A Conversation With Elliot S. Maggin: “Anytime Anyone Negotiates His Way Out Of A Work-For-Hire Contract, An Angel Gets His Wings”

Posted by May 20, 2017 Comment

elliot_s_magginFrom Ramon Gil:

For decades, writer Elliot S. Maggin and I have had a rather one-sided relationship. Not only was he responsible for most of my childhood reading consumption, Superman comics in the ’70s, but he was also the author of the first two novels I ever read as a kid. Years later, as I was starting out as a comic book illustrator, it turned out that the husband of one of my best friends was acquainted with his cousin-in-law…or something like that. But before introductions could be made, the industry tanked in 1994 and I went into advertising. Twenty-plus years later, I decided to give comics another shot and managed to “Friend” Elliot on Facebook — and now here we are.

Elliot was the definitive Superman writer for over 15 years, pens novels and even ran for political office. My questions for him are endless but I managed to cut it down to a few. Here are his answers:

Ramon Gil: Can you tell us about how you broke into comics? You were 17. What was it like back in the ’70s?

Elliot S. Maggin: I was 19, actually, a junior in college. I had dropped scripts or ideas for scripts on comics editors here and there, but nothing seemed to stick. I had written op-ed pieces that The New York Times wasn’t interested in, but I had written some stuff for a few other newspapers and I had one piece of published fiction — so I knew it was possible. That was what I did when I was 17, got my first prose story published.

I was expecting to follow up college with law school. I had this famous professor send a hot recommendation for me to NYU Law and they’re still waiting for the application. If I decided to go into law now, I don’t suppose that recommendation would hold any water anymore. So in my junior year I was taking an American history class with this guy who actually won a Pulitzer a couple of years later, and this guy was kind of a pompous pedagogic sort. I asked the graduate assistant doing the grading if I could include a comic book script in a term paper on the history of media. He said sure, so I wrote a paper illustrating that comics were a viable political tool, and part of the paper was the script for an original Green Arrow story called “What Can One Man Do?”

I got a B-plus on the damn thing, and I asked the grad assistant why. He said he understood that I was going to illustrate the story too. So I got cranky and sent the thing to Carmine Infantino, who was publisher at DC Comics – National Periodical Publications in those days, actually (it wasn’t just pedagogues who were a little full of themselves in the ’70s, I guess) — and next thing I knew, I had an effusive letter from Julie Schwartz telling me he’d like me to try writing some of his other characters. At Julie’s request, I shortened my Green Arrow script from 20 to 13 pages and he bought it. That’s how it started. I’m told it hasn’t happened that way before or since.

RG: I’ve heard it said that once someone finds a “new way” to break into comics, they quickly shut that way down. So when Julie bought your script, was there any excitement about “breaking in” or did you just take it in stride?

ESM: It was a big deal. I was still an undergraduate living in a dorm, for heaven’s sakes. The sociology and American studies departments were all over it. I was second-ranking guy on the Brandeis campus newspaper editorial board, so I had a reputation as a good writer – although my editor-in-chief at the time, Richie Galant later of Newsday, has a Pulitzer hanging on the wall in his den these days. I think I’ve just got too damn many friends with Pulitzer Prizes for anything short of that to be much of a big deal.

RG: At what point were you freelancing and at what point were you on staff? Can you describe the progression?

ESM: As a writer I was never on staff. It was always month to month, meeting to meeting, for something like 20 years on-and-off. It was a bitch trying to buy a house. I never had, nor was I offered, what they called a “freelance contract,” which seemed like a contradiction in terms anyway. When I was an editor briefly from late 1988 to mid-1990 that was a staff position, but by then I was used to being my own boss. It was kind of a zoo. Nice health care coverage, though.

RG: Was this something you always wanted to do? How did you get into reading comic books?

ESM: I suspect I learned to read through street signs and comic books. I had a barber and a dentist in Brooklyn when I was a kid both of whom had loads and loads of comic books for people waiting to get a haircut or get their teeth drilled. I would pick up a comic book, and distract myself with it through my haircut or my dentist visit and generally they’d tell me to take them home with me. I guess I was about five or six when I realized that if you actually read the panel captions — instead of ignoring them like the introduction to The Scarlet Letter — you found out interesting and somewhat vital information. I didn’t realize Superman and Clark were the same guy, for example, until I found that information in the captions.

