Gerry Conway

It’s long overdue, but here it is – the third and final part of our interview with comics legend Gerry Conway. We discuss the current state of DC Comics, whether there will ever be a Wonder Woman movie, what he thinks of the modern-day Firestorm and what he really meant to say at the Superheroes TCA panel.

You can check out parts I and II of the interview here, and here.

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From Marvel, you went on to DC, where you enjoyed some very productive years. But in reflecting upon it, doesn’t it seem ironic that the situations are reversed now, and DC seems to be the dysfunctional one?

Well, these things do happen in cycles, and they happen for business reasons. They happen to major corporations and small corporations. I guess Marvel learned through the years with Jim Shooter, how to discipline itself. And for a variety of reasons, they also learned how to still nurture talent. They were still capable of growing talent at Marvel, and DC had that period too. But it does happen in cycles, that good things are followed by bad things, and good periods are followed by bad periods. 

Right now, DC, I think, is struggling to find itself. They’ll figure it out. They went through a really bad period in the 80s, and they came out of that and developed some really striking material by the end of the 80s. Then they went through a bad period in the 90s, and they came out of that with Geoff Johns’ period. So it’s just part of a cycle. 

DC Comics
Conway says DC are trying to have their cake and eat it too. ©DC

Much of the new 52 seems like desperation to me. As you say, DC is kind of struggling to find themselves, and the general sense I get is that they don’t seem to know what to do with their characters. But what do you think it might take for them to get back on track? A strong editor, perhaps? Stronger management?

I actually had hopes when they appointed Geoff Johns as Chief Creative Officer, that he was going to provide some kind of vision for the company. I think he’s a very smart guy with a very good idea about how to find the archetype in the superheroes. But that’s not been his role. His role seems to have been more to liaise with Warner Brothers, and try to influence the adaptation of this material into other media. 

So they really need somebody there with the creative status that someone like Stan Lee had at Marvel. You need a figure who’s going to inspire and create a desire in other creators to emulate what they’re doing. Not emulate in the sense of replicating it, but just taking their vision and saying, okay, that’s a direction, that’s a way we can go. As I say, I thought Geoff was potentially being positioned to be that guy, but for whatever reason, that’s not the way they decided to go. 

I agree that I don’t think they know what they’re doing. I think that they wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to start from scratch, but not completely from scratch, and they didn’t have a unifying vision, the way that say, Julie Schwartz had a unifying vision for the titles that he revived in the 50s and early 60s. You could pick up any Julie Schwartz book and you knew kind of what story you were gonna get. If Gardner Fox was writing it, it was going to be different from the way John Broome wrote, but it would be in the same ball park. 

And the same at Marvel, even when things got chaotic in the 70s, a Marvel comic felt like a Marvel comic. You knew what you were in for when you picked one up. Sometimes, it would be way out on the fringe, which was cool, but sometimes, it would be very, very centred, which was also cool.  With the new 52, I don’t really know what is they are trying to accomplish. I don’t know what their unifying vision is, expect that they don’t wear trunks. That seems to be it, that seems to be the big breakthrough (laughs). 

DC Comics, Firestorm
Firestorm – an archetype that the new writers don’t get, says Conway. ©DC

One of the characters that has gone through major changes is Firestorm, whom you co-created. Do you like the new incarnation? What would you do with the character if you had him in your hands?

To be honest, I’m not thrilled with the direction they took him. It sort of goes back to what I was saying before about Spider-Man being an archetype, as a teenager dealing with the cusp between childhood and adulthood. You try to figure out what the archetype is, and then you come up with a way to make that fresh, or to express it in a way that’s unexpected, or possibly, you just embrace it and do it to the best of your ability. 

Now, the archetype for Firestorm is the struggle of teenagers to be accepted by adults. If you think about the original configuration, you had this young, kind of bull-headed, immature guy who possessed great power. Seeing him sort of kibbitz-ing and providing unwelcome and unwanted parental guidance is this older male figure. And the essence of their dynamic is the archetype. 

I don’t know if it’s true for you, but I kinda think it probably is: there isn’t a day in your life when at some moment, when you don’t hear your father’s voice saying something about what you’re doing. Am I right?

Oh, yes!

We all have that. Women have it with their mothers. It’s just the way it is, we carry our parents with us. So the beauty of Firestorm is that it’s a way to externalise that, to show that very human archetype in a very fun way. 

The other aspect of it is, we all want our parents to just shut up and go along for the ride, that we wanna prove that we can do what we can do. And so here we we are, with this youthful, powerful character who’s acting out that internal archetype. Well, that’s why that character was probably the most successful character from the late 70s through the early 80s that came up at DC. He was very successful while I was writing him. 

