Dan Slott Gets Comic Booked
As the Ends of the Earth storyline continues in Amazing Spider-Man #683 (on shelves today!), Comic Booked presents the first part of a conversation with writer Dan Slott, wherein we take a look back at his career so far. In particular, we focus on his early involvement with Spider-Man, from the Spider-Man / Human Torch miniseries to the Brand New Day era…
Dan, I always like to start these chats on a more personal note, so how did you get into comics?
I lied. No, seriously. I used to do a superhero strip for my college newspaper and I built up this portfolio from doing it. It was one page of comic book art that I penciled, lettered and inked every week. So by the end of doing that for like a year and a half, I had a nice portfolio. And I started showing it to people at different shows and they were like “Wow, you should really write”. [laughter] It was a nice of saying “You’re not going to be a comic book artist. Ever”. And after a while I started asking how I would break in as a writer, and eventually somebody – I think it was Jim Valentino – said “You know, Marvel has an internship program. You should really try to become an intern. Not get in anyone’s way, network and meet people, and people will know you, maybe you can sell them a story”. That’s the first thing anyone told me that sounded like a plan.
I had a sister who was getting married, so I came to New York, I knew I was going to be in Manhattan and I set up an interview through the college internship program. I just filled out all the forms, did everything I was supposed to and I was there all of five minutes and one of the questions they asked was “What college do you go to?” I said “Well, I just graduated from…” and they said “We can’t use you. We give you college credit. We don’t pay you, and if we can’t give you college credit, it’s slave labor, we’re not doing that. Thank you, but goodbye.” And I was kicked right out. And luckily I have a twin sister who got married six months later, and I had to come back to Manhattan. And I knew they weren’t going to remember me from five minutes, so I had a college professor write me this form for a post-graduate credit. When they asked me what college I went to, I lied and I just said I was still in college. And then I was the intern who didn’t leave. [laughter] Most guys usually do a month or two months; I was on month three. And I wasn’t getting paid, I was living on money I was getting from Kinkos at night, and things were getting kind of iffy when someone came up to me and said “You know, we have this staff job we’d like to give you, but you have to go back to college.” I went “I LIED!”, and they gave me the job.
A couple weeks later, a couple pay cycles later, I wasn’t getting any checks. And this was before direct deposit. A guy would wheel a cart down the hall and hand everyone an envelope with their paycheck. And he kept skipping by me. I had to go to the Editor in Chief and say “You guys aren’t paying me”. “Well what where we paying you before?” “I was a college intern.” “Well then you have to go back to college.” “Well no, I lied.” And this was Tom DeFalco, if you meet Tom DeFalco he’s a really nice guy.
Yeah, I’ve had the pleasure.
Yeah, he’s a loveable guy, but as Editor in Chief he ruled everything with an iron fist. You did not mess with Tom DeFalco, Editor in Chief! And here I had just said that to him, and I’m a foot shorter than him, and he’s just looking at me like “Don’t ever do that again!” And I’m like “Okay!”, and the next week I got paid. So that’s how I broke in. And every time I meet a college intern… There’s this saying that any time you find a way to break into an industry, it’s like breaking out of prison. They seal that crack so no one can ever do it again. So because of me every college intern has to sign all these tons of forms. And whenever I meet a college intern, they’re like “I had to do that because of YOU!” And they are correct, that is me.
I’ve always heard that Spider-Man is your dream job.
Yes. The one time at a Marvel meeting… You ever see A Beautiful Mind? There’s a bit where he comes up with a theory of “If I don’t ask the blonde, I have a better chance of getting a date”. So there was one time where we had a meeting, and they went around the room and asked all the creators there “What’s your dream job? What book do you want to be working on?” And every single person went “Spider-Man”. JMS, who was writing Spider-Man at the time, went “Spider-Man”. And they get to me and I go “Moon Knight”. And you could hear the needle scratch the record. Because Moon Knight was my favorite in high school, but as a kid, and then after high school and back in college… There’s like a window where was like my favorite guy. But yeah, it’s always been Spider-Man or Ben Grimm. Because the books I read as a kid, I was able to buy five books a month with my allowance, and it was always Marvel Team-Up, Amazing¸ Detective, Marvel Two in One and The Brave and the Bold. Those were my five books, and if there was extra money, I would usually get Marvel Tales and catch up on Spider-Man stuff I didn’t know. So it’s always been Spider-Man, Batman and Ben Grimm.
