The Iron Man Armory Interviews Kurt Busiek

Below is a "conversation" with Kurt Busiek. He wrote Iron Man from its 1998 relaunch, Volume 3, Number 1, through issue 25. His other work includes The Avengers and Astro City. In late July 2000 I interviewed him via email. Below are his responses, as typed by his hands.

1. What are the ideal ingredients when building an Iron Man story?

Iron Man!

I'm not a big fan of "ideal ingredients" -- I think I could probably work up a list of what would be the ideal ingredients in a single Iron Man story that was supposed to represent the character at his best, but I wouldn't want to get nothing but a steady diet of that kind of story. In a continuing series, it's more fun -- to me -- to keep exploring different ideas, different angles, so that one ideal story can be followed up with another cool story that shares very little with the one the preceded it.

So while I like a lot of international intrigue in IRON MAN, I like stories that don't have that angle, too. I like business-oriented stories, and I like characters studies and massive action blowouts. I tend to lean toward building the stories around Tony more than around Iron Man, and emphasizing character and intrigue over technology -- but that doesn't mean I think a writer who emphasizes technology is wrong, merely that he's following different instincts. I also like Tony as Iron Man, first, last and always -- but that doesn't mean that if another writer puts Rhodey or someone else in the suit, I'm going to think he's nuts. Some very good stories have been done with Rhodey in the suit. I just like Tony in that role better.

So I guess I don't have an answer beyond: Iron Man and good creators...

2. Can you briefly explain how the armor design came about? Did Marvel want a more traditional look or did you? Did you have a definite idea in mind before you hooked up with Sean? Do you have a name for the armor?

Alex Ross and I had pitched an IRON MAN proposal back when John Byrne left, before we did MARVELS. Alex and I worked up a new design for the armor, and I really liked it, but the IRON MAN editor never read the proposal. So nothing happened with it ... then.

When Sean and I took over IRON MAN, Tom Brevoort was the editor at first. He and Sean and I went through a zillion armor designs, but nothing really worked for us. So I asked Alex's permission to use the armor design he and I had worked out, and Alex said sure. I suggested adding the glowing bits, based on seeing CGI renderings by an Iron Man fan in ADVANCED IRON -- his name isn't coming to mind right now, but we credited him in the first issue.

So that's how it came about. I wanted a look that was modern, but harkened back to the classic armor. And I really wanted the "horned" faceplate, since the original version of that is my favorite armor of all time. Back when Alex and I were coming up with what became the proto-design, either he or I had suggested going back to actual medieval armor for inspiration, to emphasize the "knight in armor" aspects of the character, and the traditional red/yellow pattern was to restore the basic underpinnings -- I don't much like the latter-day designs that have striations on the gold parts, or red legs, or whatever. And the glowing parts, I thought, gave it a modern kick that made it clear this wasn't "going back," it was moving forward.

But I never had a name for the armor -- I'm an old, old Iron Man fan, and I date back to the days before the armors had names.

3. You laced your Iron Man stories with references to his early stories and characters, you were obviously a fan...Were there favorite issues (or stories) or creative teams that influenced your run on Iron Man?

Sure. I'm a big fan of Archie Goodwin's run, and that influenced me a lot, as did the early Stan Lee/Don Heck days. Plus, the Michelinie/Layton runs, while they didn't have the kind of impact for me that they did with later readers (since I'd already "imprinted" on the Lee/Goodwin IM), were very solid, distinctive stuff, and they had a strong influence as well. Not as strong as Archie, but it was there.

And the "head's up display" stuff we did was inspired by Len Kaminski's introduction of it in his run.

4. I know that you go to some of the fan boards and chat areas... What effect does fan reaction (From letters, message boards, etc. as opposed to sales) have on your work? Did any negative reactions from core fans ever cause you to rethink things or change anything? Can you give specifics?

Fan reaction rarely affects the work, unless it's overwhelming. Fans almost universally hated Triathlon's costume, for instance, and said so -- online, in the mail, at cons. So we changed it. But for the most part, I'm telling the stories that I'm inspired to tell, that I'm passionate about. If I changed my mind whenever someone wrote a negative letter, you'd end up with wishy-washy stories.

5. When you write a character like Iron Man, while at the same time writing an ensemble title like THE AVENGERS (of which IM is a member) do you ever have conflicts? Is there a tendency, consciously or not, to bleed the stories together? Did you ever find yourself putting too much Iron Man in THE AVENGERS, or did you ever feel like you wanted to get away from Iron Man now and focus on the other heroes?

I never had any tendency to bleed the stories together -- they were separate series in my mind, and coordinating the continuity between them caused problems every now and then (like when I had the crap beaten out of Tony and he didn't heal for months), just like it does with CAPTAIN AMERICA or THOR. The only real difference was that I didn't get blindsided by anything the Iron Man writer was doing. We got caught flatfooted virtually every time the Cap squad changed his shield, because they forgot to tell us, but the Avengers writer was in tight with the Iron Man writer, so we didn't have that problem there.

