AUTHOR INTERVIEW with John Ostrander
We spoke with John about his love of comics, his work as a writer and collaborator, and his creations of characters and worlds. The following interview was conducted during a full class session of Runestone in the fall of 2019. It is part one of a two part interview with John.
Rebekah Krotzer is a coffee aficionado who loves to travel. She writes CNF, short fiction, and dabbles in travel writing.
Ryan Saufferer is a senior at Hamline University majoring in creative writing. Prior to pursuing his academic interests, he served four years in the Navy as a Nuclear Machinist Mate. Now he enjoys deep-diving through science fiction and fantasy stories.
Maria Lewis, originally from Chicago, is studying creative writing at Hamline University. She is also a midfielder on the Hamline women’s lacrosse team.
Aimee (Keenan) Engles is a senior at Hamline University. She is a creative writing major who focuses on fiction, and dabbles a bit in poetry. Outside of school Aimee enjoys reading, spending time with her children and being outdoors.
John Ostrander is a prolific writer of comics in the DC, Marvel, and Star Wars universes, and is best known as the creator of the modern Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, and First Comics’ Grimjack. John began his writing career as a playwright before breaking into comic books in 1983, and over the last 35 years has written for many influential comics such as Batman, X-Men, The Spectre, Hawkworld, Firestorm, Manhunter, The Punisher, Wasteland, and more.
Rebekah: What comics did you love as a child?
JO: It’s kind of interesting, because my mother had read Seduction of the Innocent, which meant that I wasn’t allowed to read superhero comics, I had to dig them out and hide them from my mother. I was allowed to read Classics Illustrated; a company called Gold Key had Rocky and Bullwinkle comics, and those were great, just like the TV show. Also, Harvey Comics printed two big volumes of The Spirit by Will Eisner, which was my first encounter with Eisner. Eisner, of course, wrote the book, literally, in terms of comics. He has at least two volumes out on how to write comics. Those were big. In school, I was allowed to read a Catholic comic book called Treasure Chest, and I still remember some of the features in it. One was called 1976, which then was in my future by a decade or more, and it was called “Pettigrew for President.” The story was about a guy named Pettigrew was going through the process of being nominated as his party’s candidate for president. It was a pretty interesting narrative in that throughout the series, you never saw Pettigrew, so he could be anybody, he could be you. In one month’s episode they were flying to another venue and the jet flamed out and started to dip down. I still remember the caption that ended that, which said “Death rides the last sunset.” That’s where I learned about cliffhangers, because you wanted the next one right now, there in your hands. At the very end of the series, you found out that Pettigrew was black, and you didn’t know that until then. Keep in mind this is the late 50s to early 60s, so this is not only way before Obama, it’s before John F. Kennedy, so that was pretty radical at the time. That certainly stuck with me.
Other than that, my first Marvel comic was Spiderman 49. I bought it because Spiderman was being pulled through the air with his mask off—I had no idea what was going on. His villain, The Green Goblin, had caught him, and that was a very arresting image so I bought it, and got into it really quick. From there I went through the entire Marvel universe. I read The Fantastic Four when Jack Kirby was drawing it—talk about mind blowing—and James Steranko doing Shield. So many of those comics from that era–by that point I was in high school—but so many of those comics really, really influenced me in my writing career.
Rebekah: You began by going to school for theology and ended up writing comics, how did you transition to that? You also mentioned the beginning of the underrepresented character—you’ve had such an extensive career over thirty years where comics started out with tropes but yet you’ve managed to write across that. How has your writing managed that socio-cultural change over time, while representing your values?
JO: First of all, I should mention in terms of my religious background, it’s not all that deep. I went to seminary for one year in my freshman year of high school. I had overdosed watching “Going My Way,” the television show, and around the end of that first year I discovered girls, and dating was not encouraged at the seminary, so I decided that I didn’t really have that vocation. However, what did come out of that is that I do have an interest in spiritual matters. Certainly my Catholic upbringing was reflected when I did The Spectre, with the questions of what is sin, what is forgiveness, what is redemption? Not necessarily taking the Catholic church’s side, but it certainly came from that whole basis.
