THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR
A Conversation with Comic Book Writer MARK WAID
By Tyler Malone
Most people would be petrified if they were going to take on a project like writing for the Daredevil series. Sure, Daredevil has a lower profile than say Batman or the X-Men in the outside world, but he’s no minor character in the Marvel Universe, and he’s a fanboy favorite. And to make matters worse, Daredevil, unlike a number of other comic properties, has had a pretty consistent run of excellent writers overseeing it for the last few decades. There are big shoes to fill when you’re going to write “The Man Without Fear” (Daredevil’s sobriquet).
Mark Waid, like Daredevil, seems to exhibit little fear. He took Daredevil head on, and pushed the character in a new direction. Though this could have led to disastrous results, Mark Waid’s confidence in his convictions on this new take on the character has paid off. The series is universally loved by comic book fans and critics alike. I spoke with the writer about superheroes in general, about his take on Daredevil, about his iconic collaboration with Alex Ross in Kingdom Come, and about the recent Man of Steel movie which took elements from his own Superman: Birthright book, but also, according to Waid, got the character completely wrong.
Tyler Malone: At times you’ve sounded off on the grimness of most comic books these days. And even in your most potentially grim work, say like Kingdom Come or Irredeemable, there is some lightness, some optimism, some hope. Things, in a way, seem to never be completely irredeemable in a Waid superhero universe. Would you say that’s a valid assessment of your work and the imaginative worlds in which you work?
Mark Waid: I think so. I like to think that I don’t write cynical real well. I’m not a cynical person, and I don’t believe that superhero comics in particular lend themselves to cynical stories.
TM: Yet, when I think of grimness in comics, Daredevil is a character that tends to come to mind. And here you are, working on the Daredevil series yourself, and taking him in new, refreshing directions. Last year you won a few Eisner awards for your work on this series. What is it about your take on Daredevil that you think has resonated both with comic fans and critics alike?
MW: I think it may be fatigue as much as anything else, honestly. Daredevil has had this incredible Murderers’ Row of writers and artists for almost thirty years. The book has been flying high for a long time. But it seemed that the market wasn’t really interested in anyone trying to pull away from the Frank Miller gravitational pull til lately. So the default has been, since the Miller days, that Daredevil is a crime book, a very street-level book. I just think maybe we came to the right place at the right time so that we could make the statement that it doesn’t always have to be a very dark, almost depressing book. I’ve said this before, but as great as Daredevil has been for the last fifteen or twenty years, I very much have felt like I had to have a stiff drink after every issue.
TM: Before those Eisner wins, your awards shelf was surprisingly pretty empty.
MW: It’s kind of you to say “surprisingly.”
TM: But I mean somehow you even got bypassed when Kingdom Come swept up many of the other awards. What work in the past do you wish had gotten the recognition and praise that your run on Daredevil seems to be getting now?
MW: That’s a really good question. Mostly because I’m such an enormous Legion of Super-Heroes fan, I do wish that Barry Kitson and myself had been given more of a pass on our approach to the Legion book. I do wish that readers had been more favorable to what we had been trying to do there, and I regret that that’s not the case.
TM: One more question on Daredevil, before we move on to other things, I’d love to hear your take on the old Ben Affleck Daredevil film? And what you think of the murmurings of a Daredevil reboot in the pipeline now that the rights have reverted back to Marvel?
MW: I think that would be wild. I’d love to see some sort of reboot. I think the character would actually be better served in a TV show rather than as a feature film though, but I think the success or failure of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show will have volumes to say about what Marvel’s future in the television medium will be. My educated guess, and I don’t know any more than you do, would be that Marvel won’t determine what they want to do with Daredevil until they know whether or not there’s a market for S.H.I.E.L.D.
And, oh my god, the Ben Affleck movie. I will say this, in its favor, I like the radar-sense effects, I like some of the visualization of some of Daredevil’s powers. But I have to say that Daredevil has in it one of my least favorite scenes in all of comic book movies, and actually I wish it were just comic book movies, but it’s actually one of my least favorite scenes in any movie. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine. There’s a scene where Foggy and Matt are having coffee in a diner, and Elektra comes in, only so that Foggy can say, “Hey, isn’t that Elektra?” They have a conversation about her, and then she exits, but she didn’t come in to buy anything or do anything, she only enters the scene so that other characters can talk about her. It’s such a bizarre moment.
TM: Another series you’ve been writing on is the new Green Hornet for Dynamite. Tell me a little about what we can expect from your take on this other iconic character?
