AUTHOR INTERVIEW with John Ostrander (part 2)

The following interview was conducted in addition to the full class interview. We affectionately refer to this remix as the “nerd-session tape”.

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.

Jack Kobs is an aspiring comedian living in New York City. He lives with his math professor father Abe, and art enthusiast mother, Rose. He has just embarked on a tour with singer Shy Baldwin and leaves his two children Esther and Ethan with their father.

Hieu Minh Nguyen in Runestone Journal

John Ostrander

Jack:  I know you talked a lot about writing with some of my classmates, but I wanted to nerd out with you a little bit.  How do you feel about the current state of comic books? It seems to have been propelled into the mainstream and pop culture, and I just want to know your feelings about it not being this niche thing anymore.

JO:  It’s good and bad.  There was, once upon a time, when those who owned Marvel and DC didn’t really pay close attention to what was going on, so you had a lot of freedom to do what you wanted.  These days, of course, there are properties, they’re big business, so the upper echelon may want to keep more of a finger in, and they don’t always trust the creative talent, but that’s the same as in movies.  Interestingly enough, I don’t think that so far the popularity of the movies have translated into more sales for comics, and one thing that worries me is that those who control the purse strings may eventually go, Well, we’ve got a lot of stuff we can just reprint and make almost as much money and not have to pay anybody.  On the other hand, if they’re smart they’ll keep in mind the fact that comic books is the way of testing a plot, a character, like a screentest or a preview, and it costs much less than it would to put that same thing into development. The moment you hire a writer to write a movie or TV script, you’re paying real money, probably as much as it would cost just for that writer to do the entire comic book.  And the comic book can bring money back in, which if you’re writing a pilot script there’s no guarantee it’s ever going to see any money. So if they’re smart, they’ll let it be a source of development. From what I’ve heard and seen, it sometimes makes those running comics a little bit more nervous. Editors are more hands-on these days than they were back when I was starting.

Jack:  I’ve seen a trend where a movie will come out and suddenly in the comics, Iron Man now looks like Robert Downey Jr.  Have you experienced that? Do you think that hurts the comics?

JO:  No, I think that’s smart.  How are you going to attract the fans of the movie if they don’t see the characters at least reasonably looking like they do in the movies?  What they want is more stories about that character, and if they don’t get that, they get confused and go away. The name of the game is to sell comics, and by having the characters look like their counterparts, if they’re allowed to.  Sometimes if you have a major actor doing it, they may have approval of their likeness, and that may make it very difficult to get a comic out on time.

Jack:  Are you watching current Marvel and DC movies?

JO:  Oh yeah, this past week I’ve been watching the CWs Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Jack:  What are you thinking of it?

JO:  The first episode was a little slow, and I wasn’t entirely taken with it to be honest, but as the last two have come on I’ve really warmed to it, including where it’s like the comic and where it differs from the comic.

Jack: Right.  I mean, it’s cool to see them bring Harbinger in, and Kingdom Come’s Superman, and things like that.  These cameos have been really fun to see. Jim Corrigan showed up, I know you’ve written The Spectre a lot.  

JO:  Yeah, he’s turning Oliver Queen into the Spectre, which is also kind of interesting, and I can live with that.  And also, just so many other little touches like when they brought in Brandon Routh as Superman and they played a little bit of the theme from the Superman movies, or the guy in the first Batman movie, they play just a touch from it.  They bring in all of these actors who’ve been doing past things and tie it all together into their multiverse.

Jack: Did you ever think you would see this story or other stories that have been in Marvel or DC on the big screen when you were growing up?

JO:  Certainly not when I was growing up and even not when I started working in comics.  One of the things I said about comics at the time was that we have a bigger special effects budget:  a penciller and eager colorist. They’d come in and draw it and they could do anything. Well these days with CGI they can do just about anything, including pasting in actors from past stories.  I liked how they took the guy from the original Flash TV series and gave him an ending, but they also showed just a touch of him from the show. They’ve done some very nice tributes not only to the actors who are doing it but also to the fans who watched it.

Jack:  Right, that show ended very unceremoniously, so it was nice to have them have a little bit of an ending there, I enjoyed that as well.  Speaking of the Spectre, I don’t know how powerful Jim Corrigan was when you were writing him but these omniscient or omnipotent characters, is that a difficult thing to write?

