Heroes, Villains, and Legends

Kurt Busiek Talks About
IRON MAN, AVENGERS, and THUNDERBOLTS

Interviewed by S! BRETT LORD and SCOTT SIMMONS in early December 1997


[BRETT]  Earlier this year, when word first started leaking out that you were being considered as IRON MAN writer, you posted on-line some excerpts from your proposal for the series—including your perspective for handling the multi-faceted Tony Stark. Could you summarize for our readers your unique approach to Tony?

I don't know that it's unique—my take on Tony is based on the way he's been presented in the past, though I think I'll be bringing out facets of him that haven't been brought out at the same time before.

What fascinates me about Tony is that he's four people in one—a businessman, a ladies' man, an inventor, and a super-hero. Any one of those would be enough, since each of them is a rich source of story springboards. This means that Tony should never, ever be dull, since if one aspect of his character ... gets overused, another facet can rise to the surface—there are always different directions to go with him.

I plan to use all four facets as much as I can—and one of the facets that most interests me is the ladies'-man aspect. Most often, in the past, Tony has been presented either as dating a succession of indistinguishable and uncharacterized beauties night after night, or he's tied up in a single committed relationship about which he frets and moans like any other super-hero. I'm hoping to go a different way, inspired to a great degree by Milt Caniff's classic work on the TERRY AND THE PIRATES strip.

Caniff's romantic lead, Pat Ryan, had a number of continuing, off-and-on relationships with a variety of distinctive and interesting women—some serious, some casual. But the various relationships brought out different aspects of Pat: His relationship with Normandy Drake was a classic romance of the heart, his relationship with the Dragon Lady was a challenging intellectual romance, and his relationship with the enigmatic Burma was purte heat and sex—just to name the top three. So we got to see Pat in different lights depending on what kind of romance he was in at the moment.

I'd like to do that sort of thing with Tony. I don't claim to be the character writer Caniff was, but we'll be introducing new romantic partners for Tony as well as bringing back old ones, and we'll see if I can make it click. I'd love to see the readers arguing over who the best woman for Tony is, rather than just constantly, plaintively asking if Bethany's coming back any time soon.

[BRETT] Can you give us a glimpse as to what your first year on the book will hold for IRON MAN readers, both old and new? Any familiar faces? What sort of new faces?

I hate to give away too much, since I love surprises and think too much in comics gets revealed ahead of time. But we want to introduce (or reintroduce) Iron Man to readers in a big way, concentrating on what's unique about the series. So you'll be seeing him travelling to exotic locations—Switzerland, the Caribbean, Australia, France, Russia, and more. You'll be seeing old villains like the Dreadnoughts, new villains like the Deathsquad and the all-new Firebrand, and refurbished villains like the upgraded Whiplash. You'll be seeing existing supporting characters like Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts, Morgan Stark, and Rhodey; faces that haven't been seen in years like the Countess Stephanie de la Spirosa; and new faces as well.

We want to mix the hi-tech action with lots of suspense and intrigue: Tony navigates a shadowy world of conspiracy and unseen dangers at the same time as Iron Man goes toe-to-toe with some world-class threats. If we do it right, it ought to be a lot of fun.

I'm also working on a two-part bookshelf format Iron Man series called IRON MAN: THE IRON AGE, [which] takes place very early in Iron Man's career, back when he was in the bulky golden armor. It'll let new readers know about the early days, give older readers a new perspective on things—since it's told, Marvels-style, through the eyes of Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan and for the first time fits together all the details of when Tony's parents died and how he came to be such a dynamic businessman—and will include at least one dramatic revelation that'll shake things up in the second year of the present-day book. That's being drawn by Patrick Zircher, and we're talking to a terrific inker, but nothing's settled on that front just yet.

[E]very series, every issue, every story should stand on its own ... .

[SCOTT] The last time we saw Iron Man in the Marvel Universe, Tony Stark had betrayed the Avengers and died, only to be replaced as Iron Man by a younger version of himself from another timeline. (Whew.) When are you planning to reconcile your version of Tony with the pre-ONSLAUGHT continuity? Have you already worked out the finer points, or is the "continuity solution" still top secret at this point?

We're planning on doing a special called IRON MAN: LOOK BACK IN ARMOR that'll answer a lot of questions about how the past reconciles with the present. I wouldn't want to do it in the main book, since we'll have a lot of new readers who just don't care, and I don't see why we should drag out all these old problems they never read about and make them go away. But the long-time readers who are interested will get their answers, and I hope they'll get them in a satisfying and dramatic way that'll make them look at Tony in a new light.

As for whether it's been worked out—yes, it has, but I ain't tellin'!