MW: Well, funny you should mention this right after Daredevil, because unlike that book, I very much view Green Hornet as a crime book. Green Hornet is absolutely not a superhero comic, it is absolutely a crime comic, meaning that though it has some of the superhero trappings like a good man trying to do good things in a dark world, he doesn’t save kids from trees, he doesn’t stop bank robberies, or any of the other superhero stuff of that era. What I’m trying to say is that if you’re a fan of The Wire or The Shield (the cop show not the Marvel show), then this is right up your alley.
TM: Yesterday I re-read Kingdom Come, just to kind of get me in the headspace for this interview today–such a magnificent book, really one of the great superhero graphic novels–and I was wondering if you’d humor me, and sort of reminisce on the process of getting that book made?
MW: Sure, I’d be happy to. To be fair, the basic story actually came to Alex Ross. He was the progenitor and the spark from which it sprang. He had some very cool visual ideas for the DC characters of the future and some real rough sketchy ideas about how their futures might play out. But by his own admission, he didn’t have a story, he just had some ideas for scenes and some really great visuals. He came to DC comics looking for a collaborator, and I was lucky enough to be tapped on that count. At that point it wasn’t because I had been known as a writer of any quality, I was picked mostly because Alex planned to do a lot of mining into DC history, and if you’re going to do that, I was the guy to talk to. That was where that alliance came from. The fact that it ended up being something of merit, if it indeed is, was sort of a surprise to everybody.
Alex and I spent many a weekend and many a phone call, batting ideas back and forth, and refining and tweaking. It was interesting, it was a contentious partnership, just because Alex and I come at things from very different points of view, but that made it better. Unlike a lot of collaborations where I’m like-minded with my collaborators, so we let one another go off in our own directions because there’s a mutual trust there, with Alex and I, both of us had to justify every choice and every idea and every plot detail to each other as we went along. It wasn’t like full-blown arguments, but if I wanted to make a change or do something off the plan, I had to have a really good reason for it, and the same went for Alex. But we both wanted to hear the other’s point of view. It was collaboration completely from the get-go.
TM: One quote from Kingdom Come that stood out upon my re-reading was when Superman tells Batman: “The deliberate taking of human–even super-human–life goes against every belief I have–and that you have. That’s the one thing we’ve always had in common. It’s what made us what we are.”
MW: Yeah, you hear that Christopher Nolan?
TM: That’s exactly why I bring it up. While reading that line I thought of what you wrote about the new Superman movie Man of Steel. It seemed this was what really ate at you, and it’s what rubbed me the wrong way too: the movie version of Superman’s seeming disregard for human and super-human life. How integral do you think that moral compass and character-trait is to the Superman psyche?
MW: Here’s the thing: there are certain characters in fiction that lend themselves to moral grey areas, but Superman was not built for that. There are certain turns of phrase that Superman does not understand. One of those is “acceptable losses,” another is “best case scenario.” These may as well be an alien language when you say these words to Superman. Superman is a character who was created to do the impossible, and when I say that I don’t mean it merely figuratively, in a poetic sense, I mean literally two seventeen-year-old kids from Cleveland created this character to do impossible things. The very first time we see him, he is crashing a car into the side of a hill with his bare hands. He’s doing the impossible. That is what he is built to do. He’s not built to fail the Kobayashi Maru. I think you’re doing a disservice to the character if he is not doing the impossible in your story.
The big moral debate of how Man of Steel ended has a lot of people approaching what Superman did at the end with the question: “What would you have done?” My answer to that is that I don’t care what I would have done, I don’t want Superman to do what I do, I want us to rise up to his level not him to come down to ours. He is there to inspire, he is there to make us better.
You take the reasons for what he did out of the equation, just get rid of the mitigating circumstances, we all know from the time we’re children that killing is wrong. It is immoral, and unethical. It is not something to be celebrated, it is not something to aspire to, it is not a solution that we should look for. I understand that if you’re a beat cop who has to make those life and death decisions, I will not lecture you about that because you’re working to the best of your ability. How dare I judge you. Or if you’re a soldier in the field, I understand that the question of who lives and who dies is very complicated. But if you’re a fictional character, and especially Superman–especially Superman–I don’t think you have to be boxed into that sort of moral dilemma. I don’t think it does anything to further culture, to further pop culture or American culture, to tell Superman stories about situations like that. I don’t think it does a service to the character of Superman, I don’t think it does a service to the message that the character was built to send, which was: Do good things!
TM: What do you make of the news that Batman is set to appear in the next Superman film?
MW: Oh yeah, that’ll lighten it up a lot! I’m sure that’ll clear up all those grey areas that I was worried about. Aww man. Trust me, I want to love the idea, believe me when I say that there is a ten-year-old Mark Waid inside me who cannot understand why I would be trepidatious about a Batman-Superman movie. But there’s such a darkness to Batman, and I would hope that some of Superman can rub off on Batman rather than vice versa.
