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Amazing Heroes #135: Marv Wolfman Interview

Marv Talks Titans & His Approach to Writing
[from Amazing Heroes #135, 1988 – A Marv Wolfman Interview]
by Kevin Dooley Transcribed by Unda Gorell

WOLFMAN: […] When we did the runaway issue of the Titans, the only purpose of that was to inform kids that if they ran away, there were places they could go to. In the “Runaways” we didn’t say “Don’t run away.” As I discovered in my research, very often running away was the best choice they have, providing they know where to go, that there are agencies set up that will not force them to go back home.

When we did the drug books, I think it was Ted White who reviewed it for the Journal, he made a cardinal mistake. He said we were propagandizing and telling only the negatives. First of all, I don’t know if there is a positive on drugs. I don’t think there is. Anything that makes you dependent on something outside of yourself is not a positive.

Secondly, this wasn’t an issue of the Teen Titans. This was a propaganda book. It said so. This was sponsored by the Department of Education for a purpose. No, it was not going to be rounded. No, I wasn’t allowed to open it up to debate. No, I could not say anything like “Smoking marijuana when you’re dying of cancer may take away pain.” That wasn’t what the subject was about. The subject was: kids should not take drugs. Period. This had to go through the Department of Education, five other agencies, and about ten parent groups. This was not “Marv Wolfman writing a comic book on drugs:’ which, by the way, would not have been much different, because I have a violent hatred towards it-which was a good reason for me to write it. The problem was, no, it was not an “open” book. It’s no more an open book to discussion as to purpose than a book published by IBM on IBM computers is.

AH: Or any of the DC-Radio Shack books.

WOLFMAN: Right. It is a sponsored book. Therefore, you can’t review it the same way you review the runaway issues of the Titans that appeared within the regular run of the Titans.

AH: You were hired for a specific purpose.

WOLFMAN: We were hired by the U.S. Government to produce a book to do this. The range we had was nil. We had to relate specific messages, specific intent, and nothing else would have been accepted. It would have been removed from the book. Fortunately, since I do believe that kids should not take drugs, it was very simple for me to do it. But a review of it as if saying it was a review of a comic with an editorial viewpoint was ridiculous.

AH: Some people out there might not know you were once editor-in-chief at Marvel in the mid ’70s. At that time, creators just kind of went wild. There was so much artistic freedom, yet there was so much instability. How do you explain that? How much of it had to do with you?

WOLFMAN: I don’t know, I’ve never thought of it.

When I was editor-in-chief at Marvel, outside of the time that Stan, Jack and Steve Ditko were doing the books, we probably had the most creative time Marvel has ever seen to date.

A simple reason might be that we had an incredible number of interesting and bizarre writers. We had Gerber at his best, Engelhart at his best, Starlin starting out with Warlock. I encouraged strange things. Somebody would come in with an idea that didn’t sound overly commercial, but I thought was good, we’d try it. For instance, Howard the Duck.

When Howard first appeared in that throwaway section of Man-Thing, Roy, who was editor at the time, didn’t particularly care for it and asked for the character to never come back. Steve and I talked about it-I was editor of the black-and-white magazines then- and commissioned two scripts to be hidden in the back of one of the monster books.

Because I liked Howard the Duck. I thought it was creative. I thought it was different and enjoyed the concept. We had given it to Neal Adams to draw because he asked for it, but by the time I became editor-in-chief, Neal could not draw it, so I turned it over to Frank Brunner and we moved [Howard] into Giant-Size Man-Thing. And that’s how he got started.
I just liked to experiment. But because we allowed the most creative reign of writers available, they were also the most trouble. Juggling all that was eventually the pain that got me to quit.

But I’m proud of several things. They had the greatest variety of things coming into Marvel when I was editor-in-chief and when I was editor of the black-and-white books, too, on a more limited basis.

Also, for at least the year I was editor-in-chief, there wasn’t a single reprint. There was none of the “dreaded deadline doom” that had plagued Marvel before I got there, or after I moved on.

AH: Why was that?

WOLFMAN: I’m not saying in talent as either a writer or editor I was better than the people before or after me- Archie Goodwin is one of the best writers I have ever known, Len Wein, a writer/editor capacity-not as much as some, because I have edited my own work. Some of them are really good. Some of them haven’t the foggiest idea what they are doing. They just know comics and they like them and they’re enthusiastic, and they’re hell of a nice people, but ultimately, they just aren’t good editors.

AH: Do you think it’s only money, the fact that Marvel and DC are putting out so much?

WOLFMAN: So is everybody. Fantagraphics is publishing a lot, Eclipse publishes a lot, Comico publishes a lot.

AH: Do you think we’re too greedy to keep up with demands?

WOLFMAN: You almost have to be.

There’s five thousand items out there these days. You can’t let your company be reduced to four items, because you’d be lost. You could lavish a certain amount of production value time on certain projects, but you can’t do it on everything, There isn’t time. It’s a vicious circle. Every company is in exactly the same boat. Fantagraphics can’t point at DC; DC can’t point at Dark Horse; everyone can point at Solson, that’s what it’s there for. You always need the joker in the deck.