In terms of working minorities and more diverse characterization in, I’m very proud of that. One of the characters I created was Amanda Waller for The Suicide Squad. There was no one like her at the time, and really not many like her since then. When I was first working on it, I knew that as the head of it I wanted someone who was not super-powered, I wanted someone who was African American, I wanted a female, I wanted someone slightly older, and I wanted them to be tough as nails. So that was my inclination in terms of bringing her in. We also did something similar to that when we re-created the character Mr. Terrific in The Spectre. The original character was someone who was very smart but very disinterested in the world, and was going to commit suicide until he found his calling as a superhero. When we re-created him, we made him a black character because I also liked the idea that the smartest man in the world was African American. That’s somewhat seditious, I guess, but it’s just the way that my mind and my inclination goes.
Ryan: A lot of your characters and pieces that you’ve worked on are being adapted into movies. We saw Suicide Squad a few years ago, and next we have Grimjack with the Russo brothers. What is it like to see those adaptations taking place, and how much authority or influence do you have with the final product?
JO: With Suicide Squad, not much, because I don’t own the characters, I don’t own the concept. They do throw some money my way because I did the heavy lifting on it in coming up with the concept, but I’m anticipating that with Grimjack it will more part of the contract if everything goes forward, because I will be included as a consulting producer. I come from a theater background so I’m used to what adaptations are, and I know that when you go from one medium to the next, there are going to be changes in order to make it work, just as taking a play or musical and adapting it to a movie also calls for changes that have to be made. I don’t look for an item by item correlation to what I did. So long as it’s true to the spirit and the essence of it. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why take the character, why make it into a movie if you aren’t going to at least use the concept or the core elements of it? So long as something like that is done, I’m fine.
Ryan: A lot of your work was based in a universe that already existed, such as Star Wars and Suicide Squad. Can you speak on some of the challenges or benefits to writing in that kind of more structured form?
JO: It depends upon which group that you’re working with and how open they are. At the time that I created Suicide Squad, DC had just mammothly changed, they’d just done Crisis on Infinite Earths which completely changed the DC universe, and the basic concept there was, “Hi, we’re DC, now we’re open to anything.” Before that they were very constrained, very tight. The editors were very hands-on. But at that point, they were becoming very loose, very open. When I worked on, for instance, Firestorm, the famous Denny O’Neill was my editor and I was worried about approaching him because I figured, what did I know that Denny hasn’t already done? So, I told him what I wanted, and he said, “Okay, fine.” He didn’t know anything more about the character than I did, and felt so long as I knew what I was doing, go do it. That was great! And Suicide Squad also was sort of like, “Okay, John, you know what you’re doing.” There may be some constraints but not a whole lot.
On Star Wars, everything that we did had to go through Lucasfilm licensing, and they had to approve everything—they had to approve the plot ideas, the plot, the scripts, the pencil art, the inked art, every, every item had to be approved. My partner on it was Jan Duursema, the artist, and she knows Star Wars even better than I do—I knew it pretty well, but Jan, oh, it’s all filed away in there. Every once in a while we’d get a note back on a plot or script and they’d say, we don’t think that’s right, or don’t do that, and we’d go, “We can change it if you want, but you did something like this in this episode or this point or that,” and they went, “Oh, well, okay, go ahead.” It came down to that we knew the subject matter a little better than they did, and they came to trust us, like okay, if John and Jan are doing it, they know what they’re doing.
Basically, once you establish trust, you can get a lot of room to do what you want. Of course, on Grimjack, well, I’m Grimjack’s Daddy, and what I say goes. Although I will say at one point we changed Grimjack from his original incarnation John Gaunt to James Edgar Twilley, and that came about because the top editor, Rick Oliver, came in to my editor’s office while I was there and said, “We need to shake up a couple of bits, what have you got for me?” So I said, Okay, we could do this, this, this and this, and he said “Nah.” And I said, Well, okay, we’ll try doing this, this, this and this! And he said, “Mmm… nah.”