Nor did I have a tendency to feature Iron Man too much in AVENGERS -- if anything, it made me downplay him, because I'd already had him show off in his own book, so I tended to give other characters the spotlight. Ever since I stopped writing IRON MAN, he's had more to do in AVENGERS, probably because it's the only place I write him now.

6. Did Marvel reject any Iron Man plotlines, or ideas? If so, what were they?

There were some ideas that didn't get done, or didn't get developed -- like the follow-up to why Rhodey was in Isla Suerte and why he lied to Tony there -- but that wasn't so much because Marvel rejected any ideas, and more because I got asked to do other things here and there (bringing Rhodey back into the story on another pretext, doing the FF crossover, bringing back the villainous War Machine sooner than planned), and I wasn't able to get around to the original plans. I would have, though, if I'd stayed on the book.

But even if I'd had plots rejected, I wouldn't tell readers what they were -- I'd save 'em until I could use 'em somewhere. Even with this Rhodey-on-Isla-Suerte thing, I've told Bobbie why he was there, told Joe Quesada, even told David Michelinie and Bob Layton. So the info's out there to build a story around, but I think it should stay a secret until someone decides to pay it off . . .

More interview below the ad.

7. Please tell me a little about the upcoming LOOK BACK IN ARMOR? Maybe a little on the storyline, guest characters, teasing tidbits... The big rumor is that you will deal with the whole Teen Tony storyline, true? Is the book drawn yet? Is there a release date or window yet?

Unfortunately, at this point it looks like LOOK BACK IN ARMOR simply isn't going to happen. It would have covered the Teen Tony stuff (which is actually pretty simple -- teen Tony became adult Tony when he went through Onslaught, and just stayed that way on the way back; the real question is why he has dead Tony's memories), but as part of a larger story. Still, we'll get that info in somewhere or other -- I just explained why Hank Pym can grow without health problems, and who Masque and Benedict were, and those were dangling for a heck of a lot longer. We've already talked about places to fit it in, so I hope we'll get it covered soon.

8. As an Iron Man writer, what would you say are your strengths? Your weaknesses?

I'm really the wrong guy to talk about my own strengths and weaknesses. I enjoy reading reviews of my work, because I love the feedback, but I shouldn't review it myself -- that's just arrogance.

I do have opinions on what I do well and what I need to keep working on, but those aren't for public consumption. I'd rather foster the illusion that the stories are really happening, and not point out where the boom mike slips into screen, and where the matte paintings are really obvious...

9. Can you briefly describe how you write a book as a regular writer. Do you generally sketch out long story arcs, outlining key points or do you go story by story? How many issues do you write at a time, that is, do you write a story and then break it down into issues?

I write one issue at a time. I'll outline future plans, fairly loosely -- but I don't plot a whole story and then look for the issue breaks. I'll rough out a story in chapters and turn them into full plots one at a time. And those outlines vary immensely. On the first year of IRON MAN, AVENGERS and the first two years of THUNDERBOLTS, I did twelve-issue overviews, all typed up and sent to the editors. But things would change, and the overviews would turn out to be confining in some spots and useless in others, so at the moment, I have the next two years of AVENGERS loosely planned and talked over with Tom, but very little of it's on paper -- we want to keep it loose so we can adapt as things come up.

It's important to know where the various threads are going, without being so rigid that if a story turns out to be more complicated than expected, you can't spin things out differently to make room for it all.

10. You work in both the so-called independent world and with Marvel. Beyond creator ownership, what are the biggest differences between the two?

Technically, the major difference is that in the independent world, the creators have complete control, and at Marvel or DC, control belongs to the editors. I'm very lucky, though -- I tend to work with editors who make suggestions rather than give orders, who try to get me to write my ideas as well as I can, rather than write their ideas. So for me, the distinction tends to be that at Marvel or DC, I'm writing in a preestablished fictional history, and have to fit in to that history and to whatever else is going on in their universe, and on an indy project the artists and I make it all up ourselves. Both can be frustrating, both are lots of fun -- I like playing with a character's history, as readers well know, but I like having the whole canvas to myself, too. So I like doing both, and am pretty happy that things have worked out so that I don't have to choose one over the other.

Is there anything else that you would like to say to the fans? Anything that you would like to add?

Just that I'm very glad that so many readers seem to like what I do, since without them, I wouldn't be able to keep doing it. So thanks!

Kurt adds that for those who are interested in his comic scripts/plots or the comic book script format itself...

There's a script of mine at the Avengers Assemble website -- it's the full script to MARVELS #2. And of course, one of my AVENGERS plots was printed in AVENGERS ROUGH CUT...


This page is copyright 2000, 2002 by Tim Rassbach.

Iron Man and all associated characters are the property of Marvel Comics.

In-depth conversations and interviews with Iron Man artisans, featuring: Fred Van Lente, David Michelinie, Joe Quesada, Kurt Busiek, Bob Layton, Frank Tieri, Tom Brevoort, Joe Casey, and Kev Hopgood.

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