DANIEL BEST: I’d like to start the interview by asking how do you do a Thanos series when you’ve killed him in the last one?
JIM STARLIN: Well, that was the challenge. To start off with is the fact that I did sort of leave him as either he was dead, or he’d just gone through something that no other character in the universe had ever done. And so I opted for the latter and when he was, basically he was God, it never said that he was actually going to go and die; he just said that was it. And, as a result, he put himself back together, along with the rest of the universe, but has gone through a bit of an epiphany while he was at it. And the series starts off finding Thanos deciding that it hasn’t worked being a conqueror and all that, so he’s going to give the lighter side of life a little bit of a shot. Try and be a good guy. But, of course, he’s Thanos, so, well you can just imagine how well that’s going to work. <laughter>
DB: It’s always been one of my favourite characters, and I’ll say right up front that I think the two annuals that you did that closed the Thanos Saga in the 1970s were brilliant – the Avengers annual (Annual #7) had some of the best artwork in a Marvel comic for that era.
JS: Thank you. That was actually his second go round. The first one was in Captain Marvel where he did the Captain and Cosmic Cube thing. That also has one of my favourite endings, with Captain Marvel turning into an old man and shattering the cube and blowing away Thanos.
DB: Let’s go back to the start. Where did you start – what were your influences?
JS: Well, growing up in the sixties, coming of age during the sixties of course my biggest influence was probably Jack Kirby. Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko on Spider-man and Dr. Strange. There were other influences, I greatly admired Joe Kubert’s stuff at the time, and Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane. They were my staples, the ones that I went for and got into more than any other ones.
DB: And does anything stand out, would there be one Ditko, or one Kirby that stands out in your mind than the others?
JS: With Ditko it would’ve been that Spider-man where he was fighting Dr. Octopus and ends up getting trapped underneath this huge mountain of debris. Most of the issue he’s figuring he’s dying and finally works up the energy to push it off. I mean, I just thought that was terrific. Kirby, on the other hand, now where would it be? Some of the Thor issues. A lot of the different things on the Fantastic Four. Galactus’s first appearance, Silver Surfer, the Inhumans. Kirby did a load of things that would just stick in your mind forever.
DB: How did you get into comics? You were in the Air Force briefly?
JS: I was in the Navy.
DB: The Navy – my research is off.
JS: Well, I can understand it because I was never on a ship. I was what they call a brown shoe in the Navy and was in Navy aviation. I was a photographer and I spent more time in planes. The only time I ever went on a ship, they had a fire on an aircraft carrier and they needed a photographer to come in and shoot pictures. And that was in port <laughs> so my entire time on a ship in the Navy consisted of about an hour walking around this aircraft carrier. <laughs>
DB: How did you get into comics? You were one of the major talents in comics for the 1970s – kind of Marvel’s second wave.
JS: Between the 1940s and the 1970s I can tell you exactly who got hired during that time. Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil, Steve Skeates and Archie Goodwin. They were really the only four people to come into the business during that time <laughs> that weren’t there in the 1940s.
DB: There seemed to be an explosion of people though in the 1970s.
JS: Oh, there were loads. Jeff Jones, Bernie Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Simonson. Comics were suddenly going from, I think Marvel had sixteen titles and they suddenly kicked themselves up to eighty, so they were hiring anybody coming across the state line and I just happened to qualify.
DB: So how did you break in?
JS: First off, when I was in the service, when I wasn’t doing the service thing I was drawing comics and I would send them in. I would send in complete Hulk stories to Marvel and they’d say “Oh that’s nice, you’re almost there, come back again next year.” Finally I got out of the service and I sent in two two-page stories for the monster books, the horror books that Joe Orlando was publishing at DC. Those were the first things I sold. One later appeared in House Of Mystery, inked by, he inked like Wally Wood. His name escapes me at the moment. But they didn’t actually appear until after I did Captain Marvel later and when I did it I came to New York and went around the companies. Marvel, like I said, were expanding their entire universe. The first job I did was a love story, written by Gary Freidrichs and inked by Jack Abel. That led to a couple of horror stories that appeared in the monster books that Marvel were doing at the time and then Iron Man, which then Drax The Destroyer and Thanos showed up.