TM: How do you feel when things seemingly clipped right out of your own Superman: Birthright appear in a film like that? Is that sort of thing flattering or do you feel like you’ve been stolen from a bit? Is it a mix of both feelings?
MW: You have to feel like it’s flattering. You could take the cantankerous curmudgeonly view, and say: “Oh, I didn’t get any checks in the mail for that.” But that’s not going make your life any longer, or make you sleep better at night. I think the thing that we should accept is that we were able to put something into the culture. How great is it to know you’ve put something into the mythos? Those moments where you can look at the screen and go, “I did that!”–those are much more exciting than a check. I’ll remember the fact that Kevin Costner spoke some of my dialogue on my deathbed. You send me a check for that and I won’t remember in ten years what I even spent the money on. I will always remember what it was like to hear the words: “In my world, it stands for Hope.”
TM: One more superhero movie question, and then we’ll get back to a couple more about actual comics. What in your opinion is the best superhero film of all time?
MW: Well, you’ve tacked on those all important words “in your opinion.” I’ve got two answers to this question. Superman: The Movie is my favorite. I don’t think it’s the best, but it is my favorite. I actually think the best is Spider-Man 2, I think that was a homerun on almost every level. It had incredible action that we’d never seen before, it had character beats that were real and sincere, and the whole subway rescue scene was maybe the best comics-to-movie transition I think I’ve ever seen. That was comics in its pure form at 24 frames per second.
TM: Did I read somewhere that you were asked to have some involvement in the writing of Spider-Man 2 but you chose not to?
MW: No, actually, what it was is that I was asked to write the comics adaptation of Spider-Man 2. But I was so looking forward to that movie, and so excited for how great I thought it had the potential to be, that I passed on the job, which was a six-figure job, so that I could enjoy the movie in the theater and have that great moviegoing experience.
TM: That is the move of a true superhero film lover!
MW: I did the same thing with Superman Returns. I was offered the novelization. As tempting as it was, I knew I cared more about sitting in the theater and experiencing that movie as a fan than I did about getting any sort of paycheck.
TM: Who are some of your favorite comic book writers, either that influenced you or your contemporaries?
MW: The biggest early influence was Jim Shooter back when he was doing Legion back in the 60s. His sense of pacing and narrative structure is something I base a lot of what I do on to this day. And in the 70s all the Marvel writers/editors, the guys who were off in the corner doing their own thing, who didn’t have much oversight so they could go wild: Steve Gerber, Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, and those guys. They were the guys who really grabbed me when I was a teenager. I learned a lot about writing from them.
And then today I think the guys you watch out for are certainly Jeff Lemire, who has some really strong work; Matt Fraction, who has yet to disappoint me; and Brian K. Vaughn, I both admire him and am jealous at the same time. Those are the first three names that come to mind, but I could probably go on all afternoon.
TM: Your stories are very much rooted in the cadence of comic book meter but with the tone and heft of great prose, so I’m curious who some of your writing influences are from outside the medium?
MW: That’s another great question. You’re full of questions that nobody else ever asks. I quickly look to my shelf and I see the works of John Cheever, Ray Bradbury, Jack Finney–those three are some of my favorite writers because of their craft of language. They’re not known as much for plotting, but for being really prosaic. I’ve said this many times: If you’re wanting to write comics, stop reading them, at least for a while. If you’ve read Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns and Maus, you’re done for a bit. You have to be judicious about what you put into your head because that’s what’s going to funnel back out of it. I obviously still read comics as well, but I try as hard as I can to keep my hand as much in prose fiction as in comics. There you’ll pick up language and cadence that you’re not going to get from a random swath of comics.
TM: Is there any one character that you’ve never written for in any major way whose series you’d love to write for?
MW: You mean besides Superman? I mean, if you take Birthright out of the equation, then it’s Superman. If Birthright is in the equation, then I’d say Batman, as I’ve never done longform Batman either. I’ve done a story here or there, and not really for any length. Batman would be a lot of fun. I consider myself still young at 51, so there’s time for me.
TM: I sure hope you’ve got another 51 years in you. I look forward to what you’ll come up with in that time.
MW: By the way, if for some reason I drop dead of a heart attack this afternoon, you have the greatest interview quote of all time.
Mark Waid is an Eisner Award-winning American comic book writer. His work such as Kingdom Come, Superman: Birthright, and Irredeemable has already become iconic, as have his runs as series writer on titles like The Flash and Daredevil.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Mark Waid
Design by Marie Havens
Mark Waid, Photography Courtesy of Mark Waid