And I said, “Okay, okay… We’ll jump down his own timeline by a hundred years, change the entire supporting cast, put him into a new body and a new name.” And he said, “Oh, okay, I like that.” So, I went ahead and did that, basically through some editorial prodding, but that’s kind of the editorial process that I like, I don’t need a lot more. I know what I’m doing, most of the time.
Ryan: I grew up Star Wars and spent a lot of time reading about the extended universe. Then Disney comes along and buys Star Wars from Lucasfilms, and now 90% of the published works are considered de-canonized. What is your take on the new universe, and what is it like to see some of the work you put into it all of a sudden be excluded from the universe?
JO: Again, I don’t own it. It’s their property, they get to do what they want with it. Once I’ve done it, I can walk away from it. Most of my work is still out there in print, and if somebody wants to find it and read it, they can, it’s fine. But if I don’t own it, I don’t have a gripe.
Aimee: I’m really interested in your process, in how you come up with a comic book character and their universe.
JO: Let’s take Grimjack as a beginning. Originally Grimjack was going to be a series of prose stories and novels, but I got kind of interested in what I call narrative alloys, when you take one from one genre and another from another genre and bang ‘em together. Conan the Barbarian was created by Robert E. Howard, and he took a historical sand-and-sandal type of writing and then horror, smashed them together and came up with what is known as Sword and Sorcery. I was a big fan of Sword and Sorcery, but I was also a big fan of hardboiled detectives, so I kind of smushed them both together and came up with what I called the hardboiled barbarian. He’s one-part detective, he fought in an arena when he was younger, and that gave me the germ of the character I could build on.
When I was working on Star Wars, my editor said he was looking for another new idea in addition to the book I was writing. So I hit him with this idea—again, a narrative alloy. I said what if you took Star Wars and combined it with James Bond? His eyebrows went up and I said, they work because they both have multiple exotic locales, high adventure, compelling main hero, and beautiful women. He liked the idea, and from that we created Agent of the Empire, which ran for two series. But that’s how a narrative alloy works.
Other than that, if I’m working on a character that’s already been created, say like Batman or most of the villains in Suicide Squad, I take a look at them and ask myself, what is their essence? Some of this goes back to my theater background. When you’re acting or writing a play, you ask, what are they about? What do I know about them, what is a given? What leads up to it? What can you infer? If this is true, what is likely to happen as a result if you place this character in that position, or in any given situation? From that you start to layer the character kind of like a pearl. I try to take something as a given that interests me, and then work it from there.
Aimee: Is that the same way that you create a universe too, or do you adapt the universe around the character? Or do you do it the opposite way where you have a universe in mind that you create a character for?
JO: In a lot of places like Star Wars, they already had a given universe. In most of DC and Marvel, something already exists there, and again I extrapolate from it. Grimjack was different in that it had to have a very different feel. In Grimjack you have the pan-dimensional city of Cynosure, and the city itself is as much a character as any of the characters in the story, and it has to be. Just like Sherlock Holmes has his London, just as Sam Spade has San Francisco, or Marlowe’s got his LA, these are all distinct areas and very much a part of the stories, and so you create from that. Cynosure was in part based on Chicago, and Chicago like many cities has lots of different neighborhoods. You can go into one section and it’s the Jewish section or it’s the Polish section or it’s the Irish section, the African American section, the Latino areas. I took that idea and from there extrapolated the idea of what if each of them also had their own physical laws that would change? So, as you crossed the street, as you might in Chicago, you would cross into a different physical reality. From that, I developed Cynosure, because Grimjack had to have a very distinct place to operate. And the readers have felt that as much as anything.
Aimee: In comics, do you rely on the visuals when you are thinking of the plot and the character as opposed to narrative when it’s all something you are thinking of and creating yourself?
JO: In comics, I’ve been very fortunate. The vast majority of the people I’ve worked with in comics, the artists, have been very good, very cooperative, who I’ve had a very good relationship with. When you’re partnering with someone it’s similar in some ways to co-writing something, except in this case someone is realizing it through the art. But they are as much a co-author as anyone. With Grimjack, after my friend Jim Truman—he wasn’t my friend when he began, I didn’t know him–but very shortly Tim and I became like brothers. Originally, I had all of the creator’s portion of the copyright. Very shortly, I decided that with what Tim was adding visually to the comics that he was co-creator. I changed the contract so that he was listed as co-creator, and would share in any profits that way as well. You have to rely on your artist. You certainly tell them certain things, like with Amanda Waller I gave them a general physical description of her, and then the artist realizes that and sends me their take on it.