DB: Thanos would be the character that you’re best known for. When did you originally create him?
JS: Well I had him from a psyche class that I took. I went to college between the service and getting work in comics, and there was a psyche class and I came up with Thanos… and Drax the Destroyer, but I’m not sure how he fit into it, just anger management probably. So I came up to Marvel and Roy (Thomas) asked if I wanted to do a issue of Iron Man. I felt that this may be my only chance ever to do a character, not having the confidence that my career was going to last anything longer than a few weeks. So they got jammed into it. Thanos was a much thinner character and Roy suggested beefing him up, so he’s beefed up quite a bit from his original sketches from Iron Man, and later on I liked beefing him up so much that he continued to grow in size.
DB: You seem to be the only person capable of successfully writing Thanos – did you check out the classic story in an issue of Spidey Super Stories back in the late 70s?
JS: Actually, somebody did point that out to me. He’s robbing a bank or something like that?
DB: Yep, and then he gets arrested, hand-cuffed and led away.
JS: Well you know, that was Larry Lieber and Larry, you know, didn’t actually read comics. He was just grabbing whatever he could and probably he was told to use Thanos and had no idea who he was and just treated him like another Spidey villain. <laughs>
DB: You took Warlock and also made it your own. How did you come about to take over that title?
JS: Well, to start off with, Warlock was selling terribly and they said “How would you like to work with Mike Freidrichs on it?” And so we did it for a bit and I actually took over the writing on it because I just thought I could do better. And Roy went along with me on it. Like I said they, were expanding like crazy so they wanted product and they didn’t really have time to keep an eye on it. I worked really quickly and you have less trouble if you turn things in late rather than early, because they have to get it out to the printer, one way or another, so a lot of times I’d hold it up to the last moment even though I was always ahead on schedule. That’s how I was able to do stories like the Warlock story where basically he’s claiming to be Jesus. Marvels editorial staff: they just didn’t have time to do anything else with it, they had to get it to the printer.
DB: When writing Warlock, what were your inspirations?
JS: I remember reading a bit of Michael Moorcock at that time and he had these heroes reincarnated and things like that, so it sprung off from there in somewhat manner. But he just sort of went off in his own direction. I had done Captain Marvel, and Captain Marvel was this warrior who decided to give up on the warrior part. On the other hand Warlock was, the way Roy and Gil Kane had written him was, a saint. They were doing Jesus Christ basically. So I decided that I would take a saint and screw him up. That was the main idea. It worked out to be that Warlock is basically paranoid schizophrenic. The whole idea of the series is that he’s going to eventually commit suicide.
DB: The Death Of Captain Marvel. I have to say that the last page of that issue was one of the most emotive pages I’ve ever seen in a comic book.
JS: I’ve gotten that from a number of people. That’s probably my most successful piece.
DB: Where did the idea for that story come from? It was a most unusual book for it’s time.
JS: There’s a kind of interesting story of how that all came about too. I’d done Captain Marvel and then Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart and some others worked on it and the sales had gone down. It finally came to be cancelled so they thought “Well, let’s just kill him off” and bring in the Captain Marvel that eventually became Photon. So they asked me if I’d kill him off. And I said “OK”. This was a deal. I was trying to get Dreadstar happening and part of the deal was that I’d do the graphic novel and then Dreadstar. So the Death Of Captain Marvel was a side-deal for me and I figured I’d just knock it out and have him blown up in an explosion like dozens of times before, but as I kept doing it I kept thinking “I don’t want to do this story, these stories are already done, done to death. The Doom Patrol died this way, he died this way, characters die and they usually die in explosions.” And my father, at that point, was suffering from cancer. Eventually he succumbed to it. So, sort of a way for me to work out my feelings about his death was to write about it.