I didn’t really see myself writing comics, though, until the writing got lots better. With Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories 12 or 15 years later, for example, I started noticing that comics scripts could be the source of some really good storytelling. I didn’t so much notice, with those stories, that comics were a thing I might be able to do, but rather something I’d like to be able to do.

RG: At the time, did you feel you had taken the medium as far as it could go or did you feel that there was even more potential in terms of storytelling?

ESM: I certainly never felt I had taken the medium as far as it would go. I hadn’t even taken it as far as I could have pushed it with some lighter oversight. I wanted to get out there and work in other media, certainly, but storytelling in comics is still nowhere near where it could be. I’ve done academic papers on it.

RG: Oh man, I would love to read those papers! You obviously had an affinity for Superman, having penned him for as long as you did. How did you get that plum assignment?

ESM: I swear, it seemed no one but Cary Bates and I really wanted to write Superman stories. The character seemed passé, I think, even to people writing comics for a living. Denny (O’Neil) wrote Superman for more than a year before I showed up, and Len Wein did a bit too. But Denny just never much liked the character. He did some of the best work with the character I had ever seen, but he seemed to think it was just too unrealistic. He wanted grit. He wanted real life. So he decided he’d rather do stories about a bored, pissed-off billionaire who put on a costume and went around beating up bad guys every night. Realistic, he insisted. Go figure. It always seemed to me that a transplanted alien baby with super-powers was much more likely than that.

RG: Speaking of Cary Bates, how on Earth-Prime did he wrangle you into being part of the story in JLA #123-124? As a 9-year old boy, that really confused me as to whether or not superheroes were real! Did you guys fight over who got to be a villain and did Schwartz really call you “Magoon?”

ESM: Okay, Cary and I set a record for writing a full 24-page script on JLA #124. We started from scratch between 10 and 10:30 in the morning and we handed in the finished script as Julie was getting back from lunch at 1:00. And that included an hour-long subway ride. It confused a few of the grownups at the office as to whether or not superheroes were real too. I suspect there are guys still looking for the cosmic treadmill in hidden closets up there. We didn’t take that one seriously at all. It was like the Laffer Curve in economics. It was a joke that everyone else was taking seriously — except after a while even Arthur Laffer started to claim the crazy-ass theory he scribbled on a napkin as a grad student is for real, despite the fact that it’s been proved demonstrably wrong over and over.

Ryan and McConnell and the gang are still trotting it out for every budget debate. Cary and I figured the idea was to go so far over the top writing ourselves into a story that no one would ever do it again. And then — ka-POW! — along comes Grant Morrison making himself pivotal as a god figure in Animal Man and dozens of other people climb aboard over the years. I guess what our story really did was make it safe for writers like Grant to appear intelligent in fiction. Cary won a coin toss so he got to wear a costume and be the villain. And yes, Julie called me “Magoon” every chance he got. He found it amusing, although he was the only one.

RG: Were there any other books or characters you enjoyed working on?

ESM: All of them. I loved Green Arrow, because even with his overarching sense of self-importance I could make the guy funny. I even liked Batman a lot because it seemed to me the plots had to be pretty intricate and once you did the advance work figuring out where everything had to fit they pretty much wrote themselves. I liked writing stories about the girl characters: Supergirl, Bat-Girl, Wonder Woman. Always had a mad crush on Wonder Woman. Still do.

RG: Who doesn’t? I thought Lynda Carter was hot, but Gal Gadot is badass AND smoking! Any thoughts on the new Superman movies?

ESM: Nope. None. ‘Scuse me I’ve got to go write some more notes in my copy of Atlas Shrugged

RG: Okay…any books or characters that you didn’t get to write that you wish you had? If so, why those?

ESM: Among DC characters, I always wanted to do Green Lantern — and Denny, who was writing GL, was always partial to Green Arrow — but Julie insisted the assignments were more properly placed where he put them. I wrote some for Marvel too over the years, but I always wanted to write Kull the Conqueror and Doctor Strange (LOVE Doctor Strange) but I never got the chance. If there’s anyone paying attention out there who’d like to commission a wild, weird-as-shit Doctor Strange novel, please call. You know where to find me.

