illustration (c) José Villarrubia 2000 digital
illustration (c) José Villarrubia 2000
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Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

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An interview with Steven Grant by Jonathan Ellis

Steven Grant is the writer behind the enigmatic and powerful X-MAN. Steven Grant runs the @tventure website, thee outlet for comics writers. And Steven Grant writes a weekly column for as The Master Of The Obvious, where every Wednesday he lets you know just what’s wrong with the industry, and if you’re smart, you’ll listen. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Steve attended the University of Wisconsin. Steve likes to eat Tex-Mex and drink Coca-Cola, and of course chose comics because… “Comics chose me, really.”

Steve got his first break into the industry with:

Roger Stern, who I'd met through fandom and stayed with when I visited New York during college, had just been promoted to editor at Marvel and desperately needed an issue of MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE done to get the schedule up to speed. I happened to be the warm body who walked in at the right moment. (I was already writing professionally as a film and music reviewer by then, and had done a few stories for Mike Friedrich's books and a few other places.)

Alright Steve, let's play: make a company that works.
So here I am, mister rich, and I want to form a comic company and I want you to run it, but of course it's not that easy, I have a few... rules. Now I'm willing to put the cash out there, but 1)I want you to get me certain talent, Warren Ellis, Kent Williams, Grant Morrison, Ted Mckeever, Jamie Delano, Bill Sienkiewicz, and other big names which I'm sure you can anticipate, But. uh-oh, I also know a few up and comers I want to do some work, they may be good, but they aren't guaranteed sales. 2) Before a series even hits the stands I want (considering this is an on going series) at least 6 issues done before hand, thus ensuring the series runs on schedule- and as the money guy I intend to be a real asshole about this. Once again the cash is there, but you gotta convince the talent to get their work done- or whoever you hire to take care of such concerns. 3) I want diversity and quality, I want all sorts of stories, this may involve hiring more talent- or less. 4) I want to see art from unknowns to the sequential page, I want tattoo artists and CD cover artists getting their art printed in our books, hell even on our covers. 5) I also want a heavy web presence, that means our talent will have to participate in that sense. 6) I want a publicist with the specific intent of getting our properties to other mediums, cartoons, movies, but once again the creator will have to be involved to a certain extent to make sure their characters (they'll own all their creations BTW- But I do want a clause in the contract making sure they remain with our banner for a certain amount of time before leaving) are being treated properly. 7) I also want subscription packages made up, with a copy of the first issue and all sorts of previews and news about the company and titles, and I want them sent all over to try and encourage sales in different places, whether it be music stores, book stores, convenience stores, tattoo parlors, arcades, cycle, skater and boarder shops, art supplies shops, cigar shops, barber shops, the body shop, whatever. Now after hearing my rules, do you decide to go with me (assuming you have the time) or not, why? Why not? If so, what else do we need to cover to make this company work, to make it one of the best out there? If not, which of my rules should we do away with?

Sure. I'll go with you. If you've got the money I can put it all together no problem. But you have to take some things into consideration: nobody, known or unknown, is a guaranteed seller. It has to be the right talent on the right concept. If you can afford it, getting six issues done is a good idea and I don't think anyone would have a problem with that, but here's what I'd do: I'd have them do the six issues not as a single arc but as a single story so that they're doing a graphic novel, not a comics run, then I'd add pages to break the material into a six issue arc. This way you're not only promising them a comics run but practically guaranteeing book publication and a backlist, which is what authors want. As far as tattoo artists and CD cover artists go, if they can produce workable comics art, mazetov. If they can't, forget it.

The four prongs of the comics pitchfork are talent, editorial vision, adequate marketing, and sufficient distribution. This presumes the end material is well done, interesting, and distinctive. But, sure, if someone wants to put up the money and go for the right talent, there's no reason it couldn't happen.

Now, Master of the Obvious, if all these problems with the industries we see are glaring us in the face each day, then why do you suppose we're not really doing that much about them? Or are we?

Money. When there's no money coming in, no one wants to risk throwing good money after bad to fix things. When money is coming in, they figure there's nothing to fix. Companies are taking little measures, but they're basically trying to put Band-Aids on gaping, gushing head wounds. The general presumption is that we can somehow force the market back to what it was, but those days are dead and gone, and until at least one funded publisher starts looking ahead - positively - nothing will change.