[…]AH: Characterization in comics: is it always secondary to the action, to fight scenes-how important is characterization in comics?

WOLFMAN: To have a successful comic, in my mind, characterization overwhelms the action. Unfortunately, in hero terms, there are certain things that are expected and the fights are part of them. The stories that I have written that I’ve liked the most, have either never had a fight in them, or were resolved through other methods, or were pure characterization stories. The readers tend to like those the most, too. I have no idea if you could sell a super-hero book regularly without, but it would certainly be interesting to try it.

AH: By a super-hero book, you mean…

WOLFMAN: Actually, I think Concrete over at Dark Horse is an example of that because there are no fight scenes. There is no “action” per se. It’s all a character story about somebody who happens to be stuck in this concrete body. So, you can do it.

I don’t know if I could do the Teen Titans month in and month out without eventually having action. I think that would probably be a denial of what a lot of the readers want, but all-out action stories are not always my favorite stories.

The action must be secondary, because if you buy a lot of comic books, within a month or two, you’ll probably have read every possible fight scene, whether it’s on Earth or space or whatever else.

The only thing that can be original is the characterization. That’s the only thing you can change, that you can manipulate, that you can truly move. You can have characters grow, fail, succeed, whatever. If you want a reader to come back, there has to be something more than just the action. You have to have an interesting plot. But unfortunately, even plot becomes secondary in most super-hero comic books.

AH: How do you develop a character when you have one month in between every single installment. And with the action, you have less than 22-28 pages to develop any personality traits no less a complete “person.” What’s more, with the Titans, you’ve got a group, a whole group of characters to mold as well.

WOLFMAN: It’s what I said before: the individual issue isn’t important but the series is. You think of it in terms of the series view and one issue may only have a little bit on one character, one issue may have a little bit on another. Over a long time, you develop it, you have to look at how a character grows; how he or she changes because of growth; how the character’s inter-relationships in the team book are altered as they get to know each other more. People who may have been close may slowly fall out and other people become closer. People who recede in the background because of either their powers or emotions or whatever else, come to the foreground because of change. And you try to come up with more realistic ways of handling them.

I did an issue recently in Teen Titans called “Loving You.” Raven for several months had been unknowingly altering Nightwing’s personality so he’d love her. She, for the first time, had been feeling emotions. She didn’t know the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone and that’s a major difference.

AH: I like to think so.

WOLFMAN: She took signs that Nightwing made towards her as being “in love,” rather than just loving her as a friend. She did all this manipulation. A lot of people thought it would end with a fight between Starfire and Raven. As it turned out, all they did was go off to Tahiti and talk and become good friends themselves. And they talked out the problem.

Now this is a growth not only in Raven but in Starfire which was important too, because she did not react first on a visceral level. She acted intelligently.

AH: Nor like her warrior self

WOLFMAN: Right. A couple years ago, there was a story that I think tends to be forgotten, but one of my favorite Titans stories. It was with Changeling and the Terminator. Most of the issue was a big fight between the two, but it’s resolved when the two go into a restaurant and talk over the whole thing. It ends on that level. A change was made on an intellectual basis, an emotional one, not through fists. And those are stories that have both been very well received.

I think those are the ones people like better. It’s really hard to determine if you can do that monthly.

AH: How do you plot the character growth?

WOLFMAN: What I’ve done with the Titans is, I plot it in advance. I’ve been plotting the character development like a soap opera in a sense. Sometimes I totally forget to plot the action parts of the story. In my little one sentence briefs on the stories, the plot of the issue is left out, but the changes in the characters and where I want them to go are the things that I actually center in on.

As far as I’m concerned, the motivation for all the stories become a character one, not a plot one. The Titans. I think is character-driven, not plot-driven.

AH: So you know where the characters themselves inside are and whatever happens plotwise occurs as a result of it?

WOLFMAN: It’s almost like life. The characters keeps moving and developing no matter what they face. In my case, the surprise is not what be faces, but how what he faces or she faces it. In the Titans as opposed to Sable, how the situation reacts off the character is important as well. So you not only have the character development in terms of themselves and in relation to the other characters, but in terms of how the character changes because of the plot.

AH: Have you ever had a situation in where the plot will take the character in a direction you weren’t really planning on taken them?

WOLFMAN: That always happens. You make the character as realistic as you can within whatever confines you have. They will react to the situations.

Sometimes you just start moving and you have to alter all your plans to boot. The characters will control it to that extent. Every writer no matter who it is, no matter what type of stuff they write, they tell you occasionally the characters just refuse to do something because if you develop the character correctly you know that they will not get involved with a certain situation no matter how much you want them. They just will not do certain things, because that’s nor within the confines of their personality.

AH: So you won’t have people writing in, saying, “I don’t think that Nightwing would have reacted this way because you know at that point where they’re going.

WOLFMAN: You get that anyway, because fans have their view of what the character is and you have your view. They don’t like it when you alter the character from their view.