RG: Ah yes, Dr. Strange. When I got your two books as a Christmas gift, the third book was a Doctor Strange paperback. Have you seen the movie?

ESM: I thought it was the best movie Marvel has ever released. Just so cool. I’ve been to Kathmandu, too. I think all those scenes were from a part of town called the Durbur District. I bought turmeric from a girl on the street there whose family have been selling spices in that street market for over a thousand years. Maybe sold turmeric to Marco Polo. I think even people who think Logan was the best Marvel movie think Doctor Strange was at least the second best one.

RG: My only problem was that it seemed to have more “martial arts” than “mystic arts”

ESM: Quibble quibble. Doesn’t it qualify as mystic arts if you drop-kick someone into the spirit dimension, no matter how perfect your kicking form is?

51m5riyobtl-_sx373_bo1204203200_RG: In 1978 you came out with Superman: Last Son of Krypton, First in Warner’s New Series of Superman Novels and later on Superman: Miracle Monday. Were the novels your idea that you pushed for or where you tapped?

ESM: It was my idea. I told pretty much everyone I knew that what I wanted to do was write books. When I wrote a film treatment for a Superman movie and first Alfred Bester and then Mario Puzo showed up at the office to talk about writing Superman I decided my treatment and I were in over our head. But I went upstairs to Warner Books and managed to sell my treatment as an outline for a novel. The original plan was for it to come out midway between the releases of the first and second Superman movies to keep excitement up. I understood they were going to publish a novelization of the movie – which my book was decidedly not – but Mario Puzo had snagged the rights to produce a book (my brother tells me that Mario’s son Gene was supposed to write it; turned out they were high school pals) but soon it became clear that the producers’ plan all along was to use Mario’s name to sell the movie and get someone else to write the real script. Mario’s original script – except for the ending – was damn good, by the way, and Mario was pissed. I’ve read that the powers that be just didn’t want to pay the price of a book Mario oversaw, but I don’t think that was the issue. I think he blocked a novelization of the script from happening – so my book, Last Son of Krypton, was released as though it was the same story as the movie. Lots of people were disappointed when they found out it wasn’t, but people read it, and a lot of them liked it. The thing sold off the hook.

miracleRG: “Last Son of Krypton” and “Miracle Monday” were the first novels I ever read as a kid. The depth of detail, the richness of the characters and the integration of historical figures really opened my eyes as to what fiction writing could be. Were these things that you’d been wanting to do for a long time or were these “exercises” that were forced upon you by the medium.

ESM: So I was how you learned what you can do with novels? Hah!

RG: Oh yeah, I think that was the year I wrote a story in class and the principal had to have a talk with my folks about how good it was!

ESM: You must’ve had the same principal I did, the ignoramus.

RG: I grew up in a country where English wasn’t the primary language. Metaphors were a big deal!

ESM: One of the cool things about writing novels is that there isn’t much forced on you by the medium. Structurally, they’re pretty freewheeling, and when literary talent scouts like literary journals and small magazines and look for unknown talent, what they’re often looking for are people who are willing to try new things with the language and the prose. You can write a novel that’s a string of correspondence and responses. You can put a novel into first-, third- or even second-person narrative, or set the tense however you think best tells the story. Generally novels are not at all visual, and you can use that characteristic to withhold information from readers – or characters – until a crucial moment; mystery and thriller writers do that a lot.

I didn’t do much that was innovative in terms of structure or storytelling with those two books, but because I had been working primarily in comics for years when I wrote them – in a medium that depends on artists to convey visual information – I was very spare in my visual descriptions. Instead of describing the way a person looks, I tended to let the character’s actions or manner fill in that information. The process of storytelling in novels, very often, is about choices, about what to hold back. Because of my experience in comics, I think in my novels I have been able to concentrate on metaphor and example when otherwise I might have gone a little overboard trying to make up for the medium’s limitations where that wasn’t really necessary.

RG: Any influences as far as other authors or writing styles?

