David Michelinie’s interview
Written by Kevin Tanza on April 8, 2019
David Michelinie is one of those comic book writers that have a very privileged place in the history of the profession and that has managed to have a career filled with success, multiple artistic achievements and contribute to the development of many iconic characters throughout the years.
Mostly known for his work with characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man –writing some of the most seminal runs for both characters-, he also has written about Aquaman, Superman, multiple guest issues with titles such as Captain America, the Avengers and he is known for his shrewd writing, brilliant character development and a genuine love for the craft.
I had the opportunity to talk with David and we discussed multiple aspects of his career in this lengthy interview. I hope you enjoy it.
Thank you for taking the time for doing this, David. It’s an honor to talk with someone of your caliber and career. I would like to start this interview with what I consider a very broad question: What makes a writer, according to you?
It’s impossible to define a writer, other than simply as “a person who writes”, because every writer is different from every other writer, since the beginning of time. There are differences in motivation, background, drive, ability, experience, situation, etc., etc. all the way down to that most imponderable of characteristics: talent. There was a daily quiz show I used to watch over lunch, and at least once a week a contestant, when asked, would label themselves, “a writer”. But when asked by the host if there was anything he might have read by this person, the contestant would inevitably answer, “Well, I haven’t actually had anything published, but…” And there you have the most basic characteristic of a writer: the desire to BE a writer. And it’s a characteristic so widespread that it’s either funny or scary. Have you ever heard someone define himself as a brain surgeon, only to admit that he actually makes a living as a CPA but hopes to operate on a brain some day? Most professions require training or schooling or at least certain specialized skills. But a writer only needs what most third grade children have, the ability to do what I’m doing right now: put words together into sentences. Of course, there’s a lot more than that to being a GOOD writer, let alone a successful one. But that seems to get lost a lot these days, and a lot of crap gets published that should never have seen the light of day.
But, now that I’ve soapboxed on for far too long, I’ll get to the actual question you asked: what do I think makes a writer? Well, personally, as a fiction writer, my goal is simply to entertain. Because when I read fiction that’s what I want from it. And the basics there are just to tell a story, one with a beginning, a middle and an end, and tell it clearly. Everything else is just icing on the cake, and that’s where talent comes in. It’s not always necessary to go directly from “A” straight to “Z”, but you need to make sure that all of your side trips matter to the story, and that when they converge at the end the reader understands what has happened and what has led to the (hopefully) satisfying conclusion. Storytelling is communication, and the definition of communication is the transfer of information from a sender to a receiver. And if your words, and your intent, go over the head of your reader, you’ve failed.
Of course there are many other things that a good writer must strive for: believable characters that the reader must care about in some way, surprises the reader doesn’t see coming but are logical and carefully set up, a narrative flow that pulls the reader along, a smattering of originality, and an ending that brings a smile, a tear, a wow”, something that makes the reader glad they read your story–and maybe think about reading your next one.
Okay, enough blathering. I promise to be more terse in the answers that follow. (Another characteristic of a good writer is to know when to shut up. But none of us are perfect…)
And when you’re writing a story, do you always have a main goal? A specific feeling or message that you want to convey?
I’m a commercial writer; that means I usually writer for an editor/publisher on assignment and on a deadline. To do that, especially when writing an ongoing series featuring continuing characters, one really needs to know where he’s going. When I write for myself, usually songs or poetry, I let the feeling lead me where it wants to go. But when telling a story I have to be in the driver’s seat. I don’t necessarily know how I’m going to get to the end, but I really need to have some idea of what the hell I’m trying to accomplish from the outset.
All great stories, regardless of the medium in which they are conceived, have strong themes that are developed as said stories progress. How do you find the theme for your stories and implemented in them so it feels natural and organic?
I’m basically an instinct-driven writer. When I first started out, as I was learning my craft, I thought a lot about what I was doing, I even thought too much about it, which can leave your work convoluted and difficult to understand. But as I gained confidence and a whisper of wisdom I started thinking less. (And I’m sure my critics will eagerly jump on that line!) These days I know where a story starts, and how it probably needs to end (though there are always those wonderful discoveries along the way that can lead to different thoughts), but most often I only have a general idea of what goes on in between. Though I’ve always thought that the best way to develop characters is organically, know the characters well enough that THEY can tell YOU how they’d handle a specific situation.
You’re one of the longest-lasting writers in the comic book industry, with a career spanning multiple decades. Looking back on your career, what are the most important lessons that you have learned?
- You’re gonna get screwed eventually; deal with it.
- Always get it in writing. If you don’t… (see previous answer).
- If you’re able to actually make a living simply by telling stories, you’re the luckiest man on the planet. Never forget that.
