right now.

Yeah. Got some stuff nobody knows about that's rolling down the pike that will startle people.

OK. Also, part of this "return," you've teamed yourself up with a remarkable talent pool that represents guys from your earlier days and new guys completely. Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid. You're also paired up with Steve Niles on a project.

These people were dropped into my lap. I love seeing talent coming in and making names for themselves and challenging me to keep up. Steve Niles falls into that "can you top this" category. Got to respect that. I've been incredibly lucky when it comes to collaborators, Colleen Doran, Kevin, Paco Medina, Ron Wagner, Bob Fleming, T&M Bierbaum, the list goes on and on. Everyone in the field has a wish list of people they'd like to work with, mine's been winnowed down dramatically. The two at the top of my list are Mike Wieringo and Amanda Connor. Connor's one, I feel, who could do the kind of stuff that Mark and I do with the same facility and ease as Kevin, so she's very high on my list. As well, I'd love to revisit Simon Bisley, or renew my friendship with Colleen Doran in print. I'd love to do another book with Ron Wagner.

I don't normally go into a project wanting to work with so and so. This has led to some pleasant surprises like Eduardo Francisco on "Howling commandos," Mitch Breitweiser on "Drax" (the kid's a revelation) and Joe Abraham on "Hero Squared." I resisted Joe at first, but Ross Richie swore he'd be the right guy. Ross was right. Very rare that. Especially for a Texan. Oh, and it was great reacquainting myself with Mark Badger when he did some art for "Hero Squared."

Talking about pleasant surprises, I penciled an eight-pager for one of the Marvel Monster books called "Bombu's Back!" Marvel, Mark Panicia (him again!) and Nate the boy wonder in particular, culled the usual suspects for inkers and came to me with Mike Allred. How fucking cool is that? Mike Allred is a guy I've looked at for years and thought, "Ohhh, come to DC! Let's do 'The Inferior Five" and, out of the blue, he's inking my stuff. I've been getting a lot of pleasant surprises lately.

Have you also moved into something of a mentor position with some of these younger guys you're working with?

Oh God, I hope not!

(laughs)

I'm a mentor the way Cardinal Richelieu is a mentor! If a guy's got a question or comment, I'm infinitely approachable but I don't do mentor. A mentor's a guy who's guiding your career and giving you good advice. I'm more the guy who says, "No, no. That's a live grenade." I'm kind of a cautionary voice. By the same token, if there's any writer working on any book, anywhere in the business and they hit that writers block, I'm always available to help bounce ideas around. I really believe everything evens out in the end so when I'm bouncing ideas around with Writer A because he's vapor locked and can't get past a particular plot point, I know somewhere down the line I'll be able to call him for a jump start. Ahhhh, automotive analogies...

We are a small business of wildly talented people. The companies aren't going to support us past what we can do for the company. That's business. Anyone who thinks it's any other way, they're fooling themselves. It's time we started supporting ourselves, started helping each other out. I sat down with four of the biggest writing talents in comics for three days and it was an unconditional free exchange of ideas and some of the ideas were mind blowing. It can be done. We can be genuinely supportive of one another. If talent at that level can do it, then it can be done across the industry.

No shit heels need apply. That'd be nice...

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