ESM: Contemporary or modern writers I like are Vonnegut, William Goldman, Orwell, Ellison, Isaac Singer, Asimov and others. Love Bradbury too, but I can’t see that his work was influential in my work, as opposed to stuff I just wanted to read. As far as the people who pretty much invented the medium, I’ve always thought Mark Twain was head-and-shoulders above anyone else. Hemingway is up there and so is Steinbeck. The thing about Steinbeck is you can hear the gravel in his voice through his narrative. I’ve got no idea how he does that. Stephen King (the world’s most under-rated novelist) has this habit of evoking a reader’s proximity by picking metaphors that slide into the narrative subject matter – if he’s talking about food something will be as white as cream cheese; if he’s talking about mortal danger the same thing will be as white as a corpse’s eyelids. Steinbeck didn’t do that; someday maybe I’ll study Winter of Our Discontent and Grapes of Wrath enough to figure out how he does it.

RG: What kind of reaction did you get from comic readers and the industry in general when these were released?

ESM: Seriously, I don’t think I met anyone who read Last Son of Krypton until eight or ten years after I wrote it. I always had this fantasy of seeing all these secretaries in the subway who crowded on the train in Jackson Heights sitting in a row across from me all buried in copies of my book. Never happened. I know for a fact that no one (NO ONE!) at DC read the first book before it came out because the business about the stolen Xerox copiers – the reason the Xerox book club ordered 50-thousand copies – would never have made it into the final manuscript. They were so paranoid up there that you couldn’t mention any commercial product or property, even if it was arguably to that product’s benefit. Sometime in the late Eighties I got a call from Mark Waid who wanted to talk about the books. Mark was writing for fan publications back then and he treated me to a really good lunch at a Chinese restaurant for which I’ll be eternally grateful.

RG: I owe you lunch at a Chinese restaurant then.

ESM: I did get some terrific fan mail through Warner Books on both novels, and Last Son sold something like 450-thousand copies to someone or other, so I guess the response of the world in general was lots more significant than that of the industry.

RG: Was there any desire or attempts to do novelizations of other DC characters?

ESM: I don’t know. I wasn’t in that loop, and no one asked me to do any more books like that until I did the Kingdom Come novel fifteen years later. Paul Levitz slipped me a script for Superman III, wondering if I’d like to do an actual novelization. When I read it I didn’t even want to go see the movie (and I haven’t). By the time I got involved with Kingdom Come, people were adapting comics series into novels pretty routinely, and DC, Marvel and Dark Horse had developed a set of contractual standards for novel adaptations that were far more restrictive than those I had negotiated earlier. Around the time I wrote my Superman books Len Wein and Marv Wolfman wrote a Spider-Man novel together that was pretty good, but there was not much else as far as I can recall.

RG: Up until the 70s and early 80s, comic books were being written mostly for kids and teens. And for decades, most of these readers would just outgrow comics. But then in the 90s the stories became more serious, more complex, sometimes darker. You could say they “matured.” Can you share your thoughts on this trend in the comic industry and how you took part, if at all?

ESM: Julie Schwartz used to tell me that his old buddy who preceded him as Superman editor, Mort Weisinger, always said that he was doing fairy tales for children. “Once upon a time in the offices of the Daily Planet …” If in Julie’s judgment the kid audience couldn’t really grok a story I’d have to come up with something else altogether. But then again, my first Superman story, “Must There Be a Superman?” was about space opera and bad guys and distinctive visuals, but what it was really about was the sociological implications of having an omnipotent being around to bail us out of disasters. I think kids can understand all that stuff. The trick is making it simple enough for editors to understand too.

RG: Are you reading comics now? Any favourites?

ESM: I’m not really. I read The March trilogy by Lewis, Aydin and Powell not long ago. Thought that was terrific stuff.

RG: You eventually left monthly comics. Would you mind telling us about that and what it was like to move to a new career/industry?

ESM: Comics was never really what I wanted to do forever. But writing was. At one time, law and politics were my real long-term interests, but it occurred to me I wasn’t really much good at either. Right now, I spend most of my time working with a big string of hospitals teaching doctors and nurses how to use their software. A doctor said the other day that my job is basically my hobby. I said yeah, pretty much, but what the job is really about is a scheme to get my kids through college. Now they’re both grown and suitably degreed and my daughter told me a few years ago I was allowed to go out and play now – which I’ve been doing more and more the past few years. I think what I’d like to do for a career when I leave my current job is collect third-world countries and off-the-beaten-path experiences.

RG: The road less traveled! So getting back to Kingdom Come. How did your involvement come about?

