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Interview mit JMS

Interview mit Joseph Michael Straczynski (JMS) über seine Aktivitäten im Comic-Bereich.

Erschienen im Februar 2006 in NEWSARAMA.


Newsarama:Joe, before getting to "The Other" follow-up and the new costume, etc., while we have the opportunity, we'd like to ask you about a few other topics.
First of all, we've asked Joe Quesada a few times now about your project Bullet Points. Can you give us a few details as to what Bullet Points is?
JMS:I wanted to show the impact - literal and figurative - of one bullet in the Marvel Universe over the course of decades. To explain what that means ... When someone is killed, the consequences of that act ripple across the years and affect other people in all kinds of ways, because the bullet takes away everything the person was, and everything they were going to be, and everything they were going to do. A single bullet, fired in Sarajevo, killed Archduke Ferdinand ... and set events in motion that led directly to World Wars I and II. You look at the bullets that took down the Kennedys, and King, and Gandhi, and you can see how history can be changed by one man with a gun in the right place at absolutely the worst possible time.
So, in this story, I looked to the past to find probably the one most critical moment in the history of the Marvel Universe, which was the moment when Steve Rogers became Captain America. No sooner did he get the Super-Soldier Serum than a Nazi assassin killed Dr. Erskine and made sure there would be no more Captain Americas.
I then took that moment and, for this alternate history story, changed one thing - the assassin hits Erskine one day earlier. Not only does this incident prevent Steve from becoming Captain America, the murder kills another person caught in the crossfire, the MP escorting Erskine to a waiting jeep ... an eighteen-year-old Ben Parker.
So with one attack, two lives are lost ... and the repercussions of that event ripple out across the entire Marvel Universe like a cue ball sending everything into new configurations. Though the Super-Soldier Serum is gone, Steve Rogers still wants desperately to serve ... and the military gives him that chance in an experimental exo-suit they're still perfecting, a device that takes a continual toll on his health because it's so difficult and hard to use ... the first prototype in the army's "Iron Man" program.
Similarly, Peter Parker, born years later, grows up without the stabilizing presence of Ben Parker, and ends up in a very different place emotionally and physically ... a troubled teen, who falls into the wrong company, gets in trouble, runs away and is stranded in the desert when a certain Gamma bomb goes off.
Over and over, person by person, layer by layer, the Marvel Universe is re-arranged, each event logically following from the one before it, as we see the ramifications of this single attack. The purpose of it all, in the end, is to show an alternate way by which the Marvel Universe we know might have come together, and to show the price of each life lost ... which is an important theme, I think, in a time where life is as little valued as it is today.
Again, it's less a "What-If" story than an alternate history covering fifty years, in which Reed Richards, Stephen Strange, Steve Rogers, and many others are profoundly changed by that one singular event. And when the whole world is in on the brink of destruction, it is the actions by the most despised that may end up saving everyone, and balancing the loss of all those previous years.
Newsarama:The last time we asked Joe about this, he said it was in the works with an artist attached, but that you were, "working on a lot of stuff that's going to really blow open some concepts old and new in the Marvel Universe".
Anything you can comment on?
JMS:The Bullet Points mini-series is probably the most significant way this is being done, but I'm also playing with some additional projects. One of them also springs off WWII, a mini-series in which we see 12 Marvel characters who haven't been used since those early days all put into a situation that propels them into the present. Some of them deal with that transition easier than others, while some fall into a tremendous darkness. If you think about the stark differences between Steve Rogers in the 1940s waking up in the 60s, consider now what it would be like to go from the 1940s to 2006. It's a dark, brooding kind of story, which contrasts the present with the past, as the characters confront a mystery about one of them who may not be what he appears.
One of the fun aspects of the story is the contrasting perspectives this affords us. Yes, there was a lot about the 40s that was arguably better than what we have not, the spirit of optimism and patriotism ... but also a lot that was less than terrific, with casual prejudice and other attitudes that don't fit in the 21st century. Many of them will die during the story, and by the end, a handful will be left to be integrated into the rest of the Marvel Universe.