When you’re working on the story itself, there are different ways you can work in comics. One is called plot verse, and the other one is called full script. With plot, I plot it out, generally page by page or panel by panel, it goes to the artist, and then they draw it and it comes back to me, and I dialogue it from that point. In a full script, it’s what it sounds like. I write it all out, it goes off to the artist, and I may not see it again until it’s published. I’ll just have to hope that the artist has been able to do it correctly. Again, I very rarely had major problems with any artists that I’ve worked with. Generally, by the second or third issue, I try to get it so I understand what the artist’s strong points are, and I try to play to those. For instance, if you have an artist who does not draw horses well, you don’t give them horses to draw.
At the same time, when I’ve taught classes, and sometimes I’ve taught artists, I keep telling them, everything that you draw tells us something about the character. What sort of clothes do they wear—for instance, where Peter Parker/Spiderman would shop for his clothes would be vastly different than where Bruce Wayne would shop for his clothes. You have to know what those types of clothes would look like. Talking with the artist, I can sometimes put that out to them as well. But in general, I just try to tell them what the story is and not how to draw it. I trust them to know how to do that.
Ryan: You were just talking about your process with plot it out versus the full script. Do you sit down with “I want all of this to happen” in mind, or is it a “put them in a scene and see what happens,” kind of thing?
JO: I have to have an idea for the story, and whether or not it’s going to be a single issue or a multiple story arc, both of which have different demands. The first stories that I wrote were eight-pagers, and I still have done some eight-page stories from time to time. That’s a great discipline, doing a full story in just eight pages. There are certain mechanics that are going to be there in the beginning: how much exposition are you going to tell, what does the reader need to know, and what’s the absolute minimum you’re going to have to tell them in order to get the story going. Usually less than most people think. Generally, in terms of art you shouldn’t be doing more than five panels per page. If it’s a big talking scene, you can do more, if it’s a big battle scene, you have to give them less—you have to give the artist room to do their work. If you constrict the artist too much, they will not enjoy working with you, and they will let you know.
Maria: What is it like as a writer, to be more “behind the scenes” than the artist? The artwork is the first thing that stands out to people, especially on the cover. What is it like to be more in the shadows, if you do feel that way?
JO: That used to be more true when I was beginning, and it was very true in the 60’s and 70’s. Early on, they didn’t usually list all the people who were working on it. But even so, there have been periods when the artist has been predominant, and that’s fine—that’s the nature of the business. If you’re making a movie, it’s the director who gets the kudos, not necessarily the screenwriters. You may not even know who the screenwriter is unless the director is the screenwriter. Most people know that Avengers: Endgame was directed by the Russo brothers, but who wrote it? Two guys whose names I don’t remember right now, even though I’ve read several interviews with them, even seen them do video interviews. It’s the nature of the beast. If you want to be known strictly for yourself, write prose. But it’s the work, for me, that matters. It’s always the work. I get plenty of fame and attention, if I go to a convention, I’m signing things, and okay, the artist is probably going to have a longer line. That’s fine, people are wanting the autographs, but I get mine, you know, it’s fine.
For me, mostly, it’s been a way to make a living, and as I frequently say, it’s the job. You do the job. You sit down, and you get it done. And you do it to the best of your ability. In doing the writing, I try to come up with the most interesting stories I can, because my basic feeling is this: if you buy a comic that I’ve written, the writing alone should be worth the money that you have paid for it. Then, if the art is great, if the colors are great, if the cover is great, then you’re getting more than what you paid for, and that’s really good. But if I haven’t done that, then I have my hand in your pocket and I’m stealing money. And I’m not going to do that. My job is to give you a good story, and it begins with me.