Spidey/Torch was… I was working on She-Hulk at Marvel and I had my monthly gig, and it was one of my only projects at Marvel in my entire career that I pitched and they bought. Because usually you pitch stuff that… no. It’s this great myth in comics that you can pitch these ideas. No, it’s editorial that decides what books are being done and you’re given assignments. This is going to sound crazy because it’s two things that I generated, Arkham Asylum and Spidey/Torch that have been real benefits to my career. But it’s stuff that they go, you know:
“We have this thing, the Fifty States Initiative and no one has any ideas for this.”
“What if you did it like this?”
“Oh, that’s great you should do that.”
That’s usually how it works. Or “This guy’s leaving Mighty Avengers, do you want to do Mighty Avengers?” It’s never “I would like to do a new book, it’s the adventures of 3D Man! I’m bringing back 3D Man, let me do that.” That’s never how it happens. But Spidey/Torch is something I wanted to do. And I pitched while I still had this She-Hulk assignment and they let me do it, it was great, it was fun, it was a blast. With the Spidey/She-Hulk issue, Spidey/Human Torch, even when I had Spider-Man guest-starring in Ren & Stimpy, each time I treated it like “They’re never going to let me write Spider-Man. I have to blow my wad in this assignment. I have to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do in Spider-Man in this book. Because they’ll never, ever let me write Spider-Man.”
Well, the only way I got to write Spider-Man was really because of Steve Wacker. I’d worked with Steve on Justice League Adventures and worked with him on Arkham Asylum, and he was doing 52. And Marvel wanted to steal him away, and something Marvel wanted him to do was Spider-Man three times a month. They figured “We need the guy who did 52 to do that.” So Marvel got together with Steve when they brought him over and all these other editors. And the idea was that they purposely couldn’t have an alpha dog. They didn’t want somebody with a single strong voice and a whole bunch of people like that. They didn’t want, for example, a Peter David or a JMS or you know, a Bendis. They didn’t want someone with a really strong voice that would then dominate the other three or four writers. They wanted a writing staff that everyone was going to be equal and everyone had a very similar feel and vibe, and we could all be this gestalt entity. They wanted guys specifically who were creators who could get in, play ball and then pass the baton and fit together well, and they started building that team. And if I wasn’t this kind of malleable schlub, I would not have been on that team.
And also, I’d been in a bunch of creative retreats at Marvel, where we all pitch ideas and we all throw things into the pot, and they really liked this vibe that I gave to the room during these retreats. Things where I’d go “Oh, here’s something you can do when you’re doing that Civil War crossover. Oh, wouldn’t it be neat if you did that during Secret Invasion, or what if the Initiative did something like this, and it could all branch out…” You know, sort of just throwing out ideas and not caring if someone smashed it down, not having a thin ego. Someone who could get in and just play, and that was the mood we were going for with the Spider-Man writers’ room. And it just came to the point where I got to work on two of those different teams; I got to work on “The Braintrust” and “The Web-Heads”, and in each case it was fun, just working with all these guys and throwing stuff out there and doing stuff. It was a blast.
So with the “gestalt entity” of something like the Braintrust, what can you tell us about the creative process there; how that differs from just working solo or pitching things at a creative summit?
There are going to be differences, you are going to butt heads. You can’t not. And you do have to have passion, you have to have a vision and storied you want to tell. Part of it was letting everybody be themselves. One of the guys in the Braintrust, at one point I remember I was having a disagreement with him because he had something that I thought Peter Parker was doing that I thought was very unethical. My line of thought was “Peter Parker would never do that. Peter Parker would do that to protect his Spider-Man identity. Peter Parker would do that to protect a loved one, but Peter Parker would never do that just to help his own career. Peter Parker would not do that just to get a date. I don’t agree with the ethics of that situation.” And it went something like:
“But you had Peter Parker do this in your story!”
“Yeah I know, but that’s different and I can BS why that works in my story.”
