Tom DeFalco on creating comics

Tom DeFalco graciously sat down with Comics Career editor Kirk Chritton for a long interview at Kansas City’s Mo-Kan Comics Convention in May 1989. At that time he was the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics,  a post he held from 1987 through 1994. During his tenure he oversaw the expansion of the Marvel’s sales to unprecedented levels. Over that period, dozens of new creators had the opportunity to work for Marvel.

In addition to his editorial duties, DeFalco has been a prolific comics writer with long runs on titles featuring Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four.  He currently writes Amazing Spider-Girl and frequently posts on the Spider-Girl message board at www.comicboards.com.

This interview was originally published in Comics Career Newsletter #15. It was edited by Kirk Chritton and Tom DeFalco and this version is slightly trimmed. It is copyright (c) 1989, 2008 by Kirk Chritton, all rights reserved. It may not be reprinted or republished without permission.

While the roles of various people have changed over the years, DeFalco’s comments and advice remain valid.

CCN:  Is Marvel usually looking for new talent?

DeFALCO:  Marvel is always looking for talent, whether or not this is new talent, meaning this is someone’s first job, or this person’s just never worked for us before doesn’t matter to us.  We’re always looking for talented people.  We don’t care where they come from.

CCN:  Does Marvel currently have some sort of farm system — books that you intentionally use to train your talent?

DeFALCO:  Yes, we call it DC Comics. [laughter]

CCN:  What specific things do you look for in a newcomer’s work?

DeFALCO:  It is our basic philosophy that people are picking up comic books because they want to read stories.  Anything that aids in the reading of a story is a positive thing, and anything that detracts from the story is a negative thing.  

When I look at pencils, I check to see if I can follow the whole story visually without words.  As far as I’m concerned, the artwork should tell me what’s happening and how it’s happening.  The pencils of the story are essentially a silent movie to me, and if someone can tell a story with only pictures, and tell it in a compelling way, then he’s the person we want.

There are some fantastic draftsmen out there, people who draw very beautiful things, but when you look at their pages, what you see is just a series of images which really don’t communicate a story.  While I can appreciate their draftsmanship a tremendous amount, I don’t think that they’re right for Marvel.

CCN:  They’re more illustrating pictures from a story than actually telling a story with pictures.

DeFALCO:  Yes.  Yes.  And there are good examples throughout the history of comics.  Lou Fine was a fabulous, fabulous illustrator.  There are few people who are as good an illustrator as Lou Fine.  On the other hand, Jack Kirby is a terrific storyteller.  And when you come down to it, I think I’d rather read a comic book by Jack Kirby because I could get into the story, where with Lou Fine I’d just find myself appreciating the beauty of the artwork.

Continues below…

CCN:  When you’re looking at pencils at a convention, do you make a point of not reading the dialogue balloons?

DeFALCO:  When someone approaches me with samples, I always ask them “What are you showing me?”  What am I supposed to be looking at?  The penciling?  The inks?  Or looking at the balloons because he’s a writer?  When a guy hands me lettered pages and tells me he’s a penciler, I try to only look at the pictures.  I consciously try not to read the balloons because I think it’s unfair to judge someone on the work of others.

CCN:  I’ve heard you talk to several artists here at the convention about overlapping panels.  That’s something that I see done a lot in comics by flashy artists who play with their panels and build them up over each other.  You don’t seem to like that.  Why is that?

DeFALCO:  Because it interferes with the reading of the story.  I think a lot of artists do that because they’re interested in the design of the page, but people don’t read comics a page at a time.  They read them a panel at a time.

By designing it for the page, you’re really interfering with the reading of the story.  Your peers will love it.  Art directors around the country will love it.  But the reader sitting there will not love it because he won’t be drawn into the story the way he should be drawn into the story.  

CCN:  Do you see a movement toward appreciating comics more for the story than for the art?

DeFALCO:  I think comics fandom always appreciates the art.  I think the pencilers are the true superstars of this industry because the artwork is what makes you buy a comic book the first time.  If the writing isn’t any good, you will not buy it a second time.  

I think also that the art is the most obvious thing.  When somebody buys a comic book…

When somebody buys a comic book and likes it, the most obvious thing is the artwork as opposed to the nuances put into the script.   Writers are very under appreciated in comic books, but they’re under appreciated in most media.

CCN:  Am I right that Marvel’s comics are written almost exclusively plot first? [Editor’s note: This was true in 1989, but it’s no longer the case.]

