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Bill Messner-Loebs: A Career Retrospective (Part II)
By Darren Schroeder

Darren Schroeder continues his in depth discussion with Bill Messner-Loebs, artist-writer extraordinaire. In the first part of the interview Darren and Bill discussed his beginnings in the industry, and reminisced over favorite Loebs penned comics, including the Flash. This is where we pick up the stream of the conversation...

Darren Schroeder: Comic characters don't usually fare very well in the translation form page to screen. Do you think the Flash show was a success in this respect?

Bill Messner-Loebs: I enjoyed it. The relationship between Flash and his father was too - peculiar for my taste. Oddly enough, given my opinions above, I thought the show when there were real super villains for the Flash to react against. This probably had less to do with the S-Vs themselves, than it forced the writers to write NEW stories rather than watered down cop show cliches. "Real life" in TV land seems always to translate to old episodes of Mannix. The episodes with the female jewel thief that Howard Chaykin did were my favorites, however, so it could be the writing just sharpened up at the end. Too late, as it turned out.

DS: You worked on Christmas with the Super-Heroes for DC in 1989. Christmas specials can end up as overly sentimental books. How do you think your contribution ranked on the sentimental scale?

BML: I thought they had a nice feel to them. Mark Waid was my editor there, and he helped keep me from going overboard.

DS: What was the inspiration behind Epicurus the Sage?

BML:Looking back it was probably Jesus. I've always likes the gospel form - Jesus in the marketplace, in come the Pharasees and try to trip him up, he says something clever, boom, next scene. Jesus in the rich man's house, Peter mouths off, Jesus raises someone from the dead, boom, next scene. It's a very seductive pattern. But I've always loved early Greece, too. It's that arid, simple, clear landscape. The desert, the deep woods, the empty, blighted streets. All my best work seems to take place along frontiers. I'm currently working on a series set in 1900 in Alaska. There's something about emptiness that stirs my creative juices.

DS: Justice League Europe seemed like a cash in on the success of Justice League International, mix a couple of popular characters along with a few second string heroes. With your contributions to the series were you consciously trying to overcome this image?

BML: Well, the notion was that JLE would be a "more traditional" superhero book, so they wanted a "more mainstream" scripter to do it. My reputation as mainstream has always bemused me. Anyway, Keith Giffen was plotting the book, which meant I got xeroxes of Keith's breakdowns, with rough dialogue on them, which I was supposed to polish into funnitude. But not really funny, because this was supposed to be a mainstream adventure book and the action if you'll recall revolved around excising tumors with heat vision, deformed babies and the like. Well, about three or four issues in I was called into JLE central and informed that I was not making the deformed babies or the tumors hilarious enough. I was given a little lecture about the nature and construction of comedy. I asked what about making JLE more "mainstream"? I was told that series of conversations had never really happened. I was sent home to do better. I didn't really.

DS: The deformed babies storyline centered on Metamorpho and his wife. From memory that seemed quite a cruel storyline to base around a character that was usually the comic relief. Was that interesting to work on?

BML: Not really. I discovered I enjoy making the story, not polishing it.

DS: You said they so they wanted a "more mainstream" scripter, so what is your definition of mainstream?

BML: Hmm... Mainstream means superhero, almost always, and a certain easy way of dealing with issues and characters that doesn't disturb the majority of the readership. It also carries with it a surface-y quality and a certain professional gloss. I started out wanting to be in the undergrounds as a satirist, and I'm amazed at where I ended up.

DS: JLE is one of the few team books that you have worked on, is this by choice on your part?

BML: Except for Wonder Woman, which I actively tried for, and Hawkman, too, come to think, everything else I've ever done has been brought to me. I'm not really a big fan of team books, but when you think about it, each time I've gotten a single character book, I've turned it into a team book. So there's fields for study in that.

DS: What was the best comic convention that you have been to and what made it the best?

BML: The best is certainly the MotorCityCon in Novi, Michigan. That's Novi, Michigan. Not only do they really care about the guests and put us up and feed us, but they bring in a true range of cartoonists, from Image to the Golden Agers. They also support local talent and indys - plus wrestlers and playmates and lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

DS: The theme of heroes trying make things better comes across in quite a few of your comics, I'm thinking here especially of Dr. Fate but it appears as well in Hawkman and Wonder Woman where you take the character out of the clichéd cycle of superhero vs. supervillan fights and have then interact with "normal" people and recognizable problems. What is it that attracts you to this kind of subject matter?