ESM: So Mark calls me up and says he wants me to do a novel based on Kingdom Come and have I seen the comics series. I hadn’t, but how would I feel about doing the book. I said I really didn’t want to do it. I had just written a book based on a comics series and it wasn’t so much fun. Mark said he’d send me what he had so far: two published issues of Kingdom Come, lettered pencils of a third one and the script of the fourth. I said I always liked his sensibilities about this stuff, but unless DC was going to offer me the same deal they’d given me years earlier for Miracle Monday I didn’t see how I could do it. So he sent me the stuff, I read it, and when I got to the end of the script of the last book I saw he dedicated the damn thing to me. So I called him back and said he’d put me in a lousy bargaining position by doing that. Now I had to write it.

They have a really horrendous licensing agreement with novels now; nothing like what I had negotiated years earlier for Miracle Monday, and they are pretty rigid about it. So I told them I’d go along with their appalling royalty arrangement if at long last they’d reprint Last Son and Miracle Monday. They said sure, yeah, whatever, but that was a separate negotiation and we’d have to do it after we nailed down Kingdom Come. So I wrote Kingdom Come and after that no one was interested in talking any more about what else I wanted to publish.

Negotiate first and do the work later. Live and learn.

RG: What about Generation X? I think that was your first Marvel novel, can you tell us a little about that?

ESM: It was my only Marvel novel. I did it because Scott Lobdell is a friend and I wanted to get my feet wet doing novels again. It got cut up to fit the word count they wanted so I didn’t think it made as much narrative sense as I liked, but I did a comic book adaptation of it later (Does that qualify as a graphic novel?) that was a bunch of fun. I decided probably it was time I stopped looking to do licensed material and do my own. So besides exercising my reprint agreement on Miracle Monday, that’s what I’m doing now.

RG: From the 90s to the early 2000s, you also worked on a few films. I’d love to hear more about some of them. Were these your own projects or where you brought in primarily to write?

ESM: Nothing ever got out the door, but that’s generally the way it works. I did a script called Junior Sheriff based on an idea from a producer who never got the script into production. I did a couple of scripts for films based on Norse mythology – one on spec and the other on assignment. I spent years doing film and television scripts on spec or for early stages of projects that didn’t go the distance. I found I wasn’t writing for an audience so much as I was selling options. You can make a pretty good living that way, but you might as well be working on Wall Street. I always said I’d rather be read than paid, and I would. So now every minute I can, I sit in a room and make shit up. That’s what I love to do. I got an ebook out on Amazon last year called Not My Closet – all original stuff and very rarely does any character fly under his own power or wear Spandex. I’m currently working on getting a print version out.

RG: Ha ha! I love that! “said I’d rather be read than paid.” I’d use it as a pull-quote but future publishers might use it against you when negotiating.

ESM: Hey be my guest. Please. Listen: anytime anyone negotiates his way out of a work-for-hire contract an angel gets his wings.

RG: Did you ever direct or have any desire to?

ESM: Nope. Never got that bug.

RG: Let’s talk more about “Not My Closet.” was this a book you’d been wanting to tell for a long time? What was your personal stake in this story?

ESM: It’s a story for which I put aside some other projects and to which I’ve since gone back. It was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever written, and my first book about apparently real people. Some of it is based on real stuff from my life, most of it is made-up. The version out there is my fifth draft. I mean like a full-blown novel written five times. I never took more than four months to write anything before – a book, a story, a script, anything – and this took more like five or six years. Really. Putting it out there taught me one important thing: it seems I don’t know a damn thing about marketing. I’m working on that. Thanks for asking.

RG: That’s ok. I’ve spent the last 20 years in advertising and I’m still having a hell of a time marketing my own work.

ESM: Let me know if you come up with any good tricks. Like maybe making people believe a book is a movie tie-in when it isn’t. Stuff like that.

RG: Brilliant move on your part. Not sure if you could do it twice, though! So now we have this reissue and audio book of Miracle Monday. Why that instead of Last Son of Krypton which came out first?

