Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mark Evanier discusses Blackhawk and Plastic Man

The writer on his turn with the Quality legend, and on the Plastic Man cartoon!

Conducted by Mike Kooiman on 17 November 2011

An homage to Mark Evanier, drawn by his writing
partner, Sergio Aragonés. The two have produced
The Spirit (for DC) and Groo.
Writer Mark Evanier is probably familiar—if not by name, then by the characters he has written—to many cartoon and comics fans, having written for various publishers, producers and networks since the early 1970s. He was a friend to Jack Kirby and was involved with Kirby’s "New Gods" comics for DC in the early 1970s. Evanier is also a frequent collaborator with Sergio Aragonés and a contributor to the Jack Kirby Collector. As a writer, his work for DC Comics is relatively sporadic, but he made a great impression on me and many other fans with his reinvention of Blackhawk in 1982, with artist Dan Spiegle. Over the course of the series, Evanier often revealed behind-the-scenes details about producing Blackhawk, but my talk with him unearthed some fascinating caveats, and other things that I didn’t expect to learn!

Mike Kooiman: Tell me what you’re up to now…

Mark Evanier: Right now the main thing in my life is that I’m writer/producer/voice director of the Garfield cartoon show, seen on Cartoon Network and hundreds of other channels around the world. I’m writing another "Groo" project with Sergio Aragonés for Dark Horse, and I’m writing another new comic that I can’t talk about yet and I’m writing a screen play… I guess all sorts of different things.

MK: How long has it been since you’ve done any work for DC?

Evanier: I’ve done a few forewords—introductions to reprint collections but I haven’t written any comics for them for about two years. I did The Spirit comic for them for a brief time …

MK: I confess I haven’t read the ones you’re written but they’re on my agenda!

Evanier: In those, the stories were all by Sergio Aragonés, I just did the dialogue. It was the same series that was begun by Darwyn Cooke.

MK: You first worked with Dan Spiegle on Scooby Doo... Mystery Comics at Gold Key?



Scooby-Doo... Mystery Funnies #23 (1974),
by Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle.
Evanier: Yes, that’s right. I started writing for Gold Key in about 1970 and Scooby-Doo was ’72 or thereabouts. I’d only been writing comic books for a year or two then. I was fairly new; I’d just gotten out of high school. I started writing for Gold Key, on the Disney comics for them. Then at one point, the editor there decided I was the guy for Scooby-Doo for some reason. I didn’t really want to do it until I found out that Dan Spiegle was drawing it. I always liked Dan’s work. He was one of the first artists that I was able to recognize on unsigned work. After that, Dan and I became friends and we’d work together off-and-on quite a bit for different publishers. We became kind of a team and did a number of projects together. Blackhawk was one of them.

MK: Is Dan still drawing now?

Evanier: Dan is semi-retired. He’s doing commissions. He’ll do a watercolor version from a scene in one of his past comics… either Blackhawk or Crossfire or Hopalong Cassidy (for which he drew the newspaper strip). He developed quite a repertoire of characters over the years.

MK: So did Spiegle live near to you?

Evanier: Dan lives in Santa Barbara, which is about two-hour drive north of here. We would meet form time to time halfway at a restaurant. We saw each other about twice a year.

MK: Do you have any of his original art from the Blackhawk?

Evanier: I have original art from about three stories.

MK: After Blackhawk you did Crossfire for Eclipse. Was that a creator-owned?

Evanier: Yes, right.

Evanier’s First Quality Property: Plastic Man

MK: My ears pricked up when I read that you had written for the Plastic Man cartoon. How involved were you with that?

The Plastic Man cartoon can be purchased on video!
Evanier: I wrote quite a few episodes of that (the show only lasted for two seasons). I wrote probably seven episodes of it. There are two main things you should know about that show. One was that the comic book was not being published at the time. There was nothing to "follow." The driving force behind that show initially, I think, was there was a gentleman named Norman Maurer. He was a former comic book artist, and Joe Kubert’s partner when they published comics in the ’50s.

Norman had come out to Hollywood to become a producer and manager. He was married to the daughter of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. He managed the Three Stooges and also worked a lot in animation as a writer. He was working for ABC, and I think he was the one who suggested they adapt Plastic Man for Saturday morning. He thought that the character was such a neat design and he worked out this new format which put Plastic Man in a new context. The studio was called Ruby Spears, Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, and I was working for them already. Joe turned to me one day and said "We’re going to do Plastic Man," and I said "Have you ever read the comic books?" He said no and I told him a little about them, then he asked me to write a few episodes.