JO:  That was one of the questions they had as we were going in. I remember hearing from various people at DC, that they said we can’t do an ongoing of the Spectre because he’s got too much power. You either have to reduce his powers or make it a miniseries. And I said, no, you don’t have to. There’s certain visual things that have to occur if it’s going to be the Spectre, things that a fan would expect them to do, certain big, huge, imaginative visuals with the Spectre, because why else would you read it?  I mean it could be anybody else, then. Tom Mandrake and I said, no, we know what we’re doing—the secret is Jim Corrigan, not the Spectre. Jim Corrigan was being played as kind of a wimp, a feckless guy. We went back to the source, to the basics of him. First of all, we said, Okay, he has not been back to life, he’s dead. And he has been dead since he was first killed off back in the 30’s. The Spectre and Jim Corrigan have been around that long, and back in the 30’s he was a plain-clothes detective.  If you want to know what that’s like, go back and look at some of the films from then, look at early Dick Tracy. There’s no messing around with these guys, they’re hard-nosed, they’ll shoot you as soon as look at you. We said, that’s Corrigan. He’s a man who certainly has not adapted well to the times since then. We made that our basis for Jim Corrigan. I’m very appreciative to DC that they let us end the series the way we did, because we made it one whole long character arc of Jim Corrigan. Spectre doesn’t change much, but Corrigan does, and that’s where the drama and story comes from.

Jack: Firestorm is another character you had a big hand on.  Over the years, they’ve gone from all powerful, controlling molecules and all of that.  Is he similar to how you wrote him? It’s two people in there, it seems like a complicated character to write.

JO:  It is.  I’ll be honest, I took the assignment on originally because it was the first ongoing series at DC that I was offered.  I was brought in to do two issues because I was doing Legends, and Gerry Conway didn’t want to do the tie-in issues, so Denny O’Neil who was the new editor at that point said, Okay, you know what’s going on in Legends, tie it in.  So I did, and I enjoyed it well enough. I was then offered the character, and one of my conditions on it was, I’d read the start, and I read about a year and a half’s worth when I took it over but don’t make me go back and read the rest of it.  I wasn’t totally nuts about it. Also, I always had a little problem with the two guys in it, Martin Stein. Ronnie Raymond took a lot of advantage of him, just screwed his life so that he could play the superhero. I always had something of a problem with that, and I also inherited the thing that Martin Stein had an inoperable tumor in his head.  What do you do with that? Gerry Conway walked away giving no signs of what he was going to do with it, I assumed he was going to do something, so I killed him off, and brought in somebody else. That’s part of the thing, when you take over a character you want to keep the essentials of it, and Firestorm having two people in him, or to make up the Matrix, is I think essential for the character.  Otherwise why not just read Superman or something?

Jack: Who are some of your favorite comic book characters to read, superhero, non-superhero, which characters just pop for you?

JO:  The character that I haven’t written that I wanted to was Superman.  I found something about Superman that can be played and made interesting.  He’s just this really good guy, how do you write that? A good example is It’s a Wonderful Life.  George Bailey does the right thing but it always costs him, and he doesn’t always do it willingly.  The whole point of it is he doesn’t want his life, he’s fed up with his life, he’s got a temper, he’s frustrated.  Yet he is a very good man. I’d like to see what it cost Superman to make the right choices. He doesn’t take over the world.  Why not? He could. What makes him not do it? What makes him take the right choices and what are the costs?

Jack:  I feel like in Superman movies they’ve had a hard time nailing down that character, and there are so many fans who point to All Star Superman or these other great stories.  Do you think it’s possible to make a Superman movie for the modern age?

JO:  Okay, let’s look at Superman.  He’s an immigrant from a different world.  Comes to this world, and is feared by some—loved by others but feared by some.  As Clark Kent he works as a reporter. How much of a writer do you have to be to find modern parallels?  He’s just as modern as can be. He has to adopt the Superman identity in order to do the good that he feels he can do.  So put him more in our world, and let him have to cope with the questions that come. You don’t have to get all political but at the same time, get a little political.  

Jack:  Are you reading anything right now, do you still keep up with comics?  

JO:  Not as much as I would like to.  There are things I’m missing out on that I’m going to pick up on.  The relaunch of the X books, evidently those are going along well.

Jack:  House of X is very cool right now.

JO:  That’s what I’m hearing, and so I’m going to have to find a way to get a hold of those and get caught up on it.  But it’s a great time, and there are wonderful writers out there.

Jack:  Who are some of your favorite contemporary writers?