What constitutes a truly good comic?

An appropriately drawn, interesting read. It's a subjective judgment, but there's a line from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE that makes the whole movie for me, when James Dean's sitting in the planetarium and they're showing pictures of the stars, and he says, "When you're up there, you know you've been someplace." That's how it is with a truly good comic: you know you've read something.

From an indy stand point, how should one break into the field with their own title? What if it's one of the best stories around, but the art sucks, or vice versa. How do you think one should represent ones self?

Always represent one's self as what one is; if you don't, it'll come back and bite you sooner or later. Truly bad art will prevent anyone from reading a comic even if the story's brilliant (of course, there's art that strikes you as hot when you first see it and only after you've been exposed to it awhile do you realize how bad it is, but that doesn't count here) and a truly bad story will keep people from coming back, unless the art's so brilliant it's worth having on its own merits. But even great stories and great art in the same package are no guarantee of anything, if it doesn't get decent distribution or if you can't convince people they must read it.

As for breaking into the field, that may not be the same thing. It depends what your goal is. If you want to work for Marvel or DC ultimately, just getting your own title out there with as good material as you can muster is adequate. It's a loss leader for your career, something you lose money on in order to interest a specific audience: in this case, editors at major comics companies. That kind of book isn't done for a wide audience, even though it's usually marketed that way. If you're looking to be an indy success, that's a lot more work and risk, and the current system, which is heavily weighted toward major comics companies at the expense of small players, is very much against you. People wanting to be indy successes with their own creations need a lot of perseverance, funding, creativity, patience and luck.

Now you are familiar with the comics code, and by being familiar with it you also know that it's absolutely pointless and serves no purpose. So how do we get rid of it?

That's easy: let publishers just stop paying for it. It exists off funding from the client publishers. It'll exist as long as they let it feed off them, and they'll let it feed off them as long as they delude themselves that it accomplishes anything. Newsstands won't stock comics without the Code seal? Newsstands don't even know what the Code seal is, and they don't stock comics anyway.

Do you know how to get in contact with the code people, I mean in my mind I see the code as one guy in an office with a coffee machine and a stack of comics, who sits around reading and scratching his balls all day. What I'm trying to do is make PopImage the site that kills the code, the creators seem to agree with me (even Stan Lee said it won't go away until the readers demand it), we can start a petition and let it go from there- I'd just like to get some info on their set up.

That's basically what it is, yes: a grubby little office in midtown Manhattan somewhere. I don't think it's hard to find, I never had any reason to go there but Marvel would mule pages over for them to check out all the time. Traditionally the Code is run by people from Archie Comics. The readers aren't going to demand the end of the Code, because almost none of them realizes it exists.

Now in one of your articles you examined the hero in comics, lets examine the plot in comics? It was once suggested by someone who I unfortunately can't recall, that there are really only 22 plots in movies, I believe that the same applies to comics, maybe not necessarily 22- movies never had Jack Kirby, but a limited number none the less. How does one stay fresh and original in the biz today?

“I think the best thing one can do is just keep looking ahead, not at the past, not trying to relive your childhood through your work or trying to recapture lost glories, or play to the market, but just do the work the best you can.”

I made up this aphorism years ago: there are a million stories in the naked city but only eight basic plots. Plot should ideally develop out of character, how characters interrelate. To a certain extent, plot is almost an outdated notion. Certainly in comics, far too much emphasis is placed on it (largely because comics are dominated by superhero comics, and superhero comics don't allow enough variety for a lot of dependence on character to carry the ball, since the genre demands great limitations on character as well). As for staying fresh and original, that's all tied up in one's specific worldview. Either you stay fresh and original or you don't, but that's not something you can really worry about on a conscious level. It's like once you know you're being humble, you're no longer humble. I think the best thing one can do is just keep looking ahead, not at the past, not trying to relive your childhood through your work or trying to recapture lost glories, or play to the market, but just do the work the best you can. A lot of things like that come down to the same thing: you do the work the best you can and throw your bread upon the waters. It's not worth worrying about.

Comics journalism, in any form, how important is it?

Not terribly. Most of what passes for comics journalism is reprinting press releases. I think for the image of comics in the wider world, a certain level of critique of the comics form and content is necessary. It gives it a patina of seriousness. I think comics journalism should be more investigative, not of personalities (it tends to focus way too much on personalities) but of the processes of comics, which are still pretty mysterious to a lot of people outside the business. (A lot inside as well, it seems.) But I don't know that any comics journalism has really influenced the direction of the business significantly.