When I left the book – I was fired off the book for political reasons, and personal reasons, I was behaving badly, so they took it away from me. They then took the book and gave it to someone who didn’t get the archetype. He decided that he had to took it in a whole new direction. There were editors involved in that, and they agreed, because they didn’t get the archetype. 

And now, here we have a chance to bring the book back, and once again, the people bringing it back just don’t get the archetype. I’m not saying that the idea of two kids sharing the same body and struggling to find their way and blah blah blah, doesn’t necessarily work. I mean, it might work, but it’s not Firestorm! And why would you not want to do the version that actually worked? That’s what I don’t understand! (laughs) It’s not like you don’t have a template that worked. It worked great, and that’s why the character stayed alive, and stayed popular in people’s memories. 

Gail Simone would have done well with Firestorm, reckons Conway. Source:
Gail Simone could have done a lot more with Firestorm if she had been allowed to, reckons Conway. Source:

The last thing I heard was that Gail Simone was supposed to write it, and I thought, great! Gail is a woman who really gets archetypes. She’s funny, and the book is also supposed to be funny, because it’s basically a silly premise and it’s fun. So, great, I thought, this is terrific. And then…she’s not allowed to do what she wanted to do, and then you end up with a book that I frankly think is a grave disappointment to the character

If that were me, if I was going to do it, I would probably figure out a way to basically rewind the entire story to the way that it had originally been set up, so that it’s Ronnie Raymond, Martin Stein sharing the same body, Ronnie in charge, Martin kvetching. That’s the archetype, that’s what worked. I don’t why you would wanna change that, since nothing that you’ve done since has ever worked! (laughs) It’s like, how about going back to the original, guys? (laughs)

I wanted to ask about your comments at the Superheroes TCA panel. Of course, you would know the controversy that erupted, and you’ve since clarified and explained yourself on Twitter. But I wanted to get your view on, why do you think women and minorities are still so underrepresented in mainstream comics today? (I’ve taken care to put Conway’s comments on this verbatim – you can read his post-panel comments here)

You know, it’s a hard question to answer without making statements that drive people crazy. There’s two ways to sort of approach it. You can approach it from the point of view of trying to understand what’s going on as a business, which is very different from what’s going on as something creative.

From a business point of view, I think you’re going to see corporations that are just basically going to put out what they think are going to sell. I don’t think that they’re right. I don’t think that that’s the only thing that can sell, but they appear to believe that that’s the only way to approach it. 

Taking it from a creative point of view, when I said on the panel, I made this clumsy reference to knights, tales of chivalry and knights. What I was trying to get across – and I didn’t get it across because frankly, I think that the person who was asking the questions wasn’t really interested in an actual discussion. She wanted to make her case and establish her agenda, and she wasn’t really trying to engage us in a conversation. 

Superheroes, TCA
The Superheroes TCA panel in August 2013 that resulted in much controversy. Source:

My natural inclination, as you can probably tell from this interview, is I like to explore ideas and understand them. So I made the mistake of trying to explore the idea. But what I was trying to say, was that the superhero genre as it currently exists, the reason that I feel it has less representation among women and minorities, is because it has been traditionally a genre for young adolescent males. So by the nature of that genre, it’s not attractive to people of colour, and to women, so that it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. That because the genre is kind of sexist and adolescent and white male (laughs), it basically attracts young white males to want to create in it.

If I’d been allowed to like elaborate on this, I would say that one of the most impressive new developments in comics, was the character of Miles Morales in Ultimate Spider-Man. I loved that! To me, first of all, it’s a great way to create a Peter Parker who wasn’t Peter Parker. But think about it, he’s exactly what I think Spider-Man should be – young, adolescent, on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, learning about responsibility. So it didn’t have to be this white kid from Forest Hills. He could be a young boy of colour from the inner city. I mean, it’s perfect. You could just have easily made him a young woman of colour from the inner city, and it would have been perfect, because she also would be dealing with the same struggles of crossing that boundary between childhood and adulthood.

So anyway, I wasn’t really give the opportunity, and in the context of that panel, it came out of the blue. It would be like, you’re at a symposium that’s talking about rock music. And you’re talking about the development of rock music from the mixture of gospel and jazz, and how that sort of came together and formed rock in the late 50s. Then suddenly, somebody raises their hand and says, why do you think people in Japan aren’t interested in country and western music?

And you’re like, I’m not really sure what we’re talking about! (laughs) It’s not like that isn’t a valid question, it might well be. But we were just talking about the development of rock music through history, we weren’t talking about the politics, or the gender politics, which is a totally valid question, and it’s completely something that should be discussed. 