[BRETT] You're also writing AVENGERS, a team which Iron Man helped found and has been a vital part of for nearly 35 years. Are these two assignments linked in your mind? That is, will there be crossovers between the two, or do you plan to keep them separate and distinct?

The way I think comics should work, every series, every issue, every story should stand on its own, so no reader feels he or she has to read anything more than the book in his hands to understand and enjoy what's going on. So don't expect to see the continuity between AVENGERS and IRON MAN get tangled together inseparably.

But that said, the books do share a lot of history and a lot of connections, so I do see strong links between them and will be using those. And we do have stories in mind that'll run through both books—both short-term crossover arcs and longer-term character storylines—but unless we screw up, you'll always be able to read just one of the titles and get all you need to know to enjoy the stories.

[BRETT] On AVENGERS, you're working with veteran artist George Perez, who's also a writer. What is the nature of your collaboration with George? Do you co-plot the stories together, or do you fly solo on the writing chores?

I'm a lot more knowledgeable about the 90s Marvel Universe, plus I'm a research hound, so George trusts me to make everything make sense. I plot the issues solo (with appropriate kibitzing and input from our editor, Tom Brevoort), though George is always free to make suggestions or requests, and I do talk over general direction with him. He then draws the book from my plot, adding detail and character bits where they occur to him, and just in general transforming my plots into a visual story with the kind of grandeur and impact that the Avengers should have. So far, he's been delighted with the plots, and I've been enthralled by the artwork—I hope we'll continue that way for a good long time.

[BRETT] What do you and George have planned for the Avengers in the coming months? I've heard we'll soon be seeing the Squadron Supreme—whose idea was that?

Using the Squadron was my idea; they were in the first issue of AVENGERS that George drew, so it only seemed right to me that they should return around the same time that he did. He and Tom enthusiastically approved, so it seems like we made the right choice.

As for what's coming up, let's see what I can say without giving too much away. In the first three issues, the Avengers come together again to face a cosmic menace capable to reordering reality completely—and they come together in a big way, since for those issues we've got something like 39 Avengers active.

In issue # 4, the roster will be pared down to a functional and manageable team, and in # 5-6 and the ANNUAL, we'll deal with the Squadron Supreme and what they're up to.

# 7 is part of a non-intrusive crossover along the lines that I mentioned earlier, dealing with the Kree.

# 8-9 introduce a new character who may or may not someday become an Avenger, plus [these issues] deal with villains (new and old) that the Avengers have never faced before.

In # 10-11, we celebrate the team's 35th anniversary in a story that includes a visit from the Grim Reaper, and in # 12, the Avengers meet the Thunderbolts for the first time since T-BOLTS # 12.

Along the way, we'll lose roster members, gain roster members, deal with romance, responsibility, and resurrection, and with any luck we'll have a lot of fun.

Oh, and then Ultron'll show up—

[With the Thunderbolts'] ruse at an end,
they'll just have to do something else,
won't they?

[BRETT] One of the main sources of villainy for the Avengers over the years has been Baron Zemo and his Masters of Evil. With the Masters now starring in their own title (THUNDERBOLTS, for those who have been off-planet all year), a confrontation seems imminent. Is it? And if so, when and where will readers see it?

Actually, while the Masters have plagued the Avengers in many incarnations, I think the second Baron Zemo has only clashed with them, as a team, once—in the immortal "Siege of the Mansion" storyline by Roger Stern and John Buscema. But it was one heck of a clash, and it's remembered fondly.

We'll be seeing the Avengers and the T-bolts meet in THUNDERBOLTS # 12 and then again in AVENGERS # 12 (after a hopefully-intriguing prologue in T-BOLTS # 22). And we've got more plans for the teams to be involved further down the line as well.

[BRETT] WIZARD recently reported that there will be a CAPTAIN AMERICA/CITIZEN V ANNUAL next year: Will you be involved with this Annual? And if so, what can you tell us about it? It sounds interesting, considering Citizen V's real identity—

I'm certainly planning to write it, but I've got some time before I have to figure things out; it comes out the same month as T-BOLTS # 22 and AVENGERS # 12, which will be "Avengers/Thunderbolts" month and will also feature a trade paperback collection of the "Siege of Avengers Mansion" storyline and an Avengers/T-bolts novel from Byron Preiss.

I can tell you this much—the real Cap and the real Zemo both star in it, and we'll delve back in time to see Cap meet the original Citizen V back in World War II, as well. The question of how things'll work, considering V's secret identity, is too juicy to answer; I think it's more fun to let readers anticipate.

I've been fascinated by villains for a long time.

[BRETT] Your run on THUNDERBOLTS has been full of surprises from the get-go. Where are you headed with the book as you enter year two, now that it appears (as of issue # 10) the T-bolts' ruse has come to an end?