Finish these sentences;
Right now, in the industry we need more
... daring
and less...looking wistfully backwards

Love those interview games, this ones called: Of choice;
IE. Restaurant of choice
: Amigo's.
Movies: Touch Of Evil; L.A. Confidential; Go.
Books: William Gaddis' THE RECOGNITIONS.
Music: Dave Alvin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Diamanda Galas, Holly and the Italians, Cabaret Voltaire, Dwight Yoakam.
Artists: Comics artists or otherwise? Too many comics artists to name, but I'd be remiss if I didn't say my pal Mike Zeck.
Past time: Excuse me?

@tventure, your new site for writers? Why? It's entertainment, but what do the writers get out of it. How has exposure increased for them? (Did you have a mission statement in mind when you decided to start this up? if so can we hear it?)

Not really a mission statement per se. It's simply an outlet for comics writers to get material out they don't get the chance to do in comics, and to show they can do it. I know a number of comics writers who've wanted to try their hand at prose but needed an excuse and I've given them one. Nobody, including me, makes any money off the site, though that could change. Hopefully it will open new markets for some of them. I can't really judge how much exposure has increased but the night's young.

Now X-MAN, for those who haven't picked it up yet, why should they? Where will the life of this young near god lead? Will absolute power corrupt absolutely, or is that story do over used? Personally, once I saw the new age shaman reference, I was convinced to pick it up.

“…an outsider who is not only not alienated but enjoys being an outsider, who knows what his role is”

No, I don't see Nate as being corrupted, nor does he have anything vaguely resembling absolute power. He's nowhere near godly proportions, though we have played up that angle so far. Why should people pick it up? Because they'll enjoy it. To the extent the book forces us to work within the superhero genre, Warren, Ariel and I are trying to mold a new style of hero: someone genuinely heroic, an outsider who is not only not alienated but enjoys being an outsider, who knows what his role is. And who has no interest in any sort of status quo. He's quite fun to write, and my hope is that he's fun to read as well.

Exactly how ‘mystical’ will the book get? Is it just for a storyline or will it be ongoing? Comics really haven't had a wholly mystical character, CEREBUS and DRUID have had their periods, hell even the HULK has but it doesn't last forever, and even DR. STRANGE is always drawn back to reality.

X-MAN isn't going to be mystical per se. Everything takes place in what can roughly be considered the physical universe; even the psychic plane Nate often operates on is an aspect of the physical universe. It's very rational-humanist in nature. We sort of parallel Dr. Strange territory but it's not our intention to cross onto it.

Now it won't be too long till the second storyline of X-MAN: 'Further down the spiral' comes out, can you tell us a little about what's in store for Nate?

Oh, nothing's in store for Nate in the second arc. It's the story of what has already happened, how he turned from the X-Man everyone knew and yawned at into this one. It involves Maddy Pryor, shamans, the Forge character who was murdered in #63 and his murderer, more on the nature of the spiral, and all kinds of ugly events. It's not a pretty story. (Though Ariel's art is deceptively pretty.) Also, it introduces, in cameo, a major new villain for Nate.

How long have you planned to stay on the title?

Until I run out of ideas and interest or Marvel kicks me off.

Fav. Characters? Heroes? Villains? Mad scientists whose heads look like cauliflower and are intent on burning the world to a crisp using some giant radioactive robot dog?
Hmm. I missed that one. My original favorite characters were Green Lantern and Adam Strange. Later Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. For villains, I liked the original Green Goblin, and was always drawn to villains whose true identity was a mystery. Now all my favorite characters are my own: Whisper, Enemy, Connie Bremen, Mick Thorne. I really don't think in terms of favorites anymore.

Most influential Author?
William Gaddis.

Favourite old school artist? Writer?
What means old school? Gil Kane, Harvey Kurtzman.

Best Kirby creation?
This always gets me in a lot of trouble, but I never much liked Kirby's work. I respect it, but I don't like it. I'd have to say his best creation was the Challengers Of The Unknown.

Most under appreciated creator currently in the biz?
Oh, that'd be me.