BML: Probably real life itself. I would be writing about normal people and problems if I were writing any other kind of fiction. Also I was powerfully affected by the first few GL-GA stories Denny O did. They "peeled my eye-balls" as they say. And I've always wanted to get that same sort of feeling into my writing. Plus - keeping track of the hundreds of para mutations of hero-villain appearances and creating new and pungent super villains every month is for hardier and more complex minds than mine. Give me the simple life!

DS: Giving Inza Kent the power of Dr. Fate allowed for some interesting re-working of the character, what facets of this interested you?

BML: One thing I had noticed about characters with great powers - that they instinctively all knew they couldn't change the "real world" too much, even though that's the first thing most of us would try. Now the mechanical explanation for that is the writer doesn't want to be put in a box. Superman can't cure cancer, because cancer will still be around in the readers' world. But this only shows the limitations, self-imposed, of mainstream comics. SF and Fantasy books change modern life all the time, with little penalty. I thought we could at least explore the question. Plus, in the Dr. Fate mini-series, which I liked quite a bit, much had been made of Kent and the Lords of Order being old, burnt-out farts. I thought some fresh and enthusiastic would make a nice change. And Inza had been on the back burner for an awfully long time.

DS: The relationship between the haves and have-nots was an important part of your work in Dr Fate, with the denouncement of US politicians in issue 39 being especially blunt. Do you think politicians really care about the effects of their policies on the population?

BML: I think most of them care, depending on their own definition of the term. I care less about getting rid of the "bad apples" and more about correcting systemic flaws, like campaign finance. Obviously the two are not mutually exclusive. But in comics we tend to deal with politics in a shorthand way, that our problems are caused by bad people doing bad things, while in the real world problems are caused by good people doing bad things, or even just the easy things.

DS: The plot line seemed to develop quite well over the long run, even managing to incorporate the regular DC-wide crossover event, War of the Gods, without too much obvious effort. Was this planned in advance or did it develop as each issue was written?

BML: My work is both effortless and gracefully professional. Actually... what happened was I came up with one paragraph springboards for issues, 6 issues at a time. Then my editor and I would chew over them and he would make suggestions as to how we could arc in and out of the crossovers. When the actually crossovers hit, of course, it was like riding out a typhoon on an ironing board.

DS: Now I have to admit I'm a Dr Fate groupie, so I'm curious to know whether you were a fan of the character before and also if you have followed his (so far) strange career since?

BML: I was introduced to the character largely through cameos in various Alan Moore books, and then the Giffin mini-series. Like most writers I find reading books once I've left them a hideously depressing experience, and one I try to avoid.

DS: The loyal fans of a title can get quite vocal if things start happening that a character "would never do". Are these people being "no Life fan boys" or "astute critical readers" and does this help or hinder the writer?

BML: I try to get feedback at cons, but not over the Net. I find hard core fan reaction to my work voraciously negative - usually I was brought in to move things in a new direction and fans by their very nature like things as they are. So, to do my job, I couldn't care. I thought some of my best work was going to be on Thor and a lot of fans just hated it. Of course, I never got the chance to win them over. Most editors will tell you that the majority of letter writers will mourn for the guy you replaced and hate you, until you leave, and then you become the object of grief. Therefore, much adverse reaction is ignored out of hand.

DS: Do you have a huge collection of comics that makes moving house an unpleasant concept to even contemplate?

BML: Moving is ALWAYS terrible to consider, but I've given away most of my comics. It's the accumulated detritus of a lifetime that weighs me down.

DS: Is working on comics a full time job for you?

BML: It is, though during the current slump, I've been working part time for the Census and trying to break into novels and screen writing.

DS: Any ideas about the reason for the slump?

BML: All the usual suspects: Too many superheroes, greed, a miserable distribution system, too little real innovation. But the most interesting explanation I heard came from Gary Groth. Gary thinks that comic books only sold really well when they were 64 pages for a dime. He thinks that when they were cut to 32 pages they started to lose readers and pretty much that trend continued, disguised by new trends and speculation swings, for 30 years. When the last speculation binge died out there was only a tiny percentage of true readers left. I don't think that explains everything, but it explains a lot. And doesn't leave much that we can correct, in the short run.


Bills homepage.

A somewhat complete
but not quite correct William Messner-Loebs bibliography

Doctor Fate & Fate

Story Lines of Wonder Woman