Maria: When you’re collaborating with other writers, can you talk about what that process is like? You’ve collaborated with writers like your wife Kim [Yale], Del Close, and numerous others. Can you talk about how that has affected your work?
JO: What’s helpful is my theater background. You get used to collaboration there, particularly if you’re not the main character. I was always a character actor, one of the supporting characters. In theater, if you take the stagehands or the prop master for granted, you’re going to be embarrassed onstage—they’re gonna make sure of it. So you make sure that you have respect for everyone and all the work that they’re doing.
In terms of writing, it depends upon the experience that my writing partner has had. Are they buying the thing because it’s my name on it? In which case I have to guarantee a certain level of quality, I’m head writer. We go into it with that understanding. Kim and I often had real discussions about a scene, a line, a character, and if we couldn’t resolve it we’d generally go with me because I was the one selling the thing to the editor in the first place, with my name on top. But, on the other hand, you have to learn to listen, and I’ve learned to listen from my fellow writers–if the artist has some ideas, I want to hear them. On Suicide Squad, our inker, Karl Kesel had lots of ideas. He’d send me these long letters that I’d call Kesel Piecels, and if I found something that was good and useful, I’d use it, and I’d give credit for it. But if I didn’t think it was working, no—or if I didn’t think it was where the story was going, then no. It was for me to make that ultimate decision in order to get the script in on time.
I worked with Gail Simone, who is a very experienced writer, and we bounced things back and forth. Kim and I would trade scenes off—I would take this scene, she would take that scene, I would write it, and then we’d switch and show them to each other, and each correct the other person’s scene until we built up something that actually worked very well. A lot of it comes down to, do you have respect for the people that you’re working for, and are you listening—I mean really listening, openly. Are you prepared to go with the better idea? You have to be, because it’s the job that matters, it’s the stories, what we’re giving you the reader, whether it makes the best story, that’s what we go with.
Maria: On another topic, you’ve done work in the Doctor Who universe. You have a book of fiction, and I know you tried to develop a stage play. I was wondering if you ever plan to do anything else within the universe or if you would like to?
JO: No, I wouldn’t like to—I would love to. And I’m eagerly waiting for the next season to come out. I love Jodie Whittaker as the current doctor. If I had the chance to do more Doctor Who stuff, I absolutely would. It would depend on which doctor they wanted me to do, when I would set it in, but, yeah, any day.
Maria: Who is your favorite doctor?
JO: Ooh, Lord… alright, are we talking about all time, or just Chris Eccleston on?
Maria: All time.
JO: Oh God. My first doctor, because you always love your first doctor the best, was John Pertwee. I just stumbled on him by accident, I had no idea what the story was or why they were showing a segment at a time, but he had this kind of white poufy hair, wore a cape and was very interesting. Then Doctor Who went away and when they next came back, I sat down to watch John Pertwee, and here was this curly headed guy with a long scarf, and they’re calling him the Doctor. I was going, “What the hell is this?” I learned about the reincarnation stuff, and Tom Baker, yes, absolutely a big fan of his.
Of the current doctors, I admire Chris Eccleston so much because he was responsible—if he didn’t work, then the reboot of Doctor Who would not have worked. Each of the doctors since then has had so many wonderful moments. With Capaldi—I loved the moment in the last River Song appearance, she doesn’t even recognize him, she doesn’t realize he’s the doctor, and she’s telling the people who are threatening her, going, “He doesn’t know who I am, yes I love him, he doesn’t love me! Why would he ever love me? He’s—it’s like loving a star!” And he’s just standing there looking at her, and finally she notices, and comes to this slow realization that he’s the latest doctor, and he just goes, “Hello Sweetie.” I loved that part, because that’s what she always said to him.
Maria: Do you have any advice for anyone who’s trying to get into the comic book or screenwriting or prose business?
JO: Oh, yeah. Number one: What does a writer do?
JO: Yeah. Not a trick question—a writer writes. A writer writes every day. I don’t care if it’s only for five minutes, but you write every day. Why? Because you want to get into the habit of writing, and once you get into the habit of writing, then not writing on any given day will feel very odd. So you want to write every day, expand it beyond five minutes, certainly. But keep it constant and consistent. Yes, they can give you methods and techniques, and that’s all very good, but you’re going to learn by writing.