AH: Well, then, maybe they’re identifying with something, reacting to something of themselves and you’ve succeeded.


AH: Is writing Sable, in which you have one character, as opposed to the Titans, where you have a group, a lot easier to plot?

WOLFMAN: Oh yeah, God. Much easier, because you focus on one character where you aren’t making sure everyone has something to say to react to. You just have one character to focus on and it’s much easier.

AH: But you have fewer other characters for him to react to.

WOLFMAN: In that sense, it could be sometimes a little more difficult because you can’t let Sable ever get dull. Whereas, if something starts getting a little dull with Nightwing, you can switch over to Starfire or Wonder Girl or Raven. If I don’t have any ideas for a character, if I don’t know where I’m going, say, with Cyborg, I don’t have to make him the point of the story for a few months until I come up with a new idea.

AH: Right, but with Sable…

WOLFMAN: You’re focused all the time, where is he going to go, how is he going to react, what are you going to put him against?

AH: Sable has minor characters to react to, but he’s always in the limelight.

WOLFMAN: There is also issue after issue that they’re not in the book because he’s in another country.

AH: in that case, I guess you’d just rely more on the plot to roll along?

WOLFMAN: Right, they become what you consider a plot-driven story, but then once you get that, you have to find some way to turn it into a character-driven story.


WOLFMAN: You see, that’s the whole thing. If it had begun over, you wouldn’t have had any questions. There wouldn’t have been a Supergirl, so no one would have to think about it. There wouldn’t have been all these other things. I would have been able to start Teen Titans over without having to question who Wonder Girl is. I could have given a new origin for Wonder Girl.

AH: What are you going to do about her?

WOLFMAN: George and I are going to do it in a sixteen-million page graphic novel or something. But actually, 96 pages.

AH: Is that something you ‘re working on now or?

WOLFMAN: George is drawing it right now.

AH: You’ve already got the plot?

WOLFMAN: George and I worked it out together.

AH: When we were at a Fantagraphics party, I heard you say that you had to come up with a few new characters with a certain amount of new powers in a certain amount of time?


AH: Have you come up with them?

WOLFMAN: No [laughs]. I was talking about the West Coast version of the book, that would be. in San Francisco. I had set a deadline myself the week after Thanksgiving to come up with a book. At that point, I was approached by CBS to do a development on an animation show for them and then I was approached by another animation company to do a development for them and they both had to be in and still have to be in before the first of the year so I had to drop Teen Titans development right now, though. it keeps going on in my head. I just haven’t got the time to sit down and write it. I’ll do it after the first of the year.

AH: There is going to be a West Coast Teen Titans, then?

WOLFMAN: DC wants to do a West Coast Teen Titans. In the last run of the book, before I did it, it was Titans East and Titans West. It was a regular feature that pre-dated West Coast Avengers by about ten years. They want to revive that. They asked me if I wanted to write it, or would let someone else write it. Well, I want to control the Titans; I think one of the problems with Spotlight was that I really didn’t do any. I think that’s the reason that led to it eventually being canceled. There was no sense of urgency to the stories, as good as some of them were. There was no sense of the stories having any effect on the characters. The fact that it lasted 25 issues, I think, is a testimony to the characters themselves- that people still cared about them.

So, the deal I’ve made with DC is that when I have time, I will write mini-series for different Titans, either for Action Comics Weekly-I’m already doing one of those for Nightwing-or as a mini-series.

I will handle all the Titan work. That way there’s a continuity between what I write in one place and another. So the stuff will have some meaning as a whole to the book. All of it will feed in on itself, which is the way it should be. It’s for that same reason I decided to do the West Coast version.

AH: Will there some similar characters?

WOLFMAN: Cyborg will be moving to the West Coast. Red Star, who is a renamed Starfire from Russia, will be a member of it. Chris King, who is one of the Dial “H”for Hero character that I had done, and I just reintroduced him to the regular Titans book, he’ll be a member. So we actually have a character who, every time you see him, will be different.

AH: So you ‘re going to have to come up with a different hero every issue?

WOLFMAN: Oh yeah. But they don’t have to be the most wonderful characters ever created. They just have to be different and silly and fun. [laughs] Maybe I’ll open it up to the readers.

AH: Here we go again. You did that on the Dial “H” for Hero comic, didn’t you?


AH: That brings up the subject of what a hem is. Dialing “H” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a super-hero, does it? Or is that your criterion for his dial?

WOLFMAN: Well, because he is a hero, and his mind controls whatever body he’s in, it ultimately is a “superhero.” He could, though, become a sponge for one hour and not be able to do anything. [Laughs] That’s the risks of the dial, you just don’t know what it’s going to do.

The fun of “Dial H”, while I was writing it at least, was always giving him powers that didn’t help. They were not of immediate value. And he had to make use of it somehow to overcome the lack of value. Which, by the way, is the definition of a hero.



End of transmission. About this author:  Bill Walko is an author and artist and the man behind He's been reading and drawing comics since he was 5 years old and hasn't stopped since. Read more from this author