But it wasn’t what this panel was about. And the person who raised that question really didn’t care. She wasn’t there to ask us about the development of superheroes from the 1940s through the 1980s, which is what the story was about. She wanted to know why it is that women and minorities are underrepresented in modern comic books. Well, I couldn’t tell you, I don’t work in modern comics! (laughs) Why are you asking me? I can talk to you about 1973. In 1973, there was nothing being published that would have interested a woman to come write for comics. Was that right or wrong? I don’t know, but it wasn’t part of the conversation that we were having. I felt really sandbagged by it.

Wonder Woman, DC
“I would love it if there would be a Wonder Woman [movie], but not if Warner Bros is going to have anything to do with it!” ©DC
 As an extension of that question, there have been so many movie adaptations of comics, but we’re still waiting for a Wonder Woman movie, or a Captain Marvel movie. Do you think we’ll be waiting many more years? (Two months after we spoke, Israeli actress Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman, though it’s unclear how big her role will be in Batman Vs Superman)

I would hope that they do it sooner, rather than later. I do understand why there is no Wonder Woman movie, it’s for the same reason there was a lousy Green Lantern movie. Warner Bros does not know how to do their superheroes! (laughs) They really don’t. They did a terrible job with Superman. I think Man of Steel is a disaster. They did a terrible job with Green Lantern. They have absolutely no idea what to do with Wonder Woman.  I don’t think it’s a sexist thing, I think it’s just that they don’t know what they’re doing. Whether they can change that is another question. 

Now Marvel, on the other hand, certainly should be able to do a female superhero movie. And there is some speculation that they’re thinking of doing a Captain Marvel movie, which I think would be just flat out awesome, and the sooner they do it, the better. And they are bringing more female characters into Avengers 2, they’re going to bring Scarlet Witch in, so that’s a good thing. Certainly, thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s status, you’re going to see more of that character in the X-Men movies. So it makes sense to me that they should do it.

There’s a very good argument to be made that a female superhero movie would be very, very successful. I would love it if there would be Wonder Woman, but not if Warner Bros is going to have anything to do with it! (laughs) Honestly, I don’t think they know how to make a superhero movie. 

Maybe they should just give it over to Marvel!

Yeah, it’s like night and day between those two companies. I’ll say this, I do think that Warners is very good at doing superhero TV. I think that Arrow is a great show. I think that Smallville for most of its run, was a very decent show. It’s just that when they get to the big screen, they just are absolutely clueless. I’m disparaging Warner Bros rather ferociously, but I don’t think a case can be made that know what they’re doing. 

Your last comic script was back in 2011 with a Justice League one-shot. Can we expect to see any comic projects from you in the near future?

It’s funny, I’m actually talking with Marvel about possibly doing something. We’ll see whether something will happen with that. It’s just early conversation. We’re just beginning to talk about it. 

Last of all, what is your advice to an aspiring writer today, whether he wants to be in comics or doing novels?

Well, my advice would be to be passionate in your work, to find the things that you most care about, and make that the focus of the stories that you tell. Because at the end of the day, it’s that passion that’s going to actually empower your work. There’s relatively little interest in stories that are just told because you want to sell that story, or because you think that’s what the market wants. Because we don’t really know what the market wants. We don’t really know what readers want. We know what we want, we know what we want to see. 

I always say that my goal was to write the stories that I wanted to read when I was a kid, and I still do today. The things that appeal to me as a writer are those things that appeal to me as a reader, and that’s what’s going to develop passion, that’s what’s going to develop interest. The more passion and interest that you as a creator have, the more you will develop that in your readers

Meaning that readers will see that passion, and that passion will also lead to quality?

Yes, If you really, really, really care about what you do, you will get better and better at it. When you’re trying to please somebody else, you actually get worse and worse (laughs). Because you lose track of who you are, and you lose track of what works, cos you’re no longer trying to go answer your own passions. You’re trying to anticipate what somebody else would want. And that’s an intellectual pursuit, rather than an emotional pursuit. 

Thank you so much for your time, Gerry. May I just say, it’s inspiring talking to a writer to you. As a fan, Spider-Man is still the one character that has the greatest hold on my emotions, and a lot of it has to do with the stories that you wrote. 

Well, thank you. You’re precisely the person I’ve been writing it for! (laughs)

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Look for Gerry Conway on Twitter @GerryConway. He is currently working on a young adult novel which he describes as horror novel in the Lovecraftian mould – “if Harry Potter were a horror novel”. There are also plans to re-publish from his science fiction novels from the 70s.