Number two: Assume at the start that you’re going to write crap. The famous science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was once asked, “What do you say to the accusation that ninety percent of science fiction is crap?” He shrugged and said, “Ninety percent of anything is crap.” If you’re a new writer, you’re going to write crap. The only way to get through it is to write the crap out of your system. That’s part of the reason why you write every day. It’s not going to be great, it’s not going to be good, it’s not going to be usable, but you don’t know what you have until you write it down. If you have an idea, write it down. It’s not real until you’ve written it down. Have a journal, have a notebook, write on your computer, write on your IPhone, whatever. But write it down. Until you pick the words, until you incarnate the idea, you have nothing. Everybody’s got ideas. I can’t tell you how many times someone has come up to me and said, “I’ve got this great idea, so tell you what—I’ll tell it to you, you’ll write it, then we’ll split it.” No, I don’t think so. A) I have plenty of ideas of my own, B) I’m going to do all the hard work and give you half of it? No. Take your ideas, write them down. Don’t worry about how it looks at first. Your first draft most likely is going to suck. Write first, edit later. You can correct something once it’s down, but until it’s down, you’ve got nothing.
Also, in my Loyola theater days I had a brilliant teacher, one of the best teachers I ever had in anything, anywhere. His name was Harold Lang. He was a British actor, usually in small parts, but a brilliant, brilliant teacher. One of the things he taught all of us was, assume you’re going to make a mistake, and if you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one. You’re not going to learn anything from small mistakes. You have the right to make a mistake, so long as it’s an honest mistake. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone makes them. So long as you learn from it, then you’re okay. I make mistakes all the time, I still do. I just try to keep them out of print.
Rebekah: What can we expect from you–are you working on something, can you tell us what you’re working on? Are you writing a romance novel, do we need to expect something?
JO: There’s an idea… What would a romance comic look like today?
Rebekah: You have to write it so we can see what it would look like.
JO: I know! Um… I finished a thing with my buddy Tom Mandrake who did The Spectre with me, it’s called Kros: Hallowed Ground. It was done as a Kickstarter project; I believe it’s on Indiegogo. It is, again, somewhat of a smashed idea, an alloy: it takes one part of history, in this case, the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg, and add in vampires. You have the Battle of Gettysburg during the day, and then you have the second Battle of Gettysburg, at night. Kros is a vampire hunter, and he comes in and finds himself not only up against one vampire but a small army of them that’s growing. So, that’s what that story is basically about.
With Jan Duursema, my partner in crime in Star Wars, we’re doing kind of a space opera—one-part space opera, one-part magic. It’s called Hexer Dusk. I think it will also be available on Indiegogo; it’s certainly available on Kickstarter. It’s—he’s got a blaster in one hand and he can throw a spell with the other. That one is coming together, and should go to publication very, very soon. If I finish all my work in time.
Then, I always have my ideas that I’ve jotted down. One of my inclinations, and I just haven’t followed through on it yet because I have some questions about it, but I always pay attention to what’s going on around me, to try to draw from the world. So, I was thinking, how about the #Metoo movement? How about having, in this case, a teenage girl who becomes a witch, but she’s also dealing with sexual predators, she herself has been preyed upon. How does she handle that, how does she use her powers? How does she deal with the world and the whole question? This way, we could explore it. But—I’m a seventy-year-old man, a white man. So, I’m figuring out ways to bring women into it so they can tell me how. They would be, in essence, co-writers. You know how on TV they have the writer’s room, where you have a bunch of writers pitching parts and stuff like that? I’m thinking of trying to do that, because they would supply what I don’t have. Otherwise, I don’t know that it’d get off the ground, but it is an interesting idea.
Rebekah: Thank you very much for being here, we really appreciate it. Your insight is amazing, especially for all of us “starting-out” writers. We need as much as we can get, so thank you, so much.
JO: I wish you all luck, and don’t let anybody talk you out of it, keep at it. Write, write, write.