Well, with their ruse at an end, they'll just have to do something else, won't they? The first big T-bolts storyline comes to a close in # 12, in a way that'll spin the book in a whole new direction. If I told you what that direction is going to be, it would blow both the ending of # 12 and the surprises that follow, so I can't say much except that it grows out of what the characters have been experiencing and dealing with this past year. You'll see characters ranging from the Crimson Cowl's Masters of Evil to the Lightningbolts/Great Lakes Avengers to an army of Creatures from Kosmos; you'll see big changes for a number of the T-bolts; you'll see new villains (including the winner of the WIZARD/T-BOLTS "Create-A-Villain Contest" from their DARK BOOK); you'll see cool guest stars; and hopefully the book will continue to surprise and involve people like it's been doing all along.

[SCOTT] The other day I was talking to a customer about your work on Jim Valentino's Image series THE REGULATORS. The dynamics of a super-villain team seem to be an ongoing fascination of yours. Just how long ago did you concoct the scheme of super-villains masquerading as heroes to win the public trust? And why did you place that idea in the mind of Baron Zemo in particular?

I've been fascinated by villains for a long time; the seeds of the Thunderbolts go back to around 1985 or so, and a long drive home for the holidays. When I'm driving, I keep myself alert by mentally assigning myself books and coming up with storylines for them, and on this trip I "assigned" myself AVENGERS. One of the ideas I came up with was that over the course of a year or so, old members would cycle out and new members would cycle in, until at the end of the year the team would consist of Captain America and six or so new heroes—and then Cap'd find out that the rest of his team were all Masters of Evil in disguise.

I wasn't sure where to go from there, but I thought it was a fun idea—and when I got asked to pitch ideas for the post-ONSLAUGHT Marvel Universe, I realized it would work even better as a replacement team stepping in for the Avengers and winning the public's heart, all the while hiding a dark secret.

As for why Zemo, the idea started as a Masters of Evil plan, so when I pitched it as THUNDERBOLTS, that's where I started. And Zemo's crafty, skilled, and driven enough to make it work, so I didn't see any reason not to use him.

[SCOTT] You've been handling multiple assignments for several years now. Until the recent conclusion of UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN, you were poised to write five regular titles each month! Doesn't this schedule preclude you from experimenting with other characters in 1998? Or are you looking forward to the challenge of multiple monthlies?

I was never poised to write five titles. I resigned from UNTOLD TALES when they offered me AVENGERS—I'd already resigned from NINJAK to take IRON MAN—and they chose to end the series rather than continue it with a different writer. So the plan was always to write four books a month, and that's what I'm doing. Of course, who knows what they'll throw at me in the future; they've made me some great offers recently, and it's always possible I could be gullible enough to say yes to something else.

But yes, this does limit my options in terms of doing one-shots and other stuff with other characters, but I've already done a lot of that in my career, and the regular books feature some of my all-time favorite characters. So I'm looking forward to being able to concentrate on these books, rather than hopping around as I have in the past.

[BRETT] How long are you committed to each of these titles—IRON MAN, AVENGERS, and THUNDERBOLTS?

I'm the regular writer on all three of them, and that's open-ended—there is no pre-set stopping point for any of them. I have made a deal with Marvel that'll keep me writing books for them for the next two years, and the intent is that it'll be those three, but there's nothing in the deal that specifies those three books. But those are the books I most want to write, so I can't see jumping ship for, say, GAMBIT or WOLVERINE.

[BRETT] You and frequent collaborator Alex Ross recently created for WIZARD's DARK BOOK 98 an "ultimate super-villain" as a foil for Samaritan in your creator-owned title ASTRO CITY. This was a fascinating process, by the way, and the end result, Infidel, is in concept one of the most intriguing villains we've seen in recent years. How soon are we likely to see Infidel rear his head in ASTRO CITY? And what else do you have planned for the title in 1998?

I'm glad you like Infidel, but at this point I'm not sure when he'll show up; we made him up fairly recently, and we'll have to find a natural slot for his story to fit in.

As for what we've got coming up, we'll be kicking off the year with the story of Loony Leo, a cartoon lion who was brought to life in the 40s and is still alive today. That's a one-issue story, and we'll follow it up with another six-part arc—this one focusing on Steeljack, a super-villain fresh out of jail who wants to go straight. But that's not an easy thing to do when you're internationally infamous and head-to-toe stainless steel.

After that, I'm not yet sure what we'll be doing—maybe some shorter stories, maybe the opening arc in the storyline that would have been MARVELS II, maybe an Honor Guard story, maybe Infidel.

We'll decide as we get closer to it—we've got a ton of stories to tell in ASTRO CITY, and part of the fun is figuring out how best to fit them all together.