With so much The Amazing Spider-Man 2 news coming out of late – the Super Bowl trailer, the probability that Shailene Woodley won’t be playing Mart Jane after all – it feels timely to tell you about our interview with one of the giants of the comics industry: Gerry Conway.
The 61-year old-is perhaps best known for his 38-issue run on The Amazing Spider-Man (1972-75) and for one of the seminal events of the Silver Age: the death of Gwen Stacy. But Conway can aptly be described as a legend, being in the industry for four decades. He co-created the Punisher and Firestorm, wrote Justice League of America for eight years and also worked on numerous titles such as Superman, Detective Comics and Fantastic Four.
We met him at Comic Con last July, where he kindly agreed to speak to me over the phone. While Conway’s last published comic was back in 2011, he was candid and eloquent about developments in the industry, both past and present, and still very passionate.
This Gerry Conway interview was conducted in October 2013, and has been edited and split in three. Part I covers his start in comics, what the comic industry was like in the 1960s and the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane.
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It’s pretty well known that you wrote your first published comic at the age of 16. Did you already know at such a young age that you wanted to be a writer?
Yes, actually, I knew fairly early on that writing was going to be something that was going to be a part of my life. I wanted to tell stories, but I was kind of a, not to sound egotistical, a natural born story teller. I enjoyed entertaining people with story telling. Writing was very much the next natural step for me as a young person, especially since I enjoyed reading, and I was a pretty good writer in the casual sort of sense.
I understand that it all started with a day trip to DC Comics?
I was a comic book fan and reader, obviously. I think I had read in a letters page that a guy named Jim Shooter, who was my age, was writing Superboy stories, Legion of Superheroes stories. And that started me thinking about it. And then I found that both Marvel and DC were located in New York City, and I was in New York City myself. I don’t remember whether I called up to see if they had tours, or if I heard from a friend, but I learned that DC Comics had tours. So one summer, I convinced my dad to bring me into Manhattan to see the DC tour.
And then afterwards, I found out that they had the tour on a weekly basis, so I just kind of made it a habit to go every week, and eventually became familiar with the different editors. My initial thought was to try to draw for them, which was a hopeless case. But once I realized that I could possibly write, I tried selling them some story ideas and one thing led to another after a lot of persistence. The going page rate at the time for new writers and for writers who weren’t top writers, was 10 dollars a page. Today, a top writer might make anywhere between 100 and 150 dollars a page.
Speaking as a modern day fan, that sounds pretty surreal now, that that sort of access was possible in those days.
(laughs) I know, it is very surreal! It was surreal at the time. These days, it seems like the comic book industry today is both closer to the fans and more separated from the fans. It’s closer to the fans in that the creators and the editors and the publishers all recognise that fandom and the readership, is a crucial aspect of the business. So they’re close, in the sense that they’re welcoming, they go out of their way to connect with fans at conventions.
But they’re distant in that they’re not really open to anyone who might want to try to knock on the door and come in. There are a lot of institutional barricades that are set up to keep you out. Well, back in the 60s, they weren’t close to the fans in any realistic sense. Do you have the show Mad Men over there?
Yes, we do.
Well, DC Comics, their offices and the personnel, looked like the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. There wasn’t a lot of drinking going on, but this was the 60s and people smoked, and they all wore jackets and ties and white shirts. The women were in dresses [but] there were only like two women there (laughs). But it had that very business-like, corporate look that you see in Mad Men. That is exactly what it looked like, and the attitude that they had towards fans was very dismissive and very cold and very distant. So on a cultural level, they really didn’t express a great deal of openness to fans.
But on a practical level, they were open for you to come in, if you had the desire to try to penetrate that facade. They were actually fairly open to looking at your stuff and to dealing with you. It’s amazing to me now, thinking about it, that these guys who were the Don Drapers of their day were willing to have this 15 year old kid wandering around their offices, talking to them about stories, and trying to sell them ideas. It is kind of bewildering and amazing at the same time. Even though they were dressing like Don Draper, they were more like the Greenwich Village beats that are also in that show, in that culturally, they were creative people who were also open to meeting other creative people.
So it’s kind of an interesting conundrum, that here we have, a much more culturally accepting view of fans, but institutionally, much more blocked first hand access.
I can’t help but wonder, if you were 16 again, and you had the desire to start writing comics, do you think that could happen today?
No (laughs). Not in that particular way. I think a creative person today has many, many, many more actual access points to express themselves. For one thing, I could potentially have started a web comic. I and a friend could start publishing our own material, we could approach any number of independent publishers. So there are many more avenues to become successful, or to get your work out in front of the public. But there are fewer access points to those two major publishers than there was say in, 1965.
But do you think you would fancy starting all over again in the industry today? Would it be a place that you would enjoy working?
Oh, this industry the way it is now? I don’t know. I think the passion that I felt would have probably still been there. It’s hard for me to say. What would I be reading or looking at today as a 16 year old today? Would I be as interested in comic books, or would I be as interested in video games? I have a 17 year old daughter. She enjoys pop culture and young adult novels, but she has absolutely no interest in comic books. Even among the boy acquaintances that she has, it’s just not part of their universe. If I was living in this culture today, I don’t know that i necessarily would put comic books at the top of my list of creative pursuits. I might want to be a video game designer. That might have been the thing that I would wanna do today.
We know you’ve been responsible for many key moments in Spider-Man, including what is still my favourite Spider-man story, Parallel Lives. It is the story of Peter and Mary Jane, but talk us through the process of how you envisioned their relationship and how you saw them coming together.