Newsarama:In regards to the Fantastic Four, the description of March and April's issues regarding a "heavenly artifact" fallen to Earth in the Mid-West sounds nearly identical to a concept for a new Thor reported by Wizard Magazine last year. According to that report, the concept started with Neil Gaiman, and then you put a spin on it, and at the time of the report it was supposed to have gone to Mark Millar.
Can you mention if there is indeed a connection between that Wizard report and this upcoming Fantastic Four storyline?
JMS:Let me try to put this first into historical context, then spin it out from there.
Neil had come to Marvel with some thoughts on Thor, which I won't elaborate upon in case that's something he wants to use somewhere else or in another context, because it was a very cool idea. At roughly the same time, around three retreats ago, I came up with a thread in relation to the Thor story that everyone liked, and thought, why not combine them? At one point Mark "Squeaky" Millar jumped in and wanted it, 'cause it was shiny, and Joe Quesada said, 'Sure, go with it'. But that in time went away, and we pulled those two core concepts apart into their component pieces ... with the one remaining that I'd put forth originally.
What that premise is, and was, and where it goes, and what it may or may not do in relation to Thor, I don't want to say because I don't think I should. What I can say, in relation to the FF story, is this - at some point in our storyline, something hurtled down out of the sky and cratered in Oklahoma. Scientists and corporate guys arriving on the scene found something unusual, and built a massive research dome around it, trying to figure out what it was and how it worked and what to do with it.
That item ... is Thor's hammer. That doesn't mean he's coming back, and doesn't mean he's not coming back. Where it goes from there, well ... we'll see, won't we?
Newsarama:Okay, then moving onto Spider-Man ...
Amazing Spider-Man #529 not only debuts the new costume, Marvel is also now billing it as the kick-off to Civil War. Assuming Marvel is hoping to attract even more new readers with the issue, can we get potential new readers up-to-speed regarding the changes Peter has gone through in "The Other"? Can you give readers the Cliff Notes version of Peter's current status quo leading into Civil War and donning the new costume?
JMS:In the shortest of terms ... Peter has gone through a death-rebirth-re-assessment that has left him healed of all the physical scars he's carried, and given him a new lease on life. He also has a new view on his powers, mainly in the sense that there are abilities that he may have had all along that he either chose not to consider, or never explored before.
At the same time, he has been forming a close bond with Tony Stark, who invited Peter, MJ, and Aunt May to stay at Stark Tower after the destruction of their respective residences. In some ways, Tony has become a bit of a father figure to Peter, helping to look after his family and protect them. They're actually a lot alike, both often the smartest guys in the room, both tech guys, both having had trauma in their lives. As part of that growing friendship, Tony designs a suit for Peter that incorporates many of the high-tech attributes of the Iron Man armor, on the theory that there's no reason why Peter shouldn't have every possible edge going into a fight. The new "Iron Spidey" suit is red and gold because, as Joe Q. put it about Tony's feelings, "My tech, my design, my colors."
Newsarama:"The Other" left a lot of open questions regarding the nature of Peter's powers, and really his humanity at this point. Will you be exploring these issues right away, or will you be delving into those unanswered questions at a later time?
JMS:Right now, the most important thing for Peter is to focus on his family and the growing problems with the looming Civil War. So those considerations will have to be dealt with at a later time.
Newsarama:Any changes to the status quos of the iconic heroes of Marvel and DC comes with it criticism from fans who don't like anyone messing with established canon. With your earlier revelations about the nature of Peter's powers and the animal totems and now further mystical goings on in the "The Other", you seem to almost rewriting Peter's simple "radioactive Spider" origin.
First of all, why the change and introduction of the mystical elements? Did you also have reservations about Spider-Man's original origin, despite its almost revered nature?
