The Iron Man Armory Interviews David Michelinie
Along with his partner Bob Layton, David Michelinie produced what many consider to be the definitive Iron Man stories. He wrote or co-wrote IRON MAN from issues 116-157 and from 215-250, giving the world some great stories including Justin Hammer, Iron Man's Specialty Armors, the first Armor Wars and Iron Man's classic run-ins with Doctor Doom. He also did some incredible work on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN with Todd McFarlane.
Michelinie recently returned to pen Tony Stark in IRON MAN: BAD BLOOD, a four issue mini-series. In early Spring of 2001, we corresponded via e-mail. Below are some of his thoughts on Iron Man, writing and life in general. (Only the order of the questions has been changed for clarity.)
1. From where do you draw artistic inspiration for your work?
Mostly from people who are better writers than me, which means I get inspired a lot. (Rimshot) But seriously, folks...whenever a I read a novel or short story, or see a movie that's incredibly well-written, I frequently come away with a schizoid mix of elation and depression. I'm delighted to have had such a good time, but I also tend to have an elevated awareness of my own artistic shortcomings. That frequently makes me want to try harder, to look for something new, change my perspective, maybe dig deeper into my psyche for some speck of creativity I may have overlooked before. In addition, I sometimes find other writers' lives inspiring. I got a lot from the parallels I found between myself and Stephen King in ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT. We're the same age, both self-published little stories when we were kids, went to college during 'Nam, etc. Of course, he's now a mega-millionaire superstar, while I'd kill to write a fill-in issue of ANGEL & THE APE, so I guess there are still a FEW differences between me an' Steve...
2. What are some non-comics influences on your work?
I think that initially my influences came from prose writers. I never set out to be a comics writer, and kind of slid sideways into this profession. Harlan Ellison was a big influence, I know; his use of words is beyond amazing. And I found Michael Moorcock's haunted heroes and multiverses fascinating. When I got into comics, Stan Lee was of course a huge influence, with his take on realistic heroes--Peter Parker/Spider-Man in particular. And when I actually started writing comics, Len Wein blew me away with his SWAMP THING scripts; I tried to emulate him for years. These days, I think it's more life experiences than other writers that influence my work. I try to draw on what I've learned through decades of actually living on this planet, on whatever scraps of wisdom I may have gained, for my stories.
3. What, if anything, do comics tell us about real life?
Like all popular entertainment--movies, books, music--comics pretty much mirror what's going on in real life without even trying. Writing a monthly series is a monster that gobbles up ideas at an alarming pace. Writers frequently turn to news stories for plot springboards--if there haven't been dozens of comics stories about school shootings yet, I guarantee there will be. Plus, a writer can't help but put his or her sensibilities into their fictional characters. Strip away the costumes, the powers, the magic, the otherworldly settings, and you'll always find a little of what the writer feels. And, unless they're completely delusional (don't ask me to name names), that will reflect a bit of the reality that they've experienced.
4. What can we learn from comics? That is, what lessons for real life can be learned from Super Heroes?
The variety of comic books available to the public, particularly from independent and self-publishers, is staggering. And I imagine a person could find examples of almost any moral or ethical position if one looked long enough. There are hate comics being produced by splinter groups, Jesus comics being published by religious organizations, and everything in between.
Heroes, in particular, often take on a darker, harder edge these days, turning to less-than-heroic measures to accomplish their goals; perhaps a reflection of readers' diminishing confidence in those they look to for protection (politicians, police, parents) in the real world. Even what might seem to be basic truths-"it's bad to hurt people"--can be manipulated to push a particular viewpoint: "it's bad to hurt an unborn fetus." So the modern reader has to look at comics the same way they regard any source of input: with a wary eye, and an intelligent interpretation as to how such information may actually apply to his or her personal situation.
5. In your opinion, what makes a good Iron Man story, what are the key ingredients?
The key ingredients for a good Iron Man story start with the key ingredients for ANY good story: clarity, character, sincerity and surprises. Probably the most important of those four in this case would be character, because Tony Stark is his own super power. That is, he has no spider-sense, x-ray vision, healing factor, etc. Everything he can do--from building electronic armor to influencing an election to bringing rain to a drought-stricken country--comes from his own mind. And that's the best place to start his stories. Then surround him with an interesting, complex, unpredictable supporting cast, and the stories practically grow themselves. Of course, technology--being such a key part of Tony's CHARACTER--is a vital element as well. But if you work a story outward from Tony's personality, technology tends to fall in place naturally.
6. Your Iron Man issues are marked by a real technical edge, full of gadgets and gizmos, not to mention specialty armors...How do you stay cutting edge, are/were there particular magazines, or do you consult someone? Did you always have an interest in technology or machines?
Bob Layton is the real tech-head of our plotting team. He reads technical and theoretical books that make my teeth hurt. But it seems to work; if memory serves, he's the one who suggested specialty armors in the first place, and a lot of Iron Man's "gadgets and gizmos" have come from his interest in science. For me, these days I get most of my science stuff from (and this is no joke) The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and even The History Channel. Add in the occasional PBS special, and there's a heck of a lot of solid info to be found on the tube. Plus, the Internet is an increasingly vast source of reference. I'll do actual research when I have to, but I hate it.
7. What did you do to prepare for your recent return to Iron Man with the BAD BLOOD mini-series? (How did you refresh the character(s) in your mind?)