ESM: Contractual reasons. I put a clause in the original Miracle Monday contract that provides for reissuing the book if it’s been out of print for five years. It’s been about 35. The journalist A.J. Liebling used to say “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” It occurred to me that now that we live in the twenty-first century we all pretty much own one. So I put together a publishing corporation, applied some of my programming skills and got the book out the door. As I write this, the audiobook is unfinished – mostly because I’ve been nursing a virus for the past few weeks and my voice hasn’t been up to completing the last two chapters of Miracle Monday. I’m doing the reading myself not because I’m too cheap to hire an actor – which I guess I am too – but because I want there to be no doubt as to where Metropolis is. You’ll be able to hear it in my voice.

We’ll get working on Last Son of Krypton when we see how this shakes down.

RG: I hope so. Last Son is actually my favorite of the two. I mean Einstein!

ESM: I like Einstein. He’s in Not My Closet too.

RG: You’ve always been a very active in politics. You even ran for office at one point. Has there ever been a desire to write political fiction? Inject your own views heavily into your comics or novels?

ESM: I think when I was interviewing for colleges – when I was 16 or 17 – I really wanted to write that stuff and I told interviewers so. They always wanted to know about what I was reading, and my recreational reading at the time was pretty eclectic. So I’d talk about Fletcher Knebel or Irving Wallace and then I’d bring up McLuhan or Orwell or Huxley, who were all fascinating to me. My interviewers seemed much more interested in talking about the latter. I still like stories about political intrigue, and I’m doing a trilogy of those types of novels now, but they also involve time travel so I don’t know what kind of category they’d fit into.

RG: I love writing about the political aspect of stories! What’s NotFakeNews.org?

ESM: NotFakeNews.org is a website I came up with one weekend afternoon when I was sitting in Starbucks writing and a couple of friends showed up and I insisted they hang around and rescue me from being productive. It was when Donald Trump was president-elect, I think, and somebody – maybe I did – said we should publish material that was specifically labeled “Not Fake News.” We thought this was uproariously funny, and before the afternoon was over we set up both a website at NotFakeNews.org and a Facebook page of the same name. Whenever I come across an article somewhere that ought to be made up stuff but isn’t – scientists stashing climate data on a Canadian server so it can’t be trashed by the climate-deniers who run the EPA at the moment; speculations about the eleven-dimensional universe and the nature of reality; a lot of the stuff Matt Taibbi writes for Rolling Stone; like that – I try to upload it and cite its source.. Not many people have noticed it, as far as I can tell, but it’s a lot of fun. I’m especially proud of the way I set it up to display in four columns feeding from a database. I’m a programming geek; wrote the interface mostly in ColdFusion.

RG: I think you just need to add some social media links so people can “share” the site. What were some of the hurdles (political, logistical, legal) you had to deal with in getting Miracle Monday out again?

ESM: It helps to know how to program. It also helps to have a good lawyer. Hi Phil.

RG: It just occurred to me…what did you write the Superman novels on? A word processor? Did you have to have Miracle Monday transcribed for the ebook?

ESM: I wrote those two novels on a manual Olympia typewriter. It used to follow me around wherever I went. I had some transcribing help this time around.

RG: Was there any temptation to tweak or rewrite?

ESM: No rewriting, and I managed to keep any tweaking to a minimum – mostly grammar and usage. The story is kind of suspended in time with Eighties expressions and cultural references, and I like it that way.

RG: So what’s next for Elliot S. Maggin? Any thoughts to going back to doing monthly books? You mentioned you want to do creator-owned.

ESM: Times have changed since the last quarter of the last century and so have I. Owning your own stuff and getting it out in the wind is much more possible than it was a thousand years ago. Again, I’m trying to learn something about marketing. Turns out that’s a real discipline a guy needs to master. Who knew?

RG: Do you have a preference between prose and comics? What would you say the appeal is for each medium?

ESM: I like prose a bit more these days, only because the product is something that comes from just me. No collaborators necessary. But comics are the people’s medium. I think any given comic book we produce today has a better shot at immortality than any given chunk of prose, all things being equal.

RG: If you could do whatever you want, what would be your ultimate dream project?

ESM: At the moment, it’s my political time travel trilogy. To make it my dream project I think I want to get on a train in St Petersburg and take my laptop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, write like a demon, watch the snow settle on the steppes and drink vodka with leggy Russian babes all the way to Beijing.

Ramon Gil is a comic book writer and the creator of The Hard Code, The Men from DARPA and Senturies, now on Kickstarter.

(Last Updated May 20, 2017 11:40 am )