I would like to focus now on your work in a more specific way. You first gathered attention through your work with Iron Man in the 70s and early 80s. I know you weren’t a reader of the book when you got the job. How was the experience of writing about Tony Stark?
It was wonderful, one of the three happiest times I’ve had writing comics. For one thing, I was co-plotting with my good friend, artist Bob Layton. And whereas I had never read Iron Man before, Bob was a longtime fan and knew everything about the character. So we complimented each other very well: I had a fresh perspective on the character, and Bob could correct me if I was on the wrong track with the character’s history or if my ideas had been done before. We also shared a similar sense of humor, and in our 5-6 hour plot sessions we laughed a lot. On another angle, I thought Tony Stark was a fascinating character. He was a super hero without super powers. Everything he did came from the person that he was, not from radiation or alien ancestry or an insect bite. His core motivation was that he was a good man, with a noble heart, and his only power was an intelligence that enabled him to create, among many other things, a suit of high-tech armor that allowed him to make the world a better place.
Naturally, the Demon in a Bottle storyline is widely considered the definitive arc for the character. How you and Bob Layton conceived the concept of Tony’s alcoholism?
When I was assigned to write the ongoing Iron Man series, I read the half dozen scripts or plots that led up to my first issue. And I saw in Tony Stark a man whose world was slowly crumbling: a rival company was attempting a hostile takeover of Stark International, the government was moving to regulate Iron Man’s team, The Avengers, a rogue cell of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents was trying to kill him and even his love life was in the toilet. I thought it would be logical for a real person in this situation to look for an escape valve, some way to relieve the stress and pressure. And since Tony had long been established as a social drinker, it seemed believable to me that he might start hitting the bottle harder to gain a little peace–and that that need might start to get away from him. I talked it over with Bob, he liked it, so we pitched it to editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. Jim gave it a green light, with only one condition: do it well.
What I find interesting about that story -and this is something that wasn’t that common back then- was that you presented a very realistic and adult situation and made Tony face his personal demons. Considering that comic books were and are mostly considered entertainment for youngsters, were you afraid of some backslash?
I wasn’t afraid of it, but I certainly expected it. However, though we did get some negative reaction, most readers saw the storyline for what it was meant to be: pitting Tony Stark against his most personal and insidious foe–his own weakness. And to show him for the true hero he is by having him ultimately, with great cost, triumph over that intimate enemy.
You also created two characters that went on to become much more than you first had in mind, Scott Lang and James Rhodes. How do you feel about of them taking on the mantles of superheroes and even having their own individual titles?
Scott Lang was intended to be a super hero–Ant-Man–from the start. I was just sorry that he never got his own series while I was writing him. After his initial origin story in Marvel Premiere, I was only able to use him as a guest star in other series I was writing. I would have liked to have had more time and space to develop the character more fully. As for Jim Rhodes… he was never meant to be a super hero. Bob Layton and I created him to be something that was missing in Tony Stark’s life: a friend. Tony generally hung out with out-of-costume Avengers at the time, and seemed to be involved with mostly super heroes and corporate bad-guys and party babes. We wanted to give him a buddy that he could just talk with, hang out with, do people stuff with–but someone who could also handle his fists and guns when the going got rough. As War Machine he’s a very popular super hero–but not what he was created to be.
While your career with DC is a bit shorter to what you did at Marvel, you did write the story in the 70s where Black Manta killed Aquaman’s baby. Even by today’s standards, that was a pretty brutal decision. What can you tell us about the process of writing that story and what do you think of it nowadays?
I took the character over from another writer, and I’m pretty sure I was just continuing a plotline that was already in place. I can’t say for certain that it wasn’t my idea to kill the little guy, but I don’t know why I would decide to do that, and I have no memory of such a thought process. Though I do admit I was pretty happy to never have to use the term “Aquababy” again!
I know you did a few issues with him on the Avengers and on his own title, but I once read an interview of yours where you stated that you would have loved to write Captain America. What was so appealing about Steve Rodgers for you?
He was such a rock solid character. You knew exactly where he stood on such topics as patriotism, loyalty, sacrifice, most of the important stuff. And it would have been fun to play with that, introduce unexpected challenges and see how Cap would react to them.
Captain America has received criticism in recent times for being, and I quote, “an outdated concept”. But I believe that the character’s core values are timeless. What is your take in the matter?
It depends on how the concept is handled. If honor and courage are “outdated” then we’re all in deep doodoo. I mean, look at all the things that are causing conflict and unrest in the name of “patriotism” today. Perhaps some of the characteristics that some call “outdated” should be “updated”–by taking them back to what the originally meant. And Cap’s just the guy to do that.
Obviously, your run on The Amazing Spider-Man is the stuff of legends and rightly so. As a long-time fan of Spider-Man, how did you feel having the chance to write about him?