DB: Talking of Dreadstar, you did quite a few issues and now it’s finally being reprinted.
JS: Come October, Dynamic Forces are going to start off with the first twelve issues of the comic book and they’re going to re-print the Metamorphosis Odyssey in full colour and probably go on down the line.
DB: You created Dreadstar and then you left the book suddenly to go to DC.
JS: I can’t get into too much as to why I walked away at the time, but it involved not getting paid. <laughs> Their book-keeping department kept forgetting to send me cheques. It was a different regime up there, I’ve got to be fair about that. So it was just a matter of “Ok, take it elsewhere.”
DB: You were also known as a cover artist at Marvel and a lot of the classic covers, such as Iron Man 100, were your work, and also my all time favourite – the cover to the Hulk Magazine where you painted the Hulk being crucified.
JS: Oh yeah! That was actually the first painting that I ever did. <laughs>
DB: No offence, but it’s almost like you should never have done another.
JS: Well a lot of them didn’t come out as well as that one did. <laughter>
DB: How much work was involved in doing that cover?
JS: That took me about a month. It was acrylics and it was like three feet by four feet. It was a gigantic painting and I still have it round somewhere. I was just learning as I went and the background kept changing. The background on that painting is about an inch thick. <laughs> “Oh this one doesn’t work, let’s try this.”
DB: You went from Marvel to DC and killed Robin.
JS: Well, I always thought that the whole idea of a kid side-kick was sheer insanity. So when I started writing Batman, I immediately started lobbying to kill off Robin. At one point DC had this AIDS book they wanted to do. They sent around memos to everybody saying “What character do you think we should, you know, have him get AIDS and do this dramatic thing” and they never ended up doing this project. I kept sending them things saying “Oh, do Robin! Do Robin!” <laughs> And Denny O’Neill said “We can’t kill Robin off”. Then Denny one night got this flash that “Hey, if we get this number where people call in and they can vote on it, they can decide whether Robin lives or dies.” So that’s how it started. I wrote up two endings and the readers came in and voted and I think it was 93 or something, it was this negliable amount, the difference for him to be put to death. And the death won out of course. So we did this and the book came out, Denny was on all these talk shows across the country that day saying, it’s kind of funny because he was taking credit for the whole project. But as soon as the book came out and Robin died, the executives up at DC started going “Whoof!” because they had all these lunch pails with Robin’s picture on it – suddenly it was all my idea again. <laughs>
DB: It’s a shame in a way because more people remember that story line than any of the other Batman’s that you wrote.
JS: I was always fond of the one that I did with Bernie Wrightson (Batman: The Cult mini-series).
DB: How did that one come about?
JS: Bernie and I wanted to work together on something and we came in and pitched that. At first they loved the idea but they wanted me off the project because I was writing the regular book and they said “If we’re going to have a special project with Bernie then we have to have a different writer on it.” So I said “Oh screw that, I’ll quit the regular book.” <laughs> They went along with me being on it and it worked out well. It was like their best-selling book that year.
DB: You worked with Bernie again on a Punisher mini-series at Marvel.
JS: The first Punisher job was really the sequel to (Batman) The Cult. That whole story was a Batman story to begin with, and if you go back and look through it you’ll see that some of the characters from The Cult got converted over almost wholesale. We presented that to DC and said “Here, do you want a sequel to this, it was your best-selling book that year” and they said “No, we want Bernie to do Swamp Thing instead”. So Bernie and I wanted to do this story so we took it over to Marvel instead. <laughs> And they never did get the Swamp Thing story out of him.
DB: You’d think they could have done a trade off – Bernie does Swamp Thing and then you do the sequel.
JS: Well he actually did one issue, he pencilled one issue of Swamp Thing, but he lost interest.
DB: You’ve also written and published novels.