"There's Penny! There's bad luck Hula!"
The format was very different from anything Jack Cole or anyone else had done with the character but the design was very strong and the show was fairly popular. The main driving force at ABC at that time was that they were very crazed about ‘standards of practice.’ They had a woman in charge of the censors who really wanted the super-hero shows laundered down to no violence. I think part of the appeal of Plastic Man was that you had a character who could do incredible things and create visuals without punching or hitting anybody. He was a very nonviolent super-hero and that was —I’m going to guess—why Norman thought he’d work well for Saturday morning, because they couldn’t do very much. Norman had been involved with the development of the Super Friends show and he was very frustrated by the restrictions.

MK: I was a kid at that time and I watched the Plastic Man show pretty religiously and I remember getting a little tired of Super Friends, so maybe I was keying in a bit on what you’re talking about there.

Evanier: The Super Friends show was limited. They ended up writing around the idea that they’d like to have Batman punch somebody in the nose, but they couldn’t do that. It was very easy to write a Plastic Man story with no violence in it. We did two seasons and they introduced "Baby Plas" in the second season. I remember writing one or two of those. It was a modest success for its time.

MK: When DC revived Plastic Man in 1966, it was the first time he had the blond bimbo girlfriend and the premise then was that this was the son of the original. So I wondered if the cartoon had taken notes from that series?

Evanier: I doubt anyone who was involved with the Ruby Spears version had ever seen that ’60s version. The ’60s version as I recall was a case of DC having interest in the character for television and to give it a little bit of—and this is also the case to a certain extent with my Blackhawk—that somebody was interested in the property (for Blackhawk, a movie, and for Plastic Man, a TV series) and DC didn’t want to say "Well we’re not even publishing the comic," so they rushed out a comic book to try to make the property look more active. It’s very tough to sell someone on the appeal of the character if you yourself aren’t willing to gamble on publishing it. So the Plastic Man of the ’60s, the one that Arnold Drake did, I think was driven by that until it became obvious that the TV show was not going to happen. To a certain extent the Blackhawk revival that I did was driven by some movie interest.

… Back to Blackhawk

MK: Are you referring to the whole Steven Spielberg connection?

Can you imagine: Dan Aykroyd as Blackhawk?
Evanier: I believe what happened was that Steve Spielberg was interested in possibly doing something with Blackhawk and somebody even mentioned that Dan Aykroyd wanted to play the character. But I think that was just a pie in the sky, I don’t think there was ever an offer made—that somebody just inquired "Are the rights were available if we want them?" and DC let that leak or it leaked somehow and all of a sudden some other studios went "Hey, maybe we’ll grab Blackhawk if Spielberg thinks it’s hot." So suddenly DC thought it was advantageous to have a Blackhawk comic back on the schedule. At that point the initial thinking was that they would publish it as a quarterly. DC had a couple writers and artists under contract with them that they really didn’t want to use on the books that they cared about. So they initially suggested another writer and artist whom they just needed to find work for because they had signed contracts—to do Blackhawk and knock it out.

Sky-Wolf and his band were created
by Marv Wolfman and Dave Cockrum
to satisfy their love of Blackhawk.
From Marvel Fanfare #16 (1984).
Then Len Wein was assigned to edit the book and he said "We can’t do this to Blackhawk." So Len convinced DC that they should make the book a monthly instead, and they should put a real writer and artist on it… somebody who might have a chance of succeeding with the property. He felt the other people that had been mentioned would ruin it. So they went along with Len on this and briefly Marv Wolfman and Dave Cockrum wanted to do it. The people at DC weren’t that thrilled with that idea because they felt that Marv and Dave would be more commercial on another kind of comic. Both of them were huge Blackhawk fans and both had dabbled in something similar.

There’s a two-shot book they did for Marvel where they basically did the Marvel version of Blackhawk, called Sky-Wolf. They had done that already and were jonesing to do the real Blackhawk. It was published much later [in Marvel Fanfare #16-17 (1984)]. It went on the shelf at Marvel. They decided not to pursue it and then years later Marvel printed it in an anthology comic. For a couple of weeks they talked about Marv and Dave doing it, and that was discouraged. Now it became a question of "Who would do it?" [NOTE: Check out some awesome Blackhawk related art, and more insights from the artist, on Dan Thompson's Unofficial Blackhawk site!]

Len was a friend of mine and living in New York at the time. He called to pick my brain and said "Who should we have do Blackhawk?" I said Dan Spiegle, because Dan drew airplanes so well and was the kind of guy for that comic and Len said "My God, you’re right, that’s a great idea!" and he went to Dan and asked him if he wanted to draw it. Dan had never heard of Blackhawk; he didn’t know what it was. But Len said it had airplanes in it and Dan said, "OK I can do that." Then Dan asked if there was any chance that I could write it. So Len called me back and told me that Dan had asked for me, and I said "yeah!" I love working with Dan and I’ve always wanted to write a war comic. So I thought this might be my only chance ever. Also, I liked Blackhawk and cling to some of the earlier versions of it. Len left the editing after an issue or two and Marv Wolfman took over and then Marv left after the same, and Ernie Colón took it over. Ernie left after a few issues and I took it over.