DeFALCO:  Yeah, I’d say most of them.

CCN:  But there is a give and take there if the writer prefers to work full script?

DeFALCO:  Some writers prefer to work full script, and they work full script.  One of our editors prefers storyboards, so his writers work in a storyboard format.  It’s fairly flexible.  It depends on the combination of the writer, the editor, and the penciler.  Certain pencilers prefer to work from full script.  Other pencilers feel like the looser the plot the better.  It just depends on the combination of individuals.

CCN:  What do you mean by writing a comic book in storyboard format?

DeFALCO:  The writer does little sketches, which basically lay out the panel, and puts the balloons in.

CCN:  Is that difficult for a lot of writers to do?

DeFALCO:  If they can’t sketch, yes it is!

I worked for Archie Comics, and most of the scripts at that time were in a storyboard format.  I created my own lexicon.  You could tell who was Archie and who was Jughead and who was Betty and Veronica.

The current editor of Archie, Victor Gorelick, claims that he still has some of those scripts and threatens to blackmail me on occasion.  But, I have friends, Victor, and if any of those scripts surface, you’re dead.  I know where you live! [evil laughter]

CCN:  What mistakes do writers make when trying to break in?

DeFALCO:  I can’t tell you how many people send in, as their first submission, part two of a story when part one just appeared that month.   In fact, I’ve had people send me part two to stories where I wrote part one.  I’ve already written part two by the time I get their submission.  The situations they’re resolving are already resolved.

What I suggest to people is to pick a character that they feel sympathetic to, that they have some insight into, and do a story about that character that could appear anytime.  A story dealing with themes that are unique to that character and show that character.  Most of the Marvel characters are such unique individuals that when you approach them there are such obvious themes that just leap out at you.  

When I was doing Spider-Man with Ron Frenz … you know, it’s not true that Ron plotted all the stories.  I did help him on occasion.  I don’t remember what that occasion was, but I helped him once.  But, Ron and I talked on a regular basis to knock out ideas.  We had so many ideas for Spider-Man, we couldn’t produce the book fast enough.  There are so many ideas based around those characters that Ron and I were constantly frustrated that we were only capable of doing one monthly book.  We were trying to get to the point that we could handle two Spider-Man books, but we just had too many things going on.

CCN:  You’re not really looking for newcomers to give you ideas, because you have plenty of ideas already, right?  You’re looking for talented people to do something with the ideas.

DeFALCO:  Sure.  Ideas are cheap, very cheap.  In one issue of a comic book you burn up more ideas than you would in an hour of television.  It’s not so much the basic idea; it’s how you handle that idea, the insights you have into that idea, the insights you have into the character.  An example I often give is “a teenager gets insect-like powers.”  Is this a great idea?  Well, on the one hand, it was Spider-Man.  On the other hand, it was The Fly.  Spider-Man became a hit and has been around for years and years and years, while The Fly never got there.

This isn’t to say that The Fly is a bad character or that there were bad people on it.  It just didn’t have the right twists to it.

You can have the same idea done by five different people and four of them will do it in a way that it’s a boring, lousy, stupid idea, and one person will turn it into a great masterpiece.  There are some people who have the talent to make everything they do turn into gold.  Archie Goodwin could write a Milky Way wrapper in such a way that you’d be thrilled and would be waiting to pick up your next candy bar.

CCN:  In other words, an aspiring writer shouldn’t be knocking himself out to come up with a great idea to sell to Marvel, or even one great story, but should be training himself to be someone you can assign to almost any project and turn out quality work.

DeFALCO:  He should be training himself, but his initial thing is to do a great story that Marvel would want to buy.  

One does not hire writers. One hires secretaries. One hires accountants or window washers, but one does not hire writers.  One buys stories from writers.

If you want to be a writer, you have to write those stories.  If you write enough good stories, eventually the editors will start chasing you and calling you, and that’s the way it works.

I can’t tell you how many people come and say, “I’d like to be hired as a writer for Marvel.”

My tendency is to say, “Okay, you’re hired. You’re  writing Fantastic Four. Give me four plots.” And then I’ll never hear from those people again.

CCN:  In other words, you’re not the employer of the writer so much as Marvel is the writer’s client.

DeFALCO:  Yes, and the same with artists.