JS: My ex wife and I, we wrote four novels together. One of them we serialised in the back of Dreadstar, two of them got published at the time, one was Madman and the other was Lady L. We couldn’t get the third one published. It was City Predators and it was a mixed genre, a physic that tracked down serial killers. None of the publishers wanted to print it because it didn’t fit into any one genre, so that one sat on the bookshelf for years. And through a series of strange coincidences, Steven Spielberg got hold of it and talked Warner Brothers into optioning it. This was just before he started up DreamWorks. So they optioned it off and suddenly we had this book that everybody wanted to publish and we ended up getting a nice chunk of change through that. <laughs> Then he went off and started DreamWorks and the whole project went down the drain. Occasionally it still comes up and it still gets optioned.
DB: Not too bad for a book that’s not been published.
JS: Comes in handy every so often. <laughs>
DB: You then went back to Marvel and worked on the Silver Surfer, where you brought Thanos back immediately. Did you go back to Marvel just to bring him back?
JS: I just thought it’d be perfect. They offered me to write the Silver Surfer and this was just at the end of the run that Steve Englehart had, so I said “Hey, let Steve finish off the story line and we’ll go from there”. He seemed like the most logical character. My time at Marvel is associated with Warlock, Captain Marvel, Silver Surfer; but basically what I’ve been doing is going back and doing Thanos stories, because he’s been in every one of them.
DB: You brought Thanos back for a few issues of Silver Surfer, killed him off without actually killing him, and in between the Thanos stories you had this great story arc where you had the Surfer fighting bureaucracy. One thing that I think is underplayed when it comes to your writing is the humour that you possess, something that’s also been on display with your many Hulk/Thing team-ups.
JS: They never quite go over as well as the cosmic stories. I always find that unusual too.
DB: I loved the two part Hulk/Thing story that you did in Marvel Fanfare.
JS: Well one of my biggest influences was Jack Kirby. And Jack was also very good at taking the serious characters and putting them into a situation where, like they’d meet the Impossible Man. Those stories are hilarious. Of course, I always thought that you need to take a break every so often from the seriousness or you’ll burn out there.
DB: Then you brought Thanos back into the Surfer, which led into the Infinity Gauntlet. You were working with the likes of Ron Lim and then George Perez. All the way through this did you ever have an urge to start drawing comics again?
JS: Oh yeah, like you said I am a very good artist and I was going through a spell where I wanted to get away from the drawing board. I think it actually helped me in many different ways during that time. It improved my art having that time off, plus it gave me a chance to do some things that, I went off for a while and worked in animation up in California. In the long run it wasn’t a very satisfying experience because what you’re part of in the giant projects is one pencil. It’s not your project, it’s something else, but I learnt quite a bit during that time that I was able to put to good use later on.
DB: When you returned to Marvel, did you ever entertain the option of resurrecting Captain Marvel?
JS: Well, I made it clear to them that I wouldn’t. Just recently they actually considered doing it, I understand. I think they decided for a reason not to. It was a good story, it keeps selling <laughs> in it’s form, you know, his death. So, I don’t think they have any desire to bring him back. Plus the fact that nobody would know what to do with him.
DB: I think he’s popped up twice since then, once in the pages of Silver Surfer and once during Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s run on the Avengers.
JS: I actually did a thing with Peter David in Captain Marvel (the new one) where another dimensional character of the original, it wasn’t exactly the same one, appeared. I think there was actually a Thanos story where he meets the soul of the original Captain Marvel on a rock.
DB: How did the Marvel: The End come about? My understanding was that it was to be part of a series of stories, such as The Hulk: The End, imaginary stories that would see the last days of the characters.
JS: Well I looked at the idea, which was sort of an imaginary story, and I didn’t really feel like doing that. So I gave them this plot and no-one seemed to notice that it didn’t fit in with the rest of them. And I just went off and did this. They approved it and I went “Ok, this works out well”. They’d approached me because for years they’d talked about, you know, I’d become associated with the killing-off of characters, Warlock, Marvel and Robin, of course. They talked about me killing-off the Marvel Universe. It was just sort of a joke but I guess it was just (Joe) Quesada who decided “Hey, offer him this thing and see if he really wants to kill-off the Marvel Universe.” I’d passed on previous things, they wanted me to kill-off Shang Chi at one point.