JMS:I've never had a problem with Spidey's origin. My job, in coming into the book, was to try and look at things in new ways without actually changing anything or disrespecting the work of those who came before me. The question I asked was ... was Peter destined to be bitten by the spider? Was it an accident or was it fate?
Is that a mystical element, or a philosophical one? It's not like I introduced some wacky idea that nobody's ever heard of before. Notions of predestination and fate are as much a part of our culture as the air we breathe. I sometimes see people complaining about "all this mystical crap", but that's really a misnomer, and I don't see that radical a contradiction. In one of the last Ezekiel stories, the shaman Peter meets says, "You can tell me all the reasons WHY the sun rises in the morning, all the laws of thermodynamics and celestial rotation ... and I can tell you that the sun rises in the morning because it is DESTINED to rise in the morning.” Is that really such a contradiction?" I didn't think so then, and I don't think so now.
The notion of the spider as part of his consciousness is also not that far a reach given that he has all these other attributes ... it's as though some people said, "Okay, he can take 18% of what a spider is but 20% is completely out of line." Why? Why not 20%? Or 25% as long as it stems from and is consistent with what happened in the first place. And the totemistic aspects of the story are elements that Peter has never really bought into. He sees them as metaphor, and an interesting aspect of all this, but he's never, ever signed off on them as being the end-all answer. Nor have I.
So no, I've never had a problem with the origin, it's one of the classic origins of all time, and I have no desire to muck about with it. I might tilt the mirror a little, to get some different ways of looking at it, but change it? No. Never.
Newsarama:We make it a point never to assume online criticism represents the majority of readership, but in a case where you're are changing something so familiar to people, do you accept it, expect it, ignore it? All of the above?
JMS:Again, I disagree with the premise of the question. I don't think I've actually changed anything that couldn't be reversed or reconsidered later. I've added to the filigree around it, but not changed it. As to the reactions online ... I'm very cautious in what I take in from that environment. There was a great cartoon published years ago in, I think, the New Yorker, where a kid hasn't spoken for his whole life up to age six, then one day at breakfast he says, "The eggs are cold." The parents are astounded ... why hasn't he spoken before? "Because until now, everything was fine."
People are always more quick to say what they don't like than to put forth or defend what they do ... so on balance you're always going to find more negative than positive discourse on just about any topic.
More specifically to this ... again, you have to be very careful to give proper weight to what you see. Are there ten different complaints on ten different boards, or ten complaints from three people who go to every board covering that character and say essentially the same things, over and over, giving the sense of greater numbers than there actually are ... in kind of an echo-chamber effect? I've seen too many cases online when someone says they don't like something - any book, really - and someone says, "No, I liked it," and the others shout him down, deriding his opinion until they basically drive out everyone except those who want to sit around chewing on people.
Now, is that an all-encompassing statement? No, of course not, there's a lot of valid and well-considered criticism out there. Is the preceding statement true more than it is false? Yes. And that's the irony, by the way ... critics feel free to criticize you and your work all they want, but the moment you turn around and criticize them, that's behaving out of line, that's being intolerant of criticism, when it has nothing to do with criticism and everything to do with trying to maintain a level playing field. There are a very small but very vocal bunch of guys who love to punch everybody else, but if you punch back, they go crying back to mama and screaming foul. Sorry, but the street has to go both ways if it's going to work properly.
Most online fans (certainly the folks reading this on Newsarama) don't fall into this category; they love a certain book or character, they have a proper and vested interest in seeing that character treated properly, and they can be your best allies if you wander off the road. They understand what all of us who work with Marvel understand - that the only reason we write these books is that we're fans as well. And fans can disagree. That's the nature of fandom. The key is to be open to all kinds of ideas, whether you (or I) initially agree with them or not.