I’ll tell you, there are certain artists we’d love to have working with us but, for assorted reasons, they’re not interested in working for us. There are certain writers we’d love to have working for us, but for certain reasons they’re not, and the reasons are varied.  

CCN:  They have other clients.

DeFALCO:  They have other clients, other interests, other monetary pressures.  All sorts of other reasons.  Sometimes a brilliant writer just has no interest in doing a particular character.  As a writer, there have been many times that I have been offered assignments on various characters that I’ve had to pass because I just did not feel that I could do the right work for that particular character.

Here’s something writers should think about, and this is something I see a lot in submissions.  The story is preordained.  The villain pops up, the hero pops up, the hero must defeat the villain and does.  In the course of the story, the hero is offered no choices.  There’s only one way he can progress, and of course he always progresses the right way.  That is not a story.

CCN:  A hero would have to be pretty dumb to screw that up.

DeFALCO:  Yeah, anyone would have to be dumb to screw it up.  That’s not a story.  Stories deal with people in conflict, and in the course of any story, a character should be making decisions.  

You and I are standing here at a convention and we suddenly look across the floor and see a $20 bill laying there.  You look at it, see a gentleman standing next to it, and say, “Hey, there’s a $20 bill laying there.”  I look at it and make a dive for it.  The guy sees it and tries to put his foot over it.  By the different decisions the three of us have made, it shows something about our characters, and that’s the important thing that writers have to realize.  Characters must make decisions.  They have to make choices.  If they have no choice, they’re not a character; they’re a robot!  A computer could have done that.

CCN:  A decision is where the danger lies.

DeFALCO:  But, it could be an emotional danger or an intellectual danger.  Speaking from my own past, there are certain physical dangers that I have faced and certain emotional dangers I have faced and I’m not so sure which ones were the scariest.

I hate to use my own work as an example, but there was a Spider-Man story where Peter’s Aunt had asked him to look out for her boyfriend, Nathan, because Nathan was in danger.  So, Spider-Man was following Nathan, knowing the man was in danger, and then he heard gunshots and people screaming and had to decide whether to stay with Nathan or go to the other people who were in more immediate danger, and he made a choice.  He went to help the other people, and as a result Nathan was beat up, almost crippled, and sent back to the hospital.  It’s not a question of guilt.  Spider-Man made a choice.  He had to go in a direction, weighing the life that’s not quite in danger against the life that is in danger.

Sometimes you put people in situations where there is no right decision.  I can tell you, many times I’ve been put into situations where I had two or three choices to make, and I knew that each one of them was wrong because it would cause someone pain and suffering.  I had to choose which decision to make.  Sometimes in one of those situations you decide you’re not going to make a choice, and that in itself is a choice.  The thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to make decisions and choices.  

I’ve gotten too philosophical for you, haven’t I?

CCN:  Yeah, people will think this is too deep for comics.

DeFALCO:  This isn’t too deep for comics!  Nothing is too deep for comics.  No subject is beyond comics.  No level of sophistication is beyond comics, but when you’re talking about mature readers material, I define sophistication by the sophistication of the ideas.  Not by the amount of nudity in the comic book.  Not by the amount of violence in the comic book.  It’s the ideas.  It’s the ideas that can really hurt you, and they can really help you.  Our minds are the most powerful weapons we have.

We want, and I want, comic books for all ages, for all people.  I think that a lot of the comics that are masquerading as mature reader material are actually very, very sophomoric. I’m not looking to do sophomoric parodies of mature reader material.  However, I am trying to do adult comic books. Comics that can stimulate adult imaginations.  I’m also trying to do comics for the youngest children.  I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what this medium can be.  

Right now, the boundaries of what comics can be are so far out there that we can just keep expanding and doing other things and increase the audience.  We’re doing black and white magazines now like The Destroyer.  The reason is that we can use characters that are popular in other media and have other fans.  By doing comics about these characters, I think we can get other people reading comics.  We’re doing a book called Yuppies From Hell.  This is a book drawn by a lady for other ladies in the 25- to 35-year-old category.  Single women, out on their own, who are not comic book fans.  Yes, we’re producing a comic book for people who don’t read comics.  Why?  Because we think that if we produce it we might get them to read comics. 