DB: What made you say no to that?
JS: Well I hadn’t done the book for years, so I really wasn’t into that.
DB: You co-created Shang Chi. How did that come about?
JS: Yes, with Steve Englehart. Both of us were fans of the TV series Kung Fu. We’d actually get together with a number of other folks, this was when we were all just starting up in the business and we’d get together and watch that show as a group. And we approached Marvel to do that series, we wanted to do it, except Warner Brothers Productions couldn’t give it to us because they were linked to DC. So they said create your own. We started to and it was one of the more stranger jobs that I ever did in this business. It didn’t have Fu Manchu in it in it’s original state. Marvel had gotten the rights to that from the Sax Rohmer family, so he was grafted on to the story. I came up with dozens of sketches of what I thought Shang Chi would look like; trying to be an oriental character except when I was doing the costume design. I did just this generic face on top of the figures and Stan said “That’s the face you’ve gotta go with”. And it was just this regular face. <laughs> I remember Steve and I walked around New York City and we talked about it a lot. I’d be hard pressed to say what was his and what was mine at this point. I know visually it was pretty much all mine. We came up together with the whole phone company headquarters for Fu Manchu just from walking around town. A lot of it was chosen because we had to bring Manchu into it, so a lot of it got changed from the original.
DB: You’ve worked with Allen Milgrom a fair bit through your career, what does he bring to your work, and was there any resistance to your bringing him with you, as he’s not the most popular person at Marvel?
JS: Well he’s not, but not for his work habits or anything. Allen’s very industrious, he was inking all sorts of books for much more than he should have. It cost him some quality in the art just from all the work he was doing for them. He was a very popular editor up there for a long time but a couple of years ago after Bob Harras was fired as the editor up there, he’d had a hard time with Bob, a lot of folks did, and he was inking a Spider-man book and just wrote in on the walls like some graffiti “Ha ha Bob”. And the editor caught it but didn’t remove it. The book ended up going to press and they fired Allen for it, after he’d been working for them for twenty five years. And they just fired him. Allen and I go back, way back to high school, him and I used to draw comics together back in high school. Allen’s always done a nice, beautiful job on my work, he brings a nice angle to it, much more so than a lot of folks and he understands what I’m doing. We’ve worked well together and plan to continue to do so.
DB: And Marvel didn’t have an issue with you when you said you’d be bringing Allen on board?
JS: Never came up. I think the editors knew exactly what I was doing by bringing him onto the project, but I don’t think they wanted to, if I could fix this situation that they probably didn’t care that much of then so be it.
DB: Is there any one character left that you’d love to do?
JS: Over the last year or so I’ve been trying to get this book started, a book called Kid Kosmos. I had it set up at Cross Gen and then the deal fell out unexpectedly. It just fell apart, mostly because of the troubles the company itself is having. Since then, because it was turned down by another publisher, other publishers are little bit hesitant to try it. But that’s the one I really want to do. I think it’s my Spider-man and I’m just frustrated to all hell that I haven’t been able to get it published.
DB: How do you see the industry these days?
JS: I’ve seen it go through all sorts of changes. Through the 70s when I first started it was pretty much just work for hire. And the 80s there was this explosion. Creators got better rights. Then the Ron Perelmans and that came in and pretty well stripped my Marvel of all it’s worth and just about destroyed the comics during the late 80s, early 90s. And I see it getting back on its feet again now. It’s a slow process but the movies have helped and the sales are slowly going up again. A lot of these poor Mom and Pop comic shops that got completely destroyed, wiped out of the system by some of the retailing practices at both Marvel and DC during the 90s, a few of those guys are settling in again and we’re getting more of these comic book shops so, I have hopes.