MK: It seems like every one of those men got on to other projects that were hot…

Evanier: Well, Dan and I have a kind of unique working relationship. Even when Len was editing the book, I would write it and send the script to Dan, and Dan would do the artwork and send it to me, and I would make lettering corrections and send it to DC. So I was kind of doing half the editorial work anyway. We’ve worked that way on lots of other comics. So each editor sort of said "I’m not doing anything on Blackhawk anyway, let’s give it to somebody else." When Ernie gave it up DC asked who should edit it now and Len or Marv said, "Evanier’s already really the editor, lets just give him the title." I became the editor of it for the rest of its run.

MK: You mentioned in one of the letter columns about DC also doing this revival in order to maintain its licensing rights? Is there some truth to that?

Evanier: Yeah, if you have a property, you have to use it. Use it or lose it. So they were bringing it back to remind everybody they owned it and to secure their title to it, and maybe have some merchandising. DC had a comic at the same time called DC Comics Presents, which teamed Superman with various characters. Frequently the choice was dictated by DC’s lawyers who said "Hey we haven’t done any thing with this character, lets stick him in a book." I did a Superman/Kamandi team-up for that reason [DC Comics Presents #64 (1983)]. The editor was Julius Schwartz, and Julie called me one day and he as aid "they told me I’ve got to do a Superman/Kamandi story. I’m not familiar with Kamandi. You worked on it right?" And I said yes, and he had me do the story. That was to save him having to read all the old Kamandis.

MK: So you were a Blackhawk fan before you began writing it? Did you already have a considerable library?

Evanier: I have tons of comic books. I had a near complete run of the DC Blackhawk and probably about a third of Quality’s Modern and Blackhawk issues. So I had a lot of them.

MK: Did you ever see any Quality Comics stuff in the DC archives?

Evanier: I think DC’s archive of the Quality stuff is not very complete. Also, it was in New York and I’m in Los Angeles, so I didn’t access their library at all. The Quality comics were good for inspiration: What’s great about these characters and how can I replicate it? But I didn’t find them very usable for much more than that. The Quality books were kind of inconsistent and sometimes very shallow. I liked the design, and some of the testosterone in the comic. They way they functioned was exciting but I didn’t like any of the stories in the Quality books. I don’t know any Blackhawk fans that really loved them. I think it’s one of those comics like Wonder Woman that people like in spite of what’s done with them. They like the premise, they like the look and idea of the comic more than they like the execution on it.

MK: I can second that. I’m a pretty big Wonder Woman fan, so I know what you’re talking about.

Evanier: I’m of the opinion that there’ve been about eight good Wonder Woman comics ever done. I love Wonder Woman but I can’t really point to any specific comic books that I liked that much.

An insensitive editorial prompted Evanier
to promote Chop-Chop to full Blackhawk
status. From Blackhawk #265.
MK: You also devoted a few column inches to the whole Chop-Chop controversy when you were writing Blackhawk. Do you think you would have pursued the evolution of that character so much if that infamous editorial hadn’t appeared? [NOTE: After the launch of Evanier’s Blackhawk, an editorial (published in the Richmond, Va., Times Dispatch, Feb. 6, 1983) decrying his decision not to use the original, racially offensive version of Chop-Chop.]

Evanier: I think I would have anyway. I gave that editorial probably more attention than it deserved. I had a problem that when I was on Blackhawk, DC was kind of ignoring the book. They had not intended for it to sell. They told me flat out when it started "This thing is never gonna sell for us. It’s going to be our lowest seller. There’s no market for this. We’re only really publishing it to keep the characters alive in the world, so don’t expect any royalties," and such. And then the book sold better than anybody expected. It wasn’t a huge seller but it wasn’t at the bottom and they liked the book a lot. There was a nice response; a lot of people liked it, so but they still didn’t publicize it. If you look in some of the issues of other DC books of that period they ran a major subscription push for all the DC books, a big double page ad that listed all the DC comics and Blackhawk was not on the list.

MK: It’s funny that you mention that because I noticed one of those towards the end of the run.