Comic book fans are very paranoid.  They think they are unique unto the world, that no one else likes comics except for hard core comic book fans.  IT’S A LIE!  The second most popular feature in newspapers is the comic strips.  Check the bestseller lists.  Routinely, there are two or three books of comics:  Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, Shoe.  Comics and books, comics and books, comicsandbooks – keep saying it fast and you’ll get another version of comic books!  There are comic book readers out there buying vast quantities of comic books, just other types of comic books. We just have to reach out to all fans in different ways.

Talk to people and mention that you really like comics and they’ll say, “Man, I really love Little Orphan Annie,” or “I can’t wait to get to the newspaper to read my favorite strip.”  Most people really love comics.  What’s not to love?  It’s entertainment in it’s pure form.

CCN: We’ve talked quite a bit about what you don’t want to see from writers.  Perhaps you’ll tell about what you don’t want to see from pencilers.

DeFALCO:  I’d prefer to tell you what I do want to see.  From pencilers, I want comic book pages.  I want to see a few pages showing people in movement and action, doing things.  Now, movement and action doesn’t necessarily mean punching and hitting.  You can show someone bursting through a wall.  You can also show someone picking up a tea cup, someone dialing a phone, sitting on a chair, placing a banana peel under someone else’s foot.

I like to see backgrounds to see that you can put a figure in a reality. Many times we get portfolios from people of trees and plants and animals and they say, “I do great trees and plants and animals.  Hire me as a Marvel Comics artist.” But, they don’t show us comic book work. If you want to do comic book work, show us comic book work, not advertising pieces.

CCN:  How about inkers?

DeFALCO:  Send us a copy of the penciled page and the inked page. Inking is not tracing the lines. The inker is the final arbiter of reality. He is who decides what is real and what is not real. He is the one who ultimately decides where the blacks are placed. Pencilers are a cowardly and superstitious lot. They all believe they are paid by the amount of graphite they put on a page. They shade something one way it looks like black, they shade it another way it looks like a different black, they shade it a third way, it looks like still another black. If an inker goes over it and inks all three of the black areas as black, he has a totally black panel. So, inkers have to make decisions.  

Every line that an inker or a penciler puts down must mean something. It has to be a conscious decision. If you do not know what a line means, do not put it down. Don’t shade and cross hatch just for the sake of shading and cross hatching. Let it mean something.  

CCN:  I keep trying to encourage aspiring artists to be self-critical and decide if they’re really ready before submitting their material, but it’s often difficult to explain what to look for. Are there things that signal that the person’s not ready?

DeFALCO:  They basically have to look at their ability to draw. What I often say is, take your original artwork, pick up a comic book at random, any comic book, and compare it to your own. Look and see if yours is superior, truly superior, to the comic book that you chose at random. If you are, send your artwork. If you’re not, keep working until you are.

In a very real sense, when an artist is coming to Marvel for work, he’s looking to take another man’s job away from him, so he’s got to be better than him.

CCN:  From a writer’s point-of-view, I have people sending me stories and asking for a critique of them. I find that extremely difficult to do. Is there some critical way for a writer to look at his own script and see flaws in the writing?

DeFALCO:  There are ways because I constantly look at my own work and see the flaws in the writing. The readers see it as soon as it comes out; it takes me a little while longer. I think most writers do. You look at your work and see what went wrong, what didn’t quite work. I’ve never thought of a way to objectify that.

CCN:  Maybe the best solution is just to go grab a civilian off the street, put your script in his hand and say, “Is this interesting?”

DeFALCO:  But the civilian on the street wouldn’t know why it’s not interesting. It may be interesting, but be a story that’s been done ten thousand times before with no new twists. I always look at a story and say, “What is new about this story?  What have we never, ever seen before?” If there’s nothing in there that’s never been seen before, you shouldn’t do that story. Every story has to have something different to be worth the price of admission.  

CCN:  Plus the writer has to be paying more attention to characterization than just inserting the villain of the month.

DeFALCO:  The villain of the month is also characterization. Everyone in that book should have his own individual way of approaching the situation. If they don’t, the writer has failed.

I can tell you incidents that we’ve had time and time again. Someone creates a brand new character, and sends in a plot. At one time we actually tried to critique each one, and we’d say, “The character is inconsistent from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.”  

The creative person says, “That’s the way the character is.”

We say, “Well, his decisions aren’t logical.”

He says, “That’s the way the character is.”

We say, “It doesn’t make any sense.”

He says, “Well, that’s the way the character is.”