Poisoning the well a bit is the degree of disinformation out there, which gains currency through repetition. For instance, there's the myth that I told fans who didn't like the 9/11 Amazing Spider-Man issue to move out of their parents basement and stop breeding. Not true. There was one specific person who was pissed off because he didn't understand why Marvel was making such a big deal out of 9/11 when Galactus and the Sentinels have destroyed New York many times over.
I'm sorry, but if you actually believe that attention should not be paid to a real-life disaster because it's been done in the comics, then you do need to move out of your parents' basement. But what a few of the online critics did was to take that out of context and say I said it of all fans. Never happened. Never said it. But because a few people are determined to make trouble, and stir the pot, and make me (or somebody else) look bad ... they put it out there, and people read it, and think that's what happened, and think, "Boy, that JMS is a jerk," which would be absolutely true if I actually said it.
Finally ... and I hope this will be the last of it for a bit ... I've learned over the years that any time you do any kind of writing, you're going to have a bell-curve shaped response. Some people will love it uncritically, which doesn't really serve you any more than the similar number of people who will hate it uncritically. The majority of people will be somewhere toward the middle. As long as you keep most of the people in the middle, or slanted slightly toward the like-it end of the spectrum, you're doing what you're supposed to be doing. Because you can't do anything worthwhile without honking off someone. It's simply not possible.
Though it's a bit harsher than how I come at this, on balance I tend to side with what Teddy Roosevelt said: "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
So, what I take from the online discussions is a sense of the room, and a tendency to look for actual, well-founded criticism. If someone says just "It sucks," then I have to ignore that because you can't do otherwise, you can't argue matters of taste. If someone says, "I didn't like it because B did not proceed logically from A, this aspect over here doesn't make sense," and performs what every writing instructor understands as constructive criticism, my heart leaps up in happiness because I love to learn from informed criticism. If someone can punch an actual logic hole in what I've just written, I love it, and I learn from it, and I will move heaven and earth to correct that flaw in my writing. But there's a difference between matters of personal taste and a flawed work, and there are always a few folks who don't get the distinction.
Newsarama:All right, now - the new costume specifically. What about Peter's emerging new abilities necessitates him needing a new costume with mechanical abilities?
JMS:It's not a matter of his powers necessitating the costume, as it is a case of coming closer to Tony in friendship and alliance. This is Tony's gift to Peter, but it also in a way kind of works to subsume Peter and Spidey under the Stark umbrella, and that has any number of hidden costs that Peter is going to run into.
Newsarama:We're sure you don't want to ruin any surprises, but what features of the new costume can you talk about? For instance, what is the function of the three arms/"pincher claws"?
JMS:The eyepieces in the suit can allow him to zoom in to objects at a reasonable distance and can record what they see; it's returned the webbing beneath his arms (which can come and go) and gives him the ability to glide for very short distances (as many spiders can glide on air currents). It has reinforced body armor, a GPS system, a built in communications system, and the arms can extend or retract from a system on his back. They can look around corners so that he can see the image in his eyepieces, much as army personnel now have video cameras that can look around corners, handle delicate work, and they can be used somewhat in a fight, but not a lot because they're not really meant for that.
Newsarama:For the record, why is there three of them? Given Peter has four other limbs, wouldn't four arms have made a certain amount of sense?
JMS:Joe Q drew three. Don't know why. I kinda thought four would give it symmetry and make it more spider-like, but I think Joe was going for something with a different silhouette, which makes it kind of eerie to look at ... which has benefits of its own.
Newsarama:Back track a little for us and tell us what you can about the origins of the new costume? Was this originally part of the aftermath of "The Other"? Or did it come along the way?
JMS:They kind of came along at the same time. When we were breaking out the Civil War storyline two retreats ago, we'd talked about maybe giving Spidey a different look post-"The Other", and I remember Dan Buckley was up at the wall of ideas, matching characters and timelines with the Civil War story, and when I said that Peter would go to Tony's side of the struggle, at least for a while, I suddenly realized that that's where and why he could get the new look.
