Kurt Busiek is widely regarded as one of the great writers in modern comics, and for most fans that reputation started with Marvels. Working in concert with painter Alex Ross, Busiek reimagined important, historic stories throughout Marvel Comics’ publishing history through the eyes of freelance news photographer Phil Sheldon.
This week, Busiek returned to Sheldon’s world in Marvels: Eye of the Camera #1 (this time with artist Jay Anacleto) and sat down with Blog@Newsarama to discuss the issue.
Blog@Newsarama: What motivated you to go back into this? I feel like Sheldon’s ending was pretty satisfactory for most readers at the close of Marvels—why drag him through the wringer here?
Kurt Busiek: Well, I had another story to tell. Marvels ends well, I think — it’s a self-contained story, and ends where it ought to end. But I always had another story in mind for Phil. It’s not what we originally had planned as a sequel, but from way back, we’d talked about doing maybe a one-shot special exploring what came afterward for Phil. And while we added a lot to it — what would have been the one-shot is actually about half of #5 and the rest of #6 — this is that story, and it takes Phil to where I thought things would go for him all along.
So when Tom Brevoort called me up years ago, to talk about doing something new for the tenth anniversary of Marvels, I told him the story of the special, and he liked it. And this is what it became.
Blog@: I loved the final monologue, while Phil was shooting at the launch site. Was there a particular inspiration for that? …It kind of reminded me of the famous “high water mark” bit from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.
KB: I haven’t seen or read Fear & Loathing, but maybe I should.
I don’t recall having any particular inspiration for it, other than trying to express what Phil would be thinking, what the sight of all that would make him feel, considering what was going on in his life. Glad you liked it.
Blog@: Roughly when is Phil’s “current” story taking place? Is it right after he retired or is it effectively today?
KB: Most of #1 took place in the early days of Marvel’s Silver Age, of course, but those last few pages are taking place shortly after the end of the first Marvels series. So Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn haven’t been dead all that long, Mantis and the Swordsman just joined the Avengers, Reed Richards is soon going to have to shut his son Franklin’s brain down, Thor’s been mixing it up with Mercurio, the 4-D Man, and the new X-Men don’t exist yet.
So there’s a lot coming down the pike…
Blog@: That asked, will we see “old” Phil interacting with the events that are taking place in his present, or will his experience with the Marvels be exclusively seen in flashback?
KB: Back when we started this, Marvel was strongly opposed to using many flashback scenes, so we rigged this so it wouldn’t need many. There’s at least one toward the end, but for the most part, you’ll see it all unfold as Phil does.
Blog@: A lot of reporters—like so many other people who work in demanding, exciting professions—have a hard time completely walking away from the job when they retire. Is that what we’re seeing with Sheldon wanting to shoot the launch site, or is it more in the vein of “one last thing” to tie off his career because he suspects what’s coming at Mercy General?
KB: Probably a mixture of both. And, of course, while Phil’s retired from his job as a photojournalist, he’s still a photographer, and he’s got a sequel to his book in mind, even if he’s not planning to do any more work for the newspapers.
Blog@: I’m sure that these things are unforeseeable, but do you think it’s going to draw unnecessary comparisons that you’re publishing at the same time as Alex is off somewhere drawing the Kingdom Come Superman?
KB: No idea. We’ve been working on Eye of the Camera since 2002, so there’s no real chance we could have been trying to do it at the same time. And I gather what Geoff and Alex are doing is a very, very different kind of story. But who knows — maybe it’ll get people thinking about both Marvels and Kingdom Come, and we can both reach out to more readers as a result. It’s sort of nice to have them both active at the same time, in that sense.
Blog@: Was it you, or Marvel, who decided on the painter for this series?
KB: Jay’s not a painter, actually. What he does is very detailed, very texture pencil rendering, and Brian Haberlin adds the color in the computer. That’s why Marvel’s offering the book in both color and in black and white, to show Jay’s artwork in all its pristine glory.
Anyway, it was Tom who showed me Jay’s work, and said “How about this guy?” Not being a moron, my answer was “Holy cow, he’s great!”
Blog@: Is it a tightrope to walk, taking a point-of-view character and making him into an honest-to-God protagonist? Or do you think that Phil was always too strong a character to “just” be the narrator?
KB: Most point-of-view characters are the lead characters in their stories, actually. In making Phil an observer and narrator, but not that much of a direct participant, we were hearkening back to older traditions, when novels were often narrated by someone off on the fringes of the action, someone who was in a position to know what happened because he or she knew the lead characters, but wasn’t all that involved in events.
It was fun working with Phil in that way, but since then, most of the narrators of Astro City stories, to pick an example, are both point-of-view characters and leads. In this case, Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada asked for the story to be as much about Phil as about what he witnesses, and given the plans I’d had back when I’d been thinking of the story as a one-shot special, that dovetailed with my plans just fine. And it wasn’t much of a mental shift — like I said, I’ve been taking that approach long enough in Astro City, that it all kind of came together naturally.