Worst fanboy experience?
Since fanboys don't pay much attention to me, I've never really had a bad fanboy experience. AS a fanboy, my worst experience was being harangued by Jim Steranko when I had acute laryngitis and couldn't smart mouth him back, so I think he thought I was a simp.

Proudest body of work?

Advice to those trying to make it in the Biz today?
Be tenacious. REALLY tenacious. You'll need it. And have a fallback plan.

What has been your favourite book to work on?
BADLANDS, no question.

Current titles everyone SHOULD be reading?
I don't get a chance to read that many anymore, so I can't state anything categorically. Of the books I read, I'd say PLANETARY and ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE. And X-MAN, of course, but I'm biased.

Favourite character(s), title(s) to hopefully some day work on?
Y'know, I don't give a rat's ass about anybody else's characters or titles. Creatively, I mean. I like reading them, but I'd rather work on original material.

Creator you would most like to someday work with?
If I had to pick one, Frank Miller. Frank and I have been friends for over 20 years and we've never worked together. I'd love to do just one eight pager with him somewhere once. Of course, I realize that, creatively, Frank doesn't exactly need me for anything...

Upcoming projects?
I'm in discussion with a lot of people about a lot of things, but until someone actually gives a go-ahead, nothing I can talk about.

What's your dream project? If you could work with any companies, characters, writers, artists, no restrictions, no rules, complete creative freedom, crossover as many characters from as many different companies as and if you wanted without any complaints, put together whatever creative teams you wanted, and no one would stop you, what would you do?

“I told him I knew what I wanted to do: whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and get paid for it. He just stared at me for a few seconds, and never spoke another word to me.”

People always ask questions like this, but every project is a dream project until you actually have to do it. Then the nightmare sets in. Again, I wouldn't care to work with anyone else's characters. I'm tempted to say I'd do a line of crime comics, but anything you're boxed into becomes tedious after awhile. When I was a senior in high school, we were supposed to go talk to the guidance counselor to discuss our futures. I thought that was a colossal waste of energy so I never bothered. The counselor stopped me in the hall one day because I hadn't been in, and said it was important that I know what I want to do with my life. I told him I knew what I wanted to do: whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and get paid for it. He just stared at me for a few seconds, and never spoke another word to me. The answer still stands.

You've just been given a chance to rework the industry, starting with the major publishers and distribution companies, what do you do, what DO you do?

Burn it all to the ground and start over. And get a lot of publicity doing it.

Before we go, tell us something no one else knows. Something you've never told anyone...

I'd love to, but there really isn't anything no one else knows. My life is interesting enough to live through but remarkably dull to talk about. I usually get up around 10:30 AM, eat breakfast by 11:30 (oh, here's something: I use soy milk on my cereal. Not exactly a stunning revelation. I've never told anyone because it's not worth talking about). I'll get in the office between 12 PM and 1, deal with any mail or phone calls, usually start work between 2-2:30. I work until around 6. Dinner, then go shopping, watch TV, take care of household chores, whatever, until 10 PM or so, then I go back to work around 10:30, usually until 4 or so AM, usually with a half hour to hour break in there somewhere. Then I go to bed. That's a typical day, and I usually go like that six or seven days a week. It's not a particularly exciting existence.

Plug time! This is where you plug as many things as you want, comics, websites, movies, old 8mm home films of you running around with a Superman cape, home made jugs of 'Steve-O Cola' , novels, anything old, new, current and upcoming, and crackers, mmmm, crackers, where to buy your books, scripts, and whatever else. Anything that could somehow lead to you getting lots and lots of money. LOTS. An immense amount, a huge amount, tremendous, colossal, enormous, gigantic, vast, extensive, great. AN infinite amount of cash, infinite I say, INFINITE, BWAH HA HA HA! Enough money to rule the world! The World!!!!!!!!

Hmmm. All I really want to plug is my weekly column on the state and nature of the comics profession, MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS and @VENTURE. It would be lovely if everyone bought lots of X-MAN. I'd especially like it if everyone demanded their dealers get them a copy of the BADLANDS trade paperback from Dark Horse. And if people just want to send me random bundles of cash (in well-sealed, opaque packages, please), that would be grand, and they can get my mailing address from my Alleged Fictions website. Thanks.

PopImage and I would like to thank Steven for participating in this interview and recommend you pick up X-MAN and follow whatever instructions THE MASTER bestows upon you.

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