Spider-Man was the character that brought me back to comics when I was in college, and he remains my favorite super hero to this day. So when I was offered the chance to write Web of Spiderman I thought “it doesn’t get any better than this”. I was wrong. When I was switched over to The Amazing Spider-Man, the original Spidey title and the one that officially guided Spider-Man’s history, it did get better. It was my dream job, and the peak of my comics writing career.
One of the many aspects that defined your run and it’s fondly remembered by most fans is the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. Contrary to most marriages in various mediums of storytelling, it was actually quite solid and positive. What was your reasoning behind such setup, considering Peter’s track record for misfortune?
I was thrilled when I was given the job of writing The Amazing Spider-Man. But then I was told that Stan Lee was going to get Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson married in the newspaper strip, and I was required to do the same in the monthly comic. I hated that. I wanted to write the same character I’d loved in college: the young student who was single and trying to cope with life–just like me! But my choice was to either get them married, or quit my dream job. So I decided to do something unexpected: make the marriage actually work. And to my surprise, I had a great time doing it. It was new, it was fresh, it had never been done before, and it opened up all kinds of new ways to explore the characters. I ended up having more fun writing Peter as an old married guy than I thought I would writing that hassle-plagued single student!
1Comic books are famous for a lack of development, often taking a few steps forward and then going all the way back to square one. During your run on The Amazing Spider-Man, it felt that Peter had come a long way from his high school days and I think that resonated with a lot of readers.
That isn’t exactly a question, but…thanks!
Having spent so many years writing on the title and being a fan yourself, what made Spider-Man a cultural icon all over the world? What has made the character endure for so long and still being relevant today?
I haven’t read a Spider-Man story in a long time, so I can’t really address the character’s current relevance or lack thereof. But from the start he was different from other super heroes because he could be me. Or you. Or any normal person. He was believable and relatable because along with his encounters with bad-guys he had simple human challenges like real people have in the real world. He was a kid worried about his grades in school, he couldn’t get up the courage to ask a pretty girl for a date, he experienced way too many times when he didn’t have two nickels to rub together. That made it much easier to identify with him than, say, a flying super-strong adult from another planet who had a prestige job for a major metropolitan newspaper. Thank you, Stan Lee!
Another big hit during your run was the creation of Venom. How did you come up with the concept for the character?
Whenever I write an established character I try to utilize the things that make him or her unique. And, at the time, at least, no one in the Marvel Universe besides Peter Parker had anything like an early warning spider-sense. Pete had been relying on that ability for so long, depending on it to save his life, that reacting to it had become a reflex action, like when a doctor taps your knee to make your leg jerk. So, I started wondering… what would happen to Peter’s self-confidence, and his chances of survival, if there was some really dangerous villain who DIDN’T trigger that spider-sense–and who wanted nothing better than to kill Spider-Man? It had been established that the alien symbiote from Secret Wars didn’t activate the spider-sense, and that Peter had rejected it as a costume in Web of Spider-Man. I figured the symbiote would be bitter about that, so I created a human character who blamed Spider-Man for his own downfall (Eddie Brock), put them together, and turned them loose on our now-more-vulnerable hero.
What I find interesting about Venom is that he started off as clear-cut villain, but as issues and time went on he gained a certain moral complexity. Was that by design or was a reaction of the positive reception that the character had?
He actually had that moral complexity from the start, but it was subtle. And that was one of the reasons I ended up creating another character, Carnage, to make that secondary motivation–that Eddie Brock thought he was an innocent victim with the responsibility to protect other innocents from damage by “villains” like Spider-Man–more obvious. But character development takes time, especially when you’re dealing with a supporting character who doesn’t have a series of his own every month.
Did you see the Venom movie last year? If so, what did you think?
I think Sony did a decent job with the limitations they had. They couldn’t use the Secret Wars connection, and didn’t have the rights to Spider-Man, so they had to come up with a different origin. Which I thought worked okay. And they pretty much had to tame Eddie’s psychotic personality a bit, since they were hoping to start a franchise and it’s difficult to base an ongoing super hero saga on a looped-out mass killer. (Although, come to think of it, that’s pretty much what I did!) I had some problems with logic and the narrative timeline, but overall I thought it was an entertaining couple of hours. I’d give it a 7 out of 10.
Carnage was another character that you created, with Maximum Carnage being the character’s particular magnum opus. Was it harder or was it easier to write a villain that was so brutal and purely evil?
I don’t think it was either harder or easier–but it sure was fun!
You then spent a few years at DC again, working on Superman. How was it to write about the Man of Steel?