And we’re having this argument and at one point the other writer just went “Dan he’s not Lincoln!” So I went “Alright, you win!” And it’s cool, you know? It was very rare that we’d actually come to blows. It was a very giving kind of thing, where there were moments in the Paper Doll arc where someone threw me a better visual for a sequence, and there were time where I’d throw out something to someone else. Like… Do you remember Marc Guggenheim’s story where Spider-Man’s running around in Daredevil’s costume?
Phil Jimenez had drawn the scene slightly different from what it was on the page, he paced it differently. So he wanted to have this big splash page, this big reveal of Spider-Man in Daredevil’s costume. And the way it was originally written, that was like panel five. And Phil figured he could move things around a bit because that’s a splash. But when Guggenheim got the page, he said “My script doesn’t work now because it’s a weird beat to have him say this line on this thing that’s a giant splash. I need something more, I don’t know what to put here.”
We were on a giant email chain, and a lot of times when we get on these email chains with four or five different guys all working in comics, a lot of times you’re busting each other’s chops and you’re doing jokes. So I did this little wacky bit where I said “I think he should sing the Spider-Man theme song, but do it as Daredevil.” And I wrote sample lyrics, it was “Devil-Man, Devil-Man, dares whatever a devil can…” And Marc, you could tell immediately was like “Do not throw that out there! Do not! Someone will take it seriously! DO NOT KEEP DOING THIS JOKE!” So every time I jumped in with a new chorus. [laughter] And everyone’s like “Funny enough, Dan stop.” “Devil-Man, Devil-Man, dares whatever a devil can! Law degree, it’s in Braille, but he’ll get you out of jail!” [laughter] And at one point he went “It’s not funny, stop it!” But finally Wacker said “Oh, we’re using this!” And that became the page. So that’s part of the whole group thing.
But then there’s other times like, for example, when I was doing New Ways to Die. The original ending had, after Peter and Lily had that kiss and were leaving Harry’s office, as they were leaving the office, Lily was going to turn around and look right at the reader and half her face was going to turn into Menace. Like Michael Jackson at the end of Thriller. So the audience would be like “Oh my God! Lily’s Menace! She’s been behind all of this! She’s been manipulating everyone!” Bum-bum-bummm! And that’s how it ended. And the idea was going to be that in Character Assassination, the reader would know that Lily was Menace and it would create all this extra tension. And this is where we were going, and as Marc was getting to the end of Character Assassination in the scripts, he decided “No, I need this to be a secret and I need to reveal her as Menace when Harry finds out. It’s more powerful that way. Dan can you change your ending to New Ways to Die?” Because it was a team effort and that’s what his story needed at the time. So we did the ending with Anti-Venom doing the Bruce Banner walk. Now that I’m doing it solo, there’s none of that! If I want to end the story that way, it’s ending that way! Unless the editor says that’s not working. But it’s very nice, it’s fun.
You mentioned everyone having stories they wanted to tell, and particularly during the Brand New Day era, you seemed to do a lot of… what I’ve come to refer to as “continuity patches”. You know, “This is what happened with Harry,” and so on. How much of that was you being the continuity guy?
That was me being… that’s the kind of stuff that irks me, that’s the itch I have to scratch. Zeb is like “Screw that I’m telling the story where it’s all snowing and big monsters show up, because that’s what I want to do!” And Marc would be like “I got this idea with a lawyer who wants to sue Spider-Man, and that’s the idea I want to play with.” And everyone would get certain pet characters and certain things. Like when Joe Kelly came in, he created Norah Winters and he loved this character, he liked using her. People would just get different things, and one of the things that happened to me was that I cared about the continuity stuff. And at the same time, not just touching on that and explaining it, but let’s move Spider-Man to a new place, let’s move the other characters to new places. Like J. Jonah Jameson becomes mayor! So then I get to write that one. But the next guy gets to pick it up and play with it, and hopefully it yields some fun stuff. So there’d be things like that. And it’s weird. You look at my issues and most of the times where we’d move certain chess pieces would happen in my stories too, it was weird. But yeah, stuff like “We have to explain how the mind wipe works, we have to explain where Harry was.” That’s just me. That stuff drives me crazy.
That’s it for part one. Be sure to check back next week for the conclusion!