Evanier: Yes, I had a number of fights with DC’s promotions people. The big story was that each month they at each month, as an editor, I would have to tell them about upcoming issues, so when they did the solicitations/press releases, they would be able to say things about the story, the art, and cover. I would send in the Blackhawk listings dutifully and the guy there would lose them and print "No information available at press time." So I titled the last issue of Blackhawk "No Information Available at Press Time," just to be ornery—so that the listing would be right at least once!
Evanier's in-joke—the title of this story—digs at DC's inept marketing machine.
I had another incident where a major comic book store owner came to me to do an appearance at his store. I told him I would do it if he would up his order of Blackhawk for that month. Because I would occasionally go into stores for signings and I’d literally walk in and they’d say, "Oh, we’re all sold out of your new issues." I’d get to the stores and there’d be none of my product there to sign. So this time, asked them to order an extra 300 copies of Blackhawk that month. They said fine, but then the bookstore called me back and said "DC talked us out of it. They said ‘Oh you’ll get stuck with those. Order an extra 300 of Teen Titans instead.’" It was really tough doing a comic that the company was so obviously not behind.

So I was chiding them a lot and making noise, to call attention to the fact that the book was not getting the attention that it deserved. Because I knew that it wasn’t going to sell very well, but I didn’t want people saying "Well that proves Dan Spiegle is not a commercial artist." It didn’t matter to me because I had other comics that were selling quite well, and also comics were my sideline; I was also writing television at that time. I thought it might be injurious to Dan’s career if someone started blaming him for the low sales on Blackhawk and didn’t take in to account the tremendous a) uncommercial nature of the property in the marketplace at the time, and b) the fact that the company had been so totally not behind it. So I got into a little trouble with DC over doing that.

MK: Things change over time, but I can’t imagine not even doing the bare minimum to push a book…

Evanier: It was a question of them wanting to devote their energies to something else. They were not wrong in the sense that the book wasn’t that commercial in the market. DC didn’t make much money off of it. In particular one of the problems was regarding the foreign rights. DC had a major profit point in selling reprint rights in Germany. They made a lot of money when the German publisher would reprint DC Comics and the German publisher for some inexplicable reason—the comic was all about killing Germans [laughs]!—so they didn’t take the rights to Blackhawk and that automatically put us at a financial disadvantage.

MK: I know you were already a Blackhawk fan and you’d wanted to do a war book. Did you already have a good base knowledge of wartime history? Did you need to do a lot of extra research?

Evanier: I did a lot of extra research. I knew enough to write a comic book but I did extra research because I wanted to do something that people wouldn’t write and yell about. There was a fellow on staff at DC at the time, E. Nelson Bridwell, who was a proofreader and a very smart writer and he and I got into arguments over World War II history. Nelson would read all the comics before they went to press and he would sometimes make changes to what I was doing because it was factually wrong, and we would debate it. He had a book that he cited and I had mine. We were friends and he would call me up and say, "That’s wrong. Germany didn’t invade there. They went that way." And I said "No, no," and I’d read my book and he’d read his book. There are some points of contention and some books that get things wrong. I think I did half the research because I didn’t want Nelson calling me to complain.

The deadly Domino was Evanier's
stand-in for Lady Blackhawk.

MK: Did you ever have any desire to introduce your own Lady Blackhawk, or reintroduce Zinda Blake?

Evanier: I didn’t introduce Lady Blackhawk initially because I thought that I had enough characters to deal with, and if we went two or three years maybe I could bring her in then. But then I also didn’t want the comic to be so male because it got a little butch there at times, so I wanted to have a female in it. So I created this character called Domino because I could leave her out or kill her off or do anything I wanted with her. Whereas with Lady Blackhawk, I would have to treat her like an ongoing property and part of the franchise. So I just decided to cut back on the number of characters by leaving Lady Blackhawk out "for now." Had we gone longer, I probably would have brought her in.

Before launching his own version of
Blackhawk, Howard Chaykin drew
 covers for Evanier and Spiegle's run.


MK: When Howard Chaykin redid Blackhawk for the post-Crisis universe, he shook everything up. He made a brand new Lady Blackhawk and I was wondering if you had any impressions about what he did.

Evanier: I like Howard’s work tremendously but I have not read a single Blackhawk comic since I left it.

MARK EVANIER: A SELECTED DC COMICOGRAPHY
  • Blackhawk #251-273 (1982-84)
  • DC Comics Presents #64, 69 (1983-84)
  • Fanboy #1-6 (1999)
  • Mister Miracle Special #1 (1987)
  • New Gods #1, 5-28 (1989-91)
  • Secret Origins #12 (Challengers of the Unknown, 1987)
  • Sergio Aragonés Destroys DC #1 (1996)
  • The Spirit #14-25 (2008-09)
  • Superman & Bugs Bunny #1-4 (2000)
  • Superman Adventures #14, 15, 42, 53 (1997-2001)
  • Welcome Back, Kotter #4 (1977)

2 comments:

  1. That was a fun interview. It never fails to chagrin me to hear these types of horror stories about DC. It isn't as if Marvel and every other publisher lacks similar failings, but DC has for decades displayed a particularly pathological form of self-defeating practices.

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  2. Kinda like The Shade, going on right now...

    ReplyDelete