First off, it was truly an honor (an overused word, but accurate in this instance) to write what is undoubtedly the Earth’s most iconic costumed super hero. But it was a difficult task in that I was essentially one fifth of a writer. At the time the character’s adventures were being published on a weekly basis with tight continuity over five titles. So I had to start each of my stories where the previous story ended the week before, and end my story in such a way as to fit in with the beginning of next week’s chapter. It limited what I was able to do and pretty much kept me from exploring new directions. But, hey, it was Superman–no complaints.
A lot of people have said that writing new stories and challenges for Superman can be difficult. Did you ever felt that way while trying to come up with new stories for that title?
The Superman teams had a meeting once a year where we would all get together with the editor and hash out what would be happening in the five books over the next twelve months. The first meeting of which I was a part took place shortly after I’d been assigned to Action Comics. I was the new kid on the block so I didn’t think I’d earned the right to control the character more than all of those creators who’d been working on Superman for years. So I pretty much went along with what my fellow writers & artists wanted to do. The second year, I’d come up with what I thought was a pretty cool space quest idea, but when I got to the meeting I found that several of the others had already discussed a storyline that they really liked and wanted to do. It was also a space quest concept so I figured it would be an uphill battle to try to convince them to go with my idea instead, so again I went along with everyone else. By the time the third meeting came along I had already decided that I would be leaving Action and I didn’t think it would be fair to push for my ideas and then quit and leave them to the others to carry out. So, basically, there really isn’t a lot of “David Michelinie” in my Superman stories.
McFarlane, Byrne, Romita, Layton, Larsen… so many memorable artists have worked with you. Does the artist influence the way you write stories?
Of course, always. Artists are like writers in that they all have their strengths and weaknesses. For the best stories you try to play to the former and avoid the latter. Sometimes the pairing clicks and you have a great time making great stories. And sometimes it just doesn’t come together and you simply do the best you can.
I have read several interviews of yours where you have been critical about the modern comic book industry and I tend to agree when you say they are on a critical state. If you had the opportunity to shift things, what would you change?
I have no idea, and I don’t think the major comics companies do, either. I know how to write stories, I don’t know how to run a business. Publishing comics was much more successful (from the standpoint of copies sold and profits made) in my heyday in the mid-70s to mid-90s. But it would be too simplistic to just say, “Let’s go back and do what we did then!” Times have changed, entertainment has changed, the audience, in large part, has changed. It would be nice to think that publishing good stories–with a beginning, a middle, and an end–stories that didn’t exploit the readers, in continuity that didn’t alter radically with bi-annual reboots, would do the trick. But that might do more harm than good, alienating current fans while not bringing back enough old school readers to support the market. Let’s just hope that when the comic book movie craze finally dies, it doesn’t take publishing with it.
As a final question: What would you advice to a young, aspiring writer?
I’d say, “Son (or daughter), don’t give up your day job!” Seriously, if I knew how to make it writing comics these days I’d be doing it myself. You’re talking to a guy who published a total of three comic book stories in the last three years! Like I mentioned earlier, times and publishers are very different nowadays. But I guess in general I’d point out that while it looks to be much more difficult to make a living writing comics currently (lower page rates, lower sales with royalty payments unlikely, much more competition from other would-be writers), the chances of getting your work published are far greater than in the past. When I broke in, your targets where pretty much limited to DC and Marvel. Archie Comics was still around, but I believe they were a closed shop. And Charlton had a few titles coming out, but the company was pretty much gasping their death rattles. But these days there are more independent titles in my local comic shop than DC and Marvel combined. (Hard to believe, I know.) Plus there’s self-publishing, digital publishing, crowdfunding and other possibilities. There are more opportunities to get published than just DC, Marvel, and even the next tier like Image and IDW. And once you’re published in some way, you’ve got something more than just samples–you’ve got a credit. And a credit gives at least some credibility. So I guess my advice to an aspiring writer is this: if writing is what you really want to do, do it. Expect failure, expect rejection, and try to be honest with yourself about how much of your time and life you’re willing to sacrifice for your dream. If you have limits, know when to recognize when they arrive, then make your decisions. But if writing is your passion, live within your limits and don’t give up. So much can depend on being in the right place at the right time. Your submission could arrive on an editor’s desk on a day when he/she has had a fight with their Significant Other, or they have the flu, or they just got a traffic ticket. And they don’t feel like doing anything so give your work a passing glance and return it with a rejection slip. You can then submit the exact same manuscript to a different editor who’s just gotten engaged, gotten a raise, or just sold their own first novel. They read your script, see the potential, and decide to give you a chance. Do your best, and if you see an opportunity, jump on it. But if nothing else, try to embrace and enjoy the act of writing itself. If that’s not there, you’re wasting your time.
Thank you for this opportunity, David. It’s an absolute honor. Any last words for our readers?
If you can’t find anything good to read, reread something you already know is good