Blog@: The last little while, you’ve been hunkered down in a bunker where, presumably, Dan DiDio has your family held hostage or something to keep you from getting up to use the restroom while working on Trinity. How did you find time for Eye of the Camera?
KB: Well, we started on Eye of the Camera in 2002. So most of the writing was done well before started, but Jay’s such a painstaking artist, it’s taken a long time to get it done. And I did have help, as well — Roger Stern joins the creative team in #3, to assist with the research and writing, which was an enormous thing, given my schedule the last few years.
Blog@: A small clarification, if you can: Who is George at the White House? Historical figure or imagined character?
KB: He’s probably the press secretary, or assistant press secretary, given that he’s herding newsmen around.
In Marvels, we make it look and feel like the era those events were originally published in, but we never come flat-out and say what year it is, as we’d be doing if we used a historical press secretary or President or New York mayor, or something. That’s why we mention historical figures, we’re careful to pick characters who’ll work whether you look at this stuff as happening in publishing time, or in the condensed Marvel-time. We mentioned Lauren Bacall at the FF wedding, for instance, since she could have been there if it happened in the 1960s, and could also have been there if it happened only 6 or 7 years ago. Same with the Sean Connery reference this issue.
So “Georgie” is fictional — using someone historical from 1961 would tie things down too clearly for us.
Blog@: I feel like the sequence where Phil has to flip on the TV and get scattered reports of what’s happening, was a great scene. It seemed very…real. It’s how I remember 9/11—all fragments and nobody wanting to say anything too definitive on the news for fear that they’ll get it wrong and be played back on “History’s Greatest Blunders” for a century. Was it your intention to imbue some of these old stories with a feeling of believability that maybe the—pardon the pun—fantastic nature of the stories didn’t necessarily allow for on the first telling?
KB: That’s a lot of the appeal of Marvels, I think, both the first one and this one. To take the high-flying, wild and fantastic events of Marvel history and show them as a person who was actually living through them would experience them. So I’m glad that sequence worked well for you — it was definitely informed, at least a bit, by what it felt like to be sitting there flipping channels on September 11th, and from the stories my parents have told me about following events during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the assassination of JFK.
This isn’t as tragic a moment, but it’s still the kind of thing that the news would get in fragments, and most people would only get bits and pieces of, until there was enough information to form a bigger, clearer picture.
Blog@: I feel like Mark Waid is one of the great superhero writers of the last twenty years, but his Kingdom Come sequel was almost universally loathed (I say “almost” because I actually remember enjoying it at the time). How hard is it to live up to the name of something like Marvels?
KB: The thing is, Marvels isn’t a classic to me. I recognize that a whole lot of people out there like it a whole lot, but for me, it’s months of work, it’s a lot of typing, it’s having a great time getting the pencils in from Alex (by fax, of course, this was before I even had e-mail), and all the work of putting it together. I’m the puppeteer, not the audience, so to me it’s all lines on paper, and mistakes I wish we fixed, and stuff like that. I can’t stand in the audience’s place.
So for me, working on the sequel is a lot like working on the original was. I don’t sit there trying to figure out how to be great, just to try to tell an honest, effective, involving story. That’s the same thing I did last time, and I have to figure, if I do it right, people will like the result. And I hope they do — but what I’m “living up to” is the work and experience of making the first one. I wasn’t part of the audience, so I don’t see it from their perspective.
I’m eager to find out what they think, of course — but that’s the same way I felt last time, too!
Blog@: Wardrobe is an interesting thing in superhero comics. Surrounded by these people in the garish colors and the rippling muscles, somehow the (completely natural) fact that Phil is diagnosed while wearing a hospital gown makes him seem that much more vulnerable. Is that intentional or just serendipity?
KB: Some of each. I always consider the visuals, when writing, to make them part of the storytelling. So putting Phil in a hospital johnny, on an exam table in what it doubtless a chilly room, that’s a part of getting the scene to feel right emotionally. But it wouldn’t have made sense if people never did get diagnoses like that. So you work with the available range of options — he’s going to get the news in an exam room or in a doctor’s office, not at home or on a golf course or something — but within that range, you pick and choose to heighten the right emotions, and make the reality of it come through.
Phil’s short, balding, elderly, frail and disabled, with that eye-patch — and all of that makes him a good contrast with the heroes, who must feel like physically-perfect “gods among us” from time to time. It’d be technically accurate if we’d visually cast him to look like Robert Redford, but we don’t want to just be technically accurate, we want it to work emotionally as well. So Phil’s designed to represent human frailty, and ordinariness, in contrast with the marvels.
Putting him in an exam room, in one of those gowns, just makes it one more thing people can probably relate to…