JO:  Brian Michael Bendis, I always have to know what he’s doing.  Alan Moore, if he’s doing something—well, he says he’s not doing anything anymore, but still, Alan always set a high level mark that if you wanted to know what was going on in comics, you had to read Alan Moore.  Neil Gaiman, same thing. Gail Simone, I think is a wonderful writer. There’s so many more. It’s a wonderful age in terms of the talent that’s out there, both artists and writers, and in some cases I’m overwhelmed in that if I haven’t been keeping up, where do I start?  Maybe that’s what I’ll do for the New Year’s, make a list of the things that I should be reading, and get back into it.

Jack:  There’s a lot of good stuff out there.  Doomsday Clock is really fun, I’m reading that right now.  You mention Gail Simone, you two are pretty synonymous in the re-creation of Batgirl.  Can you speak on how you came up with bringing Oracle into things, and your reintroduction of that character?

JO:  Gail was and is a big fan of what Kim Yale and I did with Oracle, in fact to the point where she took me aside before it was announced that they were bringing back Batgirl.  She wanted me to know from her that she agreed to do it only because she wanted to make sure that it was done right, and that Oracle wasn’t forgotten, that it remained a part of Batgirl’s backstory.  So I appreciated that. If you find a writer that you trust, then you trust them. And trust them based upon your past experience with them, the same you do with any person. That can be very gratifying.  But she’s done some wonderful work, so have all the ones I’ve mentioned and more besides.

Jack:  Do you have a pretty close-knit community?  Do you talk to each other, bounce ideas off of each other as comic book writers?

JO:  No, not so much, I never did that except when I was working with someone.  I tend to collaborate well, but Kim Yale and I, who was my wife, we bounced things off fairly well.  When I was writing with Del Close in Wasteland, we bounced things off pretty well. In general, I think I’m a pretty good collaborator.  Jan Duursema, who I did Star Wars with, we bounce things back and forth all the time. That’s just part of the partnership, the collaboration.  You have to respect your partner’s input. On any book that I was working, I solicited the artist’s input. On Suicide Squad, Luke McDonnell didn’t really want to.  Luke is one of the most closed-mouthed guys I’ve ever met, he just doesn’t talk very much. But our initial inker, Karl Kesel, he had plenty of ideas, and he’d send me these long notes which I called Kesel piecels.  He understood if I saw something I thought would be cool or would work, I’d use it, and if not I wouldn’t. I was the final arbiter on that score. I certainly valued the input that people had.  

Jack:  That seems like a good policy to have as a writer.  Are there any characters that you wanted to work on or asked to work on that you just couldn’t crack?

JO:  I always wanted to do Challengers of the Unknown, cause that’s one of the great titles in comics.  In fact, that’s what led me to Suicide Squad, because I’d wanted to do that and I asked for it and they said somebody else has got dibs on it, and Bob Greenberger who I was working with—he was an editor there at that time—said “But we’ve got this other title… It’s only appeared in five issues of showcase, you can do anything you want with it.”  I said okay, what’s it called? He says, “Suicide Squad,” and I said, what a stupid name. Who in their right minds belongs to something that calls itself a suicide squad?

Jack:  It’s a bold choice.

JO:  So, I went off and thought about it, and I went, well, who would?  Somebody who doesn’t have much other choice. Prisoners don’t. And I love writing bad guys.  DC’s got a raft of ‘em, and different levels going on down. Then it came to me, okay, one part Mission Impossible, one part Dirty Dozen—with supervillains, on covert missions for the government that might get them killed.  That’s what I always wanted as well. If I was going to use a character, I wanted somebody who I had total control over and I could kill them if I wanted to. And I often did.

Jack:  I read an interview that when you came up with reinventing Deadshot you had seen a cold-blooded killer talking about their executions and stuff like that.  Were there other reasons, like you reinvented Boomerang and these other characters, were they based off external experiences? How did you come up with these reinventions?

JO:  Boomerang was based upon this series of books by an author named George MacDonald Fraser, called Flashman.  They are historical novels of sorts; Flashman as a character originally appeared in a book published around the late 1800s called Tom Brown’s School Days.  And he’s a bully, just a snotty kid at this boarding school. About halfway through the novel he gets kicked out of school, as you’d expect. Frasier picks him up from the point that he does that, and puts him in the army but keeps him that same kind of cowardly, snotty, good looking, pompous, vain… and he’s the narrator of these stories—oh, he’s a lecher by the way too, sleeps around with anything he can get.  Frasier puts him into these historical contexts, battles, situations, things where he should have been killed, the good people around him do die. Flashman always manages somehow to survive. I got about halfway through the first book and threw the book across the room because Flashman was making me crazy. But then I went back and I read more and really got to enjoy it. And so when I got Suicide Squad and I got a hold of Boomerang, I said, he’s my Flashman.  The idea that this is not a guy who has any interest in reforming in his life. Anytime you think he’s gone as low as he can, he finds another level to sink to. That suited it perfectly, for the story.