I reread the Iron Man stories I'd written that have been gathered into trade paperbacks. I then read the Kurt Busiek stories that were currently being published, and talked to Bobbie Chase about what the "carved in stone" future was for the character, so that we wouldn't violate or duplicate anything that was already planned. I also asked what we couldn't do this time that we did in the past, which turned out to be: no playboy activity or attitudes (Tony was to be monogamous with Rumiko during our stories), no rich guy stuff (a bit where Tony asked Pepper to send a Lexus to a client as apology for breaking a business appointment was deemed "too 1980s conspicuous consumerism"), no swearing or sexual innuendo (since Marvel had a deal to sell IRON MAN in gift shops at family theme parks), and no setting up or running a big company--he basically had to work out of a home office like, well...me. This was why we mostly skimmed over the business and romantic aspects of Tony's life in BAD BLOOD.
8. How would you sum up your Iron Man tenure(s)?
I think the first run was a bit better than the second. Bob and I were good buddies at the time, and we lived about ten minutes away from each other in a small college town. (Bob lived with his girlfriend, I lived with my cat--typical.) We hung out together and talked Iron Man a lot and it showed. We also co-plotted face-to-face, which was a big advantage. During the second run, Bob and I lived in different states, a thousand miles apart, got together maybe once or twice a year, and did most of our plotting over the phone. A very different situation. Some of my favorite stories ("Star Hunter", "Intimate Enemies") came from that period, as did some of what I feel were our strongest storylines (Armor Wars, which was Jim Shooter's idea, and Tony being shot and crippled by his girlfriend, which was mine). But I think the distance--more than age or familiarity--showed a bit in that second series of stories.
9. In recent years Marvel has definitely shifted to focus on a younger audience, what do you think has been the overall effect on the industry?
You're asking the wrong person. I really don't have a clue as to what the industry does, or why. I know stories, and how to tell them, and that's about it. But on a personal level, this trend has meant that I (and many other writers and artists who've made the mistake of living past age 40) have had increasing trouble finding work. Editors seem to think that only young writers can write stories about young people--which is sort of like saying that only aliens can write Superman stories, only mutants can write Wolverine stories, only Amazons can write Wonder Woman stories, etc. Marvel has had some widely publicized financial problems of late, so they're obviously doing something wrong. But whether that's related to limiting their target audience, or it's just bad management, an unstable market or simply the luck of the draw, is beyond me to conjecture.
10. Please describe how you typically work as a writer...Do you and the artist sit down and spitball in person, over the phone, or do you send scripts and recieve art via messenger...? How has this changed over the years?
There really is no "typical"; the process varies with the project and the personnel involved. On IRON MAN, Bob and I co-plotted closely, in person the first time around and via telephone the second. For BAD BLOOD we were on the phone again, but this time augmented by faxes and e-mails. At the other end of the spectrum, I did a four-issue Lex Luthor mini-series a couple of years back where the artist (Val Semeiks) and I were never in contact at all. I sent plots to the editor, who forwarded them to Val; Val drew the pictures and then sent the art to the editor, who passed it on to me. I have to add, though, that Val did a tremendous job, and I was very pleased with the comics that eventually hit the stands.
To answer the last part of your question, the aforementioned fax and e-mail access is probably the biggest change in how I've worked with editors and artists in recent years. It's made communication more immediate, and that qualifies as a very positive change.
11. Beyond IRON MAN, what other projects are you most proud of? (Specific Issues?)
THE BOZZ CHRONICLES. This was a series I created for the Epic line at Marvel, about a suicidal alien who becomes a consulting detective in Victorian England. Bret Blevins did an incredible job on the period art; we were on such a similar wavelength that it was almost like he was reaching into my mind and plucking out exact images that I'd formed there. I pulled the series after six issues, due to problems with the editor, but I really loved those characters.
I also had a great time working on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN with Todd McFarlane. He stuck to my plots religiously (a rare professionalism these days) and his pictures were just flat-out fun to write to. I'm also proud of the initial Venom and Carnage stories in ASM, when Jim Salicrup let me control the characters. After a new editor decided to let anyone on the planet write them, they suddenly started sprouting unexplained new powers, inconsistent speech patterns, and altered backgrounds. And readers started to get tired of them. (Sorry. Guess I sorta edged from an answer into a rant for a second there. I'll behave...)
When you look back at your Iron Man stories, is there something you regret doing? (Either a story that didn't pan out, or was rushed, or an idea that you now hate, a character or plot that now seems silly or lame??)
No, I really don't have any major regrets. Some stories are better than others, that's just Reality. When you're writing on deadline there are bound to be times that you have to work when you don't feel like it. You may have the flu, your girlfriend may have just dumped you, or your creativity may simply have flatlined for a few days. Doesn't matter: if the story's due, it has to be written. And every story I've written has been crafted to the very best of my abilities under whatever circumstances prevailed at the time. They may glow or blow, but at least they're honest.
12. What's on your plate next, anything you want to promote?
My plate is currently washed clean and is drying in a rack by the sink. We'll just have to see what tomorrow brings...
Is there anything else that you would like to say to fans?
Yeah: thanks. In these days when it's tough for most writers from the "V" generation (that's a couple before "X") to find new work, it's easy to lose perspective. I generally avoid conventions and other fan gatherings because I don't want to end up one of those sad people who live in their past glories. But then I have to remind myself what a rare and privileged thing it is to HAVE past glories. The fact that folks still remember and enjoy work that I did years ago--work that I had such fun producing--is ultimately very gratifying. And appreciated.
Interview copyrighted by Tim Rassbach 2001, 2002.