Newsarama:From a storytelling POV, what story function does the costume serve? Is it just to changes things up and give you and readers a few new toys to play with for a while, or does it serve a more nuanced purpose than that?
JMS:Again, it's really designed to put Peter visually on Tony's side of the conflict, and bring those two closer together in a situation where that friendship is going to be tested significantly.
Newsarama:Any idea at this stage how long readers can expect this costume to be around?
JMS:We've always said that this is not going to be permanent. I don't want to give out specifics, because that would compromise aspects of Mark's Civil War story, but I'd certainly expect the original costume to be back sometime by 2007.
Newsarama:Speaking of Tony Stark, you touched upon it already, but give readers some more insight into this growing relationship between Tony and Peter? When did the idea start occurring to you? When you first heard of Brian Bendis’ plans for New Avengers?
JMS:When Brian first mentioned the idea of bringing Peter into the Avengers, it was something I could deal with or not in my book ... but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of not just having him play with the Avengers, but move in. He's always been a loner, and putting him in a team of peers and people he respects had a lot of appeal to it. I mean, how great would it be after a long day and a big fight to sit down over a cup of coffee with Captain America and have him walk you through some alternate strategies next time you're in a situation like that? And there would be no question that May and MJ would be safe in the midst of that bunch.
Newsarama:What's the nature of, and the appeal of the Tony-Peter relationship to you?
JMS:People who lose their fathers at an early age tend to spend a great part of their lives looking for a substitute, whether they consciously realize it or not. Given the loss not just of his parents but his secondary father figure Ben, Peter's situation is even more difficult. Tony has started to fill some of that gap for Peter, to be that father figure, and that's a nice dynamic to explore.
Newsarama:Finally, while you already shared with us very extensive thoughts on online reaction to stories, and again, we don't presume online response naturally represents a majority, the reception to the costume has been (apparently) fairly negative, overwhelmingly so in an unscientific poll Newsarama conducted that received nearly 9500 responses.
JMS:However, in the weeks since that poll, which was based on the preliminary art, a number of folks who said they initially didn't like it have changed their minds about it, especially once the (Bryan) Hitch cover came out. If it were to be a permanent change, that would be one thing, but again this is only a temporary thing, and most people seem to be warming up to it.
For my money, the most important thing about the run-up to the Civil War that starts in Amazing Spider-Man is that in this three-issue arc we get a chance to really hear the different sides that are going to take center-stage in the war.
Peter goes with Tony to Washington, and in the course of several Senate hearings into the Meta-human Registration Act, we come away with a sense that this isn't just a question of some bad guys twirling mustaches and thinking they're doing bad ... these Senators feel that they're doing the right thing, the proper and appropriate thing by the country. If a doctor has to belong to the AMA and work under the FDA in order to assure accountability if a mistake should be made, why should a super-powered character who makes a mistake and takes out a city block not be held accountable? And if he's not accountable ... is he really a hero?
We all have the same reason for whatever we do - it seemed like a good idea at the time. And for those in Washington, the Registration Act seems like a good idea, that will become an even better event due to the incident that precipitates the Civil War.
And in Amazing we will take the time to really showcase all sides to this issue, in particular as they affect Peter and his friendship with Tony. If we look back to the American Civil War, to the McCarthy period in the 50’s, we see that the events of those times tore families and friendships apart. For the Civil War story to feel real, we need to see those same internal battles going on as friend turns against friend, brother against brother, hedgehog against hedgehog ...
And that story is going to mean huge changes and decisions for Peter and Spider-Man. He is going to have to choose sides in that war. He is going to go up against enemies he has never faced before (in the first "Road to Civil War" issue, Spidey in his new suit goes up against someone who may or may not be the Titanium Man, the very first time they've ever fought.)
The largest question of all that he will have to face is what he chooses to do when the choices come down to either fighting his own government and becoming a criminal ... or unmasking publicly. What and how will he deal with this?
Stay tuned ...
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