Jack:  He’s been great since then.  I love Boomerang, he’s just so funny to me.  It’s a great concept, I love it.

JO:  He knows who he is and he likes who he is.

Jack:  Yeah, he has no problem with it.  He’s not gonna change, why would he?  He keeps getting out of everything.

It’s gotten better now, but comic books were seen for a long time, even when I was a child, as children’s things, not for adults.  How do you respond to people if they have that belief?

JO:  You mean like Martin Scorsese?

Jack:  I didn’t say it.

JO:  Even Francis Ford Coppola.  Or Bill Maher as well. Bill Maher slammed comics while admitting he never read them.  Okay, so what’s the point? You don’t know what you’re talking about, so why should I respect your opinion about this?  Mostly people don’t bother me with that kinda crap these days. I never approached it as a children’s medium. I just went, I love comics, I love telling stories, and my guidance was that I wanted to tell the best story that I could, stories that I thought would interest the reader, the fan.  The writing, the story alone, should be worth the price of admission. The money that you paid for that comic, you should feel that you’ve gotten your money’s worth just from the story. And then if the art is good, the coloring’s good, the lettering’s good, the cover is good, all of that, well then it’s a bonus.  But if I haven’t done that then I feel like I’m stealing people’s money.  

Jack:  Yeah, he has no problem with it.  He’s not gonna change, why would he?  He keeps getting out of everything.

It’s gotten better now, but comic books were seen for a long time, even when I was a child, as children’s things, not for adults.  How do you respond to people if they have that belief?

Jack:  Are there any books you would recommend for someone just getting into comics?  I’m actually asked that a lot being my friend group’s resident comic books/nerd person.  

JO:  One I would certainly recommend is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, where he uses the comic book medium himself to explain comics.  And he explains panels, pages, gutters, how things are done. It’s interesting reading as well. In terms of an actual comic book, it really depends on what the person’s tastes are.  You can always find a comic book based upon what you know about comics, and based upon what you know about them, what are they interested in. There’s such an amazing array of stories these days, any genre you want, any style.  I would make sure it’s either a standalone story from a series or something that’s been gathered together into a thick volume so they feel like they’ve gotten a real read from it.

Jack:  You mentioned earlier, and I know my friends have said this too, that things like DC or Marvel are hard to get into because where do you start?  How do you feel when the new 52 or Crisis is trying to make a whole, you know, let’s start over or rebirths—do you feel like those are necessary, or are they kind of obnoxious that they’re starting over every x number of years?

JO:  Yes to both.  You can only go back and reinvent it so often.  Artist’s pencillers talk about noodling the page, that you can draw something, erase it, draw, erase, draw, erase until really all you’ve got is gray, and it’s impossible to really put anything down, or something that’s identifiable.  I think you can reinvent the wheel every so often, and sometimes it becomes merchandising. But on the other hand, comics have to be updated every 5-10 years in order to remain viable and relevant to the fans who are reading it now. You don’t want to lose the fans that you had, but you’ve got to keep reaching out to new ones as well.  One of the big sins that comics created particularly, right around the time that I was working in them and a little bit going forward, is that the continuity became so tight and so self-referential that there wasn’t room for people to come in—and there wasn’t much there for younger readers to come in, and that’s been a big mistake.  You have to get kids by about the time that they’re ten.  Get them into comics, get them excited about it. Girls as well as boys.  

Jack:  Kamala Khan has been a character that is the new Miss Marvel, who is a young Pakistani Muslim girl.  I used to work in an elementary school and they are huge among young girls because they finally feel that they have representation.  I know you’ve been a big proponent of it, could you talk about representation in comic books? You have Amanda Waller, you have Oracle, other big ones.

JO:  Take a look at two films that really do that.  Wonder Woman–I’ve heard from many women who the first time Wonder Woman climbs out of the trench in her full regalia—it gives me chills—but the women said that some of them started crying because there was their character, right there in front of them, they could identify directly with her rather than being asked to identify with a male superhero.  The Black Panther film is huge, and hugely important, because there too, is an underserved or mis-served group of people. What I thought was even more interesting is that Black Panther and the people of Wakanda have never been slaves, so for African Americans they can look at someone of their skin color and sort of their background as free and proud, and to identify with those characters is very liberating, very uplifting.  