I was very influenced by the original introduction of Mary Jane into the Spider-Man universe, as it was told by Stan and Steve Ditko. [This was] so enticing and very unusual at the time – they built up this character of Mary Jane over a period of several months, where she was on the periphery of Peter’s life. We knew that May Parker had a friend Mrs Watson, that that person had a niece [and they] wanted to set Peter and the niece up, and Peter was ducking it because ‘Oh my God, she’s probably a dog, I don’t wanna be anywhere near her’ (laughs). So there was a sense for several months, that these people’s lives were intertwined before they ever actually met. So that always intrigued me. What if they had never actually bumped into each other? Was there any other way that they might have known each other? So I sort of kept that in my mind.
When I came back to Marvel in the late 80s, my editor at the time Jim Salicrup, was telling me about these new projects, and one of the things we talked about was the possibility of doing a graphic novel. I at that point was not as interested in writing the big superhero battles and struggles. In fact, I was probably never all that interested in it. I loved it, but what I really liked was the stories that were about the characters, their personal lives.
So as we were talking over what to do for a graphic novel, I said, what I’d really like to do is something about Peter and Mary Jane, and their lives before they actually met, and try to see, why were they perfect for each other. I wanted to see if there was a way to explore each of their backgrounds and show that they were kind of made for each other in some perfect way, that it was inevitable that they were going to be together. I’d taken a lot of heat for killing off Gwen Stacy, but it was because I honestly felt that Mary Jane was more…more right for Peter as a character. And Parallel Lives was sort of my effort to make that case.
We all know that that relationship doesn’t exist in the comics anymore. But speaking as an old school fan, I still get a sense that they will be together again some day. Do you think that might happen?
I think that these things in comics are always circular. I think it was a big mistake for Mary Jane and Peter to get married, not because they weren’t right for each other, but because marriage takes the relationship out of one context and puts it in another context. This is going to sound very conservative, but I also feel that the character of Peter Parker works best when he’s a student, when he’s not out in the world, when his life is still in stasis, when he’s still finding himself. Superhero characters are archetypes, and the goal of their existence is to reflect different stages of life and problems and ideals.
The character of Peter Parker is that young male adult who’s on the cusp between childhood and maturity, and he’s sort of like figuring out how to use his powers, [with] the superpowers being a metaphor for the power of becoming an adult and becoming independent. The whole “With great power comes great responsibility” is actually a life message. It’s a message about how to be a good human being, how to take responsibility for yourself, and to grow with that. But that message is only relevant at one particular point in your life. It’s relevant when you are learning how to use your power.
Marriage is a step over the threshold into adulthood. Once you’re married, you have now actually become an adult. You have taken on the responsibilities of adulthood, you have taken on the responsibilities to another human being. You’ve not just accepted the premise that with great power comes great responsibility, you have now assumed that responsibility, and it’s no longer a theoretical moment. So in my view, you fundamentally alter Spider-Man and Peter Parker as an archetype when you remove him from that tension, from that point in his life when he is on the cusp.
The problem we have as creators and as readers, is that we as human beings move forward in our own lives. And what is relevant to us at one point in our lives becomes less relevant at another point in our lives. The tragedy of comic books, in my view, is that creators and readers both refuse to release their attachment to characters that were relevant at one point in their lives, and insist that those characters continue on and go through all the stages of development that they themselves are going through. Which is completely pointless, to me. Now you’re changing it into a new character.
When Peter Parker grows up and goes to college and goes out into the world and gets married, he’s no longer Peter Parker: Spider-Man. He’s something else. He might be something very valid, but it’s not Peter Parker: Spider-Man. And now you’ve lost that archetype and you’ve created a whole new character, which may be very and fine and successful, but what’s the point? Why would you want to do that?
It’s an immature response on the part of readers and creators. It’s a strange, immature response, but it’s almost like, I refuse to give up my toys. It’s like wanting a sequel to Lord of the Rings. The book exists, it’s an archetypal story, Frodo dies at the end. That’s it, guys! (laughs) The story’s over. Now, go on and read a new book.
In the same way, Spider-Man exists at a particular moment in his life, that is relevant to you or I as a reader and a creator, at a particular moment in our lives. If you as a reader no longer find his status relevant, then you as a reader have the obligation to go on and find something else to read. You do not have the right to change that character, or insist that the character change into something that it’s not supposed to be. That’s unfair to the reader who might discover the character for the first time, and get from it what you got from it at that moment in your life when you needed it. I feel fairly passionately about this! (laughs)
Right now, in the comics, he’s a swinging single and he’s got several girlfriends, but would you like to see Peter and Mary Jane together again?
Oh yeah, sure, absolutely. I think they should be together. It’s good for him to be struggling with a relationship. That’s sort of always where he was at, even when he was with Gwen Stacy. Even before that, he did have a couple of girlfriends – Betty Brant, Liz Allen. We reveal ourselves as characters and as people through our relationships with others. If Peter doesn’t have a significant other to balance himself off of, I think he becomes a weaker character.
[For example], Bruce Wayne is a loner for very good reasons. Bruce Wayne is your classic archetype of the character whose shattered life drives him to act the way that he acts. He was made an orphan by crime, so in a way, he can never have a meaningful relationship with another human being. But Peter Parker was defined for many years as the boy who’s taking care of his sick aunt, who felt the weight of his responsibility for the death of his uncle. Those are people-connected feelings, and his character is about the struggle to have meaningful relationships (laughs). So the archetype that Batman and Bruce Wayne represents – the emotionally unconnected, damaged soul – isn’t really relevant to Peter.
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You can read part II of the Gerry Conway interview here, where we discuss the current state of Spider-Man, Conway’s brief time as Marvel editor-in-chief and THAT moment with Gwen Stacy.