That’s why I don’t like to see new characters, because I can’t tell if the character is consistent. If someone does a story with Captain America and I look at it, I can tell if they understand the character and how to write a character. If they create their own character, then it’s much harder for me to see if it works. In fact, when I get proposals of new characters from new people, even if they’ve knocked me over with their samples, I just send them back sight unseen. I don’t even look at them.

If it’s a creative person who has a body of work behind him, that’s something else.

Something that most people don’t realize is that doing a monthly comic book is a tremendous physical and mental grind. It is a very punishing thing to do your body and mind. Someone who’s never done it can’t imagine the incredible effort it will take to do it month in and month out. And, to commit to a monthly book is an incredible investment on a company’s part.  I have to know you can do that.

CCN:  In other words, you’re not interested in buying a monthly book from someone whose track record you don’t know.

DeFALCO:  No way. Here’s the magic of Marvel Comics. If I wanted ten new characters for Monday, Stan Lee is just a phone call away. John Byrne, just dial him up. I have access to some of the greatest talent this industry has ever seen. So, people at home, first learn to walk before you enter a marathon. Take small steps first, and then we’ll get you into the marathon.  

CCN:  Are you interested in seeing a progression in a person’s work, up from the smaller independent companies?

DeFALCO:  I’m only interested in seeing the current work they’re doing. When I’m talking about track record, I mean that in terms of committing to a monthly series or that sort of stuff. When someone walks in the door, I don’t care if they’ve done ten monthly books for another company. I want to see what they can do with our characters. The Marvel characters are dramatically different from those of any other company. Anyone who can’t see the difference should not even be approaching us for work.  

Time and time again I’ve had people approach me and say, “Yeah, I can do superheroes because they’re all the same, blah, blah, blah.”  Anybody who thinks that should not be doing superheroes, because the difference between characters is so dramatic. We have a weekly assistant editors class. At one point, we took a story that had already been printed. We told the assistant editors to take out the hero in the story and come up with another character and do the same story with the other character. We broke everybody off into small groups, and some groups could not do it, and they were right. Other groups put in another character, and came up with a totally different story, and they were right. One group really tried hard to develop another character and fit him into the story, but realized that it just didn’t work with the new character.  

CCN:  How about a little of your background? What’s the DeFalco origin story?

DeFALCO:  I sprang from the head of Jim Shooter. Fully blown. One day there was nothing there, the next there was an idiot sitting in the office. And, they said, “He is good.  We will call him Tom DeFalco.” That’s it, that’s the origin.

CCN:  Wasn’t your first professional comics work for Archie Comics? What roles did you fill there?

DeFALCO:  I did a little bit of everything. I started out in their editorial/production department.  I proofread, opened the letters for “Dear Betty and Veronica,” pasted up the Archie Club News, did — believe it or not — lettering corrections, coloring corrections.

Archie Comics was, is, and will be an incredible place to start. There are a lot of terrific people there who will go out of their way to help you out and teach you. It was just a fabulous learning ground. And I’m talking about everyone except Victor Gorelick who’s trying to blackmail me.  

The truth of the matter is that Victor Gorelick, the editor of Archie, is the guy who taught me everything I know. Not everything he knows; I’m still trying to learn it.

CCN:  But really, Archie Comics are a great place to see straightforward storytelling at its best.

DeFALCO:  Sure, but at Archie we would play with the medium in ways that no one else played with the medium. When Marvel does a silent story with no dialogue, it’s a big deal, but at Archie, it was routine. At Archie, we told stories in rhyme, in sound effects, in silhouette, or using only the names of the characters. There was no limit to the imagination there.

CCN:  I just feel like they’re underrated by comics fans, as if Archie Comics aren’t real comics because they’re aimed at a younger age group.

DeFALCO:  Sure, but I don’t even think they’re aimed at a younger age group. I think anybody can appreciate Archie Comics just like anybody can appreciate superhero comics. A lot of comic book fans are locked into what they believe is cool. They unintentionally  lock themselves into certain patterns, and it’s a shame. There’s a wonderful world of comics out there.

CCN:  There are certainly a lot of people who think Marvel is cool.

DeFALCO:  Marvel definitely is cool. And though I’m starting to sound like an ad for Archie Comics, Marvel is the tops in the business. All comic books have pluses and minuses. This is a medium of wonderful potential and wonderful entertainment in so many different ways. Do I sound like a comic book fan?

CCN:  You sound like a comic book fan.

DeFALCO:  I am a big comic book fan!

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