Back when I created Amanda Waller, at the time I knew when I was creating the Squad that I had to have someone tough in charge of it—basically the Lee Marvin role.  I decided to pick someone who was first black, because there weren’t many black characters in comics at that point. And I wanted it to be female because there weren’t many females there.  And I wanted her to be mature, and not model-looking. Her size, for me, visually represented her power. One of my favorite covers of Suicide Squad ever was when Amanda is backing Batman up against the wall with her finger in his chest, and he’s backing up.  To me, that just sums up Amanda Waller so well, just that one image. But there was no one like her, in comics. And not many like her since. Yet, she’s lasted since I first brought her in. People keep going back to her over and over again.

Jack:  She’s remained pretty consistent through even the animated shows or Arrow, or the Suicide Squad movie—it’s amazing the longevity this character has had. 

JO:  With Oracle, as much as I revere Alan Moore and Brian Bolland as one of the great artists, I really didn’t care for the Killing Joke.  The thing I disliked about it most was the maiming of Barbara Gordon. This is a woman who was Batgirl, and she hears someone at the door of the apartment, and there’s no spyhole or chain on the door, and she’s kind of giggling saying “I’ll get it, I’ll get it!”  And she opens it and Joker’s there, and Joker shoots her. It’s a mischaracterization of the worst kind for her.

Jack:  Couldn’t agree more.

JO:  Given the angle of the gun, she should have been dead.  And when you see her later, it looks like she’s been beaten.  So she’s shot and beaten, and put into a hospital. And crippled.  So we decided, Kim and I, that we wanted to explore where she would go from there, and that we wanted to give her an identity so she could still be viable and show that she could be just as important on her own.  So we remade her into Oracle, introduced her slowly into Suicide Squad—she was there but you didn’t know who she was until at one point we finally revealed her. We realized that if we did her right, if we gave her a bunch of computers and made her the information center of the DC universe, a lot of writers would want to use her because that way their characters didn’t have to go out and do the detective stuff, they simply put in a phone call to Oracle, she checks her computers and Boom, here it is, and you can move your plot on.  That worked very well, and for a long time she was more powerful and successful as Oracle than she had been as Batgirl.

Jack:  This has been incredible, I get to nerd out with an ultimate comic nerd, so I really appreciate this.

JO:  Hey, I’m a comic nerd too.  I do have another story to tell you which will show you how much of a nerd I am.  This is my nerd story: it goes back to my early days in comics, working for First Comics at the Chicago convention, sitting with my wife Kim Yale, manning the booth.  There’s this crowd of people going by, and one of them is Jack Kirby, with Julius Schwartz. Kim says it was embarrassing, I actually turned into a thirteen year old, zits popping out all over my face.  I knew Julie a bit, so I went, (hushed) “Julie, Julie! Come here!” He sees me, comes over and says “Oh hi kid, what’s going on?” I said, “Introduce me to the King.” He says, “What are you talking about?  It’s just Jack, come up and say hello.” And I went, “No, no, you don’t understand, I can’t do that! I can’t! Come on, please, help a guy out, wouldja?” So he looks at me like I’m demented, which I was, but he says “Come on.”  So I get out from behind the table and he takes me up to Jack and says, “Jack, I want you to meet a very good young writer, his name is John Ostrander, and Jack sticks out his hand and goes, (gruffly) “Hi how are ya?” I shake his hand and that’s about all, cause I was just hummina hummina hummina.  I threatened not to wash my hand ever again.  I just totally gooned out.

I gooned out when I met Will Eisner the first time, again at a convention.  Tim Truman and I were sitting together. Grimjack had not yet come out, and we understood that Will Eisner was there at the convention, and kept elbowing each other, “Are you going to go up and say hi?”  “I will if you will,” but neither of us did. We got on the bus afterwards to go to the airport, and the only other person to join us is Will Eisner. He just turns and starts talking with us, and we had the best conversation all the way to the airport.  He got off first and Tim and I looked at each other and went, we could have been spending the entire convention with him, but we just gooned out.

Jack:  I was nervous to talk to you, like, he’s too cool for me!

JO:  I’m a fan long before I became a writer, and I know really well what it’s like to meet someone that you go Wow, wow, wow.  

Jack:  Did you meet Stan before he passed?

JO:  Not quite.  I sat at a restaurant and he was at the next table, and I hear the famous Stan Lee voice… and I just couldn’t do it!  Without somebody to help me get over there, I just couldn’t do it, and I wish I had.  

Jack:  That’s incredible.  Well again John, thank you so much for this, for nerding out with me and making me feel awesome about being a nerd—I knew it would come in handy someday.

JO:  Yeah!  By all means, keep nerding out.  

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